A couple of months ago, a 24-year-old MP's staffer named Stella Tsantekidou was at an event in parliament. There, she met a member of the House of Lords and arranged a work meeting with him soon after.
"He asked me to go for tea with him to discuss the topic of the event,'' she tells Refinery29. However, when she showed up at this meeting, "the first thing he said was 'Just so you know, I only invited you because I find you very attractive'."
Stella is 24; the lord in question is considerably older. "He’s old enough to be my grandfather," she adds.
We know – from the hideous "Legs-it" front page that objectified Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon only two years ago – that all too often, women in politics are not taken seriously and judged on their looks instead. Stella’s experience is just one of many similar stories in that vein.
"The meeting went downhill," she explains, "with him asking why I didn’t choose to become a model or an actress and chose politics instead. We were in one of the tea rooms and there were MPs I knew all around. It was very uncomfortable."
The first thing he said was 'Just so you know, I only invited you because I find you very attractive'.
Unfortunately, Stella’s experience is far from an isolated one. A report published earlier this month by Gemma White QC found that while "most members of parliament treat their staff with dignity and respect," bullying and sexual harassment in Westminster is "sufficiently widespread to require an urgent collective response." Responding to the findings, outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May said the situation was "deeply worrying".
The culture of harassment and bullying isn’t much better in the House of Lords. An inquiry conducted by Naomi Ellenbogen QC found that one in five staff had experienced bullying or harassment in the Lords. Describing their experience of a peer, one contributor told the inquiry: "She is parliamentary royalty in many people’s minds – never meet your heroes, I’ve decided. She has a reputation, but she’s untouchable. She is very rude and no one knows how to deal with her."
Reflecting on her experience a couple of months later, Stella says: "I have considered not going to similar events. I saw him on the street outside parliament, he looked at me and I turned the other way to avoid him, but then one day I thought, fuck, he and men like him are just some old wimps with no social skills or human empathy, if anyone should be afraid of us running into each other it should be him. Not me."
Ever since the women who claim they were abused by Harvey Weinstein went public with their accusations, taking the #MeToo movement global, abuses of power have been exposed. Sadly, the revelations about harassment and bullying in parliament have come as no surprise to anyone with experience working in Westminster. There has long been a culture of silence, whispers about who to avoid working for or standing close to in the parliament bars, but despite these open secrets, holding politicians to account for their inappropriate behaviour has proved to be very difficult, even in the current climate.
Working for an MP is often exciting and unpredictable (especially now, with Brexit), and if you’re a parliamentary assistant, you get to work in the Palace of Westminster. For most, the experience is a good one and the beginning of a career in politics but, as White’s report has found, for too many it is a difficult and even abusive experience.
There has long been a culture of silence, whispers about who to avoid standing close to in the parliament bars...
Men aren't the only perpetrators. Alex* was working as a senior assistant to an MP in the House of Commons when he experienced abuse from his female MP boss. It was so serious that he ended up "on the verge of tears in front of friends and colleagues" in what he now describes as a "confidence shattering" experience which was "one of the worst periods of his life."
"You’re meant to be clever, you went to Oxford!" she would shout at him, as well as asking him to discuss the size of her breasts. Eventually, he resigned but the inappropriate behaviour didn’t stop when he moved jobs.
"After I left, she would do things like tell MPs that I was an alcoholic who stole wine from her at events – when actually she gave me a bottle of wine at an event," he explains.
Alex did not tell anyone beyond his close friends about what he’d been through, but then allegations of inappropriate behaviour regarding the MP he had worked for surfaced in the press.
"When there were reports in the press about her behaviour, I found out she was telling other MPs that she sacked me, which is not true, and that it was me telling the press about her, which was again not true," Alex explains.
"It was to the point where I had a doctor's appointment and talked it through with my GP – and they actually doubled the strength of my antidepressants because of the stress."
Serious as it is, the psychological toll this bullying took on Alex is not uncommon among Westminster staffers. In her report, Gemma White found that "well over half of the people" who she heard from experienced "a serious negative effect on their mental health".
My GP doubled the strength of my antidepressants because of the stress.
However, as Kerri Prince, a senior parliamentary researcher explains, it’s not only MPs and members of the Lords who are to blame. "I have experienced sexual harassment a few times in my three years, and it has all come from contractors who are on site," she says. "I've been wolf whistled at, and that was while walking across the estate and it was by a group of men who were working on site."
Reflecting on how she responded to the wolf whistling, she explains: "It stunned me for a few seconds but I just kept on walking. What else, realistically, could I have done?"
There are many bars on the parliamentary estate, and it’s not uncommon to go for a drink with colleagues after work. However, Kerri explains that those same men who wolf whistled at her will often drink in the same bar. "Those same men will be in Sports and Social (a parliament bar where mainly MP staffers hang out), staring and having the sort of 'banter' that I've only ever heard from a university sports club, which makes me feel physically uncomfortable around them."
Kerri’s experience illustrates the chilling reality that inappropriate behaviour in political environments is so widespread, the behaviour of MPs towards staff is only part of the issue in a workplace where there is no central HR department (MPs' offices are considered 'small businesses' and therefore not accountable to a higher power).
Parliamentary staffers do have access to an employee assistance programme and two helplines, the Independent Bullying & Harassment Reporting Helpline and an Independent Sexual Misconduct Advisory Service, both of which aim to provide free, independent and confidential support. However many of the staffers I speak to do not use it, or are reluctant to do so because of lack of trust.
This is understandable because historically, the major parties haven’t been great at stepping up to the plate when it comes to harassment.
"I felt like we were making progress," says Kerri. "That those who harass people would stop because we were united in being vocal against it." However, over 18 months later, not much has changed. "The voices are quiet now. And the worst thing is that the one organisation I thought was different – the Labour Party – turned out to be bloody awful at doing what is right. They've become an organisation of nepotism that protects those that harass as long as they're friends of those in power."
The behaviour of MPs towards staff is only part of the issue in a workplace where there is no central HR department.
It is now clear that it’s not just parliament that hasn’t been functioning properly when it comes to transparent and trusted complaints procedures for victims of bullying and harassment, but political parties, too. The Muslim Council of Britain recently accused the Conservative Party of "fundamental failures" in tackling Islamophobia, and Labour MPs and groups such as LabourToo have called for independent processes for tackling antisemitism, bullying and sexual harassment.
Most politicians enter politics because they want to represent their community’s interests and believe they are best placed to do so. It is in politicians' best interests to keep their constituents on their side, and a healthy democracy has high levels of political engagement from the public. But a report by the Fawcett Society into public perceptions of sexual harassment in Westminster found that 29% of the overall respondents agreed that accusations of sexual harassment made them less likely to get involved in politics. Seventy-seven percent, meanwhile, said there should be clear policies and procedures for people working in Westminster to report concerns about sexual harassment or assault.
Although welcomed by most, for some people the publishing of Gemma White’s report has meant reliving the painful past – with some staffers feeling anxious and powerless after reading it.
"The report frustrated me and saddened me, but did not surprise me," one staffer told me anonymously. "When I worked in parliament, everyone I knew who worked for an MP was a victim of micro-aggressions or worked under very poor conditions – low pay, long hours, little recognition."
"We were put in situations where we were walking into meetings with people who had been accused of verbal, physical and sexual harassment. It really was normalised, dealing with these people was just part of the job," they added.
Following the report, MPs held a debate on bullying and harassment of MPs’ parliamentary staff, and voted to allow the parliamentary complaints scheme to investigate historical allegations of bullying and harassment in parliament. Yet despite the report's damning findings – and the recommendation that the problem is widespread enough to "require an urgent collective response" – fewer than 30 MPs attended the debate.
There is a feeling that the debate attendance has revealed that MPs simply do not take the issue seriously, and quite frankly, there is very little incentive for them to do so.
It was gaslighting. I was afraid to go into the office and afraid to leave it.
"I have very little faith in a culture shift in Westminster unless there are some fundamental changes in the Westminster structure – the whole place is currently structured to make MPs feel 'special', to massage egos, and it makes them feel invincible," the same staffer said, adding: "I don't think they get it. They think there are some difficult bosses that sometimes expect too much, but it wasn't like that in my case. It was gaslighting. I was afraid to go into the office and afraid to leave it. And when I look back now from a position of safety I find that ludicrous, but it's true. But basically I've realised today that I'm still too traumatised to speak out against her, even with anonymity."
It’s time Westminster – from parliament to political parties to MPs and other senior figures – reflects on the findings in White's report. They must consider how they, directly through their own behaviour or attitudes, or inadvertently by not saying or doing anything at all, perpetuate the toxic culture in Westminster. Parliamentary staffers, like all employees, deserve to work in an environment free of harassment and bullying.
Even post #MeToo, culture change here has been slow.
A combination of low trust in political party processes and the unavoidable power imbalance between politicians and their staff means that even post #MeToo, culture change here has been slow. As one parliamentary staffer tells me: "Harassment and bullying happens, but there is nothing good that comes from reporting it – that's how it feels."
If a staffer working for a politician – an elected representative, remember – at the heart of democracy feels that the system does not protect them, how can Westminster expect other workplaces in the UK to take sexual harassment and bullying seriously?
The House of Lords has released a statement saying that "some of the behaviour exhibited by both staff and members revealed in the Ellenbogen Report is entirely unacceptable". They added that they are now "embarking on a process of change" and have "agreed to establish a Steering Group made up of staff, members and others to move things forward."
In a separate statement, the House of Commons said that "bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff is totally unacceptable and the Commission reiterates its support to anyone in the parliamentary community who has suffered in this way."
"The Commission has already put in place a number of measures before and since Dame Laura Cox QC published her report into bullying and harassment of House staff last October."
*Some names have been changed to protect identities