Parties must not turn a blind eye to protecting the public from perpetrators, says Jenn Selby

British politics has been like a criminal drama this week.

Boris Johnson is now the first ever Prime Minister to be convicted of a crime in office after he received a fixed penalty notice from the police for attending an illegal birthday party at Downing Street during the lockdown he enforced.

Mere days after Rishi Sunak and his billionaire family were accused of avoiding tax in the UK, the Chancellor also received a fine of between £50 and £200 – pennies for a man whose personal wealth is valued at £200 million.

A further 48 people have so far received fines for breaking the rules. Discussion has now turned to resignations, no confidence votes and leadership challenges as Conservative MPs and commentators weigh up whether any of these individuals are fit to govern. Rule-makers should not be rule-breakers.

The fines came after Conservative MP for Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Khan was parachuted into a ‘Red Wall’ seat in 2019, after the previous Tory candidate was forced to drop out due to journalists exposing his offensive social media posts.

When Khan’s victim heard that he was running for MP, he felt sick to his stomach. He told the court that he tried to warn the Conservative Party about Khan’s abuse, but said that he was not taken seriously. Khan turned the seat blue for the first time since 1932. With it, he was able to vote on sexual violence legislation despite his sordid history.

After every scandal, questions are raised about the robustness of the vetting process across the political divide. How do parties decide who is fit to represent thousands of people and to legislate on their behalf?

I have been trying to find this out for months. Labour HQ refused to comment on internal party processes. The Conservative Party has repeatedly ignored requests for clarity on the matter.

What remains clear to me, one of four survivors of rape and domestic abuse who stood against MPs with unanswered allegations of harassment and assault against them in 2019, is that none of the main parties are particularly invested in weeding out potential perpetrators.

Those men were Conservative MPs Mark Field, who grabbed a Greenpeace protestor by the neck at a dinner party; Charlie Elphicke, who was later convicted of sexually assaulting two women; Kelvin Hopkins, a Labour MP under investigation for sexual harassment (which he denies); and Ivan Lewis, who ran as an independent after being suspended by Labour for allegations of sexual harassment (which he also denies).

Our purpose was not to win – an impossible dream in a ‘first past the post’ electoral system – but to hold these individuals and the system accountable by raising public awareness. Not a single one of the candidates won their elections. Scores of other questionable candidates were dredged up by journalists and replaced during the run-up to polling day.

We launched the campaign following the scandal of ‘Pestminster’ – Parliament’s answer to #MeToo. Between 2017 and 2019, more than 20 politicians were accused of violence or harassment and allowed to keep their jobs. Yet, three years later, we still have the case of Imran Ahmad Khan.


An Endemic Problem

The problem with vetting – and taking accusations of harassment seriously – doesn’t just lie in Westminster. Local councils also suffer from candidates who behave inappropriately and have little power to sanction or remove them when they do.

A survivor of rape got in touch with me earlier this year in an effort to help her expose the misogyny and harassment she was suffering at the hands of a councillor and a Conservative council candidate – both were arrested and are under police investigation for other allegations of misconduct.

“The police put a flag on my house in the autumn after [the local politicians] shared details of my business, which is registered to my home address online,” she told me. “People were posting pictures of pitch forks underneath it, and one guy threatened to knock me out. I won’t let my children walk anywhere on their own.”

From the same town, a second woman, an anti-racism campaigner, said that she became too scared to visit her local shop after organisers of peaceful local protests had their addresses and other details posted in a Facebook group by the councillor.

“It was awful,” she said. “They were talking about who was going to bring their shotgun to the next protest.”

This isn’t a unique scenario. I’ve since heard several reports of similar occurrences in local governments across the country.

If any of these men were going for a job in healthcare, in a school, a prison, or with the elderly, thorough background checks could well stop them from being employed. So it has to be asked: why do political parties think that it is acceptable to allow people who may be barred from working with children, for example, regular access to vulnerable constituents and sensitive information?

Opaque vetting processes allow political parties to turn a blind eye to serious accusations until they are exposed. The fact is these scandals will occur time and time again unless the processes are made more rigorous and transparent. It is time political parties cared about protecting the public from perpetrators, rather than retrospectively scrambling to protect themselves from public scrutiny.

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