LONDON (Reuters) – There will be zero tolerance of sexual harassment in Britain’s parliament, the government said on Monday, toughening rules after allegations of abuse at the 800-year-old institution fuelled demands for reform.
After sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein prompted hundreds of thousands of women and men to share stories about inappropriate behaviour, Britain’s parliament – a bastion of tradition – has been no exception.
Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered an investigation into a report that one of her ministers asked a female secretary to buy sex toys and the opposition Labour Party has suspended one of its lawmakers while it looks into his comments and behaviour.
The growing scandal could damage May if there are further allegations against members of her Conservative Party as it relies on a small Northern Irish party for a majority in parliament.
On Monday, May made a rare appearance in parliament to sit beside leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom as she set out the government’s plans to tackle sexual harassment, including measures to enforce a code of conduct and to set up an independent grievance procedure.
“We absolutely are determined to get a grip on this,” Leadsom told parliament, outlining government plans for a “zero-tolerance” approach.
But critics said measures should go further and tackle the culture in parliament, where some female politicians said power was concentrated in lawmakers’ hands and wielded often unchecked over more junior workers.
“There is obviously a problem, it’s a good thing that it’s been exposed,” Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman said. “No one should have to work in the toxic atmosphere of sleazy sexist or homophobic banter.”
The allegations against Weinstein – who denies all accusations of non-consensual sex – has prompted discussion of sexual harassment around the world.
Last week, Labour lawmaker Jared O‘Mara was suspended for reportedly making slurs against a woman he dated and other comments, and at the weekend, Mark Garnier, a junior trade minister, was reported by the Mail on Sunday newspaper to have asked his secretary Caroline Edmondson to buy sex toys and called her “sugar tits”.
On Sunday, May ordered an investigation and wrote to the speaker for advice on changing the culture in parliament, where aides, researchers and secretaries are dependent on their employers, the lawmakers.
“She is deeply concerned at the recent media reports regarding the alleged mistreatment of staff by some members of parliament,” May’s spokesman told reporters.
“She has been clear that any unwanted sexual behaviour is completely unacceptable in any walk of life and she strongly believes it’s important that those working in parliament are treated properly and fairly.”
But in a sign the scandal may widen, British media carried unconfirmed reports that parliamentary aides have drawn up a list of other allegations of inappropriate behaviour in parliament. The list could not be confirmed by Reuters.
“Are you on the list?” one male member of parliament asked another on Monday in the presence of a reporter, to nervous laughter.
Editing by Janet Lawrence