As the wider movement of sexual harassment victims coming forward spreads, having been sparked by the Harvey Weinstein case, it was always likely that it would eventually reach Westminster. Over the last few days it has been creeping ever closer – from allegations in the European Parliament, to reports of a WhatsApp group of Westminster staffers discussing their experiences, to Downing Street urging victims to report offenders on Friday.
Today, the newspapers present the first signs of what could well grow into a major scandal.
The Mail on Sunday reports that Mark Garnier got his then-secretary to buy sex toys (one allegedly for another female employee) while he waited outside – he disputes elements of her account, admits the essence of the story but dismisses it as “high jinks”. The same paper also carries a disturbing report of alleged drink spiking on the parliamentary estate.
In the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Crabb admits ‘sexting’ a young woman whom he had interviewed (and rejected) for a job in his office, something a friend of the woman describes as an “abuse of his position of power”. While Crabb accepts that he actions “amount to unfaithfulness and are wrong and hurtful”, he states in the newspaper that messages were sent “from both sides”.
The Sunday Times recounts allegations against several unnamed Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parliamentarians, while giving an insight into the briefings provided to the Prime Minister by the Chief Whip on potentially compromising behaviour by MPs:
‘May is given a regular briefing by the Tory chief whip Gavin Williamson on misdemeanours by Tory MPs after the 8.30am planning meeting in No 10. In a sign of the levity with which the issue is treated, one of May’s aides said the briefing was known in Downing Street as “the ins and outs” chat.
Insiders say it covers MPs having affairs, suffering from sex addiction, caught using prostitutes, running up gambling debts and taking class-A drugs. But sources allege that “good, honest fun with other people’s wives” has been treated the same as predatory sexual behaviour in which senior ministers and MPs prey on the vulnerability of younger women and men working in the Commons.’
It should come as no surprise, sadly, that such things might go on in and around Westminster.
Any collection of several thousand people will include some whose actions and attitudes to others are abhorrent – that’s why the Weinstein scandal has spread so swiftly across industries and national boundaries, and between continents. Politics is, arguably, more at risk of such behaviour than other fields: power is even more obviously present than in other sectors; patronage and the pressures of partisan loyalty are habitually brought to bear for good or ill motives; and young people routinely work very closely with older politicians, some of whom it’s fair to say display more than a few signs of entitlement and egotism (and have at times benefited professionally from those risky qualities).
The working circumstances of Parliamentary staffers add to the problem. While they are paid by Parliament, they are employed by their MP. Many of them are quite young, not least for reasons of cost, and are by definition dedicated politics fans, sometimes even in some degree of awe of the people they’re dealing with. Each MP’s office is inevitably a small team, which often works unusual hours, combines personal and political loyalties, and who socialise together, often with their employer. There is no HR department responsible for staffers, and there are few routes for someone whose boss becomes a problem other than to seek work elsewhere – hence the existence of those ad hoc WhatsApp groups in which staffers advise each other on who is ok to be around and who is not.
We should pay credit to those who do speak out. That is a difficult thing to do in any circumstance, and in any sector, but particularly so in an environment such as Westminster. There are most likely others out there today wondering whether they should expose current or former employers – something that often risks personal cost as well as personal anguish – and I doubt this will be the last we hear of such allegations.
It is essential that Parliament, the Government and the Conservative Party gets its response to this issue right. A failure to do so, or a descent into either cover-ups or summary defenestration, would do a severe disservice to victims, to justice, to anyone wrongly accused, and to our democratic institutions..
The first thing to establish is a clear definition of who is responsible for dealing with what:
1. Where criminality is alleged, the police must of course be involved, as Downing Street rightly argued before today’s stories broke.
2. Where an MP is accused of behaving inappropriately towards or otherwise harassing a member of staff, aside from alleged crimes, that should be an issue for the Commons authorities.
3. When an MP is allegedly involved in compromising behaviour which is legal and consensual but nonetheless controversial (what the Sunday Times‘s source refers to as “good, honest fun with other people’s wives”) then that’s a question for the MP’s Party, if it’s deemed to bring it into disrepute; for their local association, if they feel it falls below the standard they expect from a candidate; and, ultimately, for their constituents, who retain the ultimate right to pass judgement on any grounds about who represents them in Parliament.
If, as the Sunday Times report suggests, the information already known to the Whips includes a mixture of those three distinct categories of behaviour, then they must be separated out swiftly and dealt with appropriately. The most relevant issue here is the lack of clarity surrounding the response to the second category: inappropriate or harassing behaviour of an employer towards their staff, or towards the employees of others in the same building.
As the Sunday Telegraph reports, the moment, there is essentially no clear route for staff to raise concerns, no person whose job it is to act on such reports, and no policy against which to test an allegation. That’s one reason why, in addition the question of sexual harassment, I expect there is a scandal yet to come about bullying of staff in Westminster, too.
There are degrees of action that can be taken to correct those problems.
In the past, there have been attempts to suggest that all Parliamentary staff should be hired centrally and allocated to MPs. This would in our view be a serious error, effectively exploiting a crisis to make MPs creatures of the Whips, rather than solving the problem at hand.
It seems clear, though, that the Respect Policy which applies to employees of the Parliamentary Estate should be extended to the staffers of MPs and Peers. There must also be a credible individual or department to whom staffers can go for advice and/or action on their behalf in the event that that policy is breached.
As for what the Party itself does when presented with allegations that an MP is behaving badly towards their staff, I suspect most members and voters would want it to be just, open and severe.
Parliament should recall the expenses scandal, which forms a cautionary tale about what happens when an institution appears incapable or unwilling of properly addressing genuine problems. If they want to avoid a whirlwind, and an eventual centralisation, then they need to deal with this issue transparently and forcefully, up front.