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Tory MP Says There Are “No Effective Measures” To Tackle Sexual Harassment In Parliament

Caroline Nokes is chair of the women and equalities select committee (Alamy)

5 min read

Conservative chair of the women and equalities committee Caroline Nokes has renewed her call for clearly defined processes to tackle issues around sexual harassment in Parliament, expressing frustration that there are currently “no effective measures” in place.

“I think it has to be explicit in Parliament that sexual harassment is career ending,” she told PoliticsHome

Nokes has proposed that MP candidates would sign a code of conduct before being elected, committing them to losing the whip automatically if they are ever found to have committed an act of sexual harassment or assault.

“I keep making the point to successive chief whips that there should be a code of conduct that all MPs have to sign up to on a cross party basis, because it's very obvious that there are still no effective measures when members of Parliament are accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour.”

Recent scandal at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) following allegations that two employees were raped by colleagues are being investigated, and the dismissal of its former director-general Tony Danker in response to separate allegations about his own behaviour, has thrown fresh light on the importance of robust HR and whistleblowing policies to protect employees. The episode also underscores ongoing calls for Parliament to get its own house in order.

“I don’t think business needs to wait for Parliament, but Parliament certainly needs to do more,” Nokes added. 

In Parliament, an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to allow staff to report misconduct, but while the body is able to make recommendations, it remains up to parties whether to suspend the whip if allegations against MPs emerge.

A UK Parliament spokesperson said: “Bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct have absolutely no place in Parliament – and we strive to ensure that we have a workplace where everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

"Parliament’s Behaviour Code, which is supported by the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, makes clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in Parliament – whether MPs, staff, Members’ staff, members of the House of Lords, press, contractors or visitors.”

As government, opposition parties, and major companies pause or suspend their engagement with the CBI, Nokes said the allegations reveal a “misogynist culture at the heart of business”.

“The CBI scandal has demonstrated why action to tackle sexual harassment remains as necessary as it did 20 years ago,” she said.

“We still haven't addressed the underlying misogyny that causes sexual harassment to take place.

“When the CBI, which has built itself as the most significant business lobby voice to government, allows that sort of culture to perpetuate, then you can see that this is just commonplace.

“It's not even regarded as unacceptable, and it's not until the national media spotlight is thrown on them, that action is suddenly taken.”

On Wednesday, Nokes is speaking on a panel at ExCeL London for UK Construction Week, where she will talk about championing equality in the workplace, something she sees as a crucial step in eradicating misogyny in professional settings.

Nokes said she has “often discussed” ways of encouraging women into the construction industry with the Prime Minister.

“Women are reluctant to consider it,” she said. “I would like to see the government do more about focusing employment programmes to support women and doing much more targeted schemes, and I've always said that we shouldn't shy away from quotas and schemes that are specific to women.”

Nokes complained that “successive employment ministers” have disagreed with the idea of introducing quotas or female-specific employment programmes, but said the Department for Work and Pensions was “perhaps alone” in government departments for making particular efforts to encourage and retain women in the workplace.

“I would say look at the evidence: we have more women than ever in employment, but when it came to Kickstart programmes, a minority of places were taken up by women,” she continued.

“We will talk endlessly about STEM subjects and how you encourage women into science and tech engineering, and yet do next to nothing to encourage it.”

“We know as a society that if women started scaling their businesses at the same rate as men, it would add £250bn to the UK economy.

“And yet still I have colleagues who are reluctant to even consider having programmes that prioritise investment in female-led businesses. And the stark reality is that in doing that we’re neglecting women – you only have to look at the CBI.”

Like many of her colleagues, Nokes will also spend next week campaigning on doorsteps for the local elections on 4 May.

Despite national polling still showing Labour ahead of the Conservatives by 15 per cent, Nokes feels hopeful that this year’s local elections will be an improvement for her party compared to 2022, when they lost more than 100 council seats and relinquished control of three London boroughs. 

“They feel better than they did last year,” she said, explaining that in 2022, residents in her Southampton constituency were “very angry” with then-prime minister Boris Johnson.

“What I kept hearing on the doorsteps was that they were voting to send Boris a message,” she said.

“But from the conversations I've had on the doorsteps [this year], people feel generally happy with the [current] Prime Minister.”

Nokes has been campaigning in Bassett, Southampton, where Sunak grew up. 

“Unsurprisingly, a lot of residents either used his mum's pharmacy or had his dad as their GP, so there's a lot of positivity towards Rishi in my constituency,” she said.

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