Yesterday saw the release of the cross-party working group report in response to the reports last year of sexual harassment and bullying in Westminster. A leaked version of a survey conducted for the report highlighted that that one in five people working in Westminster had experienced sexual harassment in Parliament in the last 12 months.
To some this was shocking, but not the team at LabourToo who have been working through the anonymous submissions we received as part of our call for women’s experiences in the Labour Party. A number of the respondents who contacted our website alleged that they had been sexually harassed or discriminated against by fellow staff members, or sometimes the MP they had worked for, with often profound effects on their wellbeing and future job prospects.
So we are encouraged by the measures that Andrea Leadsom laid before the House of Commons yesterday, in particular the emphasis on an independent complaints process, a Parliament wide behaviour code and ensuring those who come forward are supported by staff who have a specialism in sexual violence and harassment.
However, we remain concerned that the approach towards sanctions is not robust enough. In many cases, it is suggested that matters are referred back to political parties, and we do not believe that the Labour Party’s process (or indeed other political party’s arrangements) are fit for purpose.
We feel the Labour Party’s sexual harassment complaints process is still not impartial; we remain concerned that the potential exists for individuals who make the final decisions on the National Executive Committee and National Constitutional Committee to be influenced by those against whom a complaint is made, which would leave the victim’s interests to one side. Our experience has led us to believe that the culture of the Labour Party remains one which seeks to protect the institution first, even if that is at the expense of members who have been sexually harassed. The only remedy as we see it, is to introduce an external system of complaint, with panel members who can prove that they will look at cases without fear nor favour.
We will continue to call on the Labour Party to introduce a truly independent complaints process, following the lead of the cross-party working group.
We further welcome the call for training, but believe it should be made compulsory for all MPs, and peers, as well as their staff to ensure that there is a high level of awareness of expectations of acceptable behaviour. Cultural change only happens if there is a whole system approach - no one is too senior to undertake training which could help them to ensure Parliament is free of harassment and bullying. We also hope that this training is informed by specialists in sexual violence and abuse and is delivered face-to-face rather than online.
The cross-party working group has taken positive steps to tackle the problems that have come to light in Westminster. However, it must be remembered that this isn’t just an issue which affects Parliament - respondents to LabourToo’s survey came from Labour members, Councillors and members of the public, and so our recommendations in our final report, due to be finished soon, will reflect the changes that need to take place at every level of the Party.
In the meantime, we look forward to the debate about the working group’s proposed reforms to be held at the end of February, and would call on the working party to urgently release a timeline that takes swift action to enact these recommendations.