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Westminster sexual harassment report has been watered down, says MP

Co-leader of Britain’s Green Party, Caroline Lucas
Caroline Lucas: ‘Backbench Tories have had an opportunity to get their hands on the draft and significantly reduce the potential impact.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

A cross-party report into tackling sexual harassment in Westminster was delayed by the Labour party and has now been “watered down” by the Conservatives to reduce its focus on victims, it has been claimed.

The document, which was due to be published before Christmas but will now be debated by MPs on Tuesday, is seen as urgent because it will pave the way for a new system for complainants independent of political parties.

But Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party who is a member of the working group convened by the Tory leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, after the scandal emerged, said she was seriously concerned about a series of changes.

“It’s hugely disappointing that the working group’s report has been watered down over the Christmas break,” she told the Guardian.

“As a result of Labour’s reluctance to back the planned launch of the original draft in December, backbench Tories have had an opportunity to get their hands on the draft and significantly reduce the potential impact of our work.”

Lucas raised concerns around a different tone and, in particular, “changes in emphasis away from a survivor/victim-led approach, to one which pays disproportionate regard to the potential for vexatious complaints”.

And she called for tougher action around changing the culture in parliament after a series of cases that emerged after the Harvey Weinstein revelations blew the lid off a decades-old problem in which harassment had gone unreported in Westminster.

“When we know that the vast majority of sexual misconduct is not reported for fear of not being believed, it’s all the more important that parliament leads the way with a best practice approach. That should include concrete steps to urgently secure cultural change too, yet recommendations in that area have also been weakened,” said Lucas.

“I’m very much hoping that in the coming days we can reinstate a strong report with robust recommendations.”

Leadsom said she had been working closely with Lucas and the other members of the working group to ensure a new independent grievance procedure ”was fully robust and has the trust of staff, MPs and peers”.

“The group has made huge progress, and I am determined to change the culture of parliament for the better,” she said. “The final report is yet to be agreed, and we have several meetings planned to finalise our work and put forward our proposals for implementation.”

Another member of the committee argued that some of the changes since Christmas were sensible, and said there did need to be protections in place for vexatious complaints. However, they agreed with Lucas that such worries came alongside large-scale under-reporting because of fears of not being believed. The member told the Guardian that a planned timetable for changes to be implemented, which may have been too ambitious, has now been taken out completely. That could result in accusations of action being kicked into the long grass.

A leaked draft of an earlier version of the report outlined recommendations for a new independent complaints system, online learning modules for MPs, a HR service for staff working in parliament, and a specialist helpline.

There was also a promise to consult on tough sanctions for those found guilty of offences. However, campaigners warned that short-term sanctions for lower level behaviour included in the report, such as an apology or sending an MP for training, fell short.

Nevertheless, most members of the working party – made up of MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, Scottish National party, Liberal Democrats and other small parties – were ready to back the report. However, sources said that Labour’s Valerie Vaz, the shadow leader of the House, chose not to sign up at that point.

Some expressed frustration with Vaz, but Labour sources insisted there was more work to do, including over bullying and victimisation.

MPs who have been most vocal about tackling harassment said the delays needed to come to an end.

The Labour MP Jess Phillips said: “I have people waiting to go through the system and all of the delays cannot amount to kicking the can down the road. I am not going to stop until the system is right, and is more about the victims and changing parliament than it is about power and political parties.”

This article titled "Westminster sexual harassment report has been watered down, says MP" was written by Anushka Asthana Political editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 11 January 2018 06.40pm

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