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Sexual harassment in Westminster made me quit politics

On 30th July 2020, the former MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault against two different women. 

At least one woman was Parliamentary staff, and in her early twenties when assaulted. Mr Elphicke was 45.

Two days later, another Tory MP – an ex-minister in his 50s – was arrested after a former parliamentary employee (coincidentally also in her 20s) came forward to report four separate incidents involving rape, sexual assault and coercive control. 

The narrative underlying these cases is familiar to anyone who has worked in or around Westminster, a place which lends itself to sexual impropriety.

As a former Conservative Party activist, who took part in national and local campaigns between 2011 and 2016, I not only saw it, and heard about it, but I experienced it myself.

At 24, following many applications for positions as a Parliamentary assistant or researcher, I was delighted to get an interview with a backbencher. The interview took place in an office and went so well that I thought nothing of his invitation to join him for a drink on the Terrace overlooking the River Thames.

After a glass of wine, his true intentions became apparent: there would only be a job for me if I was willing to ‘get together after hours’ and ‘grant certain privileges’.

It was obvious what he meant, and at first I thought he was joking. After he stroked my arm, I realised he wasn’t. Repulsed and mute with shock, I seized my bag and fled. 

In my mind, there was no question of reporting what had just happened. After all, who would I go to? Who would believe me?

The woman who claims she was assaulted by the unnamed former Tory minister says she reported what happened to the Conservative Chief Whip, Mark Spencer MP, but alleges he didn’t act on her claims.

Spencer’s spokesman refuted this, claiming he ‘has strongly encouraged anybody who has approached him to contact the appropriate authorities’ and that while he was aware of a relationship between the MP and the young woman, he had not heard allegations of serious sexual abuse.

By the time the backbencher propositioned me, I had almost come to expect such behaviour.

Every young woman I had contact with in Westminster appeared to have a ‘story’ to pass on, and would warn the new women who became involved.

I recall waiting for a photograph with a cabinet minister and being told to ‘watch out’ because he had a habit of seizing women by the waist and letting his hand drop to touch their bottom.  

Yet as time passed, it became clearer that there was far more happening than the occasional grope. 

The most disturbing story I ever heard came from an acquaintance. Like me, she had taken part in the 2015 General Election campaign. We had followed a full day of campaigning in a marginal seat with an evening of drinks, shared with the candidate and activists bussed in from other parts of the country. 

The following morning she woke up, naked, in a hotel room with a backbench MP laid next to her. She had no memory of how she’d got back that night: she believes the MP drugged her.

As she wanted to pursue a career in politics, and feared the repercussions if she reported this incident, she stayed quiet.  

The few women who dare to speak out, such as the victims of Charlie Elphicke, deserve high praise. Their bravery has resulted in the first conviction against a former Member of Parliament for sexual misconduct. 

Although there have been, and are, other criminal investigations into similar behaviour, this appears to be the first time a UK Court has ever convicted an MP for sexual offences committed against staff. 

It is shocking when one considers the number of criminal allegations that have come to the fore in recent years. The evidence available suggests that Elphicke is not the only perpetrator, but the tip of a far larger iceberg. 

Another example: a story recently broke about the behaviour of Delyn MP Rob Roberts towards two staff members. One is a 21-year-old female intern he asked to ‘fool around’ with him; the other, a male staffer who changed jobs because of Roberts’ inappropriate behaviour towards him. 

When questioned by the BBC Wales, Roberts – who came out as gay – implied that his behaviour was linked to the stress of doing so. According to The Times, 40-year-old Roberts is thought to have received at least one complaint under Parliament’s independent grievance procedures set up in 2018.

Each political party has affirmed their own commitments to eradicating abuse and harassment along with promises to take allegations received seriously. However, the same allegations, often accompanied by accusations of investigatory inaction, keep emerging. 

The Labour Party investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against former MP Kelvin Hopkins in 2017 was still ongoing in October last year. The duration of this inquiry does not inspire confidence. 

In the wake of #MeToo and the slew of different accusations uncovered, it is staggering that so little has changed and that tackling sexual harassment remains a low priority. 

Perhaps this is due to the complexity of sexual harassment and abuse allegations, which come down to one account against another and place Parliamentary and party authorities in a tough position.

When you are a young person, eager to work within the hallowed halls of the Palace of Westminster, the menial nature of the work, long hours and poor pay seem unimportant compared to the privilege of working in Parliament.

This was certainly true in my case, and it makes young people far more susceptible to poor treatment at the hands of their employers, who should know better

But the conviction of Charlie Elphicke requires that more action be taken. 

In my career as a project manager after I left politics, there was a zero tolerance approach taken to allegations of harassment or bullying. Anyone accused would be suspended and barred from entering the workplace, pending the outcome of a full investigation. 

In Westminster, however – even when the Elphicke investigation became criminal – the only consequence was the removal of the party whip. Even that was poorly done: the whip was restored just before a crucial vote on the leadership of ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, and it was only removed for a second time after the police formally charged Elphicke with sexual assault.

He was also allowed to maintain and access his Parliamentary office until he stepped down in 2019. This has drawn significant criticism following his conviction.

It looks very much like political expediency is more valuable to the Conservative Party than the legitimate safeguarding concerns of women. The prime minister’s recent declaration that: ‘[women] must have the confidence that crimes, domestic violence and sexual abuse, are treated seriously by our law enforcement system’ seems to have been disregarded by his own party.

The final straw, for me, came in 2016 when I was raped and assaulted by a man I met through the Conservative Party. I immediately reported the incident to the police and, as the man worked for an MP, I decided to alert the Conservative Party and Parliamentary authorities. 

Despite another woman coming forward to testify that he had attacked her too, and subsequent rape charges being brought, the man continued working in Parliament. 

Neither the Party or the Speaker’s Office took action, despite my protestations that not to do so would endanger other women. They were adamant that because the employment of staff is down to individual MPs, there was nothing that they could do. An MP can employ whoever they wish: friends, family or alleged sex offenders.

This current state of affairs is incomprehensible and inexcusable. Although immediate and full suspensions, with access to the Parliamentary Estate prohibited, are not a perfect solution, it is the only way to put safety first and show a genuine commitment to standing against sexual misconduct.

Women in Westminster should accept nothing less.

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