The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British Parliament is populated by bullies, gropers and sexual harassers, says government report

John Bercow, speaker of the British House of Commons, addresses Parliament on March 22, in London. (Alastair Grant/AP)

LONDON — So it has been revealed that the House of Commons, the fabled “cradle of democracy,” is populated by members of Parliament and their senior staffs who are groping, vulgar, serial sexual harassers, according to an independent inquiry, which on Tuesday generated calls for Speaker John Bercow to resign.

The newly released report by Dame Laura Cox, a retired High Court judge, uncovered a culture “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence,” in which bullying and harassment have been able to thrive.

The judge describes a frat-house-from-hell atmosphere, where the female clerks — the staff members who run the place — endure “frequent inappropriate touching,” with bosses and colleagues “leaving a hand on their knee for an uncomfortably long time,” and trying to kiss them and “grabbing their arms or bottoms.”

The women working at the House of Commons — akin to the U.S. House of Representatives — were also routinely verbally abused, mocked, and insulted in vulgar terms.

They were queried about their sex lives and repeatedly propositioned in an “insidious and pervasive” miasma of male privilege, by what the Brits call “sex pests.”

The report does not say how many members of parliament behaved badly but noted that their “god-like status” made them comfortable they would not be challenged.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was accused of sexism March 27 during a Parliament debate when he referred to a fellow member by her spouse's name. (Video: Reuters)

In response, the House of Commons Executive Board, which is composed of the senior administrative staff, issued a statement, confessing the report “makes difficult reading for all of us,” apologizing for past failings and promising to change "our culture for the better.”

For a long time, the British political class might have known they had a problem at the Palace of Westminster — and if they didn’t know there’s been a string of news reports to enlighten them, most recently a scathing BBC investigation, as well resignations by senior government officials, accused of downloading porn onto their office computers and getting “handsy at parties” with female colleagues.

The latest inquiry heard testimony from 200 people, including some who had settled complaints or left the Commons. The report declined to name names, but blame for the sordid atmosphere has fallen upon Bercow and the clerk of the Commons, Sir David Natzler.

On Tuesday, the heads of two Commons committees said it was time for Bercow, 55, to resign.

The Times of London reported that Bercow in the past was accused of extreme bullying two of his former private secretaries, a man and a woman, leaving Kate Emms, who left her post after just one year, said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Bercow — well-known to viewers who tune in to the weekly “Prime Minister’s Questions” session in the Commons as the berobed and bellowing keeper of order in the raucous chamber — has denied all charges and called for another independent investigation.

At a session on the matter in Parliament on Tuesday, some members said it was not a good time to change speakers, though there was agreement that something needed to be done.

The Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, said, “I would just say to all honorable members, those who attempted to turn a blind eye, or to allow it to go on under their view is, as we all know: for evil to succeed, good men need only do nothing.”