Thu, 30 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
Press releases

We must eliminate sexual harassment from Parliament

4 min read

Over the course of the last few weeks, we have once again seen news headlines about sexual harassment and other sexist behaviour in Parliament.

Parliament should be a beacon for high standards of behaviour and values. Everyone should be able to be proud to work here, in whatever capacity. We now have an independent complaints and grievance procedure. The Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee do excellent work on our behalf to enforce the code of conduct and I look forward to the Standards Committee recommendations for improving the code.

But cultural change is necessary if we are to have a Parliament in which sexual harassment and sexism are not just against the rules, but treated as unacceptable by every part of our parliamentary community and by all political parties. 

This needs impeccable leadership, particularly from men. Sexual harassment is directed mainly, but not exclusively, at women but the people doing it are almost always men. 

Everyday sexism is so built into our lives that it’s often too much for women to challenge every instance

Most men in Parliament, in my experience, are not sexually harassing anyone and they come to work each day to try to make the world a better place and help democracy thrive, not to intimidate or abuse women.

However, it is essential that in those cases where there are allegations or reports of sexual harassment that they are acted on, and seen to be acted upon promptly. 

Leadership in tackling sexual harassment also means leadership in challenging the underlying belief systems of sexism, which form the basis for this behaviour – and that means men calling out sexist behaviour and speech, not leaving it to women to do the work. Particularly men in positions of leadership in political parties and in the parliamentary staff community. 

Parliament is not unique. We are drawn from the country we represent and whilst there is sexism and sexual harassment in the population at large, it would be surprising if there was no one in Parliament with similar attitudes and behaviours. However, we are not fully representative of the population – the Parliamentary Labour Party is 50 per cent women but we are still a way off a 50/50 Parliament overall.

But Parliament should be an institution where such attitudes and behaviours are always deemed unacceptable, never tolerated or justified, and never covered up for political purposes. 
I’m aware of calls for staff to be employed by someone other than MPs. I’ll look at any suggestions, but this doesn’t create cultural change. Hard work is needed to eradicate sexism, sexual harassment and misogyny from Parliament.

Everyday sexism is so built into our lives that it’s often too much for women to challenge every instance. We’ve got a lot to do. Most of this is not criminal. But it matters because it creates the basis for the justification of acts of sexual harassment and sexual violence. 

Most men in Parliament want the world to be a better place for everyone. Every man has female relatives, colleagues and friends they would not want to be harassed or made to feel lesser than men. But most men in Parliament also benefit, however unwillingly, from a sexist world in which they have greater access to power, to public space, to resources.  

I ask all men to take up this challenge. That’s not because we are shrinking violets, or passive victims, but actually for the opposite reason. Women in Parliament are a strong bunch.  We are usually confident at speaking in public about injustices on behalf of our constituents and the country. We want to get on with doing this! 

Sexism is women’s problem to experience and deal with in our lives. It should be men’s problem to fix. We should be the best.


Thangam Debbonaire is Labour MP for Bristol West and shadow leader of the House.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.