Bullying and sexual harassment of MPs' staff 'widespread' in Parliament, damning report finds

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

Bullying and harassment of MPs’ parliamentary staff is a “significant problem” that has been “accepted for too long”, a damning independent inquiry has found.

A total 220 people spoke to Ms White for the inquiry
Credit: 
PA

A hard-hitting report led by QC Gemma White found that those working for MPs had faced sexual harassment, being shouted and sworn at and had objects thrown at them.

The report - gathered over an 18 month period - found that parliamentary staffers faced an “unacceptable risk” of being mistreated, with bullying and harassment “sufficiently widespread” to require an urgent response from Commons bosses and political parties. 

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Ms White said: “By far the most common form of offending behaviour described to me was of MPs who shout at, demean, belittle and humiliate their staff on a regular basis, often in public.

"The constant 'drip, drip', as more than one contributor put it, eats away at the employee’s self-confidence until they become anxious, exhausted and ill, incapable of performing their job and (often following a period of sickleave) resign or are dismissed." 

She added: "Sexual harassment is also a problem, with staff being subject to unwanted sexual advances, often accompanied by touching, sometimes forceful.

"There is an unacceptable level of sexual 'banter' and unwelcome discussion of intimate sexual details. The majority of contributors described being bullied and harassed by their MP employer.

"A much smaller number described behaviour of fellow staff members but in some of those cases spoke also of their MP employer failing appropriately to address complaints. Some of the worst offenders are well known as such within the Parliamentary community but, other than the odd 'quiet word' from a fellow MP or the relevant Whips office, action has rarely been taken to address their behaviour."    

More than half of the 220 people Ms White's team spoke to said their working lives had had a “serious negative effect” on their mental health, with many citing a lack of sleep and exhaustion.

Many of the experiences detailed to the inquiry included "unwelcome sexual advances, often accompanied by attempts at kissing."

The report went on: "Many involved some form of unwanted touching: for example breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies.

"Most of these experiences were isolated, but some were part of a course of conduct on the part of a Member or fellow member of staff."

One contributor told the inquiry: “After I resigned I suffered a breakdown which I have never recovered from."

Another testimony, which Ms White described as capturing the experience of “many” read: “[The MP] would intimidate, mock and undermine me every day, often shouting at me.

“On one or two occasions staff members from nearby offices came to check on me, after [the MP] had left.

“On one particular occasion, [the MP] stood directly over shouting at me for over ten minutes on end.

“The relentless daily nature of this intimidation and bullying, coupled with the fact that it seemed unconnected with the quality or delivery of my own work (or anything else I did), left me frightened each day, and made even normal conversation with my boss an uncertain and intimidating experience."

They added: “I don’t think of myself as a particularly soft individual, but there were occasions I found myself crying on the way to work, the only time I have cried since I was a child.”

Ms White said the majority of contributors were referring to experiences which had taken place within the last five years.

Discriminatory behaviour from MPs was also reported to include “making racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic comments and choosing to employ, or not employ, people because of their sex, sexuality, race or religion".

Others spoke of receiving “unfavourable comments” about their homosexuality, with female staff also faced being paid less than their male counterparts.

The report also demanded action on disability-related harassment, with MPs offices failure to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. 

'CAREER SUICIDE'

Ms White's report also hit out at efforts from the House of Commons to address bullying and harassment so far, saying there had not been enough focus on the “uniquely vulnerable position” staffers face as direct employees of MPs.

The report detailed how some former MP's staffers had been denied the right to bring complaint under a new grievance scheme set up since revelations of bullying and harassment in Westminster first broke.

Ms White said complaints about events that took place before June 2017 should be included in the new scheme.

She added: “Many describe the idea of complaining about bullying and harassment under the new complaints procedure as 'career suicide'.

“They also often have strong party and personal loyalties which constitute significant barriers to complaint.”

Ms White rejected voluntary training for MPs as “not the answer” - and warned that Parliament needs a fundamental shift away from regarding MPs as “650 small businesses” with freedom over their staffing.

'SHOCKING AND TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE'

The House of Commons Commission - which oversees the administration of Parliament - is set to discuss the report with Ms White in a meeting next week.

In a statement it said: "We condemn bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff and offer our full support to anyone in the parliamentary community who has suffered in this way.

"The Commission does not employ the staff of MPs as they are employed by MPs themselves or via political parties.

"However, the Commission takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure that Parliament is a modern workplace. A number of measures have therefore been put in place by the Commission before and since Dame Laura Cox QC published her report into bullying and harassment of House staff last October."

Downing Street said the report's findings were "appalling" and raised "serious concerns".

Theresa May's official spokesperson said: "As the Prime Minister said before, everyone working in Parliament deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

"There can be no place for bullying or abuse in Westminster or any workplace and it's important that the parliamentary leadership now responds fully and promptly to the concerns raised in this deeply worrying report."

He added: "Some of the individual testimonies which have been given are shocking."

Labour meanwhile said the report's findings were "shocking and totally unacceptable".

Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Valerie Vaz MP said: “It is clear that more must be done to ensure that the culture of Parliament is one where those with complaints feel supported and able to challenge those in a position of power and authority. 

“There is also a clear role for political parties which do not directly employ Members of Parliament’s staff, but have a pastoral care role. That is why in 2014 Labour MPs changed their standing orders to allow staff to bring cases through the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as being able to access the party’s complaints procedure. 

“Labour thanks Gemma White QC for her report and will look seriously at the detail of the recommendations. We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to make parliament a modern workplace with zero tolerance of any form of bullying or harassment. 

“Labour calls on the government to ensure the necessary time in the House of Commons to debate and implement changes to the independent complaints process before the summer recess."