Women at the heart of the Westminster sexual harassment scandal have told the Guardian they have no confidence that “endemic” abuse of power has been stopped.
Writer Kate Maltby, who accused Conservative MP Damian Green of sexual harassment, Labour party activist Ava Etemadzadeh, who accused Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, and former special adviser to Nick Clegg Bridget Harris, who made allegations against Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard, said they had little faith their political parties would put their houses in order, and accused them of ignoring the issue for decades.
In an interview in the office of the women’s equality party, who are supporting the women, Maltby said she was disappointed she had not been contacted by Conservative HQ or the working group that is currently looking at the issue of sexual harassment in Westminster.
The three women said while they were confident that individual members of the working group wanted change, they feared structural barriers in the system and a lack of political will would make it impossible.
“I don’t have faith that the working group will be given the power or the support to change anything,” said Maltby, who added that she felt “lucky” to have had her claim handled by the civil service. A Cabinet Office inquiry into the first secretary of state found that Maltby’s account of a disputed meeting was “plausible”, but was not able to reach a definitive conclusion on her allegations that Green had behaved improperly towards her.
Green has denied making sexual advances towards the Tory party activist. He was later sacked after making misleading statements about pornography found on his Commons computer in 2008. “I no longer have faith that the leadership is minded to let the working group change anything,” said Maltby.
At least 10 other women in the Conservative party had contacted her to ask advice about reporting sexual harassment, Maltby said. “What’s really scary and something I feel guilty about is that I don’t have an answer for them. I’m just a woman who made a complaint. I can’t access a CCHQ system either.”
Maltby said she was disappointed that the prime minister had criticised the savaging of sexual harassment claimants in the press after Maltby’s treatment by the Daily Mail, but had soon after attended a party celebrating the newspaper’s editor Paul Dacre’s years of service. “That’s when I lost faith in her as a woman and a leader, and I need a lot more evidence that she is going to support the people in the party who do want to make a change,” she said.
Etemadzadeh, 27, who accused Hopkins, 76, of sending suggestive text messages and rubbing himself up against her after a student political event, said she had been let down by the Labour party. She accuses them of not having taken her complaint seriously until a deluge of sexual harassment scandals hit the headlines last year.
“I felt powerless and isolated when I saw nothing was done initially, and now I feel the party is trying to whitewash the case and only acting because it doesn’t want to get a bad reputation,” she said.
Etemadzadeh first made a complaint against Hopkins in December 2015, but says no action was taken. It is understood Hopkins was spoken to about what happened and reprimanded by then chief whip, Rosie Winterton. Despite having knowledge of the case, Jeremy Corbyn promoted the Luton North MP to the shadow cabinet in 2016. Hopkins was suspended by the Labour whips in November after Etemadzadeh made a second complaint, and Labour MP Kerry McCarthy alleged she had also been harassed by him. Hopkins has denied sexual harassment claims levelled against him; an investigation is ongoing.
Etemadzadeh accused the new procedure introduced by the Labour party of being “opaque” and said she had learnt about the progression of her case in the media rather than through communications with the party. “I don’t really trust political parties to deal with these cases.”
Sophie Walker, leader of the women’s equality party said sexual harassment in Westminster was “endemic”. With power finely balanced, political parties had no motivation to remove the whip or sack MPs found guilty of sexual harassment, she added. The party, along with MPs such as Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, have called for legislation for offending MPs to face recall and lose their jobs.
The Westminster working group looking at sexual harassment in parliament is due to meet on Tuesday, and is understood to be considering whether MPs could be stripped of office if they are found guilty of sexual harassment.
A leaked draft of an earlier version of the report outlined recommendations for a new independent complaints system, online learning modules for MPs, an HR service for staff working in parliament, and a specialist helpline. But Green MP Caroline Lucas claimed this week that a cross-party report had been delayed by the Labour party and “watered down” by the Conservatives to reduce its focus on victims.
“At the beginning of this, people thought this was the next expenses scandal and it was going to tear parliament apart. It hasn’t,” said Walker. “Why? Because basically we care more about MPs who spend money on duck houses than MPs who grope, assault, harass and frighten women. And that is an absolute indictment of this system.”
Bridget Harris, who was one of four women who made complains about Lord Rennard in 2013, said Etemadzadeh’s more recent experience demonstrated the lack of willingness in the political system to address the problem of sexual harassment.
Allegations against Rennard date back to 2007. He was suspended from the party for several months, but was reinstated. An internal inquiry said Rennard’s behaviour may have caused “distress” to at least 10 women by violating their personal space. However, it found there was not sufficient evidence that he had acted in a sexually inappropriate way to bring any disciplinary charges. Rennard has denied any wrongdoing.
“After the very public case we went through in 2013 when we put the Lib Dems through the wringer and they were exposed as having no policies, you would have thought the other parties would have been on red alert for this,” Harris said. “But there was no learning from it.”
She added that while she had received a lot of support over the years, many men and women had told her you had to be tough to work in politics. “I think that is a recognition that Westminster is not a safe place,” she said. “And if you are telling me that a working group without the real support of the parties is going to make it a safe space – I just don’t believe it.”
A Conservative spokesman said the party had introduced a new code of conduct and any complaints would “investigated in confidence.” A Liberal Democrat spokesman said complaints were taken “very seriously and the party had taken steps in recent years to improve how complaints are dealt with.
Labour last week announced it had appointed Rape Crisis to support to anyone affected by sexual harassment. If there was evidence of misconduct in any case disciplinary action would be “taken in line with the party’s rule book and procedures”, a spokesman said.