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Breaking the silence on sexual harassment

Anonymous Staffers and Caroline Nokes MP

13 min read

Stories around sexual harassment in Parliament are never far away. The last few weeks alone have seen a staffer go on record about the culture as part of a major Newsnight investigation, while SNP MP Mhairi Black described the “toxic” environment as a reason for standing down. The introduction of an independent complaints process has only seen more and more sexual misconduct cases. Here, three staffers and an MP write for The House about their experiences of what it’s like to work in politics in 2023

Caroline Nokes: “The bad have been protected by a culture of omertà, of blind eyes being turned” 

Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee 

Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power. And Westminster is full of notionally powerful people, those with influence, with connections, who can potentially impact your career.  Westminster is also a bubble, and once inside it can be hard to break out of the membrane, back into the real world, where the sort of harassment that has happened here would see perpetrators out of the door of their employer, their possessions none too neatly stashed in cardboard box. 

Recently Ellie Varley spoke publicly about her experiences, but others who have been victim to similar chose to be anonymous when interviewed by Newsnight.  People are scared that speaking out will harm their career, finish off any future they have in politics, and that is why too many stay silent.   

Be assured, victim blaming and shaming is rife.  I have heard it all over the years, “she’s always in Strangers or on the Terrace”,  “he’s a fantasist”, “I don’t believe it happened”, “It was a classic honey trap” and that old favourite, “Some people simply can’t take their drink” as if alcohol is the real problem,  not the wandering hands. 

But don’t assume that because the culture is poor, the reporting mechanisms are opaque, and people are too scared to report for fear of reprisals to their career, and the cases have been numerous, that we are “all at it”.  We are not, and in Westminster the good guys far outnumber the bad.  It is just that the bad have been protected by a culture of omertà, of blind eyes being turned, and a whipping system that is focused only on getting business through, not of providing any sort of pastoral care.  There are honourable exceptions, two former whips Anne Milton and Margot James showed real leadership when they were in office, and it would be fair to say that Anne was the best chief whip we never had.  

But weirdly, despite reservations, it is to the Whips’ offices, collectively, I instinctively turn when looking for the solution.  My repeated refrain is an explicit code of conduct, agreed on a cross-party basis, a set of rules every candidate has to sign up to when they stand, so that upon election they understand that if they break them, they lose the whip and never get it back. I don’t even set the bar especially high, no Class As, no watching porn in the Chamber, no touching your staff or colleagues. And we have seen all that in the last 18 months or so. 

caroline nokes

Of course what that does not address is our current inability to exclude people from the Estate. Recall has existed since 2015, but it is a pretty clunky process and the hurdles before a petition is allowed are high. That is for good reason, we should not have recall petitions at random, but there is often a  long time lag between accusation and conviction (for instance).  Even the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) admits it needs to speed up the process for their investigations, because they take far too long, in some cases the best part of two years.  This leaves victims working in the same bubble as their (alleged) perpetrator.  The House of Commons Commission has taken that problem away to think about again. Neither does it address the culture, the late nights, the living away from your support network, the lads banter, an atmosphere where you learn to take the “rough and tumble of politics”. Thirteen years in I can observe the culture is changing. The gender balance is slowly improving, the diversity is increasing, the age is reducing: all of that definitely helps. But was Mhairi Black right when she said it was a toxic atmosphere? Sadly, yes. 

“There is even a group of people who frequent the pubs together – and have gained a reputation to be avoided for this exact reason” 

Tory Staffer 

Walking behind the Speaker’s chair in the Commons, I stopped with a friend to have a conversation with the on-duty security. They commented on our green passes – meaning we work for Members of Parliament – and warned us: “Some of your lot are awful to deal with.” 

“MPs?” I asked. There are, after all, a number subject to investigations by the ICGS for their harassing behaviour. “No,” they said, “the male staffers are a nightmare”. 

Unfortunately I knew all too well what they were referring to. There are a number of men working for MPs (staffers) whose behaviour is not befitting Parliament. 

The security guard found themselves having a rant, which ended with: “We can’t do anything about it. We can’t kick them out. Maybe if more people reported it something might change.” 

The conversation around sexual harassment in Westminster and on the parliamentary estate often focuses on the behaviour of MPs, but there is a cohort of staffers and special advisors (spads) who deserve having the light shone on them for a change. 

Regularly appearing in the form of a “senior parliamentary assistant” or “chief of staff to an MP”, or those elevated to the position of Spads to ministers, they present their seniority with arrogance. 

As they have been around the palace for a few years, they think they rule the roost. They claim to know everyone and offer to take new, young female staffers “under their wing”. 

The person who presented themself like this to me even had a No.10 pass. In the Woolsack, formerly known as Sports and Social, a bar primarily visited by young staffers, he cornered me, made inappropriate comments, persistently asked about sharing a bed despite me, clearly uncomfortable, batting his questions away and then, when I tried to leave, grabbed me by the arm and would not let me go. 

It took my friend, spotting the situation from across the room, physically intervening and taking me away from him. 

The next day I didn’t go into the office, feeling so horrid after the night before. I had support from the team I worked with and the idea of getting my MP involved was posited, but what good would it have done? 

During the evening I had entertained the idea of reporting it, until someone told me how the reporting process played out and that an informal solution of mediation would likely be suggested. I didn’t want to face the person who behaved this way towards me – and going through my MP would likely have led to this path, too. 

The person who behaved this way knows more people than I do, being relatively new. If they were aware I had reported them, I had no idea what sort of things would be spread about me in return. 

When I joined my MP’s office, I thought of what a privilege it was to have these bars to go to, with likeminded people, gorgeous views on the Terrace and cheap drinks. Not everyone treats it as a privilege.  

Fundamentally, we are still in our place of work, not that the behaviour would be appropriate elsewhere. It should not require having a network around you who can physically intervene when you’re subject to bad behaviour from male staffers and spads. 

Maria Miller and Jess Phillips

There is even a group of people who frequent the pubs together  and have gained a reputation to be avoided for this exact reason. It is not even that I am worried about finding myself alone with this man as, like he proved in sports and social, he was not even deterred by crowds. 

In a case of sad irony, the day before this incident, I had completed my behaviour code training in Parliament, which sets out a code of conduct and the process to pursue complaints. But seeing the ways reporting incidents has played out for others; what is the point in going through that? 

“Ultimately, you shouldn’t… treat your younger female colleagues as a meat market, even if it happens to turn out OK”  

Former Labour staffer  

A few weeks ago, on the way back from a party, I had an Uber driver who was obviously drunk. He slurred his words, made a series of odd comments, and ostentatiously drank from a water bottle that he repeatedly waved at myself and my partner, sat in the back seat making concerned eye contact with one another. I like to consider myself someone who at least tries to be a good person and as such have never in my life not given an Uber driver five stars, and felt conflicted as I looked at the rating options for this man, who had, after all, gotten me from A to B in a timely manner, as promised.  

I have been thinking a lot about this small dilemma of late, as a scale model of a larger dilemma that occasionally returns to the fore of my mind. I have been mulling this dilemma as the Labour Party undergoes one of its semi-regular spasms of #MeToo style sexual harassment reckoning. The latest round of internal party reflection was prompted by a Politico story in May, about a senior parliamentary aide who kept his job after groping an intern (he has since resigned).  

A few years ago, when I was in my mid-20s and working for a Labour MP in Westminster, a senior colleague – a married man with small children, more than a decade older than me –  unambiguously propositioned me for sex at a work event: so unambiguously that he subsequently apologised.  

At the risk of sounding like I am trying to not-like-other-girls my way through MeToo, it did not trouble me enormously at the time. Besides a few stressful, awkward afternoons in the office and a new self-consciousness about my appearance at work that ultimately faded, it had little impact and my colleague remained, overall, a helpful and competent person with whom to work. In my years spent working in and around Labour politics, I have had bad bosses, both more senior aides and MPs themselves, who have made my life much, much worse than this man did. Professionally, I was getting from A to B with little trouble.  

However, I heard a series of similar stories on the grapevine about this man and his inappropriate behaviour towards his junior female colleagues, across a series of roles. His behaviour had not, on any deep level, bothered or disturbed me, but that is a subjective statement and one that is fundamentally contingent on the situation, like traffic that happens to be easy to negotiate.  

Trying to report or censure this man seemed both a waste of time, and, if successful, somewhat disproportionate. Lodging such complaints – which I have done against a bad boss – takes a great deal of emotional and administrative energy. Investigations often take years. You have to have the motivation born of feeling yourself meaningfully harmed or wronged to want to do this, and I didn’t.   

But, ultimately, you shouldn’t drive drunk and you shouldn’t treat your younger female colleagues as a meat market, even if it happens to turn out OK. I am in the Labour Party because I believe in collective action, in the broader norm and not just the individual harm. A broken windows approach that encourages people like me to be good citizens and report comparatively minor things like this, to prevent patterns of behaviour that will affect different people differently, and to prevent the mild from ratcheting into the less mild, can only be a good thing. Our systems – both within the party and in Parliament – could not be worse for this. 

“There is a reason why nobody goes through the ICGS twice” 

Tory Staffer 

The ICGS is rarely in the news for a positive reason. After all, it is the only mechanism in Parliament that is responsible for keeping those who work there accountable for their behaviour. A big part of this cohort are MPs, whose position is special in that they can only be booted out by the electorate.  

One of the biggest misconceptions that the ICGS seems to have about itself is that it really can do it all. Across Parliament, their posters are everywhere, encouraging people to ring their helpline should they fall the victim of any injustice.  

The reality is quite different. I know, because I went through the ICGS following a serious incident of sexual misconduct involving an parliamentarian. Before deciding to go through with it, I was trying to gather information about what the process was like so I could understand whether I should go through with it, or perhaps consider going to the police, seek legal advice or just move on. Unfortunately, no information about the ICGS process exists, because they don’t want to tell the victims or the perpetrators what they would be expected to go through, presumably because they want the space to wing it. 

I called the ICGS helpline, and the lady took down my report. A month later I was told that an investigator will be appointed in a month or so. My investigation formally began several months later with an interview with the investigator where I told them my story. About a month after that I had a meeting with the standards commissioner who notified me that my case had been accepted. And another month later, I started giving evidence, as did my witnesses and the parliamentarian accused.  

During the process, I had to talk about what had happened over and over again. My investigator was trying to constantly catch me out and bring my personal life into question by asking me tricky questions. The investigator also seemed to step out of line at times, losing all impartiality, particularly by telling me that they understood how I felt, and telling me what an awful person the person I had accused was.  

I thought this was strange, but due to the lack of information about the process, I didn’t know how to address the behaviour of the person who will either be my saviour or executioner. It was yet another power imbalance, but this time in the process itself. 

I had to present my evidence and argue how it related to a pattern of behaviour which led the parliamentarian to sexually assault me. All things that in a court of law, a lawyer would be doing.  

Confidentiality is key in the ICGS process. The process only allowed me to speak to one person about the case, and I had to notify them who it was. Other than that, I was told to ring one of the support numbers available and keep quiet.  

The system is designed to protect the reputation of the House and that of Members. It holds no trust in the victims, and it doesn’t offer any practical support that would make the process easier. There is a reason why nobody goes through the ICGS twice. 

Of course, this goes beyond just the ICGS and is a failure of Parliament as a whole. Perhaps it would be easier if instead of pretending that help is available and that the process doesn’t involve going through hell and back, victims are just given rape alarms and a lift to the nearest police station. 

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