The fall out from the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues with further claims of harassment and sexual assault being made against him while over 300 women have also come forward to claim director James Toback sexually harassed or assaulted them.
On this side of the Pond, an intriguing story emerged of a group of women using a WhatsApp group to share stories of sexual harassment and bullying they have suffered at the hands of Members of Parliament (MP) and staff while working at the House of Commons (HoC). There was the usual uproar; the Prime Minster Theresa May even intervened and urged all victims of sexual harassment to report such incidents to the police.
Let me tell you Theresa, it won’t work. The police will send you away with a little pat on the head and a ‘it’s a civil/ employment matter, not a criminal one. Speak to a solicitor’ response. How many of us have the spare cash lying around to bring our abusers to justice? And it is precisely this helplessness and hopelessness that keeps our abusers safe and free to strike again and again.
Do the people in power not realise that it is nigh on impossible for anyone working for a MP (or Member as described in Parliamentary parlance) to complain about any harassment they have suffered? It is not just MPs whose inappropriate conduct should be addressed; the same rules should also apply to assembly members, devolved parliament members, MEPs, PCCs and anyone else working in politics.
It’s even harder to complain when you’re a member of a BAME community- the added risk of bringing the family honour into disrepute is a key factor why so many Asian women do not and will not ever speak out.
Even if you do manage to pick up the courage and complain about an MP or staff, who do you complaint to? What structures are in place for such incidents and what protection is available for those who do speak out? None whatsoever. There isn’t even a humble whistle blowing policy in place for staff and Members.
The Code of Conduct in place for MPs does not even make any reference to inappropriate and/ or sexual conduct.
In fact, according to II: Scope of the Code
The Code applies to Members in all aspects of their public life. It does not seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives.
So even if a Member is accused or caught out, he or she can claim their conduct falls under their ‘private and personal life’ and therefore not subject to scrutiny from any parliamentary regulations. This clause is grossly unfair because it allows Members a little known loophole to escape accountability for their conduct.
Although Rule 16 of the Code states: ‘Members shall never undertake any action which would cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, or of its Members generally’ many Members can hide behind the usual ‘high jinks’, ‘banter’, ‘joking’ and ‘no harm intended’ excuses, further depowering their victims.
Victims are accused of being uptight, moody sour pusses who don’t know how to take a joke, adding insult to injury. Sending inappropriate texts and emails is another concern of women working at the HoC. Fear of being branded ‘overly-sensitive’ or a ‘drama queen’ means that it’s often easier to just ignore and delete, rather than kick up a fuss and then risk being outed as ‘difficult’ or ‘lacking a sense of humour’.
While writing this blog, I’ve been sent a link to an article about International Trade Minister Mark Garnier allegedly calling an aide ‘sugar t*ts’ and asking her to buy him two vibrators while he waited outside the sex shop.
As a parliamentary aide who was asked to purchase underwear and sanitary towels for my former boss, I can tell you without doubt that you feel powerless to say no. It’s as though you’re constantly under obligation to your boss and it’s often easier to grit your teeth and comply. Buying a sex toy (or two) is simply unacceptable. If an accountant or an engineer did this, there would a clear cut case for sexual harassment and sex discrimination. So why are rules so different for MPs?
I don’t believe that anything will change because the structures that exist do not allow any Member to be held to account for their inappropriate actions. Even if you do complain and an investigation is triggered, this can take time and unless you’re suspended, you have to come into work and put up with the questions, the insinuations and the downright lies.
Furthermore, your complaint has to be in writing, with your name and address clearly identifying you. You cannot ask someone else to write it on your behalf so if you struggle to articulate what you’re concerned about, you have very little recourse. Some Parliamentary staff are incredibly loyal to their boss, to the extent that they will take it upon themselves to go after the victim in order to shut them down, malign their character or discredit their testimony. Even if the boss is aware, nothing is done to stop the harassing conduct- after all the Member gets what he wants without getting his hands dirty. In my own case, my former chief of staff Rob Hoveman spent the best part of 4 years harassing and intimidating me, to the extent that he obtained my personal documents including my HoC vetting form and gave them to the Guardian Newspaper. When I tried to complain, I was told to ‘write to my former boss’ to set out my concerns which included ‘a particularly unhealthy preoccupation with my private life, bordering on the fanatical’. Despite repeated emails, I was completely ignored. (*The full letter is reproduced below)
Other incidents I was subjected to also included being harassed for sex persistently by a senior work colleague, being flashed at twice by a Respect Party volunteer, being told to ‘suck on my (penis)’ by Mohammed Aroof, the brother of the main funder to the Party and also being subjected to a sexual assault by the Party’s solicitor Alias Yousaf (which the Metropolitan Police Service ignored despite me reporting it three times) I considered myself a strong, confident and outspoken person and regularly spoke out and confronted these men; however, working in that toxic environment eroded my self confidence and sense of normality and left me on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s even harder to speak out when you simply don’t know how to.
The only option for victims of sexual harassment is to either put up with it, warn others covertly (as in the case of the secret WhatsApp group) or leave altogether. And even after you leave, you can’t speak out about it because of the need for a good reference (this is an issue for many other professions too, not just politics)
Many people don’t realise that working at the HoC is not like working anywhere else; you can’t be transferred to a different department until the matter is solved; you have to either stay in the same office (which is often one huge room with lots of desks), work from home or take paid leave until the matter is resolved. Due to the high profiles of some MPs and by association, their members of staff, there is a real risk of the matter drawing media attention which could result in family and friends finding out. This is a pertinent reason as to why people don’t want to speak out: once their name is in the press they are tainted or scarred for life; any prospective employer can google them and read an account of what happened, which can often be very one sided.
Many parliamentary employment contracts also have confidentiality clauses preventing victims from speaking out even after they’ve left their employment.
A parliamentary aide who is currently in litigation with her boss found out that her role had been given to someone else via social media when her replacement described herself as the PA to the MP in question. Other people including constituents were also informed that this PA was difficult, lazy and sexually obsessed with her boss. She was further dismayed when she realised that IPSA had authorised monies so that her boss could hire top lawyers to fight her claim. So not only can Members behave inappropriately, they can get public monies from IPSA to fight any legal actions brought by their victims. The PA has been fighting for justice for over a year and half now, and has no idea when it will end.
Another campaigner told me about a Peer who, while travelling in a taxi with her, insisted on placing his hands on her knee to ‘keep them warm’. His nickname amongst other female staff and campaigners was ‘octo-hands’.
An MP known for his womanising as well as his oratory skills, insisted his Parliamentary Aide keep her hair long, and nails painted a deep red because ‘as long as you look good, I look good’.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove‘s Harvey Weinstein joke of having escaped a good grilling with his ‘dignity intact’ on Saturday further demonstrates the rather blase attitude that MPs have towards sexual harassment. (Although Gove has since apologised, former Labour Leader Neil Kinnock, who was also present and described John Humphrey’s interviewing style as ‘way beyond groping’ still has not)
I expect a tidal wave of claims of inappropriate conduct from MPs and their staff in the coming days and weeks; I really hope that Teresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and other publically elected officials sit up and take note; sexual harassment is no laughing matter.
Maybe MPs can actually begin by changing the Code of Conduct for themselves so that they can be finally held accountable for their conduct?
#Sexualharassment #Parliament #HouseofCommons #MPs #TheresaMay #MarkGarnier #MichaelGove #NeilKinnock
*Full letter of complaint re harassment inc the dissemination of my personal documents by former chief of staff Rob Hoveman:
Official Complaint against Rob Hoveman
16th July 2014
House of Commons
Dear Mr XXXXXXXX MP,
I would like to make an official complaint about the conduct of your Chief of Staff, Rob Hoveman.
It has come to my attention this week that Mr Hoveman has contacted the Guardian newspaper and provided the newspaper with extensive paperwork relating to my personal life. I find this conduct appalling and inexcusable. Over 18 months have passed now since I was last in the employment of Mr XXXXXXXX, yet this constant persecution and harassment by Mr Hoveman has not ended.
Mr Hoveman has also contacted the Sergeant at Arms and requested information from my vetting application form, which he then also passed onto the Guardian Newspaper. Mr Hoveman had no right whatsoever to this information or to request this information. Indeed, the sole aim of this course of action was to use the information to harass and intimidate me further.
Contacting the Sergeant at Arms to request my personal data is a direct breach of Data Protection laws and I have now reported this matter to the police.
Furthermore, Mr Hoveman presented false and highly damaging information to an ongoing employment tribunal matter, in which he made direct references to a Court of Appeal hearing that I attended. I have no idea how Mr Hoveman was able to gain access this private information, merely days after the hearing took place. Although the hearing was a matter of public record, the details are not in the public domain as yet.
Indeed, when I made contact with the Court of Appeal myself, I was told that I would need to quote a unique reference number in order to discuss the hearing. I suspect Mr Hoveman has managed to obtain this unique reference number, which seems to me to be the only logical explanation to explain how he managed to come into possession of such intimate information from the Court of Appeal hearing.
In conclusion, I feel Mr Hoveman is pursuing a personal vendetta against me, using both parliamentary resources and premises. His conduct is causing me to feel extremely harassed and vulnerable.
Mr Hoveman has shown a particularly unhealthy preoccupation with my private life, bordering on the fanatical, which frankly, I find threatening and menacing.
1. I want all my personal documents returned to me immediately and all copies destroyed. Further dissemination of my personal documents is to also stop immediately.
2. I want an urgent investigation into Mr Hoveman’s conduct and an immediate end to his continued harassment and persecution of me.
Please respond within 14 days.
Mrs Ali Khan