Bullying and Harassment of MPS’ Parliamentary Staff

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of John Mann John Mann Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee 4:12 pm, 17th July 2019

My colleague next to me, my hon. Friend Justin Madders, has just reminded me of a point that I had omitted, but that I am now going to make. Let me clarify. From information that I have seen recently, it seems to me that, if a tribunal case were taken against an MP, the MP could use legal insurance to defend that case, and the only way that anyone would know would be the £500 excess that has been paid, which would be itemised as an expenditure. In other words, could a Member of Parliament use the parliamentary insurance system, and therefore very expensive lawyers, against an employee who had taken a case to tribunal? In particular, if the tribunal were to rule in favour of the employee, would the Member of Parliament be required to pay those legal costs back to the taxpayer?

The Leader of the House might like to clarify that point in his closing remarks, because that seems to tip the balance in favour of the employer and the Member of Parliament against the employee. The employee could, of course, attempt to get union representation. That used to be rather more difficult. It was the last Unite general secretary election when, mysteriously, just before the nomination process, I got removed from my local branch, where I have a little bit of influence, and put in the Westminster staff branch. The matter was not resolved until after the nominations were done. Having been a member for 40 years, I cannot imagine what administrative change led to me being moved out of one branch, in which I have influence, to a branch in which I have none.

There was a positive conclusion, however: I was able to demonstrate that I had found a whole range of MPs in the same union branch as staff in this building. That was clearly a total nonsense and it had been going on for decades. I managed to get that resolved by protesting about being placed there myself, and MPs were then excluded from that branch—reputed to be the largest union branch representing employees in this Parliament.

Even though these problems have emerged very publicly in recent years, the unions have not quite caught up, although one has. I was pleased to hear the comments of Patrick Grady, which were very appropriate, regarding the processes for selecting potential candidates for Parliament. I have previously given a bit of detail to the House about exemplary role of the GMB in the east midlands in addressing sexual harassment. Following some press commentary, perhaps I ought to give a little more detail. In the recent past, David Prescott—a member of the Labour leader’s office—went for selection in Mansfield, and the GMB east midlands decided to give him an interview about sexual harassment to see whether he understood the issue. He did not pass that interview, so the GMB withdrew its nomination of him.

It seems that trade unions might have this remit within the Labour party because they have a significant role in the potential selection of Labour MPs, but this is an exemplary principle that should be the case everywhere. It ought to be a requirement for political parties to ask and interrogate their candidates about issues such as sexual harassment to ensure that they are up to the mark; as the GMB east midlands withdrew its nomination, it obviously determined that the individual I mentioned was not.

Last week’s shocking “Panorama” programme featured eight mainly young former members of Labour party staff, who went through the traumas of harassment and intimidation that they had been involved in. The allegations are primarily against people who are employed by Short money through Parliament. I have a list with me, so I can see that large numbers of them are employed by Short money. Now, it is essential that these former members of staff, who are external to the building, can use our independent complaints and grievance procedure if they have complaints against individuals employed through Short money who have allegedly been misusing their power to pressure people in relation to various activities. It is essential that we clarify and confirm that position, because that route could then be open to these people.

The situation is similar when it comes to external sexual harassment allegations. This report is very helpful in strengthening the systems, but it is still noticeable how reluctant people are to pursue issues. I have spoken to people who work in this place and have very specific complaints against Members of Parliament or other staff. Some have been prepared to go out there, but I hesitate to use the word “brave” because there is no less bravery from someone who is not prepared to go public about their situation but is prepared to say things about it. The role of the political parties remains the Achilles heel—the weakness.

We have cases in the Labour party where people—I have met some of them—have made allegations but no action has been taken for two or three years. Where is the decency in that? What about the rights of those who say they have been inappropriately treated or harassed, whether it is sexual harassment or any other form? If there is no resolution one way or another for years, what message does that give to people working here about how seriously the political parties take this?

Nothing exemplifies this more than the House of Commons Commission. The Whips have never suggested that I should sit on such a body; I wonder why. That is the problem with it. I would have been more than happy to submit myself to the will of other Members of Parliament. I might get zero votes to sit on such a body—fine—but there would be accountability built in.

Things are done behind the scenes. There are time bombs in all the political parties. I am not aware of any political party that does not have them ticking away, and there are some big, very serious ones. The political parties love to cover these things up and try to manage them, especially if it relates to Members of Parliament. They do not want a Member of Parliament having to resign in scandal and shame, because that is not the best way to fight a by-election.

The norm now seems to be, “Let’s wait until we get to a general election, then we can quietly drop people, and no one will notice because it’s in the general hubbub and excitement of a general election.” There is nothing wrong with dropping people. I can think of one Conservative who was mysteriously dropped in a recent election. I was delighted to see him be dropped. It was done very discreetly and effectively, and I commend those running the party for doing so, but that has become the system—in other words, sending the message, “Hang on and hope for the best.”

There is no question: it is shameful how some of the Whips have dealt with this in my time here. Obviously, I only know my own party, but I do not think that this is particularly a Labour problem, as opposed to a cultural problem here. I will give one example. I was told in a meeting, unequivocally, “If anyone’s got a complaint about sexual harassment within the Labour party, they can go to the police.” If someone wanted to go to the police, they would have done so already. I deal with a lot of people when it comes to sexual assault and child abuse who have come to see me and had my assistance and advocacy and who do not want to be named and be in the public eye.

There was an exposé in The Sunday Times two or three weeks ago about an MP who went to their party leader—my party leader—and he did nothing about it. He did nothing whatsoever. We found out about it because emails were leaked that exposed what was going on. Is that leadership? It is not my definition of leadership. It is exactly the opposite.