Recently-surfaced sexual harassment allegations in British Parliament have resulted in investigations of various MPs and the resignation of the minister of defense on November 1.
The scandal began when the Sun reported the existence of a WhatsApp messaging group among female staffers employed by members of parliament, in which they described their experiences being sexually harassed by their bosses.
The Times of London further reported the identities of 36 lawmakers who are allegedly frequent harassers. The report also exposed allegations against MPs of soliciting prostitutes, extramarital sexual relations, and impregnated mistresses.
One female staffer notified the authorities four times regarding her assault allegations, but neither the police nor parliamentary authorities took any action.
Labour Party activist Bex Bailey claimed that party members raped her as a teenager at an event in 2011 and later advised her not to file a complaint as it would harm her career.
Prime Minister Theresa May sent a letter to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow asking for better procedures to address complaints filed by victims of inappropriate behaviours by MPs. “I believe it is important that those who work in the House of Commons are treated properly and fairly, as would be expected in any modern workplace,” May said in the letter.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “Where there is an unequal power relationship in the workplace and women become vulnerable as a result of it, they have to be supported, they have to be protected.”
In response to the allegations, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said MPs could lose ministerial roles and leadership positions due to harassment allegations, even if they avoid criminal consequences.
Past attempts to reform have failed. Sir Kevin Barron MP, chairman of the influential Committee on Standards, said the political parties prevented previous attempts to resolve parliamentary sexual misconduct by tabling amendments and blocking committee initiatives to institute reform and provide staff with extra protection from sexual harassment. According to rumours, party whips maintain a list of bad behaviour by MPs, using such information to force them to vote as instructed.
May and Leadsom proposed a more substantial independent helpline service for complaints of harassment and abuse at Westminster, with a support team that can recommend the referral of cases to appropriate authorities and pastoral support to those in distress. May and Leadsom further proposed contractually-binding grievance procedures for MPs and staff and a new mediation service for disputes.
The sexual harassment claims have rocked May’s cabinet. Defence Minister Michael Fallon resigned after conceding his misconduct. “A number of allegations have surfaced about MPs in recent days including some about my previous conduct. Many of these have been false but I accept that in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the armed forces that I have the honour to represent,” he said.
May accepted his resignation and appointed Gavin Williamson in his place. She also ordered investigations into the allegations against Conservative MPs and ministers.
The resignation of Fallon, a political ally of May, further weakens and destabilises her government, already reeling after losing the majority and becoming dependent on a small Northern Irish party to form a government in June. May quickly filled the position with a rising star of the Conservative Party to maintain stability and seeks to contain the harassment allegations, which threaten to undermine her government.
Under-Secretary of State for International Trade Mark Garnier also seems likely to lose his job after he admitted to calling his secretary “sugar tits” and asking her to buy sex toys. Downing Street refused to say if May has confidence in Garnier, instead saying May awaits the outcome of an investigation into his actions.
“The prime minister has been clear that this type of behaviours [sic]would be inappropriate if proven and that appropriate action should be taken,” said her spokesman. “I am very clear that we will take action against those where there are allegations that we see, and the evidence is there, that there has been misconduct,” May said.