EXCL Westminster at risk of 'navel-gazing' over sexual harassment scandal, says top Tory
Westminster is at risk of "navel-gazing" over the sexual harassment scandal which has engulfed parliament, according to a former Conservative Cabinet minister.
Maria Miller said the furore risked giving the impression that sexually inappropriate behaviour only happens among the elite.
Ms Miller, who is chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said that could take attention away from the fact that ordinary women and girls face "sleazy activity every day of the week".
The former Culture Secretary, who is leading a Commons debate on sexual harassment in schools later this week, said: "I think it’s very important to talk about parliament and making parliament a safe place for people to be, but we can’t ignore the fact that this is a problem experienced by more than half of the women in this country who are at work.”
When asked whether recent events provided an opportunity to get sexual harassment against girls in schools on the agenda, she replied: “I really worry that it isn’t at all a window of opportunity that everybody paints it as, because it is now becoming pigeonholed as being something that happens to those people up there; it happens in parliament, it happens in Hollywood.
“But it doesn’t, it happens every day to women in this country and we cannot hive it off as being something that happens in the elite and the powerful and the rich and famous. It isn’t.”
She added: “It’s veering in the direction of naval-gazing. It’s lovely headlines isn’t it, to talk about sleazy MPs. It’s less great headlines to talk about the women who experience sleazy activity every day of the week in jobs that they do, in our constituencies. So, we have to speak up for them.”
Ms Miller argued that changing the rules in parliament to implement an independent disciplinary regime, though necessary, would not help her constituents who have experienced sexual harassment.
“It is shocking that we don’t have those things in place. But that isn’t going to help my constituents… what’s going to help my constituents is by having a more effective way for them to be able to call this out, that there is a culture change and that any sense that it’s part of the normal life, as we are accepting in schools at the moment, is challenged fundamentally,” she said.
‘CULTURE OF ACCEPTANCE’
Ms Miller’s debate comes a year after the Women and Equalities Committee produced a report on sexual harassment in schools, which found almost a third (29%) of 16-18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.
A survey by Girlguiding last month meanwhile found that 64% of girls aged between 13 and 21 had experienced sexual harassment in the last year - an increase of 5% since 2014.
Ms Miller argued that schools had a “culture of acceptance" that “normalised” this behaviour, and had not enforced the law where sexual assaults had taken place.
She also criticised the current guidance that allows those who have sexually abused other children to be allowed back in the same classroom as their alleged victims.
Appearing before the Women and Equalities Committee earlier this month, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said schools were being encouraged to keep victims and perpetrators of alleged sexual offences apart, in interim advice issued this term.
Ms Miller said: “It’s really appalling that young women are being put back in class with young men who have assaulted them. When we pressed to the minister about this, he said very clearly that that was unacceptable, but for some reason schools feel that they don’t have to abide by common decency and norms in other situations. You would never expect a victim to have to then go and work alongside a perpetrator.”
Ms Miller will call for compulsory sex and relationship education to “come into effect immediately” during her debate on Thursday, which she is holding along with Labour MP Jess Phillips.
“We have to challenge that culture of acceptance if we’re really going to make any change here. It’s no good just bringing in sex and relationship education, the teachers also have to see it as their duty to keep those children safe. At the moment, the children are telling us that isn’t always the case.”
Her debate, she continued, is “is a bit of a sharp stick” to encourage the Government to take action.
“Just as we’ve heard on the floor of the House of Commons, we want action today on sexual harassment. When it comes to children and schools, we’ll wait for a year. It’s not good enough, children are putting up with things which we have already said in the debate today are not acceptable.”