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Is Westminster a safe place for women to work? Not in my experience

For young female staffers, it’s common to be cornered by a drunken MP, or subjected to a pat on the bum or an indecent proposal

Becky Paton
19 May 2022, 1.44pm

Recent events have led many to reflect on a parliamentary culture defined by misogyny

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Stock image via Alamy

Parliamentary authorities are investigating 56 British MPs for sexual misconduct, according to The Sunday Times. That may shock the general public, but for women who have worked in Westminster, like me, it won’t be surprising.

Sexist comments, unwelcome attention and ‘wandering hands’ are the sad reality. As a former parliamentary aide, I witnessed a political culture in which sexual predators were able to act without fear of repercussions by a system that enabled them and MPs that excused them.

Now, in the face of two recent resignations over sexual misconduct, and an MP arrested for an allegation of rape and sexual assault, many working in politics are questioning whether Westminster is really a safe place for women at all.

The days when female MPs were jeered for having the temerity to speak in the House of Commons may be long gone, but the events of the past month have led many to reflect on a culture defined by misogyny, sexual misconduct and lack of accountability.

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This culture affects women at all levels of the political pecking order. Almost every woman has a story of an inappropriate joke, unwanted hands or a scary situation they had to escape.

At the meeting in which former MP Neil Parish was outed for watching porn in the Commons, female Conservative MPs shared their own stories of sexism and harassment they’d been subjected to by their own colleagues. Cabinet minister Anne Marie Trevelyan told how she was once pinned against a wall by a male MP.

Female journalists have also shared their experiences of sexual harassment with me, with some MPs allegedly offering stories on the condition of sexual favours. For young female staffers, being cornered by drunken MPs, a pat on the bum or an indecent proposal is not uncommon.

An MP expressed disappointment not at the alleged behaviour of his colleagues, but that he had not made it onto the list

The 2017 ‘Pestminster’ story, which saw the resignation of cabinet ministers over allegations of sexual misconduct, was not the reckoning many hoped for. Everyday sexism and allegations of sexual assault still seem to be part of the fabric of life in politics.

Some male MPs viewed the allegations as a joke and simply part of the rough and tumble of Parliament. I remember having a drink with an MP as a spreadsheet detailing the allegations against Conservative MPs circulated around Parliament. The MP expressed his disappointment, not at the alleged behaviour of his colleagues, but rather that he had not made it onto the list.

The situation has hardly changed in five years. This week, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant tweeted about the arrest of the unnamed Tory MP accused of rape, suggesting it would make a fun game of Guess Who. Victims often feel they will not be taken seriously or told they are overreacting and can’t hack a career in politics. By tolerating ‘low-level’ harassment and misogyny, MPs fail to take action when more serious allegations arise.

Unlike most workplaces, which have safeguarding procedures, there are no mechanisms to ban MPs who are under investigation for sexual misconduct from attending the House of Commons. Young female staff are left to share their workplace with alleged rapists, forced to protect themselves and be wary of who they may end up alone with.

The former MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, was convicted of multiple sexual assaults in 2020. But he was free to continue in public life unhindered and exert his influence after allegations were first made. And despite some of the alleged offences happening within Parliament itself, he was able to walk around the estate freely.

At the time, a friend shared with me how she had run to catch a lift, only to find once the doors had closed she was standing alone with Elphicke. It was, in her words, “the longest lift ride of my life”.

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 Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights rese
100 years since (some) women won the right to vote, they’re still marginalised in corridors of our power – and facing a backlash there too.

Victims of sexual harassment and assault in Westminster face a further obstacle to justice from the political culture itself. Incidents go unreported and victims are dissuaded from coming forward. I know of staff who have been told they will lose their jobs or any hope of a political career if they speak out.

Whips, in charge of party discipline, tend to view allegations as something to be managed, suppressed and kept out of the newspapers at all cost. I knew one whip who spent most of their time ‘managing’ a roster of MPs who were known sexual predators and drunks, just trying to keep them out of trouble.

Sexism, harassment and staff safety in Parliament are not a ‘bubble’ issue. Many brilliant women I know have left politics for good because of their experiences in Westminster. Until we begin to take the issue seriously, it makes politics worse for us all. It matters how politicians respond to victims and how they change the culture in Parliament which enables and excuses it.

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