A “power imbalance” in Westminster is undermining attempts to improve the complaints system for people suffering from harassment, Labour insiders have said.
During a week in which Swansea West MP Geraint Davies was suspended over multiple allegations of harassment against women in Westminster, there have been calls for the Labour Party to reflect on its complaints process.
There are concerns that changes will not be effective without root and branch reform of the way such complaints are handled.
Labour sources told i political parties are more concerned with protecting their own reputation than tackling sexual harassment head on.
Mr Davies was suspended, which also means having the whip withdrawn, leaving him sitting as an independent MP.
It comes after Politico reported on Thursday that five women had accused Mr Davies of subjecting them to unwanted sexual attention, both physical and verbal, after coming into contact with them through his work as an MP. Mr Davies told the publication he did not recognise the allegations.
Several of the alleged incidents are said to have taken place on the parliamentary estate, with one woman claiming she was just 19 years old at the time.
According to sources in the party, allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Mr Davies – who has said he does “not recognise” the reported instances – were widely known, but the party took no action, due to the lack of formal complaints logged.
This changed when the allegations was published, sparking a promise from the party that it would tackle the issue swiftly.
But one female Labour staffer told i that the system was difficult to fix because of a two-tiered workplace within Westminster, in which MPs work alongside junior staff members.
“Whatever you do there will be a power imbalance, so people who are victims of harassment won’t feel able to complain,” she said. “I don’t know how you fix that and also continue to make it a fair process.
“Ultimately, you still need to protect people from false allegations so you can’t have a fully anonymous structure.”
She added: “Also the structures of parliament will continue to create a power imbalance – for example, staff can’t go on the Terrace or buy drinks in Strangers [the Parliamentary bar] so they may be more friendly with MPs and then feel unable to complain because they were invited into a space that wasn’t theirs.”
She said that the speed of the response of the party to the public reports of allegations, including the email from Mr Evans promising to review the system, was a welcome development but argued it was just an initial step in the right direction.
Labour sources said the formal suspension of Mr Davies was launched because the level of detail in the reported complaints met the bar required. A spokesperson said the party had and would continue to encourage any complainants to come forward.
They added that the complaints process had been completely overhauled under the new leadership and have been developed with stakeholders, with specific work done to try and ensure confidence in the system.
Female MPs were reportedly among those who have spoken out about incidents. One told i that the current system does not work because the whips’ office – the group of MPs responsible for party discipline – have to perform too many conflicting functions.
“There are three functions that the whip’s offices have, which is vote discipline, behavioural discipline, and pastoral support. But they can’t really do all of those three things,” she said.
“You would want something that was about behaviour and conduct that is kept separate to how people are voting.”
She added: “No party’s got clean hands on this. When we talk about it being a cultural and systemic issue within Westminster, it is very much baked into every part of how the place functions.
“At every single layer, the whole way that things go down, individual arbitrators are protected. But also the parties are much more interested in covering their own arses and protecting their own reputations.”
Labour has faced accusations that it was pushed into acting to suspend Mr Davies as he was only suspended when the reports were published in news outlets.
“Given that the party had known about all sorts of things about his conduct realistically, nothing had changed between the day was suspended and this time last week, except for the fact it was in the press,” the MP said.
Sources within the party pushed back at suggestions it was protecting its own reputation, arguing that recent suspensions are proof that the party “operated without fear of favour” even when it would trigger by-elections.