Westminster has been engulfed in lurid tales of unwanted sexual behaviour. But proposals to tackle the problem are flawed, argues JANE MERRICK.
At the height of the #MeToo campaign sweeping through Westminster, a woman contacted me asking for advice on whether she should go public with her own allegation about being sexually harassed by a politician.
I had just written about my experience with Sir Michael Fallon, who had resigned as Defence Secretary over his behaviour. With so many women and men sharing their own harassment stories, joining in on the #MeToo hashtag offered an opportunity to, at last, let their harasser know that sort of behaviour would no longer be tolerated – even if the man in question was not named. But my advice to this woman was that it had to be her own very personal decision to out herself.
I did not break my silence for years, and there were reasons why I hesitated to come forward even as the #MeToo movement gathered pace. Nobody who has been harassed should feel they have to identify themselves; in the case of more serious sexual assault and rape, they are given anonymity under law.
The spirit of #MeToo was and is to expose a culture of harassment across all parts of society – its very nature is public. It exists only because the status quo, a culture of silence and cover-up, allowed harassment to continue. Yet this does not mean individuals should be compelled to step forward. In the case of this woman, she remained anonymous and reported her experience to the party in question.
I thought of this case when Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons and chairman of the parliamentary working group on combating harassment, unveiled her report last week on how Westminster is going to deal with the problem. One of its key recommendations was that MPs who are accused of harassment or assault should remain anonymous while an investigation is ongoing.
This was because, she said, it would not only limit vexatious complaints but also help protect accusers who were likely to be members of the MP’s staff – given a lot of harassment occurs in the workplace, often involving a boss and an employee. Providing anonymity would encourage victims of harassment to come forward, Leadsom said.
I thought Leadsom’s argument was an odd and slightly disingenuous way to look at the problem of breaking the culture of abuse of power in Westminster – and it is a culture that is endemic, given the same report revealed one in five people working there have either experienced or witnessed harassment or assault in the past year.
Naming an MP would not identify any staff member, particularly if details of the allegation were not made public. The truth is that complainants already have anonymity, so the only people being protected by extending it to the accused will be the MPs themselves.
Once again, as with voting on their pay, expenses and pensions, politicians are trying to set different standards for their own work and behaviour to the rest of society. In the real world, people accused of sexual assault are not given anonymity – because it can, and often does, encourage other victims to come forward. Perpetrators of harassment and assault often exhibit patterns of behaviour – it is never normally just one grope. Yet if the Leadsom report recommendations are approved – and of course they will be, given it’s MPs who will be voting on them – then politicians will have more protection than their constituents. Given how widespread harassment and assaults are in Westminster, and how this behaviour is used to exert power by some of the most powerful people in the country, this seems completely wrong. The move would not just exempt politicians from society but insulate them from the #MeToo movement entirely. Where #MeToo tried to break silences and shed light on abuse that had been covered up for years, this report would keep Parliament cloaked in secrecy.
There were some sensible proposals in the Leadsom report – especially a plan for an independent reporting process so that parties would not be investigating themselves and feel inclined to ignore or cover up allegations, as happened with Bex Bailey, the Labour activist who was raped at a party event only to be told by officials not to pursue her complaint.
Offering people an objective, confidential hotline to report allegations is a positive step forward towards breaking Westminster’s harassment culture. My concern is that the independent body will only hear from parliamentary pass-holders or people who have made official visits to MPs’ constituency offices – there will be no protection for the women I spoke to, for example, who were harassed or assaulted by politicians while they were guests at events. The report also proposed threatening MPs with the ultimate sanction of recall, so they could be sacked by their constituents for inappropriate behaviour.
This would happen in the worst cases, perhaps involving repeat offenders – it is hard to imagine, for example, an MP faced with as many allegations as Harvey Weinstein being able to remain in parliament until the next election. But it should also be said that this sanction already exists for badly-behaved MPs, so there are no tougher penalties for harassment that campaigners wanted to see.
There will be a new code of conduct for behaviour and respect, which at least lays down the ground rules for normal social interaction in the workplace. This is not about drafting new post-Weinstein rules of engagement, under which everyone suddenly has to sign a contract before flirting – as some of the more disingenuous opponents of #MeToo like to claim. After Weinstein – but before I went public about Fallon – an MP told me he was scared to get in a House of Commons lift alone with a woman in case something was misunderstood or reported. This was at the same time laughable and alarming – it is a laughable idea that we are suddenly under a new regime where a man cannot be alone with a woman, and alarming that he did not know how to behave normally.
As I wrote in this newspaper back in December, however, there are no new rules governing social interaction and flirting, the only thing that has changed is we are no longer remaining quiet about harassment or abuse. So a new code of conduct will simply spell out what should have always been the case – basic principles of respect in a place of work.
Helpfully, for those #MeToo opponents who think the occasional touch of the knee or opportunistic grope on public transport is just good, old-fashioned flirting, the Leadsom report set out a definition of sexual harassment as ‘conduct relating to sex which is unwanted by the person to whom it is directed and which has the purpose or effect of offending that person or creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive or disturbing environment’. This can include ‘promises of some kind of reward (favourable career moves, etc) in return for sexual favours, or threats of reprisals if such requests are turned down; repetition of coarse or suggestive remarks, or sexual innuendo; use of crude or obscene language and gestures; repeated and exaggerated compliments on the appearance of a staff member; physical contact, rubbing against someone, pinching, deliberate unwanted kisses; acts of voyeurism or exhibitionism; use of pornographic material’. The key word in all of this is ‘unwanted’, and it should be pretty obvious to anyone whether the behaviour is wanted or not. In case it is not obvious, MPs who harass will be given training on sexual consent.
Will any of this make a difference? A ComRes survey of politicians and Commons staff published this week found that more than half of MPs want training on sexual consent, while 25% were opposed to the idea. Who are the one in four MPs who would reject the training – are they the ones who think the normal rules don’t apply to them, and therefore are the ones who need it most? Are they the ones who have watched the #MeToo movement crash into their cosy, protected lives where loyalty and power matter more than accountability and openness, and tried to stop it at every turn? It would be easy to dismiss a small, traditional core of MPs who resist any change and balk at the idea of things like human resources and code of conduct, who think sexual language in an office is just banter and a stroke of a knee is a sign of a caring boss. But it is not just the traditionalists who are trying to bring down Westminster’s portcullis to block #MeToo’s progress.
If the Leadsom report is approved in Parliament, and MPs are given anonymity in all cases of harassment and assault, it would be an official, government-sanctioned rejection of all the silence-breaking and transparency that #MeToo represents.