A Westminster staffer who says she was sexually assaulted by an MP last year has criticised Theresa May’s “inadequate” proposals for dealing with allegations of harassment and abuse by politicians.
The woman, who works for another MP, said she was speaking out because measures proposed by May will still not be sufficiently independent of the political parties.
She described to the Guardian being sexually assaulted by the MP, who, she said, forcibly held her on a bed in a hotel room while on a business trip to Europe with parliamentary colleagues.
Following the alleged incident, the woman and a senior colleague attempted to raise what had happened to with at least four different authorities: the police, the parliamentary standards commissioner, the House of Commons authorities and the MP’s party.
However, she said she felt none of the organisations took her complaint seriously enough except for the police, who could not formally investigate because it took place in another country.
“Some of the people who knew what happened to me are now being tasked with fixing this broken system and those are the very people who in my opinion at best turned a blind eye and at worst actively covered it up,” she said.
“To put the responsibility on senior politicians to fix this is inadequate and not going to work. It’s inappropriate and I have very little faith or trust that they are suddenly going to have the victims’ interests at heart. It is all about self-protection.”
So far, May has proposed an independent mediation service for staff wanting to raise concerns about MPs’ behaviour and enforcing a grievance procedure overseen by MPs that is currently voluntary.
But the Westminster staffer said there needed to be a “credible independent body” to investigate complaints about MPs’ behaviour that is not connected to the parties, in the same way that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority acts as the watchdog on expenses.
Describing what happened, the woman said she had found herself alone with the MP in a hotel bar after other members of her delegation went to pack their bags before a flight home.
“He said: ‘Come and talk to me while I pack my bag,’ and I honestly didn’t think anything of it. I thought we had a very professional relationship. There had been no indication of any flirting or anything at all,” she said.
“But when I got to his hotel room, he said: ‘Come and sit on the bed’ which made me feel uncomfortable, so I didn’t and I was standing near the door. But he was quite insistent, so I tried to brush it off, saying: ‘Come on pack your bags and we’ll go and meet everybody.’
“At which point, he basically pulled me on to the bed and pushed me back, and tried to kiss me. I very clearly said: ‘No, this is not what I want.’ He held me by my shoulders and pushed me back again. On the third time, I managed to push him off again and basically ran out the room.
“Initially I was just really shocked and I didn’t expect it but I was quite quickly scared because I knew I was in a vulnerable situation”
Back in Westminster, the woman and a senior colleague tried to report what had happened to several authorities over the course of many months. The police took the case seriously but were unable to investigate any breach of the law because the incident had occurred in another jurisdiction.
She said she contacted the parliamentary commissioner for standards but was told it was not within their remit to investigate because she was employed by an MP rather than the House of Commons and MPs could only be investigated over their public life and not their “purely private and personal lives”.
A letter from Kathryn Hudson, the standards commissioner, this year said she had concerns about the scope of existing policies and procedures but was unable to act in this case.
The woman said her senior colleague tried to set up a meeting with House of Commons officials to discuss enforcement of parliament’s Respect policy but she said it was cancelled several times. The Respect policy governs interactions between MPs and House of Commons staff but not people who are employed directly by MPs.
“I was so shocked that they basically didn’t want to know. I felt so alone: how could they not care?” the woman said.
“We also notified the party. But they did nothing. They said it was the first time they’d heard about the incident within about six weeks of it happening but… [the party] made no commitment to investigate, respond, do anything and sure enough we never heard any response from them,” she said. “We don’t know whether they had a word with the MP involved or turned a blind eye or what.”
May has been forced to act on allegations of sexual harassment and abuse relating to MPs since the Harvey Weinstein scandal prompted staff at Westminster to discuss concerns about the behaviour of prominent politicians – including in a spreadsheet that now includes the names of around 37 Conservatives.
Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, set out plans on Monday 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.
A spokeswoman for parliament’s standards commissioner said she could not comment on a specific case, but added: “While the commissioner takes all such allegations seriously, generally allegations of sexual harassment are outside the commissioner’s remit and she has no power to act on them.
“Where the commissioner receives an allegation concerning matters outside her remit, she/her staff will signpost the person making the allegation to any other sources of help which appear – on the facts known to her – to be relevant. Where an allegation concerns a matter which might amount to a criminal offence, such as a sexual assault, we would advise the individual to consider contacting the police in the first instance.”
A spokesman for the House of Commons said: “The house is limited in its ability to intervene in employment matters, such as allegations of bullying or harassment by MPs of their staff as MPs are self-employed and employ their staff directly.
“We provide HR advice to MPs through the members’ HR advice service, who also promote good employment practices. A free confidential helpline is provided by the House of Commons and available 24/7 for all members’ staff.”