Politicians who promote rape or violence should be banned for life from standing for public office, leading MPs and equality campaigners have urged Theresa May.
In a major new move to change the law, a cross-party group of parliamentarians has signed an open letter to the prime minister calling for new action to stamp out the abuse of women in politics.
The letter, drafted by The Fawcett Society and published by HuffPost UK, is signed by Labour MP Jess Phillips, former Tory Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan and senior feminist campaigners including Caroline Criado-Perez.
It follows an online petition, signed by 90,000 people to date, which has demanded tougher sanctions for those who intimidate women in public life.
Currently, the law does not disqualify candidates with a track record of issuing threats.
Earlier this month, police decided to investigate remarks by UKIP Euro election candidate Carl Benjamin, who had tweeted in 2016 at Phillips with a message saying: “I wouldn’t even rape you.”
Benjamin repeated the claim in a video on his YouTube channel in April, saying: “There’s been an awful lot of talk about whether I would or wouldn’t rape Jess Phillips. I suppose with enough pressure I might cave, but let’s be honest nobody’s got that much beer.”
The MP revealed she had broken down in tears in Birmingham city centre when she heard about his comments, “just because I felt the enormous weight of years and years and years of abuse”.
On the day of the police investigation, the Birmingham Yardley MP also revealed that a man followed her as she left the Commons. He asked why Benjamin shouldn’t be able to “joke” about her rape, shouting “I pay your wages”.
Many MPs from different parties see the abuse as yet another example of a wider problem confronting women in public life.
Phillips has condemned protestors who have thrown milkshakes over both Benjamin and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, but she has pointed out that while swift action was taken against the perpetrators, women suffering abuse often fail to get the same protection.
The Fawcett Society wants a new offence of intimidation of election candidates to be extended, with a statutory code of conduct for candidates which they all sign up to: “Political parties need to be held accountable for the candidates they select with tough penalties in place.”
Phillips said: “For too long it has been in the hands of political parties to vet who is appropriate to stand for election and I have found personally that that has allowed a man who makes videos about if he would or wouldn’t rape me be selected to stand for a legitimate political party.
“This is damaging to women’s representation but to our politics as a whole. The government must join in and seek to ensure that this cannot happen.”
Morgan added: “It cannot be right that any person who thinks threatening another with rape or violence is in any way acceptable is then allowed to stand for elected office. Actions have consequences and threatening rape or violence should never be normalised.”
Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society chief executive, said: “This is not just about the integrity of our elections but about the impact on our public debate and our society.
“By permitting candidates who behave in this way we are giving them a platform to encourage and mobilise others. Women, black and ethnic minority people, those from certain religious groups or those who are LGBT are all more likely to be targeted with abuse. We cannot allow this to be the norm.
“There is currently nothing to stop someone who promotes rape or violence standing to be an MP, MEP, local councillor or a Police and Crime Commissioner. ”
The open letter in full:
Dear Prime Minister,
Re: Lifetime ban from standing for elected office for those who promote rape or violence
We know that you have long been committed to improving women’s representation. We recognise that you share our concern that violence and abuse against women on social media is rampant. The abuse faced by women online is overwhelmingly sexist and misogynistic, with evidence showing that women on social media face repeated threats of rape and sexual assault. For women MPs, receiving such abuse has become a daily occurrence.
A recent study by Amnesty International and Element AI, found that 1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets were sent to women journalists and politicians in the UK and the US last year -an average of one every 30 seconds. Black and minority ethnic people are disproportionately targeted with hate speech, violence and abuse, with women of colour being 34% more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets compared to white women. This horrifying level of abuse poses an urgent threat to women’s rights to safety and freedom of expression.
More women than ever are participating in politics. Yet violence against women in politics has also risen at an alarming rate. Acts of violence against women remain a strong barrier to a woman’s right to participate fully in public life. Fawcett Society research reveals women candidates at local and national level are particularly targeted. Female MPs and candidates have expressed concern about the rising levels of abuse and harassment they experience, with many fearing for their safety. We know that this is driving some women out of politics and deterring others from coming forward. Although progress has been made by political parties on the barriers to women’s representation, these new obstacles threaten to roll back that progress. Tolerating this abuse has a silencing effect on women’s participation in public life.
We know that you agree women have the right to be protected from all acts of violence and are able to fully participate in public life. Yet some of those responsible for issuing threats to women have then gone on to stand for election themselves. Surely anyone who issues threats of rape of violence or who incites hatred is not fit to stand for elected office?
Shockingly, our law currently permits it and only disqualifies those with a criminal record on grounds of corrupt electoral practices (eg re political donations), or people in certain cases of bankruptcy. This means candidates with a track record of criminal abusive conduct towards elected representatives can still end up on the ballot paper.
By inviting the electorate to vote for them we are endorsing and legitimising their conduct. This has to change. We are calling on the Government to impose a lifetime ban from standing for elected office to apply in these cases. We need the harassment and abuse of women in politics and public life to end. It is time to defend our democracy and promote equality, not hate.
Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, Fawcett Society
Jess Phillips MP
Nicky Morgan MP
Caroline Criado-Perez, writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist campaigner Abou Atta, OBE, Director, Tell MAMA
The Rt Hon. the Baroness Featherstone
Dr Helen Pankhurst CBE, Convener, Centenary Action Group
Professor Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck, University of London
Catherine Anderson, CEO, Jo Cox Foundation
Catherine Fookes, Director, Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales
Harini Iyengar, Spokesperson on Equal Representation of the Women’s Equality Party
Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director of Glitch
Shaista Gohir OBE, Executive Director of Muslim’s Women’s Network UK
Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the Women in Leadership publication
Anna Ryder, Not The Job
Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of The Green Party
Bee Rowlatt, Mary on the Green Campaign
Girish Menon, Chief Executive, ActionAid UK
Lucila Granada, Director, Latin American Women’s Rights Service
Lee Chalmers, Director, The Parliament Project
Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive Officer, Agenda
Laura Russell, Director of Campaigns Policy and Research, Stonewall