Parliament was accused of operating a form of apartheid after a report found that minority ethnic staff were asked to show their security certificates more often than their white counterparts.
Even minority and black ethnic staff who responded to a survey conducted last year complained that historic parliamentary rules did not allow them to eat or drink in the same rooms or use the same toilets as members mostly whites of the House of Lords.
In response to the results, Commons authorities acknowledged that the higher representation of BAME staff in lower pay brackets meant that they were less likely than their white colleagues to access certain areas. They have since opened access to some facilities.
Research conducted by the ParliREACH Equality Network in the workplace listed “examples of times when they felt that the lack of diversity and understanding of the race had led to racist behavior (involuntary or otherwise)”.
Among them, senior managers “mistaken people’s names or confused them with other BAME colleagues”; disparaging remarks such as having been said “you look like” another non-white Member of Parliament and Spanish speakers who have been warned “everyone here in parliament speaks English”.
All those questioned “described themselves and other BAME colleagues who were invited more frequently and more forcefully to check their passes.”
The study, titled Stand in My Shoes: Race and Culture in Parliament, recommended removing the hierarchy of access to restaurants, toilets and other parts of parliamentary heritage – which prevents staff from using the same facilities as politicians. “These strengthen power relations and lead to a disproportionate number of BAME staff being questioned when attempting to use parliamentary structures,” he said.
It comes after more than half of black, Asian and minority ethnic parliamentarians said they experienced racism, racial profiling and prejudice from their fellow parliamentarians in a survey conducted by ITV News.
Parliamentary authorities said the serious issues disclosed in the ParliREACH study are “deeply worrying” and have promised to act to combat “institutional and structural ethnic inequality”.
They have now opened access to the exclusive River of the House of Lords terrace, where previously chairs were reserved only for peers, and removed the old-fashioned signs that restricted peer and peer access to toilets.
Ed Ollard, the secretary of parliaments – the highest official in the House of Lords – stated in written evidence to the select committee on home affairs that the results of the ParliREACH report were deeply worrying.
He admitted: “At the time of writing the ParliREACH report, access to the terrace of the House of Lords was limited to staff above a certain degree.” Ollard said the Lords board of directors decided to lift restrictions on access to the terrace and “equalize staff access to other dining establishments”.
And although he insisted that “there were no restrictions on who can use the toilets in the House of Lords,” he admitted “some [misleading] historical signs indicating that use was limited to “colleagues” or “peeresses” remained in place. “Nine signs are believed to have been removed.
John Benger, an employee of the house – the chief constitutional councilor of the municipalities – admitted in separate evidence to the commission that non-white staff had been disadvantaged by the system so far.
“Historically there have been access restrictions across the estate, based on grade and seniority. Since there is a greater representation of BAME staff in lower pay brackets, this meant that BAME employees were less likely than their white colleagues to access certain areas. “
He said that work is underway to “combat institutional and structural ethnic inequality in the home”.
Municipal staff must now undergo training that includes “privilege awareness”, while those on recruitment boards must follow “unconscious bias” courses.
Imran Khan, QC, Stephen Lawrence’s family attorney, said that access restrictions are clear examples of institutional racism. He told the Guardian that he was upset when he first heard of them when the equality report was launched.
“I thought such things had happened in apartheid South Africa or the deep south of the United States many years ago and here it was alive and well in the beating heart of our democracy,” he said.
“I know there are critics of institutional racism and they should consider this as a clear example of how it works: nobody in the Houses of Parliament deliberately decided to create a system in which black people could not use certain structures but, due to policies and existing procedures, this was exactly the result.
“I’m so glad this has been changed, but I’m shocked that it even existed.”
A spokesman for the Lords said: “The administration of the House of Lords is determined to ensure that everyone who works for the home is treated fairly and respectfully and creating an inclusive working environment.
“As part of this work, the board decided to remove access restrictions to catering facilities based on staff grade and remove the misleading historical signage, suggesting that some restrooms were reserved for members of the house.
“All the signs have now been removed and replaced. This was part of our wider inclusion and diversity strategy. “