May counters Westminster sleaze with plea for 'respect'

British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a "new culture of respect" to counter Westminster's growing sleaze scandal.

Mrs May told the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that her government "cannot ignore the ongoing allegations of serious abuse and harassment in parliament and across Westminster".

Inspired by the Harvey Weinstein revelations in the US, a growing number of men and women have reported sexual harassment in the UK's halls of power.

The scandal widened on Monday when a Conservative party activist claimed she was violently raped by a senior party official, but House of Commons officials took no action because, they said, police were investigating.

Several MPs have been accused of groping women. Conservative MP Chris Pincher stepped down as government whip on the weekend and referred himself to the police after being accused of making an unwanted pass at a Conservative activist. He has denied the allegations.

The Sunday Times reported that police found "extreme" pornographic material on a parliamentary computer in the office of Mrs May's deputy, Damian Green, who was already under investigation by the Cabinet Office over allegations, which he denies, that he propositioned a Tory activist 30 years his junior.

Two ministers face inquiries by the Cabinet Office over alleged inappropriate behaviour, and defence secretary Michael Fallon lost his post last week over claims he "lunged" at a female journalist 14 years ago.

Labour has also had problems, with two MPs accused of groping party activists. MP Kelvin Hopkins was suspended by the party pending the outcome of an investigation into accusations he rubbed up against a party worker and pestered her with text messages. He has denied the allegations.

The weekend also saw new claims of sexual assault by a male Conservative MP on a male Labour colleague during a drinking session at a House of Commons bar.

"What has been revealed over the last few weeks has been deeply troubling and has understandably led to significant public unease," Mrs May said.

"For too long the powerful have been able to abuse their power and their victims have not felt able to speak out. Let me be frank, political parties have not always got this right in the past, but I am determined to get it right for the future."

As well as a new code of conduct for the Conservative Party, announced last week, Mrs May convened a meeting with leaders of other parties on Monday to create an independent grievance procedure for parliament.

"We need to establish a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life," she said. "One in which everyone can feel confident that they are working in a safe and secure environment, where complaints can be brought forward without prejudice and victims know that those complaints will be investigated properly.

"And where people's careers cannot be damaged by unfounded rumours circulated anonymously online."

Mrs May said it was not about prying into private lives, but about "the use and abuse of power".

"Now is the time to act decisively," she said.

However, a lot of details about the new grievance process remain undecided, such as whether it would include retrospective investigations or only consider new complaints, and whether it would have the power to sack or suspend MPs.

The leaders were also expected to discuss whether MPs should be prevented from directly employing staff.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested compulsory training in proper conduct for new MPs, and House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom is reportedly considering ending the large subsidy for alcohol sold at Westminster.

House of Commons bars run at a significant loss thanks to their cheap drinks menu, costing the country an estimate ??6 million ($10 million) a year. A pint of beer there costs almost a pound less than in nearby pubs.

The Sunday Times reported that some Tories are chaperoned by a squad of MP minders in the Commons bars to make sure they behave.

"The whips are now man-marking the biggest offenders so they don't start fights, pester women or wander off," an unnamed MP was reported saying.

However some have pushed back against the new focus on sleaze. Sir Roger Gale, a conservative MP, said MPs accused of sexually harassment were being treated as "guilty before proven innocent".

"There is no proof that I can see yet of any wrongdoing," he said. "There may be things that have been done, a hand on a knee. Fine, you know, 15 years ago that may have been acceptable where it's not today."

Mr Corbyn told the CBI conference that everyone needed to take a "hard look at ourselves" - not just parliament and political parties, but also businesses, universities and TV broadcasters.

"Abuse, sexism and misogyny is very far from being confined to Hollywood and the halls of power," he said.

He said organisations must make it easier for victims to speak out and get the support they have the right to expect.

This story May counters Westminster sleaze with plea for 'respect' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.