Dani Garavelli: Holyrood has same sexism issues as Westminster

Late sittings are said to have become more common with pressure to attend evening receptions. Picture: 'Phil Wilkinson
Late sittings are said to have become more common with pressure to attend evening receptions. Picture: 'Phil Wilkinson
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So now we know. Despite promises that Holyrood would be a better, less macho, parliament, it has the same problems with sexism and sexual harassment as Westminster. All the measures that were put in place – the family-friendly working hours, the semicircular debating chamber, the absence of a drinking culture – have not prevented men (and it is mostly men) from abusing their positions.

The survey, set up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and completed by more than 1,000 MSPs, their employees and parliamentary staff, is damning. One in five (exactly the same proportion as in the House of Commons) said they had experienced sexist behaviour or sexual harassment, with 45 per cent identifying the perpetrator as an MSP. The most common complaints were sexist remarks and “looks, leers, comments or gestures of a sexual nature”, but 5 per cent spoke of unwanted physical contact, including hugging, kissing and groping.

The survey also revealed a confusion around reporting mechanisms and a lack of faith that any action would be taken. Some respondents said they had no idea what to do when they witnessed inappropriate behaviour (and so did nothing), while others found existing systems off-putting and inadequate.

Although the results are depressing, the warning signs were always there. Back in November, just as the #MeToo campaign was taking off, human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar said women at all levels of the Scottish parliament had spoken to him of incidents from cyberstalking to physical assault and described it as a “ticking time bomb”.

Others pointed to the gender imbalance, with 65 per cent of MSPs and the majority of senior staff still men, and suggested that, until more women were in positions of power, predatory behaviour would continue to be endemic.

Allegations against a series of Westminster MPs, including Damian Green, led to a flurry of activity at Holyrood. Two women were elected on to the previously all-male corporate body (after two men stepped down to make way for them), a new helpline was set up and a joint working group was formed to look at what could be done to improve the complaints procedure and change the wider culture.

Since then, however, the sense of urgency has subsided. The carrying out of the survey allowed everything else to be put on hold, with the result that new allegations appear to have been dealt with as unsatisfactorily as the old ones.

Look at what has happened with SNP MSP, Mark McDonald. He stood down as childcare and early years minister after admitting he had caused “considerable distress” to a woman. He was later suspended from the party after “new information” emerged, but he received a “resettlement grant” of more than £7,000 for the loss of his ministerial post and is still earning his MSP’s salary despite his absence from Holyrood.

Of course, due process must be allowed to take place. But there is a murkiness around the SNP investigation that saps public confidence. Four months on, it is still unclear what the allegations are, what procedures are being followed and what sanctions could be brought to bear. Nor has the handling of allegations against MSP Alex Rowley, who stepped down as interim leader of Scottish Labour after being accused of stalking an ex-partner and was later suspended, provided any reassurance that other parties’ procedures are any more robust.

There are suggestions too that the family-friendly policies which were supposed to create a more progressive workplace have been subject to “slippage”. Late sittings are said to have become more common, with MSPs and staff also expected to attend evening receptions (at which alcohol is served).

The desire for change appears to be there (even if the mechanism for delivering it is not yet clear). Last week, after the survey results were published, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “No-one should be subject[ed] to harassment or sexist behaviour of any kind in their work or personal life, and our national parliament should set a positive example as a place of work with the highest standards of behaviour,” while former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, one of the two women on the corporate body, said the “over-arching aim” must be to create a culture which prevents sexual harassment and sexist behaviour from happening in the first place. But no big institutions have yet discovered a magic bullet for ridding the workplace of sexual harassment, so there is no model for Holyrood to emulate.

It is up to the joint working group to chart a way forward. Comprised of a good cross-section of people – MSPs, MSP staff, civil servants and Emma Ritch, executive director of the feminist organisation Engender – it will nevertheless have its work cut out.

One tough question it will have to ask is: why are political parties – which are so vulnerable to reputational damage – still tasked with investigating their own MSPs and other employees? Shouldn’t there be an independent complaints process?

Another is how to address sexual harassment in a workplace that lacks the conventional structures and hierarchy. Where, in most companies, workers make their way through the ranks, learning the rules of engagement along the way, many MSPs suddenly find themselves with staff to manage (while continuing to see themselves as representatives or campaigners rather than employers). The importance of complying with and enforcing procedures needs to be impressed upon them.

Finally, given the widespread dissatisfaction with the existing reporting mechanisms, it will be important to talk to those who have used them (or decided against using them) to establish what aspects they found intimidating. In order for those processes to be effective, workers will have to be convinced that raising a complaint will not lead to them being written off as trouble-makers.

The joint working group has already outlined four key strands of work. These include: improved reporting procedures and policies; a comprehensive programme of education and development for those working within the Parliament and within regional and constituency offices; and specific training for those who manage people.

That all sounds impressive. But, important though it is not to lose momentum, those tasked with transforming Holyrood should be wary of introducing untested measures just to be seen to be doing something. A box may be ticked and the problem assumed to have gone away when, in fact, it’s still present, festering under the surface.

Training programmes may have a role to play (though most perpetrators already know what’s acceptable and what is not), as may a new code of conduct, but the key to eradicating sexual harassment lies less with the behaviour of individuals than with the institutionalised sexism that gives them their sense of entitlement. Unless you can find a way to alter the underlying power structures – the dynamics of who is valued and who is not – then everything else you do is merely window-dressing.