Sexual harassment in the UK parliament is a challenge:
- Demands for secretaries to purchase ‘sex toys’
- Sexual propositioning at work
- Sexual assault where a proposition is rejected
- Sexual harassment
- MP viewing pornographic images on his phone.
Westminster’s political intrigues might suggest stealth and concealed politicking, but sexual misconduct is flagrant.
What’s been done about the problem
As pointed out by Jenny Rhodes in this publication, addressing this as a breach of the Ministerial Code is not enough. Women say they “do not trust” the political parties to address a problem that appears to be endemic in the parliament and constituency offices.
The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW, is currently the subject of a campaign for its provisions to be wholly introduced into the United Kingdom as a Women’s Bill of Rights. The CEDAW People’s Tribunal has been tasked with exploring deficiencies in United Kingdom law that make a Women’s Bill of Rights essential.
In June 2021, it heard evidence of the Westminster problem. Witnesses emphasised that a culture exists within the polity that encourages abusive conduct toward and against women as candidates, as councillors and as Members of Parliament. The President’s Report canvasses measures suggested or adopted to address sexism in the political arena, exemplified by oppression and bullying, sexual harassment, sexist harassment, and assault. Reports and enquiries include the UK Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018, resulting in a report identifying four barriers potentially making it more difficult for women to enter the House of Lords or become MPs:
- Culture of parliament, highlighted in reports of bullying and harassment, and sexual harassment
- Online threats and threats to physical security, in particular gender-based intimidation, harassment, and violence against female parliamentarians and female candidates
- Challenges that working in parliament poses for family life, including unpredictability of business and potentially long hours
- Financial impact of standing for parliament.
Dame Laura Cox’s Independent Inquiry Report on bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff recounted the experiences of members, members’ staff, and staff of members of the House of Lords. It highlighted “the growing menace of online and physical threats to parliamentary candidates, and in particular the gendered nature of the abuse aimed at women candidates”.
It appears that such incidents have not lessened despite Dame Cox’s report and recommendations.
The gender sensitive parliament audit in relation to this “menace” called for the parliamentary authorities “to take steps to ensure that MPs, members of the House of Lords and all staff are aware of the support available from their local police and the Parliamentary Liaison and Investigation Team to address abuse and threats via social media”.
The parties themselves have complaints procedures, and the parliamentary administrative arm has a complaints mechanism. An ‘independent’ complaints mechanism is alluded to – though it’s not clear exactly where, and how it has been established remains a mystery – and reference is made to police or lawyers as an avenue outside the walls of Westminster.
More from East Anglia Bylines
Internal party processes, complaints mechanisms, police, and legal action are designed to react to conduct once it has occurred. This approach and the strength and repetitious nature of the evidence appear to show that misconduct is inevitable. Surely action should aim to prevent the near certainty of exploitation and harm?
What needs to be done about the problem
Political parties need to be told firmly, through their bank accounts, that it is unacceptable to select candidates with exploitative proclivities. Public or state funding of elections would advance this goal, if dependent on all candidates for elected public office – local, devolved, or national government – undergoing compulsory training against discrimination, bullying, sexism, and sexist and sexual harassment.
This would mean that no candidate could be selected by any political party to stand – whether for a safe, swinging, winnable or unwinnable seat in a constituency, division, or ward – without having undergone training. And an hour of online, self-administered tuition will not do. Accredited programmes are essential. If parties devise their own, these should be accredited by a properly qualified agency or – for example – the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR).
Of course debate exists around state or public funding of elections. The United Kingdom has funds for manifesto development and specified funds for opposition parties and in respect of devolved authorities. Public funding needs to go beyond these to the sort of provision that exists in other countries.
Australia has public funding of elections with reimbursement of election costs based on a basic number of votes cast for candidates; the Netherlands has funding for research; and in Germany funds match donations raised by parties. The German approach would at least ensure that political parties reveal the full extent of donations – something that some allege remains unclear in the United Kingdom – advancing transparency. Because the public purse is finite, limits on private funding would necessarily follow.
Concerns are raised regularly about the influence of private funding on political parties and elections. The Australian High Court and the United States Supreme Court have ruled that private funding of elections accords with ‘free speech’. The rich self-evidently have more funds, and these Court decisions astonishingly (to some) confirm their right to more free speech.
In politics, private bankrolling of political parties and candidates is poorly monitored or curbed. More money confers greater ‘freedom of speech’ – and obvious influence. This interferes with the democratic process. Surely a matter for concern?
If, to qualify for private funding of elections, political parties were required to ensure all candidates were certified as “trained against discrimination, bullying, sexism, and sexual and sexist harassment”, no doubt some might object, and strongly. Yet if the plague said to lurk in parliamentary halls is to be ended, post-event attention won’t do the trick.
Surely all political parties would welcome the certainty that at least all their candidates know just what constitutes unacceptable and illegal conduct and cannot prevaricate about it. Porn-on-phone-in-the-chamber and criminal acts constituted by power-driven sexual imposition surely mean it is time to act, and act effectively?