When it comes to tackling bullying and harassment in Westminster, Jacob Rees-Mogg says he will “lead by example.”
In the newly appointed leader of the House of Commons’ in-tray are two damning reports: One published last October by former High Court judge Laura Cox, who found “a culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” The other, published just a few weeks ago by senior lawyer Gemma White, found a “significant problem” of MPs bullying and harassing staff.
A year after a new system for airing grievances was bought in, parliamentary staffers, who spoke to Politico’s EU Confidential podcast, said bullying and harassment is still an issue, and they have little confidence in the system.
In a statement for the podcast, Rees-Mogg said: “I hope to lead by example in demonstrating kindliness and generosity to all those in parliament. The brand new ‘Valuing Everyone’ training, which I am looking forward to undertaking, promises to be instructive to even the saintliest of members. I hope it proves popular.”
“Normally these things, they are shared over lunch and over coffee with friends and then never reported beyond that” — Tara O’Reilly, MP and co-founder of the new Women in Westminster network
Despite the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) and extensive media coverage and attention, bullying and harassment in Westminster has not stopped, parliamentary staffers told POLITICO.
Tara O’Reilly, coordinator of the Labour Tribune MPs group and a co-founder of the new Women in Westminster network to help female staffers working in politics, has been one of a handful willing to speak on the record about the issue.
She said she had been groped by another staffer while in a parliamentary bar in the same week she had spoken out publicly about sexual harassment in parliament. She decided not to report the incident, not wanting to relive it and because she did not believe anything would be done.
O’Reilly also recounted how another female staffer had confided in her about a meeting she had in one of parliament’s tea rooms when a peer, an unelected member of parliament’s upper chamber, said the only reason he had invited her was because he found her attractive. The comments were made in public in front of MPs.
“It is just experiences like that that have been shared with me over and over and over over the last few years. The [Gemma White report] only really scratches the surface of the kinds of things that are happening,” O’Reilly said.
Lack of confidence
O’Reilly said the experiences of Bex Bailey, a Labour activist who claims she was raped by a senior party official, and Kate Maltby, a writer who accused Theresa May’s former de facto deputy Damian Green of inappropriate behavior, had discouraged other women from speaking out.
“As women seeing how they were treated by the media, and by colleagues and by MPs and just by the Westminster institution … when you look at that now, and look at how people since have shared stories and how they have been treated and how it has impacted them, there is no incentive whatsoever to go forward with a complaint,” she said.
Bailey has accused the Labour Party of dragging its feet over an investigation into her case. Maltby fought back against a negative piece about her in the Daily Mail, which ran shortly after she made the allegations against Green. The paper ultimately removed the article and paid £11,000 toward legal costs. Maltby donated half the sum to the Time’s Up legal fund.
“Westminster is very much a place where you follow the rules, you do what you are told and that is it, especially when you are not a politician, so to speak out about behaviors and attitudes of very, very, very powerful people … and saying this MP or this colleague or this person has done something really awful, that is really difficult, and at the moment I don’t think the current complaints system or support that is offered does enough,” she added.
“Normally these things, they are shared over lunch and over coffee with friends and then never reported beyond that,” O’Reilly said. “I know a few people who were brave enough to contribute to the Gemma White report and I know a lot of them felt quite relieved having done that, because it gave them a space to be honest and let it out in ways that maybe they weren’t able to with friends and family.
“But no, I cannot think of a single person who has … tried and succeeded when raising a complaint either with their MP, the party or parliament, and at the moment I cannot think of a single person who would be willing to go forward with the complaints process,” she said.
White’s report, published in July, also highlights a reticence to come forward by some staffers because of concerns about the impact it would have on their career.
One male staffer, who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity, said he had not made a formal complaint about being bullied by his boss because he had wanted to draw a line under his experience after finding another job. He did give testimony to the White report, however.
He described how the MP he worked for had constantly undermined him, which had led to a deterioration in his mental health.
There are two new independent helplines and investigative services dealing with bullying and harassment, and sexual misconduct.
“There were constant undermining comments, which individually would have been throwaway, shrugged off, but then it became that sort of intake of breath as she came in the room, feeling uncomfortable when she was around, getting comments thrown at you for very little reason. There was a constant reminder than in her view, you didn’t matter, you were dispensable.”
Asked if he thought it was deliberate, he said he had “got the feeling she knew she was doing it and enjoyed it.”
The new grievance scheme brought in by the House of Commons Commission, a supervisory body, includes a new behavior code that has been sent to all MP offices and staff members.
There are two new independent helplines and investigative services dealing with bullying and harassment, and sexual misconduct. But the Commission stressesthat it does not employ the staff of MPs as they are employed either directly by MPs themselves or via political parties.
Step in the right direction
For another staffer, Eva Lael, who works for a Liberal Democrat MP, White’s report has been a step in the right direction.
She said that she had not personally been bullied but “a lot of staffers because they don’t come from a lot of experience, they don’t have a lot of background in the professional environments, they just assume they are normal,” Lael, who is part of the Women in Westminster network, said.
The White report had picked out the “micro-aggressions and these kind of small instances of manipulative behavior and it told staffers that that is really unhealthy and damaging and wouldn’t be acceptable in other workplaces.”
But Lael believes there should be stronger sanctions and mandatory training.
“There is a huge disparity between the offices that take it seriously and the offices that don’t; there is no incentive really for MPs to take it seriously.”