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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.