STAFF working for lawmakers in Britain’s lower house of parliament face an unacceptable risk of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse, which has been hidden because they fear reprisals, according to an official report on Thursday (11).
An independent inquiry, led by lawyer Gemma White, was commissioned after parliament became one of several institutions to become embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal after abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein prompted women and men to share stories about improper behaviour.
Employees working in the House of Commons were subjected to harassment ranging from “very serious” sexual assault to sexist comments and lawmakers sharing explicit details of their own sex lives, the report said.
Many of the advances involved attempts at kissing, breasts being grabbed, buttocks slapped and thighs being stroked.
“There is an unacceptable level of sexual ‘banter’ and unwelcome discussion of intimate sexual details,” it added.
The report, based on information from more than 200 people, said abuse was widespread and that workplace harassment had been accepted for too long.
One witness described how senior lawmakers’ staff used parliament’s bars to meet young men and women “in the hopes that we will have sex with them to further our careers”.
Another said that sexual harassment in parliament was “a necessary evil” for ambitious people who wanted to succeed but did not have connections.
The report said many employees were in a uniquely vulnerable position because they worked directly for lawmakers with scant oversight and were afraid to complain fearing it would be “career suicide”.
The report found that some lawmakers routinely bullied their staff by shouting at them and humiliating them in front of colleagues.
Staff were also asked to carry out personal and domestic tasks for lawmakers, including looking after children and pets, or waiting at their homes for deliveries and running errands.
“The constant ‘drip, drip’, as more than one contributor put it, eats away at the employees’ self-confidence until they become anxious, exhausted and ill, incapable of performing their job,” the report added.
Despite a widespread problem being identified, only 35 out of 650 lawmakers attended voluntary training to tackle workplace bullying and harassment, it said.
In response, the House of Commons Commission, which is responsible for administration of the chamber, said it condemned bullying and harassment and offered its support to anyone so treated.
A spokesman for prime minister Theresa May said the findings were “appalling” and that parliamentary leadership must respond fully and promptly.
MP Valerie Vaz, Labour MP for Walsall South and the Shadow Leader of the Commons, called the findings “shocking and unacceptable”.
“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,” Vaz was quoted as saying.
She added: “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.”