MPs say plans to tackle Westminster sexual harassment claims are ‘vague’

Proposals to tackle sexual harassment and assault in Westminster have been criticised by campaigners and MPs for being “too vague” and leaving “too much power” with the party whips.

A leaked copy of the proposals, put together by a cross-party working group set up to formulate a new process for sexual harassment complaints, has left campaigners and experts disappointed.

The Guardian understands that the publication of the final report has been delayed because the working group have not yet agreed to its findings, with reports suggesting the Labour party have been unwilling to sign up to certain elements.

The group, chaired by leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, includes 10 MPs and two staff members. It was set up after a string of MPs from all parties were suspended or placed under investigation in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It spent six weeks hearing evidence from experts and parliamentary staff.

The leaked document includes proposals such as an independent specialist helpline being established and the appointment of a specialist to investigate allegations independently.

Sanctions are mentioned but the document says that, in the short term, they will be restricted to measures such as an apology or being sent to training, unless new legislation is passed.

Sources suggested the leaked document was an earlier version of the report, and claimed that despite the inclusion of what sounded like weaker sanctions, such as apologies, there were plans to ensure stronger measures were also included.

Leadsom said the working group was dealing with a “very serious matter” and insisted that she would not comment on a leaked document.

“We all recognise the need to change the culture in Westminster,” she added. “The working group will meet as soon as parliament returns to make further progress in creating an independent complaints procedure.

“In the meantime, interim support has been put in place by the House authorities.”

Sarah Green, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, who has seen a copy of the leaked proposals, said that while many of the suggestions would improve matters, it was “still clear that the whips will have a lot of power” and that the timeframes were too vague.

She said: “If someone wanted to report an assault or harassment next week, it isn’t clear what response they could possibly get. The sanctions are not clear and it will have zero impact if they had a problem with a chairman in their local constituency, for example.”

Green said that it could be months before some of the proposals are finalised. “It began with such urgency and the report was supposedto be out by the end of last year, but what it feels like now is there isn’t that urgency. It feels like resistance not willingness, like they are waiting for the issue to go away. But it isn’t going away.”

The report acknowledges that culture change was needed, she added, but it isn’t within the scope of the draft proposals. “That’s really disappointing because for culture change to happen, it needs leadership and this group is so unusual in its apparent commitment to tackling the issue and had support from all party leaders.”

Labour MP Jess Phillips, who sits on the group, told the Guardian: “The report is much better than what we have now, in terms of referral. There will be an independent sexual violence service in order for people to come forward in parliament.

“But there is not enough detail about what the sanctions will be. I still feel like power and politics and position matter more and unless there are firm sanctions in place this is meaningless. We need them to be serious. And ultimately there has to be a method of recall in order to sack MPs.”

Charlotte Nichols, women’s officer for Young Labour, said the proposals represented “a big step forward” but that she was still aware of incidences yet to have been reported. And anything less than a properly independent reporting procedure wouldn’t go far enough to encourage the victims to come forward.

She said: “Members have confided in me about [incidences] they haven’t yet felt able or willing to report, and I worry until there is a fully independent process that cuts across all political parties, that they will continue to suffer in silence.”

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