Westminster culture still ‘predatory’, staff say – BBC News

  • By Sima Kotech
  • British editor, BBC Newsnight

Caption,

Ellie Varley, 25, said she believes everyone who works in Parliament has a story of sexual harassment

A “predatory culture” still exists in the House of Commons, with inappropriate advances and sexual misconduct still prevalent, staff said.

Six members of staff told BBC Newsnight that abuse of power by male MPs and senior staff was still common, and the process for new complaints was too slow.

One woman said she was asked to sit on the lap of a male lawmaker and she was bombarded with text messages by other people.

A spokesperson for the House of Commons said the complaint was “very serious”.

The spokesperson said intimidation, harassment and sexual misconduct had no place in Parliament, adding: “We remain committed to ensuring that lasting cultural change is achieved here.”

It comes after damning accusations were made about lawmakers’ behavior in recent months, with several lawmakers suspended.

Parliamentary staff we spoke to said that, despite the new complaints scheme, little had changed. All the accusations they have made relate to the past two years.

‘I’m just mad’

Ellie Varley, 25, said everyone who works in Parliament has their own story of sexual misconduct, or knows someone who has. He said the problem “goes beyond party politics”.

She said she was asked to sit on the lap of a male member of parliament in an incident that occurred at the Parliament building. “He kept saying, just sit on my lap. And I was like: ‘I’m fine, thanks. I don’t want to sit on your lap’.”

He said lawmakers were so persistent he felt he had no choice, and reluctantly agreed to “take him off my case”. The lawmaker is one of a number of people to be suspended over separate charges.

He said there was still a feeling among some lawmakers and senior staff that they could do what they wanted without repercussions. “There are a lot of big names at Westminster, and you feel intimidated by them,” he added.

Ms Varley, who works as an aide to Tory MP, Dehenna Davison, said incidents could include “hands on hips in social settings”.

“I [often think] am i reading too much into this? Are you just being friendly or are you touching me because you think you can?” he added.

“I’ve had it when people text me non-stop like: ‘Are you out tonight?’ ‘What are you doing now?’ And don’t get a clue if I don’t reply after you’ve texted six times.”

He said he was “frankly just angry” and claimed people in the palace did not feel safe reporting problems: “They have no faith in the system. I’m sick of it.”

The six parliamentarians said inappropriate touching and advances were still a problem – with younger staff sometimes targeted by MPs and older staff.

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Ellie Varley: “Every staff will know someone who’s been through this”

Five of the people we spoke to are currently working for Commons, while one of them recently left their role on the plantations. The former staff member said he saw the same behavior occur over and over again.

“In bars you will still see male MPs across staff; in their physical space, buying them drinks and actually behaving in absolutely disgusting circumstances – touching a bum and putting their hand on their lower back. It is lecherous.”

She added: “You will see male MPs openly glancing at female staff and making comments to them about how they look in a way too flirtatious or they talk to each other about who is fit or not.” Some male MPs talk about women MPs in the same way, he added.

In 2018, Parliament established the Independent Complaints and Complaints Scheme (ICGS), to investigate complaints of inappropriate behavior, such as intimidation, harassment or sexual misconduct, and to provide advice to complainants.

‘ask anyone’

Since then, complaints have been investigated by independent investigators, assigned by the ICGS team on a case-by-case basis. However, a senior official, who has worked at Commons for several years, said the scheme made no difference to what he described as a “predatory culture”.

“I wouldn’t recommend it [HoC] as a safe place for every young man or girl. If a young person I know really wants to work in the House of Commons, it will come with a whole list of warnings about how to stay safe, who not to associate with, where not to go,” he said.

“The same things are still going on as before #metoo,” he said, referring to the global social media movement that has people sharing stories of sexual assault, harassment, and rape.

He described the new complaint process as “useless”. “Just ask anyone who has ever tried using it,” he adds.

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Complaints in Parliament are investigated by independent investigators

One of the criticisms of ICGS is that the investigation is taking too long.

According to its latest annual report, out of 21 completed investigations conducted in 2021-2022, 12 were cases in which an MP was the respondent. These cases took an average of 262 days. In comparison, cases involving parliamentary staff took an average of 186 days, and cases of staff members of parliament took an average of 133 days.

A Commons spokesperson said the complaint scheme was the first of its kind in any Parliament in the world. “This has enabled, and will continue to enable, Parliament to effectively identify and deal with unacceptable behavior,” they added.

“However, while much has been achieved in the last five years, we know there is still much work to be done.”

But Ms Varley said she was “disappointed” that so little had changed. He said “too many people” found incident reporting “not worth doing”. “It takes a long time and it can tire you out,” he adds.

“This is something everyone will tell. Every staff member will know someone who has been through this [sexual misconduct] and it’s thousands of people working here.”

“I think it depends on the culture and you can’t fix culture overnight,” he added. “Until these people are punished for their actions, and until victims have confidence in the reporting process, I don’t think anything will change.”

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