‘I can’t report boss for bullying’: MPs’ staff tell their stories

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“I’d worked for years to get a full-time job in Westminster and the bullying began after half an hour.”

The experience of one man working for an MP in Parliament is revealed in new research by BBC 5 live.

It found 24 members of staff claimed to have been bullied by the MP they work for at Westminster.

The claims were made in a response to a questionnaire sent by BBC 5 live to all staff publicly listed as working for MPs in Parliament.

Some 1,500 questionnaires, guaranteeing anonymity to respondents, were sent out in November.

In total, 166 people responded and their replies, although not representative, give an insight into life for some inside the Houses of Parliament.

One woman said friends had told her she looked like a “battered wife” after experiencing bullying while working for MPs.

The woman, in her twenties, told us the first MP she’d worked for had shouted at her, constantly threatened to fire her, made persistent comments about her love life and simulated hitting her. The second MP she worked for made a pass at her.

In total, 39 people told us they have experienced bullying while working at Westminster:

  • 24 said they had been bullied by the MP they worked for
  • Seven had been bullied by another MP
  • Eight had been bullied by someone else, a colleague or other person in the House of Commons

A member of staff in his twenties, who said he was shouted and sworn at, said bullying by the MP he worked for led him to see a therapist. He told us he didn’t report the bullying because he was afraid he would lose his job and didn’t know who to report it to.

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One woman, also in her twenties, told us bullying by her MP had had “a serious impact on my self-esteem”. She said she experienced sexual comments, threatening and intimidating behaviour and being shouted and sworn at.

“Items of stationery [were] thrown around the office,” according to one male employee.

“I was later told that the MP asked my predecessor, ‘what would you do if I threw something across the office?’ as part of their interview for the role,” he added.

Many of those who contributed to the BBC research said bullying had seriously affected their wellbeing:

  • “Became very withdrawn and left the job within a week” (female in her 20s)
  • “I was in a state of shock. It had a huge impact on my confidence.” (male in his 30s)
  • “Made me miserable, insecure and stressed.” (female in her 20s)

One female employee who said she had been bullied by her boss had sympathy for the MP.

“The atmosphere can be hard but I know my MP is a good person under a lot of pressure. The office lacks capacity.”

Many respondents made the point that the way they were treated depended on the individuals involved, and most MPs treated their staff well.

One woman said: “As an office worker I feel safe and respected. I have dealt with worse in other jobs. By comparison this place is excellent.”

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The research revealed a reluctance to report incidents of bullying. Only a third of people who said they had been bullied reported the behaviour. The most common reasons for not reporting it was belief that “it wouldn’t make any difference” and “fear of losing my job”.

  • “I can’t report my boss for bullying me… if you report you would be sacked or replaced in an instant.” (male in his 20s)
  • “I felt it would look professionally incompetent and compromise the masculine environment across Westminster. I am a male.”

The 5 live research also asked staff employed by members of Parliament whether they had experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment while working at Westminster.

Three women in their twenties, and one woman in her fifties told us they had been victims of sexual assault.

One claimed she had been assaulted by a former member of Parliament, one by a visitor to an MP and another by an employee of the House of Commons.

All four said they had experienced unwanted touching and three had also experienced unwanted groping. None of the women chose to report the alleged assaults.

One woman said she had not reported it because she felt she wouldn’t be believed and because she was afraid she would lose her job or it would have a negative effect on her career. The other three said they didn’t think it was serious enough.

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Theresa May has promised action to improve the complaints procedure

Eighteen women and one man told 5 live they had suffered sexual harassment while working in Parliament. Most of those people reported experiencing sexual comments, jokes or gestures with some having their body stared and leered at.

When asked to describe the culture in Parliament comments ranged from “sexist, laddish, misogynistic”, “bullying of staff by MPs is rife” and “toxic: alcohol and power do not mix well” to “terrible. Staff have no rights, they work often in solitude directly to their boss. One cannot overstate the power of MPs and how intimidating that is to young staff”.

Others were more positive about the culture describing it as “courteous”, “respectful” and “fascinating”.

One employee said it was “friendly and amicable. It’s not the den of sexual depravity the media want it to be” and another commented “all the MPs I’ve met have been delightful. I have the nicest boss I’ve ever had. This sexual harassment witch hunt is ridiculous. “

“My experience has been entirely positive. It’s about who you hang around with” said one male employee.

In the past year there have been several well publicised allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying in the Houses of Parliament.

As a result, Prime Minister Theresa May has set up a cross-party committee, headed by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, to look at how the culture at Westminster can be improved.

The working party is looking at whether a new grievance system would give staff confidence to raise a complaint if they feel they have been mistreated. It has yet to publish its report.

In December 2017, Mrs Leadsom told MPs an existing helpline for staff would be expanded and new training and HR support had already been put in place.

The working group agreed there were many examples of excellent employers in Parliament, she added.

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Andrea Leadsom has vowed to improve the workplace culture

But there was also a clear need for new policies and procedures to tackle bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment – including sanctions when a complaint is proven – and to improve the overall workplace culture at Westminster.

The staff who responded to the questionnaire were unsure whether a new system would help or not.

“I think it will be very difficult to ensure that all staff feel able to report harassment without fear of repercussions. It will take a long time to change attitudes.”

A man in his twenties who had experienced bullying said: “What punishment can be given to an MP?”

MPs directly employ their own staff, and those employees do not have a human resources department to go to for advice or to raise concerns about mistreatment.

At the moment, employees can only complain to the MP they work for, their party or the Parliamentary authorities.

Many who responded to our questionnaire were concerned that if they complained to the MP who employs them, they would risk being sacked, or given a bad reference if they left.

The Unite union represents some MPs’ staff but the union is not officially recognised by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).

The Conservative Party said it took all harassment allegations “incredibly seriously”.

“If a serious allegation is raised we would immediately advise the individual to contact the police,” a spokesman said. “

“We have introduced a new code of conduct that ensures any allegations are investigated in confidence.”

And Labour’s Cat Smith said bullying of any nature was absolutely unacceptable in any workplace.

“Parliamentary authorities have a duty of care towards the employees on site, as do the political parties and MPs themselves,” she said. “Those duties must be carried out and any allegations of bullying investigated.”

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