Harassment is parliament’s dirty cross-party secret. Is it about to change? | Kate Maltby and Ava Etemadzadeh

Backbench MPs should not be allowed to scupper proposals for a parliamentary complaints system that would give staff basic workplace protection

In Armando Iannucci’s sitcom The Thick of It, government spin doctor Malcolm Tucker brokers a peace with his opposition counterpart. “Nobody talks about fucking dodgy donors, OK? Because it makes everybody look bad.” After taunting each other with what they could both reveal about each other’s parliamentarians – domestic abuse, forced abortions, university drug dealing – the two both agree, “Seal this in. Contain the toxicity. Chernobyl FM.” Some subjects can’t be touched by even the most bullish Westminster attack dogs – they assure mutual destruction.

For years, the padding of MPs’ expenses was one of these dirty, cross-party secrets that everybody benefited from keeping quiet. We know how that exploded. Since last October, sexual harassment and bullying have emerged as another parliamentary scandal that it long suited everybody to keep quiet about. Andrea Leadsom’s new proposals for a parliamentary complaints system are a first step towards challenging this culture; backbench MPs must not be allowed to scupper it.

In the wake of the worldwide #MeToo movement, we both made public complaints for which we could not find suitable reporting procedures. One of us, Kate Maltby, complained about unwanted attention from Theresa May’s ally Damian Green: a nine-week civil service inquiry found the complaint “plausible” and the deputy prime minister was sacked after it also found he had lied about pornography on his office computer. The other, Ava Etemadzadeh, complained of unwanted touching and text messages from a Jeremy Corbyn ally, Kelvin Hopkins MP. The complaint about Hopkins – who “absolutely and categorically” denies any inappropriate conduct – was backed by the MP Kerry McCarthy, who complained of 20 years’ worth of similar unwanted communications from Hopkins. Although the complaint was referred to the party’s national constitutional committee in March, no follow-up hearing has been scheduled, and the case has been delayed by infighting within the party.

We both felt let down by our parties. But we also felt let down by their opponents. Etemadzadeh’s case should be an embarrassment to the Labour party – but no Tory has ever pointed this out on the parliamentary benches. For nine weeks Green sat by May’s side as serious allegations about his conduct emerged – and the Labour leader never raised a question at PMQs. The truth is that neither Conservative nor Labour could have kept a straight face while accusing the other of covering up allegations of sexual harassment and bullying. So for months, everybody has tried not to mention it.

Leadsom’s proposals, due to be voted on this week, go a long way to addressing the problem. Neither of us share her politics, but we have been impressed by her personal commitment as leader of the Commons to professionalising the parliamentary workplace. Most of her proposals, vetted by experts, are not about sexual harassment at all but about applying basic workplace standards to a building that has long considered itself above the rules. (The great majority of cases likely to be heard involve bullying; they also cover managers of support staff rather than just MPs.) Backbenchers who plan to cause trouble are in effect seeking to deny their own staff the basic protections that millions of other employers abide by.

We particularly welcome the decision to grant votes to independent lay members on the committee for standards, which decides whether to refer serious findings against MPs for sanction to the House. MPs will no longer be able to cover for each other. We also accept that Leadsom’s emphasis on anonymity protects complainants as well as respondents. Assurances of confidentiality proved essential for witnesses in the Green case.

But earlier in this process, we heard of MPs insisting that all complaints that could be defined as criminal allegations be passed to the police, and not acted upon until a full criminal investigation was complete. There could be no clearer attempt to kick the can down the road or to discourage reporting. Stakes are high in criminal investigations, and despite the bogeywoman image of feminists, most of us aren’t trying to ruin the lives of the people we accuse of offences such as unwanted touching at work. There should be no need to wait for a lengthy police investigation to obtain the type of minor workplace resolution such as moving offices, or sending an MP for training, that most of us actually seek.

We are reassured that the move to include mandatory police reporting has been avoided, but Leadsom must resist any attempt to sneak such conditions into her code before this week’s vote.

There is much that is good in these proposals, although we are saddened by the decision to exclude complaints relating to offences before 2017. This will be mitigated if evidence of earlier patterns of behaviour can still be used to inform more recent complaints. We can’t rewrite the past, or undo Westminster’s prior record of cross-party failure. But we can be part of its better future.

• Kate Maltby writes about theatre, politics and culture. Ava Etemadzadeh is treasurer of the Young Fabians


Kate Maltby and Ava Etemadzadeh

The GuardianTramp

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