The Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.