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Parliamentary chiefs discuss helpline amid Westminster abuse claims

Ms Leadsom was speaking in response to an urgent question from Labour MP Harriet Harman.

Senior parliamentary authorities are meeting on Monday evening to discuss calls from Theresa May for a new independent helpline to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and abuse at Westminster.

Setting out details of the plan in the Commons with the Prime Minister by her side, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said that a recent spate of allegations against MPs showed current arrangements were “inadequate” and action was needed in “days rather than weeks”.

Commons Speaker John Bercow also called for change at Westminster amid what he described as “disturbing” allegations about a “culture of sexual harassment”.

There must be “zero tolerance” of sexual harassment or bullying at Westminster, he told MPs.

His comments came as a Cabinet Office investigation got under way into alleged misconduct by international trade minister Mark Garnier, who is reported to have asked his Commons secretary to buy sex toys and called her “sugar tits”.

Mrs May’s official spokesman earlier declined to confirm that the Prime Minister has full confidence in Mr Garnier, saying he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry. The Wyre Forest MP has insisted that the incidents did not amount to harassment, describing the purchase of the vibrators as an instance of “high jinks”.

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Bercow said he was ready to consider Mrs May’s call for a Commons-wide mediation service and contractually-binding grievance procedure for MPs and staff. But he insisted that in the first instance it was for political parties to “live up to their responsibilities”.

“Make no mistake, there is a need for change,” said the Speaker, who will chair Monday’s meeting of the House of Commons Commission, at which Mrs Leadsom was due to press the case for the establishment of a new external, specially-trained support team to offer confidential advice and support to anyone suffering from sexual harassment at Westminster.

The creation of a new body of this type is likely to be a matter for Parliament rather than ministers, and Mrs Leadsom is understood to be seeking swift consensus within Westminster on the way forward.

Responding to an urgent question from Labour MP Harriet Harman in the Commons, Mrs Leadsom said there was a vital need for better support and protection for thousands of people working in the Palace of Westminster, ranging from clerks, civil servants and MPs’ assistants to youthful interns and people on work experience placements.

Anyone working in Parliament who feels uncomfortable because of unwanted sexual behaviour should be able to receive support and advice on a confidential basis by phone, intranet or face-to-face, she said.

“As MPs, our constituents will be rightly appalled at the thought that some representatives in Parliament may have acted in an entirely inappropriate way towards others. These reports risk bringing all of our offices into disrepute.”

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