The Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How to end the bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff

It is farcical that the employment regulations that MPs put into law are not accessible to their own staff.

Revelations about the treatment of MPs’ staff are unsurprising to those of us who have worked for a Member of Parliament. Sexual harassment, on the scale that Channel 4 News uncovered, is symptomatic of a culture where abuse of power and impunity are rife. A culture that allows the harassment, bullying and exploitation of staff to go unchecked and unchallenged but moreover a culture that, at times, has been complicit in covering up it up. 

How is this possible in any modern workplace, let alone the Mother of Parliaments?  The truth is that while in theory MPs’ staff are protected by employment rights, in practice these rights are hard for us to access.

The House of Commons is set up as 650 individual offices with MPs receiving their staffing budgets from IPSA and then free to organise their office as they wish. As such, employment contracts are between staff and the MP, who are commonly both employer and line manager. When the relationship between the MP and staff member is good, this arrangement is workable. However, if the relationship falls into difficulties problems arise.  

While technically MPs’ staff are covered by the legal protections that all workers have under UK law, the reality is that, for us, these legal protections are not easily accessed. To take a grievance against your employer, it will be heard by your line manager who often is the MP. Therefore you have the perverse system where the subject of the grievance can be the same person who hears the grievance and decides if it is progressed or dismissed. As you can imagine, this system produces very low success rates for staff regardless of the merits of their case.

Take the case of Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch member Marion Kinley. Ms Kinley found herself being victimised by her then employer Jim Devine MP. She attempted to take out a grievance against him with the House Authorities only to be told that as the MP was her employer, she’d need to take out the grievance with him, despite the fact that he was the subject of said grievance. Rather unsurprisingly, Devine chose to dismiss the grievance against him and then suspended Ms Kinley. As in other industries, it’s clear that MPs’ self-regulation doesn’t work.

None of the proposals that have been announced in the last week will do much to tackle this fundamental issue. The Unite Parliamentary Branch welcomed the introduction of a Speaker’s Helpline. But without comprehensive overhauling of the current grievance procedures nothing will change. A staff member calling to make a complaint of harassment against their MP will serve little purpose if they’re just directed to raise this with their employer, the MP who’s harassing them.  Nor will the Conservatives’ voluntary Code of Conduct work. MPs who follow good employment practices will sign up, and those who don’t, won’t.

Most importantly, partisan solutions are not the answer. All staff deserve equal protections at work; why should a researcher in the next door office have fewer rights than me because they fall under a different party’s code of conduct? We cannot replace one unjust system with another.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Unite Branch has come up with four ways to radically improve conditions and tackle the most unhealthy aspects of this culture.

First, we need the introduction of independent mediation for staff. The fundamental flaw of the current grievance system is the absence of natural justice. A simple solution would be to introduce an impartial third party so staff have access to a fair hearing.

Second, a bullying & harassment policy that covers all MPs’ staff and volunteers. The Branch believes that an across the board policy is the only feasible solution.

Third, we need mandatory training for all MPs in good employment practice. Some problems arise due to a lack of knowledge rather than malintent on the MP’s part. Many MPs have not previously had the experience of being employers and are unaware of their responsibilities. This can be easily remedied through training.

Finally, we need collective recognition for the Parliamentary Staff Branch. Currently, MPs can choose whether they recognise the union or not. Voluntary arrangements like this just don’t work. The most vulnerable staff, those in most in need of trade union representation, are the ones least likely to work in offices where the Branch has a recognition agreement, as unscrupulous employers tend not to support trade unions.

The best solutions prevent problems from arising in the first place. These suggestions would significantly improve conditions for staff and employment relations generally but they could also potentially save the taxpayer money. Between 2006 and 2011, tribunal pay-outs to MPs’ staff cost the taxpayer £350,000. I'm sure we can all think of ways that money could have been better spent; I've listed a few above for starters.

The farcical situation by which the employment regulations that MPs put into law are not accessible to their own staff needs to endWe deserve better - it’s time the House got its house in order.

Lucille Harvey is Branch Secretary of the Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times