We need to strengthen accountability for MPs who abuse their staff
Parliament can be a fantastic, thrilling, dynamic place to work. When Gemma White QC’s report on Bullying and Harassment of MPs’ Parliamentary Staff came out in 2019, I was comfortably naïve to the significant problems with bullying and harassment she found. Through my involvement in the GMB Branch for Members’ Staff in the two years since, it’s fair to say my bubble has been burst.
Sexual harassment is what catches the news stories, but there is a continuous undercurrent of bullying that permeates our workplace. To mark Anti-Bullying Week, we want to highlight abusive employment practices and how we can stop them.
The first thing we need to make clear is that bullying happens as much in the office as it does in the playground – it just takes different forms. It’s less likely as MPs’ staff that you’ll get your hair pulled or your lunch money stolen. What might happen is more subtle; you might have your sense of self-esteem undermined and your confidence crushed.
You might be your boss’ verbal punching bag after something goes wrong, regardless of whether it was your fault. Maybe you get humiliated and shouted at in front of your colleagues. Maybe you feel like an easier target because of your gender; race; sexuality; age.
There is never, ever any excuse for bullying – no matter how 'high pressure' the environment or how important your boss is
Bullying can make you feel small and worthless. Sometimes it makes you more susceptible to gas-lighting from your bully, so you believe you deserve that treatment. You might internalise the sentiments that you’re not good enough. Depression and anxiety can overcome you.
Whatever your role, and whether you work in an office in 1 Parliament Street or the West Midlands, this behaviour from your boss is never your fault. There is never, ever any excuse for bullying – no matter how “high pressure” the environment or how important your boss is.
The fact that MPs’ staff are in the direct employment of their Member means that if an MP is causing problems for staff, it can feel like there is nowhere to turn. That is not the case.
As a Union we are here to listen, advocate, offer moral support and try to find resolutions. If the worst happens, we have lawyers on hand and cover the fees. We encourage all MPs’ staff to join GMB or Unite so we can be there for you if things go south.
The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) has been created so Parliamentary staff can raise a complaint confidentially. The Members’ Services Team (MST) have dedicated people to support staff. There is also the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) with a 24-hour helpline providing a free counselling service.
These support systems are in place so that victims of bullying and harassment can be cared for – but they are not a solution to the problem. They are treating the symptoms; there is more work to do in treating the cause.
That’s why as a union we’re calling for stronger accountability for MPs who abuse their staff. We want third party reporting to become possible within the ICGS, so if victims are unable to make complaints themselves, someone else can have the power to do so. We also want the ICGS to allow 2 years for bullying victims to raise a complaint, bringing parity with sexual harassment victims.
We need MPs to call out their colleagues if they know of mistreatment going on. We need the political parties to take seriously red flags such as high staff turnovers and levels of sick leave.
Most of all, we want staff to know their rights. When we know our rights, we know the power we have and can reclaim our strength and dignity. That is the very least we deserve.
Gemma White wrote that as a tax-funded institution, and the place where legislation is made, Parliament “should be at the forefront of good employment practice.”
At the moment, what I’m seeing is swathes of staff, of all ages, being treated like collateral damage in their bosses’ pursuit of success.
Our message to staff struggling with bullying or harassment is this: you don’t deserve it. We are here to stand with you and speak up for you. You don’t need to suffer alone.
Jenny Symmons is the chair of GMB branch for MPs’ and Lords’ staff.
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