The culture of silence and delay around MPs accused of harassment and bullying has not changed even with strict new systems in place, according to one of the high-profile complainants of Parliament’s “Pestminster” scandal.
Concerns have been raised over the handling of a complaint made by the alleged victim of a Conservative former minister arrested for rape. She is alleged to have raised concern about the MP with the the chief whip Mark Spencer in April but has said no action was taken and the MP still has the Conservative whip.
Spencer is understood to have told the woman to make a formal complaint but said no issue of sexual abuse was raised.
Ava Etemadzadeh, who is still waiting on the outcome of a sexual harassment complaint against the former Labour shadow cabinet minister Kelvin Hopkins, almost three years after she made it, said the delay most complainants had to suffer was unacceptable. Hopkins denies all allegations against him.
“We have seen the processes put in place, but it seems like the culture has not changed,” she said. “Any victim needs to have confidence that parties will not try to protect their own MPs when complaints are made.
Almost three years since the “Pestminster” scandal rocked Westminster, where multiple MPs were accused of assault and lewd behaviour seemingly covered up by House authorities and party bosses, tough new measures have now come into effect.
New reforms are now in place that can see an MP sacked from their seat and a by-election called if claims of bullying or inappropriate behaviour are proved. Complaints must now be handled by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), which runs a helpline.
Earlier this year, MPs voted in favour of supporting the formation of an independent panel of experts to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against them. Previously, it had been MPs themselves who would decide on any actions.
Multiple inquiries have found a general culture of impunity in Westminster, including one by Dame Laura Cox, which found cases had “long been tolerated and concealed” in a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence”.
Yet the apparent delay of Spencer to act on a complaint of abusive behaviour has many victims of that culture questioning whether it ever went away – despite the vaunted reforms to Westminster’s processes.
The alleged victim told the Times she had been devastated by the failure to take action, calling it “insulting and shows they never cared”. Spencer has since said he believes it is up to the whips to investigate the alleged crime, rather than the party.
Spencer is understood to claim to have only spoken once to the complainant, advising her to complain via the independent process. The Metropolitan police have said they received allegations on Friday of sexual offences and assault relating to four incidents at addresses in London, including in Westminster.
Labour has promised it will introduce its own independent process for bullying and harassment complaints, which are currently heard by a panel of party members who are elected – and can stand for election along factional lines.
Etemadzadeh said she had been pleased to see the police take the most recent complaint against the unnamed former minister seriously, as well as see the conviction against ex-Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke for sexual harassment.
However, she said the case had also showed up how MPs had closed ranks around a colleague: “The Charlie Elphicke case exposed how willing backbenchers were to believe anything their colleagues said – MPs at the 1922 committee [of Conservative backbenchers] repeatedly campaigned for his reinstatement to the whip and believed his lies about MeToo being a witch-hunt.”
Elphicke was convicted in a separate case of sexually assaulting two women. He had had the whip removed in November 2017 when the allegations first surfaced, but it was controversially restored before a confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership the following year. He was suspended again after being formally charged.
Kate Maltby, the writer and critic who became another high-profile campaigner against harassment in Westminster, having accused the former cabinet minister Damian Green of propositioning her with a promise to help with her career said there would always be a risk in bringing cases to the chief whip.
“Frankly going to the chief whip is rarely the answer,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We know that the office of the chief whip is the most partisan place in any political party. I would never encourage anyone to go to the chief whip. But I would encourage people to go to the new ICGS system where I know a lot of people have put a lot of effort into establishing – because it has that political independence.”
Green has denied allegations against him. He added at the time: “If she felt uncomfortable … then obviously I’m sorry about that. But I should emphasise again as I have done throughout that I didn’t believe I did anything inappropriate.”
Maltby said that politics was a place where personal patronage would always play a part: “I know still of female candidates in both parties who talk about men who have mentored them and championed them to become MPs who turnaround and say there is a sexual cost expected to that.”