12 Jul 2022

Exclusive: Scale of misconduct in Westminster revealed


Sex and sleaze are threatening the Conservatives’ grip on power – but the problem goes wider than just one party.

A special investigation by Channel 4 News reveals the shocking scale of sexual harassment and bullying in Westminster – and the claims by some staff members that systems designed to protect them are actually making their lives harder.

More than one in ten staff working for MPs across Westminster that we surveyed said they have been sexually harassed, Channel 4 News can reveal, and 51% said that a colleague has confided in them about experiencing sexual harassment.

Sex and sleaze in parliament

The investigation by Channel 4 News has uncovered claims of widespread bullying and sexual harassment in the House of Commons.

We heard from 51 staffers from political parties across Westminster about sexual harassment. A quarter of them told us that they had witnessed sexual harassment taking place.

Speaking anonymously to Channel 4 News, one staff member said, “I’ve seen an MP and a staff member in the bar, the MP grabbing them, holding them. I could see the staff member looking visibly uncomfortable.”

Another told us, “My friend had a really bad experience. Her boss was threatening her, saying ‘if you don’t perform this sexual favour, you won’t progress in your career.’”


Earlier this year, SNP MP Patrick Grady was found by parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme to have sexually harassed a male member of staff. He had to give a public apology in the House of Commons and was suspended for two days. Eight other allegations against him were dismissed.

His victim spoke to Channel 4 News about the incident. He told Cathy Newman, “Patrick Grady came over and started putting his fingers down the back of my neck. It was quite forceful. He was also grabbing and caressing my arm and stroking my lower back.”

When he reported the incident to the complaints service and SNP officials, he told us, “I was cut out of meetings… MPs and staff members gave me the silent treatment. It felt like they were just turning against me and closing ranks.”

“I am aware of people not coming forward because they’re scared of losing their jobs, and I’m living proof of that.”

He said, “to go through a process for that long and to give quite a weak sanction – in my view – of two days, tells me that the [parliamentary complaints systems] think it’s okay for members of parliament to sexually harass staff as long as they’re a little bit sorry for it.”

The police have said there will be no action on the Patrick Grady case.

The SNP told us: “The SNP takes all complaints seriously and the parliamentary group fully accepted and implemented the recommendations of the ICGS. The individual concerned has been offered support, and we have sought to meet to discuss their concerns. We have also initiated a review of staff support to consider any improvements that could be made.”

“A few bad apples”

But it’s not only sexual harassment that is blighting the UK parliament: bullying of MPs’ staff is not uncommon.

Half of the 42 current and former staff members we spoke to on the topic of bullying had first-hand experience of it.

One male staffer told us, “The job shattered my self-confidence in a really horrible way. It’s taken almost three years for me to approach something feeling normal.”

Another said that there are MPs that are informally “blacklisted” among parliamentary staff due to their high turnover in their offices. “The horror stories…are so frequent. I would never recommend to a friend to interview with them”, he told us.

Jenny Symmons, the GMB Union representative in Westminster, and an MP’s staff member herself, told Cathy Newman, “bullying is a lot more tolerated and accepted and happens in various different ways in a lot of offices,” she said. “Through the GMB Union in Parliament we help staff every week with various cases of bullying.”

“I think that when politicians try and say that there are a few bad apples, I really resoundingly condemn that. It’s not a case of a few bad apples. I do think it’s a massive systemic problem in Parliament.”

Getting away with it?

David Barker took his boss, Labour MP Liam Byrne, to the complaints service claiming that he was bullied but found he ended up suffering more as a result.

His complaint took two years to be investigated, and in that time his mental health deteriorated. He told us he didn’t feel like he was being protected by the process.

“In no functioning business would it take nearly two years to interview a handful of people,” he told Channel 4 News. “I was beyond disappointed. I just felt terrible that all I was able to get for two years of my life was two days off work for him.”

Six allegations of bullying against Liam Byrne MP were dismissed, but one was upheld. The commissioner concluded that it “was malicious behaviour that involved a significant misuse of power”.

Witnesses who gave evidence in David’s case were promised anonymity by the complaints service, but that was breached. Their unredacted names and statements were sent directly to the MP Liam Byrne.

We heard from one of those witnesses, who wanted to remain anonymous. He told us, “we’ve all suffered as a result of it, and our careers in politics have suffered.”

According to an exclusive survey conducted by Channel 4 News, nearly three-quarters (71%) of staff members in Westminster we spoke to said they felt speaking out about sexual harassment or bullying would harm their careers. 59% told us that there was no culture of speaking out in Westminster.

Liam Byrne MP had to give an apology to David expressing “genuine remorse” and was also suspended from parliament for two days

A House of Commons spokesperson told Channel 4 News: “We remain committed to streamlining the process and significant work has already been undertaken to reduce delays, including procuring new investigation providers and expanding capacity to deal with casework.

They defended the sanctions imposed, saying the Independent Expert panel had taken into account the serious nature of the breaches and their impact.

The spokesperson also apologised to the witnesses in the Byrne case for giving them incorrect information about anonymity.


Investigation by Anna Drury and Ed Gove

Words by Ed Gove