|Gareth Bennett AC|
|Jayne Bryant AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Llyr Gruffydd AC|
|Paul Davies AC|
|Ruth Coombs||Pennaeth Cymru, Comisiwn Cydraddoldeb a Hawliau Dynol|
|Head of Wales, Equality and Human Rights Commission|
|Claire Griffiths||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Meriel Singleton||Ail Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau||1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest|
|2. Cod Ymddygiad - Adolygiad: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth||2. Code of Conduct - Review: Evidence Session|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:32.
The meeting began at 09:32.
Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the Standards of Conduct Committee meeting. A particular welcome to Ruth Coombs this morning from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We've received your report and we've had a good look at it and it's an opportunity for us to ask you some questions. Thank you very much for coming in. As Members know, we can speak in English and Welsh, and the headphones in front are for translation.
Perhaps, Ruth, you'd like to start with an opening statement about the report.
Yes. Thank you for your interest in our report. We interviewed around about 1,000 individuals and also 234 of the larger employers to see what the situation was with regard to sexual harassment at work. And what we found was that evidence from employers showed that practices and procedures and policies were inconsistent and individuals described their difficulty about, first of all, actually being able to report it, feeling comfortable enough to report incidents. And when they did report incidents, often people felt that they weren't taken seriously, that their concerns were dismissed, as it were, by organisations, things didn't change, or if things did change, it was by moving the victim to another part of the organisation. And we also heard from people who'd lost their jobs because of it— people who had great careers apart from this one incident, but because things weren't dealt with, they felt they had to leave—and a small number incidents where the harassment actually started before employment, when applying for a job. So, after interviews, being told if they'd behave in certain ways, then they would get the job, which is appalling.
There are some industries where there seem to be more incidents than others, particularly things like the hospitality industry is one area of concern. In some service industries in particular the harassment goes wider, so it's not always perpetrated by fellow employees, although that's the usual pattern, but also customers. And where it was customers who were perpetrating incidents, then that was even harder to get resolution around, because employers quite often just said, 'Well, you've just got to put up with it', which is not acceptable in the twenty-first century. None of this is acceptable.
So, we want to see much more strengthening of policies. We want to see Governments taking the lead on that, and we want to see employers putting into place steps, policies and procedures that will support people to come forward, so that they've got more confidence to come forward to disclose and feel that if they do disclose, they're going to be taken seriously. Most of this is around power imbalance. If you are a junior member of staff, or you are an agency member of staff, it's very difficult to say to your line manager or to HR that a senior member of staff has been behaving inappropriately towards you. They often just don't feel they've got the confidence even to step forward. So, we want to see change and we want to see change right the way through the organisation and a more open culture, so that people can talk about it, because we know if you talk about things then they are dealt with much better and they also happen less often.
Brilliant, thank you. Just on the findings around the reluctance to report, obviously that's a serious issue. Perhaps you could just say a little bit about how you see that could change, and perhaps a little bit about anonymous reporting tools and how you see that—. How do they work, and do you think they play an important role in trying to get people to report when they're reluctant to do so at the moment?
Fine. Yes. One of the things that we think should be a serious consideration around reluctance is that if you start to—. If you train all your staff, so you train your managers in how to deal with people stepping forward, because a lot of people actually don't know what to do with the information when they've got it, so train your line managers, train your HR staff, but also have it as part of your induction training, so that when anybody comes in, or they're onboarded or whatever you call it, when they come and join the organisation, right from the word 'go' there's an expectation that such behaviour is not going to be tolerated in the organisation and that there are procedures in place for people to come forward.
We also think that if employers had a—. If it was mandatory to have an anti-harassment policy that's not just a sentence or two in another policy that's buried somewhere, but is actually a standalone policy that everybody signs up to as part of your induction processes, then there will be much more of an open culture and you'll be able to shift and you can get change coming through.
There are also opportunities in Wales, I think, for some of the work to be started through the new curriculum. We'd like to see work around anti-bullying in the curriculum, but that could include information on sexual harassment and what to do, so that you then get school leavers going into the field of work knowing their rights—their human rights around this—knowing that this behaviour is not acceptable, and then they would be much more likely to disclose if something did happen, because we know that if you get young people on board with things, that goes all the way through their career with them, so set people up to step into the world of work much more confidently in this area.
The other thing is that although most cases of sexual harassment are against women, it's not solely women and there are particular issues around men reporting. So, there are a lot of barriers that we need to break down around that, and we can only do that by becoming much more open and much more inclusive in the way that we talk in the workplace.
In terms of anonymous reporting tools, there is evidence from other places that where there are online reporting tools, people will report more because they can do it in a safe way. It also helps build that culture that if you know that you can report it online, you can do it in a safe way, that that information won't be shared around the water cooler and you won't be seen as a troublemaker, then people are much more confident in bringing their complaints forward. The other thing with using an online tool is that you can look at trends, so either trends in industry or you can look at trends around perpetrators, because if the same name is coming up time and time again, then you can start putting jigsaw pieces together.
Of course we're looking at this through the prism of our ongoing inquiry into the code of conduct for Assembly Members, so I'm looking, really, at areas of crossover and lessons that we can take from this that are very relevant and pertinent to the work that we're doing. So, the confidentiality one is clearly one of those. One issue that's been raised with us is a concern that complainants feel that once they make a complaint then they lose control of the process, because we have a system where the National Assembly for Wales Commissioner for Standards then looks into it, and many people fear that they'll lose that handle on the complaint. Is there anything that we can take from this work that helps us to grapple with that little bit? Because, clearly, they need to feel in control and empowered to have the confidence to come forward in the first place. Or you would imagine so, anyway.
Yes. And I think that's really about having a really strong policy that clearly sets out what the support mechanisms are and that that policy is published. Publish it on your website so that people know where to look, so they know where to look for it, they don't have to ask for it, and, in there, put the steps that have to be gone through, clearly laid out, so that people know what the process is.
The other thing is that although it has to be investigated in a particular way and in an independent way, and that's right, it's helpful for people who have come forward just to be kept in the loop, just to know that—. They don't need to know what is happening, but they need to know that something is happening, that they haven't gone through this angst—because it's quite painful to report that and it does take courage to do it—and what people don't want is to then feel that they don't know that anything is happening. So, although they can't know what is happening, if they know what the procedures are and what the timescales usually are, then they'll be able to know where they are in the process.
I think it would be really helpful if you have champions or buddies they can talk to about the process during it. Somebody who's not part of it, but sort of sits alongside it, in the same way that you might have an employee assistance programme or you might have HR or occupational health staff that do other roles. Just thinking about who could provide that support for the person during the process.
I don't know whether you're a unionised workforce or not, but one of the things that surprised us was the low numbers of people who were actually reporting it to trade unions, but those that did felt that they were well supported. So, one of the things that could go into your policy could be just a simple statement that if you are a member of a trade union, you might wish to seek support from them, alongside other supports like employee assistance programmes, that type of thing.
I've seen somewhere—and I'm looking for it now as you're speaking—reference to a six-month cut-off point.
At the moment it's three months.
Yes. We here have a 12-month cut-off point for complaints against Assembly Members, although in evidence that we've had from elsewhere, there's a very strong suggestion—and it's one that I have a great deal of sympathy with—that 12 months very often isn't long enough to bring a complaint forward because people don't feel ready to do that. So, I was just interested that there was reference to six months here. Well, if some people are saying that 12 months isn't long enough, then—
Yes, the six months is based on evidence from other bodies and brings it in line with other matters that go through employment tribunals. At the moment, it's out of kilter with everything else, which is six months. I think 12 months is much better than six months, and it's really interesting to think about whether there should be a cut-off at all, if you think about some of the other stuff that's happening around historical abuse that happened a long time ago. How long you could keep it open ended I don't know, but I would suggest that 12 months is better and, as I say, the six months is purely to bring it in line with other—
There are a number of anomalies in our context, I think, in that, during the 12 months even, if you lose an election and you're no longer an Assembly Member then the process concludes, but then there's nothing to say that you wouldn't be re-elected five years later. So, there are all sorts of complexities really in this context, and I think this is certainly one area that we need to be looking at very closely.
The other one, actually—and again it comes back to this issue of redressing the imbalance of power, if you like, within these sorts of situations—is the third-party right of appeal. So, if an AM is found guilty of something, then that AM can appeal, but the complainant, if the AM is found not guilty, cannot appeal. So, I'm just wondering whether you'd have a view as to whether that needs to be looked at as well. And, if it does, then there's a whole issue around how, practically, you can do that. But it's about sending those messages that, actually, we need more equality within the system.
Yes. Because, as you say, a lot of this is around power imbalance, if you were able to provide a similar redress for the alleged victim, I think that that would help to shift that power balance. But, as you say, that's not going to be necessarily an easy process. And there will be a point at which, if you appeal and you lose the appeal, maybe you would then feel that at least it's been looked at again and everything has been done that can be done. Whereas, it does seem that the balance of fairness isn't there if one party's got a right of appeal but the other party doesn't.
Thank you for your report. I think this is very useful in informing our work and informing this inquiry. I just wanted to perhaps ask you a general question first of all. I'm not quite sure whether you've looked at our current procedures. If you have, has anything struck you with regard to our current procedures? Has anything jumped out at you that these procedures are not fit for purpose?
I have to say that I haven't refreshed myself since I last came to give evidence on your procedures, but, at the time when we gave evidence before, there wasn't anything that we went away with and then thought, 'Oh, I didn't talk about x or y.' So, I'm sorry if that's not a very helpful answer.
No, no, I was just interested in whether you have looked at them again and whether perhaps something had struck you, but that's—
Certainly, I'm content to go away and look at them alongside this report now to see whether anything does come out and then come back to you if that's acceptable to the committee.
And of course I suppose that, as politicians, we are in a very interesting position because not only are we Assembly Members, but we are also members of political parties—most of us are anyway. There are processes as far as parties are concerned. Is it your view, therefore, that there needs to be equity across the board as far as our role as an Assembly Member is concerned and our role as a political representative is concerned—that those rules and measures that are in place are actually consistent?
Consistency is really important, and having a similarly high bar, as it were, of intolerance so that you don't have a situation whereby, if somebody reports the same behaviour through one route they get a different result than if they report it through another route. So, that would probably undermine people's confidence and make them much more reticent in bringing something forward if they think, 'Well, I don't know which way to take it, which way is going to be helpful, which way is not going to be helpful'. You could have two people experiencing a similar thing from the same alleged perpetrator, but if they have to report through different routes they could have different outcomes, and that wouldn't be very helpful.
Yes, because there's always a danger, isn't there, if there are two ongoing inquiries, that they could come to different conclusions, and that could obviously be a problem for the resolution to a complaint, effectively?
Yes, and, again, for all parties concerned, because obviously you'd need clarity for the alleged perpetrator as well as the alleged victim.
Thanks, Chair. Thanks for the report. I was interested in what you said a few minutes ago about the induction. When new employees come into a job, they could be trained about harassment issues as part of their induction process. I suppose the problem I've got, thinking about that, is—. When I came into the Assembly, as an Assembly Member I had an induction process, which I think was a whole day, and then, after that, I think you learn as you go along. The problem is that there's a lot of stuff that you have to deal with right at the start. Now, I appreciate that if someone is going to be harassed—sexually harassed—then that could happen right at the start of a job. So, I can see the need for it to be part of an induction programme. I just wonder if, sometimes, the induction programme having everything all in one go at the start really works, because I tend to find that, within a couple of weeks, you've forgotten pretty much all that you were told. Of course, you may have reading material to go back to, but I wonder if it might be more effective if there were some kind of ongoing programme, or reminders or something, and it might be tied up with the other issue you mentioned about who the person goes to if they do have an issue. You mentioned the issue of someone in a union. I guess, in this place, some people are and some aren't. So, let's look at the ones who maybe aren't in a union. Who are they going to go to as their first port of call? So, I don't know if those things possibly could be tied up and if you've got any further thoughts on that.
Yes, I think your point about induction is very well made. If I reflect on inductions that I've been in myself, you are quite bombarded. It needs to be the starting point of the work, and not the only time. I absolutely agree with that point there, that it needs to be something that is reflected upon on a regular basis. I know that, quite often, policies also need to be reviewed and, at the point of review, everybody should then be refreshed as to what that is.
In terms of finding people that you can go to, I think it is really important that there are staff or mechanisms that are identified. For larger organisations, that can be more straightforward because they are more likely to have employee assistance programmes that all members of staff can access. And yes, you're right, not everybody belongs to a trade union. So, if you haven't got employee assistance programmes, you've not got a heavily unionised staff, there needs to be somebody identified and, quite often, people in human resources or people teams are well-placed to take that on board. What would be really the ideal model would be people coming forward and volunteering as champions in this field, but that takes time to build in. You're not going to get that right at the beginning. So, I would suggest that looking to people who support around HR functions would be a good starting point to begin with, and then grow it out, because this is something that's going to be quite new for some people. It would be good to have, if the Assembly's got the wherewithal to do it, access to employee assistance programmes, because they're slightly distanced so they feel safe. And I know that people who have used them tend to report that that experience is a positive experience. So, that could help with it as well. But you're absolutely right that it needs to be refreshed on a regular basis so that people don't forget.
I was just thinking, this kind of refresher, I suppose it would be best if everyone had the refresher, because I'm thinking about potential people who could be harassed and people who also might, for whatever reason, be someone who could harass someone. It could sometimes be the case that if they had these refreshers—. There may sometimes be confusion in the minds of people as to the exact relationship that they have with somebody that they're in close proximity to at work. So, if the refresher was also involving employers as well, then I guess that might reduce the number of these cases.
Yes. It needs to go right the way through organisations so that everybody is on board with it, everybody understands. And yes, if you know what the expectations are, and what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, then you're much less likely to do what's not acceptable. Yes.
Thanks for that. The only other thing I'm thinking of, not really relating to the Assembly, is that the Assembly is a fairly large organisation, so the idea of finding people, either volunteer champions or something similar, I think would probably work.
I'm just thinking, in the employment situation generally, going outside the Assembly, there's a lot of work that's now agency work, for instance. When I was working for agencies, you often don't have much contact with the HR department of the organisation you're working for, and sometimes workers in those situations don't really know who's supposed to even be in charge of them when it relates to grievances or staffing issues. So, you're kind of caught between going between someone at the agency or someone at the HR department. So, I think one of the problems of work becoming increasingly less secure and more agency related is you may have a problem with implementing a sexual harassment programme in those instances.
Yes. With insecure employment—agency staff, zero-hours contract staff—it does make it much more difficult, which is why one of our recommendations is that all organisations should publish their policy on their website so that it's clear and so that people have got a starting point.
Part of the policy should look at signposting, if people need more help and support, and signposting to places like ACAS, to trade unions, where that's appropriate. I would also suggest that organisations that could help and support you—maybe local non-governmental organisations—could be listed in those policies. So, if you are experiencing a lot of distress as a result of sexual harassment, if it's in the policy, the contact details of your local Mind association or your local Gofal service could be really helpful as well—signposting so that people can know what they can do outside of that work context. I think things like that would be particularly helpful where you've got agency staff in the gig economy, where people don't really fit with being self-employed and they don't really fit with being employed; they're sort of in that grey area in the middle. There's no reason to suggest that people who are in that area are less likely to experience harassment at work. In fact, the evidence shows that they're more likely to and less likely to have recourse because they don't how to report or who to report to.
Speaking of grey areas, we're constantly coming across them, I think, in this particular piece of work. Patterns of behaviour is something that's been raised with us as a committee, where, maybe, an individual may have had multiple complaints made against them over time. Individually, they may not have led to more severe sanctions, but, when you view them together, then they clearly demonstrate a breach or a failure to conduct themselves in a manner that you'd expect in relation to the code or—. I'm just wondering whether, in this work or in other realms, you've come across any ways of trying to capture that and trying to deal with that, really, because it's pretty much more straightforward if there's one particular instance or issue that you need to address, but when it's a pattern over time and individually they don't quite, maybe, cross a certain threshold then how do you identify that and, secondly, how do you deal with it?
Yes. That's difficult, which is why we think that online reporting would really assist with that, and data collection can assist with that. Because, if you have got an online reporting mechanism—and, if people report offline, then the person that they're reporting to has the responsibility of putting that data in—you can then start cutting your data and you can start looking to see where you've got patterns, and if person X's name keeps popping up then you've got an evidence base as well that you can also use to say, 'Your behaviour, over time, is clearly falling short of the bar' and that way you've got stronger data as well and more evidence against someone. Because we know that, quite often, in a number of different power imbalance situations, be it sexual harassment, be it racial abuse, be it hate incidents, a lot of them are low level, but repeated. And if it's low level and repeated the person may not—the perpetrator might actually not realise that their behaviour is not acceptable, so being able to show them that pattern, 'This is not acceptable behaviour', can be very helpful as well to them understanding why their behaviour is not acceptable.
I'm aware that Cardiff University are using an online reporting tool, because it was trailed in the media a few weeks ago, wasn't it? But I'm just wondering how do you, within that kind of system, guard against false accusations and vexatious accusations, because there is risk that it makes it easier for those kinds of accusations to be made as well.
Yes, absolutely. And this is where your online reporting and your methods of investigating need to complement each other, so that you can actually unpick, at investigation stage, whether or not these claims are vexatious. And that might mean interviewing a number of people, because, obviously, you may report online, but you might then need to have to have a follow-up with the people. So, you'd have to have a mechanism whereby that could be an expectation. And the other thing is looking at is there evidence of other people seeing it, because, if there is a way of capturing that—. Because one of the things that we found in the survey that we did was that quite a lot of the male respondents said that they hadn't experienced it themselves, but they'd witnessed it, so it's also about what do other people see. And if you've got a lot of evidence of a similar nature against somebody but you've got no witness evidence that could mean that either they're very clever at what they're doing, or it could indicate a vexatious claim.
Some of this reporting could be done anonymously as well, so that makes the whole process much more difficult.
It does. It does and I think that the—. Our experience of vexatious claims, it was low. We didn't get employers saying that this is happening. We didn't—. And I'm not sure if it was the way that we sought the data, the questions that we asked, but that wasn't flagged, in the work that we did, as a particular issue. And I think that, yes, in a small number of cases there is a potential for vexatious claims, as there are vexatious claims in all—with everything. However, we can't let that get in the way of trying—
There are greater benefits to be had from having—. Absolutely, yes.
Great. I was just thinking around—sorry, I'm following on from Llyr, actually—just about party political—. With everybody's party political hat on, you realise that people who've come here and started to work in the Parliament, whether that's the Assembly or the UK Parliament, or the Scottish Parliament—. Many people might be concerned about a reputational damage to their political party that they've invested quite a lot of time and effort in and they care about and are very loyal to. How do you think that—? Or do you have any tips about how we can get around that, and how we can encourage people to come forward who—? It would be perhaps a little bit different if you worked for a particular company, you wouldn't be thinking about that reputational damage, but you would in somewhere like an Assembly or a Parliament.
Yes, that's a good question. But I think that our view would be the way to tackle that is by being open and by getting conversations going, and so that your—. You distance the party from the individual. This is something that an individual does—it's not something that a political party or an organisation encourages. It might be that organisations or parties don't at the moment do enough to prevent or to tackle it, but certainly they wouldn't be encouraging it. So, it's about being open and being honest and being clear that if an individual chooses to behave in a manner that's inappropriate then the consequences are on the individual, not on the wider party. And, yes, there will be times when it's somebody high profile. We know, even as we speak, on the other side of the pond there is somebody who is incredibly high profile who is going through a legal process. And that will hit the press, but it's about being—again, it's about being honest about it and saying that things do sometimes go wrong and people do sometimes get things wrong or choose to do things that are not appropriate. If somebody has got something wrong then they need to know that they've got it wrong and they need to be supported to get things right. If people choose to behave in a particular manner and that's not acceptable then they need to know it's not acceptable, and, if they choose to do that, then they need to have the consequences of their choice of action and behaviour.
There are organisations that would have a high-risk element to them, and, yes, political parties, Assemblies, Parliaments, would be in that category. But also, because they're in the public eye so much, there's also that real opportunity for saying that, 'We're leading on this, we condemn'—you know, demonstrating that it's not acceptable and actually using the opportunity to actually reinforce, so that other organisations that look to Parliament, to political parties, for leadership, can see that that leadership is happening and that leadership is happening in a way that is saying, 'This is not acceptable, we're not going to have it, and we will deal with it, we won't brush it under the carpet because somebody is a high-profile figure.'
Yes. Another area that we've been grappling with a little bit and has been raised with us—and it comes back to where we started, really, about having clarity around processes and people understanding exactly where to go, et cetera. Now, of course, here we have a situation where all Assembly Members are subject to the code of conduct, but some Members who are Ministers are subject to a separate process in that capacity. Now, it depends then in what capacity they were acting when any incidents occurred that might be looked into. Some people feel that there's a risk that an individual might go to the standards commissioner to raise an issue and the commissioner would say, 'Well, actually, this happened when this certain person was a Minister, so you need to refer it to the First Minister's office to deal with it through a separate code and a separate process'. So, I'm just wondering whether you'd have a view around the need to align some of that to take away that potential confusion. It doesn't have to be that you take the ultimate decision away from the First Minister in relation to the ministerial code; it could be that the standards commissioner actually steps in to look at either the code of conduct for Assembly Members or the Government code and then makes a recommendation, as the commissioner does, either to this committee in the context of an AM, or to the First Minister in the context of a Minister. Do you have any views around the need to maybe at least align, if not create a new, more streamlined system?
We would want the systems and structures in place to make it as easy and straightforward as possible for somebody who has experienced harassment of any kind at work, so that they know what to do and there isn't a confusion. So, to align would be, as you've described—would be very helpful. Because people just need clarity. It's hard; it's really difficult to actually talk about this sort of thing. Most people spend a lot of time thinking, 'I'm not going to', and then, when they get the courage to do it, the last thing that they need is to be told, 'Oh, it's not me; it's this person. You have to go and see this person'. Because the more barriers that they perceive are in the way, the less likely they are to start the process and the more likely they are to, if they're bounced around, say, 'Well, that's it; I won't do this again', or 'I'm going to stop now and withdraw the complaint'.
Thank you. Thank you so much for coming in and giving your evidence today and speaking on your report. Is there anything that we haven't asked you or that you'd like to leave us with—some powerful points—or emphasise in relation to our inquiry?
Yes. Well, I think it's really opportune that you've got the report at the time that you have so that you can look at the recommendations and incorporate them. We're very pleased that you're looking to see how this can inform that work. One of the things that I would like to just leave with you is around a statutory code of practice for sexual harassment and other harassment in the workplace. It's one of the recommendations that we have to the UK Government. We are in discussions and it is looking likely that that work will move forward. As a part of that work, when we have a draft in place, we would very much want to have your views on that, as part of the consultation process, because we think it's really important that devolved administrations also comment on it as well as before it's finalised and laid before UK Government. So, should that work—and it's looking positive—go forward, we would welcome the opportunity to get some input from the committee, if that's possible.
That would be very helpful, thank you. We'd be very keen to do that. Thank you very much, Ruth, for coming in today. You'll be getting a copy of the transcript from the clerk, so just have a look over that and check that we haven't missed anything out, but thank you once again for coming in today and giving evidence.
Thank you very much. Thank you, everyone.
Daeth y cyfarfod i ben am 10:14.
The meeting ended at 10:14.