Rising helpline calls from workers in parliament reflect ‘systemic issues’

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The number of calls made to a 24/7 counselling helpline for workers in parliament and MPs’ employees has risen over the past year. Callers have raised issues such as bullying and sexual misconduct.

A union leader said the helpline is only treating the symptoms of endemic issues in Westminster and not the root cause.

Systemic issues

Figures obtained by the PA news agency show the number of calls has risen year on year.

Jenny Symmons, chair of GMB’s branch for MPs’ staff, said that not all those who needed help were seeking it. And moreover:

much more intervention is needed to address the systemic issues with bullying and harassment, sexual misconduct, unhealthy work patterns, and other problems that have permeated our workplace for decades

She added:

These figures do not show all those staff needing help in Parliament – only those seeking it.

Read on...

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Parliament has made huge headway in supporting MPs’ staff pastorally. As more effort has been made to publicise the (Employee Assistance Programme) during the pandemic, more staff have made use of it.

However, services offering mental health support are only treating the symptoms of cultural issues in Parliament – not the cause.

Employee Assistance Programme

The Employee Assistance Programme was set up in 2014 initially for MPs’ staff. But in October 2018, this was expanded to include staff of both the House of Commons and House of Lords administrations, members of the House of Commons, peers and their staff.

A staff handbook for the Commons describes the helpline as offering 24/7 support, 365 days a year. It offers “practical advice and guidance as well as online, telephone and face-to-face counselling and support on a broad range of issues”.

Findings

Between 1 May 2020 and 30 April 2021, at least 1,073 calls were made to the helpline. 979 of those were from Commons staff and 94 from those who work for MPs. The vast majority of these were for mental health issues, followed by legal problems and work. But other concerns ranged from relationships to trauma, and whistleblowing.

This had risen from at least 973 in the same period the year before, with 934 calls from House of Commons staff and 39 from MPs’ employees.

The true figures may be higher as some were redacted to protect confidentiality. And the breakdown did not include House of Lords staff, peers or MPs.

Garry Graham is deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, which represents staff working in the Houses of Parliament. He told PA:

These figures show the magnitude of the effect a year of Covid pressure has had on parliamentary staff.

The impact was amplified by the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg’s insistence on physical attendance at a time when many of the lower paid cooks and cleaners were genuinely afraid that coming to work might put their health at risk.

Staff wellbeing

The wellbeing of staff was raised in the Commons on Thursday 8 July. Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire said there were concerns over former Conservative MP Rob Roberts potentially returning to the estate, despite an independent panel finding he sexually harassed a member of his team.

Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle said the wellbeing of parliamentary staff, who number around 3,000, was a “top priority”. And he said he was pleased that they weren’t “suffering in silence”.

He told PA:

As staff begin to return to Parliament in the coming weeks, we will continue to encourage them to use the services of our onsite GP, mental health first aiders and health screening awareness programme – while also promoting the 24-hour helpline.

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