Westminster cleans up after Hurricane Harvey
by Dr Jansev Jemal, Research Team Leader

What began as a big story, confined initially to the US entertainment industry, has since rippled out across the globe to engulf institutions and destroy the reputations of numerous individuals.

That it should have reached Westminster is little surprise, but the politics of the story often masked the reality of life for those working there.

ComRes sought to rectify this with the first proper study exploring what it’s like to work for Peers and MPs.  The study provides a fascinating insight into the opaque world of politics and power and reveals that, while sexual harassment is undoubtedly a genuine issue, the Palace of Westminster remains a unique and exciting place to work - three in four staffers (75%) said they feel ‘privileged’ to work there and around half (51%) said ‘happy’.

On the more negative side, just under half feel ‘underpaid’ (45%), a third (32%) said they are ‘overworked’ and a quarter (25%) feel undervalued.

But, despite recent media reports about MPs bullying their staff, we found relatively little evidence of this with only five percent who reported being bullied.

On the issue of sexual harassment, there is a disparity between individual experience and the view that it is widespread within the Palace.  Just six percent said they had themselves experienced sexual harassment in their current job; however, a quarter (24%) felt that sexual harassment is ‘rife’ within the Palace of Westminster.

It is impossible to tell whether that six percent figure under-estimates the true levels of harassment experienced: Parliamentary staff are often young graduates, politically ambitious and often willing to work for little money (in some cases just expenses) to get that foot on the ladder to a political career.  A high profile young Labour activist, Bex Bailey, who served as the Youth representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee, spoke out recently about having been discouraged from reporting an allegation of rape on the grounds that it would damage any chances of progress in the Party.  Indeed, more than four in ten staffers (43%) said they would fear for their job if they reported an incident of sexual harassment by their boss.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons for this fear has been the lack of a formal process around employment practices: staff are currently employed by their MP or Peer and not by the Palace of Westminster.  While there are informal staff networks by party, there is no independent authority to which staff who may have a grievance can appeal.

This informality is reflected in a view that employment practices in Parliament are worse than those elsewhere - six in ten staffers (59%) said they felt this to be the case.

It is therefore little surprise then that more than nine in ten staffers support proposals to introduce a new, independent grievance procedure (91%) and the appointment of an independent human resources professional that staff could report abuse to (93%).

Politics is a curious beast and the Palace of Westminster is a quirky and eccentric workplace, holding a powerful draw for all those with a passion for politics, but in the post-Weinstein environment its procedures pose a challenge to all who work there – employers and employed alike.

It can only be hoped that the Leadsom proposals, which include an independent grievance procedure, a new behaviour code, and ultimately the scope for miscreants to lose their seats, will be enough to ensure not only that high standards are applied in practice but also that confidence in Parliament is restored.