Britain's Political Parties Adopt Measure To Address Sexual Harassment In U.K. Parliament

Nov 7, 2017
Originally published on November 7, 2017 6:17 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Weinstein effect is also taking hold in London. Charges of sexual harassment at the Palace of Westminster threaten the already fragile government of Prime Minister Theresa May. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Last week, Michael Fallon, the secretary of defense, resigned after apologizing for repeatedly putting his hand on the knee of a female journalist 15 years ago and after being accused of lunging to try to kiss another reporter around the same time. Now in the crosshairs, Damian Green, effectively Theresa May's deputy prime minister - accused of harassing another female reporter and having pornography on his computer, all of which he denies. But to some women who spent years in Parliament, this all sounds pretty familiar.

BETTY WILLIAMS: I'm Betty Williams. I was a Labour member of Parliament between 1997 and 2010.

LANGFITT: Williams recalls being forcibly kissed and inappropriately touched by fellow members of Parliament.

WILLIAMS: This was a lunchtime reception where some lobbyists were there and members of Parliament and so on. And this other senior Tory member of Parliament touched my breast.

LANGFITT: Really?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. He touched my breast, yes. But it was deliberate. It wasn't an accident.

LANGFITT: Williams glared at him and says he never bothered her again.

Hi.

FIONA MACTAGGART: Hello.

LANGFITT: Nice to meet you.

MACTAGGART: Good to meet you.

LANGFITT: Thanks for having me.

Like Betty Williams, Fiona Mactaggart entered Parliament in 1997 with a Labour Party landslide led by Tony Blair who became prime minister. She says speaking in the House of Commons back then could be brutal.

MACTAGGART: Particularly, when we spoke about issues which affected women more than men - would face men sort of going yeah, yeah and doing gestures as though they were weighing women's breasts. And the aim, I think, was to make women feel insecure, as though we were with the kind of intruders.

LANGFITT: Mactaggart arrived in Parliament along with an unprecedented 120 female MPs, double the number previously elected. She thought it would alter the locker-room mentality there.

MACTAGGART: We anticipated a change, which didn't really arrive.

LANGFITT: But Sarah Ditum thinks real change may be coming, triggered by events more than an ocean away. Ditum writes about politics for Britain's Guardian newspaper and the magazine The New Statesman. She spoke over Skype.

SARAH DITUM: As soon as the Weinstein story broke, it kind of gave license to everybody who had their own story to come out and share it.

LANGFITT: Young staffers complained about MPs hitting on them in Parliament bars and expressed frustration that there's no clear, independent procedure for bringing cases. Members of all political parties have been implicated in the scandal. But Ditum says it's been especially hard on the Tory Party and its leader Theresa May.

DITUM: Theresa May is enormously vulnerable.

LANGFITT: May's clinging to power after losing a majority in parliament last summer and - amid party battles over leaving the European Union - can't afford another crisis. Ditum says for now Tories are sticking with May because her downfall could lead to a takeover by the rival Labour party. Like many observers, Ditum expects more allegations to surface.

DITUM: This is about behavior that was regarded as normal for a very long time. And it is very difficult to predict what the limits of this scandal are going to be.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

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