When should MPs accused of sexual assault be excluded from the Commons?

Balancing constituents’ right to representation with the right to a safe work environment is tricky, but not impossible

February 02, 2023
The parliamentary authorities have launched a consultation on “precautionary exclusion”. Photo: funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo
The parliamentary authorities have launched a consultation on “precautionary exclusion”. Photo: funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Most employees, or office holders, who are accused of serious sexual or otherwise violent misconduct would expect to be suspended from work while investigations were carried out. MPs, however, find themselves in a fairly unique position in that, even where such accusations have been levelled by members of the public or parliamentary staff, they can still come onto the parliamentary estate to vote, attend select committee meetings and engage in political activity. Unions representing parliamentary staff have said that MPs are effectively “immune from normal workplace standards”.

This may be about to change, as the parliamentary authorities have launched a consultation on what they describe as “precautionary exclusion”, which would restrict MPs’ access to the parliamentary estate and overseas trips sponsored by parliament where there is an established allegation of a violent or sexual offence. The Commons standards committee has also launched a short inquiry into the subject. 

The proposal, which originates from the consultation by the House of Commons commission, acknowledges that MPs are in an unusual position and identifies a number of relevant factors which may justify a tailored approach, including: the constitutional function of MPs; the length of time it might take for an allegation to be resolved; rights of anonymity and the potential for vexatious complaints. Some of these issues arise in any workplace but it is not special pleading to point out that they all present unique challenges with regard to MPs. 

First, MPs act as representatives. It would be problematic if, during a long investigation, an MP was suspended from voting, participating in parliamentary proceedings or holding surgeries without some mechanism being put in place to ensure that their constituents continued to have a representative in parliament. Some services for the public, such as the parliamentary ombudsman, can only be accessed via what is referred to as an “MP filter” and MPs also have access to various hotlines to aid constituents. 

Equally, a government without a significant majority could be put at a disadvantage if it were possible for an unsubstantiated complaint to lead to the suspension of an MP’s voting rights in the House of Commons. Peter Grant MP (SNP) has argued that “there will be times when one person’s inability to vote could change the course of history.” It would be wrong if such political considerations played a part in any process to exclude an MP—but it is understandable that a government might want to put in place mitigations to avoid such a scenario.

It is also arguable that there should be an appropriate mechanism to ensure that unwarranted or vexatious complaints could not be made to try to exclude someone from parliament in a politically motivated or targeted fashion. Given that MPs are frequently the subject of abuse, and sometimes even violent attacks, misuse of any new procedure cannot be discounted. Moreover, unlike other office holders, there is no guarantee that any MP who was subject to exclusion would ever be able to return to parliament if their name was cleared, since they would be at the mercy of the voters.

In order to address these issues, the commission has proposed a fairly high bar for precautionary exclusion: an MP would have to be criminally charged with a violent or sexual offence. In such circumstances, a case would then go before an adjudication panel made up of senior MPs confirmed by the House (two deputy speakers are proposed) and a non-executive member of the commission. The panel would have the benefit of a risk assessment carried out by a risk assessment panel made up of senior parliamentary staff, including the legal counsel who provides advice to the speaker. The adjudication panel would typically be expected to follow the advice of the risk assessment panel, unless it was “perverse”, or procedurally irregular. The final recommendation would then be implemented by the speaker.

This new process sounds fairly well balanced, and the threshold of being charged with a criminal offence means that any improper claims would often be filtered out. 

Nonetheless, the commission’s proposal does have some serious problems, and it is important that these are ironed out before it is implemented.  

First, the proposal does not go far enough in protecting staff employed in the House of Commons, who may have to work with an MP on a daily basis. It is at least arguable that the threshold for exclusion should be lower in cases where an allegation of violence, sexual assault or harassment is made by House staff under the House’s Independent Complaints and Grievance System. Such staff should not have to press for criminal charges in order to be protected.

Second, the proposal does nothing to protect staff based in an MP’s constituency. The House of Commons commission argues that these offices are not owned or secured by the House authorities. But this is a weak excuse and it seems inconceivable that some agreement could not be reached between the House of Commons and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (which oversees these premises).

Finally, the question of what should happen to an accused MP and their constituents remains unresolved. Since the end of the pandemic, the House of Commons has done little to promote remote participation and the use of proxy votes. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Leader of the House, has previously argued that MPs did not take electronic voting “seriously”, stating that “I think there was some evidence with electronic voting that people were going for nice walks and then voting in parliament.” Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee of parliamentary backbenchers, has also said that he is not a “fan” of remote voting and that precautionary exclusion should not be a “step on the way to normalising that”. 

Yet this type of modernisation is exactly the sort of safeguard which could ensure that precautionary exclusion can be exercised fairly and proportionately. In order to avoid claims of prejudice, an MP who is excluded from the parliamentary estate on a precautionary basis should be allowed to participate in most proceedings, including select committee hearings and votes in parliament, as well as being able to assist constituents. This could easily be facilitated by remote participation, a proxy, or a combination of both mechanisms. This would allow any MP who claimed that they were falsely accused to continue to provide a public service to their constituents and to support their party, while protecting everyone. We shouldn’t allow antiquated and outmoded concerns about technology to exclude pragmatic solutions. 

In truth, both remote and proxy voting should be allowed for any MP with a reasonable excuse, be it illness or caring commitments. Failing that, it is hard to imagine even Rees-Mogg arguing cogently against an extension of the facility when an MP is excluded from parliament because they might pose a risk.