Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

U.K. Parliament Workers Face ‘Unacceptable’ Abuse, Report Says

LONDON — A blistering report on the House of Commons in Britain said on Thursday that people working for members of Parliament faced “an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment” but often remained silent because complaining, even under a new grievance procedure, amounted to “career suicide.”

The investigation, led by Gemma White, a lawyer, called for “a fundamental shift away from regarding members of Parliament as ‘650 small businesses’ with near complete freedom to operate in relation to their staff.”

In the report, people working for lawmakers said their tenure was almost unbearable, with one employee describing it as “the most stressful and hostile period of my life.” Another said that sexual harassment was “a necessary evil” for young, ambitious workers.

The study said that instances of sexual harassment were “often accompanied by touching, sometimes forceful.” The complaints came not just from “bright-eyed young graduates coming to Parliament to live the ‘dream’ and having high expectations shattered,” the report said, but from workers with prior experience in private business.

The findings lifted the lid on the sometime punishing hallways of Parliament, where staff members work directly for lawmakers with scant oversight. Those surveyed said they were sometimes left helpless and in tears because of chronic mistreatment.

The revelations mirrored those in a separate report a day earlier about the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, whose members are largely appointed.

That report described a culture of bullying and harassment that had taken hold in an ossified workplace, where white men held many of the most senior staff posts and victims widely believed that complaining would only do them harm.

One member of the House of Lords took to grabbing the backside of a female clerk while he passed through the crowded lobby where lawmakers vote, the report said. So pervasive was misconduct that staff members avoided being in rooms alone with one lawmaker — “a notorious bullying pervert” — or even rearranged the office furniture so another “would stop leaning over to look down your shirt.”

Twenty percent of staff members said that they had been bullied or harassed at work within the last year, the report on the House of Lords said. The fact that so many staff members work their entire careers in the Lords, resigned to low pay and fearful of their superiors, has frozen the institution in its old ways, the report said.

“Staff can become institutionalized, bad habits can become entrenched, poor behavior can go unchecked, urban myths can develop and beliefs which may once have been justified can survive and flourish when no longer warranted,” the report said.

Both inquiries were commissioned in the aftermath of a scathing report in October on the House of Commons that said complaints of mistreatment there were typically muffled by “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence.”

Complaints about harassment in the British Parliament have dribbled out for years, but the dam broke following accusations of sexual misconduct by the Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, women working in Parliament made allegations that ranged from unwanted touching and sexual remarks to kissing and groping.

Around a dozen lawmakers 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 after an investigation found that he misled the public about pornography found on his parliamentary computer.

The problem owed in part to the apparent view of lawmakers that they were above workplace oversight. Employees had no independent personnel body to complain to. Instead, they were sent to the party whips, political enforcers who were said to stockpile the complaints to use as leverage against lawmakers in future votes.

The new grievance procedure, introduced last summer, drew up specific rules about behavior in Parliament and created independent help lines for reporting abuse. But a review released in May found that, while the system was an achievement, “the amount of work and procedural complexity to effectively implement and operate the scheme was substantially underestimated.”

Follow Benjamin Mueller on Twitter: @benjmueller.

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