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‘Pestminster’ Three Years On: Has Anything Changed in Parliament?

"Sexual harassment and bullying still exist, it’s just done behind more closed doors and in a much more concealed way” | PA Images

16 min read

It is nearly three years since Westminster was rocked by serious allegations of bullying and harassment in the wake of #MeToo. Georgina Bailey talks to staffers and MPs about how it has impacted them – and how women are forming their own networks to get ahead.

The Pestminster scandal was a long time coming, says Amanda*, a Conservative staffer who has worked in Parliament for more than a decade. “There was this resentment building up over how badly people had been treated over such a long period of time on all sides of the House, MPs, Peers, everybody… #MeToo opened the floodgate for stuff that people didn’t feel comfortable bringing up before.” 

The scandal’s impact was seismic: Wheels were put in motion to create an independent scheme to handle allegations of misconduct across Parliament, separate from the party machinery which many had accused of sitting on and covering up complaints. 

Nearly three years later, an independent complaints and grievance scheme is in place, training and helplines have been introduced, and any MP involvement in determining, debating or imposing sanctions on those found to have bullied or harassed staffers has been ended.

But despite the progress, interviews with MPs and staffers by The House has revealed there remains a great deal of work still to be done on the issue – not least at a wider cultural level. 

I know people who are now willing to come forward and go through the system. It is a small step, it's a small part of what needs to be done to make staffers feel safe

These are the bare facts of Pestminster: Between October 2017 and March 2018, a number of allegations come to light against high profile public figures. At least four government ministers lost their jobs as a result, and one MP, Charlie Elphicke, the former MP for Dover, was found guilty of sexual assault charges. 

Three independent QC-led inquiries into the culture of bullying and harassment in Westminster confirmed what many already knew: bullying and harassment in Parliament was endemic and was systematically being covered up by a disciplinary process almost entirely reliant on other parliamentarians to enforce discipline. 

“Previously, victims had felt in Westminster... that there was no point in coming forward because nothing would happen when you did or you might lose your job. Finally that started to change with Pestminster.” says Sarah*, a Labour staffer since before 2017. “There was a real sense from a number of MPs and staffers that this was our chance to change the system and get an independent system with victims at the centre of it. There started to be a sense that people would be taken seriously and that action would happen if you came forward.”

Jenny Symmons is a Labour parliamentary staffer and a GMB parliamentary branch trade union rep. She, like many others, welcomed the introduction of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) as “really helpful” and “a big improvement”. In 2018/19, the ICGS received 806 calls and emails.

“I've already got people I know going through it and they felt really supported and like the situation was being investigated… they actually have someone to speak to who will maintain their confidentiality, assess their case objectively, and then if the investigators agree that there is a case there then the complainant has the confidence to know that what went on isn't okay… it's already having a good effect,” she says. 

Following the establishment of a fully independent expert panel on sanctions for MPs in June, the confidence in the system is growing, says Tara O’Reilly, a Labour staffer and one of the founders of Women in Westminster. “I know people who are now willing to come forward and go through the system. It is a small step, it's a small part of what needs to be done to make staffers feel safe.”

No one should ever have to be in that situation in their workplace of being stuck alone in a lift with someone who's alleged to have committed a serious sexual assault

However, some have been unsettled by recent events prior to parliament’s return.“When I first started, I never thought we’d see an independent process in Parliament. A lot has changed…. And that’s why what’s happened this summer has felt so disappointing, it feels like it’s gone back to the old politics” Sarah* says. 

On 1 August, an unnamed Conservative MP was arrested on allegations made by a former parliamentary aide including rape, violent sexual assault and coercive control. 

In an interview with the Times a week later, the alleged victim said she had told the chief whip Mark Spencer about the allegations in April. Spencer allegedly told her that he was “reluctant” to suspend the MP over the allegations, but that she should go to the “relevant authorities”. 

The Conservative whip has still not been suspended from the MP in question, but he has “voluntarily” agreed with Spencer and Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle that he will not return to Parliament while he is on bail. In August, The House revealed that a meeting had taken place between the Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and union representatives on the issue, which the latter said “went nowhere near addressing our concerns.” 

A spokesperson for the Speaker said: “We take the safety of our staff seriously and are ensuring that any necessary measures are taken in respect of our employees.” 

A parliamentary staffer said it would be “unfair” to criticise the Whips, adding that while the ICGS meant they had less power to act in the short term, “if an MP has been found by the independent complaints process to have done this thing, the Whips can just come in and say ‘well the evidence says you’ve done it’ so it might actually give them more ammunition to keep them to stay in line.”

Caroline Nokes, the chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North since 2010, told The House that although she understood people's "legitimate concerns", the first consideration had to be whether or not any actions that were taken would identify the victim. 

“The principle of not identifying them or not withdrawing their pass until such time as they've been charged, not suspending the whip until such time as they've been charged is perhaps the right one," she said. 

Other members, however, are less sure. “It sends a loud and clear message [to staffers] of ‘good luck! You’re kind of on your own’,” Rosie Duffield, chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party  and MP for Canterbury, says. “I don’t feel like it is a great message for the staff as they come back, I wouldn’t feel particularly reassured.”

And for some, the way that the situation has been handled by the powers-that-be harks back to previous cases. “I remember walking into a lift and it was just me and Charlie Elphicke in the lift, and this was after he'd been restored the Whip. And I just remember feeling that I had never in my time in Parliament felt so strongly that I was a young woman and I felt so vulnerable”, says Symmons. 

“And no one should ever have to be in that situation in their workplace of being stuck alone in a lift with some who's alleged to have committed a serious sexual assault,” she says. 

I think a lot of the newer MPs are very aware that you will get called out for this kind of thing now, and you wouldn’t expect staffers to keep quiet any more.

There is also disagreement amongst staffers and MPs over how much the culture of bullying and harassment in Parliament has actually changed. Some, like O’Reilly, don’t think it’s changed much, if at all.

“Sexual harassment and bullying still exist, it’s just done behind more closed doors and in a much more concealed way,” O’Reilly says, adding: “It needs to be taken more seriously at every level and by every person regardless of seniority… The culture that promotes and covers up misconduct still exists and hasn't been challenged whatsoever.”

“I think structurally we have made some progress in that we finally now have an independent complaints process which is a huge step.  And while we now have a place where we can point women to if they do experience something horrible in Westminster, don't we want to be in a place where people don't need to use that system because that behaviour doesn't happen anymore?”

Symmons agrees. “I don't think it's changed at all, I don't think there's less bullying. I think more people will come forward, hopefully more MPs will be held accountable because staffers will hopefully become more aware of this scheme... But I don't think that it's having a disincentivising effect on bullying.” 

However, Amanda*, who has worked for a series of Conservative MPs since the party was in Opposition, has seen a more marked change, saying that Pestminster “let the sunlight in” and helped to change the atmosphere in Parliament. She credits part of this change to the increased number of younger women MPs. “I think a lot of the newer MPs – especially this new fresh intake from last year – are very aware that you will get called out for this kind of thing now, and you wouldn’t expect staffers to keep quiet any more.”

Caroline Nokes says she was “thrilled” to see a younger, more diverse intake in 2019, with real world experiences in modern HR practices. 

“These new generation MPs simply, a) wouldn't dream of behaving like that and, b) wouldn't tolerate it if that happened to them. So I think it's been, certainly since the general election, really pushing change. It feels every day It feels less and less like an old boy’s club, which I think is a great thing.” 

Some MPs will benefit from that training and learn how to be better bosses. Other MPs are just bullies

Nokes believes that there has been an “awful lot of learning” amongst MPs in the last three years. This includes the Valuing Everyone training, which was introduced in May 2019 and is now mandatory for all MPs and Peers – although nearly a quarter of MPs still haven’t completed it.

While the training has been welcomed, Nokes believes that it should not be a one-time event for parliamentarians, instead being repeated and refreshed at regular intervals – a sentiment echoed by staffers. 

However, there has also been disagreement about how effective it is in stamping out bad behaviours, and how much of the bullying and harassment culture can be put down to lack of management experience among MPs. “That's the case sometimes, some MPs will benefit from that training and learn how to be better bosses. Other MPs are just bullies,” one staffer says.

The way Parliament functions also throws up very specific challenges in relation to tackling bullying and harassment, including the fact that every MP’s office is run as a mini-organisation with no centralised HR. 

Nokes explains: “You still have a funny situation where if an MP has behaved as an employer in a poor manner… the first port of call for that member of staff in many instances will be the MP.” 

One mooted solution includes taking the responsibility for staffers’ employment and HR processes away from MPs and giving it to an independent, centrally managed body. “It gives staff the extra layer of protection of having somebody to complain to, and ditto for MPs, it would take away the stress if there was ever an employment issue or a performance issue that had to be addressed, then you're one step removed, and that might be a bit more effective,” says Nokes. 

Symmons agrees. “Ultimately, the only solution is to stop MPs being individual bosses, individual employers and having a formal HR department – that's the long game. I don't know when we're ever going to get to that point, because that would be a huge change… [MPs] are judge and jury, and until that's not the case, until IPSA or the House are your employers, they’re not going to be accountable properly.”

It’s going in the right direction, but it still doesn’t feel entirely sorted

Staffers would also like to see more transparency and communication from the parties and House Authorities about how the system works between ICGS complaints being made, complaints being made to the Whips, and decisions about safeguarding of staff. 

“I think certainly the management are getting it right more often in terms of saying the right words, but not all the time. And the times where they don't get it right, I think it kind of undoes the times when they have got it right,” says Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA, the trade union representing civil servants working in Parliament.

Leversidge says she has seen “a marked change” in the way that MPs talk about bullying and harassment in Parliament since the “dismissive” tone of the initial debates three years ago. “There's a humility amongst the MPs now when quite a lot of them talk, ‘we've bought this on ourselves, we need to clip our own wings, we can't be trusted’….But clearly as we have seen in the last couple of weeks it's changed but it hasn't changed that much.”

“It's really frustrating. It makes you feel like 'You still haven't actually got it though, because otherwise if you've got it, you get it in every scenario and you'd understand’. It undoes quite a bit of good work.”

Duffield believes that sometimes getting help separate to the ICGS “very much feels like trial and error”. “I don’t necessarily feel more confident for young people coming in… It’s almost accidental, you talk to the right person, you get the right advice. It still feels a bit like that but less so than when I got there. So it’s going in the right direction, but it still doesn’t feel entirely sorted.”

Sarah* is concerned about the perception those outside Parliament may have. “All of these stories that happened this summer have really cut through. For two weeks, all of my friends were asking me about this. Obviously, reputation isn’t the most important thing but reputation does matter, and we want people to think that Parliament is somewhere they want to work if that’s what they have a desire to do. We don’t want people to be put off thinking ‘oh everyone’s protecting party interests over the rights of women and actually I can’t imagine myself there’.”

People are definitely more aware of the culture of working in parliament, and wanting to make it better

While staffers have always operated a “whisper network” to warn each other of MPs to avoid, approach to staff support has also changed dramatically in recent years. As well as increased training offerings from the House of Commons authorities, staffers have taken matters into their own hands to ensure that more women join and thrive in Westminster. 

Duffield says: “What’s great about the networks that are emerging and being led by really brilliant women who are the staff in Parliament is that they’re taking control of this. Because we’ve been woefully inadequate and the staff themselves are going ‘hang on a sec, it’s about time we did something’. And that’s fantastic, it’s really great to see that.”

“People are definitely more aware of the culture of working in parliament, and wanting to make it better,” explains Natasa Pantelic, long-term Labour staffer and one of the founders of the new Labour Women’s Parliamentary Staff Network (LWPSN). “I think there's been a shift to thinking more about the wellbeing of people and there's also, especially for women working in this traditionally male-dominated space, a particular need for women to come together to have a sense of solidarity with others, a safe place to talk about challenges they're facing, or whatever it may be, and an opportunity to get skilled up with some practical training and support.” 

The LWPSN only launched in July, but already has over 150 members and is beginning to offer advice, support and online meetings, boot camps and safe spaces. For Pantelic and the other founding members, building strong links between constituency staff and Westminster-based staff is also key. 

For Tory staffers, Amanda describes the “matriarchs of the staffers” in the Conservative party ­– some of whom have worked in Parliament for decades – as a key source of support, always ready to help or give a listening ear. 

“If you needed something you’d go find them and they’d help you out… It’s kind of like this coven of wise women,” she says. “Most of the women in the party are really happy to help people out… but there’s nothing formal, it’s all very ad hoc…. I think we tend to do stuff by subject matter rather than identity.”

O’Reilly and a cross-party group of staffers set up the Women in Westminster network in the summer of 2019 to provide informal and formal networking opportunities and career support for women looking to progress in politics. For those wanting to get ahead in politics in the time of Covid, O’Reilly would encourage young women to turn to Twitter. 

“So many of us in politics spend so much of our time on there and especially while we're at home working by ourselves. A couple years ago my friendships in politics with women formed in the toilet, or in the bars or the coffee queues. Now it's actually finding like-minded people who do similar jobs to me online.”

A UK Parliament spokesperson said: “We take the safety of all members of the parliamentary community extremely seriously and are determined to ensure that Parliament is a safe and welcoming place to work. We are clear that bullying and harassment has no place in Parliament. 

“Since the introduction of Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme (ICGS),  all members of the parliamentary community, including staff and members have access to an Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service (ISMA) which provides advice, support and signposting to those who have experienced sexual misconduct or harassment whilst on the Parliamentary Estate, in constituency offices or whilst undertaking parliamentary work.”

A Conservative Party spokesperson said:

“In 2017 we introduced and published a Code of Conduct, where people can report complaints in confidence.

“If an allegation of criminal wrongdoing is raised, we would advise the individual to contact the police.

"Parliamentary authorities have their own complaints processes"

*Some staffers names changed for anonymity. Article amended at 15:20 08/09/20 to include a response from the Conservative Party. 

If you need to access the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme or any other support for bullying and harrassment in Parliament, information is available here

Staffers groups:

  • The Labour Women Parliamentary Staff Network aims to give women an opportunity to meet and connect with other Labour staffers who work in parliament and constituency offices, to get some advice, tips and support through a range of online meetings and campaigning boot camps and have a safe space to talk about any challenges they may be facing. LWPSN is an inclusive network, open to all women who work for Labour MPs and Peers, including constituency staff and interns. 
  • Women in Westminster is open to all women who are working or want to work in politics, from all parties or none. WiW works to get more women involved in politics with career advice, networking opportunities and more. 
  • The Members and Peers' Staff Association (MAPSA) is a cross-party organisation run by and for Members’ staff.

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