I beg to move,
That this House
has considered non-disclosure agreements and alleged cases of sexual violence, bullying and harassment in universities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. At the outset of this debate I want to commend the brave young women who have spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. This campaign started with survivors and it is a testament to their courage that it has reached this place today. I start this debate by sharing their words. First is Naomi’s story. She said:
“I and several of my friends were involved in a case with a serial offender in my college. He behaved generally creepily towards me, and on one occasion came into a room I was sleeping in. He also assaulted multiple people in College. They confided in me and we decided to report him to our College. We decided to do this rather than going to the police, because we believed College would provide a safe space for us. My friends just wanted to be able to breathe when walking around College, and weren't concerned about getting the guy locked up.
College ran a disciplinary case during which we were all brutally questioned on the truthfulness of our stories. Around three weeks after the hearing, we were informed by email that the panel had found insufficient evidence and wouldn’t be doing anything. They did not tell us what would amount to sufficient evidence. The whole process felt deliberately untransparent.
We all signed no-contact agreements, which contained really important safety measures that we wanted in place, but also…a gagging clause. For me, it…felt like the icing on the cake of a ridiculous system that had let us down. The disciplinary process had failed to sanction a rapist, but was threatening us with sanctions if we talked about it. I can see how for other people it could be very damaging.”
The sad thing is that Naomi’s story is not unique. Another survivor—I will call her Lucy—had a similar experience, but at a different college. After being assaulted by her then partner in her dorm room, she was given a no-contact agreement that included a clause that forbade her from making any information about the assault or the subsequent investigation publicly available. Speaking about the clause, she said:
“I signed it, feeling terrified that if I didn’t agree to it he would be able to enter my accommodation without any consequence. But I was incredibly upset about the effective gag clause. I was terrified of telling absolutely anyone anything, because what if college interpreted that as ‘publicly available’? I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone, my friends or my mental health support or my GP, because of it and felt very alone.”
That is not just one story in one college that happened a long time ago, and not just one incident of bad management by a rogue member of staff. That is recent and these stories are rife. From speaking to the student group, It Happens Here, which supports survivors of sexual assault at the University of Oxford, I know that there are survivors in colleges across universities who have all too similar stories.