Labour 'did not take sexual misconduct claims seriously'

Jess Phillips says Kelvin Hopkins should not have been given Labour frontbench job following complaint from party activist

The Labour party did not treat allegations of sexual misconduct seriously enough in the case of an MP who was later promoted to its frontbench, a senior party figure has said.

Kelvin Hopkins was appointed shadow culture secretary last year in a reshuffle prompted by a host of frontbench resignations in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. On Friday, Jess Phillips, the chair of parliament’s women and equalities committee and the women’s parliamentary Labour party, said the complaint from a party activist the previous year should have precluded that.

“I am a bit concerned about the fact that Kelvin was then promoted … that does seem wrong to me”, Phillips told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I think it’s probably more cock-up than conspiracy. I don’t think that it was political expediency. I think that people just didn’t take it as seriously as it needed to be taken.”

Hopkins served as shadow culture secretary for about four months last year, before being replaced by Tom Watson. He was suspended by Labour on Thursday after it was claimed that he had sent inappropriate text messages to – and had rubbed himself against – Ava Etemadzadeh, a party activist.

Etemadzadeh brought the matter to the attention of Labour’s then chief whip, Rosie Winterton, two years ago, Phillips said on Friday. The decision to suspend Hopkins followed the emergence of fresh evidence about the original complaint on Thursday.

While Phillips said she felt the original complaint was dealt with satisfactorily under the party’s procedures as they existed at the time and welcomed Hopkins’s belated suspension, she added in a later interview with Sky News that the party’s policies had not been sufficiently robust in the past. She said improvements had subsequently been made, but called for an independent complaints system to be set up to make it easier for victims to be heard.

“The system needs a very robust, independent specialist, element to it. The first point of contact should be with an independent person who the victim can absolutely trust and [who] doesn’t know anybody, [and that] there’s no fear or favour that you’re about to shop in the mate of the person who answers the telephone,” she said.

She also called for an arbitration panel with access to specialist advice, so that decisions were not being “made by the friends of the people involved or somebody from that wing of the party or this wing of the party”.

Phillips added her belief that, had the complaint been made today, it would have been handled differently.

The Labour MP also turned her fire on the prime minister, whom she accused of limiting her response to dealing with transgressions under the ministerial code. “If you’re a backbencher in the Conservatives at the moment, she can’t use the ministerial code against you. So, it seems like it’s open season for Tory backbenchers to do whatever they like.”

She singled out the former work and pensions minister, Stephen Crabb, who has admitted to sending sexually explicit text messages to a teenager. “Stephen Crabb should definitely not still be walking around parliament with the Tory whip,” Phillips said.

Phillips was asked during an appearance on Sky News later on Friday morning whether she felt there was a danger that people working in Westminster could find themselves falsely accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour as allegations surface.

“Do you think it’s fun for victims to come forward, do you think that it’s easy?” she said, attacking the idea that people were “going to be making loads of false allegations ‘for lols, for bants’”.

Phillips added: “It isn’t easy for people to come forward and speak up when it could affect their careers, it could affect their membership of their political party. It wasn’t easy for Bex Bailey to say what she did, and the idea that this is dangerous for members of parliament: what is dangerous for members of parliament is if we don’t sort this out.”


Kevin Rawlinson

The GuardianTramp

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