MPs’ staff face an "unacceptable risk" of bullying and harassment, which is viewed as a "necessary evil" by some workers in parliament, an independent report has found.
Gemma White QC, who carried out an inquiry into harassment in the House of Commons, called for urgent action to tackle the significant problem and said many workers felt raising concerns would be career suicide.
The inquiry heard of conduct which can only be described as very serious sexual assault including breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped and thighs being stroked, according to the report.
One staff member told the inquiry that sexual harassment in parliament was a necessary evil for ambitious people who wanted to succeed but who do not have connections in Westminster.
It comes after another damning report found a toxic culture of deference at the House of Lords and called for members of the upper chamber to face medical examinations to see if they need to be barred from parliament.
Revealing her findings, Ms White said: Some staff of members of parliament are subject to an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, at work.
She added: Workplace harassment and bullying by MPs towards staff has been tolerated and accepted for too long.
It has seriously affected the health and welfare of far too many people.
There is a pressing need for a collective response to what is clearly a significant problem.
Ms White said staff employed by MPs are in a uniquely vulnerable position and often did not complain about bullying and harassment due to strong party and personal loyalties.
The report said that by the far most common form of offending behaviour described was that of MPs who shout at, demean, belittle and humiliate their staff on a regular basis, often in public.
Employees had become anxious, exhausted and ill, incapable of performing their job and – often following a period of sick leave – resign or are dismissed, the report said.
The inquiry also heard about cases of sexual harassment, with staff being subject to unwanted sexual advances, often accompanied by touching, sometimes forceful.
Some of the experiences of unwelcome sexual advances included attempts at kissing, breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies, the report said.
The inquiry also found an unacceptable level of sexual ‘banter’ and unwelcome discussion of intimate sexual details.
Some of the worst offenders are well known as such within the parliamentary community but, other than the odd ‘quiet word’ from a fellow MP or the relevant whips office, action has rarely been taken to address their behaviour, the report said.
In the words of one contributor, there has been a ‘general disregard for the dignity, well-being and employment rights of MPs’ staff.
One staff member told the investigation: As long as getting political jobs in parliament are dependent on who you know and who you’re related to, sexual harassment will be a necessary evil for ambitious young… people like me who will choose our careers over our comfort every time.
Another said: Working in the Houses of Parliament is meant to be an honour, but the actions of some MPs and staff members destroys any sense of pride.We are expendable staffers, with no independent HR service, and therefore no recourse.
Ms White said she had set out recommendations for straightforward and practical action and urged the House to move more swiftly.
Her investigation was ordered last year by the then leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, following a highly critical report by Dame Laura Cox which highlighted the widespread bullying and harassment of staff.
In response to the report, the House of Commons Commission – which is responsible for the administration of the Commons – said: We condemn bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff and offer our full support to anyone in the parliamentary community who has suffered in this way.
The commission does not employ the staff of MPs as they are employed by MPs themselves, or via political parties.
However, the commission takes very seriously its responsibility to ensure that Parliament is a modern workplace.
A Downing Street spokesman said: There can be no place for bullying or abuse in Westminster or any workplace.
It is important that the parliamentary leadership now responds fully and promptly to the concerns raised in this deeply worrying report.