A review of bullying and harassment in the workplace at Parliament has uncovered a potential sexual predator who may be responsible for serious sex assaults.

The review, by Debbie Francis, revealed 14 people said they had been the victim of a sexual assault in the parliamentary workplace.

The review went back as far as 2014.

All the allegations related to male on female violence.

Advertisement

"Three of the alleged incidents disclosed to me in interviews were in my view extremely serious and some appeared to be part of a multi-year pattern of predatory behaviour," her report said.

Francis said she had provided several respondents with the details of police sex assault investigators and specialist sexual assault support.

"I commend their bravery in retelling their stories to me in interviews. For these individuals the pain of reliving their trauma was intense."

Neither Francis, nor Speaker Trevor Mallard who ordered the review, would comment further on the assaults or the nature of the assaults.

They would not confirm whether the accused offender was still at Parliament or what part of Parliament they worked in, whether an MP or staffer.

Francis also declined to comment on whether any police investigations had been launched as a result of the review, in which all respondents are anonymous. She said her review was not aimed at investigating specific incidents but rather patterns of behaviour.

Mallard said all the documentation around the complaints would be destroyed.

A Police spokesperson said they would not confirm or discuss any matters which may have been raised with them as a result of the review process.

Advertisement

"We encourage anyone who wishes to discuss matters of concern with Police to contact us.
You will be treated professionally and with empathy while we assess any information which may be provided," the spokesperson said.

Francis's independent review showed there is virtually no part of Parliament that is untouched by a toxic culture, painting a grim picture of working in the country's heart of democracy.

One respondent told of sleeping with their mobile phone under their pillow in case of an abusive midnight call or text from their MP.

Another said it became a joke in the office of one MP that it was like "battered wife syndrome".

Staff and MPs alike told similar stories to Francis, who received more than 100 written submissions, carried out more than 200 interviews and 42 focus groups from December last year to March this year.

Of the more than 1000 respondents, 29 per cent had experienced some form of bullying or harassment from either an MP or a manager, 30 per cent from peers and 24 per cent from a member of the public.

Some 56 per cent had experienced destructive gossip, 47 per cent demeaning language, 53 per cent a lack of co-operation and support and 41 per cent aggressive behaviour.

Francis said the unique nature of the parliamentary workplace created risk factors for bullying and harassment, including high intensity, a lack of investment in leadership development, unusual and complex employment arrangements, barriers to making complaints and inadequate pastoral care.

Unacceptable conduct was too often tolerated or normalised, the identities of many accused were an open secret and there were alleged serial offenders, and there was perceived low accountability, particularly for MPs who faced few sanctions.

"The changes needed to the culture of the parliamentary workplace are comprehensive and complex. They will require skilled implantation and must be sustained and monitored over a period of years," Francis said.

The report detailed bullying by MPs, between office staff, between MPs, of staff by managers, by the public and by the media.

It also found that staff were reluctant to speak out and that the process was not easily navigated.

Francis found there was a known minority of MPs whose conduct was unacceptable.

"The fundamental problem is the power imbalance. It's a master-servant relationship and they're treated like gods. While they are due our respect, they are not god," one respondent said.

Another said: "Sleeping with my phone always under my pillow in case of a midnight text or call yelling abuse … it was emotionally and physically exhausting."

Others talked about the relationship feeling like it was half-staff, half-spouse and the line was often crossed.

"I had to buy [clothing for the Member]. Then one day we were on a visit. I was carrying a spare [item of clothing] and [the Member] needed it. And then [the Member] yelled at me for not ironing it."

There were examples of bullying and harassment between MPs, including between women.

Five MPs said they had experienced "sledging" in the House that they felt went far beyond what was acceptable in that it was personal and based on appearance or intelligence.

Two described receiving "vicious and personal" text messages from other MPs, in one case one was at 2am.

Six MPs, all female, described cultural or racial slurs from other MPs and alleged that casual racism was prevalent.

Three female MPs described confrontations with male colleagues designed to intimidate them and put them down, often through invading their personal space or shouting.

Sexist behaviour was prevalent, Francis found, with 60 per cent of those interviewed saying they had experienced offensive remarks, comments, jokes and gestures that were sexist. Some 35 per cent had experienced the same but of a sexual nature.

Twenty people said they had received messages of a sexual nature via social media, email or direct message.

The report also said that sexual harassment and sexual violence were likely to be under-reported.

Half said they had experienced unwanted touching but more than half (54 per cent) said they had unwanted sexual advances.

"The MP invaded my personal space and he did this with most women. I don't know if it was intentional or just from habit. He always liked to touch the arm of any woman he was talking to, which was unpleasant, and I had several women complain to me about it," one respondent wrote.

Francis said the parliamentary policy on bullying and harassment dated from 2016 and was due for review.

While the policy appeared sound and reflected standard practice regarding escalation actions, she suggested it should be slightly updated to better align with response practices as outlined by WorkSafe's Good Practice Guidelines.

Parliament should invest in a range of protective factors that reduced the risks of bullying, harassment and other adverse behaviours.

"This is likely to require significant additional resources and funding."

Francis made 85 recommendations.

She recommended explicit investment in the development of a culture of dignity and respect; additional investment in leadership development; better pastoral care; greater investment in strategic workforce management and a shake-up of HR; better health, safety and wellbeing policies, processes, engagement and governance, removal of barriers to disclosure; and ongoing monitoring, evaluation audit of the cultural health of the workplace.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the findings of the report were being taken very seriously.

"Parliament, like any other workplace, should be free from bullying and harassment and we need to make improvements," she said.

"In response to the report, I have asked to receive regular reports from the Department of Internal Affairs and Parliamentary Services on how offices are working generally as well as any exceptional reports where an issue needs to be raised with me promptly.

"While I acknowledge we work in an environment of long hours and pressure, excuses won't be tolerated."

The National Party said its caucus would carefully review and discuss the report and its recommendations.

"We agree it shows a need to lift conduct in general given the issues this report has identified in the parliamentary workplace."

The Parliamentary Service, Office of the Clerk and the Department of Internal Affairs issued a joint response to the review.

"My colleagues and I are deeply disappointed by the systemic bullying and harassment within the Parliamentary workplace highlighted in the report. We want to reassure those who spoke up that their concerns and feedback have been heard, and we will address the issues raised," said Rafael Gonzalez-Montero, general manager of the Parliamentary Service.

"Bullying and harassment are not acceptable in any workplace, and everyone should feel respected, safe and supported at work. Making meaningful, tangible change will take time and we are all fully committed to see this through," said DIA chief executive Paul James.

While the review had been planned for some time, it was given renewed impetus following the sexual assault scandal surrounding law firm Russell McVeigh, allegations of bullying behaviour against Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross - who denies acting improperly - and Dame Laura Cox's report into bullying and harassment in the UK's House of Commons.