LONDON (AFP) - The Speaker of Britain's House of Commons condemned "disturbing" allegations of a culture of sexual harassment in parliament on Monday (Oct 30) as he urged political parties to swiftly address the issue.
John Bercow opened an emergency debate sparked by weekend newspaper revelations about the behaviour of MPs and ministers towards staff, warning there must be "zero tolerance of sexual harassment or bullying".
Prime Minister Theresa May, who sat in on the debate, had earlier written to Bercow calling for tougher rules on MPs' conduct after one of her ministers was accused of asking his secretary to buy sex toys.
May has ordered an investigation into the behaviour by international trade minister Mark Garnier, who is also accused of calling his now former aide "sugar tits".
However, MP after MP stood up in the chamber on Monday to warn that the problem was deeply rooted in the culture of Westminster.
A list of 13 MPs accused of harassment has reportedly been circulating in Westminster in recent days, following renewed scrutiny in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.
The Guido Fawkes political blog meanwhile said it had a list compiled by researchers of 36 MPs accused of "inappropriate sexual behaviour".
Opposition Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman, an equalities campaigner who called the debate, said it was a "good thing" that it was now being discussed.
"No one should have to work in the toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter," she said.
"This is not hysteria - this is something which is long overdue for all the parties in this House to deal with." .
'USED FOR LEVERAGE'
May's spokesman said she had not seen any list of names but refused to comment on discussions she may have had about similar behaviour with the whips who enforce discipline in her Conservative party.
The prime minister's former director of communications, Katie Perrior, said whips often held such information secret as leverage to make MPs vote a certain way.
"They use that to make sure that MPs know that other people within the party know exactly what they're up to, and that behaviour either is not acceptable, or indeed it will be used against them," she told BBC television.
May had urged the Speaker to help establish a new compulsory grievance procedure to replace the current voluntary system, as well as a new mediation service to help protect staff working for MPs.
One of her ministers, Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, warned that perpetrators could be sacked.
"In the case of MPs they could have the whip withdrawn (suspended) and they could be fired from ministerial office," she said.
However, while Bercow said he would consider the proposals, "in the first instance I hope that parties will live up to their responsibilities".