Britain’s Parliament has a problem with sexual harassment. Meet the team trying to change that.

A view of the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge.
A view of the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge. (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
  • Conservative MP Rob Roberts was found to have sexually harassed a female intern in May 2020.
  • He’s still in his job, however, owing to a loophole in the legislation. The Women’s Equality Party is fighting to have this changed.
  • One ex-Parliamentary staffer tells Insider of the bullying and harassment she experienced in Westminster – with no justice being served.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The dimly lit halls of Parliament are like a scene from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, with pointed Gothic arches and leather-bound books lining the walls, ensuring that no one forgets that working in the Palace of Westminster is an unforgettable experience.

For some, it is a dream place to work, mixing with government ministers and MPs in a fulcrum of power. It is where history is made by the ‘great and the good.’ However, for many women who enter Westminster as an exciting career move, the institution’s realities reveal a dark truth.

In 2019-20, there were 39 counts of sexual misconduct reported to Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), along with 137 counts of bullying, 20 of harassment, and 68 of bullying and harassment, according to the ICGS’s annual report.

Tara O’Reilly, an ex-Parliamentary staffer, left after a string of bullying and harassment incidents.

“Whenever I experienced sexual harassment, I never took it further. I never reported it officially because I did not – and still wouldn’t – trust the systems that existed, or rather didn’t exist.

“When I did tell people informally, my close friends believed me and supported me, and it was that kind of sisterly protective culture that did exist among young staffers like m that made it all survivable.”

Tara O'Reilly
, an ex-Parliamentary researcher who told Insider of the bullying and harassment she faced as a woman in Westminster. Tara O’Reilly

But outside that close circle, O’Reilly’s complaints were met with a blame-the-victim response.

“Often, when I told other MPs or senior male staffers, the follow-up question would always be along the lines of ‘why did you meet him then, why did you go through with that call. how did you end up in that situation.'”

O’Reilly told Insider that she was “completely alienated” after raising qualms about the culture of bullying in one Parliamentary job by “people she saw as friends.”

No justice for victims of sexual harassment

In April 2020, Conservative MP Rob Roberts sent sexually harassing messages to one of his Parliamentary interns. He told her: “Just thought we could have some fun maybe, no strings … I might be gay but I enjoy fun times.”

The texts, uncovered by the BBC, made the intern’s mental health decline and highlighted the culture of misogyny and harassment within UK politics, the original BBC report shows.

In May 2021, the UK Parliament’s Independent Expert Panel (IEP) released a report that concluded that Roberts indeed carried out acts of sexual misconduct.

But Roberts did not resign, could not be fired, and was only temporarily suspended from the Conservative Party. It wasn’t until May 2021 that Roberts lost the Conservative whip and became an Independent MP.

As per the Recall of MPs Act 2015, constituents can open a petition against their MP, which, if successful, will lead to a by-election – and should the MP lose this election, they lose their jobs.

Rob Roberts' official Parliamentary photograph
Rob Roberts MP UK Parliament

But Roberts escaped this fate due to a loophole in the legislation which means that the 2015 Recall Act cannot be applied to IEP findings because the panel didn’t exist when the law was introduced.

The Women’s Equality Party is working to change that.

The small political party – it has no MPs – is campaigning to amend the legislation so that all MPs who commit such actions are held to account, Tabitha Morton, deputy leader of the WEP, told Insider.

“If you can recall MPs for misuse of finances – for swindling stationary, for example, then why on earth are we not doing that when they harass women and harass their staff, whether that’s bullying or sexual harassment.” She said.

“The important thing is, this is not just about Rob Roberts. He’s just one in a long, long, long line of men who have been found guilty or been accused of sexual harassment and then have stayed in post.

“Sure, they’ve had these moments of a slap on the wrist, and maybe they have to go independent for a bit. But then suddenly, when votes are required, they are brought back into the fold.”

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, told Insider: “The Recall Act is vital to ensure political parties will no longer be able to protect men who abuse their power to abuse women.

That is not an acceptable repercussion for an MP guilty of sexual misconduct. There can be no place in politics for abuse, harassment, or violence against women and girls, and the Recall is a mechanism that enables voters to hold their MPs to account at the ballot box.”