Metropolitan Police: Misogyny and Sexual Harassment — [Judith Cummins in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8th March 2022.

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Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 9:30 am, 8th March 2022

Before I call Sarah Olney to move the motion, I remind hon. Members not to make references, beyond passing factual references, to cases that are live before the courts.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins. I extend my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate, especially today, on International Women’s Day. The last time I made a speech in Parliament to mark International Women’s Day, I was the only female Liberal Democrat MP. Five years later, I find myself a proud member of a party that is, as of December 2021, 70% female. It is my profound belief that stronger female representation in all of our organisations and institutions can improve the lives of women and girls everywhere, and it is that belief, above all else, that propelled me along the path that led to Parliament.

When I was re-elected as the Member for Richmond Park in December 2019, it was a particular pleasure to find that women were in positions of responsibility at every level in the police force. My local borough inspectors in both Kingston and Richmond have at various times been women. The commander of the local basic command unit and her predecessor are women. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan police was a woman. The Home Secretary is a woman. How could my part of London not be a utopia of safety and justice for women? There have, however, been several events over the last year that have caused many of my constituents to be concerned about police officers’ attitudes towards women, and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about that.

Our debate today will be haunted by the memory of Sarah Everard, who was killed by PC Wayne Couzens of the Metropolitan police just over a year ago, on 3 March 2021. Women across London and beyond experienced the news of her disappearance and the discovery of her body with a sense of real dread and fear. I felt it very personally, because the address where Sarah said her final goodbye to her friends was only a few streets away from where I used to live, and I would have pushed my baby daughter’s pram along the route where my namesake walked her last walk. Like many other women on that night and many others, she was just walking home. Thousands of women who did not know Sarah felt real grief at the news that her body had been found. Everything that we had heard about the case seemed to speak to our very deepest fears.

But then something even worse happened. Even now, 12 months later, I can still recall how terrifying it was to discover that the man who had been arrested in connection with her murder was a serving Metropolitan police officer. A person who was employed to keep us safe and enforce the law, and whom we ought to be able to trust, had betrayed that trust in the worst possible way and committed an act of violence against a defenceless woman.

A few days after the arrest, Reclaim These Streets wanted to organise a vigil for Sarah Everard. They approached Lambeth police but were refused permission. A gathering took place anyway; it was attended by police, and it proceeded in an orderly fashion until the early evening, when speeches started to be made from the bandstand and crowds grew denser. A number of arrests were made, and pictures of women being handcuffed while being held down by police spread on social media. For many women, myself included, it looked like an appallingly heavy-handed response to a peaceful vigil. It felt like an insult, on top of an already grievous injury, that the colleagues of the man arrested for murdering a woman were now using force to prevent other women from gathering together to pay tribute to her.

The subsequent report into the police’s conduct by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services exonerated the police while criticising politicians and others for expressing their opinions on what had happened. The 60-page report made only the most passing reference to the fact that the man arrested for the incident that sparked the vigil was a police officer; its analysis of the factors that contributed to the event does not include that fact. The report states that public confidence in the police will have been undermined not by the violent actions of a police officer but by “media coverage” and “uninformed commentary” on social media. I remember being furious at the report, not just at its complete failure to reflect the full context of the vigil, but at its implication that those critical of the police response—and I was certainly one of them—were more responsible for undermining trust in the police than was the fact that one of their number had been arrested for murder.

The sense that the police were not acknowledging the implications of the fact that Sarah’s murderer was a police officer was compounded by messaging from the Met police about women’s safety, following the conviction and sentencing of Wayne Couzens in September 2021. It advised women who were unsure whether a police officer intended to harm them that they could flag down a bus or shout to a passer-by for assistance. It felt not only as though the Met was accepting that it was the norm for women to fear the police, but as though it was not going to take any responsibility for resolving that.

That episode has damaged public confidence in the Met, but we also know that Wayne Couzens is not the only police officer to have committed violence against women. Freedom of information data shows that 2,000 accusations of sexual misconduct, including rape, have been made against Met police officers over the past four years. Only a third of officers who were found guilty have been dismissed. We also know that Couzens was previously convicted of indecent exposure and regularly shared grossly offensive messages over WhatsApp with other police officers. That did not trigger concerns about his conduct.

However, PC Couzens is not the only officer guilty of sharing disturbing messages on social media platforms. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, sisters from north London, went missing in June 2020. Their bodies were eventually found by family members in a nearby park after police showed little interest in investigating. Two police officers were subsequently jailed for photographing the women’s bodies and sharing the photos on WhatsApp, including in a group of 41 police officers. The court released details of how the images had been altered and the accompanying messages, but I will not repeat them here.

A recent Independent Office for Police Conduct report on behaviour at Charing Cross police station revealed

“a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’, sexual harassment and misogyny.”

One officer had sent a WhatsApp message to a female colleague, saying:

“I would happily rape you”.

Another bragged about how he had hit his girlfriend, saying:

“It makes them love you more.”

Women officers were belittled and ostracised if they spoke out about this behaviour.

Women fear that an internal culture of misogyny might also affect how police treat members of the public. I have had women get in touch with me to share their experiences of having complaints of stalking and harassment dismissed—even laughed at—by Metropolitan police officers, leaving them feeling powerless and abandoned, and as though the behaviour of their perpetrators had been normalised.

I am grateful to the superintendent of our local basic command unit for taking time to give me her perspective on the issue. She reports a great deal of frustration among police officers that there is so much public attention on and criticism of the police in relation to those events, when the majority of police officers are dedicated, law-abiding and committed to helping their communities. Politicians, particularly Members of Parliament, can relate strongly to the feeling that the damaging actions of a small minority can lead to a disproportionate erosion of public trust in a collection of people, but there is a special responsibility on both law makers and law enforcers to ensure that they uphold the law, in public and in private, and that when there is a visible breach, adequate action is taken swiftly and effectively to denounce the polluting behaviour and to restore public trust.

Public trust is earned; it is not a given. To have it, we must constantly work to uphold the values that are expected of us—both police officers and politicians. Events as horrifying and disturbing as the instances of misogyny described in this speech will, rightly, lead to a large public response. The events of the last year are, after all, not just minor misdemeanours, and I believe that the public’s questioning of the police is valid, even if the perceived scale of damaging attitudes among officers is disproportionate.

That is not to say that public trust has been damaged beyond repair. Baroness Louise Casey is leading an independent review of culture and standards in the Met, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard. The review offers the Met an opportunity to identify areas in which there is a need for cultural change and to inform a dedicated strategy to tackle misogyny. To ensure that damaging attitudes are given appropriate recognition, I urge that the review’s terms of reference be expanded to make specific reference to misogyny, alongside racism and homophobia.

Our police officers need our trust, and the vast majority deserve it. They have a unique job to do, which requires them to put themselves in harm’s way without a second thought. I am grateful for the excellent job that so many of them do without recognition or appreciation. They have been badly let down by their colleagues, and I recognise that many of them feel as horrified as I do about what has been revealed over the past year.

The recent IOPC report on Charing Cross revealed a number of factors that contributed to the toxic culture it identified. Those included the fact that officers were often isolated and lacked supervision, and that there was widespread acting up, with officers taking on unofficial promotions. That meant that inappropriate behaviours or attitudes were not properly challenged at the right time, and so they became normalised. That strongly suggests that the lack of appropriately experienced or trained police officers has been a contributory factor in allowing negative behaviours to flourish unchecked, which leads back to the dramatic cuts to policing in the capital over the past decade. We know that the Met has been promised more officers, but reports suggest that recruitment is slow and new, inexperienced officers will not change the picture overnight.

The most high-profile new recruit will be the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I look forward to a speedy appointment. If I could end this speech with one ask, it would be that they pay attention to the findings of the IOPC report and to the review by Baroness Casey, and think hard about how to create a culture that reinforces respectful behaviour at all levels, deals robustly with evidence of misogynistic, racist and homophobic attitudes, and, above all, understands the impact that violent or disrespectful behaviour by police officers, even when it is by only a very small proportion, has on their relationship with the public.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 9:40 am, 8th March 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and to take part in this debate, which is the first debate in the House of Commons on International Women’s Day. I pay tribute to Sarah Olney for securing such an important and relevant debate on this day, about an issue that touches the hearts of many of our constituents and of every single Member of Parliament—if it does not, it should.

It is International Women’s Day, Mrs Cummins, so I hope you can forgive me for referring to some of the policewomen in my own constituency. In Hampshire, we are blessed with a wide range of talented police officers who are women, who play an enormous part in tackling the issue that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has brought before us today. They include Olivia Pinkney, who is now chief constable; Karen McManus, who is another very senior officer; Maggie Blyth, who we were fortunate to have in Hampshire and who I believe is now at the Met; and the astonishingly energetic Donna Jones, who is our police and crime commissioner. In Hampshire we are fortunate to have some formidable women helping to lead on these issues, along with a lot of female Members of Parliament. That is important, as I will come to later, because diversity in the police force is crucial.

As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, we are 12 months on from the murder of Sarah Everard, but over that time we have seen a series of enormously worrying and public allegations of systemic misogyny in the Met police area, and not only in relation to the murder of Sarah Everard. I echo the hon. Lady’s comment that the police officers involved in such behaviour and thinking are in the minority, but even so they erode public trust, which is crucial to UK policing. That is why she is right to bring this debate before the House today, and it is right that the Government are taking the matter so seriously.

This is not just about the murder of Sarah Everard, but the policing of the vigil on Clapham common. I echo the hon. Lady’s comments; to me, that policing felt heavy handed. People were there out of frustration and devastation at such a horrific murder, and they wanted to be able to express that publicly. The Met police did not seem to get their response right, and that was worrying. There have also been the murders of Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Sabina Nessa, and, most recently, the IOPC report into the behaviour of officers at Charing Cross police station. One of those elements might have been an aberration, but the series of them shows that there is a systemic problem. I was pleased to see the Government recognise that in establishing the inquiry. We should not forget the reports of more than 600 allegations of sexual misconduct by Met police officers. That systemic problem seems to run deep.

In trying to ensure we understand how we can re-establish trust in the police, the Government’s response has been important. The Home Secretary is right to commission a report into the failings of policing in the Met, but the Government’s response has to go wider than that if we are to tackle the problem at its root cause. I was pleased to see the relaunch of the violence against women and girls strategy in the summer. That will have an impact on the way in which violence against women and girls is dealt with throughout Government policy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this debate, can update the House on how she will ensure that the VAWG strategy really does directly tackle the issues that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has brought up in the debate. If we cannot have faith and trust in enforcement of the law as it stands, the issues that we face here as legislators are all the greater.

I hope that the Minister, when she responds to the debate, can also cover where we are on trying to deal with some of the root causes of the problem that necessitates this debate. I am thinking particularly of the roll-out of mandatory relationships and sex education in our schools. That has been woefully delayed as a result of many issues, including the need to ensure that schools are ready, but also the delays caused by the pandemic. If we are truly to tackle the horrific issues and behaviour under discussion and the normalisation of misogynistic behaviour, we have to get sex and relationships education ingrained in our schools and ingrained in the teaching of every single school-age child.

I hope that the Minister can also address a couple of other issues, because if we are to be able to tackle the issues that have been outlined in the Met, we have to tackle the issues for police forces UK-wide. I have no reason not to believe—in fact, there is a great deal of evidence, including in my own local police force in Hampshire, to suggest—that misogyny is prevalent. Tribunal cases are regularly brought against officers. Indeed, sexual misconduct and the abusing of power are also prevalent, not only in the Met police but on a much wider level.

I therefore hope that the Minister can touch on what is being done in police forces throughout the country to address this cultural problem, which perhaps reflects society more widely; how this issue is being addressed, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have with the recruitment of 20,000 new officers into our police forces in the UK; how we are ensuring that the diversity of those officers can drive the change that hon. Members here today are looking for; and the fact that, through disciplinary proceedings—I have to say that my local newspaper, the Basingstoke Gazette, has been formidable in its pursuance of transparency in disciplinary proceedings—we are ensuring that there is nowhere to hide for the perpetrators of misogynistic behaviour in any of our police forces around the country. Transparency matters, because sunlight is the greatest form of disinfectant. We have to ensure that, if that minority of officers do transgress, they know not only that disciplinary proceedings will be undertaken but that they will be held to account publicly as members of a public service.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree 9:48 am, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mrs Cummins. Happy International Women’s Day.

I start by paying tribute to Sarah Olney for calling this hugely important debate. I said in the Chamber only last week that it is deeply troubling that we are here discussing yet again our inability as a society to protect 50% of our population from harassment and sexual assault, from rape and from murder. I went on to say that we should be talking about closing the gender pay gap, delivering for working-class women in low-paid sectors such as social care, bettering access to affordable childcare for young mothers, and much more. Now, we are even in Westminster Hall this morning talking about protecting women from those whose job it is to keep us safe. Let that sink in—from those whose job it is to keep us safe.

The retort of the Metropolitan police about a few rotten apples demonstrates that the rot is far more widespread, so let us say it here today clearly: there exists a culture of misogyny in the Metropolitan police. That statement is reinforced in great detail by the Operation Hotton learning report, which states:

“The team at Charing Cross where we identified these problems has now been disbanded, yet we have seen evidence of this behaviour in subsequent investigations. We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”

It is imperative that the Metropolitan Police Service sheds its natural instinct immediately to deflect, play down or dismiss the problems that have besieged it, which, among other organisational problems, hastened the resignation of the former commissioner. That is undoubtedly a wider problem that seems to be prevalent across the police force, with a culture of fear in “reporting your own”. The learning report touches on that:

“A reason for not reporting such behaviour was a lack of confidence that it would be dealt with effectively and fear of repercussions.”

Yesterday, thanks to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips, I met the families of murder victims of domestic abuse. What was clear from meeting those family members is that we have such a long way to go to ensure that women are treated fairly and that their voices are heard. Yesterday, I mentioned recent documentaries about the victims of the Yorkshire ripper and how the police at the time reported on victims in terms of innocent versus guilty, as if any woman could be guilty and should be murdered by a random stranger. That is absolutely appalling.

When a serving police officer can claim to smack his partner, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park mentioned, and then joke with a colleague that such a grotesque act

“makes them love you more”, we have real problems. Police officers deal with domestic abuse and violence against women and girls almost daily. Given that in this country we are meant to police by consent, how on earth can women have faith in those with the power to protect them if they hold views such as those exposed by Operation Hotton as widespread and if, even worse, those views are not taken seriously by the leadership of the Metropolitan police? What a sorry state of affairs.

On International Women’s Day, I sincerely hope the Minister will wholeheartedly commit without delay to hold the Metropolitan police accountable for getting rid of the stain of misogyny that is ingrained in its fabric. Today and every day we owe that to women everywhere.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:52 am, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mrs Cummins, and I associate myself with hon. Members who are present to support the debate on International Women’s Day. Mrs Miller was right that such behaviour is, unfortunately, not specific to the Met but is found across the United Kingdom. As I often do, I will give a wee flavour of an aspect of it from back home in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate Sarah Olney on introducing the debate. I also thank her for the opportunity to make a contribution. I support all the right hon. and hon. Members, colleagues and friends who are here.

At the outset, it is important to give context to the debate’s title. My thoughts are with the family of Sarah Everard, who still mourn her terrible loss and all the things that happened at that time. Nobody was unmoved by the awfulness of it, by how it happened and that it should be a police officer who carried out that most horrific and terrible crime. My lasting memory is of the photograph where she was stopped in the street by him and had no reason to believe there was any threat, as he was a police officer. Unfortunately, the circumstances proved that wrong. Today’s debate is about trying to stop that.

As a father and grandfather, I pause to question whether I have instilled in my sons respect for women as equals, and whether I have set a good example. The answer is that I truly hope I have. I am particularly proud of my boys. My wife deserves full gratitude for that because she reared them and instilled in them a respect for others.

The second question is not so easy. Can the society that we live in and in which my granddaughters are growing up treat them appropriately and give them adequate opportunity and protection? While I hope that that is the case, I am not so sure that it is. The contributions from the hon. Member for Richmond Park, Paula Barker, along with those who will contribute, illustrate that very well.

It is my hope that the debate will continue to initiate a change of mindset in individuals, in society and in how we respond. Undoubtedly, there is work to be done across every spectrum of society and we must all ask ourselves, are we are doing enough? Is society doing enough? I ask the Minister, kindly and respectfully, are Government doing enough? Are we making the changes? Are we instilling the right mindset in our young men and women? Without doubt, this is a mammoth step and we have no option but to start the journey for my granddaughters, for the loved ones of those who are here today and for those watching the debate online, who have the same mindset as we have to make society a better place.

I am unable to comment specifically on the Met. Others have done so with much more knowledge and insight, have done so incredibly well and have illustrated the need for change. I can say, however, that that police service is not alone, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned earlier. I was somewhat disheartened—indeed, I was incredibly annoyed—to read an article in the Belfast Telegraph back home, which indicates that the problem is not limited to the Met. Indeed, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is taking active steps to address it as well.

There is, at last, an understanding or a realisation of what is taking place, how we change that and how society can do better. It was reported in the Belfast Telegraph that:

“During a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, it emerged that 19 officers are suspended from duties over sexual misconduct claims. A total of 25 incidents are being investigated, including some that happened while officers were on duty.”

I would suggest that when someone is called to the high office of being a police officer, there is an expectation that standards will be of the highest quality. Quite clearly, for some, that was not the case:

The BBC reported that Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton has called the situation ‘very uncomfortable’.”

That is a gross understatement.

“A total of 15 suspensions have taken place in the last 12 month, which is three times that of the year before.”

If that is not difficult reading, it should be. If numbers are up three times what they were the year before, we need to do something drastic about the attitude and the response.

I commend the PSNI for its decision to undertake the work to eradicate inappropriate behaviour before it becomes the norm. I understand that that is an uncomfortable process for some; not only for the men in the force, but for the women. It is clear, however, that what should not need to be spoken to grown adults about how they treat people must be spoken, because some do not seem to have grasped their inappropriate and sometimes criminal behaviour. It is a reminder that although we might think that things are common sense, as they are for me, for everyone in this room and for 99.9% of those outside this room, and although we might think that a sense of humour means that anything can be said, but it cannot, it should not and it never should be. Some people need to think about that and be aware of the spoken word.

There is work to be done in every aspect of society, from training our children in the home and in school right through to working life. The case of Sarah Everard has shocked us to the core. It has numbed us, but I believe it has reinforced our realisation that something clearly must be done. The raft of complaints that followed show that it is not isolated. Indeed, some might say misogyny is endemic, which greatly worries me. As the PSNI has said, uncomfortable work must take place, and I believe that now is the time to put the money where the mouth is and to undertake that work urgently in every police force in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need to change the unhealthy conduct of a small group of people in the Met and other police forces across the country.

I am pleased to play a small part with my contribution, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park on securing the debate. I very much look forward to what others have to say, and I particularly look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I know grasps the issue with a strong hand. She will be able to give us the encouragement that we need and tell us that things will change for the better, which is what I want to see. I think it is what we all want, and our constituents out there want the same thing.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 10:01 am, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, pay tribute to Sarah Olney for securing this important and timely debate. I am proud, like her, to have been elected as one of the strong and formidable, but small, team of the 2019 Labour intake. Out of 26 Members, 20 of us are female. It is good that our two newest Members, taking our number to 28, are also female: my hon. Friend Kim Leadbeater and our newest colleague, my hon. Friend Mrs Hamilton. That shows that Labour is committed to ensuring that women’s representation stays at the forefront, so that we can address the issues that we know women continue to face.

Last Thursday, I attended a service of prayer and reflection for the memory of Sarah Everard at Holy Trinity Clapham in my constituency. The 3rd of March marked a year since Sarah was horrifically kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan police officer. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park highlighted, Sarah was just walking home to Brixton Hill from her friend’s house near Clapham Common when she was kidnapped by the officer. As the MP for nearby Vauxhall, which includes part of Clapham Common, as the ex-councillor for Brixton Hill ward, and as a lifelong Brixton resident, the streets that Sarah walked are familiar to me and many of my constituents. I know the horrific feeling of insecurity that so many women still feel to this day. Since being elected to the House, I have walked those streets with my key in my hand because of that feeling of unsafety. It is sad that as I referred to my fantastic group of female MPs who were elected with me, I know that they have faced many threats of misogyny and violence directed at them—violence that is directed at women and girls up and down this country.

Sarah’s murder was certainly not the only incident of misogyny in the police. In June 2020, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were stabbed to death in Fryent country park, and the police officers responded by taking pictures and sharing them on WhatsApp. How could they even think that was an acceptable response? What would make someone bring out their phone, open WhatsApp and take pictures?

We have also heard of horrific messages between officers at Charing Cross police station, who casually joked about rape and domestic abuse. Too often we hear of misogynistic incidents, with police officers’ behaviour leading them to be described as “bad apples”, but we continue to see the flagrant disregard for women who have been murdered and the betrayal of women’s rights, and we see officers at entire police stations engaging in the most distressful and distasteful messages. Despite the evidence of rampant misogyny, we see an officer continue to be deployed, even to this House. We cannot conclude anything other than there is a deep cultural problem of misogyny in the Met police. Sadly, rather than stepping up to the challenge and looking at how to address and tackle it, the Met police’s response to such incidents has been to deepen the problem and say that the scale of the issue is small.

In response to the anger following Sarah Everard’s death, including the anger felt by so many of my constituents in Vauxhall who wanted to go out and support that vigil, we saw the police take a different approach. We saw the police be heavy-handed with those who came out for the vigil. In response to women rightly demanding safety on the street, the Met police responded by saying that they should flag down a bus, or call 999 if confronted by an officer they did not trust. A number of those women have confronted the police, and that is where the issue lies. Sadly, many of my Vauxhall constituents have raised problems, including the initial lack of response by the police in my borough when they raise issues of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Thankfully, my local borough commander and the BCU are responding to that.

The London rape review published in December 2021 found that 65% of rape victims dropped out of the process, because they do not trust it and are fed up—that is 65% of those who actually came forward to report the rape in the first instance. The Met police must stop the culture of expecting potential victims to pick up the slack of behavioural changes in response to that horrific incident of misogyny. We continue to raise the bar for women to engage in a society where safety seems so little and the efforts to tackle it seem low priority.

Across London, we are served by fantastic female MPs from all political parties, including my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, who has served in this House since 1987. I hope that the Minister will work with that group of female MPs across London to look at how we can address the issue in the Met police. The arrival of a new Metropolitan Police Commissioner provides us with an opportunity for a sea change in how we combat institutionalised misogyny. I hope that the Minister will work with us, with female victims and with people leading the response to ensure that someone is appointed who is up to the job.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 10:07 am, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins.

I thank Sarah Olney for securing this important debate, in particular on International Women’s Day. It might seem odd at first for a Nottingham MP to be speaking in a debate about a police force in another city, but the Metropolitan police’s power and impact go much further than just London. In fact, the Met’s actions have been incredibly damaging to women in my city.

In 2003, an undercover Met officer, Mark Kennedy, was sent to spy on climate activists in Nottingham. He posed as a fellow activist at the Sumac Centre in my constituency, where he deceived one woman, Kate Wilson, into a relationship that lasted almost two years. He went on to deceive other women into sexual relationships until he was exposed by activists in 2010. He was far from alone: more than 20 undercover Met officers are known to have had sexual relationships, some with the knowledge of more senior police officers. At least three fathered children with women they had met undercover. After a 10-year legal battle brought courageously by Kate Wilson, the courts ruled that the Met’s failure to prevent undercover officers entering into sexual relationships amounted to sex discrimination and breached human rights.

Such misogyny is not confined to undercover policing. In 2013, 10 years later, my constituent, Dr Koshika Duff, was arrested for trying to give legal advice to a 15-year-old who was being stop and searched. She was violently strip-searched, while police made derogatory and misogynistic comments about her. They have since been forced to apologise and to pay financial compensation, but it is not yet known whether the officers will face disciplinary action.

I have spoken here about just two examples connected to my constituency, but countless more could be raised. A total of 594 complaints against Met employees for sexual misconduct were made between 2012 and 2018. A recent IOPC report found a shocking culture of misogyny among police officers at Charing Cross station. Again, that is not confined only to the Met. Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire, agreed that

“it’s not just the odd deviant…what was expressed in those messages in Charing Cross could be in any police station.”

Indeed, the IOPC concluded:

“We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the procedure within the police, including the Met police, of using anonymity to cover up the identity of people at the end of employment tribunals has to be stopped?

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. I wholly agree with her.

We must never forget that it was a serving Metropolitan police officer who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard almost exactly a year ago. It was his fellow Met police officers who used appalling, disproportionate force against women who were gathering on Clapham Common to mourn her death. There were appalling acts of institutional misogyny in the case of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and there have been many others. For over a year, I have been calling for an independent statutory inquiry into misogyny in the Met police. I hope the Minister will commit to that today.

We should be limiting the powers of the police, not handing them ever wider ones to be used at their discretion, as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 has done and as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes. We need to limit the power to stop and search, particularly the ability to strip-search, which is invasive and humiliating and puts women in a vulnerable position.

We must ensure that women who are at particularly high risk of abuse and exploitation by police officers or others are not needlessly criminalised, such as those with addiction issues and those who are homeless or undocumented migrants. Where there are other services that might more appropriately support vulnerable people of all genders, such as victims of domestic and sexual violence or those experiencing mental ill health, those services should be used instead of, or alongside, the police. None of those measures is foolproof, but they aim to reduce the opportunity for police officers to abuse their power and, as the debate has clearly shown, they are badly needed.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 10:12 am, 8th March 2022

I congratulate Sarah Olney on obtaining this debate. It is appropriate that we are having it on International Women’s Day.

Sadly, concerns about the level and extent of sexism and misogyny in the Metropolitan police are not new. The culture of the Metropolitan police and how they interact with the public has been of concern for many decades. I want to stress that saying that misogyny is endemic in the Metropolitan police force—as I believe it is—is not the same as saying that every single Metropolitan police officer is a misogynist. However, misogyny is too deeply embedded in the Metropolitan police force to ignore. There are too many examples of institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia for the force to be excused, as it very often is, as just having a few bad apples.

It was interesting to read an interview with Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, who is now the national lead for violence against women and girls for the National Police Chiefs Council. She said that this idea that it is a “few bad apples” is wrong and that policing, like other jobs with access to power, could attract people who wanted to

“use their power in a corrupt and criminal way.”

She added:

“There will be some attracted into working in policing, because of the powers that it offers them, the powers to exert and coerce other people, particularly vulnerable individuals. I think we shouldn’t be naive to that”.

We saw the spectacle of the now-departed Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who seemed to have difficulty in admitting that there was any problem at all, let alone to be willing to do anything about it. In response to her resignation, Ken Marsh declared he had no confidence in the London Mayor, but presumably he has every confidence in himself and his members. That comes despite the tally of awful incidents, which other Members have touched on. That includes, but is not confined to, the terrible death of Sarah Everard, the brutal treatment of the women who attended the vigil in her honour, and the culture that was revealed among police colleagues of Wayne Couzens, who raped and murdered her.

There are, of course, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, whose deaths were not initially investigated sufficiently by the Metropolitan Police Service, as their mother would argue. To add insult to injury, two police officers tasked with guarding their bodies took photographs of themselves with the bodies and shared them online among their colleagues.

Then there is the scandal of the culture at Charing Cross police station, which colleagues have touched on, and the treatment of one of my constituents at Stoke Newington police station, although I understand that she is also a Nottingham resident. The IOPC said that the Charing Cross report illustrates an ugly truth. Much of the investigation concerned messages passed between police officers on social media. The messages include:

“You ever slapped your missus? Makes them love you more.”

“I would happily rape you.”

“Getting a woman into bed is like spreading butter. It can be done with a bit of effort using a credit card, but it’s quicker and easier just to use a knife.”

It is worth noting that the messages were not just grossly sexist; they were often racist. They spoke about “Somalian rats” and Muslim “fanatics”; there were references to Auschwitz; and the word “gay” was used as an insult. Those findings are bad enough, but the scale of bigotry will never be known because the police officers who were being investigated deliberately deleted material relevant to the investigation.

In my constituency, the Metropolitan police had to apologise and pay compensation to a completely innocent woman, Dr Konstancja Duff, whom they arrested and strip-searched. As Members have heard, she was only trying to help a 15-year-old child with a Know Your Rights card. It is worth hearing how Dr Duff described her experience:

“I was pinned to the floor of a cell by three female officers. I had my hands cuffed behind my back and my legs tied together while they cut off my clothes with scissors. They ripped out my earrings, grabbed my breasts roughly while turning me over, and even touched me between my legs, apparently looking for genital piercings”

—remember, this is a completely innocent woman. She continued:

“During the search, I could hear them talking with male officers who were standing by the open door.”

Their derogatory comments included,

“Treat her like a terrorist, I don’t care” and

“What’s that smell? Oh, it’s her knickers”.

All of that was caught on CCTV. It took Dr Duff nine years to get justice, and she is an educated and relatively confident woman. How many other women are subjected to Metropolitan police sexism who do not have the confidence to pursue a civil claim? How can a police force that seems to be saturated in sexism identify and stop the next PC Couzens?

The IOPC said about Charing Cross police station:

“A culture developed that made it difficult to challenge oppressive comments and behaviour, and an environment that was hostile and felt unsafe for those who were the direct or indirect targets of the discrimination.”

Sadly, that has been the culture of too much of the Metropolitan police for too long. Change is long overdue. The new commissioner must be a reforming one and must not attempt to conduct business as usual or bring in merely cosmetic changes. The reform must be root and branch. Women—not just in London, but all over the country—depend on it.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 10:19 am, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I too congratulate Sarah Olney for securing this important debate on International Women’s Day. I want to start with a quick reflection on our meeting yesterday with some of the families of sisters, mothers and daughters who have been murdered at the hands of men. My hon. Friend Jess Phillips brought them to Parliament. What struck me was how many different errors had been made across the system in many of those murders. There was a woman who had a history of domestic abuse, but who had had two glasses of wine, so the man was tried for manslaughter not murder because there was an assumption that she was in some way responsible for what happened to her. There was also somebody who was pushed out of a high block of flats and killed, but the man has not been charged, even though, again, there was a history of domestic abuse, because the assumption was that she may have had some drugs and it was all her own fault.

What strikes me about today’s debate is that when we talk about misogyny and sexual harassment in the police force, it affects not just those who were affected immediately by that incident, but the way we do policing across the board. There are so many cases where assumptions have been made about women because of ingrained misogyny and sexism and where that has led to them being murdered by their partners, when those partners should have been locked up years before. People are getting away with murder when they should be locked up, because of how the police are thinking about things and approaching their investigations. This is therefore an incredibly important debate.

We have seen a series of issues in the Met police over the last year, which sadly do not just touch on misogyny but go wider. Obviously, we had the events of last year and the horrific murder of Sarah, and others have spoken of what happened in the case of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. We have had the Daniel Morgan inquiry, which suggested institutional corruption in the Metropolitan police, and the Stephen Port inquiry, which, although inconclusive, certainly showed unconscious bias against people who are gay, and where assumptions were again made about their deaths. There are clearly cultural problems in the force.

Others have made the point that the problem goes beyond the Metropolitan police, and that is important because if we focus just on the Met, we miss problems across the country. There have been instances of misogyny and sexual violence in other forces, such as West Mercia and Dorset. We have seen the inappropriate use of social media in Sussex, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Police Scotland, so these issues are not confined to the Met. There is also a wider problem of violence against women and girls, which hon. Members have touched on today, including the very low level of prosecutions for rape and the number of women who just walk away from the system because they cannot cope with the delays and problems we have seen.

I want to focus on some of the solutions, and a lot of them come from Operation Hotton, which we have talked about. What is interesting is not just how it identified bullying, aggressive behaviour, discrimination, toxic masculinity and the banter used to excuse offensive behaviour, but its focus on the way the force was structured, which enabled that misogyny to occur. It focused on the nature of the work—the shift patterns, the isolation and this business of people acting up in an unofficial capacity, so that behaviours were completely unchallenged, which is key to some of the reforms we need to see.

We also heard of demeaning and intimidating actions towards police officers on probation, such as beckoning them with a bell or threatening to cut their hair or take their belongings; officers being shouted at; and women being sexually harassed or treated as the “weary female” when they raise issues. These things are all to do with leadership and management within the force, as well as the misogyny. I know we are talking about misogyny and sexual harassment, but the report also showed horrific racism and homophobia. It was the culture that enabled horrific behaviour across the board, and that is what we need to look at.

My questions for the Minister are therefore around what is going to be done about this. I think that everybody here thinks that something needs to be done. The Government have set up a couple of inquiries, which I am sure the Minister will talk about, but we need to go further and faster, and act more. With policing issues, the Home Office sometimes has a tendency to say, “This is a terrible thing and must not happen,” but it has a key role in leading a change in approach from the top, to make sure that these things do not continue.

We need to look at how we vet police officers. The 250-page document on how we vet them shows that they are vetted for their propensity to be blackmailed: do they have problems with their finances, or problems that would allow them to be blackmailed? The vetting is not good enough on who they are, what they have said on social media over the last five years, what they think and whether they should be with vulnerable people. Our vetting needs to be looked at.

Police training needs to be overhauled. Officers need ongoing training throughout their careers, including on anti-racism and on tackling violence against women and girls. When officers are first trained, they are not specifically trained on violence against women and girls, and we think they should be. We also need to end the inappropriate use of social media, which has come up time and again in all the incidents in the Met. The Government should look at taking action against those private WhatsApp messages.

We have the Dame Angiolini inquiry. The Labour party has called for it to be on a statutory footing, so that it has the powers it needs to go everywhere it needs to go. I ask the Minister to look at that.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be clearer to serving police officers that engaging in misogynistic or racist behaviour will be a bar to recruitment? Of the officers involved in the Charing Cross scandal, two have already been promoted.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have talked to the police about that issue and about whether misconduct proceedings, which I was about to come to, need to be improved.

Swift action needs to be taken. When there is misconduct, there are quite a lot of delays in the process. We need to make sure that there are clear management processes to stop misconduct being seen as “banter”. If someone is misogynistic—if it is clear from their social media what their views are—they have no place in the police. We hold our police to higher standards than other professions—quite rightly. That is what the police want; they want to be held to those standards, because they want policing by consent. They need the public to trust them, and that is what they would call for, too. We also need to look at whistleblowing procedures. I have spoken to police officers who say, “We have quite a good whistleblowing procedure, because some people come forward.” Actually, it is not working as it should, and we need to look at it again.

There are wider issues that would help the culture of the police, such as having specialist rape and sexual assault units in each police force, so that the force is more expert. We need to look at the number of women in policing. Only a third of Metropolitan police officers are women, and that changes the culture. As we know, and as hon. Members have said today, having more women in Parliament means that we have better debates, better policy making and better laws. In the same way, the Metropolitan police and other police forces would be better with more women.

There are many other issues we could talk about. My main point is that there are a series of practical actions that need to be taken—not just in the Met, but beyond—and it is the Government’s role to look at those. I thank all the women who have contributed, and our honourable male contributor, Jim Shannon. I am honoured to be in a room of very powerful women whom I admire hugely and who have all made, in their own ways, excellent contributions today. They reflect how the House of Commons is shifting towards more powerful women and a better conversation. We need to make sure that the Metropolitan police and the wider police force do the same.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:30 am, 8th March 2022

Thank you for calling me, Mrs Cummins. For one of the first times in this Chamber, I start by putting on record my agreement with virtually everything that has been said by every Member present. We have so much more in common on the issues referred to by hon. Members from all sides. I thank Sarah Jones for her remarks; on International Women’s Day, we need a joint approach for this shocking and horrific topic. I also thank Sarah Olney for securing the debate on this vital topic.

The police perform a unique and critical role in our society. A number of Members referred to the police officers in their constituencies and their local forces. I join them in paying tribute to those women senior leaders who have an incredibly difficult job to do under intense public scrutiny. My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller referenced Maggie Blyth and other officers. I work very closely with Maggie Blyth, who is a Hampshire officer, and many others across the force; she is responsible for working closely with her fellow officers on a number of the issues that have been referenced.

I agree with what Members said about the recruitment of female officers. Driving more officers and encouraging more women to come forward is a big step for women to join the police, because of the many issues they will be aware of not only in the Met police but forces around the country. I thank those women who have come forward.

The police uplift funding programme, delivered by the Home Office, has a record all-time high of serving female officers. However, the number is still way too low at only 34%—I think we all agree on that. Although it is at an all-time high, we need to keep doing more. Some 42% of the officers recruited since 2021 through the uplift programme are female, and I thank them all for coming forward. I think we all agree that diversity—whether of gender or race, as Members have referenced—is vital. A lot of the work on the uplift programme is to secure that diversity, and we need to keep on with that important work.

I assure all colleagues that the Home Office is determined to use every measure at its disposal to tackle the issues that have been raised and to restore public confidence in policing. Today we focused on the Met, which is the UK’s largest police force. It plays a unique role in our policing system and, for that reason, attracts a huge amount of public attention. In a sense, it informs the public discourse around policing: the cases that occur within the Met police and in our capital attract a lot of attention. That has a bearing on how British policing is viewed more widely.

I will not shrink from saying that the appalling behaviour Members mentioned has no place in our society and in our policing, let alone in an institution in which we vest so much trust to protect us as women and uphold those highest standards. Members referred to their experiences of walking through the streets in their constituencies, across London and anywhere in our country. As a woman I have those same experiences and so does my daughter. I want things to change for my three-month-old granddaughter. That is why it is a privilege to be doing this job today.

We will not shy away from taking action. I will set out some of the actions we are taking and will continue to do to tackle these appalling issues. We work closely not only with the Met police and the commissioner—whoever the new commissioner will be—but the Mayor of London, who is the police and crime commissioner for the capital. The Mayor has significant influence and powers, and tools at his disposal vested in him by the police and crime settlement.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Does the Minister agree that in the recent past it has been very challenging for women to join the police force? I was very struck by a senior female police officer who told me that when she joined, not so long ago, part of the initiation ritual for new woman police officers was to drop their skirt and have another police officer stamp on their bottom the date on which they joined the police force. That culture is not so long in the past.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We all share horror at that and the other incidents referenced by the hon. Member for Richmond Park . That is why we are taking the steps I am about to set out. We must remember that during the coronavirus pandemic in particular the police faced an unenviable task, which for the most part they approached with skill and professionalism. I know that from conversations with my local force in Redditch and I want to pay tribute to them as well. They had to help to enforce the rules the Government introduced with one crucial objective in mind: to save lives.

Members referenced the report published last month by the IOPC, which looked into the bullying and discrimination in Charing Cross police station. Those findings were shocking. The report described behaviour that is unacceptable and depicted an environment where such conduct was commonplace amid what can only be described as a toxic culture where leadership was sorely lacking. Policing and the Met must do better, and we are absolutely committed to raising the bar.

As the public would expect, when officers are found to have committed gross misconduct and are dismissed, they cannot re-join policing. We are also ensuring that initial police recruitment vetting practices carried out in each force, to which the hon. Member for Croydon Central referred, are rigorous. The assessment process addresses a candidate’s suitability for the role of police officer, including testing against core behaviours and values. When officers move force, they are re-vetted.

Members rightly pointed to problems with those processes, so I will talk about what the Government and the Met are doing. Restoring confidence is not just about how individuals are disciplined and vetted. It is also about making sure the kind of culture flagged up in the report is not allowed to take root. It is about ensuring those rotten elements in policing are rooted out and removed. We are taking action to address the issues we established the Angiolini inquiry, which started on 31 January. Obviously, Dame Elish has focused on the particular case of Sarah Everard’s killer, but she will consider whether the culture and places where he worked meant that alarm bells did not ring earlier. She will present the findings of that phase of the review to the Home Secretary later this year. In the second phase of the inquiry, we expect a light to be shone on wider issues across policing, including workplace cultures.

In October 2021, the MPS announced that it had commissioned Baroness Louise Casey of Blackstock to lead an independent and far-reaching review into standards of behaviour. She will also assess the extent to which the force’s current leadership, recruitment, vetting, training, communications and other practices effectively reinforce the standards the public so rightly expect.

Further, the Home Secretary has requested that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services—HMICFRS—inspects forces across England and Wales to judge their vetting in counter-corruption capabilities. We specifically asked the body to look at how forces identify and deal with misogyny and sexism in the workplace. We are working closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to ensure professional standards in social media use for police officers—another important issue.

Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree

On the point about social media, how will that be addressed for accounts which are anonymous or under another name?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a very important point and the work will look at that. A lot of work is also taking place on the Online Safety Bill on the wider issues of anonymity which are used against women and girls. The hon. Lady is right to point to that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned transparency and disciplinary processes. She is right to highlight that because it is another essential element. That is why this Government introduced the system whereby those disciplinary hearings are now public—a new initiative in 2015—and why the police barred list is searchable by the public. My hon. Friend the Policing Minister wrote to chiefs and hearing chairs recently to remind them that hearings should be held in public where possible.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way and for the excellent speech she is giving. In the case I raised, it was made unclear that the name of the officer who had been subject to a tribunal could be used publicly; indeed, it took my local newspaper going to court to get the matter clarified. That cannot be right. Why the confusion?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my right hon. Friend for pressing me on that matter. Again, I will just add to my comments that where possible we expect those hearings to be held in public. And let the message go out from this Chamber that we expect transparency from the police in dealing with these issues.

We all hold it to our hearts that it is unacceptable that women and girls continue to face fear, violence and abuse. Crimes such as domestic abuse, rape, stalking and so-called honour-based abuse and harassment are far too common. That is why we published our Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy last July—to drive a step change in our response.

Regarding the work we are doing, a number of structures, led by the Home Secretary and a number of Ministers across Government, are involved in driving the work of those structures. We have discussed that work on multiple occasions with Members who are here today and with others, and I think we will discuss it again this afternoon.

In the time that I have left, I will just highlight some of the work we are doing, because this is a landmark moment and we have stepped up to act in response to it. We appointed Maggie Blyth immediately to ensure there is co-ordinated action nationally across the police forces, and we amended the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to make it clear that the serious violence duty can include domestic abuse and sexual offences.

Last week we launched Enough., a national communications campaign. It is a multi-million-pound and multi-year campaign in response to the calls of campaigners—both in Parliament and outside Parliament, on the front line—to say that we have to tackle this issue at source and that we have to make it clear that it is not okay; we have had enough of being harassed on the streets. We want to take the onus away from it being on the woman or girl to call harassment out and stop it from happening in the first place. That is why we are driving this campaign and investing significant amounts of cash in it. Many Members were at the launch event for Enough. and they welcomed the campaign. It has also been widely applauded by campaigners across the country.

We have spent significant amounts of money on various schemes, investing in measures to keep women safe at night in the night-time economy, on public transport and in public spaces—issues we have discussed many times in Westminster Hall. We have also awarded significant funding to police and crime commissioners across the country for programmes to tackle perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking.

The major point that I will take a moment to reflect on—again, this was called for by many Opposition MPs and campaigners—is that we put violence against women and girls on a par with national threats to the country, such as homicide, serious organised crime, terrorism and child sex abuse. That is why we made the announcement just last week that we will add violence against women and girls to the strategic policing requirement. That sends a clear and unequivocal message that these crimes must be a priority for forces and must be taken seriously, and that the full effort and resources of the police—indeed, the whole criminal justice system—must respond in an appropriate fashion.

There is a lot more that we are doing in this space.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I thank the Minister for giving way. I just wanted to draw to her attention a major report that is being published this morning by Sir Michael Barber and the Policing Foundation, which is considering police reform. I know that the Minister has listed actions she is taking in relation to violence against women and girls, but in terms of police reform Sir Michael Barber and the Police Foundation are suggesting that police officers should have a licence to practise that is renewed every five years, and that if someone is not good enough they cannot remain in the police. I am not suggesting that that is anybody’s policy yet, but there are some interesting structural reforms that the report’s authors are considering. It has taken them two years to do this big piece of work. It is really excellent and it will contain some sensible things that perhaps the Minister could look at.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that to my attention. I have a lot of respect for Sir Michael Barber and the work he is doing, and of course I will take time to study the report. If there are sensible proposals in it we will look at them, because we all want the police to fix these issues. We cannot go on with the situation in this country where the police force does not command the respect or the trust of over half the population. Nowhere is it more appropriate for me to say that than here, in this place, on International Women’s Day, with a passionate group of female and male MPs, although Jim Shannon has left the Chamber.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Of course, my hon. Friend Mr Mohindra is still here. I know that all our male colleagues support this, and so do our partners, husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. We are all united in the fight.

I want to spend a couple of moments to talk about education, which is vital and was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. From September 2020, relationships, sex and health education became statutory in schools. In primary schools, age-appropriate relationships education involves supporting children to learn about what healthy relationships are and their importance. It is important that we talk to our young people and children sensitively and carefully about the fraught issues of consent, in a world where they are all navigating the online space.

The Government are doing huge amounts of work through the draft Online Safety Bill to provide wider protections that will help our young people to use the internet safely and protect children from all sorts of violent threat, but such education has to start in our schools. That is why I work closely with my colleague at the Department for Education, the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, to ensure that that education is rolled out.

To update colleagues about what issues are covered, young children will be learning factual knowledge on sex, sexual health, sexuality, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, developing intimate relationships and resisting pressure to have sex. We want young people to learn what a positive healthy relationship looks like and how to keep themselves safe in a variety of situations. We will be teaching and talking to children, in a sensitive and age-appropriate way, about what consent is and is not; the definition and recognition of rape, sexual assault and harassment; and the concepts of abuse, grooming, coercion and domestic abuse, in all its forms. We all know that one of the problems with domestic abuse is the difficultly that victims and survivors have in recognising what they are going through, especially when it comes to economic abuse and issues of coercive and controlling behaviour.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The Minister is being generous with her time. There was some resistance when the Government put forward relationship education for five-year-olds. Does she agree with me that the events we have been debating today, and many other forms of misogyny and sexual harassment, underline how right the Government were to ensure that relationship education starts immediately when children start school at the age of five?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I completely agree. Parents and families have a vital role, but not every five-year-old is fortunate enough to grow up in a family with caring parents. As the Minister at the Home Office responsible for safeguarding, I have seen some appalling, shocking and heartbreaking cases of what can happen to our youngest children unless we take sensitive and age-appropriate steps to help and support them to grow up in a safe way.

Yesterday afternoon, I met victims of violence and domestic abuse at a wonderful reception organised by Women’s Aid. Some inspirational people stood up and talked about how they had not recognised that what they were going through was domestic abuse. One of them was Mel B, one of the Spice Girls. She said she could go on stage at Wembley Stadium in front of hundreds of thousands of people and sing, dance and perform, yet she found it much harder to talk about her own abuse. Sometimes it hits home when people see the impact of domestic abuse on someone who lives in the glare of celebrity. We must never forget the work that is being done on such issues and the work that we are all doing together to help victims of domestic abuse.

I thank all hon. Members here, and I especially thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park for securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to underscore just how seriously we take these issues and to outline all the work we are doing, remembering, as always, that there is more to do.

It is important to remember that there are thousands of men and women who wear the police uniform with pride and professionalism, helping us all on a daily basis. I think we have all made that clear in our remarks. Serving as a police officer is an honour, but when that honour is abused, the ramifications are significant and far-reaching. Public confidence is fundamental to our model of policing by consent. That is why it is incumbent on the Met, and policing as a whole, to root out and eliminate behaviour that risks undermining public confidence and trust.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 10:50 am, 8th March 2022

Thank you very much for chairing our proceedings, Mrs Cummins. This has been a really excellent and thought-provoking debate, and I am incredibly grateful to everybody for their contributions. A few things struck me, and I just want to touch on them. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) both highlighted the issue of undermining public confidence in the police. We heard particularly from the hon. Member for Vauxhall about the number of rape victims who are dropping out of the process because they do not trust the police. For me, that really sums up what the issue is, or how the issue manifests itself.

Another thing that really struck me was when Nadia Whittome and Ms Abbott talked about their constituents who have had to go out and fight for justice themselves. The hon. Member for Nottingham East talked about the case in relation to protesters and undercover police officers. That took 10 years to come to justice. There was also the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, so vividly described by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. That took nine years to come to justice. It really brings home to me the extent to which women have had to be responsible for their own safety and for getting justice for themselves because we have seen this wall of inertia, defensiveness or, potentially, something more sinister from the police. Those are the two points that really came home to me during this debate.

I am grateful to Mrs Miller for the points she made and in particular what she said about mandatory relationships education in schools and how important it is that we tackle the scourge of misogyny in wider society, because it is not found just in the police or in the Metropolitan police. We heard so many examples of police forces across the country, including the one in Northern Ireland, which was referred to by Jim Shannon. I was really pleased to hear the Minister touch on that when she gave her response. She said that we are already seeing mandatory sex and relationships education in schools, and I think that that is really important. I just want to raise a tiny point. She talked about consent and resisting pressure to have sex. I would like to think that we are also teaching boys not to apply pressure. I am sure she is happy to clarify that.

I was really pleased with the response from the Minister. She spoke with great passion and great conviction, and that gives me quite a lot of optimism that this is genuinely an issue that is at the core of the Home Office’s work. We have a female Minister here and a female Home Secretary. As I said in my opening remarks, I believe—I continue to believe—that having women at all levels of Government and politics is good for women and girls. I was really pleased with a lot of what the Minister said. In terms of where we are at, we seem to have quite a lot of reports coming out. She mentioned the Angiolini review. There is the Casey review. There is the Barber review. It is brilliant to see that this issue is being looked at seriously and that the problems are being identified. What we really want to see as we move forward is action and police forces across the country being held to account. We need to see measures and to see progress.

I want to touch on what the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said about transparency; I think I saw a tweet or a Twitter thread about the issue she mentioned. That is so important: these things should not happen behind closed doors. As she says, transparency is the best form of disinfectant.

I want to close by reiterating my thanks to everybody for taking part today, but I also want to pay tribute to the families of Sarah Everard and Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. They are still suffering unimaginable grief at the loss of their daughters. It must be so much harder knowing that those cases are being used to highlight bigger issues and in particular that their deaths happened in such an appalling way, so I want to take a minute to pay tribute to them and to send my sympathies to them. I am conscious that talking about all those cases so often today may well have increased the families’ distress, but it is so important that we do not allow these incidents to go unremarked and that we take every opportunity we can to see the step change we all need to see to ensure that this does not happen again. I put on record my gratitude to them and my respects to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered reports of misogyny and sexual harassment in the Metropolitan Police.

Sitting suspended.