LONDON — Lawmakers hurling heavy pieces of office equipment at aides, groping their breasts and slapping their backsides. Sexual harassment as a “necessary evil” for young staffers. Aides ordered to vacuum and tidy up their bosses’ apartments for private parties.
Those accusations, contained in a blistering report on Britain’s Parliament released on Thursday, offered lurid details and descriptions of rampant rule breaking in a picture of the working lives of 3,200 staff members in the House of Commons.
Ordered up in October, as British officials picked through an avalanche of stories about misbehavior in Parliament amid the #MeToo movement, the report and a twin released a day before about the House of Lords, describe a universe in which lawmakers wielded virtually absolute power, and the rules and practices of the outside world had little relevance.
Because they directly employ their aides, lawmakers have long been virtually immune to charges of sexual harassment or bullying and most other oversight. They openly recruit friends and relatives, discriminate in their hires, and force aides to campaign during what is supposed to be government time, the report said.
Parliamentary leaders have made some changes in the last year, creating a more explicit code of conduct and supposedly independent channels for filing complaints. But those changes were criticized in the report as underfunded, widely ignored in Parliament and too feeble to rein in lawmakers.
Far too easily, according to the report, career-making jobs in the seat of government can turn into experiences out of television shows like “Veep” or its British predecessor, “The Thick of It,” which satirize lawmakers’ cruel, unhinged antics.
Or much, much worse.
The report, written by Gemma White, a lawyer, quoted one Parliamentary aide saying: “I don’t think of myself as a particularly soft individual, but there were occasions I found myself crying on the way to work, the only time I have cried since I was a child.”
Many aides, the report said, spiraled into “significant mental and/or physical illness.”
“One contributor described being sick every day on the way to work, crossing the road thinking if they were run over they would not need to go in to work,” the report said.
And while the report did not name any offenders or go into detail about the most alarming accusations, it said it had uncovered behavior by lawmakers “which can only be described as very serious sexual assault.”
A new grievance process was introduced last summer, but filing a complaint still amounted to “career suicide,” aides told Ms. White. She outlined a series of recommendations for that process, including opening the door to old complaints. Some Parliamentary aides on the verge of quitting had recently been told that the only way to get a complaint heard was to stay in their jobs.
Ms. White said true change required a complete overhaul of the system of lawmakers’ teams operating as fiefs. Ms. White stopped short of suggesting that hiring decisions be wrenched away from lawmakers altogether, but she said a centralized personnel department was needed to regulate everything from recruitment to on-the-job treatment.
“There must be a fundamental shift away from accepting that MPs’ offices are 650 individual businesses with near complete freedom to operate,” the report said.
Piecemeal changes have already been slow to take hold. Only 34 of Britain’s 650 members of Parliament had attended or booked places for a training about the new code of conduct.
Responding to the report, the leader of the House of Commons, Mel Stride, told lawmakers that the government would ask them to vote to allow old complaints to be considered under the new grievance process.
Introduced last summer, it created a venue for complaints to be independently investigated, but aides expressed concern that lawmakers remained involved and that only accusations since June 2017 could be considered.
“Our Parliament must be a safe place, free of bullying and harassment, and I am determined to play my part in delivering that,” Mr. Stride said in the House of Commons.
The House of Commons Commission, which is responsible for the administration of the chamber, said in a statement that it took “very seriously its responsibility to ensure that Parliament is a modern workplace,” even though it noted that staff members interviewed for the report worked directly for lawmakers.
Many aides with complaints told the inquiry that other lawmakers had treated them better, and some said they understood their bosses were under intense pressure.
But the complaints were serious. They ranged from physical abuse by lawmakers — “breasts being grabbed, buttocks being slapped, thighs being stroked and crotches being pressed/rubbed against bodies,” the report said — to racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic invective.
And 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.
Lines between work and personal life were obliterated. One lawmaker berated a staff member for not immediately responding to off-hours emails, even going so far as to contact the aide during a visit to a dying relative.
Other lawmakers made “unfavorable comments” about employees’ homosexuality, talked in front of women about their bodies, and shared graphic details about problems in their own sex lives.
In the Parliamentary bars, which have long been alcohol-fueled incubators of predatory behavior, senior aides tried to trade sex with younger staff members, including many men, for career help. One aide said enduring sexual harassment was a “necessary evil” for ambitious employees without connections.
Being publicly humiliated was part of the job. But lawmakers also took advantage of private moments with their aides. In the most serious instances of abuse, the report said, aides often found themselves alone with lawmakers in a car, hotel room or home.
“Many contributors displayed clear symptoms of illness and/or distress when they came to see me,” Ms. White said. Her inquiry included testimony from more than 220 people, collected since November.
Soon after accusations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein became public, the dam broke open on complaints within Parliament. The first secretary of state, Damian Green, a close ally of Prime Minister Theresa May, was forced to resign. He was found to have misled the public about pornography found on his parliamentary computer.
But some powerful men in Britain have been shielded from the heat of the accusations by strict libel laws that set a high bar for publicly reporting sexual misconduct.
The report issued on Wednesday about the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, described an ossified workplace where white men held many of the most senior staff posts.
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, that 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.”
The members of the House of Lords are largely appointed; it sees itself as the more genteel of the chambers.
Before last year, the only way an aide in the House of Commons could file a complaint, beyond appealing directly to their boss, was to bring a problem to the party whips, in-house enforcers whose job it is to persuade lawmakers to vote as the party leadership wants.
But, as has long been rumored and Ms. White’s report also documented, the accusations rarely went anywhere. Instead, aides said the enforcers saw their complaints as a chance to extract the desired votes from lawmakers — “logging ammunition for future whipping,” as one aide put it.
Sometimes, the abuse felt to aides like part of a game, the only escape being a breakdown.
One lawmaker, a staff member told Ms. White, treated them “like a cat playing with a mouse, disappointed when it dies.”