When Westminster fell foul to sexual harassment scandals during #MeToo movement, change was demanded. In order to safeguard victims, who previously had no outlet for complaints against MPs, the government promised a cross-party report into sexual harassment which would put in place a new system for complaints and hopefully reduce sexual misconduct in Parliament.
A working group with members from various parties –large and small - was put in place by leader of the House, Angela Leadsom, to tackle the harassment and bullying that had gone unnoticed for years in Westminster. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party and member of the working group has spoken out against the report that will be discussed by MPs on Tuesday. She claims that the current document is a watered-down version of the previous proposal, due to be published before Christmas but delayed by Labour MPs. She told The Guardian:
‘As a result of Labour’s reluctance to back the planned launch of the original draft in December, backbench Tories have had an opportunity to get their hands on the draft and significantly reduce the potential impact of our work.
Supposedly, the tone of the new document has moved away from the victim/survivor-led approach originally intended by the working group, toward one that ‘pays disproportionate regard to the potential for vexatious complaints.’
Having a victim-led approach is vital to any system to reduce sexual harassment, as Lucas is very aware:
‘When we know that the vast majority of sexual misconduct is not reported for fear of not being believed, it’s all the more important that parliament leads the way with a best practice approach. That should include concrete steps to urgently secure cultural change too, yet recommendations in that area have also been weakened’.
The changes are a frustrating, albeit unsurprising, move which would only perpetuate the current environment in Parliament that sees overwhelming power to belittle and intimidate staff in the hands of MPs whose behavior goes unnoticed. However, a survivor-led document is still on the table with the final report yet to be agreed.
Leadsom stated that there are several meetings yet to be had to ensure the proposal is fully robust and has the trust of staff, MPs and peers.
In the meantime, Labour has brought in independent charity, Rape Crisis, to help deal with sexual harassment within the party. This comes in the wake of a number of serious allegations, including one rape accusation by former NEC member Bex Bailey who stated she was told reporting the incident could damage her career. Rape Crisis will set up a support hotline for independent reporting of incidents, an independent audit of Labour's internal procedures from a complaints point of view plus provide support for victims from named staff throughout the complaints process.
Making such important steps towards tackling sexual harassment, it begs the question, why did Labour delay the original report? According to Jess Phillips, Labour MP, political disagreements were stopping decisions being taken.
Supposedly, Labour's shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz failed to attend crucial meetings and sign off on reports with Conservatives claiming she vetoed a report on measures to combat harassment expected in December. Labour has denied these allegations, claiming that Vaz has been fully engaged in the process.
It doesn’t sound like it should be this difficult. In fact, considering the failure of Westminster to deal with this in the past, it wouldn’t be unwise to have a number of independent charities consult and write the proposal together, with parliamentary staff having the opportunity to read and vote on its effectiveness before it goes to parliamentary debate. The idea that MPs have so much control over the reports proposals is unsettling, since it’s meant to be in place to protect their staff not them.
Whether or not we can trust our government to provide a practical, survivor-led proposal will be up for debate on Tuesday when the report is debated. Or when the report is published, whenever the bloody hell that will be
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