In 1943, during a debate over whether to rebuild the House of Commons chamber, the cradle of British democracy, after it had been destroyed during the Blitz, Winston Churchill observed, ‘‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’’
Seventy-five years later, if the state of Westminster is any indication, there is a rot at the core of British politics. The Houses of Parliament are again in a desperate state of disrepair. But that’s not all. Members of Parliament are being warned about rules of decorum after vomit and used condoms were found by cleaners tasked with tidying up Westminster offices, according to a report in the Sunday Times.
The national newspaper revealed that cleaners have grown so exasperated with raucous parliamentarians and their staffs that they have complained to the Commons clerk.
‘‘The House of Commons provides offices to MPs and their staff to enable them to carry out their parliamentary duties,’’ a spokesperson for the chamber said in a statement. ‘‘Any use of such facilities must be in support of those duties, as specified in the Members’ Handbook and Code of Conduct. Any reported misuse of facilities will be taken seriously and investigated.’’
Commons authorities are weighing a new ‘‘service agreement’’ enforcing standards for the use of professional space, and applying penalties for the ‘‘worst culprits,’’ the Times reported.
‘‘It’s the type of behavior you would expect from students enjoying freshers’ week, not MPs and their staff,’’ a senior source told the newspaper, referring to the weeklong, alcohol-fueled rite of passage for new students at British universities. ‘‘But cleaners are being confronted with vomit and used condoms in offices used by MPs and their staff. The cleaners are not there to clear up after their debauchery and this is not an appropriate use of office space.’’
As the #MeToo movement shines a light on the dark corners where sex and power mingle, the UK Parliament has been one among many case studies in how highbrow politics has been conducted alongside disreputable misbehavior.
The mess that lawmakers have made of their workspaces has additional significance because of the sex scandal that gripped Westminster last year. Perhaps the most notable case was that of Michael Fallon, the defense secretary and member of the Conservative Party who resigned in November following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, including placing his hand on a female journalist’s knee at a 2002 dinner.
As accusations cascaded, Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, called for new grievance procedures last fall, saying the existing system lacked ‘‘teeth.’’ Reforms also included a crackdown on free-flowing, subsidized alcohol in the Houses of Parliament — the cost of which has been a subject of petitions and freedom of information requests.
According to the Times, a total of 11 bars, restaurants, and cafeterias in the Commons sell alcohol.
Scrutiny of the drinking culture escalated when the former manager of the infamous Sports and Social bar said last November that she had been repeatedly propositioned for sex by members of Parliament. One had allegedly groped her and tried to follow her home, according to British media.