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  1. ITV Report

John Bercow calls for 'zero tolerance of sexual harassment and bullying' at Westminster

There must be "zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying" in Parliament, John Bercow has said, adding that allegations of this "culture" between MPs and their staff are "disturbing".

In a statement to MPs, the Speaker of the House of Commons said Theresa May's call for a Commons-wide mediation scheme should be considered, but stresses that political parties must "live up to their responsibilities".

"Make no mistake, there is a need for change," he added.

Mr Bercow's statement follows mounting reports of abusive and inappropriate behaviour towards women at Westminster.

It follows claims International Trade Minister Mark Garnier asked his secretary to buy sex toys and called her "sugar tits".

In a separate case, claims were made that former cabinet minister Stephen Crabb admitted sending "explicit" messages to a 19-year-old woman he interviewed for a job in 2013.

A list of 13 MPs facing harassment has been circulating at Westminster, according to the Daily Telegraph, while the Guido Fawkes website claimed Tory aides had compiled a spreadsheet of 36 Conservative MPs - including 20 ministers - accused of inappropriate behaviour.

Trade Minister Mark Garnier is said to have asked his secretary to buy him sex toys. Credit: PA

There are Labour dossiers too, with MP John Mann compiling one, and he believes he has information on four or five individuals.

"It's not just women by the way, it's men as well who have come forward," he told ITV News.

"I think some people should resign, I think some people will have to resign because some of this behaviour is extraordinarily bad and in any other workplace they would be sacked."

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Mr Bercow called on the Commons Standards Committee to add to the code of conduct a new rule that "a member must treat all those who work in Parliament with dignity, courtesy and respect", as recommended by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Outlining steps he would take, the Speaker said he would invite the Commons Commission, which in 2014 provided a helpline for MPs' staff to raise concerns, to consider what further measures it could take to toughen up the complaints regime.

And he said he would refer "the whole issue of sexual harassment" to the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which he established last year.

But he stressed: "Members' staff are of course employed by individual Members. That means that they cannot simply be treated as if they were parliamentary employees. Nor of course can Members."

Andrea Leadsom proposed a number of reforms to the current system. Credit: PA

Mr Bercow said he was glad to see the Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn and other leaders acknowledge their responsibilities to deal with sexual misconduct within their parties.

He said the PM's Sunday letter had "very candidly" admitted "the difficulties the Conservative Party has had in introducing the sort of mandatory grievance scheme which some other parties have introduced in recent years".

The Speaker went on: "It does not require my intervention for the party to adopt an effective grievance scheme.

"I hope that all parties will rapidly and thoroughly review the arrangements they have in place to ensure that they are credible, enforceable, accessible, transparent and comprise an independent element.

"That latter notion that any complaint system and grievance procedure must satisfy constituents as well as colleagues strikes me as important."

Concluding, Mr Bercow added: "I hope I have the support of the House in calling for these issues to be resolved swiftly and decisively. It should not require endless debate and discussion. For my part as Speaker I am happy to do whatever I can. Others must do likewise."

Speaking after Mr Bercow, Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom added that the "urgent issue... must be addressed" and that "better support" was "vital", branding current harassment procedures "inadequate".

Harriet Harman said it was a 'good thing' the allegations had been exposed. Credit: PA

Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Ms Leadsom told how the "public expect MPs to display the highest standards" and added that investigations into the allegations were underway.

The Conservative MP called for an independent support team to deal with allegations of sexual harassment or abuse against people working in the Houses of Parliament.

Ms Leadsom proposed a number of reforms to the system:

  • Everyone in Parliament shoud "have the right to feel at ease as they go about their work"
  • The existing confidential helpline must be strengthened as a "dedicated support team" with more resources
  • The support team should be able to recommend the onward referral of a case to ensure "appropriate investigation and action"
  • Specialised pastoral support should be available to anyone in distress as a consequence of their treatment in the workplace
  • The support team should "strongly recommend" that any criminal allegations are reported to the police

Change is needed in "days not weeks", Ms Leadsom stressed, in order to "provide the right support in the future and ensure this never happens again."

She added that there "may be further action which Government and political parties themselves can take to ensure high standards of conduct".

Ms Leadsom said the new grievance and complaints system should cover all holders of parliamentary passes, including interns and people on work experience as well as clerks, civil servants, researchers and assistants.

Leader of the Opposition, Harriet Harman added that "no one should have to work in the toxic atmosphere of the sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter.

"No MP, let alone a minister, can think it's something to make jokes about."

She continued that sexual harassment at Westminster was "obviously a problem", adding that it was a "good thing that it's been exposed" as change could now be brought about.

She added that "clear strict rules about what is acceptable" are necessary, and also slammed the current complaints procedure as being "impossible for someone at the bottom to complain about someone at top", giving those in power a degree of "impunity".

The Labour MP gave the example of researchers who feared complaining about behaviour they had experienced, as they worried that it would be all over the news and tabloids and they would "struggle to get another job".

After the urgent question in the Commons, senior parliamentary figures met to discuss ways for victims of sexual assault to speak up "without fear".

Mr Bercow chaired a meeting of the House of Commons Commission to look at how to deal with the situation.

Following the meeting, a spokesperson for the Speaker said: "The Commission discussed the recent allegations relating to the harassment of staff, following today's exchanges in the House of Commons.

"It recognised that the current processes for dealing with this required review, and a more thorough understanding of how they are put into practice by political parties.

"The Commission therefore committed to urgent work, in concert with the key stakeholders, to identify a way forward which would command general confidence and enable people to speak up without fear or favour."

Westminster is not a 'den of iniquity' the chair of the influential 1922 Committee has insisted. Credit: PA

Speaking after the urgent question, Graham Brady, chairman of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, said his colleagues have expressed "anguish" that the allegations could "unfairly tarnish" innocent MPs and insisted Parliament is not a "den of inequity" and suggested that there is not a culture of sexual harassment at Westminster.

"The over-riding thing is the view that any wrongdoing should be prevented and people should be supported if they suffer from it," the Conservative MP explained.

"But also of course a degree of anguish that these things also unfairly tarnish the vast majority of Members of Parliament who are committed to public service and to doing good for their constituents...

"I think many people would say there's a culture of sexual harassment in many workplaces.

"But I think that where there is wrongdoing it needs to be dealt with, I think it would be a mistake to imagine that Parliament is a den of inequity."

Mr Brady also dismissed Mr Bercow's suggestion that the Tories and other parties need to do more to address any problems with grievance procedures.

"I don't accept it," he said.

"I think that the contract of employment is a standard one which is supplied by Ipsa (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority), but essentially by the House.

"So whilst Members of Parliament employ their own staff in terms of choosing who to recruit and picking a point on the pay scale that's appropriate for them, we don't have complete freedom in the nature of the employment relationship and I don't think there's any earthly reason why the House can't do something more comprehensive."

Scotland's party leaders will meet following reports of sexual abuse or harassment in the Scottish Parliament. Credit: PA

It is thought that harassment in politics is not confined to Westminster, a woman who was harassed in local government and is part of an anonymous victims group campaigning for change in Labour, spoke out for the first time, telling ITV News: "We're receiving stories from all levels of the party.

"This isn't just something that's taking place in Westminster, it's taking place from the grassroots up.

"From general members to instances within Parliament.

"It's something that's really deep rooted in the political party."

Ex-minister Stephen Crabb is accused of sending explicit messages to a 19-year-old woman. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, the SNP said it is investigating complaints of sexual misconduct as an urgent meeting of Scotland's party leaders was called amid allegations of harassment at Holyrood.

The party said two people had raised separate complaints which will be fully investigated.

It comes as a confidential phone-line was set up following "disturbing and deeply concerning" reports of sexual abuse or harassment in the Scottish Parliament.

Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar has said women ranging from MSPs to interns had made complaints and he accused politicians of maintaining an "abject silence" on the issue.

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said the number of cases of inappropriate behaviour or harassment brought to the attention of officials over the last five years was "in single figures", and it is understood not all of these related to the conduct of MSPs.

A spokesman for the SNP said: "The SNP has had concerns of this nature raised by two different individuals.

"The individuals and their concerns are unconnected to each other.

"These will be fully investigated but inquiries remain at an early stage.

"We will do nothing to deter people from coming forward and, as such, we will not comment further while investigations are ongoing."

Following the sexual harassment and bullying claims, Labour chiefs have said all the party's MPs and their staff members have been sent letters setting out procedures for complaints on issues of sexual harassment, intimidation, victimisation and bullying.

While Ms Leadsom said Tory MPs risk being "fired" from their ministerial roles and losing the party whip as a consequence of harassment allegations.