Eight years ago, I investigated sexism in Westminster – what has changed?

Westminster is awash with alcohol, egos and driven, ambitious people. These are not conditions conducive to a respectful environment

Cathy Newman
Thursday 28 April 2022 09:57
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<p>Parties are terribly good at ignoring the evidence under their noses</p>

Parties are terribly good at ignoring the evidence under their noses

Sexual harassment and the abuse of power is really part of the fabric.” That’s not a comment made in the last 24 hours, but one that formed part of an investigation I did back in 2014 on the culture of harassment in Westminster. How little has changed.

After female Conservative MPs claimed a male colleague watched porn in the Commons, it turns out sexual misconduct is so much part of the political fabric it’s still sitting very comfortably on the famous green benches.

One thing has changed, though: the reaction from across the political spectrum. A decade ago, Channel 4 News reported allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard – claims he always denied. The police found insufficient evidence to bring any charges and a subsequent, independent investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing. One of the party’s peers, Baroness Williams, said the allegations were “hopelessly exaggerated” and her colleague Lord Greaves referred to “fairly mild sexual advances”.

Now, MPs of all hues have expressed outrage at the idea porn was being consumed in the Chamber, and misogynistic comments aimed at Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner have been roundly denounced, from the prime minister down.

A bunch of female Conservative MPs went to meet the chief whip to demand action. The question, though, is if he or anyone else can deliver. Action could and should have happened already, because let’s face it, we’ve been here many times before.

In 2017, the “Pestminster” controversy saw senior political figures publicly accused of misconduct. The very next year, an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to deal with allegations of bullying and harassment against MPs and their staff. To date, just one MP has been referred to the standards committee for a breach – and was punished accordingly.

Given 56 MPs have reportedly been accused of sexual misconduct, including three cabinet ministers, it’s not an investigatory track record that inspires confidence.

Allegations of sexual harassment against Tory MP David Warburton were reported to the ICGS, but he was only suspended by the party once a newspaper reported on him.

The woman who instigated the scheme, Dame Andrea Leadsom, told me yesterday it was fit for purpose, though she expressed frustration at how long investigations took. She also defended preserving anonymity for those accused. But the danger is a lack of transparency risks depriving victims of justice.

Parties are terribly good at ignoring the evidence under their noses. When former Dover MP Charlie Elphicke was found guilty of sexual assault in 2020, one of his parliamentary colleagues provided a character reference dismissing his crimes as “folly”.

And when an unnamed Tory MP was arrested and bailed for an allegation of rape, the party declined to suspend him. Can you imagine that happening in any other walk of life?

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In many ways, the events of the last few days offer confirmation that Westminster is simply a mirror of society at large. But the suspicion remains that both the conduct and the punishments meted out don’t bear flattering comparison with the real world.

Westminster is awash with alcohol, egos and driven, ambitious people. These are not conditions conducive to a respectful environment. All the more reason, then, that complaints are processed expeditiously and perpetrators dealt with firmly.

The #MeToo movement was supposed to have changed the culture for women across the world. It hasn’t. Cultural change is now beyond urgent. And the price of inaction is too high not only for the current generation of Westminster women but also the next one.

Rooting out misogyny has to start at school, educating the boys (and girls) who will be the next generation of leaders. Then perhaps when they plonk themselves down on the green benches in years to come, they’ll struggle to believe an honourable member once watched porn there – and got away with it.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor for Channel 4 News

This article was amended on 3 May 2022 to include the fact that Lord Rennard was cleared of any wrongdoing by an independent investigation.

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