Nearly a fifth of Westminster staff have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, a long-awaited report has found.
On Wednesday ITV News revealed that MPs could soon be trained on what constitutes sexual harassment and see the introduction of a mandatory behaviour code.
Now a survey of 1,377 workers at Parliament, published on Thursday, has shown that 19% had either been subject to or seen such behaviour over the past year – with twice as many female as male complainants.
The report also found that 39% of staff felt they had experienced non-sexual harassment or bullying over the same period.
Its publishers, a cross-party group chaired by Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, has recommended the creation of a formal complaints procedure.
Unveiling the report, Ms Leadsom called it “a major step in bringing about the culture change that Parliament needs”.
A separate Comres survey of MPs staff, commissioned by ITV News, found 24% agreed sexual harassment is “rife” within the Palace of Westminster.
Though only 6% said they had personally experienced sexual harassment in their current job, 82% thought it is a problem that needs tackling “urgently”.
However, half said they would not know how or to whom to report an instance of sexual harassment.
There was also overwhelming support for an independent point of support.
Around 93% backed the appointment of an independent in-house HR support person to whom staff can report abuse, while 91% said an independent grievance process should be set up to better support Commons staff.
The Parliamentary report comes after a number of months during which harassment allegations were levelled against MPs and Westminster workers.
Under its proposed new system, complaints would spark a confidential inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, with a tougher range of sanctions for those found to have behaved inappropriately.
This could result in the suspension and recall of MPs.
The survey found that a quarter (24%) of those who had experienced inappropriate behaviour in the past 12 months spoke to their MP or line manager.
But only half had confidence in the system for their managing complaints.
The report recommended that the new behaviour code should be binding on all those working in or for Parliament and its members, providing a basis for “significant and sustainable change”.
Addressing the Commons on the report’s findings, Ms Leadsom said: “It is a right, not a privilege, to be treated with dignity and respect at work and this ambitious report is a major step towards a safer and more professional environment.
“I hope that Honourable and Right Honourable Members across the House will welcome the report, which will, I am confident, ensure that our Parliament is among the best in the world, demonstrating our commitment to equality, justice and fairness.”
Shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz said: “Everyone in Parliament must be able to work together cooperatively, respecting the expertise of the House and balancing our responsibilities as elected representatives in a safe and secure and constructive workplace, so that everyone – our constituents, staff and staff of this House – can benefit from working for the common good in this extraordinary place.”
In her reply, Mrs Leadsom thanked Ms Vaz and shadow women and equalities secretary Dawn Butler for their contribution to what “is going to be a game changer for Parliament”.
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas called for any MPs who refused to take part in the proposed training on what constitutes sexual harassment to be sanctioned, “because, quite frankly, those members who are most likely to be resistant to taking up training are probably those who need it the most”.
On of the most controversial areas of the report is a recommendation that the identity of the accused be protected while the complaint is being dealt with.
Mrs Leadsom suggested she expects decisions over whether to publish the accused’s name would be taken on a “case by case” basis, with “very careful assessment” by the independent investigator, adding that protecting the interests of the complainant would be “at the heart of this”.
The report has been welcomed by gender equality charities.
Lord Bew, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, also welcomed the proposals saying they offered the kind of protection “that the best employers offer their staff”.
But he added: “For these proposals to fully address unacceptable behaviour, they must be rooted in the leadership, culture and practice of the House. This report is an important and welcome first step.”