Boris Johnson’s “anti-woke agenda” has helped fuel the rise in misogynistic behaviour in parliament, one of Labour’s most senior women MPs has said.
Margaret Hodge’s comments came after the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish for watching porn in the Commons chamber, and amid a flood of complaints about women at Westminster being groped, objectified and belittled because of their sex.
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is to convene a once-in-a-generation conference to bring parties and parliamentary authorities together to find solutions to the problem of bullying and sexual harassment. These could involve ending the arrangement where MPs directly employ their own staff, making it difficult for them to complain about their treatment.
But cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng denied there was a culture of misogyny in parliament, blaming the string of recent cases on “bad apples” among MPs.
And claims that 56 male MPs are currently under investigation for sexual misconduct were cast into doubt by the director of parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, Jo Willows, who said 2022 was following a “similar trend” to last year, when a total of 15 cases were brought against MPs.
Meanwhile, it emerged that the chair of the Commons standards committee, Chris Bryant, was himself “touched up” by male MPs when he arrived at Westminster as a young gay man in 2001.
Mr Bryant, now 60, said he did not report the incidents for fear of becoming “part of the story” but would now take a more “robust” response.
And SNP MP Anum Qaisar, who entered parliament last year, said she was advised by a female Tory MP on which of her male colleagues she should keep at a distance after one became “far too over-cavalier” towards her at a parliamentary event.
“Since I joined parliament, I’ve been taken aside by female MPs to warn me about some male MPs,” said Ms Qaisar, 29. “They say ‘Actually, Anum, you’re probably better off staying away from X, Y and Z’.”
Dame Margaret Hodge said that the upsurge in sexism complaints was partly caused by the “culture led from the top” in UK politics.
“We have had Boris Johnson creating a culture where it’s OK to break the rules and we’ve got an ‘anti-woke’ culture being driven from the top,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World This Weekend.
“That anti-woke culture has allowed this sort of behaviour to be seen as the norm.”
She said it was notable that foreign secretary Liz Truss had made no public comment, in her role as minister for women, about the issues raised by the Parish case.
Mr Kwarteng insisted that parliament was a safe place for women but said that the pressures of the job drove some MPs to step over the line.
“I don’t think there’s a culture of misogyny,” Mr Kwarteng told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“I think the problem we have is that people are working in a really intense environment. There are long hours. I think, generally, most people know their limits. They know how to act respectfully, but there are some instances where people don’t frankly act according to the highest standards.”
Mr Kwarteng it would be “excessively puritanical” to shut down parliament’s bars in the hope of ending sexual misconduct and sleaze.
“We’ve got to distinguish between some bad apples, people who behave badly, and the general environment,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme. “There are some bad apples, there are people who have acted very badly, and they should be held to account.”
But Labour leader Keir Starmer said that MPs could not hide behind the excuse of pressure and long hours to explain away behaviour that would not be acceptable in other workplaces.
“We can’t run this argument about this `high pressure culture’,” he said. “Take responsibility.
“Neil Parish chose to watch porn in Parliament. Tory MPs chose to make disparaging comments about Angela Rayner. They’ve got to take responsibility.”
Sir Keir said a “cultural change” in attitudes towards misogyny in parliament needs not only to be led by the prime minister but to be “modelled” by Boris Johnson in his own behaviour.
“There’s a cultural issue we have to get to grips with and culture change has to be led from and modelled from the top,” he told Ridge.
The government had shown repeatedly that, when a Tory colleague gets into trouble, ministers’ “first instinct is to push it off into the long grass, hide what’s happening,” said Starmer.
And he added: “That’s a political problem because the fish rots from the head.”
Setting out his plans for the first Speaker’s Conference in Westminster since 2008, Speaker Hoyle said: “I take recent allegations of bullying and sexual impropriety, comments and advances very seriously, which is why it is time we reviewed our working practices, particularly whether it is right that individual MPs are the employers of their staff.
“The question is: should someone else – or an outside body – employ the staff, as long as the MP has the right to choose them?”