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‘Toxic’ treatment of House of Lords staff revealed

A shocking dossier on sexual harassment and bullying in the House of Lords has prompted demands from a top QC for a crackdown on peers' behaviour towards staff.

A damning report reveals staff who experience bullying or harassment often did not complain because they thought nothing would happen and because they feared reprisals.

The 130-page report, by top employment law QC Naomi Ellenbogen, followed an eight-month investigation.

It exposes a culture lacking in dignity and respect and "toxic" behaviour towards staff by peers and other staff.

The QC makes 19 hard-hitting recommendations, including moves to change the culture and measures to tackle inappropriate behaviour, with a director general of the Lords appointed to oversee the clean-up.

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Her report comes less than 24 hours before the publication of a potentially explosive report on bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff employed by MPs by another top QC, Gemma White.

Examples of sexual harassment by peers in Ms Ellebogen's report include:

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  • "In comes this elderly gentleman, reeking of alcohol at 6.30pm. He said: Oh! I say, X has turned into a girl. Can I kiss you? I told him, 'No; that's not in my job description'."
  • "In the division lobby… you go from a pat on the shoulder, a pat on elbow, to lower. One member has started grabbing my backside and I had to tell him to stop it."
  • "Lord X… will comment on my weight; he will say we are all nice and slim, so we don't have to worry about that and ask, 'Are you going to give up smoking – but you don't want to get fat?' He comments on what I'm wearing."
  • "He'd come round and put his arm round you. He's creepy. It's definitely sexual harassment."
  • "When I first started… I was told if I was ever in a lift with Lord Y I had to get out."
  • "He would comment on people's appearance in particular clothes, such as telling one member of staff that he liked it when she wore short skirts. He also made prurient comments and asked inappropriate questions…"

On bad behaviour in general, Ms Ellebogen says in her report: "It was estimated that approximately 20% of members behaved in an inappropriate and high-handed way, with peers who were former members of the House of Commons being among the rudest.

"With depressing predictability the same members of the House were named by contributor after contributor as 'known offenders' and I received many first hand accounts of poor behaviour by those individuals."

Examples included:

  • "X is parliamentary royalty in many people's minds – never meet your heroes, I've decided. She has a reputation, but she's untouchable. She is very rude and no one knows how to deal with her."
  • "Y is revered outside parliament, but he is awful to the staff – hideous, rude and haranguing over basic information."
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Image: Lord Fowler said the House of Lords was 'determined to address the issues'

Launching her report, Ms Ellenbogen said: "The prevailing culture and behaviours in the House of Lords, as a place of work, have not been conducive to an open and supportive culture to ensure that all those working there are treated with dignity and respect.

"Staff have bullied and harassed other staff. Members have bullied and harassed staff.

"On the whole, staff who have experienced bullying and harassment have tended not to complain, formally or otherwise, in the belief that nothing will happen and/or for fear of reprisal."

Outlining her recommendations, she said: "The various systemic cultural issues identified in this report, and the behaviour which they have generated and enabled to flourish over a sustained period, in my view call for certain root and branch reforms."

Ms Ellenbogen said her recommendations were grouped into two categories:

  • Those designed to change the various toxic behaviours and cultural elements identified in this report, including recommendations for structural change; and
  • Those which seek to enhance the options available to address inappropriate behaviour by members and staff, where it persists.

The recommendations include compulsory training for both peers and their staff, the establishment of a steering group for change, the creation of a unified cross-parliamentary human resources team and the appointment of a director general of the House of Lords.

Responding to the report, Lord Speaker Lord Fowler said: "We have already made important improvements including introducing a parliament-wide behaviour code, an independent complaints and grievance scheme and appointing a new conduct committee to which lay members will be appointed shortly, but there is still a great deal of work to do.

"We will be carefully considering Naomi Ellenbogen's report to determine how we can effectively take the recommendations forward. The next commission meeting will take place on Wednesday 17 July.

"Everyone deserves a workplace which has high standards of behaviour and mutual respect. Bullying and harassment have no place in the House of Lords.

"This report is an important step in ensuring we, the commission, and the House of Lords administration, can work together to achieve that goal.

"It is because we are committed to this that we asked for this inquiry to be conducted.

"We are determined to address the issues the report highlights and to make the House of Lords better."

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