Theresa May’s got her hands full at the moment with Brexit negotiations, but that doesn’t mean sexual harassment should be allowed to run rife in Westminster.
Following a series of sexual harassment complaints from Westminster staff against senior male politicians, the Prime Minister penned a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, appealing to him to establish an independent mediation service for employees who raise concerns about MPs’ behaviour. She also stipulated the need for a grievance procedure to be mandated, given there is only a voluntary procedure in place.
This response by the PM was far from excessive.
In the past few weeks, following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a number of female Westminster employees have come forward, accusing senior male politicians of predatory behaviour.
Recently, the former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb was forced to apologise for “sexual chatter” with a 19-year-old who had applied for a job in his office, while the trade minister Mark Garnier confessed to asking a former assistant to buy him sex toys and calling her “sugar tits”.
And it’s not just the Tories in the firing line. The Labour Party has been tangled up in allegations and can expect more to emerge. Last week, MP Jared O’Mara was suspended from the party after he was caught making a number of misogynistic and homophobic remarks on social media.
“We’re not going to be immune from it,” Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell told The Guardian. “It’s the attitudes and the power inequalities, whether it’s Hollywood, the BBC or Westminster.”
Shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, shared the same sentiment during an interview with the BBC, but said that the situation had improved since she first entered Parliament 30 years ago.
“You would have sort of micro-sexual aggression. So women would get up in the chamber and Tories opposite would do this gesture like they were weighing their breasts,” she said.
“There was harassment, there were jokes which weren’t that funny – it was partly to do with the fact it was a very male environment – 650 MPs, when I went there just 20-odd women.”
She added is was also partly due to the fact the men were away from home, as well as the eight bars on offer, the long hours they were working, and the idea of “what happens in Westminster stays in Westminster.”
While May was accused by Labour of being aware for some time about the predatory behaviour of her MPs and “washing her hands” of certain situations, including allegations against Garnier– both she and her whips expressly deny this to be true.
In her letter to Berkow, the PM confirmed she was committed to ensuring safeguards were in place to protect Westminster employees from sexual predation. “I believe it is important that those who work in the House of Commons are treated properly and fairly, as would be expected in any modern workplace” she said.