Senior parliamentary figures have met to discuss ways for victims of sexual assault to speak up “without fear”.

The move came after Prime Minister Theresa May called for a new independent helpline to deal with complaints of harassment and abuse at Westminster.

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

Mr Bercow chaired a meeting of the House of Commons Commission to look at how to deal with the situation.

His spokeswoman said: “The Commission discussed the recent allegations relating to the harassment of staff, following today’s exchanges in the House of Commons.

“It recognised that the current processes for dealing with this required review, and a more thorough understanding of how they are put into practice by political parties.

“The Commission therefore committed to urgent work, in concert with the key stakeholders, to identify a way forward which would command general confidence and enable people to speak up without fear or favour.”

Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom had been due to use the Commission meeting 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 move 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”.

Mrs Leadsom told MPs 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.

The Leader of the House 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.”

She told MPs the Government’s guiding principles for the new proposed support service were that:

Everyone in Parliament should “have the right to feel at ease as they go about their work”.

The existing confidential helpline must be strengthened as a “dedicated support team” with more resources.

The support team should be able to recommend the onward referral of a case to ensure “appropriate investigation and action”.

Specialised pastoral support should be available to anyone in distress as a consequence of their treatment in the workplace.

The support team should “strongly recommend” that any criminal allegations are reported to the police.

Labour’s former deputy leader Ms Harman said moves to tackle the problem were “long overdue”.

She said: “No-one should have to work in the toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter.

“No MP, let alone a minister, should think it is something to make jokes about.”

Mrs May wrote to Mr Bercow about the need to overhaul Commons disciplinary procedures amid mounting reports of abusive and inappropriate behaviour towards women.

A list of 13 MPs facing harassment allegations has been circulating at Westminster, according to the Daily Telegraph, as Number 10 again made clear any unwanted sexual behaviour was “completely unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, the Guido Fawkes website claimed Tory aides had compiled a spreadsheet of 36 Conservative MPs – including 20 ministers – accused of inappropriate behaviour.

The Conservatives declined to comment.

Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, rejected suggestions that there is a culture of sexual harassment in Westminster.

Asked about the feeling among Tory MPs, he told the Press Association: “The over-riding thing is the view that any wrongdoing should be prevented and people should be supported if they suffer from it.

“But also, of course, a degree of anguish that these things also unfairly tarnish the vast majority of Members of Parliament who are committed to public service and to doing good for their constituents.”