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26 January 2023

“Toxic” culture in parliament as 162 staff report bullying

Workers fear they won’t be taken seriously if they accuse managers of bad behaviour.

By Zoë Grünewald

Bullying of House of Commons staff is rife, according to a survey in which more than 160 workers said they had been victims of such behaviour in the past year.

The staff survey carried out by the House of Commons and seen by the New Statesman uncovered an apparent epidemic of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. It included clerks, specialists, administrators and those responsible for the day to day running of parliament, such as catering and security staff, but not MPs’ staff.

Eight per cent of those surveyed (162 people) reported being bullied or harassed in the past twelve months, with half saying the incident involved a more senior colleague. More than half (51 per cent) said they had felt uncomfortable at work because of the behaviour of others at some point in their career, while 14 per cent reported having felt unsafe. Among those who had felt uncomfortable or unsafe, the behaviour of MPs and managers were listed as the main reasons why.

A significant number (16 per cent) said they did not feel that bullying, harassment or misconduct was taken seriously.

In total 2,027 House of Commons or parliamentary digital service staff completed the “Working Lives” survey in October 2022, 66 per cent of the overall staff employed by parliament.

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More than three quarters of those who said they had been bullied (77 per cent of employees) said they took action, mostly by speaking to another member of staff. Only 4 per cent said they used the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (IGCS), and 3 per cent said they went to HR. Among those who did not take action, 58 per cent said they didn’t report the incident because they didn’t believe they would be taken seriously.

Workers have told the New Statesman that staff-on-staff bullying and harassment is an issue in the House of Commons, despite much media attention being focused on allegations of MPs bullying their staff. One member of staff said: “I do not think that the House’s response to inappropriate behaviour from members has always been fast or firm enough. While I have not experienced any inappropriate behaviour myself, I feel this sets the tone for a culture where we can’t be 100 per cent sure that staff will be kept safe.”

Another staff member reported “a lack of respect between people on higher pay grades to those on lower ones”, as well as “an old-fashioned, outdated culture of MPs and lords making demands and everyone having to follow these”.

One staff member reported in the survey: “There’s bad bullying behaviour with senior leadership which comes out in meetings and it’s very uncomfortable. The working culture is quite toxic. Most people know it, but fear speaking up about it as it could impact their careers.”

Mike Clancy, general secretary of the union Prospect, which represents House of Commons staff, said: “Parliament has taken significant steps forward in terms of misconduct but this staff survey shows there is still much work to do. This adds weight to Prospect’s arguments for the exclusion of MPs under formal investigation for serious sexual or violent assault.”

Jawad Raza, national officer of the FDA union, said: “The latest Working Lives survey results are a stark reminder that more needs to be done by the House authorities to provide assurance to House of Commons Staff. It should be a basic expectation for staff feel safe in their workplace.

“As I said to the House of Commons Standards Committee this week, a more formal policy on precautionary exclusion from the parliamentary estate and parliamentary-funded travel, for any member accused or under investigation for serious misconduct, would be a huge step in the right direction.”

A House of Commons spokesperson said:

“Bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct have absolutely no place in the House of Commons and we strive to ensure that we have a workplace where everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

“Parliament’s Behaviour Code – supported by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme – makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in Parliament – whether MPs, staff, Members’ staff, members of the House of Lords, press, contractors or visitors.

“There are also a range of support services provided, including an Employee Assistance Programme which gives access to free and confidential helplines, available 24/7 for advice and support on personal or work-related issues.”

[See also: There’s plenty of ways to reform the House of Lords. Just look at Europe]

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