There’s a reason why sexual harassment is endemic in Westminster

We’ve known for years about the predatory culture in Westminster, yet political parties have repeatedly failed to act.


Three years ago, Channel 4 published the findings of their investigation into harassment in Westminster. Just like today, people were appalled.


Of those interviewed by Channel 4 journalists, a third had personally experienced sexual harassment. A further 21% said they had witnessed someone else being sexually harassed, or that a friend had confided in them about being harassed.


Three years on, this issue has not been rectified. The same structures exist within Westminster – failing the people who need it most.


The scale of predatory behaviour has been an open secret within Westminster for decades and yet nothing has been done. The fact that solutions are only being proposed now, during a time of media interest, surely shows how little care MPs have given to the issue.


Though many in the media are focused on claiming the scalps of various minsters, such as Michael Fallon, we risk losing sight of the vital, underlying issue – notably the dire lack of any system for reporting harassment within political parties and MPs’ offices.



What is the issue?


The problem begins with the legal relationship between MPs and their staff. MPs are technically self-employed and, as such, they are the sole employers of researchers and various other staff members.


Speaking to Backbench, former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “I don’t think there’s really an explanation or an understanding that when you become a Member of Parliament you become basically the sort of founder and employer of a number of people.”


Indeed, the House of Commons Media Team told me that while training sessions on ‘Members as Employers’ are provided, there is no record of which MPs attend this workshop. If these sessions are not compulsory, we cannot be surprised that dysfunctional offices are commonplace.


Caption: Michael Fallon stepped down as Defence Secretary this week after accusations of misconduct


Needless to say, this quandary is exacerbated when an MP is accused of harassing a member of their staff.


Since MPs are self-employed, they are effectively line managers for their staff. Consequently, if you are a researcher and you have been harassed by your MP, you are forced to report the incident to the same person who is harassing you – an entirely unworkable system.



Nowhere to go


Yet the alternatives for political staffers are limited. There are a range of other routes for reporting abuse within Westminster – none of which are properly equipped to help victims.


This lack of recourse for victims is patently apparent to Nicky Morgan. She told Backbench: “The truth is that on things like whistleblowing, or reporting a problem, I think the options are still quite vague.”


This has created a climate where harassment goes unreported, as many fear the prospect of getting fired, says Morgan. “At the moment, people know that if they report their MP and it goes wrong – if the allegation isn’t followed through – they will most likely lose their job or be moved on to a different department.”


The lack of anonymity for those in Westminster means that victims effectively have to choose between reporting sexual harassment, or keeping their job. "It’s unacceptable that people have to think that’s a decision,” says Morgan.


MPs are kings of their own castles - researchers and other staffers are merely interlopers. One Parliamentary Assistant to an unnamed MP told me: “The main thing as far as I’m concerned is that your MP is your boss, line manager, your HR, everything. There is no one else you can turn to.”


Georgina Kester, chair of MAPSA (a cross-party organisation designed to protect the interests of political staff) put it bluntly: “there’s no direct process which they could follow to make a complaint.


“If you are a new, young researcher, you’re not going to want to draw attention to yourself and make a fuss. That’s where the danger lies, because […] the MP gets away with it again and again.”


The scale of sexual harassment in Westminster seems to be so endemic that even individuals tasked with maintaining order and discipline – party whips – could be guilty. This would show an abhorrent conflict of interests and could result in many genuine concerns being ignored.


Party whips have long seen themselves as the custodians of party secrets. There’s a perception in Westminster that whips are sly, mendacious operators. Indeed, regular inferences to House of Cards – encouraged by wannabe hard men, such as the tarantula-wielding Gavin Williamson – create an atmosphere which is not conducive to transparency.


Caption: Gavin Williamson, former Chief Whip, has been appointed as Defence Secretary following Fallon's resignation - leading to suggestions that Williamson stitched up his colleague


In an interview for a 1995 BBC documentary, former Tory whip Tim Fortescue said: “if we could get a chap out of trouble then he would do as we ask forever more,” even referring to a “scandal involving small boys”. This is something which Labour MP Lisa Nandy recently brought to the attention of Theresa May in PMQs, suggesting the practice of ‘silence for loyalty’ still goes on.


Speaking to Backbench, Labour MP John Mann said that party whips were “unhelpful” when dealing with allegations of harassment. Indeed, it’s nigh impossible to conclude that current complaints procedures in Parliament are fit for purpose.



After 2014


In 2014, Channel 4 reported that sexual harassment was rife in Westminster. Its findings were wide-ranging. Far from being experienced solely by female staffers, young male employees were also targets of harassment, with some 40% of male respondents revealing they had received unwanted sexual advances.


One anonymous source recounted: “I saw male MPs and researchers having relationships. […] When I was there, older men would explore their sexuality and be predatory to younger men.”


In response to the 2014 revelations, Westminster jumped into action with a ‘harassment hotline’ set up to provide support for victims. This was established by private-sector HR provider, Health Assured – part of the business empire of Peter Done, co-founder of Betfred. However, this devoted complaints channel actually morphed into a general inquiry line – dealing with issues from pay to stress. Several staff members have dismissed it as of very little use, with one Westminster staffer saying that it “doesn’t actually give you any sort of advice – it’s a very general phone line.”


A consequence of there being no official place to register complaints of harassment is that there is little or no official record of it - and no statistics to show the full scale of the problem.


Responding to whether Westminster has listened to staff’s concerns, MAPSA chair Georgina Kester told Backbench: “from our point of view it’s very disappointing – they started to address [the issue of harassment] in 2014 but it never materialised. We gave evidence to the Admin Committee last year that there is a dire need for HR and grievance procedures to be put in place. The Admin Committee acknowledged that in their report […] but still nothing was done.”


Caption: Bex Bailey, a former member of Labour's NEC, said that she was raped at a party event and discouraged from reporting the incident 


Westminster’s political parties also ostensibly tried to tackle this issue in the wake of the 2014 scandal. The Conservatives implemented a new ‘code of conduct’ for their MPs and the Liberal Democrats appointed a pastoral care officer. Labour even told the BBC that they were setting up "an independent complaints process which will apply to every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party […] these proposals have been drafted in conjunction with lawyers, HR professionals and trade unions who represent the staff of many MPs and peers."


Labour’s response sounded like an ideal one – except it never happened. Speaking to LabourToo – the anti-harassment pressure group within the Labour Party – a spokesperson was perplexed and said that “there is definitely no independent process”. Labour MP John Mann told me he was “not aware” of any such policy.


This lack of action, coupled with recent revelations over the last few days about Labour MPs such as Kelvin Hopkins, show that no party has clean hands in this indignity. LabourToo are currently compiling a list of abuses suffered by women within the Labour Party – the findings of which will be sent to the national party.



What needs to be done?


In the evidence provided by MAPSA to the Admin Committee (a cross-party committee that deals with internal parliamentary issues such as catering, facilities and staffing), one staff member said: “I think that there is a complete lack of any sort of HR in Parliament, and so it would not really matter to me which one takes this responsibility, just that it happens.”


Reflecting this comment, an overwhelming 88% of MAPSA members say there should be more HR provisions for staff – and yet this has still not come about.


It’s clear that harassment does not just occur in Westminster. Reports of harassment or bullying come from constituency offices, not just Parliament. And it is not just MPs who have been accused of harassment – NEC members or even fellow staffers can be part of the problem. Yet, regardless of the culprits, there is no functioning framework for any of these people to be reported.


Caption: Former Labour shadow cabinet member Kelvin Hopkins has been suspended from the party following accusations of sexual harassment against a Labour activist


In response, LabourToo have called for the introduction of third party independent reporting, proper safeguarding training and independent advisors for parliamentary staff.


The Chair of the CIPD (the HR and employee rights organisation), Peter Cheese has written to the Speaker John Bercow as well as the leaders of all Westminster political parties, following recent revelations. His letter stated that it is important to “instil a safe and inclusive culture across Westminster, with zero -tolerance of sexual harassment and bullying.”


Some say this should be for IPSA to carry out. IPSA is the body that dealt with Westminster pay and claims after the expenses scandal. However, the organisation doesn’t see this as part of its job. “We explored whether it would be within IPSA’s legal power to commission a third-party provider of HR advice to MPs’ staff. We concluded that this was not within IPSA’s remit,” a spokesperson said.


Now, just as in 2014, there is an opportunity to correctly redress the system in Westminster. The complaints process for MPs’ staff is at best dysfunctional; at worst non-existent. Many are calling for change, but a government desperate to cling to power and an opposition wishing to seem above sexism means that reform is far from guaranteed.


It’s clear to all that the issue of sexual harassment has been endemic in Westminster for decades. It has been identified on numerous occasions by various organisations. Solutions have been suggested, and some of them have been tentatively implemented. On the whole, though Westminster has not listened. Now, surely, this has to change.  


A Backbench report by Mason Boycott-Owen


Edited by Sam Bright

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