Harassment 'hotline' for MPs' staff goes live

Houses of Parliament at night MPs employ staff directly both in Westminster and in constituency offices

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A confidential hotline that MPs and their staff can call to report incidents of harassment and bullying has been made live.

It comes as a BBC investigation has been told of attempts to hush up inappropriate sexual behaviour at Westminster.

Many current and ex-employees of MPs have described the existing complaints system as inadequate.

The three biggest Westminster parties say they are addressing the issue.

'Fatal flaw'

A former researcher, who did not wish to be identified, told BBC Radio 4's The Report that he left his position after being harassed by his MP.

"I confided with someone in the party and he basically said to me, 'This is what happens - if it makes you feel uncomfortable, resign and move on.'

"So the general consensus is that we cannot afford to have these people embarrassed because it would undermine our political agenda," he added.

"It's always explained as, 'We have to accept that this is the way they are - they are imperfect heroes, they are out championing freedom, but they have a dark side to them.'"

Labour MP John Mann: "The scale of it is unknown because there aren't the systems in place for dealing with it"

The former researcher described as "their fatal flaw" the fact that some MPs "like to harass younger boys and we just have to put up with it".

'Sizeable minority' harass

MPs employ staff directly both in Westminster and in their constituencies.

While the majority of these workers are paid for with public funds, each of the 650 MPs operates what is, in effect, a small business.

As a result, there is no overarching HR system and any grievances staff have will lead back to the MP who employs them - which may well be the person who is harassing them.

In a statement, Commons Speaker John Bercow told the BBC: "MPs employ their staff directly. The House, therefore, is limited in its ability to intervene in cases in which allegations of bullying or harassment by MPs of their staff are concerned."

However, he said a confidential phone line had now been set up to try to tackle the issue.

"These are steps, amongst others, in the right direction in modernising the culture of the House of Commons," he said.

Despite the bulk of current and former staff saying they had positive experiences working for an MP, most said they knew someone who had been harassed by a politician.

One researcher said MPs who harassed staff represented a "sizeable minority".

Lucille Harvey, the parliamentary secretary of the Unite union, said procedures in place to deal with staff grievances were "completely inadequate".

Sexual harassment in Westminster was a cultural problem that was an issue for all parties, she said, and required an "across-the-board policy that covers all staff, so all staff have equal protections".

Find out more

Hear the programme at 20:00 BST on Thursday, 1 May on BBC Radio 4.

'Coerced into relationships'

The Conservative Party recently announced it would put an updated code of conduct in place. The Labour Party has plans to introduce an independent complaints process.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, introduced an independent pastoral care officer following recommendations made in a review by Helena Morrissey, in the wake of allegations against Lord Rennard last year.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, was one of dozens of MPs approached by the BBC. However, he was the only one who agreed to be interviewed about sexual harassment in Westminster.

"The political parties have got to clamp down heavily, and create an environment where… people are aware there is an intolerance to this behaviour," he said.

"People's careers have been ruined, people's lives have been ruined as well. There should be a proper personnel function here," Mr Mann added.

Some employees were being "coerced into sexual relationships" by those abusing their power, he said.

There was one person still in national politics whom the MP said he would like to see "kicked out of public life" for coercing a woman into a sexual relationship.

The woman later resigned in what Mr Mann described as "a terrible state".

'Disgusted and violated'

Ms Harvey, of Unite, said harassment was not only confined to MPs.

"Often MPs will bring in important people from the constituency," she said.

"They'll bring them to a reception, they'll bring them to the bar. Due to the guests' high ranking, the MPs will be reluctant to step in if they behave inappropriately."

The BBC spoke to a former researcher who had been harassed in a way that she said left her feeling "disgusted and violated".

She said she was advised not to worry about it by an influential figure within the party.

When she asked if anything could be done, she said she was told: "Honestly, you just have to put up with it. There was somebody who used to do stuff like that to me all the time, and you just have to grin and bear it."

The Report can be heard at 20:00 BST on Thursday, 1 May on BBC Radio 4.

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