Over the past couple of days, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have responded to reports of sexual harassment of staff by senior politicians by saying that staff should come forward and make formal reports to the parties or police. What a complete and total abdication of responsibility from them both.
Warm words about unwanted sexual behaviour being “completely unacceptable” betray the fact that neither leader is actually doing anything practically to fix the systemic culture of abuse and harassment that exists in Westminster, that is created and maintained entirely by MPs themselves.
Corbyn did more to explore the depth of the problem of harassment in Westminster, by correctly identifying that “it is rooted in unequal power relationships”. But simply identifying the problem and not calling for change will do nothing for the largely low paid, vulnerable men and women who face appalling sexual and mental abuse in Westminster almost every working day.
In the last four years I’ve done a range of roles for different MPs, from researcher to shadow cabinet adviser, and while personally I admire the bosses I’ve had in this time, I know I have been lucky. Each year I’ve heard more and more horror stories from colleagues across parliament about the abuses they’ve had to endure, and unfortunately everyone knows someone who has been subjected to abuse in one form or another.
Many people don’t realise that all MPs are essentially their own self-employed businesses. Staff are paid by Ipsa (the Independent Parliamentay Standards Authority) but recruited and entirely managed by the MPs they work for – there is no outside HR and the only support system is a helpline staffed by people who have no power to act regardless of the complaint made.
MPs’ staff are not party employees, so Corbyn’s words about a Labour Party policy mean nothing for Labour researchers. MPs’ staff don’t get the protections or benefits that staff employed directly by parliament receive, and this means that they are in a uniquely vulnerable position in Westminster – journalists, bar staff and committee clerks may all have their own horror stories of abuse at the hands of MPs, but none of them have to report this abuse directly to the MPs themselves.
This complete power imbalance often leaves researchers and others with no one to turn to. The boss that harasses them is the line manager they are supposed to report bullying and harassment to. Simply telling these vulnerable people whose continued employment and future careers are entirely in the hands of the people abusing them to “make a formal report” completely misses the difficulty staff in that situation face.
The sexual harassment, abuse and bullying of MPs’ staff in parliament is not so much an open secret as an accepted fact of life. As the recent reports have made clear, female colleagues talk about knowing which MPs to avoid late at night at conference, or drunk at the parliamentary bars, and every person I’ve ever met working for an MP in Westminster can tell you some horror story that they or others have experienced in their career.
Stories of inappropriate contact while working; the former minister who is notorious for hiring only attractive blonde women and then subjecting them to harassment, and the many, many MPs of all parties who recruit and replace staff on an almost monthly basis because they bully and abuse their employees until they can’t take it any longer.
Working in Westminster on major political issues is an incredible privilege, and there is no shortage of bright, talented, passionate people who are desperate to get their foot in the door. But this unlimited supply of applicants mixed with a system where the MP employing them has absolute power over them breeds a toxic culture of abuse where bright young things tolerate indefensible abuse simply to have the opportunity to work in a job they love.
In practice, MPs’ staff enjoy virtually none of the workplace protections that MPs themselves have put into law for everybody else. For most, when faced with abuse, harassment, bullying or other terrible work conditions, the only option is simply to put up with it or move on. Going public is to end your career through fear of being branded a troublemaker by the party – or even if you want to speak out, most staff have no one to turn to. Not all sexual harassment is of the sort that the police and CPS will prosecute.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. A system where MPs picked staff from a pool of centrally contracted employees, managed by, say, the house authorities and grouped by party allegiance, would at a stroke change the power dynamic and help vulnerable staff.The SNP in Westminster already pool their staff, and the civil service has been providing ministers with discreet yet talented staff for decades. Being a political researcher is not compatible with civil service neutrality, but the HR system behind it could be made to work if there were a political will to do it. Being able to report abuse to an HR department with a proper whistleblowing system may actually end the abuse; warm words of concern from party leaders will not.
In the next few weeks, the best-case scenario is that some of those who have been subject to awful employment practices, outright abuse and sexual harassment from MPs have the courage and ability to come forward and shine a light on the unfortunately toxic atmosphere in Westminster. Hopefully that can kickstart action that leads to a change in the balance of power with MPs, and provide real protection for vulnerable staff.
However, I’m not hopeful. In the Palace of Westminster, power is rarely relinquished easily, and unless MPs themselves choose to change the situation and level the playing field with their staff, we will remain vulnerable and abuse will continue.