‘Like a frat house’: can UK parliament’s culture be reformed?

“It’s very toxic at the moment. It’s like Guess Who – everyone is trying to figure out the next persecutor,” said a senior Conservative MP. “This place is like a university frat house.”

The Palace of Westminster, which has been a representation of law, order and integrity for centuries, has recently become synonymous with sexism and sledge.

Neil Parish, an unnamed Tory MP arrested on suspicion of rape, a Conservative MP forced to resign after admitting to viewing pornography in the Chamber of the House of Commons, and Labor MP Liam Byrne, who was arrested last month ” was suspended for “abuse of power”. Against a staff member, the recent stream of misconduct allegations have prompted soul-searching across the political spectrum.

In 2017, the #MeToo scandal prompted the resignation of key figures in the government of then-Prime Minister Theresa May, including Damien Green, the then-deputy prime minister.

But five years later, MPs and parliamentary staff alike are wondering what has really changed.

Many argue that the long-standing power imbalance within parliament, where well-paid ministers and seasoned advisers go side by side with newcomer lawmakers and aspiring interns, serves as a breeding ground for misconduct. work in.

Protesters march in front of Downing Street as part of the Time’s Up rally in 2018 © Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Labor MP Tulip Siddiq said, “There will be some MPs who refrain from unfair treatment against someone they hold a lot of power over and have a platform to speak out for.” “The same people believe that if they are dealing with someone new in Parliament, they won’t complain publicly.”

In response to demands for action to tackle the problem, the Independent Complaints Grievance Scheme (ICGS) was launched in 2018, aimed at providing all individuals – regardless of seniority – a means to voice workplace concerns confidentially. had to provide.

But the planning process is slow and cumbersome. according to this latest annual report, The average ICGS test took 196 days.

Jenny Simmons, president of GMB’s branch, the trade union for staff members representing parliamentary staff, believes this has deterred people from taking full advantage of the scheme. “It takes a lot of courage to make a complaint and then if that process takes months or even years it is also causing people unnecessary trauma,” she said.

Others warn that too much pressure has been put on a relatively new plan. “ICGS is extremely important, but it needs more support and structure to de-escalate it,” argued Javad Raza, national official of the FDA Union, whose members include Whitehall policy advisers and civil servants. He said lawmakers “One body alone cannot be relied upon”, changing the entire parliamentary culture for staff and advisors.

One way to deal with malpractice would be to change the workplace arrangements within the offices of MPs.

A Westminster insider argued, “Parliament is like an unregulated gig economy right now.” “The potential for exploitation of youth, women – many of whom are straight out of university – is enormous.”

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that he intends to set up a “speakers conference” to review conduct within Westminster and find out whether MPs who have human resources within their offices have authority over matters, they should be responsible for employing their employees. ,

A Tory woman lawmaker said any reform to the employment structure would face “resistance”, but acknowledged it would “reduce the administrative burden” on lawmakers. But one Labor MP argued that better human resources training would be more appropriate for lawmakers. “People coming from different workplaces and walks of life – they would have never managed a team before,” he said.

But while efforts to reform the employment structure and set up grievance procedures have been welcomed, insiders say sexism and misogyny among lawmakers is difficult to tackle.

“ICGS has potentially proven to be more useful to employees than lawmakers,” explained Dr. Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government think-tank. “There are difficulties associated with members wanting to challenge the behavior of other members.”

“There is a fear that if you, as an MP, speak against another MP, you may be seen as a troublemaker within the party or denied opportunities or benefit from future reshuffles. could. Westminster is incredibly Aboriginal, party loyalty is seen as key,” she said.

Several high-profile lawmakers, such as International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Caroline Noakes, chair of the Women and Equality Select Committee, have spoken out in recent weeks about their experiences of sexism and abuse at the hands of colleagues in parliament.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, UK International Trade Secretary

Britain’s international trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, recently spoke to male colleagues in parliament about her experiences of sexism © Chris J Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

Many women lawmakers fear that the recent flood of high-profile stories could deter the next generation of female talent from entering parliament.

“It’s very disappointing,” said veteran Labor MP Dame Margaret Hodge. “We should be at the forefront of the movement to eradicate sexism within society, but instead we are behind the curve.”

A conservative insider praised the bravery of those who came forward, saying there were few channels available to listen to confidential complaints. “You have to either ignore matters or take nuclear action and speak publicly,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the middle.”

Party whips – who ensure that more MPs vote according to their party’s agenda – also have a pastoral role, but many say the seriousness of the complaints now shows that a more robust system is needed. .

A senior Tory woman called for a separate organization, independent of party whip offices, “dedicated to pastoral support for MPs and ministers”. She said that while some people “seem to get it . . . at the end of the day whips are still political operators”.

Unions say tackling misconduct at Westminster – whether between MPs and employees or between MPs themselves – will need to impose firm boundaries on what is and is not acceptable behavior in Parliament.

“Who is responsible for the conduct of MPs?” asked Raza. “Component? Head of the household? Speaker of the House, Prime Minister? It’s a gray area. Clear context is needed about what we want to achieve in Parliament and what a healthy workplace really looks like.”

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