OPINION - Emily Sheffield: How can Parliament tackle sexual violence when Pestminster MPs roam free?

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·6-min read
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 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

It was only in 1991 that the House of Lords ruled that marital rape was illegal. This was just one of the many facts I needed reminding of and found in barrister Harriet Johnson’s compelling and forensically written book Enough: the Violence Against Women and How to End It. I thought as I read it that we should probably find comfort in the huge steps taken since then to protect us from violence; particularly sexual violence, misogyny and stereotyping. Especially regarding the lazy tropes centred on women and their “availability” for sex. And yet…

For those of you who have been distracted by other news, let me recount what’s happened in Westminster this week: a Tory MP was accused of watching porn in the House of Commons — on multiple occasions and during a debate. Meanwhile, his colleagues were busy smearing Angela Rayner, below, suggesting she used Basic Instinct moves to distract Boris Johnson at PMQs. A female Labour MP has accused a member of the shadow Cabinet of making deeply sexist comments towards her, and this came amid reports that 56 MPs, including Cabinet ministers, face allegations of sexual misconduct.

At a meeting of Tory MPs with Chief Whip Chris Heaton-Harris on the topic of pornography, 14 MPs got up to tell their ‘shocking’ experiences of sexism and misogyny. Then female lobby reporters tweeted their fury on the Rayner story. Kate McCann wrote: “Nearly every single one of us has experienced something like this in the course of our jobs — often repeatedly — and we are utterly, utterly sick of it.”

This is in the building where laws meant to protect us are made. We hear repeatedly how a “culture change” is needed there. Yesterday it was Keir Starmer saying it again. Boris is also raging at the guilty parties. Except this is five years after the so-called “Pest-minster” scandals. We have spent the last year digesting a long list of horrors within the Met including the murder of Sarah Everard. And how rape convictions are falling, not rising. And how police officers shared pictures of murdered women.

I could carry on, but this piece will turn into a dizzying list of horrible failings. Harriet Johnson uses lists far more effectively in her slim but powerful manifesto. She fills pages with vital facts to arm ourselves with so we can destroy lazy arguments. And then she lists what can and should be done to tackle root problems. An example: “A fundamental part of the change to end the culture of violence against women is to properly train police officers to investigate it: sensitivity training, the focus should be on the perpetrator not the victim, barriers to reporting.” And so on. It’s brilliant, it’s comprehensive, buy it. Give it to your male friends.

But the quote I warm to most is, “The culture you get, is the behaviour you tolerate.” I’ve heard lots of people stress that this week’s behaviour from politicians is poisoning our politics, that women will be put off entering Westminster, and our democracy will suffer. Yes. Of course.

However, I want to spell it out more clearly: how can we trust that this Government possesses the political will to revolutionise a societal landscape where women are routinely murdered by men, beaten, bruised and abducted and the rape conviction rate stands at one per cent if they are incapable of stamping out their own sexist culture? How can we trust politicians when they call for zero tolerance of misogyny in our police force when they don’t apply zero tolerance to themselves? Our Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, didn’t even know what misogyny meant even as he said he didn’t think we should make it a hate crime.

We found out on Wednesday that a man has been arrested for the murder and abduction of a young woman. We think of Sarah Everard. And Sabina Nessa beaten to death in a “sadistic and sexually motivated attack”. This is the fatal, brutal sharp end of allowing misogynistic attitudes to persist. An average of two women a week in England and Wales are killed by their partners or ex-partners. And 1.6 million women a year are victims of domestic violence. This February, we learnt that serving officers in Charing Cross thought it was acceptable to circulate this message on WhatsApp: “Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier to use a knife.”

Need I say more? Politicians can’t just say “enough”. Or blame the culture and late-night drinking in Westminster bars. They need to act on this. Not tolerate it.

It’s my debut on my friend Tom’s TV show ... no pressure!

Tonight, I make my first appearance on TalkTV’s new 7pm show, The News Desk, with my colleague and the show’s anchor, Tom Newton Dunn. We’ve been doing radio and telly together for six years: shivering uncontrollably in freezing temperatures outside Buckingham Palace for Sky News, trying not to row about Brexit doing the late-night paper reviews. Also at Sky, we’ve not panicked when our presenter left the set for aeons because of a coughing fit. We slipped in Matt Hancock jokes as the clock ticked past midnight to stay awake. I’ve made multiple appearances on his Times Radio show. And as a broadcaster, I stay calm. I’ve dialled into LBC standing in the street and first appeared on Newsnight with FaceTime on a weak line from abroad, blind to what was going on in the studio. But this time I’m nervous, because it’s Tom’s big launch week. And who wants to let their friend down? The pressure is on…

The papers no one wants to get... on stage

I’ve been in the room when my best friend received an out-of-the-blue email no one ever wants: his ex-wife said she was going to try to take full custody of their kids. It proved to be an empty threat by an unhappy person, but I watched as the life drained from his face and he slumped in horror onto a chair. Actress Olivia Wilde was just served custody papers on stage in Vegas from her ex-partner Jason Sudeikis. It’s unclear who is to blame but no one, however bitter the separation, deserves to be delivered documents that carry within them that kind of devastating emotional force when you are performing live on stage. As a true professional, she carried on.

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