The spectre of the Westminster sex scandal hung over today’s PMQs. In her opening words, Theresa May immediately raised the issue, revealing that she had written to all party leaders inviting them to a meeting early next week to “discuss a common, transparent, independent grievance procedure for all those working in Parliament.” (Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP’s Ian Blackford both accepted the offer.)
Most MPs, however, avoided the subject, with the only notable contribution coming from Labour’s Lisa Nandy. The former shadow energy secretary recalled that she warned May (then home secretary) three years ago that whips “had used information about sexual abuse to demand loyalty from MPs” (in the 1970s). As the House fell silent, she dramatically added: “I brought that information to her in this House and warned her that unless real action was taken we risked repeating those injustices. On three occasions I asked her to act and on three occasions she did not … Will she finally take concrete action to tackle this?” (Nandy subsequently tweeted her original 2014 question.)
May replied: “I am very clear that the whips office – I hope this goes for all whips offices, across this House – should make clear to people that if there are any sexual abuse allegations of a criminal nature that they should go to the police. It is not appropriate for those to be dealt with whips offices”. This answer, however, did not address instances of non-criminal, but unacceptable, behaviour. May added that she would “look at the questions that she [Nandy] raised” (thus not immediately denying the charge of inaction).
Nandy’s questioning revealed how politically treacherous the scandal could become for May. Damian Green, the First Secretary of State, who has been accused of sexual harassment by Conservative activist and art critic Kate Maltby, was sat two places away from the Prime Minister.
Jeremy Corbyn, who emphasised the need for “all parties to have robust procedures in place to protect and support victims” (Labour activist Bex Bailey has said that she was discouraged by her party from reporting an alleged rape in 2011), devoted his six questions to tax. He revealed that more than 900 business jets had been imported into the Isle of Man in an apparent evasion scheme.
May replied that the government had “announced or implemented over 75 measures since 2010 to tackle avoidance and evasion” and emphasised that HMRC was taking further action. Corbyn retorted that 8,000 HMRC jobs had been cut (ignoring the 5,000 extra staff that the government yesterday announced would be hired to aid Brexit).
The exchange than descended into an opaque comparison of party voting records, with neither leader managing to achieve superiority. Corbyn, however, revealed statistics showing the “super rich” were paying less in tax (though he failed to define who this group were). May replied that the top 1 per cent were, in fact, paying 28 per cent of all tax – “the highest percentage ever under any government” – though one might add that the rich are paying more largely because they are earning more (in 2013, the top rate of income tax was reduced from 50 per cent to 45 per cent). Despite Corbyn’s best efforts, however, there is only one grim subject that Westminster will be discussing after today’s PMQs.