Abuse of power: the truth about sexual harassment in Westminster
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When the tide of sexual harassment allegations swept across Westminster last year, Lucy experienced a rush of both horror and exoneration. For two years, in her early twenties, she had grimaced at the behaviour of her boss, who is still a Conservative MP. “He would talk quite openly about his sexual exploits and bringing people back into the office,” she recounts, calmly. “He told me he slept with other researchers in our office, on my desk, on my keyboard.”
The smallest thing could set him off. “He would joke about the protein shakes in the fridge, and how they were ‘phallic shakes’ I could masturbate with,” she says, still shocked in retrospect. “I didn’t like being in the office by myself with him. I didn’t feel comfortable.”
After struggling to find any official in the party or parliament who she trusted enough to complain to, she left politics a few years ago, without a job to go on to. “When the Weinstein story came out I looked back and wished I’d tackled it all differently at the time,” she recalls. “It really was sexual harassment.”
Until recently, disturbing stories such as Lucy’s have remained whispers between colleagues in the private offices that make up Britain’s corridors of power. The culture of secrecy has lasted for generations. But as the #MeToo phenomenon shook industries from Hollywood to business, it also exposed a UK political system that allows lawmakers to enjoy a position of unusual power. When this power is exploited, their victims often feel there is nowhere they can turn. Many, like Lucy, simply choose to walk away.
The FT carried out this investigation after becoming aware of a handful of cases in which MPs had sexually harassed, assaulted or bullied their staff. It soon emerged that a large number of culprits and victims continue to work in parliament. Over four months, the FT has listened to the stories of more than 30 current and former MPs’ staff, interns and party volunteers from across the political spectrum. Some were still reeling from recent experiences, others shared stories they had kept quiet about for years.
The taboo around the subject of sexual harassment and assault persists. A dozen of the interviewees were prepared to be quoted only on condition of anonymity. Not one was prepared to go on the record or willing to allow the FT to publicly name and approach their alleged abusers for fear of repercussions. In the majority of cases, the FT was able to corroborate each victim’s account with a source they had informed around the time of the incident. A few didn’t tell anyone at the time due to embarrassment or fear.
What these stories collectively reveal is the reality of a working environment in which, despite numerous scandals over the years, power still trumps everything else. When things go wrong, the young staffers who help keep government going often feel abandoned and exploited by their political heroes. And despite recent promises to reform the system, it is unclear just how much has changed in the parliamentary culture.
The secret stairways and imposing artwork of the Palace of Westminster inspire a sense of grandeur. The neo-Gothic architecture was designed in part to intimidate the British people, and MPs still go about their business in a building decorated with ecclesiastical stained-glass windows and numerous — mostly male — statues.
Women have only been allowed to stand as parliamentary candidates since 1918. In the months before the legislation passed, Frederick Banbury, then MP for the City of London, told parliament: “Women are likely to be affected by gusts and waves of sentiment. Their emotional temperament makes them so liable to it. But those are not the people best fitted in this practical world either to sit in this House . . . or to be entrusted with the immense power which this bill gives them.” His colleague Rowland Hunt, then MP for Ludlow, added that there were “obvious disadvantages” to having women in parliament: “I do not know what is going to be done about their hats.”
A hundred years on, Westminster’s female politicians, who account for 32 per cent of MPs, are still trying to modernise the building and its rules, calling for more flexible working hours and the ability to vote by proxy while on maternity leave. The devolved structure of parliamentary offices can be particularly hard to navigate. Each MP is entitled to run their office as if they were self-employed, which means that the palace, in effect, houses 650 small businesses.
The 3,500 parliamentary staff work directly for individual MPs or their offices rather than for parliament. They are told to report any concerns about their MP to their “line manager” — who is their MP. “It’s almost as if MPs are like unregulated sole traders. It’s odd that a place that debates and passes the laws of the land is sometimes itself so lawless,” says Meriel Schindler, a leading London-based employment lawyer. She believes that Westminster is a particularly “precarious” place to work because of the inherent power imbalance and the lack of official oversight.
As Jo Swinson, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, points out, sexual harassment at work is endemic across all sectors. But it is “exacerbated wherever significant power imbalances exist, such as in parliament”, she says.
“The heavy reliance on informal and opaque power structures is embedded in parliament’s DNA. The historic lack of formal processes and a culture of exceptionalism leads to a lack of accountability, and the dominance of men in positions of power can mean a lack of understanding about the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment.”
This is something experienced by Emma, a former member of staff to a Conservative MP. “There was a lot of blurring of work and personal life,” she says, adding that she knows of up to 10 women who have been sexually harassed by various MPs. She says they won’t complain because they fear it could affect their current positions as lobbyists, or their chances of becoming a parliamentary candidate. “Westminster’s just not a normal or professional environment to work in,” she says. “There is no personal security, no HR and nowhere to turn if something goes wrong.”
Georgina Kester, senior assistant to a Conservative MP and chairwoman of the Members and Peers’ Staff Association (Mapsa), has been calling for a proper method of dealing with sexual harassment and bullying for years, on behalf of staff in general. “Staff have often had to leave because there has been nowhere for them to report the problems they have endured,” she says. “If your line manager is the one doing the bullying, then who do you complain to?”
In November last year, Mapsa sent out an anonymous electronic survey to all staff of MPs and peers, and were amazed to receive 815 candid responses. Fifty-three per cent said that they had “experienced, witnessed or heard of bullying/harassment during their time in employment”. “Bullying behaviour is a daily occurrence from my employer,” confessed one respondent, while another claimed they had been the victim of “bullying and sexism from a female MP”.
“Working in my current office has without a doubt been the most unpleasant working experience of my career so far,” concluded one, while yet another said they had witnessed an MP throw “objects at staff”. Only 21 per cent of those who had experienced harassment or bullying said they had reported their experience to anyone. For those who did, 84 per cent said the complaint was not resolved and the only answer was to leave or resign.
For many of the bright-eyed young staffers who arrive in Westminster, being employed by an MP is a dream come true. Twentysomethings suddenly find themselves working alongside political giants, many of whom are their idols. Maintaining good relations during your time within the Whitehall bubble is all-important. Your own career is closely aligned with that of your political boss. A personal reference or a quiet word with a future employer can make or break a reputation, and with it all hopes of a career in politics.
This makes it hard to know where to turn if you have a complaint about harassment in the workplace. “A junior person often runs great reputational risk by even mentioning that their boss might have done something inappropriate,” says Schindler. “And if that person is in there on a placement lasting, say, a month, they may feel that it is too much hassle or simply wrong to damage someone who may have given them the job.”
Judy was 19 when she went to work as an intern in a Labour politician’s office almost two decades ago. “I was so young and I really wanted to get into politics,” she recalls. “It was just awe-inspiring — my parents were so proud of me.”
Shortly afterwards, she encountered a high-profile adviser, nine years her senior. “A couple of weeks in he said a whole load of them were all going out to a bar,” she says. But when she got there, it was just the two of them. “He handed me a drink before he started to talk about how influential he was and how he could help introduce me to people,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do but I refused another drink and then he asked me if I wanted some cocaine. I’d never done drugs, so he went off and did some coke before coming tumbling back in.”
After that her memory is blank and, to this day, she’s not sure if she was drugged. “I don’t know what happened but I woke up in his bed,” she says. When he came back in, he told her she’d got a bit drunk, before saying, ‘You don’t know what I did to you last night.’ He was insinuating he’d raped me,” she recalls, now on the verge of tears. “It was harassment, it was disgusting and it was vile. I wish I’d gone to somebody but I just told him not to come close to me ever again.”
Judy later refused other opportunities she was offered in parliament because she never wanted to find herself in that situation again. “Every time I saw him on TV I had this nauseous sick feeling,” she says. “It was a really upsetting and scary experience.”
One of the issues surrounding the reporting of harassment is that there has not been an independent formal complaints process for staffers, who are expected to lodge any complaints through their parties.
Ayesha Hazarika, who spent years as an adviser to Labour politicians including Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband, says sexual harassment in politics tends to be about power rather than sex. “You often get a signal from people senior in the party telling you to think about the broader consequences for the party and how reporting the incident ‘plays into the hands of our opponents,’ ” she says. “All too often I have seen the reputation of the party put ahead of anything else.”
Last year, a number of Labour MPs were quick to praise the bravery of Bex Bailey, a senior party activist who revealed that she was raped at a party event in 2011 and later advised by a party official not to make a formal complaint. The party subsequently appointed Karon Monaghan QC as an independent expert to assess its existing complaints procedures. Labour women are still waiting to hear her verdict.
Hazarika herself has suffered from unwanted male attention, and a number of former colleagues and friends have confided in her over the years. “Young people who come to Westminster are often . . . starry-eyed about politicians, who are almost celebrities to them,” she says. “You don’t want to complain because you don’t want to be marked out as a trouble-maker and because you are working for a political culture that you love.”
In 2010, the Labour party passed the Equality Act, which was intended to promote equality in workplaces across the UK. Under the act, sexual harassment is unlawful and defined as an incident in which an employer engages in unwanted conduct which creates “an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for an employee. Unfortunately, these are some of the exact words used by many Labour staff to describe their own working environment in conversations with the FT.
Richard Angell, director of the centrist Labour group Progress, says he fears the party all too often puts itself ahead of its members. “The view that somehow, because we are an organisation that exists to do good, our members only do good, could not be further from the truth,” he says. “I’m afraid I fear that the Labour party now behaves as the Catholic church once did: protecting the reputation of institution over the safety of individual.”
Abuses of power aren’t just confined to Westminster: political activists and volunteers across the country are equally unprotected when it comes to safeguarding. Lisa was working as a volunteer in a local Labour constituency office during the 2015 general election campaign.
“I was washing up mugs in our campaign office when an organiser came up behind me,” she says, wincing at the memory. “I was wearing leggings and he put his hands down my knickers and up my vagina.” She was the only female volunteer in the office. “The other man in the room who witnessed it told me people ‘do strange things during elections — don’t take it any further.’” She didn’t.
Last year, newspapers including The Telegraph, The Sun and The Times published a series of allegations against politicians. Described as a “witch-hunt” by Sir Roger Gale, a Conservative MP, the coverage nonetheless had an impact. Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, resigned after admitting his past behaviour had fallen short. Damian Green, the UK’s de facto deputy prime minister, also resigned after making “inaccurate and misleading” statements about pornography found on his parliamentary computer. Two Labour MPs, Ivan Lewis and Kelvin Hopkins, have been referred to their own party’s internal disciplinary committee following claims of sexual harassment. They deny the allegations.
In the wake of all this, a new independent complaints procedure was proposed for staff working at Westminster. An official HR service for MPs’ staff was set up at the start of 2018 and is currently run on an “interim basis”, with arrangements for a longer-term third-party supplier being put in place. However, the service is not set up to receive complaints but simply offers advice and support.
This is also the case with the confidential helpline introduced in 2014. House of Commons authorities point staff towards Mapsa but its representatives admit they are there solely to offer advice. A House of Commons spokesperson said: “We strive to be a responsive and supportive employer and do not tolerate bullying or harassment of any kind.”
Political parties say they have their own grievance procedures in place. A Conservative spokesman said: “We take all allegations incredibly seriously. If a serious allegation is raised, we would immediately advise the individual to contact the police. We have introduced a new code of conduct that ensures any allegations are investigated in strictest confidence.”
A Labour spokesperson said the party “takes all complaints of sexual harassment extremely seriously. We encourage anyone who has experienced sexual harassment to complain to the party so these can be fully investigated and any appropriate disciplinary action taken in line with party rules and procedures. We have recently strengthened our procedures and commissioned two independent assessments into them. We are committed to continually improving our processes and ensuring they are as robust as possible.”
The new rules, drawn up by a cross-party working group of MPs and staff, intend to grant Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, new powers to suspend MPs if they are found to have harassed parliamentary staff. This could lead to “recall” — a process that can result in the loss of their seat.
Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, hopes the new system will be in place by the summer, once MPs have voted on the proposal. “The independent complaints procedure will change the culture of parliament,” she says. “With regard to MPs, the changes to the role of the PCS will give her increased responsibilities and a set of lower-level sanctions that are both fairer and more effective in dealing with unwelcome behaviour. The new system will be up and running in the coming months.”
However, there is currently no date in place for such a vote, and questions remain over the lack of any provision for whistle-blowers or witnesses who feel a duty of care to make a complaint.
Any new system that does get voted through will come too late for some staffers. Kate is in her early twenties and still works in parliament. She insists the recent headlines are not just a knee-jerk reaction to the global focus on sexual harassment. “There is a serious and well-ingrained culture of bullying and harassment in parliament that revealed itself to me in my first few weeks of working here,” she says.
In her case, she alleges the staff member of another MP who shared her office subjected her to bullying, sexual harassment and consistent intimidation in 2016 and 2017. It took months for her to pluck up the courage to file a formal complaint to her own MP, and when she did so early last year, she says she soon realised parliament could offer her “absolutely no protection”.
“The MP of the accused felt he had no duty of care over me, and to add insult to injury labelled my case a ‘2/10’ [in terms of severity],” she says. “My complaint included [his staffer’s] comments about how, as a woman, I was inferior to him, and an occasion where he put his crotch in my face while I was at my desk and asked me to comment on the ‘girth’ of his penis.”
She was told by her MP to take compassionate leave and was relocated to a different office on her return. “The formal options left to me, a girl in my early twenties, in my first job, in a career I wished to stay in long term, were either to make a formal complaint about the MP’s conduct to the party, report my employer to an employment tribunal, go to the police or to whistle-blow,” she says. “Clearly, all of these carried immense risk professionally and would have been extremely personally strenuous. As the victim, I shouldn’t have had to move.”
Kate was told that in the majority of cases like hers, women had chosen to stay quiet or simply leave. “In retrospect, the situation was perhaps darkly comical,” she says. “My boss wanted him gone, the House wanted him gone and the party wanted him gone, but only his boss could fire him.”
In exasperation, she made a formal complaint about the MP in question to the whips office and his staff member was eventually fired. But this didn’t mitigate the fact that, in the very building in which sexual harassment legislation is drafted, a politician had tried to bury his staffer’s indiscretions. “The immorality and hypocrisy of the whole affair was startling,” she says. “More than perhaps in any other job, it really is the luck of the draw for staffers when it comes to their bosses here.”
Part of the problem is the unusual working environment in the Palace of Westminster. There is an expectation that colleagues will participate in a culture of late-night socialising, drinking and entertaining, which can lead to a blurring of lines. “There are MPs who are professional politicians, but it doesn’t always feel like an extension of work as they move from the office to the bars,” says Jess Phillips, a Labour MP. “So there’s a lot of showing off and peacocking.”
Ed was a 19-year-old intern when he was introduced to a gay Tory MP at a parliamentary bar in 2011. “He was very interested in me, what I was doing, and was also offering to buy a lot of drinks,” he remembers. “As a student I obviously accepted.
“The night escalated and a few of us, including the MP, went to a local bar outside parliament. He insisted on buying more wine, to the point I had three large glasses in my hands and couldn’t take any more,” he says. “I went downstairs and on my way back upstairs, he asked where I had gone. He said he wanted to show me how happy he was to see me again, before placing my hand on his erect penis through his trousers.”
Such behaviour still continues. Earlier this year, Alice, a Conservative party activist, couldn’t believe it when she was “groped” by a drunk Conservative MP at an event organised by another member of parliament. She and the MP had only just met when he grabbed her bottom. “I didn’t know how to react and was so stunned by what he did that I just stared right at him,” she says. “He didn’t seem to care or realise how intrusive his actions were.”
Headlines about harassment in Whitehall tend to involve the allegations of younger women against older, male politicians. But Ed says the media fails to cover the realities for some young gay men, who, he argues, are particularly at risk.
Louis was a sixth-former when he set off for work experience in Westminster in 2009. The college programme saw at least one politics student seconded with the local Conservative MP every year. “Even as a 17-year-old, it was blindingly obvious how this man used his power, influence, the prestige of parliament and the clear power imbalance — particularly with regards to young people who wanted to work in politics and get a job in parliament — in a deeply inappropriate manner,” he says.
The MP took him to the Carlton Club, a gentlemen’s club in London, and invited him back to his constituency home. “It was all laid out like a script — the constant underlying inappropriate behaviour with the carrot of employment prospects,” he says. “It made me feel sick.”
Despite being a teenager at the time, Louis was also privy to “open secrets” about the MP’s behaviour, which he said included “alcohol problems, habitual groping and inappropriate behaviour towards younger men at drinks receptions”.
Louis, who still works in parliament, says that these events were hushed up and never confronted by other employees: “I remember his permanent members of staff — including a woman who currently works for another Conservative MP — essentially behaving in a manner that demonstrated that they saw covering for and essentially ignoring his behaviour as part and parcel of their job,” he says. “In retrospect, silence is complicity.”
Parties may now profess a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying but they have yet to convince staffers, who have watched as nothing is done to deal with perpetrators. Max, a Labour activist, is still incredulous after being told by the party in December that there was “no proof” to substantiate his claims against a serving aide to a Labour MP, who he says sexually assaulted him in 2013.
He reported the incident after learning of at least two other party members with similar experiences. “I’ve heard about [the aide] in the last year behaving the same way he did towards me,” he says, “including once in the middle of the day in Portcullis House to another staffer.”
The modus operandi of any political party is to avoid scandal at all cost, but the instinct to protect the institution over the individual can have toxic implications when it comes to the values the parties profess to represent.
One former Commons clerk, who spent more than five years advising MPs on rules and procedures, says there is a feeling that the authorities still don’t “get it” and that, even after the media coverage of bullying and sexual harassment, change is slow. “Staff feel let down that some MPs against whom allegations have been made — allegations backed up with substantial evidence and witness corroboration — are being allowed to get away scot-free because the parties and the management are unwilling to investigate past incidents,” she says. “This is undermining any more positive steps towards beefing-up grievance processes, because the message staff are hearing is that known perpetrators can get away with complete denial of their actions.”
Another former House of Commons clerk, who also experienced sexual harassment in parliament, believes that while senior management continue to prize “putting up with bullying without breaking” over changing behaviour, “the lives of those who work in Westminster are never going to be improved”.
Even politicians remain sceptical. “Since these stories have started to come out, I’ve seen the pervasive culture of this building is one of covering backs,” says Phillips. “There is a culture of silence. I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence that we have seen a culture change yet. There’s still a sense that people want to hush it up and hope it goes away.”
Laura Hughes is an FT political correspondent. Names have been changed to protect identities
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