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16 November 2022

Parliament’s bullying complaints system is still failing staff

House of Commons employees tell the New Statesman they have not made formal charges against MPs because of concerns it may impact their career.

By Zoë Grünewald

House of Commons staff have told the New Statesman that bullying and harassment of parliamentary personnel by MPs is still a “widespread problem”, with one source saying that most experience it “at some point in their career here”.

After a flood of reports exposed misconduct in Westminster in 2017, an independent review by the former High Court judge Laura Cox found “a culture, cascading from the top down… in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”. The Independent Complaints and Grievances Service (ICGS) was set up in response to these findings of “inappropriate behaviour” in the parliamentary workplace.

However, the New Statesman can reveal that there are still members of House of Commons staff – the clerks, specialists and researchers who work in parliament but are not employed directly by MPs’ offices – who do not feel adequately supported to report allegations of assault, harassment and bullying.

One woman said she had not formally reported an MP who had forcefully kissed her on the mouth, as she was concerned that there was no mechanism in place to stop her from coming into contact with them in future. “Realistically, I’ll end up seeing them around the House again. I’m terrified of walking past the member after I’ve made the complaint and them making me feel intimidated in the workplace,” she said.

On Monday (14 November), a paper went to the House of Commons commission proposing changes to the rules to ensure that MPs accused of sexual assault are suspended from the estate. At present, there are no rules to prevent MPs from attending parliament when under investigation for serious allegations of sexual assault or severe instances of bullying. Some have argued that such a mechanism would breach the anonymity of those accused of assault and mean constituents were not represented in parliament during subsequent investigations.

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MPs under investigation usually reach an informal agreement with the Speaker of the House, but this is not legally binding. It was revealed last November that Imran Ahmad Khan, who resigned as an MP in May 2022 after he was convicted of sexual assault, had still been attending parliament after he had been charged – despite Conservative Party officials saying he had agreed to stay away.

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The member of staff who told the New Statesman about her fear of reporting the MP who had forcefully kissed her said: “It makes me so angry and disheartened towards the whole system because they’re prioritising their own survival over people’s mental health, physical health and exposure to sexual predators.”

Another member of staff experienced attempts at inappropriate touching and an invasion of personal space from an MP on a committee visit, but said he didn’t want the “stress” of going through the formal complaints process. He told the New Statesman that he would like to see a process in which an informal note could be logged without the MP being notified, as the employee didn’t want to initiate a formal investigation against someone he had to regularly work with.

[See also: Is Britain falling apart? With Armando Iannucci | “Westminster Reimagined” podcast]

He also said that the ICGS’s one-year time limit on bullying complaints was “the biggest outrage”, as staff who work regularly with a committee of MPs may not wish to make a complaint that could compromise their careers. “If I’m working on a committee then I don’t want to raise it because that will make my life difficult or I’ll be shifted on… But maybe I’d like to raise it in two years when I’m circulated.”

Staff also reported that informal processes, such as the internal management of difficult MPs, were not sufficient. Several sources reported that a number of select committee MPs were known to regularly engage in unreasonable and bullying behaviour without consequence. One staffer said that she had been discouraged from making a formal complaint against a committee member who was “rude” and “threatening” to her during work, and that her manager had asked her whether she really wanted to pursue a formal complaint over something “so small”.

A number of sources have suggested that select committee clerks are allocated to certain committees in part based upon their “resilience” and ability to handle difficult MPs.

In response to the allegations, a spokesperson for the House of Commons said: “Parliament’s behaviour code makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in parliament, whether staff, members of the House of Lords, MPs or visitors. There is zero tolerance for abuse or harassment. The behaviour code is supported by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS).

“The ICGS is there to ensure that all complaints are dealt with in a manner that is fair, thorough, independent and efficient, offering support to all parties involved. We remain committed to improving the ICGS and significant work has already been undertaken to promote the scheme and the additional support services on offer. We now have independent processes in place that we encourage all those in parliament to use if needed, and remain committed to ensuring that lasting cultural change can be delivered for all of those in parliament.

“Circulation among committee roles is a usual part of House staff professional development.

If the ICGS Helpline receives calls from two separate people, naming the same person in connection with an allegation of sexual misconduct, or receives 5 or more complaints against the same person in connection with bullying/harassment, the helpline contacts the ICGS Director, who then informs relevant people within the organisation. The identity of those calling the helpline remains confidential.”

[See also: The UK has become the sick man of Europe again]