Theresa May urges political employees to come forward with stories of sexual harassment as global scandal grows

British Prime Minister Theresa May departs from 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, on Oct 25, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May departs from 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, on Oct 25, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Theresa May urged political employees who have suffered sexual harassment to come forward after a newspaper article said women working in Parliament had set up a WhatsApp group to discuss their experiences at the hands of male politicians.

The Sun alleged on Friday (Oct 27) that the names circulating in the group included current Cabinet ministers as well as more junior members of Parliament and government aides. The report comes in the wake of the scandal that engulfed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

"Any reports of sexual harassment are deeply concerning," Mrs May's spokesman Alison Donnelly told reporters in London. "Anyone working for an MP in a party can approach the party, and if it's a serious allegation, they should go to the police."

She said such behaviour was "unacceptable in any walk of life, including politics".

Britain's political parties have been wrestling with the question of how to respond to allegations of harassment for some years. 

The problem is complicated because each Member of Parliament runs their own office like a small business, hiring their own staff. That means it can be difficult for people to know where they can report unwelcome behaviour. And there are few sanctions that can be used against a lawmaker.

In 2014, the deputy speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Nigel Evans, was cleared of rape and sexual assault. He criticised his fellow Conservative lawmaker, Ms Sarah Wollaston, for encouraging the two men who made the original claims to go to the police. 

The same year, the Liberal Democrats came under fire for their handling of allegations of harassment against a senior lawmaker, Mr Chris Rennard.

He denied inappropriate behaviour, but apologised if he had inadvertently made "women feel uncomfortable".

Women in the Labour Party this month launched "LabourToo," an online project to collect stories of abuse within the party.

"There has to be a proper system of people being able to report if they've been abused," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told LBC radio station on Friday.

Several Members of the European Parliament have held up signs bearing the Twitter hashtag #MeToo on Wednesday, as allegations of abuse in the wake of the Weinstein scandal raised questions over standards in Brussels' institutions as well.

The European Union lawmakers accused their own Parliament of failing to protect staff from sexual harassment while debating an emergency motion calling on the authorities to beef up rules and enforcement of gender equality laws and sanctions for abuse in workplaces across Europe.

The members demanded the EU legislature stop turning a blind eye to "disgusting" practices by some of their own colleagues.

"Here, today, in the very heart of European democracy, we have women being molested and harassed," Polish member Jadwiga Wisniewska told the Chamber.

This month's allegations about Hollywood producer Weinstein, who denies all accusations of non-consensual sex , have set off a wave of reflection about sexual harassment around the world.

"I have been sexually harassed, just like millions of other women in the European Union," German member Terry Reintke said. "It is about time that we very clearly say that we should not be ashamed. The perpetrators should be ashamed."

In the EU institutions themselves, women are accusing managers of doing too little for too long to stamp out abuse.

"We've all heard the stories and rumours going on for many years," Britain's Ms Margot Parker said during the debate in Strasbourg. "The very place that claims to legislate against this sort of disgusting behaviour is turning a blind eye to its practice."

This week, Parliament president Antonio Tajani spoke of his "shock and indignation" after a Sunday Times report on more than a dozen mostly young women parliamentary aides who complained of groping, stalking and other harassment by male lawmakers.

He pledged to step up existing protections to encourage people to come forward, something campaigners say is overdue.

At the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU which employs 32,000 people, 55 per cent of them women, measures have been in place since 2006 to prevent any form of harassment, and to protect whistle-blowers.

Over the past five years, an average of 13 complaints have been made each year, with disciplinary sanctions being imposed in about four cases each year, commission figures show. Commenting on those figures, European Women's Lobby secretary-general Joanna Maycock told Reuters that the number of complaints seemed "very low" for the size of the workforce.

The commission's gender equality chief, Ms Vera Jourova, said last week that she had herself been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, but saw "stigmatisation" as preventing many women in Brussels from speaking up.

Ms Jourova was speaking to Brussels' Politico news service, which has set up a website that has garnered more than 30 allegations in a week, from both women and men, of offences including rape, linked to the European Parliament.

Also on Wednesday, former US President George H.W. Bush apologised through a spokesman for what an actress described as a sexual assault but which Mr Bush said was intended as a friendly pat and a joke to put her at ease during a picture-taking session.

Heather Lind, who starred in the AMC cable television network's historical drama Turn: Washington's Spies, accused Mr Bush of groping her as they posed for photos together with his wife and others during a promotional event for the show in 2014.

The allegation surfaced in an Instagram post from Lind featuring a photograph of Mr Bush, 93, shaking hands with former President Barack Obama during an appearance of all five living former presidents at Saturday's hurricane fund-raising benefit.

In the post, Lind, 34, said that seeing that photo reminded her of her own meeting with the 41st president three years earlier, when, according to her, "he sexually assaulted me while I was posing for a similar photo."

"He didn't shake my hand. He touched me from behind from his wheelchair with his wife Barbara Bush by his side," she wrote."He told me a dirty joke. And then, all the while being photographed, touched me again."

Lind said the former first lady "rolled her eyes as if to say, 'not again'."

The Instagram post, since deleted, carried the "MeToo"social media hashtag as well.

 

Related Stories: