Exclusive: How Labour’s newly proposed internal complaints system would work

Sienna Rodgers

Labour’s national executive committee will be presented today with the outlines of a new internal complaints system, which is expected to be met with approval due to the pro-leadership majority on the ruling body. The party was required to establish an independent process to replace the current one after the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year found that it was responsible for unlawful acts in its poor handling of antisemitism cases, and Labour was legally mandated to commission an independent system to handle and determine antisemitism complaints by the end of 2021. The party has decided to bring all cases relating to protected characteristics under the new process.

While key stakeholders such as the Jewish Labour Movement have been regularly consulted via the antisemitism advisory board, those expecting a fully external complaints process – namely the Labour Women’s Network – have been disappointed with Labour’s proposals. An LWN spokeswoman told LabourList on the eve of the NEC meeting: “LWN has long campaigned for an independent process for sexual harassment complaints in the Labour Party, from first contact to final outcome. Sadly, we don’t believe these proposals represent that, so we will continue to campaign for a wholly independent process which women can have greater confidence in.”

Why has this divergence emerged? Party sources point out that ‘independent’ and ‘external’ are very different things, and that Labour has concluded that it is not legally possible to have a fully external complaints process even if it wanted to adopt one. Legal advice and the EHRC both agree that it is necessary for the system to be linked into party governing structures. For this reason, Labour’s NEC has not been completely cut out of the procedures. Complete removal of the NEC is what organisations such as LWN wanted to happen because there have been such shocking failures by the party to properly protect sexual harassment complainants and it is thought no faction can be trusted with these cases.

The core elements going to the NEC today would see the new system work as follows. If it’s a sexual harassment case, there is a dedicated email and inbox. The independent process starts when initial materials are produced, then – unless the case needs to go to a hearing – a panel of trained Labour NEC members considers this evidence against the principles (around preventing discrimination in line with equalities law) that the ruling body will consider today. The panel makes an initial determination. An independent lawyer reviews the decision and decides whether to veto or verify it.

If the case needs a hearing from the get-go, or the complainant wants to appeal the decision made on their case, it will go to a new body that is taking this role off the national constitutional committee (NCC) in cases involving protected characteristics. The new board has 12 members: four independent lawyers, four HR or regulatory experts and four lay members of the party who have been through a recruitment process (the details are yet to be finalised as stakeholders need to be consulted on it). These cases will be heard by three people, one from each category, meaning two thirds will always be independent of the party.

There are still more details to work out, including the process by which members of the new board can recuse themselves if necessary and how the entire system will be regularly reviewed to ensure it is operating effectively. There should be better anonymised data from the new complaints system, but this will also have to figured out further to avoid compromising confidentiality particularly in sexual harassment cases.

LabourList understands that Anneliese Dodds, the new party chair, is working to consult those who would be subject to the changes and who have been through the process before, while also recognising that there is significant work to do on the cultural aspect of tackling sexual harassment in the party. There is an action plan for this. The party wants to allow people to log concerns about someone so a pattern can be built up about individuals.

There is also a new code of conduct on confidentiality, which it is hoped will avoid situations whereby someone found to have harassed or bullied another member cannot fly under the radar when taking up a different role in the party. And it is expected there will be a time limit attached to the process to prevent the respondent from dragging their feet and repeatedly delaying the case, while also being flexible to the timing needs of the complainant.

Some have criticised the new system for not being victim/survivor-centred and not designed in consultation with survivors. Because it was mandated by the EHRC due to Labour’s failures on antisemitism, but will apply to many more types of cases, stakeholders such as LWN do not feel included. An alternative suggestion has been put forward that the NEC panel could ‘rubber stamp’ the independent process, ensuring the process is legally safe without the first hurdle being handled internally, which could be off-putting. However, it is thought the party is uncomfortable with the idea of the non-independent element being at the end of the process. Labour does not want decisions on cases to appear politicised.

While there is still a non-independent element to the new system, those helping to set it up are hopeful that setting down clear principles alongside the rulebook and equalities legislation will drastically improve the process, which although complex will be more obviously defined. Nonetheless, organisations like LWN will keep scrutinising the party and will be hoping for more consistent engagement ahead of conference and afterwards.

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