The head of parliament’s complaints watchdog said he “doesn’t know” whether the Palace of Westminster is a safe workplace for women.
Thea Walton joined the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in March with a pledge to build trust in dogs.
Established in 2018, the ICGS processes official HR complaints and also assesses complaints made by the parliamentary estate against a number of codes including sexual misconduct, bullying and the palace’s harassment policy.
Since the last general election, 24 MPs have faced at least one day of suspension, according to Chris Bryant, the former chairman of the House of Commons standards committee.
Bryant said this was due to those in power turning a blind eye to bad behaviour, a temptation for politicians to protect themselves, and the difficulty of changing Westminster norms and behaviour.
When asked if Westminster is a place where women feel safe, Walton told House Magazine: “’I don’t know’ is the honest answer. I wouldn’t say that no one felt safe, but I heard a lot of things where women were not from some of the engagements I did.
“I think all the time there’s a section of people who say they don’t feel safe, then people have to listen and do something about it.”
The number of MPs who have been stripped of their party whip over allegations of sexual harassment or assault has grown recently. The Labor party has suspended Bambos Charalambous, MP for Enfield Southgate, following a complaint against him.
Senior Conservative MP Crispin Blunt was arrested on suspicion of rape and drug possession and suspended from the Tory party. MPs and staff have previously expressed concern that those vulnerable after reporting serious incidents – and some shaken by reports of parliamentary sleaze scandals – are at risk from members being investigated but still free to roam the land.
In taking on the role this year, Walton said he hopes to improve the timeliness of investigations, which has become a “priority” for him in hopes of improving the experience for everyone involved, but he acknowledged that “there is clearly must be done.”.
The average time taken for a case to conclude is currently 184 working days. While the time taken was reduced to 26 working days last year, according to the latest ICGS report, the lengthy process has been noted to worsen the experience of complainants and respondents in the process.
Walton cited a “lack of engagement” from both sides, “whether that’s through real ill health or whether that’s an intentional thing from both sides is our biggest reason for the delay “.
When reflecting on the drinking culture in parliament, Walton noted his surprise at how “relatively low” the number of cases of sexual misconduct linked to drinking was, before adding, “but it’s terrible”. He said he wants to enforce the rules to ensure “horror stories” and rumors circulating on the ground result in a thorough investigation.
Currently, if ICGS mentions the same person five times for bullying, their case will be aggravated. However, Walton wants to “get that down to three” because “five seems like a high bar”.
On his suspension from Labour, Charalambous said: “I am aware that there is an allegation that requires investigation by the Labor party. It is right and proper that the process is allowed to take place. I will fully cooperate and play my part part. It is not appropriate to say anything more at this time.”
In a statement, Blunt said: “I remain willing to cooperate fully with the investigation that I am confident will end without charges.”