The House of Commons is rife with sexual harassment and workplace bullying, Gemma White’s report into employment practices and life at Westminster has concluded. That much was expected, but the big development is that White’s report proposes that parliament’s new grievance process be opened up to previous employees of MPs and the House and not merely current staff.
That proposal is likely to be taken up by the government and has the potential to trigger a series of investigations into the conduct of sitting MPs, as it is easier for staff to complain once they have safely secured another job than it is to do so when they are, for one reason or another, still reliant on the boss they are complaining about.
It’s particularly likely that it will result in complaints being made by former Commons officials, who are not directly employed by MPs but do have to work closely with them. But the big, and as White acknowledges in her report, unresolved problem, is the treatment of political employees.
The same dynamics that drive sexual harassment and bullying at other workplaces – imbalances of power, insecure work, sexism – drive it at Westminster, but there’s also a fourth: party loyalty. How do you hold an MP to account without damaging the party you are a member of, or disadvantaging their constituents? That’s the challenge that staffers grapple with every day, and that’s before you get into the knotty question of how holding your boss to account may advantage a faction that both of you oppose.
What’s the solution to that? I don’t know. But unless or until one is found, the problem will continue.