LONDON — A damning new report published this week has shone a spotlight on the intimidation and harassment experienced by some of the staff members who work in the House of Commons.
Over the past two years, allegations of inappropriate behavior have reached the top levels of government. Michel Fallon, the former defense secretary, left his post after he said his behavior had “fallen short.” Damian Green, the former de facto deputy prime minister, also resigned after allegations that he had pornography on his parliamentary office computer.
The latest report largely focuses on the staff that work for the 650 members of Parliament, who effectively run 650 small businesses. Lawmakers recruit and hire their own staff, who can be much younger and beholden to their bosses for career advancement.
The report, written by lawyer Gemma White, found that “most Members of Parliament treat their staff with dignity and respect but the problem of bullying and harassment is sufficiently widespread to require an urgent collective response.”
The White investigation follows a separate probe published Wednesday into the culture of the House of Lords, the unelected upper house, which documented reports of “unacceptable behavior” by “known offenders.”
White found that several staff members said they didn’t lodge complaints as they were considered tantamount to “career suicide.”
She also said that there were reports of behavior “which can only be described as very serious sexual assault.”
“Many of the experiences related to me were of unwelcome sexual advances, often accompanied by attempts at kissing,” White wrote. “Many involved some form of unwanted touching: for example breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies.”
House of Commons leader Mel Stride said that there would be a debate on the report next week that would consider opening up the complaints systems to past allegations.
“Over the last year, we have made significant progress that will help bring about meaningful culture change, but there remains more to be done,” Stride told the House of Commons.
Valerie Vaz, a Labour lawmaker, responded to the allegations by saying “there is no place for sexual harassment or bullying in any workplace. The accounts it contains are shocking and totally unacceptable.”
The report didn’t name names. But here is a sampling of the allegations made by past and present employees:
One intern said he had been sexually propositioned by older men in the Parliamentary bars.
“My approach has been to brush it off and to pretend it’s all a joke but it’s not a joke — these are senior Members’ staff (senior advisors, office managers, senior party staff) who use the bars to meet young men like me or young women in the hopes that we will have sex with them to further our careers. I would never in a million years dream of coming forward to lodge a formal complaint against any of the men who have touched or propositioned me because I actually want to have a career in Parliament at the end of my internship.”
One aide said that the MP they worked for “would intimidate, mock and undermine me every day, often shouting at me. On one or two occasions staff members from nearby offices came to check on me, after [the MP] had left. On one particular occasion, [the MP] stood directly over shouting at me for over ten minutes. . . . I don’t think of myself as a particularly soft individual, but there were occasions I found myself crying on the way to work, the only time I have cried since I was a child.”
The MP they worked for, said one employee, “would send emails at all hours of the day, including weekends, expecting an immediate response, and would accuse me of letting [them] down if [they] didn’t get one. This included contacting me when I was on a planned holiday, and when I had to urgently visit a dying family member as part of compassionate leave.”
White said that the majority of the 200-plus she heard from said they experience a “serious negative effect on their mental health.” “One contributor described being sick every day on the way to work, crossing the road thinking if they were run over they would not need to go in to work,” she wrote.
“Helping an MP make preparations for a reception in [their] Parliamentary office, for example, is a normal part of a Parliamentary Researcher’s work,” one staffer said. “But when the MP requests that the Researcher should vacuum, clean and dust the Member’s flat ahead of a private party, a line has been crossed.”