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Monday 20 November 2023

"I am listening": Interview with Thea Walton

By Tommy Newell
Director of the UK Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, Thea Walton, talks to Tommy Newell about creating more transparency, learning from those unhappy with how they’ve been treated and ultimately, why a culture change in Parliament is necessary to make a real diff­erence.
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Thea Walton feels it was her “natural sense of justice” that attracted her to the role of Director of the Independent

Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), the independent process to investigate inappropriate behaviour such as bullying, harassment and sexual harassment across the Parliamentary estate.

Reflecting on the work of the scheme, Walton says she thinks it’s “given an independence and confidence” to the complaints process. “You hear about some high-profile cases, but in the meantime there are hundreds of cases that we've resolved that have met people's needs.”

While media reports and public scrutiny focuses on the investigations of politicians, Walton stresses that “anybody in the parliamentary community can make a complaint to us or be complained about to us. It is not restricted to just being about MPs or just being about Lords.  Anybody can make a complaint and they would all be treated in the same way”.

“Because of the confidentiality of the system, we don't talk about individual cases,” she explains. “So I think for every bad example, I could probably give you 99 good ones. It has provided effective resolution to a large number of people. That said, I think we can always improve and I think there are some things that need to shift.”

"I think for every bad example, I could probably give you 99 good ones. It has provided effective resolution to a large number of people. That said, I think we can always improve."

While clearly not complacent about some of the challenges the ICGS faces, Walton also contextualises how much progress has been made with the creation of the ICGS in the first place. She describes it as “the first of its kind anywhere in the world” and reinforces that “this was voted and agreed by the members”, so there is “a willingness for this to work”. 

“I think people do want it to work and I think for a large number of people, it has worked,” she adds. “I think that it is hard. It's a tricky place with lots of different rules and regulations and lots of different power dynamics. It is not easy to navigate but I think that there is greater independence in this scheme than there has been through any other route."

"It's a tricky place with lots of different power dynamics. It is not easy to navigate but I think there's greater independence in this scheme than there has been through any other route"

From early in her career, Walton thrived when working to help create a fairer environment. One of her first roles was in the civil service Fast Stream, where she was placed in the Inspector of Prisons: “I decided I just wanted to stay because I really enjoyed the… human rights aspect of the work and that kind of public accountability,” she explains. “It was just fascinating, really interesting work.”

She went on to become a deputy ombudsman at the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, responsible for the investigation of all deaths in custody, and then on to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

“I was one of the regional directors responsible for the investigation of death, serious injuries and particularly sexual misconduct, and I was the lead for work on violence against women and girls after the death of Sarah Everard,” Walton says. “So I did a huge amount of work in that area, and particularly the sexual misconduct work, but also bullying and harassment. And then I also ran the programme to drive improvements in our quality and timeliness of the work, so introduced a new quality assurance framework, a new minimum standards for the investigations, and then how we would report against that, judge that and invite some external scrutiny… So, I think that's some of the experience that I bring to this role to start to try and help, I think, with the investigative rigour that's required for some of this work.”

The ICGS came under scrutiny in July of this year, when a BBC Newsnight investigation reported that a “predatory culture” still exists around the House of Commons. At the time, the FDA National Officer representing members in Parliament, Jawad Raza, urged House Authorities to “take these staff members’ experiences seriously”. He also warned that “changing an entire parliamentary culture cannot just rely on the ICGS alone” and called on those in leadership positions across the political spectrum to “take responsibility to drive that wider culture change”.

Walton agrees that “some of the barriers” to her team’s work is “because of issues within the culture”. “Effectively the ICGS is at the end

when something has gone wrong. An investigative body is essentially what we are, but we do have a vested interest in making sure the culture is what we need it to be,” she says.

As a bicameral team, working across both the House of Lords and House of Commons, Walton says it’s helpful “to be able to work with the Culture Change team in the Lords and the Culture Change team in the Commons”.

While that work is primarily led by the Directors of Cultural Change in each House, the ICGS team supports that work and believes it’s up to everyone to help push a change in culture. This ties in with issues of power dynamics, which are omnipresent in a workplace that includes elected members who are not employed in the same way as parliamentary staff or, indeed, their own political staff.

Walton is all too aware of this and how it can be a barrier to reporting poor behaviour: “If your employer is the MP that you need to complain about, what do you do when you've made that complaint? How do you carry on working for them? So you might not complain until you've left their employment, or you may worry that it affects your career chances. All those sorts of things have an impact on whether you're willing to come forward. Some of those things are within my control, if their concerns are about the efficacy of the ICGS, but some of those things are completely beyond my control.

“I've met members who are equally concerned about that as I am. I've met members who have said to me that they feel very keenly the responsibility that they have towards their staff members and that they struggle to feel confident that they can keep their staff members safe.”

In these situations, the scope of the ICGS is limited, and Walton says political parties need to “take a lead”. However, she’s clear that it can’t just be on MPs. In her view “everyone has to come together when you're talking about cultural change because everyone has their own part to play”.

Walton is aware of people’s concerns, including frustration at the time it takes for some investigations to conclude. 

“So we looked quite carefully when I first came in, we looked back over the last two years to see why things take a long time. It's no one reason, if it was we would have fixed it by now,” she explains. The complex nature of some complaints necessitates time for thorough investigations. While some of that is out of the control of the ICGS, Walton is keen to make gains wherever she has the power to do so.

“We've got a good pool of decent investigators that we can allocate cases to, that I think is pretty much responsible for why we've shaved a month off the investigation time in the last twelve months, because we now have access to that. There are nuances and issues that come up in every single case and often they're the first time that they've come up, so they often need careful handling and thinking about. We've just recruited a policy person to be able to unpick some of those issues so when they come up, we can create guidance. If they come up again, we deal with them quicker.”

Walton is focused on “driving up standards and improvements in the quality of the investigations and the timeliness of investigations”. She stresses that she takes that task “really seriously” and wants to be “far more transparent” about it.

“One of our challenges is about how much information is out there about the ICGS and how much is accurate and how much isn't. So, I think one of the things that I want to do is create much better reporting around the ICGS. I do think we should have targets, and I do think that we should have more transparent reporting over what we do.”

"We take our independence seriously, but that doesn't mean that we're aloof and separate. We want to know what's going on on the ground so we can make sure that our service is reaching the right people"

Walton has a clear message for anyone who has had a negative experience with the ICGS: “I am listening”. “We do want to hear from people. We take our independence seriously, but that doesn't mean that we're aloof and separate. We want to know what's going on on the ground so we can make sure that our service is reaching the right people.”

What are the ICGS and IEP and why were they created?

The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) is the independent process to investigate inappropriate behaviour such as bullying, harassment and sexual harassment across the Parliamentary estate.

The FDA represents non-political staff across Parliament through our House of Commons and House of Lords branches and campaigned for the introduction of the ICGS.

The Independent Expert Panel (IEP) is essential for ensuring that the ICGS remains independent from political interference at every level. The IEP, which FDA reps helped to design, decides on sanctions for the most serious instances of misconduct investigated by the ICGS.

The IEP wasn’t a feature of the scheme when it was first introduced in 2018, which is the main reason the FDA didn’t initially accept it. At the time, FDA Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge described it as an “ineffective policy” that contained “serious flaws”.

Following the #MeToo movement and amidst numerous media reports of misconduct in Westminster, the 2018 scheme was pushed through by MPs prior to the publication of Dame Laura Cox’s report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. A former High Court Judge, Dame Laura was tasked with leading an independent inquiry by then-Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom.

Dame Laura Cox’s findings, published in mid-October 2018, vindicated the FDA’s position and echoed the union’s key demands: namely, that any new complaints process must be fully independent from MPs’ influence, and that it must allow for historical allegations to be investigated.

While the House Commission immediately agreed to these recommendations in principle, it took over a year of pressure from the FDA and campaigners to compel MPs to fully implement them.

This culminated in a consultation in which the FDA House of Commons Branch designed the idea of a Parliamentary Tribunal Body, which became the basis for the IEP.

The union continued to campaign for a truly independent system and on 23 June 2020, MPs voted for the introduction of the IEP, with Leversidge referring to it as “a seismic change in culture at the heart of power in Westminster, from one of deference to MPs to one where everyone is treated with dignity and respect”.

“The cases that go through the IEP have to meet the highest possible standard that you can expect,” Walton explains. “So, I think they bring the independence, gives much greater transparency to it and I think it also gives an element of rigour. You've got an independent investigator, you've then got an Independent Commissioner for Standards and then you've got an Independent Expert Panel. So, I think that the three of those things taken together mean that it is a really assured process.”

How the IGCS works

“Anybody in the parliamentary community can make a complaint to us or be complained about to us. It is not restricted to just being about MPs or just being about Lords, they would all be treated in the same way,” Walton explains. “We offer support if there are issues of sexual misconduct, they will be provided, if they wish, with an independent sexual misconduct advisor to support them throughout the entire end-to-end process. 

“Then, if they choose to make a complaint… we then conduct an initial assessment. And when I say we, it's allocated to one of our independent investigators”. At this stage, Walton says the independent investigator has one question to answer: “does it meet the terms of the bullying and harassment or the sexual misconduct policy for us to be able to investigate it? If it does, they will then establish what the allegations are and what will need to be investigated and recommend that it warrants a full investigation.”

If a full investigation is decided upon, decisions will then be taken to see whether any additional investigators are also needed. Walton expands: “We also have a service user specialist in our team who will… remain in contact with the complainant and the respondent throughout the lifecycle of the case if they need additional support”.

Walton explains that the investigators come from a range of different backgrounds and locations: “That's deliberately so, so that when a case comes in, we can allocate the right person that has got the most appropriate skill set for the nuances of that particular case. At the end of that investigation process, we will make recommendations and then pass our recommendations to the relevant decision maker.”

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