Visible Women

“Westminster says it wants to end sexual harassment – but it’s not doing enough”

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Sophie Walker
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New proposals for dealing with misconduct are a good start – but they don’t go far enough, says Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker. 

When the waves of allegations following #MeToo reached the UK, it was no surprise they first crashed through media, entertainment and politics. These are the bastions of male power, which tell stories about men, for men, and treat women’s lives as a subculture or an afterthought.

Women assaulted by politicians were forced to take to the media to get their voices heard, because when they complained through their internal party structures they were disbelieved or discouraged from pursuing their cases. The UK silence breakers celebrated in Stylist included Bex Bailey, the Labour activist who revealed she was raped by a senior Labour official and told not to report it to the police for fear of damaging her career prospects. 

Bex was one of many women from the main political parties who came forward late last year with strikingly similar stories about reporting harassment and being dismissed. In response, the Women’s Equality Party called for a new parliamentary process to investigate these cases. We wanted this new procedure to be completely independent from the parties, and to be able to enact real sanctions, such as potentially sacking MPs who sexually harassed others via the recall process (more on that later). 

Labour activist Bex Bailey, who spoke out last autumn about her rape at a party event 

Resolution should have come quickly, but instead parliament’s working group struggled for weeks to publish a clear set of rules. In the meantime, we watched in dismay as MPs who had lost their ministerial portfolios as a result of unacceptable behaviour – Michael Fallon and Damian Green, for example – were rehabilitated into the Westminster club. They were cheered by their peers when they stood up in parliament, joined in debates and voted on legislation that affects us all. 

How, we asked, could they have been found to have breached the ministerial code, yet be allowed to continue representing constituents with impunity?

Following at least two leaks before and after Christmas, the report was finally published on Thursday. It will now be debated by members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords later this month.

Michael Fallon (left) and Damian Green, both of whom were forced to resign last autumn 

The report makes some important and welcome recommendations. It introduces a new behavioural code that covers anyone working with or for Parliament, and a new independent scheme with separate processes for bullying and harassment and sexual harassment. It means that anyone working for or with parliament can access advice and support if they experience harassment, whether it occurs on the parliamentary estate, in constituencies or overseas. 

But the recommendations don’t go far enough, and I’m sceptical that the sanctions proposed are sufficient. The report contains no plans, for example, to make sexual harassment a trigger for the recall process. Recall powers were established in 2015, and mean that a petition can be triggered under certain circumstances – such as when MPs fiddle their expenses, or are suspended from parliament for 14 days. If more than 10% of an MP’s constituents then sign that petition, there is a by-election. It’s a way of kicking politicians out of parliament if they behave in a way that their constituents find unacceptable.

Changing the law to make any form of sexual harassment a recall trigger would have sent a strong message. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that sexually harassing women is not as serious as paying for a duck house with public money.

“A parliament that can’t deal with sexual harassment within its own corridors is one that doesn’t understand how gender inequality is a cause and consequence of violence against women and girls”"

The other key flaw in this report makes for particularly sad reading. Namely, that the Westminster victims of sexual harassment who catalysed this debate – the women who were brave enough to speak out in the first place – will not be allowed to access the support provided by this new system. The proposed procedures will only be available to people who file fresh complaints.

It is a failure of justice to propose that all the ongoing and closed cases investigated by parties’ internal processes will not be reviewed. This needs to be looked at again, and quickly. Otherwise women experiencing sexual harassment in Westminster will never escape the cycle of reporting to friends and peers in their parties, only to find that this prevents an independent review.

Sexual harassment and assault are endemic in our society. Just look at another report published this week, this time by the ONS, which found that 1 in 5 women in the UK has experienced sexual assault.

A parliament that can’t deal with sexual harassment within its own corridors is one that doesn’t understand how gender inequality is a cause and consequence of violence against women and girls – and it will never be able to support women around the country in tackling these problems. 

There is much more work to do.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here

Images: Mark Harrison for Stylist / Rex Features / Pexels