Sexual harassment is an even bigger problem in Westminster than previously thought

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Moya Crockett
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Almost one in five Westminster workers have experienced sexual harassment in the last year, prompting calls for reform. 

Serious conversations about the problem of sexual harassment in Westminster began in earnest last autumn, when the #MeToo movement was at its height. Now, a new report has shown that shocking numbers of parliamentary employees have encountered sexual harassment in the workplace, prompting calls for an urgent change in culture and the introduction of new complaints procedures.

The report, commissioned by a cross-party group of MPs, said that sexual harassment and other bullying behaviours had been “a feature in the lives” of many people working in parliament, the BBC reports. 

More than 1,370 people (around 17% of the Westminster workforce) responded to a survey that asked them to share their experiences of harassment and bullying. Of these respondents, more than 250 (19%, or almost one in five) said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the last year.

An even higher proportion, 39%, said they had experienced or witnessed non-sexual harassment or bullying in the same timeframe.

The cross-party committee, chaired by Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, has now come up with a list of proposals for how to tackle sexual harassment and bullying.

“This is a big day for parliament and our politics,” said Leadsom. “The new independent procedure will demonstrate that we want to be the best parliament in the world when it comes to treating everyone who works here with dignity and respect.

“This is a major step in bringing about the culture change that parliament needs.”

Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas criticised parliament’s current procedures for tackling sexual harassment 

Under the report’s proposals, a grievance procedure would be introduced to provide “practical and emotional” support to those who complained about harassment. MPs found to have bullied, sexually harassed or abused staff would face “real sanctions” if they breached a proposed new code of conduct, Leadsom said, with potential repercussions including suspension or deselection.

The report’s recommendations include hiring a trained sexual violence adviser to work at Westminster, and introducing a dedicated helpline for complaints about sexual misconduct. A separate helpline would be launched for people to report non-sexual bullying.

If a complainant decided they did not want to go to the police or pursue a formal sexual harassment claim, the new sexual violence adviser would be able to help them reach an “informal” resolution, which could see the perpetrator write a letter or apology or undergo workplace training.

Labour called for the report’s recommendations to be implemented “as a matter of urgency”. Valerie Vaz, the shadow Commons leader, said that MPs, lords and staff should also be given “mandatory training… on consent, equalities, tackling bullying and harassment, and trade union recognition”. 

Ex-defence secretary Michael Fallon was forced to resign in November after admitting to inappropriate behaviour 

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party and MP for Brighton Pavilion, described the cross-party report as a “wake-up call”.

“Westminster is a very toxic environment; we know that it’s an environment that reeks of privilege. That’s why this report is so important,” she said, during an appearance on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on BBC Two.

“People should be able to have a right to expect a safe and dignified working environment. The fact that we’re having to work so hard just to catch up, I think, is a pretty strong indictment of the processes that we’ve had to date.”

Currently, procedures for tackling sexual misconduct in Westminster are outlined by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). However, MPs are not contractually required to follow these procedures, prompting Theresa May to describe them as “toothless” and call for reform in October.

Several prominent figures were forced to resign last autumn after being accused of sexual misconduct, including ex-defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon (who was accused of inappropriate behaviour by multiple women), and former international trade minister Mark Garnier, who admitted calling his secretary “sugar tits” and asking her to buy him sex toys.

The proposals will be debated by MPs later this month.

Images:  Pexels / Rex Features