Sexual harassment: a chance for change

Many people have been shocked by recent revelations about the extent of sexual harassment in politics. Sadly to many of us it does not come as a shock, but we have welcomed the focus on a persistent problem that has too often been trivialised or ignored. Some sections of the media have — without any sense of irony — provided illustrative answers to the endless questions about why victims hesitate to come forward to tell their story. While it is depressing still to be having these conversations in 2017, it is also an opportunity — let’s welcome this scrutiny and turn it into a positive force for change.

A cross-party working group in Parliament to create an independent grievance procedure and provide better advice and support for those who experience bullying and harassment met for the first time this week. As the Liberal Democrat MP on that group, I am determined that the outcome should be sufficiently broad to protect people in constituencies and in Parliament, as well as ordinary members of the public.

It’s an issue I have been trying to tackle for many years. Almost exactly ten years ago, two friends came to see me and told me they had been touched against their will by Lord Rennard, then the party’s Chief Executive. My concerns escalated as I heard other women tell me of similar experiences. The party had no proper processes for dealing with sexual harassment by such a senior figure. I eventually managed to ensure action was taken to make the behaviour stop. At the time that felt like a good result, but ultimately it didn’t tackle the problem at its root. Quiet internal solutions to harassment mask the scale of the problem and do not challenge the wider culture that breeds it.

I’ve reflected long and hard about my actions a decade ago. Did I do enough? My fear is that I did not. At the time I thought I had done everything I possibly could, trying to support these women — my friends — while getting the party to act on the problem, in what felt like a lonely mission. It taught me that no single individual in any organisation should be allowed to hoard as much power as Lord Rennard did within the Lib Dems: no one wanted to challenge him, and even to this day, he has not admitted what he did was wrong nor properly apologised to the women. Instead he cites the police decision not to prosecute and a selective quote from an internal report, despite the QC investigating the issue for the party describing the evidence of the behaviour reported as ‘broadly credible’. Putting aside the question of whether intent to act in a sexually inappropriate way could be proven, I am in no doubt that what he did breaches the acceptable and professional standards expected of any Chief Executive.

Abuse of power is key to this whole issue. There is a world of difference between flirtation and sexual encounters between consenting adults with equal power, and the subtle yet sinister use of a powerful position to try to persuade others into sexual acts. That Lord Rennard remains in the party, showing no remorse or contrition, while many of the women involved have left, fills me with sadness and anger. When I hear suggestions that the women who spoke out should not be believed, or that they were somehow manipulated, it makes my blood boil.

Vince — and Tim before him — have repeatedly, publicly said Rennard is not welcome anywhere near their frontbench team, even as an adviser. I remain deeply frustrated that he was not expelled from the party through its disciplinary process. It just feels wrong, and I do not want Lord Rennard to continue as a member of the party. As far as I am concerned, he is not welcome.

There is one thing I would definitely do differently now. I appreciate all the understandable reasons why women and men do not wish to speak out about sexual harassment: not wanting to relive the horrible experience, misplaced feelings of shame, fear of being judged, concern about what it might mean for their future career, and additionally, in high profile circumstances such as politics, worry about media attention (the women in this case endured horrendous hounding by the media, some of which can only be described as stalking — one had to take time off work, go and stay with a friend and change her phone number). In 2007, as my friends listed these concerns, I empathised, and did not push them hard for a written complaint. I did not have confidence that their names being attached to the reports would be anything other than a miserable experience, to compound what had already happened. Since then, my party has thoroughly overhauled its complaint processes, and we employ a Pastoral Care Officer, Jeanne Tarrant, whose job it is to ensure the process is sensitive to people’s needs. Action has been taken in response to complaints of sexual assault, including excluding members from the party. My strong advice now would be to make a formal written complaint.

We have a much better system now, but it is not perfect. We are investigating a recent failure, when a member accused of rape was not immediately suspended. I am keen that we learn lessons from this case, and also take steps to understand more widely what has worked, and what has not worked, for people who have used our new complaints process. This constant learning is vital if people are to feel confident reporting problems.

As we work to eliminate sexual harassment — in the corridors of political power, in the film industry, and in workplaces, schools and public spaces right across the country — it is important to approach the issue from the perspective of the victim. Yet there is a surprising amount of resistance to change: too often organisations switch into defence mode, or treat it as a comms problem to try to shut down as quickly as possible. The irony is that the best way to protect the organisation is by recognising that sexual harassment is still endemic across society, and acting with humility. Claims must be fully investigated and complainants treated with sensitivity and respect. I don’t think any organisation has got this totally sorted.

I’ve learned that driving the necessary changes is hard, but you can help in four ways.

1. If you’re experienced bullying or sexual harassment please consider sharing your experience. Making a formal complaint is an important way you can stop the issue being ignored. It is also powerful to talk to your friends and family, and in doing so make the problem more visible to them.

2. Be a better bystander. If you see harassment, from unacceptable ‘banter’ to unwanted advances, call it out or offer support to the victim, including as a witness if they want to pursue the issue.

3. Support others who speak out. It has taken a lot of courage for them to do so and there will be people trying to tear them down, especially if it is public. Kind words and practical support can make a big difference.

4. Press for change in your organisation. Are the policies sufficient? Does the practical reality match the rhetoric? What further changes are needed? The more allies raise the issue, the harder it becomes for employers and other bodies to ignore it. There really is strength in numbers.

This moment is an opportunity to make things better. Let’s take it.

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