May hits out at ‘damaging’ online gossip as MP sleaze probe grows

Amber Rudd said she wanted the sacking of MPs to be considered in an overhaul of anti-harassment procedures. Picture:  PA
Amber Rudd said she wanted the sacking of MPs to be considered in an overhaul of anti-harassment procedures. Picture: PA
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Theresa May will today call for a new “culture of respect” in politics after a weekend of fresh sexual harassment allegations which rocked Holyrood and Westminster.

The Prime Minister is to meet other party leaders today in an effort find a way forward as the crisis shows little sign of abating. Home Secretary Amber Rudd suggested that men found guilty of sexual harassment could be kicked out of the Commons under a tough new crackdown.

For too long the powerful have been able to abuse their power, and their victims have not felt able to speak out

THERESA MAY

A weekend of shock revelations saw the Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon come forward to claim she was sexually assaulted by a senior male colleague, but received no help from the party after complaining.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s children’s minister Mark McDonald was forced to resign from the government after revealing that some of his past conduct towards women may have been taken the wrong way. His SNP colleague Willie Coffey, the Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley MSP, was also reportedly subject of a Holyrood complaint six months ago which has now been resolved.

Damian Green, First Secretary of State and Cabinet Office minister, has also denied claims that pornography was found on his computer nine years ago.

Conservative MP Chris Pincher last night joined the growing list under investigation.

A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Pincher had “voluntarily stood down” from the Whips’ Office and referred himself to the party’s ­complaints procedure and the police following allegations over his ­behaviour.

He has been accused of making an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower and Conservative activist Alex Story.

Mr Story wrote that Mr Pincher came across as a “pound shop Harvey Weinstein”.

The Prime Minister will set out plans to push for a new cross-­party agreement to stamp out inappropriate behaviour in Parliament in a speech to the CBI today.

She will say: “We need to establish a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life.

“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.”

She will add: “Let me be very frank – political parties have not always got this right in the past. But I am determined to get it right for the future.”

Today’s meeting of party leaders convened by Mrs May will seek to discuss establishing a new “common, robust and independent grievance procedure” for Parliament.

Mrs May added: “Women and men should be able to work free from the threat or fear of harassment, bullying or intimidation.

“But for too long the powerful have been able to abuse their power and their victims have not felt able to speak out.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd predicted the wave of allegations sweeping Westminster would lead to a positive “clear-out”, which would leave Parliament and the government in better shape. Ms Rudd said she wanted the sanction of sacking MPs to be considered as part of a major overhaul of anti-harassment procedures at Westminster.

“I think that that is one of the things that I would encourage the review to look at. It may be the case, it may not,” she said.

“It is wrong for us to have a knee-jerk reaction based on the past week.

“I think what we need to do is look at the whole issue. There needs to be a procedure put in place as soon as possible.”

Ms Rudd described as “disgusting” an incident in which former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon is alleged to have lunged at a journalist and tried to kiss her on the lips.

The comments came after Jane Merrick alleged in The Observer that the incident took place after a 2003 lunch when she was a 29-year-old junior political reporter.

Asked if such behaviour was disgusting, Ms Rudd added: “Completely disgusting. Absolutely wrong. And it was right that he has stepped down.”

Ms Lennon, 36, said she was groped at a social event four years ago in front of a room full of people.

She is the most senior UK politician to claim she has been a victim of a sexual assault since the scandal began to emerge in the past fortnight.

“It happened at a Labour Party social event in 2013 before I was an MSP. It was a private function, a room full of people,” she told a Sunday newspaper. A man, who was a senior figure in the party, touched me in a manner that some would say is ‘handsy’.

“He was sitting next to me when he groped me, in full view of other people.”

She was told at the time it was her fault for “getting him all excited”.

“A few days later, I ran into another man who had seen what happened and he made a jokey reference to it.

“The underlying message was clear: the whole thing was to be treated as a joke.”

Ms Lennon has become the third member of Labour to claim a lack of help from the party, following allegations by Bex Bailey and Ava Etemadzadeh last week.

The claims against Mr Coffey were made by a woman who worked for Holyrood’s finance committee which the MSP sits on, a Sunday newspaper reported, and concerned “inappropriate language and unsolicited attention”.

A Holyrood spokesman said an MSP was spoken to by committee convenor Bruce Crawford.

A spokesman for Mr Coffey said he “does not recognise the claims” and was not informed by Holyrood chiefs that a formal complaint had been made.

Mr McDonald resigned on Saturday night after it emerged he was one of two people being investigated by the SNP over harassment claims.

“It has been brought to my attention that some of my previous actions have been considered to be inappropriate,” he said.

The Aberdeen Donside MSP said he accepted that his attempts to be “humorous or friendly” may have made others “uncomfortable or led them to question my intentions”.

The First Minister said Mr McDonald had taken the “right action” in recognising he could not continue as a minister.

At Westminster, three more Tory MPs are to have allegations against them looked into by officials.

It emerged that former Conservative Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb has been referred for investigation under the party’s new code of conduct.

Former Tory health minister Dan Poulter has also been referred to his party’s disciplinary committee over concerns about his behaviour, along with fellow MP Daniel Kawczynski.