Complaints about mistreatment in the British Parliament have percolated for years, in part owing to the vast power asymmetry between lawmakers and the young staff members who surround them.
LONDON — A scathing new report on Britain’s House of Commons released on Monday describes a culture of bullying, abuse and sexual harassment “as embedded as it is shocking,” where complaints of mistreatment are typically muffled by “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence.”
The inquiry, led by a former high court judge, Dame Laura Cox, was commissioned in March, after a BBC report found that harassment complaints were often batted away by employees trained to protect the interests of senior staff members.
Among the legislators named in the March BBC report was Speaker John Bercow, the chair of the House of Commons commission, which oversees the administration of the House. Bercow, a flamboyant, foghorn-voiced Conservative who has occupied the post since 2009, has denied the allegations.
Though Cox did not specifically address Bercow in her report, she wrote that “the core, cultural context” must be changed, and that doing so would most likely require a generational turnover.
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“I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration,” she wrote.
Though a new grievance procedure was introduced over the summer, Cox described it as insufficient, and called for a process to review claims dating from before the start of the last Parliament, in 2017. Existing disciplinary reviews, she added, should be “an entirely independent process,” in which lawmakers would play no part.
Complaints about mistreatment in the British Parliament have percolated for years, in part owing to the vast power asymmetry between lawmakers and the young staff members who surround them. Employees have no independent personnel body to appeal to with complaints, and are instead told to inform party whips, in-house disciplinarians notorious for stockpiling compromising information for use in later negotiations.
Last year, following revelations about sexual misconduct by the Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein, women came forward with a dam-burst of allegations about the situation in the House of Commons, making allegations that ranged from unwanted touching and sexual remarks to kissing and groping.
Around a dozen members of Parliament came under investigation. The first secretary of state, Damian Green, a close ally of Prime Minister Theresa May, was found to have breached the ministerial code of conduct and was forced to resign from the Cabinet in December.
Cox’s report, which was based on information from more than 200 people, mostly current House staff members, described a clubby atmosphere in which lawmakers and senior staff members “regard themselves as a special breed and as an elite,” and think little of publicly deriding lower-ranking employees. Only six of the respondents, she writes, reported that they had never been mistreated.
“Some of the allegations involved shocking or abhorrent behavior, which would evoke outrage in any place of work, but which has profound implications in the House of Commons,” the report says.
Female employees described “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.” Others said they were repeatedly propositioned or touched inappropriately.
Complaints, the report said, were often dismissed by senior staff members, described by one respondent as “people who don’t want to rock the boat, people who want to tell you their own perspectives about being previously bullied themselves, as if it’s supposed to make you feel better.”
One respondent, who took a job in Parliament after working in other organizations, described being “shocked by the almost godlike status accorded to MPs, who must always be treated with kid gloves, and shocked by the level of deference of staff, which fell into the obsequious category more often than not.”
Cox noted how frequently the phrase “master and servant” emerged in her inquiry, though it had “last appeared in the legal textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Transparent mechanisms for reviewing reports of abuse by members of Parliament were not introduced until 2011, a fact that Cox describes as “frankly astonishing.”
Late on Monday, a statement from the House of Commons executive board described the report as “difficult reading for us all.”
“We fully accept the need for change and, as a leadership team, are determined to learn lessons from the report,” said the statement, signed by Mark Jenner, the board’s communications manager. “We apologize for past failings and are committed to changing our culture for the better. As Dame Laura recognizes, this will not be achieved overnight.”