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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Surge In MP Staff Joining Union Driven By Culture Of Sexual Harassment And Bullying

7 min read

Exclusive: Union membership among MPs’ staff working in parliament has surged by 1,000 per cent, as allegations of bullying and sexual harassment continue to circulate in Westminster.

The GMB Members’ Staff branch represents all political staff working in Westminster, from researchers and MPs’ special advisors to constituency case workers, interns or political advisors to members of the House of Lords. Many of its members, particularly MPs’ staff, are young and just starting their careers in politics. 

Jenny Symmons, chair of the branch, told PoliticsHome they had seen membership grow from just a few dozen when it relaunched in early 2020, to several hundred within three years, even including some traditionally union-averse Tory staffers who said they had faced problems at work. 

She believed that an inadequate response to complaints about working conditions on the estate from both parliamentary authorities and political parties was a driving force behind the union’s unprecedented influx of new members.
 
An Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was established in 2018 to address concerns of bullying and sexual harassment among those working on the parliamentary estate, such as MPs’ staffers. But Symmons argues she doesn’t think it “functions in its current form”, because of severe delays investigating cases, and employment structures that mean staff do not feel confident in making complaints without retribution.  

Conservative chair of the women and equalities committee Caroline Nokes also recently criticised the ICGS process, telling PoliticsHome it offers “no effective measures” in place to address sexual harassment in Parliament.

Last week, Tortoise reported that a female Labour MP had reported a member of the party’s frontbench to the Metropolitan Police, alleging that he sexually assaulted her. While the party had encouraged the victim to make a formal complaint usings its internal party process, the MP told Tortoise she felt unable to do so as she felt the accused MP’s popularity within the party would work against her. 

Separately, a senior Labour aide resigned on Thursday after Politico reported he had been let off with a warning by the party after facing an accusation of sexual harassment that was upheld by two separate investigations. The party took three years to investigate the allegation. A Labour spokesperson told Politico that all complaints are "fully investigated," and that  the party "treats all complaints of sexual misconduct very seriously”.

Symmons, who said she was familiar with cases that “can take up to two years”, said the union wanted to see “stricter timeframes” on resolving cases, which currently have no targets.

“I dealt with a case last year that started in June 2020 and only finished up properly in April 2022,” she told PoliticsHome.

Symmons pointed to the case of Chris Matheson, the former Labour MP who resigned late last year after the Commons Standards watchdog upheld two complaints of sexual misconduct against him. “Those violations in his case took 17 months to resolve,” she explained. “During that whole time, he was able to continue as an MP, have the party whip. He could attend parliament, the bars, and his constituency offices.”

Another major issue the union seeks to challenge is a lack of provision for third party reporting. Currently only direct complainants, rather those who may witness abuse or sexual assault, are able to make formal reports to the ICGS. 

“It's accurate to say that a lot of people seem to know things about certain characters in Parliament and aren't able to report them because they haven't experienced a firsthand incident,” Symmons explained.

The unique employment structure of parliament is believed to have exacerbated the issue, and is at the core of the reforms both unions and campaigners would like to see to the complaints process. Instead of being directly employed by the House of Commons, MPs are classified as individual employers with all their staff working for them – like a small business. 

That means not only that staff have no access to the formal HR or arbitration services afforded to other staff working on the Parliamentary Estate, but that MPs have a huge amount of power over staff wellbeing – they are “judge and jury who mark their own homework” as one staffer put it.

The employment structure also makes it extremely hard for MPs’ staff to go on strike. In theory, each individual MP’s office would have to separately vote in favour, and even then it’s uncertain whether they would be negotiating with MPs themselves or the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) which sets their pay scales.

That employment structure means staff could go to their party rather than the ICGS to investigate their complaint, but there are similar concerns among union members around delay and independence of complaints processes there too. 

Caitlin Prowle, who also represents MPs’ staff for GMB, worried there was “a culture of incrementalism” around complaints procedures which meant issues were not being fully addressed. “We'll make little changes here and there,” she said. 

“This is a workplace that is hundreds of years old and is super-archaic, and you need someone to accept the scale of change that is needed. I definitely don't think we're there yet.”

Other proposals from the union include better risk assessments for those accused of serious breaches of the rules, management training for MPs and the ability to put offices that demonstrate systemic problems into special measures, similar to the process used for dysfunctional police forces. 

While both union reps said they deal with new cases of bullying or harassment on a weekly basis, only two or three of their members have gone through the entire ICGS process.

According to its most recent annual report, the ICGS is aiming to grow its number of investigators to 30 in an effort to help it address demand and reduce waiting periods for complainants. Last year, the ICGS opened 59 cases across the House of Commons and House of Lords.

A spokesperson for the House of Commons told PoliticsHome: “Bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct have absolutely no place in Parliament – and we strive to ensure that we have a workplace where everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

They added: “The ICGS is there to ensure that all complaints are dealt with in a manner that is fair, thorough, independent and efficient, offering support to all parties involved. The target to reduce the length of investigations must always be balanced against the paramount requirement to ensure that investigations are rigorous and robust. 

“We remain committed to the ICGS and improving it where needed, with significant work already undertaken – such as the recruitment of additional investigators – and the promotion of the scheme and the support services on offer.

“We now have independent processes in place that we encourage all those in Parliament to use if needed, and remain committed to ensuring that lasting cultural change can be delivered for all of those in Parliament.

“The House has set up a Speaker's Conference to review working practices in Parliament, including whether or not it is right that individual MPs are the direct employers of their own staff, or whether staff should be employed by an outside body. Further submissions from Members, Member’s staff and others continue to be welcomed, with the report due to be published before the Summer recess.”

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