“It’s so toxic at the moment. It’s like Guess Who — with everyone trying to figure out the next harasser,” said one senior Conservative MP. “This place is like a university frat house.”
The Palace of Westminster, which for centuries has represented law, order and integrity, has of late become synonymous with sexism and sleaze.
From the unnamed Tory MP arrested on suspicion of rape to Neil Parish, the Conservative MP forced to resign after admitting to watching pornography in the House of Commons chamber, and Labour MP Liam Byrne, who was last month suspended for his “misuse of power” against a staff member, the recent stream of misconduct allegations has prompted soul-searching across the political spectrum.
In 2017, the #MeToo scandal prompted the resignation of key figures from then prime minister Theresa May’s government, including Damian Green, then de facto deputy prime minister.
But five years on, MPs and parliamentary staff alike are wondering what has actually changed.
Many argue that the longstanding power imbalances within parliament, where well-paid ministers and experienced advisers rub shoulders with fresh-faced MPs and ambitious interns, act as a breeding ground for misconduct.
“There will be some parliamentarians who refrain from inappropriate behaviour against an individual they perceive as holding a lot of power and having a platform to speak out,” said Labour MP Tulip Siddiq. “Those same people recognise that if they are dealing with someone new to parliament, they won’t complain publicly.”
In response to demands for action to tackle the problem, the Independent Complaints Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was introduced in 2018, with the aim of providing all individuals — regardless of seniority — with a means to voice workplace concerns confidentially.
But the scheme’s procedures are slow and cumbersome. According to its latest annual report, the average ICGS investigation took 196 days.
Jenny Symmons, chair of trade union GMB’s branch for members’ staff, which represents parliamentary staffers, believes this has deterred people from taking full advantage of the scheme. “It takes a lot of courage to complain and then if that process takes months or years even it’s putting people through unnecessary trauma,” she said.
Others warn that too much pressure has been placed on one relatively new scheme. “ICGS is extremely important but it needs more support and structure to take the strain off it,” argued Jawad Raza, national officer of the FDA union, whose members include Whitehall policy advisers and civil servants. Changing an entire parliamentary culture for MPs, staffers and advisers cannot “rely on one body alone”, he added.
One way of tackling misconduct would be to change workplace arrangements within MPs’ offices.
“Parliament right now is like an unregulated gig economy,” argued one Westminster insider. “The possibility for exploitation of young people, of women — many of whom are straight out of university — is pretty big.”
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, has said he intends to establish a “Speaker’s Conference” to review conduct within Westminster and explore whether MPs, who have authority over human resource matters within their offices, should be responsible for employing their staff.
One female Tory MP said any reform to employment structures would meet with “resistance”, but acknowledged that it would “reduce administrative load” on parliamentarians. But a Labour MP argued that better human resources training for parliamentarians would be more appropriate. “People coming from different workplaces and walks of life — they may have never managed a team before,” they said.
But while efforts to reform employment structures and establish complaints procedures have been welcomed, insiders say tackling sexism and misconduct between MPs remains tricky.
“The ICGS has potentially proved more useful to staffers than MPs,” explained Dr Hannah White, deputy director at the Institute for Government think-tank. “There are difficulties associated with members wanting to challenge the behaviour of other members.”
“There is a fear that if you as an MP speak up against another MP, you could be seen as a trouble maker within the party or be denied opportunities or not benefit from future reshuffles. Westminster is incredibly tribal, with party loyalty seen as key,” she added.
Several high-profile MPs, such as international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities select committee, have in recent weeks spoken of their experiences of sexism and misogyny at the hands of colleagues in parliament.
Many female MPs fear that the recent spate of high-profile stories could deter the next generation of female talent from entering parliament.
“It is deeply depressing,” said veteran Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge. “We should be at the forefront of the movement to eradicate sexism within society but instead we are behind the curve.”
One Conservative insider, while praising the bravery of those coming forward, said there were few channels available to voice confidential complaints. “You either have to choose to ignore matters or take the nuclear action and speak out publicly,” they said. “There doesn’t seem to be an in-between.”
Party whips — who ensure that as many MPs as possible vote according to their party’s agenda — also have a pastoral role, but many say the severity of complaints now emerging show that a more robust system is needed.
One senior female Tory called for a separate organisation, independent of party whips’ offices, “dedicated to pastoral support for MPs and ministers”. She said that while some people “do seem to get it . . . whips are still political operators at the end of the day”.
Unions say getting to the heart of tackling misconduct in Westminster — whether between MPs and staffers or between MPs themselves — will require enforcing firm boundaries on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in parliament.
“Who is responsible for the conduct of MPs?” asked Raza. “Constituents? The leader of the house? The Speaker of the House, the prime minister? It is a grey area. There needs to be clear terms of reference as to what we want to achieve in parliament and what a healthy workplace actually looks like.”