After Me Too, can we trust the UK government to tackle sexual abuse?

Written by Sian Norris | Published on: December 24, 2018

If our lawmakers fail to confront abuse in their own workplace, how do we trust them to enact effective policies for the rest of us?
 

Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom responds to questions about allegations sexual harassment at Westminster. Picture: PA. All
Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom responds to questions about allegations sexual harassment at Westminster. Picture: PA. All rights reserved.

On 12 December 2018, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May faced a ‘vote of no confidence’ in her leadership. Her Conservative party MPs were invited to vote in a secret ballot, indicating whether they thought the prime minister should continue in her role. Conservative party rules stated that she would have to resign as party leader if she lost the vote.

May knew it was going to be a tight vote, as she needed the support of at least 159 out of 317 of her MPs to survive. The Conservative party then announced that two MPs who had previously been suspended following allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths, would be reinstated ahead of the crucial vote.

Earlier this year, the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that Elphicke had been accused of rape by a former staff member. He had undergone a police interview under caution in March 2018, but no rape allegation was put to him on that occasion. Elphicke maintains his innocence and has denied any wrongdoing.

Griffiths had sent thousands of text messages to women in his constituency including explicit comments like his desire to “beat” a woman during sex. He subsequently said he’d sent these texts while having a manic episode, and that he was “ashamed and embarrassed”.

The Labour party criticised the Conservatives for “betraying” women by reinstating the suspended MPs ahead of the vote. A year after a series of #MeToo allegations broke in parliament, in late 2017, this welcoming back of alleged harassers for political expediency begs the question: what has changed for women in politics? And can this government be trusted to pay more than lip service to our rights when it’s political crunch time?

On 12 December 2018, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May faced a ‘vote of no confidence’ in her leadership. Her Conservative party MPs were invited to vote in a secret ballot, indicating whether they thought the prime minister should continue in her role. Conservative party rules stated that she would have to resign as party leader if she lost the vote.

May knew it was going to be a tight vote, as she needed the support of at least 159 out of 317 of her MPs to survive. The Conservative party then announced that two MPs who had previously been suspended following allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths, would be reinstated ahead of the crucial vote.

Earlier this year, the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that Elphicke had been accused of rape by a former staff member. He had undergone a police interview under caution in March 2018, but no rape allegation was put to him on that occasion. Elphicke maintains his innocence and has denied any wrongdoing.

Griffiths had sent thousands of text messages to women in his constituency including explicit comments like his desire to “beat” a woman during sex. He subsequently said he’d sent these texts while having a manic episode, and that he was “ashamed and embarrassed”.

The Labour party criticised the Conservatives for “betraying” women by reinstating the suspended MPs ahead of the vote. A year after a series of #MeToo allegations broke in parliament, in late 2017, this welcoming back of alleged harassers for political expediency begs the question: what has changed for women in politics? And can this government be trusted to pay more than lip service to our rights when it’s political crunch time?
 

Abuse in the lobby

In October 2017, women around the world came forward under the MeToo banner, accusing powerful men of sexual assault, harassment and rape. From the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein to news anchors, journalists, and Wall Street bosses, it wasn’t long before MeToo came to Westminster – the home of the UK parliament.

This year, a survey commissioned by MPs found one in five people working in parliament had experienced sexual harassment. Women reported twice as many cases as men.

Following disclosures of sexual harassment from the journalist Jane Merrick among other women, the defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon was the first to resign from his ministerial post, in November 2017, admitting his conduct may have “fallen short” of standards.

Sir Michael Fallon resigned from his UK cabinet position in 2017 following disclosures of sexual harassment. Image: PA. All righ
Sir Michael Fallon resigned from his UK cabinet position in 2017 following disclosures of sexual harassment. Image: PA. All rights reserved.

A few weeks later, the deputy prime minister Damian Green resigned amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards a young Conservative party activist (which he denied). A parliamentary inquiry had found these allegations “plausible” and that he’d previously made “misleading” statements about pornography on his work computer.

Over the last year, MPs, parliamentary staff, and activists from across parties have faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour, bullying, sexual assault, and rape.

The Financial Times journalist Laura Hughes exposed wide-ranging abuses of power at parliament. One parliamentary staff member anonymously told Hughes that a Conservative MP had boasted that he’d had sex with researchers on her desk. Another former staffer told Hughes that she knew of 10 women who had been harassed at parliament.

With two MPs resigning from ministerial posts (although not their seats), and other MPs and party activists under investigation or facing allegations of misconduct, it had become clear to parliament by the end of 2017 that action needed to be taken to change a culture of widespread bullying and harassment at the heart of British politics.

The extent of the Westminster abuse scandal was chilling. It’s precisely these people in these corridors of power who make laws about violence against women and workplace sexual harassment. How could these lawmakers be trusted to create fair and just policies to protect people from sexual violence, when some were alleged perpetrators themselves?

How could these lawmakers be trusted to create fair and just policies to protect people from sexual violence? 
 
Reports of sexual and sexually inappropriate behaviour are not new to the UK’s parliament.  

After the 1997 elections, which doubled the number of women MPs, researcher Professor Sarah Childs wrote a book about them. She quoted a report in The Times newspaper which said they “were subjected to sexual harassment: comments were made about women MPs ‘legs and breasts’ and when women MPs spoke in debates it was reported that Conservative MPs ‘put their hands out in front of them as if they are weighing melons’”.

But the MeToo movement threw harassment in Westminster under the spotlight, and the growing list of accusations meant that something finally had to change.

The leader of the House of Commons, Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, set up a cross-party working group to investigate sexual misconduct at parliament. A separate inquiry into bullying and harassment of staff in parliament was launched by Dame Laura Cox.

In July 2018, Leadsom’s working group published its findings which highlighted the lack of an independent grievance and complaints procedures for people working in parliament. This meant, for example, that if a parliamentary researcher were harassed by their MP boss, they were supposed to report it to their “line manager” – that same MP.

As one lawyer, Meriel Schindler, put it to Hughes at the Financial Times: “it’s almost as if MPs are like unregulated sole traders”.“It’s almost as if MPs are like unregulated sole traders”.
 
The working group’s report introduced a new “behaviour code” for parliament, underpinned by an independent complaints procedure. It said that implementing this code would require training as well as human resources support, and called for a “cultural change” in parliament.

The code states that MPs and staff should “respect and value everyone”; that they should “recognise their power, influence or authority and not abuse them” and “think about how your behaviour affects others and strive to understand their perspective”.

“Bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct are not tolerated”, it insists. “Unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with seriously, independently and with effective sanctions”.

Importantly, the working group noted that sexual harassment is “qualitatively different from other forms of unacceptable behaviour, including bullying and non-sexual harassment”.

Confronting this “therefore requires its own set of procedures and personnel”, said its report, which recommended that an Independent Sexual Misconduct Advocate should be contracted to support those reporting harassment.
 

What’s really changed?

Can the government be trusted to put its own recommendations into practice? Or does the reinstatement of Elphicke and Griffiths, ahead of a crucial vote the prime minister needed to win, demonstrate that women’s rights are easily brushed aside when politics demand?

The reinstatement of these MPs isn’t the first example of political manoeuvering amid abuse allegations. Earlier this year, bullying allegations against the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, were used as political footballs by his opponents and supporters.

In an article for the Guardian, a Labour MP wrote that many of her fellow parliamentarians “hate John Bercow and wanted rid of him and used the report as their opportunity”. They see victims of harassment as a “toy for them to play with for political and tribal ends”, she said.
Meanwhile, those who wanted Bercow to stay called it the “wrong time” to change speaker.They see victims of harassment as a “toy for them to play with for political and tribal ends”.

Accusations of sexual misconduct have also rocked parliament’s House of Lords.

In November 2017, the Liberal Democrat Peer and human rights lawyer, Lord Lester, was accused of sexual harassment by a women’s rights campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera. The House of Lords Commissioner for Standards conducted an investigation, upheld her complaint, and determined that Lester should be suspended for five years.

However, on 15 November 2018, Lester’s ally Lord Pannick voted to block the proposed suspension. Pannick accused the Commissioner of not acting “in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness” in her handling of the case.

In response, a House of Lords committee responsible for members’ privileges and conduct published a damning report on 12 December on how Lester’s case had been handled. Among other things, it expressed concern that the debate over Pannick’s amendment risked putting other women off reporting sexual misconduct in the future.

The report noted how during the debate, Lester’s supporters used their positions to “make wholly inappropriate comments about [Sanghera’s] character and behaviour”. It said: “We are concerned that some of the contributions to the debate will have deterred other victims of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct from coming forward”.

One of the report’s footnotes adds that the committee’s “attention [was drawn] to the fact that in the debate on 15 November, ‘reputation’ was invoked positively 15 times to describe Lord Lester. It was not invoked once to describe the complainant. At the same time, the complainant’s credibility and motivations were questioned”.

This is important – so often in these cases, while men’s reputations are defended, women are deemed to lack credibility, or accused of having ulterior motivations. This obstructs women’s access to justice and can put women off reporting sexual misconduct or violence.  

Sanghera said that the investigation against Lord Lester had been thorough, and by blocking his suspension the House of Lords “undermined the whole process, and undermined the commissioner and me”. It also “undermined victims”, she added, saying that she wouldn’t advise other women to report cases of harassment if this is how they respond.

Lester did eventually resign, though he maintains his innocence. A further debate on 17 December censured him – but as he had already resigned, he cannot face any sanctions in parliament. Meanwhile, Lester’s is not an isolated case. Rather it typifies the problems women face when reporting sexual misconduct against powerful men in government.
 

What’s next?

From reinstating MPs ahead of a crucial vote, to treating bullying allegations against Bercow as a political football, the UK parliament has not inspired much confidence in its ability to seriously handle accusations of misconduct and abuse.

Although two men did resign their ministerial posts following accusations of sexual harassment, they have remained MPs. One wonders what Sir Michael Fallon’s constituents make of his admission that his conduct may have “fallen short” of standards as defence secretary, while apparently deciding that he was still suitable to represent them.

The case of Lord Lester meanwhile highlights how the way sexual harassment claims are handled may influence whether other women will report cases in the future.

While it is positive that new complaints procedures are now in place at parliament – thanks in part to the work of feminist campaigners – if women do not believe their allegations will be listened to and respected, then many still won’t come forward.

Going into 2019, it remains alarming that those responsible for making laws on issues like violence against women and girls seem unable to deal with them in their own workplace.

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein.