The Labour party has been criticised for "showing a complete misunderstanding of the problem" by failing to implement an independent procedure for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and violence.
An emergency meeting of the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) was called on Tuesday after prominent Labour activist Bex Bailey alleged she was raped at a party event in 2011, and was then discouraged from reporting the incident as it might harm her career to do so.
Last night, the party also suspended veteran MP Kelvin Hopkins over allegations of sexual harassment involving a party activist, who said she had complained about the incident two years ago.
Following the NEC meeting an email, seen by BuzzFeed News, was sent to members of the parliamentary Labour party and staff, saying that Labour had set up a "specialist panel of the NEC to review complaints of this nature and decide whether disciplinary action is necessary", adding: "the NEC elected this panel at their meeting yesterday".
Critics have branded the announcement a "PR move" by the party, which failed to consult with its women's organisations before implementing the new policy. Women in the Labour party, including Bailey, have campaigned for years for an independent reporting process to be introduced.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Bailey said having an independent agency to report sex assaults to was "vital".
Labour MP Jess Phillips, who has a background in working with victims of sexual violence, said an independent reporting system was paramount.
“That’s something we’ve been calling for,” she told BuzzFeed News. “The women’s PLP were calling for there to be an independent sexual violence specialist brought in. I think there needs to be a complete review of how the party handles these things when they’re raised.”
As well as the new policy, the party has launched an internal investigation into the claims Bailey made, but Phillips said: “It’s not about looking for a skull or trying to sack somebody, it’s about changing the culture as such that this won’t happen again – investigating and looking for people to sack won’t change the culture.”
The new procedure has also been criticised by vice chair and women’s officer of London Young Labour Megan Corton Scott, who told BuzzFeed News: “It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem, a complete lack of respect for Bex’s testimony, and a complete lack of respect for ordinary women in the Labour party who haven’t been asked.”
She added: “Bex came out with what she said and that was really, really hard for her and she called out a culture that’s existed for a long time. It happened to Bex in 2011 and she still ran for youth rep [on Labour’s NEC] and spent the whole time she was youth rep pushing for this inside Labour party structures.
“For them to batten down the hatches it’s just insulting – they haven’t consulted any women of the Labour party: Labour Women’s Network, LabourToo, Fabian Women’s Network, any organisation that is bringing women’s voices to the front. Essentially this is a PR move.
“I’m a Labour party member and I’m disgusted – I’ve never been more angry with the Labour party than I am at the moment. I think it’s appalling. It hasn’t been dealt with appropriately at all. I understand the need to move quickly but there’s a balance to be struck between moving quickly and doing things properly. It can’t be solved in one emergency NEC meeting.”
A group of women who set up an anonymously run website, LabourToo, to expose incidents of sexual harassment within the party have also issued a statement critical of the NEC, saying: "Whilst it is commendable that the Labour party is starting to take these issues seriously, we do not believe that this new policy is sufficiently robust."
Outlining why they were unhappy, the women said: "There is still no independence in the process. Individuals are asked to call a mobile number to speak with the head of complaints, who is not named.
"One of our biggest criticisms of the current system is the lack of impartiality in the process, and we continue to believe that there needs to be third-party reporting, so that complainants receive specialist advice and support from, e.g., an independent sexual violence adviser.”
They added: “We are also concerned that this new policy may contravene the Equality Act, as highlighted by Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW) when they considered this issue previously. In particular we feel that it does not protect potential victims against subsequent victimisation if they bring a complaint forward. We would urge the party to consider updating their policies to accord with equality legislation which Labour in government was so proud to introduce.”
Claire Reynolds, a member of the management board of Labour Women's Network, the party’s most prominent women’s group, added: “What's happened to Bex has shaken the Labour party to its core, and the consequence or her bravery must resolutely be lasting change.
“Over the last year Labour has put in place a safeguarding team and developed and published a safeguarding policy, and to the party's credit it has engaged and consulted with relevant groups and experts. There is always further to go, though, and Bex has consistently championed that the reporting process be removed from elected political representatives who may know or have bias towards the individuals involved, to independent and trained third parties.
“Now we know the extent of Bex's own horrific experience, it's clearer than ever that that is exactly what needs to happen, and fast. It's also important that any party review following Bex's allegations puts her wishes as the victim at its heart. I personally feel a rigorous review of Labour's culture and systems, including introducing an external panel to report incidents to, is the route we must urgently take.”
In response, a Labour party spokesperson said: “The Labour party takes all complaints of sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination extremely seriously and any evidence that is presented to us of such misconduct will always be thoroughly investigated.
“The party has robust processes in place to deal with complaints and has been working with its affiliates to improve the procedures specifically designed to deal with complaints of sexual harassment and safeguarding issues and make it easier to report complaints.”
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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