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The Palace of Pestminster

Groping, spiked drinks and rape allegations - as a sex scandal engulfs parliament, political correspondent Pippa Crerar gives the inside story on the dark side of the Commons

In a dingy bar with dated decor and the heavy smell of beer in the air, down a dank alley in the underbelly of the Palace of Westminster, I came across my first political dinosaur. I was a new lobby correspondent and had spent the evening drinking with friends in the House of Commons before we tipped into the Sports and Social for a nightcap.

It was late, but the wood-panelled bar was still packed with young researchers and aides, along with a couple of MPs.

One of my group knew them, so we got chatting. As we drained our glasses one of the politicians - twice my age - leaned over, stroked my collarbone with his finger and propositioned me.

I'd like to say I came up with a cutting put-down, but I think I just giggled embarrassedly and beat a swift retreat. That was more than 15 years ago, but the Sports and Social has retained its reputation for alcohol-sodden nights and all the inappropriate behaviour that goes with that.

There have been other incidents over the years - the MP who tried to kiss me, the peer who sent increasingly inappropriate text messages, the minister who groped my behind on the dance floor at a party conference.

Each was batted away and the only reporting of them I did was to my journalist and researcher friends - who all had their own stories - to warn them to keep their distance.

They were borderline incidents, we told ourselves, rather than crossing the line. Clumsy passes. Drunken lunges. Misplaced hands.

The possibility of complaining further never really seemed like an option. We didn't want to be blacklisted or seen as 'troublemakers' by our (mostly male) bosses. These were, after all, the early 2000s, when the small band of women covering Westminster were referred to by some colleagues as the 'lezzy lobby'.

For many women - and some men - in Westminster, inappropriate behaviour has just become a fact of life.

One journalist told me recently she had never been sexually harassed, but then added: "I've only had the odd bit of groping."

Many become almost immune. "I don't really get shocked that easily," another confessed.

It is relief that a new generation recognises, after sharing war stories on WhatsApp, that such behaviour should be called out. But there is also a tinge of guilt: should we have done more to change the culture back then?

While much 'inappropriate' behaviour falls into a grey area - with its definition depending almost entirely on how the person on the receiving end feels - some is irrefutable.

One aide told me how an MP had put his hand on her crotch when they were alone in a room. Terrified, she did nothing, but later tried to report the incident to the parliamentary authorities, who told her there was little they could do to help.

A Westminster insider I spoke to had her drink spiked in Strangers' Bar, one of the most popular drinking-holes on the estate, earlier this year.

After just a couple of drinks she blanked out and has no memory of the rest of the night. When she reported the incident to police the following day, they told her she was 'not the first person' whose drink had been spiked at Westminster.

"A doctor told me it was a classic date-rape drug. I don't know why it happened to me, but it has totally changed how I feel about the place," she said.

There are rumours flying around parliament about a staff member being pinned down by an MP on a foreign trip and one particularly traumatic story of a former Tory minister raping a researcher (both are unsubstantiated).

At the heart of the problem at Westminster is power: some people (usually men) have a lot of it; others (often, though not always, women) don't.

An experienced, or confident, or powerful woman may feel able to dismiss unwelcome advances as inappropriate behaviour - and even reprimand the man responsible. But a young journalist, or researcher, or even a new MP whose future career may depend on the perpetrator, might not.

It is difficult to establish the scale of the problem - the anecdotal evidence suggests dozens of MPs could be culpable, with many of them repeat offenders - but no political party has been immune.

The Lib-Dems were embroiled in a scandal after senior peer Lord Rennard was publicly accused of sexual harassment, which he has denied, by four women in 2013.

The Tories have hit the headlines in recent days with international trade minister Mark Garnier facing a Cabinet Office investigation for allegedly making an aide buy sex toys for him and former minister Stephen Crabb sending a young woman sexually explicit messages.

Labour suspended MP Jared O'Mara last week after revelations emerged about sexist remarks he made on social media. Women members have set up their own website, LabourToo, to collect anecdotes.

The party was further shaken this week when a senior activist, Bex Bailey, revealed she had been raped at a Labour event - and was warned off reporting the incident by senior party figures.

So, what next? Speaker John Bercow has made it clear he expects the political parties, rather than the Commons authorities, to lead the crackdown on sexual harassment.

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom has pledged to establish a new independent grievance procedure. Under the existing system, MPs are the legal bosses of their staff, who are not covered by the established system, including HR support, for other parliamentary employees. Yet, few practical proposals have come forward for changing the culture at Westminster to make sure perpetrators no longer think they are untouchable.

Some have called for more victims to speak out. But Labour MP Jess Phillips said: "It is not okay for any of us to pressure victims to come forward... as if it is, somehow, the victim's sole responsibility to get abusers off the street. It is not. Perpetrators are always responsible."

Broadcaster Tom Bradby suggested last week that it was time for men to do their bit. "It shouldn't just be women raging against the abusers and the excusers, but men, too. In fact, perhaps it should be especially men," he said.

Sophie Walker, a former political journalist who now heads the Women's Equality Party, believes the problem is more intractable. "There's no silver bullet - the problem is huge and it's systemic," she said.

"The reason we haven't fixed it is that every time we bump up against it, people rush around saying, 'What's the one thing we can do to solve this?' rather than putting in the painstaking work of actually achieving real change."

There remains concerns that the most serious allegations risk being overshadowed by gossip and tittle-tattle from around SW1.

A list of Tory 'sex pest' MPs is currently doing the rounds online - even though the document appears to conflate serious allegations with 'inappropriate' behaviour and, in several cases, completely consensual activity.

One senior Westminster figure said: "The problem with concentrating on the low-grade stuff, or simply the salacious stuff, is that it detracts from the bigger picture, the very serious allegations of sexual harassment and abuse that do exist."

Tory MP Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, has warned that Westminster 'navel-gazing' risks taking attention away from the fact ordinary women face harassment every day.

"There will be victims who haven't spoken out yet, watching what happens to women who do," said journalist Gaby Hinsliff. "It really matters that everyone in politics gets this right."

Amid all the noise at Westminster about sexual harassment, it is the voices of the genuine victims that risk being drowned out.

Pippa Crerar is political correspondent of the London Evening Standard

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