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Abuse of Power and Privilege—A Westminster Chief of Staff’s Perspective

Abuse of Power and Privilege in Westminster
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Anonymous

Chief Of Staff

A Chief of Staff at Westminster provides an exclusive to Chamber on his experiences and perspectives on the exercise of power in Parliament

Why it’s important to have the full picture of the abuse problem in Westminster

As a Chief of Staff in an MP’s Westminster office, I am acutely aware of the enormous privilege and responsibility that all those working on the Parliamentary estate must carry. And as such, watching the ‘Pestminster’ scandals this year has been disturbing and worrying. As each scandal broke, I had to sit back and think, “What would I do if a member of my team came to me in that situation?”

The relationship between MPs and staff in Westminster

Two recent podcasts, Channel 4’s Stories of harassment from inside the Houses of Parliament and Sky News’ The Open Secret, have set out to delve into what it was about a heady mix of power, intrigue and drama that seemingly led to such an abusive work environment for MPs’ staff. They covered eye-stretching accounts of the harrowing experiences of abusive and criminal behaviour by MPs against their staff.

Whenever stories like these break, I always fear that they could involve any of my friends and colleagues drawn from Parliament and of different political persuasions. However, as shocking and relevant as these stories are, I thought that the podcasts were too narrowly focused. I’ve heard stories about a minority of MPs who treat their staff appallingly and, of course, it is only proper that these incidents are investigated and addressed. Still, it’s not enough to only talk about the issues of MPs abusing their staff.

In my experience, the picture is a lot more nuanced. Some staffers can be toxic and this behaviour, whether targeted against other staff or even MPs, is equally unacceptable—I’ve heard about MPs being bullied, targeted and treated appallingly by staffers. Gender is not a restriction, women can abuse men or other women just as much as vice versa.

The public’s opinion

I understand why this is never remarked upon—the public wouldn’t believe it. How could an MP—privileged and powerful—possibly face the same kind of bullying behaviour that staff do? I’ve worked and socialised with MPs for years and I can confirm that they are indeed human beings. Yes, they are certainly privileged to have been elected to Parliament but that does not make them immune to the same emotions and vulnerabilities that we all face in the workplace.

These spectres of bullying and harassment have not been widely recognised and must be addressed. We must ensure that all who are bullied and harassed can expect an equitable hearing. The public interest is poorly served when only one side of the story is exposed.

Every MP’s office is different, but it is ultimately incumbent on the MP to ensure that high standards of behaviour are both expected and enforced. This must start from the top down and requires leadership by example.

The important thing is that all who work on the Parliamentary estate must recognise that they have a duty to confront and address any inappropriate behaviour they witness, wherever it comes from and whomever it’s directed at. We all come here to work for our MPs and their constituents and no one deserves to feel unsafe when they go to work.

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Official communication channels

That’s why, in my office, we maintain good communication channels through regular welfare checks, appraisals and team building. The whole team knows what support is available to them should they need it and there are clear standards of behaviour in the office that are enforced at all levels. My MP fully supports this and we take pride in the fact that our office offers a robust system of support to all staff for any issues they face.

It’s often said that there is no HR support in MPs’ offices. This isn’t true—the Members HR Service provides expert advice, so the MP can address any HR matters. The MP can also authorise a team member to receive this advice on their behalf. So, if a team member has an issue with me, they can take it to the MP and vice versa. Should even that be insufficient, external services can be engaged (for example, should a dispute require a third party to mediate).

Coupled with regular confidential welfare checks, where I check on staff wellbeing and encourage them to raise any concerns they have, my MP and I have worked hard to create a supportive and inclusive work environment.

These procedures are in place to provide a practical and effective route for our staff to raise any concerns they have, and they demonstrate that we are serious when we say that we want to create a welcoming and safe workplace. This applies at all levels—including to the MP—and it is a principle that I am determined to see implemented across the board.

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