Late hours and MPs’ age create fertile ground for sexual harassment
Inappropriate behaviour: At Westminster, many normal workplace rules do not apply
Bex Bailey claimed she was discouraged from reporting an alleged rape at a Labour party event in 2011. Photograph: Facebook
The atmosphere at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday was unusually subdued, with some empty spaces on the benches behind Theresa May. Some of the missing faces belonged to MPs whose names appear on a list of Conservatives accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour.
Two places away from May sat Damian Green, her closest political ally and her deputy, rubbing his knees anxiously each time the allegations were mentioned. Green has denied a claim that he made advances to Kate Maltby, a young woman who approached him for advice on becoming a Conservative activist.
Maltby claims that when Green met her for a drink, he started talking about extramarital affairs, told her his wife was very understanding and then she “felt a fleeting hand against my knee – so brief it was almost deniable”.
A year later, when she was pictured in a newspaper wearing a corset, Green texted her, suggesting they meet for a drink.
Green said it is “absolutely and completely untrue” that he made made any sexual advances on Maltby, but the cabinet secretary is investigating her claim.
Other MPs on the list are accused of “inappropriate behaviour” towards researchers, a term that can refer to anything from a lewd remark to a sexual advance. The definition of sexual harassment in British employment law has changed as society’s understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour has developed.
But at Westminster, where MPs are self-employed sole traders, many of the normal workplace rules do not apply. Staff are employed directly by MPs and there is no human resources department for parliamentary staff to consult.
Late hours, cheap bars and the fact most MPs are a lot older than their staff create fertile ground for harassment. Meanwhile, the tribal nature of party loyalty means many victims are reluctant to speak out because they fear they will damage the political cause they believe in.
The seriousness of some allegations in recent days, notably Labour activist Bex Bailey’s claim that she was discouraged from reporting an alleged rape at a party event in 2011, have pushed the party leaders into action. The prime minister said on Wednesday that there must be proper processes in this parliament for people to be able to report misconduct.
Such procedures will help but it will take a more fundamental change in the culture of parliamentary life to ensure all staff feel both safe and respected.