Michael Fallon sorry for 'unwelcome' behaviour against female journalist

Defence secretary ‘overstepped the mark’ 15 years ago by placing hand upon Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee, for which he apologised at the time

Theresa May was under pressure to contain the fallout from claims of sexual misconduct at Westminster, as defence secretary Michael Fallon admitted inappropriate behaviour towards a female journalist more than a decade ago.

Fallon has become the first cabinet minister to be named, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal prompted junior staff at Westminster to discuss concerns about the behaviour of prominent politicians – including in a spreadsheet that now includes the names of 37 Conservative MPs.

Fallon was identified by the Sun as the cabinet minister who repeatedly touched the broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee at a dinner in 2002 – though Hartley-Brewer herself played down the incident, saying she was not “remotely distressed”.

A close ally of the defence secretary said: “Julia is a good friend of Michael’s. He overstepped the mark when he put his hand on her knee. She made it clear it was unwelcome and he rightly apologised 15 years ago.”

Hartley-Brewer rejected the idea that Fallon should be pursued over the incident, saying: “I have not been a victim and I don’t wish to take part in what I believe has now become a Westminster witch-hunt.”

This "incident" happened in 2002. No one was remotely upset or distressed by it. My knees remain intact. I refer you to my earlier statement pic.twitter.com/TWTj0nnsWb

— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) October 30, 2017

The fresh revelations emerged after MPs raised concerns of a “toxic atmosphere” in parliament during a debate on the issue on Monday.

Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, pledged that incidents of sexual harassment would not go unpunished, as she responded to an urgent question raised by the Labour MP Harriet Harman about allegations that have emerged in recent days.

The Commons heard one MP complain of an incident of sexual assault at Westminster that had not been properly investigated, and a second say her concerns about bawdy bar room culture had been rebuffed.

With May sitting alongside her, Leadsom set out plans to strengthen the independent helpline that Commons staff can use to report allegations of misconduct and said a dedicated support team would provide pastoral care and, where appropriate, help victims report cases to the police.

“Everyone in this House must be clear that whenever a serious allegation is made, the individual should go to the police and be supported in doing so,” she said.

She said all options would remain open for punishing perpetrators. “In the case of staff, they could forfeit their jobs; in the case of members of parliament, they could have the whip withdrawn and they could be fired from ministerial office.”

Over the weekend, trade minister Mark Garnier admitted he had asked his former assistant to buy sex toys; the former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb apologised for “sexual chatter” with a 19-year-old job applicant; and Westminster staff compiled a list of more than 30 Conservative MPs accused of sleazy behaviour.

Speaking in the debate, Harman said: “No woman, or man for that matter, coming to work in this house should be subjected to unwanted sexual advances from those who are in a position of power over them.

“No one should have to work in a toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter. No MP, let alone a minister, should think it is something to make jokes about.” The environment secretary, Michael Gove, was forced to apologise at the weekend after making a joke about the Weinstein affair.

After Leadsom spoke, MPs on all sides took turns to condemn a culture in which powerful politicians can exploit the vulnerability of younger staff, who are employed directly by MPs themselves.

The Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said a member of staff had told her about an incident of sexual assault that had not been properly investigated. “A worker employed as staff of a member in this House told me today that she reported being sexually assaulted to the proper authorities earlier this year, who did nothing,” she said. “She is deeply disappointed and distrustful, and she tells me that distrust is endemic.”

Leadsom replied that she was happy to meet the woman and discuss the allegations personally.

Chi Onwurah told Leadsom she had raised concerns with Commons authorities about the bawdy culture in a Commons bar frequented by MPs and researchers, but had been rebuffed.

The Labour MP for Newcastle Central told the Guardian that young researchers – male and female – had raised concerns with her about being made to feel uncomfortable by MPs’ behaviour in the bar. “When I did complain to an officer of the House, I was told that sort of thing might happen in bars across the country,” she said.

Leadsom said: “It is absolutely right that the House must address the urgent issue of alleged mistreatment of staff by members of parliament. These allegations make clear that there is a vital need to provide better support and protection for the thousands of staff working in Westminster and in constituency offices across the country.”

Before Leadsom spoke, the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, put the onus on May and the other party leaders, rather than House of Commons authorities, to crack down on sexual harassment.

“The prime minister’s letter to me, written as leader of the Conservative party, very candidly admits the difficulties the Conservative party has had in introducing the sort of mandatory grievance scheme which some other parties have introduced in recent years,” he said. “It does not require my intervention for the party to adopt an effective grievance scheme.”

Earlier, a report in the London Evening Standard, edited by the former chancellor George Osborne, claimed David Cameron had tried to introduce such a scheme, but the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs blocked it.

Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, denied that claim, saying the Cameron plans had involved giving party whips too much power.

“It’s clearly important that parliamentary staff know what recourse there is in event of them suffering abuse or harassment,” Brady said. “There is already some support available but it is not sufficiently well signposted.

“It is essential, though, that this support is provided by the House of Commons as a whole and not by political parties which can be deeply conflicted in these instances.”

Earlier, May’s official spokesman said she was “deeply concerned” by allegations of sexual misconduct. He pointedly declined to confirm that May had full confidence in Garnier, who is the subject of an internal government inquiry.

The spokesman said he could not give a “running commentary” on what was happening but denied that May had seen an alleged dossier compiled by party whips on MPs’ behaviour. He added: “There is no dossier and therefore the prime minister hasn’t seen one.”


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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