Westminster’s “culture of abuse” can only end if sex harassment complaints are dealt with independently of MPs and political parties, a union boss representing Parliamentary staff has warned.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association (FDA) of senior civil servants, suggested that the Tory party’s tiny majority and “partisan interest” meant that “House of Cards-style” misconduct would go unpunished as long as MPs had the final say in investigations.
Labour, Conservatives and other parties had “colluded” over the years to prevent abuse being properly dealt with and Parliament “will remain a 19th century workplace” until the power imbalance between MPs and their staff was resolved, he added.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Penman said that it was time to end the “electoral maths” tied up with the current system of allowing a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and the Commons Standards Committee to decide on complaints.
His words came amid yet more claims of misconduct in Westminster, with one unnamed staffer revealing she was sexually assaulted by an MP in his office and a Tory party aide went to police after he drink was ‘spiked’ by a suspected date rape drug in a Commons bar.
One former Parliamentary intern, James Greenhalgh told the BBC he was sexually assaulted by a former MP outside a Westminster bar in 2012.
Labour activist Bex Bailey revealed on Tuesday that she was raped by a party figure in 2011.
Downing Street also confirmed that Cabinet minister Damian Green is being investigated by the Cabinet Secretary over allegations of inappropriate conduct towards a party activist. Green strongly denies the claims.
Penman, whose union members include Parliamentary staff as well as senior civil servants, said that “we regularly hear distressing stories of harassment and abuse from one employee to another”.
He said that in the absence of an independent system, MPs who harass others “are encouraged to feel they operate in a safe space.
“In all walks of life, this kind of behaviour is centred around the power dynamic — not always men against women, and not always an abuse of grade or authority. Not always, but very often.
“MPs are quite literally a law unto themselves and, as we have seen time and time again, their ability to self-regulate has been found wanting.”
Penman said that current rules governing disputes between MPs and staff, introduced after pressure from the FDA and other unions, were still inadequate because they were informal and often MPs cannot be compelled to take part.
“Consider this process from the perspective of an employee making a complaint of sexual harassment. Already feeling vulnerable and victimised, what confidence would you have that justice will prevail or your anonymity will be respected?
“As is clear from the ‘House of Cards’-style revelations that are leaking out daily, political parties have known about this behaviour for decades but have it seen it simply as valuable material for the Whips’ office.
“Now imagine that a complaint, perhaps made against an MP with a small majority in the current government, ends up in the hands of fellow MPs on the Committee for Standards.
“Electoral maths and partisan interest will play just as significant a role in any decision as the need for justice. This is not wild speculation — we have seen time and time again how issues relating to MPs’ conduct get conflated with party interest.
That a culture of abuse has been allowed to persist in Westminster is indeed a scandal that all parties could have prevented.”