Westminster Sexual Harassment Allegations Based on “Secret List”: What Could Go Wrong?

From the Sun, earlier this week:

CABINET Ministers have been named by furious female staff in a secret list of sex-pest MPs to avoid at Westminster.

They are among politicians listed in a WhatsApp group set to spark a fresh scandal in Parliament.

…Sources say the first MP could be exposed by the weekend and one said resignations are “anticipated”.

The url indicates that the article headline originally referred to “Pervert Politicians”, although this has now been softened to “Sex-Pest MPs”. One allegation, that an MP “demand[ed] that staff buy sex toys as gifts” has now been confirmed as referring to International Trade Minister Mark Garnier, who apparently sent his female assistant into a Soho sex shop to purchase two vibrators while he waited outside. His explanation is that this was “high jinx” after a Christmas lunch, but even if his assistant was agreeable at the time due to the flow of alcohol it all seems unexpectedly prurient and uncircumspect behaviour for a politician in his fifties.

The nature of working in Parliament is such that making complaints about sexual harassment may be problematic – MPs are individual employers, and if an allegation falls short of a criminal case, where should a complaint be lodged? It is not usually in the interest of whips or party functionaries to damage the prospects of the party’s MPs, and even the Speaker of the House Commons has been known to make decisions based on self-interest rather than principle. I wrote here about how the Conservative Party has mishandled complaints about online bullying, sometimes acting with an attitude of contempt, although I doubt the other parties are any better.

As such, those on the receiving end of harassment may well feel isolated, and concerned for the well-being of colleagues. In such circumstances, discreet warnings and information-sharing may be a reasonable strategy. However, there’s also a need for some caution. A secret group where allegations are exchanged and built on is a recipe for injustice – human nature being what it is, it is likely that malicious gossip and second-hand rumour are mixed in with what may well be genuine complaints. Most obviously, someone who has been told that such-and-such a person is lecherous may be more likely to interpret behaviour as lechery when they come into contact with this person. Thus multiple complaints that appear to establish a pattern of behaviour may in fact arise out of preconceptions and collusion. The very fact that someone decided to leak the group’s messages to the Sun is a cause for concern.

This new sense that sexual harassment in Parliament is an urgent problem may be well grounded, but it is also a gift to self-publicists and opportunists: thus for some reason the charge is being led by John Mann, a Labour MP with a history of boasting about having dossiers and list of names. Previously, Mann had a particular interest in historical allegations of “VIP child sex abuse”: when Harvey Proctor’s home was raided by police in early 2015, Mann promised that this would be “the first of many” such police actions, when it eventually turned out that the police had been led a dance by a fantasist/hoaxer. Mann also claimed to have found a “Dickens dossier” containing “19 names”, and he pronounced as “credible” allegations of ritual sexual abuse in woodland involving a Liberal Democrat MP – another matter that was eventually dropped by police.

Mann had nothing to say when the woodland complaint was closed last month – but it was true to form when he took to Twitter a few days ago to announce that he would “be naming a Labour MP who behaved appalling towards a young woman to the chief whip and leader”.

Excursus

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times has run a very similar story about the BBC, headlined “Mishal Husain and Victoria Derbyshire among top BBC women exposing ‘sex pests'” and again referring to a “secret group”. However, Husain has now issued a statement describing the story as

an inaccurate portrayal of conversaions women at the BBC have been having since the pay gaps were identified in July… It is is wrong to portray it as being focused on sexual harassment or targeting individuals.

One Response

  1. These comments are far worse than any of the sex stuff yet McDonnell remains very near the top of the Labour Party.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-34285308

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