Labour MP spoken to after comments about colleague’s sexuality, fraud trial told
Jenny Lee Clarke claims Carolyn Harris, now MP for Swansea East, referred to her ‘dyke boots’ and made inappropriate comments.
The deputy leader of Welsh Labour was spoken to by a former MP after making comments about a colleague’s sexuality, a court has heard.
Carolyn Harris, now also the shadow minister for women and equalities, was elected as MP for the Swansea East seat in May 2015 after her predecessor, Sian James, stood down.
She held the position of office manager for Mrs James before that election, working alongside Jenny Lee Clarke, who is now on trial at Cardiff Crown Court.
Clarke, 42, was hired as Mrs Harris’s office manager when she became an MP and is accused of forging her signature to give herself a £2,000 pay rise.
Mrs Harris has insisted she did not approve the pay increase from £37,000 to £39,000 and did not sign a form reducing Clarke’s weekly hours from 40 to 37.5.
On Tuesday, the MP told the court that referring to Clarke’s footwear as “dyke boots” when they worked for Mrs James was “office banter” and not abuse.
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Mrs James said Clarke raised the comments with her in 2013.
“I was concerned because I feel that everybody should be treated in work with dignity and respect,” said Mrs James, who served as an MP from 2005 to 2015.
“It was to do with her sexuality. It was to do, specifically, with comments made in the office. Jenny had come out. Her sexuality was an entirely private matter for her.
“The sort of comments that Jenny brought to me and she was upset about were these so-called jokes about her clothing, her style of footwear.
“Generally she was starting to feel that this had gone beyond banter and it was causing her concern.”
Mrs James confirmed that Clarke, of Penllergaer, Swansea, complained that Mrs Harris would use the word “dyke”.
The former MP said she took the matter seriously and raised it with Mrs Harris at the time.
“She was very shocked,” Mrs James said. “She was very concerned that these comments which had been done within the atmosphere of the office had caused hurt to Jenny.
“Both of them were very keen that the issue was addressed.”
Mrs James said she chose to deal with the matter informally by speaking to both Mrs Harris and Clarke, and making clear “what sort of behaviour was expected” in her office.
“If this issue was raised for me again then I would be taking a more formal route which would include disciplinary action,” she told the court.
“I made it quite clear that I wasn’t going to tolerate that sort of behaviour. Everybody was happy, everybody was content. No other issues were raised.
“I felt it had been dealt with fairly and promptly.”
However, in January 2016, she met Clarke and another former colleague for lunch.
Clarke alleged that, in November 2014, Mrs Harris had pulled her hair so hard that clumps came out but later apologised and promised her a full-time position if she was elected.
Mrs James told the jury: “It wasn’t drawn to my attention at the time.
“I asked Jenny why – my words to Jenny were ‘If you had told me, I would have taken action’ – and she said that at the time I wasn’t very well.”
She said Clarke had also not raised the alleged incident as she did not want to “ruin” the last few months of her time as an MP.
“I said to her that should not have been a consideration,” Mrs James said.
The court heard that Clarke, who was dismissed by Mrs Harris in January 2016, later raised the issue with South Wales Police and the Labour Party.
Mrs Harris, during her evidence to the court, said she had never been contacted by police and described the allegation as “totally untrue” and “distressing”.
Clarke was investigated after a colleague forwarded forms highlighting her pay rise and reduction of hours to Mrs Harris in August 2015.
She is said to have written an email to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) from Mrs Harris’s account, confirming the change.
In police interview following her arrest in July 2016, Clarke said Mrs Harris had told her to increase her salary by £2,000.
“She said I was the office angel and I was worth it,” she told officers.
The trial continues.