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LONDON — A slew of misconduct cases have turned the spotlight on the worst behavior at Westminster, again. Just don’t call it a culture problem.
Even by the standards of the British parliament, which is used to its fair share of scandal, it has been a grim fortnight.
A sitting MP was convicted of sexual assault and accused of bullying. A further 50 MPs were reported as facing sexual misconduct complaints. A female MP was compared in print to Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” An MP was alleged to have watched pornography in the Commons chamber. To round it off, another MP was suspended for bullying.
It’s easy to look back to the “Pestminster” wave of sexual misconduct allegations that led to a string of ministerial resignations at the time of the “Me Too” movement in 2017 and conclude that nothing has changed.
That’s not quite right. The introduction of an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) has resulted in several MPs being sanctioned for unacceptable behavior, including sexual harassment and bullying.
There have also been some steps toward making parliament more accessible for women, such as the introduction of proxy voting for new parents, and there are now more female MPs in parliament than ever before.
Yet the problem of misconduct across Westminster persists, as a dozen MPs, activists, and staff members attested in conversations with POLITICO this week, and an effort which parliament has never before managed to summon is needed if things are to get better.
A long list
The problems range from alleged criminal offenses to sexist comments and jokes. One former parliamentary staffer said she had been assaulted by a senior party official who is still in post but had not yet decided whether to report it.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I am worried if it doesn’t get taken seriously, that I’ve just become a nuisance and future employers might still think well of him, but I’m seen as a troublemaker.”
A former Conservative staffer said a serving MP elected in 2019 shared details of his sex life with staff and made female employees feel uncomfortable with “sloppy cheek kisses.”
She lodged a complaint to the ICGS, which was rejected on the basis that it was her word against his, despite the fact she had made a record of his behavior in messages to friends about it at the time.
A Labour MP said she had been “propositioned several times” by an older male Conservative MP, and had tried to raise concerns informally about another Tory MP only to be told by the so-called whips, who oversee party discipline, “don’t worry, you’re not his type.”
A former Conservative MP claimed one current member of the government has a “minder” to ensure he leaves events without getting too drunk and getting into trouble.
The aforementioned Labour MP said most women in parliament prefer to rely on the “whisper network” — warning each other about which people to stay away from — rather than going through the hassle of a formal complaint, which may not lead anywhere.
In a recording obtained by POLITICO, Imran Ahmad Khan — who was recently convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old — claimed he received support from the then deputy chief whip Stuart Andrew and legal advice from the former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox after he was charged.
Andrew said that he checked on the MP’s welfare, but it was “incorrect to claim I was supportive in the way described.”
Cox said: “I spoke to Mr. Khan at his request on one or two occasions on the telephone, but offered no substantive advice to him, other than to follow the guidance of his lawyers.”
Khan’s case reignited a debate over whether MPs accused of serious wrongdoing should be banned from the parliamentary estate, only for the relevant committee to rule it out. Mike Clancy of Prospect trade union called it “a disgraceful decision that fails to keep parliamentary staff safe.”
It’s common to hear that these transgressions are difficult to address because of the ingrained culture at Westminster: a toxic mix of late nights, subsidized bars and informal working arrangements.
As Defense Secretary Ben Wallace put it on Times Radio, there is an “overall culture” consisting of “hundreds and hundreds of people working long hours in a place with bars, and for some people under lots of pressure for all sorts of reasons … That’s been going on for decades.”
The Labour MP echoed this, saying: “Misogyny and sexism and sexual harassment are so embedded in the culture of the place, it’s difficult to see how it changes.”
She cited the lack of action against the few MPs who have had complaints upheld against them. “There are more serious consequences for misusing official stationery.”
However, Jess Phillips, Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence, disagreed. “The idea that it’s the culture of the place is just laughable, frankly. It’s not the culture to watch porn in parliament. There are some things like shouting and being partisan that are encouraged — but this isn’t one of those things.”
Rather, she said it was about individual responsibility for maintaining standards in the workplace and whips setting out clearly that some things would not be tolerated.
Anne Milton, a former Tory MP and deputy chief whip, said: “People have to be reminded there is no excuse that will get them off — not even the so-called culture. You’ve got to have a very firm handle on it as a whip — the people in leadership positions can’t be one of the boys, they have to exert authority.”
She suggested the MP alleged to have watched porn ought to be swiftly kicked out of the party, not only for the offense but to send “a sharp shock, which could make people take notice.”
Among Westminster insiders, the jury seems to be out on the Tories’ current chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris. He’s often referred to as “a straight dealer,” raising some hope among staff that he will take a tougher line on misbehavior — and he now has the chance to prove it.
But two female Tories, one a serving MP and one no longer in parliament, claimed the real responsibility lay at the top. They said the problem had become worse under Prime Minister Boris Johnson because of a “culture of rule-breaking” that had taken hold on his watch.
No. 10 Downing Street declined to comment on this point, but called recent allegations by female MPs “shocking” and pledged they would be taken “extremely seriously.”
Others argued the problem was now more visible because more MPs and staff are willing to call out inappropriate behavior.
“There was for a short spell a power shift where people were frightened of allegations more so than they were of perpetrating the behavior, but that’s gone back now,” said Phillips. “The reason it hasn’t been fixed is simple: Nobody wants to fix it.”