UK Politics

Commons staff told to study abuse report 'very carefully'

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Media captionJohn Bercow was asked earlier this year about bullying allegations against him

Senior House of Commons staff need to make radical changes, a report into bullying and sexual harassment in Parliament has said.

Dame Laura Cox's report details alleged sexual harassment by MPs by women who say they were "inappropriately touched" and "repeatedly propositioned".

"Disturbing" cases have "long been tolerated and concealed", it says.

Speaker John Bercow's office said the claims were "serious" and should be considered "as a matter of urgency".

The House of Commons executive board apologised for "past failings" and said it was "committed to changing our culture".

Dame Laura, a former high court judge, was appointed in March after a Newsnight investigation uncovered complaints about a number of MPs, including Mr Bercow - allegations which he denies.

BBC Newsnight policy editor Chris Cook called Dame Laura's report "uncompromising" and a "thunderbolt".

'Acutely distressing'

Dame Laura described the House of Commons as a "stark reminder of how bad things used to be" and said there was a culture of "deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence".

In her report, she detailed alleged sexual harassment by MPs, saying women reported being abused in "vulgar, gender-related terms".

There were reports of "inappropriate touching", including men "trying to kiss them, grabbing their arms or bottoms or stroking their breasts or bottoms".

Staff reported men putting their arms around women's shoulders or waists or "pulling them into corners for close personal contact".

There were "frequent comments" about women's appearance and suggestions that they should wear "sexier clothing or more make-up". "Derogatory or lewd comments about women's anatomies" were made, the report said.

Staff reported being told off for using the "wrong" toilet or being being told to "get out of the lift now" because MPs wanted to use it.

The effect of the alleged behaviour on some staff had been "acutely distressing, long-lasting and, in some cases, devastating".

One staff member told the review: "I felt physically sick….I would find myself crying in the toilets, I wasn't able to eat or sleep properly."

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According to the report, other allegations of behaviour reported by members of staff included:

  • being shouted at or belittled
  • people swearing at them face to face or over the phone
  • others being "routinely unpleasant, overbearing or confrontational" to them
  • being constantly criticised or having derogatory remarks made about their work
  • being told they are useless and humiliating them in front of others
  • taunting, mocking or mimicking them

While some managers had dealt effectively with complaints from women, Dame Laura said the majority received "evasive responses, in which either their reports were questioned... or belittled".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, Dame Laura said Mr Bercow and other people in positions of leadership, such as the clerk of the House of Commons and the director general of the House of Commons, should read the report "very carefully".

Senior figures, she said, needed to ask themselves "do I understand that radical change is needed, can I deliver that and will the staff have confidence that I can deliver that change?

"If they can't answer yes honestly to those questions they should each of them be considering their position."

In an interview with BBC Two's Newsnight, Dame Laura said it was "not a problem of the past, it's continuing", adding that she was hearing a lot of information about "things that are still going on".

'Not a surprise'

A spokeswoman for Mr Bercow said it was "a serious report into a serious subject which deserves a serious response".

She added: "The House of Commons Commission will meet as a matter of urgency in the coming days to consider the report and our response to it."

Labour MP Jess Phillips told BBC News that the report's findings were "not a surprise" to her.

"I have seen sexism and sexist attitudes," she said. "But people aren't going to pick on me because I'm not powerless.

"What we are talking about is a power imbalance."

Analysis

By Chris Cook, BBC Newsnight policy editor

Dame Laura was commissioned to conduct an independent investigation. She delivered a thunderbolt.

This report, a response to the reports that Lucinda Day and I published in March, is uncompromising.

If the House management commissioned it thinking that she would find that Newsnight had over-egged the problem, they will be sorely disappointed.

She looked, as we did, at the treatment of the clerks - the apolitical staff who run the Commons and its committees.

And she found, as we did, remarkable consistency in the accounts given by staff members about the problems in the House with bullying and harassment.

There are some major conclusions she draws from her analysis of this dysfunctional workplace.

She calls for a huge amount of change - after all, her analysis is that this is "a culture that has actively sought to cover up such abusive conduct".

Read more from Chris Cook

A separate "review of of historical allegations" is also under way, and in July MPs backed a new grievance procedure and behaviour code.

But Dame Laura said it was "difficult to envisage" how solutions could be delivered under the current senior House administration.

The House of Commons executive board said the report made "difficult reading" and added that there was no place for bullying and harassment.

It said it was "determined to learn lessons" from the report, adding that it will meet on 22 October to consider the findings.

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