Bercow ‘must respond’ to harassment report
Speaker could face a grilling after report highlights an ‘unacceptable’ risk of harassment in Parliament
John Bercow has been told by Theresa May to “respond fully and promptly” to a report that sets out how MPS’ staff face an “unacceptable risk” of bullying and harassment in Parliament. The Prime Minister said it was a matter for the Speaker and other members of the “parliamentary leadership” to take action and force MPS to stop mistreating their staff following the release of the damning report.
JOHN BERCOW has been told by Theresa May to “respond fully and promptly” to a report that sets out how MPS’ staff face an “unacceptable risk” of bullying and harassment in Parliament.
The Prime Minister said it was for the Speaker and other members of the “parliamentary leadership” to take action and force MPS to stop mistreating their employees following the release of a major report.
Gemma White QC, who carried out the inquiry, found that there was a “significant problem” and said many workers felt raising concerns would be “career suicide”.
MPS will now be given a free vote next week on whether to allow investigations into historic complaints prior to June 2017.
It could see Mr Bercow, who chairs the House of Commons Commission which has oversight of the disciplinary process, quizzed formally about allegations of bullying for the first time.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “There can be no place for bullying or abuse in Westminster or any workplace and it’s important that the parliamentary leadership now responds fully and promptly to the concerns raised in this deeply worrying report.”
Mr Bercow said: “Gemma White’s findings are deeply shocking and some of the allegations mentioned in her report should be reported to the police and action taken. It is totally unacceptable for any MP to behave in this way.”
Liz Truss, the Treasury Secretary, said Parliament was an “antediluvian organisation with many archaic practices” that needs modernisation. “That applies to everybody, including the Speaker,” she added.
There are about 3,200 researchers, secretaries and other staff working directly for the 650 MPS in the House of Commons – yet Parliament “does not provide human resources support” to look after them, Ms White found.
‘Very serious sexual assault’
Revealing her findings Ms White said staff had to withstand behaviour ranging from unwelcome sexual advances to “very serious sexual assault”.
Most of the complaints were from women about either male MPS or male members of staff, and dated from the past five years.
Ms White said: “Many of the experiences related to me were of unwelcome sexual advances, often accompanied by attempts at kissing.
“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.”
Some of the more serious incidents occurred when the member of staff was “with the perpetrator in a private space such as a car, a hotel room or the perpetrator’s home”.
Staff complained of “a working environment in which derogatory comments were regularly made about particular women (including themselves), or about women in general”.
“Some were required to listen to discussion of others’ sex lives and relationships and were subjected to intrusive questioning about their own.
“A recurrent theme ... was of MPS volunteering intimate details about the problems they were experiencing with their own personal, and sex, lives.”
MPS’ rage and screaming
Staff reported “being shouted at or sworn at by their MP employer on a regular basis, some daily”.
Ms White recounted how “some contributors described MPS expressing uncontrollable rage, screaming that staff were “**** ing useless” or “**** ing idiots” in front of other staff, other Members and/or constituents”.
These staff “also reported being present when objects (usually pieces of office equipment, sometimes heavy) were thrown in anger by their employer MP, in some cases at them.”
One told how an MP “regularly spoke to staff in a sarcastic, dismissive, mocking or belittling manner, which clearly undermined people’s confidence, including my own”.
Cleaning MP’S flat for party
Ms White received “many examples of tasks which contributors have been asked to carry out for their employer MPS which are plainly not Parliamentary work within their job descriptions”. She said: “Recurring themes are looking after children and pets, carrying out domestic tasks at the Members’ homes, waiting for domestic deliveries, accompanying the Member on personal business, organising personal events for the Member and running personal errands for the Member.”
In one case staff – who are paid by the taxpayer – were asked to “vacuum, clean and dust the Member’s flat ahead of a private party”.
One researcher felt like the MP’S “b **** ”, saying: “It’s a bit like The Devil Wears Prada – you end up just doing personal stuff, no respect for hours, annual leave. You are expected to put 100 per cent of your life into it.”
Staff suffered breakdowns
Many of the victims quit over their treatment, with some suffering nervous breakdowns.
Ms White said: “Over half of the people who I heard from described a serious negative effect on their mental health with some experiencing what they described as very severe mental illness and/or breakdown.”
Some could not make a formal complaint because they had signed a nondisclosure agreement, she heard.
‘Career suicide fear’
Few members of staff complained to a new independent complaints hotline set up two years ago because it would risk “career suicide” if the MPS found out, Ms White heard.
Staff were concerned they could be dismissed from their jobs and blackballed from working for another MP if they complained.
Some had taken concerns to the party whips’ office. But “some contributors felt rather than helping them the whips were more interested in gathering information to use against party members for political purposes”.
Just 34 out of 650 MPS have taken up training on a new behaviour code introduced 12 months ago.
Ms White said it should be made compulsory.
‘Many of the experiences related to me were of unwelcome sexual advances often with attempts at kissing’
‘In one case staff – who are paid by the taxpayer – were asked to vacuum, clean and dust an MP’S flat before a private party’
John Bercow has always denied any allegations of bullying against him