Sexual harassment by MPs is a “widespread problem” in the the House of Commons, a damning reporting into bullying and abuse at Westminster has found.
It warned that male MPs become “increasingly boorish” when they get together.
And it suggested that restrictions on Commons bars were needed, to stop MPs drinking during working hours.
The findings were published by Dame Laura Cox, who was appointed by senior House of Commons managers to investigate claims of appalling behaviour in the House of Commons.
She uncovered what she called: “A culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”
Highlighting sexual harassment by male MPs, she said she received reports of:
frequent inappropriate touching;
the invasion of someone’s personal space;
repeatedly initiated physical contact, for example men patting women’s heads, putting their arms around women, leaving a hand on their knee for an uncomfortably long time, trying to kiss them, grabbing their arms or bottoms or stroking their breasts or bottoms;
women being abused in vulgar, gender-related terms if they failed to do something that had been requested, or did it in a way that was considered inadequate or took too long;
women being repeatedly propositioned; and similar allegations from some men.
All the reports came from victims of sexual abuse or people who saw it with their own eyes.
She said: “It is not possible to put a precise figure on the number of MPs alleged to have behaved in this way.
“The most serious allegations related to the alleged ‘predatory’ conduct of a few individuals, but overall the allegations indicate that sexual harassment has been a more widespread problem, and it crosses the political sphere.”
‘Boorish’ behaviour from male MPs when they get together
Male MPs behaved worse when they got together, she said.
“There were reports too of groups of male MPs becoming increasingly boorish on occasions when they were together, of frequent sexual innuendos, lewd comments or sexual gestures, or women repeatedly being asked questions about their sex lives, or about their personal lives generally, which they found offensive and humiliating.”
Some women said that action was taken when complained – but others said they received “evasive responses” and asked questions such as “are you sure you didn’t do anything to cause it?”
‘I felt physically sick … I would find myself crying in the toilets’
Staff also experienced bullying she said – and the effects on some people have been “long lasting and, in some cases, devastating.”
One member of staff told the inquiry: “I felt physically sick….I would find myself crying in the toilets, I wasn’t able to eat or sleep properly and I began to feel consistently unwell.”
Dame Laura said: “Members of Parliament shouting abuse at staff was something frequently referred to, with the abusive phrase ‘you’re f***ing useless,’ shouted at close quarters, being described independently, by a number of people working in different departments, as a regular event.”
Stop MPs drinking to reduce the problem
She suggested that MPs should be prevented from drinking during working hours to reduce their bad behaviour.
“The possible role played, in some of these cases, by a ready access to alcohol in the various bars on the premises was referred to by several contributors. The steps taken so far to restrict access to alcohol during working hours may need to be revisited.”
There is an unhealthy “us and them” culture in Parliament, with MPs encouraged to jump queues or to ask for lifts to be cleared for them to use, Dame Laura said.
“Some staff, described being told to leave a table in one of the bars because they were ‘just staff’ and could go and drink elsewhere, or being told aggressively to ‘get out of the lift now’ because some MPs wanted to use it.”
Other incidents included
frequently targeting a member of staff with personal abuse;
constantly criticising or making derogatory remarks about their work;
shouting or speaking aggressively at staff, and often junior members of staff, for not doing something they wanted, or not doing it sufficiently quickly;
telling them they are useless and humiliating them in front of others;
taunting, mocking or mimicking them;
deliberately belittling them in front of other Members;
making offensive personal comments about their appearance or perceived characteristics, or questioning them repeatedly about theirpersonal life;
Staff also reported being told off for using the “wrong” toilet.
Challenge for Commons Speaker John Bercow
Dame Laura suggested senior Commons officials had allowed a culture of bullying and abuse to continue – and her report suggests nothing will change until top Commons officials, possibly including Commons Speaker John Bercow, are removed.
She said the culture in the House of Commons needed to change, but added: “However, the level of trust and confidence in the senior House administration to deliver on that promise is now so low that few contributors to this inquiry consider it likely to happen, at least not within the foreseeable future.”
And while she did not name any individual, she said that references to the senior House administration included “the Clerk of the House; the Director General; the Executive Board; the House of Commons Commission; the Speaker’s Office.”