Sweeping reforms are needed to tackle “pervasive abuse” among MPs and House of Commons staff, a damning report into bullying and sexual harassment in Parliament has found.
The investigation, led ex-judge Dame Laura Cox and launched after allegations of bullying against the speaker of the House of Commons, found the sense of loyalty felt by staff has been “tested to breaking point” by a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence”.
It found institutional failings had allowed bullying and sexual harassment to thrive, and called for an “honest and open acknowledgement” of the shortcomings.
The report read: “Abusive conduct of the kind is pervasive and no workplace is immune, but the culture in which it has been able to take hold in the House of Commons and the ineffective mechanisms for dealing with it make this a particularly serious case.”
John Bercow was among a number of MPs this year accused of bullying by a number of prominent staff members, including leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom and former private secretary Angus Sinclair. Bercow has strenuously denied the claims.
Allegations of sexual harassment in the report included “frequent and inappropriate touching”, men patting women’s heads and putting their arms around women, leaving a hand on their knee “for an uncomfortably long time”.
Other examples included men attempting to kiss women, and grabbing or stroking their arms or bottoms or breasts.
Many of the accounts of bullying, which date back 10 years or more, included shouting and swearing at staff, belittling them and being “routinely unpleasant overbearing or confrontational” towards staff.
Some staff said they were treated “like servants”.
The report urged a tackling of of the “serious” problems “once and for all” in a much-needed broad cultural change.
We need a seismic shift. But the institution is worth fighting for. HoC employee
An unidentified employee at the House of Commons said in the report: “We are proud to work in the House of Commons, but when we are abused those who lead us should support us, not abandon us to our fate and cover up the travel.
“And those who abuse us should be held accountable. Establishing a new complaints and grievance process won’t come close to solving the problems in this place.
“We need a seismic shift. But the institution is worth fighting for.”
Dame Laura called for steps to be taken to ensure that complaints of harassment and bullying are dealt with through an independent process.
The widely-criticised “Valuing Others” and “Revised Respect” policies, which have been called out for being ineffective in dealing with complaints, should be scrapped, the report said.
Allegations of bullying and harassment surfaced last October, when several members of staff employed by MPs complained. Many of them were female.
It emerged that there was a lack of “responsible HR department” to deal with the complaints, which were found to be widespread.
It was followed by further allegations of sexual harassment over several years and news about a “culture of underreporting” emerged, exacerbated by a lack of reporting procedures and support staff.
Contributions were made to the report “in confidence”. Its scope covered workplace culture and did not investigate individual cases.
In a slightly more pointed statement, Dame Laura concluded: “Some individuals will want to think very carefully about whether they are the right people to press the reset button and to do what is required to deliver that change in the best interests of the house, having regard both to its reputation and its role as an employer of those who are rightly regarded as its most important resource.”
It also comes in a year which has seen a number of MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment.
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavillion, tweeted in response to the report: “[The report] is more evidence of need to urgently change culture in Parliament. Still significant work to do on proper independence, restoring trust & to better address historical complaints.”
The House of Commons said bullying and harassment have “no place” in the institution.
A statement read: ”We thank Dame Laura Cox for this report which we are seeing today for the first time. Bullying and harassment have no place in the House of Commons, and the wellbeing of our people will always be our top priority.
“Staff must be confident that unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with seriously, independently and with effective sanctions. Urgent work has already been undertaken to improve internal processes – including the introduction of new confidential support services and helplines run by external, independent specialist providers and a clear pathway for the investigation of allegations.”