Great Britain

Westminster’s toxic culture and unwillingness to change is a threat to our democracy

Every day in parliament, as a parliamentary assistant, I met hardworking people who came to Westminster to make a real difference to society. These inspiring humans – from untiring secretaries to diligent researchers – often they dedicated their lives to making our communities a better place to live and work.

In return for being at the beating heart of politics, they spent long hours toiling for relatively small salaries, particularly during election times when their whole lives revolved around the elected official they worked for.

I’ve moved on from my days at Westminster, and no longer work within party politics at all. Nonetheless, I was horrified at the recent sexual assault allegations and cases.

Former Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, was convicted on three counts of sexual assault and this week sentenced to two years for sexually assaulting two women. The judge remarked that Elphicke was a sexual predator who used “success and respectability as a cover". In July, ex-Labour MP, Eric Joyce admitted to a child sex offence, and a current Tory MP, Rob Roberts, was accused of propositioning a female intern to “fool around with no strings”. Meanwhile, at the beginning of August, a Conservative MP was arrested on allegations of raping a woman in her 20s, who worked in parliament.

That’s a big line-up of sexual predators for any organisation, not least one with just 3000 staff. It’s no surprise then, that there have been urgent calls to reform the toxic culture within the House of Commons. After all, the safety of its staff is being called into question. Much like the historic building itself, certain aspects of the institution’s culture belong to a different era.

In 2017, the #MeToo movement swept through Westminster’s hallowed halls, and it seemed like change was finally on the cards. Dame Laura Cox reported that the parliamentary estate was rife bullying and sexual harassment, and there was currently no effective means of dealing with it.

Like many parliamentary staffers past and present, I felt validated. It was the first time MPs openly acknowledged the “deference” and “silence” and the fact some are abandond to their “fate” while other "cover up the traces,” as Cox stated in her report, claiming it’s a workplace not offering protection to those who report bullying or sexual harassment.

I was shocked and disappointed, in 2014, to learn that there was no overarching management structure or complaints procedure for parliamentary workers. And now, it seemed as though the rest of the world was just as surprised and dismayed.

Unfortunately, it’s become all too clear that parliament was just paying lip-service to a topical issue. There has been little action on sexual harassment and bullying since 2017, aside from the production of another lengthy report reconfirming this very issue, and the introduction of a bullying and harassment helpline – which incidentally, took almost four times the number of calls expected in its first year alone.

Despite making all the right noises in response to the #MeToo scandal, Westminster has shown – once again – its resistance to change. Charlie Elphicke's colleagues allegedly knew about the allegations of sexual assault nearly a year before police.

By failing to inform law-enforcement officials, individuals who witness or are aware of sexual assault are complicit in the perpetrator’s actions, and help create a culture that normalises sexual harassment and bullying.

It’s ethical issues like sexual assault – and those like the MP’s expenses scandal –that undermine the very foundations of our democracy. They lead the electorate to lose faith in our leaders, and disengage with party politics.

The highly centralised Westminster model of governance is coming under increased threat, and the United Kingdom is arguably on the brink of collapse, with growing support for Scottish independence and reunification in Ireland.

Could Westminster’s unwillingness to change bring about the collapse of the UK? It sounds far-fetched, but it was the EU’s constant refusal to reform that led Cameron to call a membership referendum. And right now, it looks like Westminster is facing similar demands on its culture.

We need senior politicians to push our parliament into the 21st-century, and this includes reforming a toxic culture that has seen cases of sexual harassment and bullying to go unchecked.

If MPs cannot look after the most vulnerable in their own building, then how can we trust them to look after the most vulnerable in the UK?

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