A probe into sexual intimidation and harassment at Westminster has found that MPs’ staff face an “unacceptable risk” of abuse.
The hard-hitting independent investigation heard that some people who work for MPs have to cope with “very serious sexual assault” and having heavy objects thrown at them in bouts of “uncontrollable rage”.
Gemma White QC said there was a “significant problem” about the way some MPs treated those who worked for them.
She said the House of Commons authorities had been too slow to act in response to previous reports into the issue.
“Some staff of Members of Parliament are subject to an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, at work,” she said.
“Most Members of Parliament treat their staff with dignity and respect but the problem of bullying and harassment is sufficiently widespread to require an urgent collective response.
“Recent steps taken by the House of Commons to address bullying and harassment across the Parliamentary community do not engage sufficiently with the particular issues faced by members’ staff, who are in a uniquely vulnerable position because they are directly employed by Members of Parliament.
“Many describe the idea of complaining about bullying and harassment under the new complaints procedure as ‘career suicide’.”
The probe heard that staff working for MPs have been subjected to “very serious sexual assault”.
Ms White said: “The behaviour described to me ranged from ‘jokes’ regarded by those making them – and in one case the MP to whom the member of staff complained – as acceptable workplace banter, all the way through to conduct which can only be described as very serious sexual assault.”
She added: “Many of the experiences related to me were of unwelcome sexual advances, often accompanied by attempts at kissing.
“Many involved some form of unwanted touching: for example breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies.”
Ms White said “Contributors reported being shouted at and/or sworn at by their MP employer on a regular basis.
“Some contributors described members expressing uncontrollable rage, screaming that staff were ‘f***ing useless” or “f***ing idiots’ in front of other staff, other members and/or constituents.
“Some contributors who reported shouting and screaming also told of being present when objects – usually pieces of office equipment, sometimes heavy – were thrown in anger by their employer MP, in some cases at them.”
One staff member told the investigation: “As long as getting political jobs in Parliament are dependent on who you know and who you’re related to, sexual harassment will be a necessary evil for ambitious young… people like me who will choose our careers over our comfort every time.”
Downing Street described Ms White’s report as “deeply worrying”.
“The findings in this report are appalling and raise serious concerns,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
Commons Speaker John Bercow said: “Gemma White’s findings are deeply shocking and some of the allegations mentioned in her report should be reported to the police and action taken. It is totally unacceptable for any MP to behave in this way.
“The Speaker does not have any powers over MPs in relation to their staff. However, he believes strongly that the House should restrict the sale of alcohol on the estate, consider the introduction of CCTV in MPs’ offices and encourage all members to go on employer training courses.”
Ms White’s investigation was ordered last year by the then leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, following a highly critical report by Dame Laura Cox which highlighted the widespread bullying and harassment of staff.
In her findings, Ms White said such behaviour had been “tolerated and accepted” for too long.
“It has seriously affected the health and welfare of far too many people,” she said.
“There is a pressing need for a collective response to what is clearly a significant problem.
“I am concerned by the amount of time it has taken to act on recommendations from previous reports and would urge the House to move more swiftly.
“While the House of Commons is not alone in tolerating these behaviours, it is the home of our policy makers and a taxpayer-funded institution. It should therefore be at the forefront of good employment practice.”
Ms White called on Parliament to impose a range of new employment measures, including allowing former staff members to make historical complaints about MPs.
Commons Leader Mel Stride told MPs there will be a “general debate” on the report followed by a “debate on a motion relating to the changes to the independent complaints and grievance scheme” next week.
Valerie Vaz MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, responding to the publication of The Bullying and Harassment of Members of Parliament Staff report led by Gemma White QC, said:
“There is no place for sexual harassment or bullying in any workplace. The accounts it contains are shocking and totally unacceptable.
“The House of Commons has introduced an independent complaints process to deal with cases of bullying and sexual harassment under the supervision of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Labour has supported the scheme being accessible to those with historic complaints as well as those no longer working in Parliament.
“It is clear that more must be done to ensure that the culture of Parliament is one where those with complaints feel supported and able to challenge those in a position of power and authority.
“There is also a clear role for political parties which do not directly employ Members of Parliament’s staff, but have a pastoral care role. That is why in 2014 Labour MPs changed their standing orders to allow staff to bring cases through the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as being able to access the party’s complaints procedure.
“Labour thanks Gemma White QC for her report and will look seriously at the detail of the recommendations. We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to make parliament a modern workplace with zero tolerance of any form of bullying or harassment.
“Labour calls on the government to ensure the necessary time in the House of Commons to debate and implement changes to the independent complaints process before the summer recess.”