Lawmaker arrest spotlights UK Parliament’s sex abuse problem

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 21, 2020 file photo, the sun shines above Britain's Houses of Parliament as the country is in lockdown to help curb the spread of coronavirus, in London. The conviction of a British lawmaker for sexual assault, and the arrest of another on rape allegations, are increasing pressure on Britains political leaders to confront a political culture that has often let abuse go unchecked. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File) (Kirsty Wigglesworth, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LONDON – The weekend arrest of a British lawmaker accused of rape and the sexual assault conviction of a former legislator last week are increasing pressure on Britain’s political leaders to confront a political culture that has often let abuse go unchecked.

A Conservative Party lawmaker who has not been publicly named was arrested and interviewed over the weekend over rape and assault allegations made by a former parliamentary aide, U.K. media reported.

London’s Metropolitan Police said officers arrested a man in his 50s on Saturday on suspicion of rape and took him into custody at a London police station. He was later released on bail. The force did not name the man, in accordance with its usual rule of not naming suspects until they are charged.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said Monday that “it’s an ongoing police investigation so it’s not appropriate for me to comment.”

Opposition lawmakers called for the legislator to be suspended, but the Conservative Party said it would await the outcome of the police investigation. Suspending the politician would effectively reveal his identity.

“They are very serious allegations, and we do take those allegations very seriously,” said Conservative Chief Whip Mark Spencer, who is in charge of discipline among party lawmakers. “I think it is down to the police to do that thorough investigation, not for the Whips' Office to investigate this alleged crime. It is for the police and the authorities to do that.”

The Conservative Party is under fire over claims the alleged victim went to party officials several months ago to complain about the lawmaker’s behavior.

Last week, former Conservative lawmaker Charlie Elphicke was convicted of sexually assaulting two women — one of them a parliamentary worker — in 2007 and 2016. Elphicke, who was elected to Parliament in 2010 and stepped down before December’s national election, is due to be sentenced next month.

Britain’s political leaders have slowly begun to reckon with the culture of bullying and sexual misconduct inside the intense, insular and largely self-regulating culture of Parliament.

After revelations emerged in 2017 about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, researchers, staff members and journalists working in British politics began to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by lawmakers and parliamentary officials.

Several said political parties failed to take action when notified of alleged abuse and even discouraged victims from going to the police.

Then-Prime Minister Theresa May called the allegations shameful and promised change, but it has been slow in coming.

Two reports have painted a damning picture of workplace harassment and sexual misconduct in Parliament, a place where power, ambition and intrigue form a volatile blend.

A 2018 inquiry by High Court judge Laura Cox depicted the House of Commons as a sometimes dysfunctional workplace in which bullying and sexual harassment were “tolerated and concealed.”

A second investigation by lawyer Gemma White found last year that staff members working for lawmakers faced “an unacceptable risk of bullying and harassment,” and that some had suffered sexual and physical assaults. She said employees rarely complained, viewing it as “career suicide.”

Journalist Kate Maltby, whose allegations against former Cabinet minister Damian Green helped lead to his resignation in 2017, said things were starting to change.

She told the BBC that Elphicke's conviction was “a really significant moment that I think will change the behavior of MPs.”

“I think the willingness of complainants to go to the police and the police to take those complaints seriously, which of course hasn’t historically always been the case, is important,” Maltby said.