Jess Phillips: Parliament needs an independent reporting mechanism for sexual harassment
Westminster and political parties urgently need a specialist system to address an issue as intricate as sexual harassment, says Jess Phillips
The sexual harassment claims that have swept through parliament in the past two weeks have managed quite spectacularly to both exaggerate the problem and trivialise it. To most people seeing the wall to wall coverage it appears that parliament is a den of iniquity where women are not safe to roam the halls. This is not true, not even one bit.
However, within that coverage, and also in some of the conversations I have heard as I have walked around our bubble, is a belief that it’s all a bit of banter and there is nothing to be worried about. This is not true either. God forbid the truth came out that in fact it isn’t simple – and that perhaps a narrative needs to emerge that at least doffs its cap to the complexity of sexual harassment, how victims react, how people misunderstand what is and isn’t ok and, most importantly, how we all have a role in improving it.
As someone who has been at the heart of this story, dealing with lots of the alleged victims –or the harassed if you prefer – I know without question that there really is nowhere for them to turn. Weinstein instigated a global primal scream where women decided we just weren’t going to bloody well stand for this anymore. For those in politics it appeared that the only real avenue for complaint was the papers.
Political parties have been left in charge of creating their own processes for reporting harassment by one of their number – which seemed either non-existent, in the case of the Conservatives, and not yet good enough in the case of the Labour Party. I’ve no idea what the SNP process is (I assume I don’t know because its devolved). The Lib Dems claim to have a pastoral support line, which – if accounts this week are true – is next to useless and frankly, as their most high-profile case of sexual harassment proves, there is no sanction for even those judged to be perpetrators.
As for other minority parties, I have no idea what their processes are – can’t say I’ll be rushing for women’s rights advice from the DUP. What of independent MPs? (A group which, thanks to this scandal, grows in numbers daily). Trouble is, if you are a political activist and you want to report a senior member of your party, do you honestly have faith in the institution to handle it?
I have worked with victims of sexual abuse and harassment for years and I wish to challenge the common view that says “it is very hard to get people to come forward”. I don’t find it hard. I can be at a kid’s birthday party and someone will ask for my help; I’ll be dancing at a gala dinner and someone will pass me the number of their daughter who could really do with a “chat”.
Never a week of my life goes by, and at the moment we are down to days and hours, where I don’t receive a referral for support. If you make it clear that you care about this stuff, and that you can be trusted to act without judgement in the strictest confidence, people will tell you when they have been abused. I have years of training, so I know what to do to help.
What I know is that we need an independent, specialist reporting mechanism for sexual harassment that helps people step forward and complain if they want to. We need it in our parties, and we need it in our parliament, because abuse doesn’t stick to political lines.
The prime minister convened a meeting this week which after an hour said that we needed a working group to set up a new grievance procedure within a year! So what happens to all those coming forward now? What happens to those who don’t work in parliament or for an MP: how will they complain about an MP, peer or their staff? What will the sanctions be and who will dole them out?
The working group appears to be made up of political representatives and I have yet to hear that anyone independent with any specialist knowledge of sexual harassment or abuse will be drafted in so essentially are we saying: we’re going to let politicians on a working group decide what is best and tell us in a year? I look forward to more answers on this because at the moment I only have questions.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and Associate Editor of The House magazine