LONDON: Theresa May said sexual harassment among top politicians can’t be tolerated any longer as she battles to control the fallout from claims of inappropriate behavior in Parliament.
The U.K. prime minister proposed a set of rules to protect staff and colleagues of lawmakers, and ordered an inquiry into a senior member of her team who’s facing allegations of inappropriate behavior. May’s trying to seize the initiative to stop a row over claims of sexual harassment involving so-far unnamed senior Cabinet ministers from further destabilizing her government.
“I do not believe that this situation can be tolerated any longer,” May said in her letter to Speaker John Bercow, arguing that current rules aren’t adequate. “It is simply not fair on staff, many of whom are young and in their first job post-education.”
May proposed a cross-party mediation service and a new “contractually binding grievance procedure” for all lawmakers. “It is vital that the staff and the public have confidence in Parliament and resolving this employment irregularity on a cross-party basis can play an important role in this.”
May faces questions over how much she knows about the culture of sexism and harassment in government, after the Sunday Times reported that she receives regular briefings on the activities of her lawmakers and ministers. On Friday, she called on victims to come forward and seek justice.
May acted after the Sun newspaper last week said women working in Parliament had set up a WhatsApp group to discuss their experiences at the hands of male politicians. During the weekend, other newspapers also reported episodes without mentioning any officials by name. On Sunday, Trade Minister Mark Garnier admitted having asked his assistant to buy sex toys for him and speaking to her using a sexist term, according to the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said senior officials will investigate whether Garnier broke the ministerial code, which sets the rules for members of the government.
“These stories, if they are true, are obviously totally unacceptable, and the Cabinet Office will be conducting an investigation as to whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code in this particular case, but as you know the facts are disputed,” Hunt told BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”
Garnier didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment on the Mail story. Monday’s edition of The Daily Telegraph said as many as 13 lawmakers could be facing allegations, without saying how it got the information. And former minister Stephen Crabb admitted sending “explicit” messages to a 19-year-old woman after interviewing her for a job, the Telegraph said.
Hunt said in a separate ITV interview that he would back May in firing any ministers found to have sexually harassed colleagues.
Hunt compared the reports of inappropriate behavior to the scandal that engulfed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. “A bit like the Harvey Weinstein stuff, Parliament — like Hollywood — is very good at preaching to people what they ought to be doing,” he told ITV’s “Peston on Sunday.” “But I’m afraid this shows that in our own backyard, we don’t live up to the high standards that we would expect others to.”