REVEALED: The shocking abuse allegations uncovered by the Commons bullying inquiry

Posted On: 
15th October 2018

Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying in Parliament found a "disturbing" and "pervasive" culture of bullying and harassment in Westminster. Here’s PoliticsHome deep dive into the details of the report.

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BULLYING

The damning inquiry said that a tradition of “deference and silence” which “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” had made bullying a daily occurrence within the corridors of power.

MPs have been accused of:

  • frequently targeting a member of staff with personal abuse;
  • constantly criticising or making derogatory remarks about their work;
  • shouting or speaking aggressively at staff, and often junior members of staff, for not doing something they wanted, or not doing it sufficiently quickly;
  • telling them they are useless and humiliating them in front of others;
  • taunting, mocking or mimicking them;
  • deliberately belittling them in front of other Members;
  • making offensive personal comments about their appearance or perceived characteristics, or questioning them repeatedly about their personal life;
  • using offensive or discriminatory language about other staff or MPs;
  • challenging the staff member’s authority if asked to follow a particular procedure or rule;
  • belittling someone’s junior status;
  • obstructing staff from properly carrying out their job;
  • imposing wholly unrealistic and inefficient work demands or deadlines;
  • questioning their annual leave entitlements or telling staff to remove themselves from contractual rotas/responsibilities or from scheduled training courses;
  • suddenly holding unscheduled meetings or making new demands at a time when they knew that staff had to leave because of childcare commitments, and in a way that was described as “poisonous, vindictive and deliberate;”
  • repeatedly subjecting them to lengthy and humiliating tirades of criticism and abuse in front of colleagues

It also found that: “Members of Parliament shouting abuse at staff was something frequently referred to, with the abusive phrase “you’re f***ing useless,” shouted at close quarters, being described independently, by a number of people working in different departments, as a regular event. This abuse was often in public and occasionally it was accompanied by grabbing someone by their hand or arm.”

While some managers were praised for dealing with complaints, Dame Cox found that most gave “evasive responses, in which either their reports were questioned…or belittled.”

The report added that the dismissal of complaints had led to a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence”.

One complainant told the inquiry: “It is evident to me with hindsight that my employers were abrogating their duty of care to me, but when I was going through this I was at my most fragile and I feel they took advantage of that weakness in failing to act. They let me down completely.”

While another said of the abuse: "I felt physically sick.... I would find myself crying in the toilets, I wasn't able to eat or sleep properly and I began to feel consistently unwell."

SEXUAL HARRASMENT

The report also found that a wide-spread culture of sexual harassment existed across the political spectrum but there had also been several serious allegations focused on a small number of MPs who were engaging in “predatory” conduct.

It added that much of the behaviour dismissed as “harmless banter” was a form of unlawful discrimination, and that some of the incidents of reported touching could “be legally classified as sexual assault”.

MPs have been accused of:

  • frequent inappropriate touching;
  • the invasion of someone’s personal space;
  • repeatedly initiated physical contact, for example men patting women’s heads, putting their arms around women, leaving a hand on their knee for an uncomfortably long time, trying to kiss them, grabbing their arms or bottoms or stroking their breasts or bottoms;
  • women being abused in vulgar, gender-related terms if they failed to do something that had been requested, or did it in a way that was considered inadequate or took too long; women being repeatedly propositioned; and similar allegations from some men.

The report outlined that groups of male MPs had become “increasingly boorish” when they were together, making “frequent sexual innuendos, lewd comments or sexual gestures, or women repeatedly being asked questions about their sex live, or about their personal lives generally, which they found offensive and humiliating.”

The inquiry also found that allegations of sexual harrassment had been made against House of Commons staff.

They included:

  • Inappropriate and repeated invasion of a woman’s personal space;
  • Inappropriate touching, with men putting their hands on women’s arms, legs, or bottoms during meetings or social functions, or putting their arms around their shoulders or waists or pulling them into corners for close personal contact;
  • Frequent comments about women’s appearance, suggestions that they should wear sexier clothing or more make up;
  • Derogatory or lewd comments about women’s anatomies or about women generally, often made in front of other people in the team and in such a way as to deliberately offend and humiliate.

Management were again criticised for failing to take these allegations seriously with many women being asked “are you sure you didn’t do anything to cause it” or “it’s not much to make a fuss about is it?”

The report added: "many cases of reported derogatory sexual comments were trivialised, or the woman was advised, for example, that she was being “over-sensitive,” or needed to “toughen up”, or was told, “you know what he’s like,” or “you should be pleased that people find you attractive,” or even “when I was a clerk you hadn’t earned your stripes until you’d been harassed.”"

REACTION

Dame Cox said her inquiry found a "culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed".

She concluded: “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.

But so far MPs have been slow to respond to the report.

A spokesperson for Speaker John Bercow, who was heavily criticised in the report, said: “This is a serious report into a serious subject which deserves a serious response. The House of Commons Commission will meet as a matter of urgency in the coming days to consider the report and our response to it."

Meanwhile, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom welcomed the report, saying: “I am determined to tackle all forms of bullying and harassment in Westminster so that everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

“The introduction of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Policy agreed earlier this year is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts to lead change in parliament. Ongoing culture change is fundamental to our approach.

Labour’s John Mann responded to the report, saying any MP involved should be ‘named, shamed and sacked’, adding “parliament could do it, so could party leaders. Don’t hold your breath.”

Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips responded: “The House administration must take this very seriously and not simply dismiss it, if they cannot be trusted then they will have to find someone to manage these changes who can be. To put it simply, without change it is clear parliament is not a safe and secure place to work.”