Demeaned, berated and fired: Fresh evidence of toxic bullying culture in parliament emerges
A five-month-long probe uncovered disturbing accounts of MPs regularly demeaning and berating staff leaving them feeling scared and isolated.
Friday 23 September 2022 11:31, UK
Fresh evidence of a toxic bullying culture in Parliament has emerged, as a Sky News investigation reveals numerous shocking allegations of abusive behaviour by MPs.
A five-month-long probe uncovered disturbing accounts of MPs regularly demeaning and berating staff, leaving them feeling scared and isolated.
Some felt forced to leave politics altogether while others suffered lasting damage to their mental health.
One former Labour staff member told Sky News she had been forced to "scrub stains out of the carpet".
Another said she had been pushed into "the most traumatic mental health breakdown I've ever had".
Others described an alarming lack of job security, with one Conservative staff member recalling a colleague being blamed and fired for a social media post the MP had done herself when drunk.
The revelations pile pressure on Parliamentary authorities to improve the safeguards in place for staff working in Westminster.
The allegations form the second part of a Sky News podcast series - The Open Secret - which has looked into political culture and investigated why many victims of sexual harassment and bullying still feel unable to come forward.
Speaking to Sky News anonymously one young woman described a series of disturbing incidents at the hands of a female MP.
Forced to scrub stains from the carpet
She said: "She got me to scrub stains out of the carpet.
"I think she'd spilt some makeup or something. And then she came in with cleaning stuff and was like there are stains all over the carpet. 'You should clean those up.' So I was literally on my hands and knees on the floor. It was kind of, I think, a power thing."
She also alleged that the MP restricted how she spent her personal time, limiting her to one evening a week to pursue her own interests and forcing her to quit a small voluntary role she held within her local Labour party.
"She didn't want me to have anything outside of work because she said it was a distraction," she said.
Another Labour staff member recalled how she had come to fear her boss, also a female MP.
Describing her lowest moment in the role, she said: "She came in and she was shouting and that was the worst experience I've ever had at work - her kind of screaming at me and really letting it all out.
"And I remember feeling like a dog in an RSPCA advert where they hide behind the sofa when the owners are coming back. And you know, when I knew she was on her way I did want to just leave and hide..."
She added: "It was because of this experience which then sent me into the most traumatic mental health breakdown I've ever had."
She also alleged that she told "senior people in the Labour Party," but that they were dismissive.
"I was told it wasn't worth making a complaint to the Party as it wasn't that serious," she said.
A Labour Party spokesperson said: "We take accounts of bullying and harassment in the workplace like these very seriously and encourage anyone affected by such behaviour to report it."
Fired for an MP's own drunken mistake
Others that spoke anonymously to Sky News described unstable employment conditions that enabled staff to be forced out of their jobs or fired on a whim.
One woman who worked for a political party for many years - she asked Sky News not to specify which one - said a senior figure told her that a long-standing mental health condition meant she was not fit to continue in her role.
She said: "I was in a meeting with him. He said: 'Look, the organisation isn't equipped to deal with somebody like you'.
"They said it would be complex and they just didn't have the resources and that kind of thing.
"They questioned the medication that I took and my suitability for a role. They said that in the first place that maybe a high-stress job just wasn't suitable for people like me."
Meanwhile, a Conservative staff member described how an MP had fired a member of her team for her own drunken mistake.
"She wrote a stupid message when she was drunk - and sent it from an account the team all had access to - and then when she saw the response it got, she blamed my colleague for it and fired him," she said.
"It was nuts, it was really, really nuts."
'Justice delayed is justice denied'
In 2018 the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was created to provide an independent resource for anyone working in Parliament to report harassment and bullying.
Asked why she didn't use it during her time working for the MP, she said: "It's more hassle than it's worth to be tarnished with the brush of someone who complained. You know, you never know what effect that's going to have."
Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, who was the driving force behind setting up the ICGS when she was the Leader of the Commons, urged anyone being subjected to exploitation at work to use the scheme, but she conceded that the process often takes too long.
"It will look after you," she told Sky News. "And it is being improved as time goes by.
"It's taking far, far too long for people to get justice. And that is justice delayed, is justice denied, particularly if you've been sexually assaulted or if someone's been seriously bullying you and it's really affected your mental health.
"You can't be waiting months and months even to be told that your case will be taken up."
A spokesperson for the House of Commons said: "Bullying and harassment have absolutely no place in parliament.
"The Behaviour Code makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in parliament and the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to enable anybody in the parliamentary community to report bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct in confidence."