Sexual assault and what’s wrong with Parliament

House of Commons - Credit: Flickr \ UK Parliament

Dawn Butler says the disdain for women calling out male misogyny indicates the problem

The thing about International Women’s Day is that it gives us the opportunity to say, we are still not there yet. I’m done with saying “look how far we’ve come”. Sadly, we have been drip-fed horrible stories about sexual assault over the last few years. Still, I was surprised that I wasn’t surprised that some of these horrendous acts came from people that I share a workplace with: The House of Commons.

Misogyny and abuse is a problem throughout society and we must tackle it urgently – but how can we possibly hope to do that effectively if we cannot even get our own house in order? The list seems endless. There has been a string of MPs found guilty of sexual assaults in recent times, and at one time there was an alleged 56 MPs accused of sexual misconduct, according to the Sunday Times. I condemn every single case of abuse – no matter the political stripes.

Then there was the Tory MP who resigned after watching pornography in the Commons. He initially claimed he was looking for tractors after he was spotted viewing X-rated material by colleagues. But instead of praising the MPs who called out this appalling behaviour, Boris Johnson’s deputy chief of staff at the time allegedly criticised the female Tory MPs who exposed Neil Parish for watching porn in Parliament, according to The Times. This disdain for women calling out male wrongdoing is indicative of what is wrong in Parliament and society. More often than not, these acts of sexual misconduct feature an unbalanced power dynamic. For example, the person assaulted is an aide or works in catering.

It is shocking that unless an MP resigns, they can keep their job until the electorate kicks them out or they get a jail sentence under recall rules. The reason why Parliament has this problem is because it has never been properly dealt with. Those being abused or those offended are typically not supposed to have a voice and they are not supposed to be empowered. But we must change this.

The politics of silence is not new, and oppression is not new. When I first entered Parliament, I was stunned that as an MP, we were given no training on how to be managers. Some MPs have never been managers and didn’t know how to do the basics – like fair recruitment. Some MPs still fail to do staff appraisals, which is a tool that provides feedback and aims to improve working practices. As a trade unionist, I thought this to be neglectful. So I sat on the temporary Modernisation Committee (which has since ceased) to help change how Parliament worked. As a committee we introduced official mentoring from the house authorities so that new MPs learnt the proper way of doing things and bad practices discouraged. We wanted to ensure Parliament was fit for purpose. There were, however, some people on that committee who didn’t want things to change, and it was a constant battle. One MP told me that he had to get his wife into a Parliamentary position because she was worried what he was getting up to! Because of my work on the committee and my work in equalities, I was keen to sit on the new committee to set up the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme – I worked tirelessly with many others to do it.

We created a new, stronger and independent complaints system, to promote better behaviour and improve the culture of Parliament. I am proud of what we achieved, and I know this has made a positive difference to the culture around Westminster; it changes the power dynamic, as people’s identity is kept confidential while the investigation takes place. As more and more people find their voice, this government is using legislation to restrict the right to protest because they seemingly do not want people standing up for their rights. The attacks on trade unions are to prevent you from complaining about your working conditions. The showing of ID cards for voting is to discourage you from voting and expressing your discontent. We need to change the power imbalances, we need to create a safe space for survivors to speak out, and we need to change the people subverting the legal process.

The power imbalances in Parliament are problematic; there is a fear that no one is going to believe a junior aide over a government minister – or the protective ring will crush a subordinate. There are rumours of secret WhatsApp groups here, where young female staffers give tips on which men to avoid on the estate. Speaking up and calling injustice out isn’t easy. But it is necessary if we are going to make society better. Lawmakers cannot be the lawbreakers.

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