Westminster: House of Commons culture still ‘predatory’, say staff

Posted: 5th July 2023

Source: BBC News

A “predatory culture” still exists around the House of Commons, with inappropriate flirting and sexual misconduct still prevalent, staff say.

Six members of staff told BBC Newsnight that abuses of power by male MPs and senior staffers remained common, and a new complaints process was too slow.

One woman said she was asked to sit on a male MP’s knee and she was bombarded with text messages by another person.

A House of Commons spokesman said it took complaints “extremely seriously”.

The spokesman said bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct had no place in Parliament, adding: “We remain committed to ensuring that lasting cultural change can be achieved here.”

It comes after damning allegations have been made about the behaviour of MPs in recent months, with several MPs suspended.

The parliamentary staff we spoke to said, despite a new complaints scheme, little has changed. All the allegations they made relate to the last two years.

‘I’m just angry’

Ellie Varley, 25, said everyone who works in Parliament either has their own story of sexual misconduct, or knows someone with one. She said the problem “transcends party politics”.

She says she was asked to sit on a male MP’s lap, in an incident that took place on the Parliamentary estate. “He just kept saying just come sit on my lap. And I was like: ‘I’m fine, thank you. I don’t want to sit on your lap’.”

She said the MP was so persistent she felt she had no choice, and reluctantly agreed to “get him off my case”. The MP is one of a number to be suspended over separate allegations.

She said there was still a feeling among some MPs and senior staffers that they can do what they want without repercussions. “There are big names in Westminster, and you kind of feel intimidated by them,” she added.

Ms Varley, who works as a parliamentary aide to Tory MP, Dehenna Davison, said incidents can include a “hand on the hip in a social setting”.

“I [often think] am I reading too much into this? Are you just being friendly or are you touching me because you think you can?” she added.

“I’ve had it when people have texted me incessantly being like: ‘Are you out tonight?’ ‘What are you doing?’ And not getting the hint if I don’t reply after you’ve messaged six times.”

She said she was “frankly just angry” and claimed people in the palace do not feel safe to report issues: “They don’t have the trust in the system. I’m just fed up.”

The six parliamentary staff said inappropriate touching and flirting was still a problem – with younger staff sometimes preyed upon by older MPs and staffers.

Five of the people we spoke to currently work in the Commons, while one of them has recently left their role on the estate. The ex-staff member said she saw the same behaviour take place repeatedly.

“In the bars you’d still see male MPs all over staffers; in their physical space, buying them drinks and actually behaving in a pretty disgusting state – touching bums and putting their hands all over their lower backs. It’s lecherous.”

She added: “You’d see male MPs openly ogle female staffers and comment to them about how they looked in an overly flirty sense or they’d talk among each other about who was fit or not.” Some male MPs talked about female MPs in the same way, she added.

In 2018, Parliament set up the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), to investigate complaints about inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct, and to provide advice to complainants.

‘Ask anyone’

Since then, complaints are investigated by independent investigators, commissioned by the ICGS team on a case-by-case basis. However, one senior official, who has worked in the Commons for several years, said the scheme had made no difference to what he described as a “predatory culture”.

“I wouldn’t recommend it [HoC] as a safe place for any young men or women. If a young person I knew really really wanted to work in the House of Commons, it would come with a whole list of warnings about how to stay safe, who not to hang out with, where not to go”, he said.

“The same things still go on as before #metoo,” he said, referencing the global social media movement that saw people share stories of sexual abuse, harassment and rape.

He described the new complaints processes as “useless”. “Just ask anyone who has tried to use them”, he added.

One of the criticisms of the ICGS is that investigations take too long.

According to its last annual report, of the 21 completed investigations it carried out in 2021-2022, 12 were cases where an MP was a respondent. These cases took an average time of 262 days. By comparison, cases involving parliamentary staff took an average of 186 days, and MPs’ staff cases, took an average of 133 days.

A Commons spokesman said the complaints scheme was the first of its kind in any Parliament in the world. “It has enabled, and will continue to enable, Parliament to identify and deal effectively with unacceptable behaviour,” they added.

“However, though much has been achieved in the last five years, we know there is more work to be done.”

Yet Ms Varley said she was “disappointed” so little has changed. She said “too many people” think reporting incidents is “just not worth it”. “It takes a long time and it can wear you down,” she added.

“This is something that everyone will have a story of. Every staffer will know someone who has experienced this [sexual misconduct] and that’s thousands of people who are employed here.”

“I think it comes down to culture and you can’t fix the culture overnight,” she added. “Until these people have repercussions for their actions, and until the victims have faith in the reporting process, I don’t think anything’s going to change.”

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