Sorry, but Parliament is full of sex pests

In Westminster, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is a way of life – and the Lib Dems are the worst offenders

2 March 2013

The news is dominated by tales of ‘sexual misconduct’ by men in positions of power, and nowhere is the smell of sleaze as strong as in Westminster. Our politicians work in a building formally known as a ‘palace’ where they are often treated like kings — and, occasionally, behave like them. Even more occasionally, the rest of the world catches a glimpse of what is going on.

There has always been a certain tolerance of sexual misbehaviour, which is more often the subject of jokes than outrage. One Tory minister is teased by his colleagues for blowing his parliamentary staff budget on hiring a beautiful researcher, only to find her turn up for work having acquired a large engagement ring. Yet not so long ago, women were amazed when a fellow MP notorious for his groping received a career promotion.

Among themselves, MPs can be remarkably forgiving about lechery — while condemning it without reservation in the outside world. It is a form of institutional hypocrisy, and no one does it better than the Liberal Democrats. The rumours about Lord Rennard, former chief executive of the Lib Dems, had circulated for years: women had complained, but were ignored. In Westminster, things are usually left there. Most of SW1’s bright young things — male or female — are ambitious and have no desire to be involved in a sex scandal. It’s joked about but never formally mentioned. The omertà even includes female journalists, who tend not to report the lechery they experience: one Lib Dem peer is notorious for asking reporters to wear certain clothes before meeting him for lunch and even looking under the table to inspect their skirts. In the real world, such behaviour would be unthinkable — but these are Westminster rules. What happens in Westminster stays in Westminster. And that attitude hardens when the parties head off for their annual shindigs. ‘It doesn’t count as cheating if it happens at conference’ is a line many a young female politico has had whispered in her ear.

It seems that Nick Clegg applied Westminster rules when he first heard concerns about sexual harassment by Lord Rennard more than four years ago. There were, he says now, ‘no very specific allegations’ — so there was no proper investigation. But the question he is facing is not just whether Rennard groped a woman at a party, or locked one in his home until she threatened to call the police. The question is whether the Liberal Democrats have been dismissing such complaints, and turning a blind eye when their own officials are guilty of the behaviour they affect to despise.

It is certainly not limited to Rennard. Nick Clegg received a written complaint about the behaviour of one of his MPs in March 2011, in a case that says much about the Lib Dems’ attitudes to sexual harassment. Clegg was informed that Mike Hancock, Member for Portsmouth South, ‘cannot be trusted and is a liability to women, public and your party’. The letter was from one of his constituents, who showed me a copy. Not only was there no investigation; there was not even the courtesy of a reply.

Annie (not her real name) approached Hancock in 2009 over problems with noisy neighbours and respite care for her son. She told him about her mental health problems (brought about by childhood sexual abuse) and that she had been diagnosed with a ‘borderline personality disorder’. Over the following months Hancock began to see Annie regularly, to buy her gifts, including a teddy bear he named ‘Mike’, and once took her out to dinner at the House of Commons. Hancock would send Annie regular text messages, all of which she has kept. Such as: ‘Please give me a chance you never know my Princess xxx’ and ‘…you are special and sexy to me’.

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Annie did not want a sexual relationship, and felt confused that such a powerful man had shown an interest in her. The following summer Annie broke down and told her family support worker about Hancock’s behaviour, and gave her permission to report him to the police. ‘I made a statement to police but something about their response left me wondering if anything would be done about him,’ she told me. ‘Hancock is such a powerful man after all.’

She went to the press and the police. Hancock was arrested. He has always vigorously denied any misconduct, and  the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Annie approached a civil action lawyer, who wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But she encountered Westminster rules again: she was told that the Committee ‘cannot consider the way a Member deals with a particular constituent’s case, and nor does the code extend to a Member’s private and personal life’. Annie had thought the code obliged MPs to ‘maintain and strengthen the public’s trust’. As she puts it: ‘I went to him as my MP. I didn’t meet him at a party. He immediately began to go after me. What else do you call giving a present of a teddy bear sprayed with his aftershave?’

But if the Commons watchdog could not take action, she believed that the Liberal Democrat party would. Parties can, after all, withdraw the whip from anyone they regard as an embarrassment — as Nadine Dorries found out. She was stripped of the right to call herself a Tory MP after appearing on a reality TV show. So perhaps the Lib Dems would take similar action against Hancock. But the Lib Dems did not want to know. If the police and Commons authorities had not acted, they told Annie, neither would they.

In despair, Annie sent details of Hancock’s behaviour directly to Lib Dem-led Ports-mouth City Council, where he sits on several high-profile committees. They replied that their investigation protocol was complicated (they blamed the new Localism Act) and would be dealt with by a subcommittee. Five months later, nothing has happened — because Hancock has repeatedly requested adjournments on grounds of ill health. On 1 February, the day that the subcommittee was due to meet to consider the complaint, Hancock was working at his constituency office, and during the afternoon attended a meeting with local traders.

Annie is not the first to find out that the Lib Dems have a tin ear for such matters. One former councillor, John Thompson, told me that he had sent a letter to the then party leader Paddy Ashdown, he of the famous nickname, expressing concern about Hancock’s behaviour in the 1990s, but that no response was ever received. It seems to have been filed in the same wastebasket as Lord Rennard’s case, from a party that seems willing to excuse anything from its powerful figures or MPs with large majorities.

One female parliamentary researcher who, unsurprisingly, has asked not to be named, told me that Westminster is still a ‘hostile environment to women, and almost like the Dark Ages’. No one dares, according to her, make complaints against male MPs for sexual harassment, ‘for fear of being targeted, ridiculed or even sacked’. To accept a job there is to step back in time by two decades or more — as the influx of women (the so-called ‘Blair babes’) found in 1997. Barbara Follett, who won Stevenage for Labour that year, recalls that some Tory men would stick their hands out so the female MPs would sit down on them. Nicholas Soames, she says, was the worst offender.

When David Cameron made his infamous ‘Calm down, dear’ comment to Nadine Dorries, it was perhaps a slip of the tongue. But there was no mistaking the nature of the guffaws that followed. The broadcaster and former political editor Julia Hartley-Brewer told me that, some years ago, she had her leg groped under the dinner table by a senior Tory but threatened to ‘punch him in the face’ if he did not stop. For some women, as well as some men, these are the terms of trade. But for other women, less likely to throw a punch, the behaviour is deeply discomfiting.

Lord Rennard was, until fairly recently, held with much reverence by the Lib Dems. He was the great strategist, the local election mastermind — and was regarded by many, himself included, as a superstar. Vera Baird QC, the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, says such an aura is inherently dangerous. ‘If the man is a good campaigner, a popular local candidate or otherwise politically valuable, that is treated as more important. At best the hierarchies will keep him away from her and tell him to behave. At worst they will try to persuade her that it does not matter, the clear message to her being that she is not as important as he. These things will carry on happening, especially if the message coming from the top is that those responsible are likely to get away with it.’

Even now, prominent Liberal Democrats ask what the matter is with a bit of slap and tickle. Jasper Gerard, a Lib Dem candidate and biographer of Nick Clegg, has wondered aloud why there is such fuss over Lord Rennard ‘only touching a woman’s knee’ — it was, he said, ‘hardly Jimmy Savile’. It’s unclear if this is the test that the Lib Dems apply to complaints from women. The Hancock case has highlighted that there appears to be no proper test — and no regulatory framework to deal with complaints about the personal conduct of MPs towards their constituents. And that is the real scandal. The Westminster rules conspire against anyone trying to report abuse, whether they are researchers or constituents. The only course of action open to Annie, having been knocked back by everyone from the CPS to Portsmouth City Council, is to initiate civil proceedings against Hancock. And even now, with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and misfeasance in public office, she is being ignored.

Ellie Cumbo was the day-to-day organiser of the Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance in 2006–2007 and recalls hearing about the allegations against Rennard at the time. ‘Women are so under-represented in the powerful positions in a society in which sexual objectification is still a reality for most young women,’ she says. The distrust of equality measures, she believes, means that ‘a reverse sexism informs much of present-day liberal thought. You have a virtual blueprint for a culture of impunity.’

For Westminster’s 146 female MPs, the recent revelations can only bode well for the future — this scandal might shake parliament out of its complacency, and encourage MPs to better manage their libidos. But for the Lib Dems, this will be toxic. Nick Clegg’s party poses as the champion of equality, and the protector of the vulnerable. Annie has known for some time that the reality is rather different. The rest of the country is only now finding out.

For another perspective, see Rod Liddle's article in this issue

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Show comments
  • Eddie

    Inappropriate behaviour?
    Do you mean the way young women think they can grope (i.e. sexually assault) any young man they want (bar staff, for example) without fear of even being challenged, let alone arrested.
    If any man did complain about this assault, then they would of course mock and call a wimp any man who dared to complain. This sort of behaviour is encouraged by girlpower aggressive femi-hypocrites like Bindel and her femi-bullies.
    Plenty of men are of course arrested and charged for less.
    Enough of the femi-pity-party victimhood already! Can’t women just grow up and grow a backbone? If a man comes on to them and they don’t want it, politely decline, If he continues, scale up the refusal. Use the F word if you’r (wo)man enough.

    • Disgusted of Southsea

      What a totally ridiculous comment. The alleged victim is suffering from mental health problems and is registered as a vulnerable adult. Its nothing to do with Femi-bullies but about common decency.

      • Eddie

        Not ridiculous at all. I was not refering to the specific case mentioned.
        No idea what person you’re talking about really, but you are rather assuming that someon touching her kneww caused her mental health complain, which is one helluva leap in logic really.
        I am in favour of being realistic and pragmantic here. We need consistency in this, not sexist hypocrisy from the usual femi-nutsies.
        Some women flirt with men at work to get what they want; those signals are misread – and that leads to problems. Teasers get hit upon, and then complain, it seems!
        But really, a lot of manhaters are getting all hysterical (oh how true is the stereotype) about human relations and flirting, and attempting to portray all men as monsters and all women as victims – which is, of course, misogynist too, and extremely patronising to women inthe way it infantlises them.

    • 6robingoodfellow9

      Eddie spot on. im sick of inequality against Males,backed up by Sanctamonius MPs,Media,Wimmins magazine, What about Females now getting equal Pensions from State yet still retiring earlier,with less Contributions ?,Having NHS spend 9x on Women as Males ,Get 70% of Property &Goods in divorce ,the Hypocrisy of UK society continually baffles me,If you go out with Callgirl,you risk Criminal Conviction,if you Wine,dine a femme then Society says its ok..hypocrisy. Modern girls cant cook,Useless in the bedroom,No wonder 10% of UK Men have married Non-British girls,Women?…Only Woman who looks at me in a non-materialistic way is My cat..even she can be bossy, Would Fib-dem Women have complained if Fatboy Rennard,had been slim,wealthy,good looking?..

  • hevbruichladdich

    a really good piece – what i dont get is why they think that it’s fine to try it on and the woman can just rebuff it if she doesn’t like it. Some can’t rebut it especially as indicated here if the bloke is a valued party asset and she’s young, new and not proven yet – but even if she can rebuff it – why should she have to? Why do they think they are entitled at all? And why is the discussion so much about what she should do in the face of it rather than the fact that these blokes need to learn some basic manners, self-control adn some respect for their equals and often betters!

  • Disgusted of Southsea

    A great article….Not so great for his alleged victim! The poor girl. The proven evidence of the sexually explicit texts should have been enough alone to prompt an independent inquiry.The leader of Portsmouth City Council Mr Vernon-Jackson defends Mr Hancock at every opportunity.I guess some of the other Councillors will be looking to disassociate themselves from ‘Moscow Mike’. Let Vernon-Jackson do the right thing and order an independent investigation.

  • gulfstream5

    Exquisite timing, Julie – an anti Lib Dem article in an essentially Conservative journal published online two days early to coincide with the very day of the Eastleigh by-election! Full marks for that one.
    However, my stake at 2/7 is on the Lib Dems to romp this by-election, both due to the strength and experience of their personable local candidate and the probability that the rise in UKIP support will split the right wing vote. Wish me luck or perdition as you will.
    Of course it is the voters who will decide, and who will by definition make the correct decision.

    • gulfstream5

      …what did I tell you? :-)

  • 6robingoodfellow9

    does Julie Bindel wear a ‘Boiler’ suit admire hairy lesbians running down the aisle>?

  • FMarion

    I don’t know about the UK, but I do know a lot of American politicians, and many of the men act precisely this way.

    But the article doesn’t go far enough. Many of our female politicians also disgrace themselves, although not necessarily in the same way. Instead there is more of a tendency to try to attract after more-powerful male politicians (although there is a story of an appalled Barrack Obama 10 or 15 years ago trying to keep away from some senior Congresswomen who were chasing after him). My guess is that you have plenty of that in Westminster too.

    I also guess that you have plenty of young women in their 20’s and 30’s who go to work for politicians and who very much want to enter into relationships with powerful men who can help their careers. That certainly is a phenomena well known in American politics, as Monica Lewinsky showed.

    None of that justifies the kind of behavior reported here, and I don’t doubt that it is as bad as Ms. Bindel reports. But I do think that the article’s quasi-feminist subtext caused by its failure to even acknowledge the possibility of misbehavior by women at Parliament is a noteworthy failure. Indeed, it suggests that the author might be doing precisely what she correctly says the political parties tend to do–protecting her friends at the expense of the full truth. Unless, of course, she is entirely ignorant of any of these types of misbehaviors by women, or it is the case that women in the UK simply would never act in such a fashion.

  • The_greyhound

    This is no scandal.

    Scandal is a word reserved for serious issues deserving of serious attention. Stafford Hospital is a scandal. So are hunger, and homelessness, and little children being murdered for not learning lines from the Koran

    This mere fuss, about something or other, by the sort of people who enjoy fussing. Fussing, presumably, because they are too selfish, or immature, to care about the life and death issues that surround us.

    Contemptible, simply contemptible.

    • Eddie

      Indeed. Attention-seeking pity party queens are allowed to emote endlessly about their hurt feelings and how suppposedly traumatised they were when someone touched their knee in 1975, and thus to garner sympathy via our feminised feelings-obsessed Oprah-ficated media these days; a few years ago, they would have been told to shut up and stop being so damned hysterical and silly (a la Tom to Barbara in The Good Life).
      We live in an age of emotional diarrhoea and people desperate to become celebrities by claiming victimhood and claiming how terrible they were ‘abused’.
      And you are right: to talk of such trivialities as ‘abuse’ or a ‘scandal’ is an insult to those who really have been seriously abused and those who have suffered terribly because of various real scandals.

  • davidshort10

    Politicians should follow the example of a famous ageing bachelor clubber ex-newspaper editor and just hire escort girls.

  • John Smith

    They seem to be struggling with Handycock Why is that?

  • Gwangi

    Oh so it’s only the men who are ‘inappropriate’, is it? The women are all wickle wittle angels who never do anything bad…

    Grow up, Julie, love! Women are the worst offenders, yet they are sly, spiteful, manipulative, devious in what they do – and one of the worst forms of female bullying (of men or women) is making false accusations and malicious rumours about people to hurt their reputations. You see it in girl bullies in classrooms up and down the land (and as all teachers know, girls are by far the worst bullies, almost evil in their obsessive hatreds); and you are a prime example of it too, Bindel.

    Men being men and coming on to women (or men) is natural – it is Nature – and what males do. Just say NO Julie to the hordes of men no doubt sent wild with lust at the sight of your hairy chin. Move on, baby…

  • White Army

    While civilization’s advance mostly depends on the genius, courage, and industry unleashed by liberty, civilization’s decline tends to accelerate under the shackles of centralized restrictions and control.

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