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"That’s absolutely the wrong culture to have in our Parliament": #MeToo in Westminster four years on

Senior MPs have said Parliament's post-#MeToo workplace is not delivering the desired culture change | Alamy

9 min read

Four years after Westminster was rocked by allegations of bullying and harassment, MPs tell Georgina Bailey there is still work to be done to fix the culture in Parliament

It has been more than four years since then-prime minister Theresa May and parliamentary leaders vowed to tackle a perceived culture of bullying and harassment in Parliament in the wake of the 2017 #MeToo movement. 

Yet with recent cases including Neil Coyle, who apologised and had the Labour whip suspended following allegations he made racist comments to a journalist in a Commons bar, and Conservative Daniel Kawczynski, found to have broken parliamentary rules over an apology he gave following complaints of bullying parliamentary staff, critics say measures to tackle the problem still do not go far enough.

Such is the loss of confidence in change that former leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, the primary architect of the original reforms, has told The House that she is “grieved” they have not “passed the test” of “fundamentally… [changing] the culture of Parliament for the better, so everyone would be treated with dignity and respect”.

Leadsom, the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, oversaw the cross-party working group of MPs and staff that helped establish the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), along with other improvements to Parliament’s workplace culture in response to allegations arising from the #MeToo movement. 

She now believes there is an over-reliance on the ICGS, and a resulting lack of training and other workplace policies to improve the culture in Parliament – a view echoed by staff, trade unions and other MPs. 

Leadsom, like all staff and MPs The House spoke to, welcomes the progress that has been made so far and the existence of an independent system. Prior to 2018, there was little protection for those who experienced bullying and harassment. Staff who wanted to make complaints were reliant on internal party systems, with the interests of complainants often taking a back seat to the potential political ramifications. 

For staff employed directly by Parliament, a culture of deference meant those who experienced bullying and harassment were often moved while perpetrators went unpunished.

After a series of independent reports, changes were made including the introduction of the ICGS in the summer of 2018, with a helpline for advice for anyone experiencing bullying and harassment. 

A Behaviour Code and training titled “Valuing Everyone” was launched, the Members’ Services Team (MST) was introduced with regular support for MPs and their HR proxies on good employment, as well as guidelines for all staff. There was also new mental health and wellbeing support, and an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) was established in June 2020 to consider appeals and sanctions in complaints brought against MPs.

However, despite the ICGS attracting cross-party support, the parliamentary authorities have been accused of doing too little to address the underlying issues in Westminster – a claim underlined by the sheer number of complaints continuing to be made to the ICGS. Between July 2020 and June 2021, 388 separate individuals contacted the helpline, and 45 cases were started; the highest number of contacts to date. MPs and unions say more complainants fail to report.

Some people… don’t see the system as relevant – we need to change that mindset

Jenny Symmons, chair of the GMB Parliamentary Staff Branch, says that while the union welcomes the changes so far, “ultimately, the culture hasn’t changed, because there is still the power dynamic of an MP being the employer for staff members”.

“There are still the reverence issues, with people feeling that because they work for an MP, they’re so lucky to be in Parliament and work for someone so important that they need to put up with difficult treatment.”

Jawad Raza of the civil servants’ union FDA, agrees. “We’re still seeing a number of complaints coming through against people [so] there’s still a long way to go in terms of the culture. Some people… don’t see the system as relevant – we need to change that mindset.” 

Caroline Nokes, Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, alleged last year that the Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson had groped her at an event in 2003 (Johnson said he didn’t remember the incident and did not know who Nokes was). 

She has supported a number of staffers in bullying or harassment cases, and says: “We all hoped the ICGS was going to solve all the problems. The reality is that we’ve not really seen that. There remain concerns from staff that they’re anxious about speaking out. That’s absolutely the wrong culture to have in our Parliament. We want staff to be able to speak openly and frankly, and to feel they’re going to be protected by the process.”

The cross-party ICGS working group’s original vision of a post-#MeToo Parliament included full inductions for staff, exit interviews to identify problem areas, and ongoing training across the estate. Leadsom says she regrets that none of this is now happening.

She is also concerned that the Valuing Everyone training has become “a laughing stock” – which she predominantly blames the media for – when “anyone who’s actually done it will tell you it is really interesting, and properly grown-up training,” she says. More than 97 per cent of those who completed the training said they would recommend it in the most recent ICGS annual report.

Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Meg Hillier also provide support to staff dealing with bullying and harassment. Like Leadsom and Nokes, they believe training should be repeated on a regular basis to help embed culture change.

Phillips says: “[It should be] like a feedback loop: How has it been since the training? What would you do differently? What have you done differently? What do you think needs to change?”

She adds that measures like training have been more successful in tackling “borderline” cases: “What they have done successfully is people who could potentially have been in a fit of pique about something – not an obvious wrong ‘un – have cause to think about how it could go wrong, and how to prevent it going wrong.”

A spokesperson for UK Parliament confirmed the authorities are “currently looking at refreshing the content of the Valuing Everyone training and considering how we can remind all members of the Parliamentary community about the Behaviour Code on a regular basis”, adding: “Valuing Everyone training also ensures anyone working in Parliament is able to recognise bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, and feels confident taking action to tackle and prevent it.”

Leadsom says 80 per cent of the evidence the ICGS working group heard was “workplace grievances” – such as people being overworked or inappropriate comments. 

In other workplaces, this would be dealt with by line managers and HR, however many MPs and office managers come into politics with little experience of management. Because of this, grievances that could be resolved easily either get dismissed or spiral out of control.  

Hillier says: “Office managers [should be] properly accredited and trained so that they can be on top of these issues. It’s still difficult in a small office… but a well-paid, well-trained office manager should be able to say to an MP, ‘that’s not appropriate’. Then you’re stemming it at an early stage. Lots of office managers make it up as they go along – some very well – but they don’t get much support.”

While MPs say Parliament’s HR team provides good advice, this is focused on MPs rather than staff. To solve this, Hillier encourages all her staff to join a union for external support should issues arise. 

One suggestion is for a centralised body to be more involved in the hiring and management of staff, mitigating the pressures on MPs and peers and providing an independent source of support for staff. Symmons says that this would be the only way to remove the power imbalance that dominates parliamentary culture.

The only thing that actually encourages faith in the system and better behaviour is when actual behaviour is punished

However, there are complexities to this. One former MP says that although centralised HR would make things more “straightforward,” MPs would need to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into accepting it. “[An MPs’ office] requires a very curious dynamic because every single person you employ can single-handedly destroy your political career should they wish. The only reason why I held on to my seat is because my office was run like clockwork. It takes real trust for it to function. Because of that, I would want to have the say as to who is employed.”

Another potential improvement is for bullying and harassment cases to come through the system with visible consequences.

“The only thing that actually encourages faith in the system and better behaviour is when actual behaviour is punished,” says Phillips. “People are probably more wary of it than they ever were before. But old habits come back unless it’s piquing people’s interest.” 

Phillips says that more must be done to set an example. “There’s nothing stopping [an MP who is accused of sexual crimes or harassment] coming on to the parliamentary estate. [Leicester East MP] Claudia Webbe is convicted of harassment, and she comes in and votes. I fundamentally think that that sends a bad message to people who might want to report harassment… In the Rob Roberts case [where an independent parliamentary investigation found he broke sexual misconduct rules and he was suspended from the Commons for six weeks] the only people who lost their jobs were his staff, not him.”  Webbe maintains her innocence and is currently appealing her conviction for harassment.

 A UK Parliament spokesperson said:  “Parliament’s Behaviour Code makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in Parliament. Bullying and sexual harassment has no place in the House of Commons.”

The spokesperson went on: “Our work to transform the culture of the Commons has seen us implement a number of initiatives. We’re supporting MPs as employers more than ever before, including through a dedicated Members’ Services Team who provide a HR service and employer advice to Members, as well as pastoral support for Members’ staff.

“Since the introduction of Parliament’s Behaviour Code and Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS), all members of the parliamentary community, including Members and their staff on the estate and in constituency offices, have access to an Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisor (ISMA) who can provide advice, support and signposting to those who have experienced sexual misconduct or harassment. Additionally, our assistance programmes in place offer 24/7 confidential advice and support on personal or work-related issues.” 

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