Gemma White QC clearly heard many shocking individual cases as she was working on her report into bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff. There are tales of sexual assault – ‘breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies’ – and MPs demeaning and belittling their staff so much that their mental health collapsed. But what is most shocking is the way that this behaviour from members was regarded as a ‘necessary’ evil. White found that there was a culture where victims of bullying or harassment felt there was no point in complaining, either because it would be ‘career suicide’ or because they felt nothing would be done. MPs also operated their offices like small businesses, with no real external Human Resources support for them or their staff.
This meant that some situations could have been defused much earlier, with White writing that: ‘In many of the cases I considered I was able to identify a point at which a different approach or a facilitated conversation may well have made a difference.’ Her recommendations go into great detail on how this could change, with a new department in the House of Commons – with regional staff to cover constituency workers – which should support MPs and their staff on employment practice. This department should offer proper procedures on recruitment, performance management and disciplinary issues, and contacting new staff when they arrive in an office.
Given not every case is as black-and-white as an MP fondling a woman’s breasts, MPs and their staff need better clarity about what they can expect as appropriate behaviour. Indeed, one of the excuses that some accused of inappropriate behaviour have used is that they simply didn’t think what they were doing was wrong. Of course, in some cases, this is an obviously shoddy response to being cornered. But it’s probably also worth acknowledging that our society is structured in such a patriarchal way that even well-intentioned men don’t fully realise the impact that their behaviour might have on a younger and less powerful woman. A throwaway line in the report is quite dispiriting on this front: White found that ‘only 34 out of 650 MPs and 135 out of 3200 MPs’ staff have attended or booked onto the Valuing Everyone training designed to support the new Behaviour Code introduced in July 2018′. This is very poor, given how widespread the allegations of bullying and harassment have been.
One matter where there is a lack of clarity that White doesn’t really address is whether MPs should be allowed to have relationships with their staff. There are some who have consensual relationships: in 2016, 39-year-old Tory MP Justin Tomlinson announced that he was in a relationship with his 25-year-old aide Kate Bennett. The pair are now married. Others employ their spouses because they feel they will better be able to support them than someone who is merely paid for set hours, and because it offers a way of keeping a marriage together when so many others in Westminster fail. Presumably those MPs would think it draconian to ban office relationships. But then again, there will have been staffers who spoke to White who felt that their boss’s desire for a relationship with them was entirely unwelcome, and that the MP in question should have known that. Would a ban on relationships help those researchers? Or would the sort of ‘love contracts’ favoured by some law firms, where both parties have to sign an agreement saying there was no coercion in the relationship, have any force? Clarity would at least stop the predators from having an easy excuse.
White is also concerned that MPs could end up judging one another in a new complaints process, which would hardly make it independent. This is a frequent problem in Parliament, and one that looks terrible to the public, as MPs are seen to be ‘looking after their own’. If those deciding sanctions feel sympathy for or are even friends with a member, then they are unlikely to make fair decisions.
The report seems anxious that the House of Commons Commission is not making progress in coming up with a proper independent process, and that further delay will let down even more victims. Given the tendency of the House of Commons is to delay even doing things that will benefit its standing in the public eye, White is right to be worried. MPs themselves, though, should worry a little more about how badly it will look for them to dawdle over a response to such a dreadful set of revelations.