Unite has called for root and branch reform of employment practices following a bombshell report out today (July 11) into parliamentary bullying and harassment.
The inquiry led by Gemma White QC, who spoke to more than 200 staff members, found a ‘significant problem’ with workplace bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, of staff at the hands of MPs and senior colleagues.
Staff who contributed to the report told harrowing stories of being bullied on a daily basis by their bosses.
“[The MP] would intimidate, mock and undermine me every day, often shouting at me,” one staff member recounted. “On one particular occasion, [the MP] stood directly over shouting at me for over ten minutes on end. The relentless daily nature of this intimidation and bullying, coupled with the fact that it seemed unconnected with the quality or delivery of my own work (or anything else I did), left me frightened each day, and made even normal conversation with my boss an uncertain and intimidating experience.
“I don’t think of myself as a particularly soft individual, but there were occasions I found myself crying on the way to work, the only time I have cried since I was a child.”
Being shouted and sworn at was a common experience of staff who reported bullying. Some staff even noted that in fits of uncontrollable rage, MPs would throw objects, usually pieces of office equipment, in some cases directly at them.
Lines between the personal and professional were often blurred, with some staff reporting that they were asked to take on domestic tasks, such as caring for MPs’ children or pets, cleaning homes or accompanying MPs on personal business.
“When the MP requests that the researcher should vacuum clean and dust the Member’s flat ahead of a private party, a line has been crossed,” one contributor explained. “The staff member is placed in a very difficult position. If they agree, they give themselves a task beyond the terms of their employment at no gain to themselves. If they refuse, they risk souring a working relationship which is necessarily a highly personal one.”
The White report noted that since “sexual harassment featured sufficiently significantly in the contributions” it merited separate consideration. Staff reported being subject to comments about their bodies and their sexuality and had to endure unwanted innuendo-laden conversations with MPs.
One contributor to the report said that sexual advances were common at Parliamentary bars. The intern said they were often propositioned and touched inappropriately by senior staff members but they felt powerless to do anything about it.
“I would never in a million years dream of coming forward to lodge a formal complaint against any of the men who have touched or propositioned me because I actually want to have a career in Parliament at the end of my internship,” the intern said. “As things stand now sexual harassment is just something young, working class people with no connections have to tolerate because networking in Parliamentary bars is our only route to a permanent role.”
The devastating toll that relentless bullying has taken on some staff led many to quit working in Parliament altogether.
“After I resigned, I suffered a breakdown which I have never recovered from,” wrote one contributor. Another noted, “Put it this way – I wasn’t on anti-depressants before I started working for [the MP].”
“My time working for [MP] was the most stressful and hostile period of my life. My entire sense of self was crushed, and by the end, I felt incapable and incompetent, despite all of the work I had done in that office,” wrote another.
Last year parliament agreed a series of measures to reform the working culture in parliament but Unite warned that they were not sufficient to tackle the bullying culture, which the White report has borne out.
The new report outlines a number of a recommendations, including making anti-bullying training mandatory. In a previous voluntary scheme, only 34 out of 650 MPs, and 135 out 3,200 staff, booked or attended training.
Ms White also recommended that MPs must be forced to adopt and follow employment practices aligned with those in the public sector, and that former staff of MPs should be able to make complaints about past bullying and harassment beyond the cut-off date of June 2017, which Unite believes is arbitrary and contrary to natural justice.
Unite has highlighted the need for parliament to seek the urgent assistance of conciliation service Acas to facilitate an agreement between the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and trade unions to radically transform employment practices.
This agreement must ensure that in future unions are fully recognised so that workers can be supported and represented for all employment purposes.
Unite has also emphasised that for staff to have any confidence in the complaints, investigations and sanctions process, it must be made fully independent of MPs and Lords and cannot be influenced by parliamentarians in any way.
Recommendations ‘are a start’
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said that the White report “makes for grim reading” but “comes as no surprise for our members working in parliament and in constituencies, who know all too well that bullying behaviour is at endemic levels”.
She hailed Unite’s reps in the parliamentary staff branch who regularly support victims of bullying and harassment and “who have been campaigning hard for change for over 35 years”.
While Endean welcomed the report since it is “the first time the concerns of staff have been put at the front and centre of the drive for change” she warned that any system for tackling the bullying culture must be completely independent to be effective.
“The recommendations outlined in this report are a start, but it is vital that real solutions are provided that go far enough to deal with the causes if the systemic issues that have been starkly revealed in this report,” she added.
“Unite will provide representation and full support to any of its members against any MP who is bullying or harassing their staff.
“Until the toxic culture of deference and hierarchy is tackled then dignity in parliament will never be achieved.”