MPs are set to debate a major report into bullying and sexual harassment in the House of Commons. But one junior member of staff, who says she has experienced just such a culture within Westminster, has little confidence that anything will change.
“I think there’s a kind of unspoken hierarchy between staff, [and that] whatever an MP says, goes,” “Katie” tells the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.
“It’s very much seen that Members are the priority, and everyone is there to serve their interests.”
‘Katie’, which isn’t her real name, has worked in an administrative role alongside some of the lowest-paid House of Commons employees such as Parliamentary receptionists, bar staff and cleaning staff for around two years.
She now works elsewhere in the Commons, and says mistreatment of junior staff occurs on a daily basis – and that “dealing with the abuse is just part of the job”.
MPs and other senior individuals treat her and her colleagues with “complete disdain” because they are not of “the same social ranking”, she claims.
‘Ran away in tears’
Katie describes one occasion when a senior civil servant shouted in her face and called her stupid.
“I could almost feel, kind of like the spit landing on my face he was so angry… I’d only been in the job a few months and it was so overwhelming, scary that I just didn’t know how to deal with it.”
She ran to the ladies’ toilets in tears.
This was not the only time she felt belittled and intimidated.
A peer in the House of Lords once asked her if she “even knew what Brexit was”, she claims, while an MP said to her, “Don’t you know who I am?” when she suggested he wear his Parliamentary security pass.
Katie also claims that one MP is well-known for taking “great joy” in intimidating junior female members of staff, by stroking their hair and touching their lower back and shoulders – as though it is a “game”.
As far as she is aware no-one has complained about him because staff felt “it wasn’t their place to say anything”.
In October, a report was published by Dame Laura Cox into bullying and sexual harassment in the Commons.
It criticised a culture of “silence” in response to widespread cases of inappropriate touching, lewd language and intimidating behaviour.
Katie says her colleagues have experienced this.
“Quite often, members of staff that I know have gone to their managers to ask for advice and are just told to ignore it and carry on going,” she says.
“It’s not worth the hassle. In any kind of dispute like that, an MP would have the upper hand anyway.”
The Commons Commission has backed setting up an independent body to investigate complaints, including historical ones.
Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, told the Victoria Derbyshire programme she was “determined to allow for historic allegations to be both investigated and acted upon [and] for there to be independence in the sanctioning of Members of Parliament”.
A House of Commons spokeswoman said it was “committed to a robust effort to change the culture which has tolerated such abuses.
“The staff of the House of Commons are essential to the functioning of democracy. We deeply regret that their diligence has at times been so poorly repaid.”
Sceptical of change
Katie welcomes Dame Laura’s report, although she says she did not give evidence to the inquiry as she did not feel it was “for people like her”.
A spokesperson for Dame Laura said she regrets that she felt unable to come forward.
Katie has no confidence, however, that the report will lead to change.
“I don’t think any investigations will happen, I don’t think any MP will face any consequences,” she says, referring to their “air of superiority that they’re above the rules”.
She believes John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons – whose job it is to oversee reform of the culture in Parliament – should “do the honourable thing” and resign.
He has himself been accused of bullying – allegations which he denies.
Mr Bercow has told friends he intends to stand down as Commons Speaker next summer, the BBC understands, but Katie believes he should leave the post now.
She says: “How can anyone have confidence in a system that’s being developed by people who’ve been accused of such actions themselves?”
She’s also critical of those MPs who want him to stay in his role until Brexit is complete, such as Labour’s Margaret Beckett, who said negotiating a good Brexit “trumps bad behaviour”.
Katie says calling it “bad behaviour” undermines the bravery of those who have come forward to give evidence to Dame Laura.
“The kind of constant bullying, driving people out of their jobs – it’s horrendous, it’s not just ‘bad behaviour’,” she says.
“It’s creating a workplace that’s intolerable and where people are completely susceptible to abuse with no recourse for action.”
‘Not taken seriously’
If this is to change, she says, so too must the culture of the Commons.
“I think the idea of hierarchy is ingrained in all members of staff from day one,” she says.
“You learn that you’re there to serve MPs, but that also means to not challenge them as well.
“And so when this kind of behaviour is going on, that attitude still applies.
“That attitude of not saying anything for fear of getting into trouble yourself or not being taken seriously is just pervasive, I would say.”