British minister to be investigated over sexual harassment allegation

PM seeking advice from speaker on culture change in government

British minister to be investigated over sexual harassment allegation
The sun rises over the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, Oct. 29. REUTERS/Mary Turner

LONDON (Reuters) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered an investigation into a report that one of her ministers asked a female secretary to buy sex toys for him, as she tries to tackle a culture of sexual harassment in politics.

Mark Garnier, a junior international trade minister, asked secretary Caroline Edmondson to buy two sex toys and he also called her "sugar tits," the Mail on Sunday reported.

Garnier told the paper that the comment was part of an amusing conversation about a television show, and that asking her to buy the toys was "good humoured high jinks."

Edmondson, in comments to the paper, disputed Garnier's recollection of the incidents, including his assertion that they were "high jinks".

The report came after another British newspaper, the Sun, on Friday described a culture of sexual harassment among lawmakers and their staff working in parliament.

Garnier was not immediately available for comment to Reuters through his constituency or parliamentary offices.

May's spokeswoman said on Friday after the Sun's report that any unwanted sexual behaviour was "completely unacceptable" and any minister who acted inappropriately would face "serious action."

Health Minister Jeremy Hunt said on Sunday May had asked officials to investigate if Garnier, whose role is outside the cabinet immediately surrounding May, had broken the government ministers' code of behaviour.

"These stories, if they are true, are obviously totally unacceptable," Hunt told BBC television.

"The cabinet office will be conducting an investigation as to whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code in this particular case, but as you know the facts are disputed."

May, in a letter released to media, also asked John Bercow, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, the House of Commons, on Sunday for his advice about changing the culture there.

"I believe it is important that those who work in the House of Commons are treated properly and fairly, as would be expected in any modern workplace," May said in the letter.

She said measures such as a disciplinary procedure suggested by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and a voluntary code of conduct offered by the Conservative Party to its lawmakers did not go far enough.

"I believe that we must establish a House-wide mediation service complemented by a contractually binding grievance procedure available for all MPs (lawmakers) irrespective of their party banner," she said in the letter.

"It is vital that staff and the public have confidence in parliament, and resolving this employment irregularity on a cross-party basis can play an important role in this."

Reports of inappropriate behaviour in British politics, and in other industries, came in the wake of dozens of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

Britain's environment minister Michael Gove apologised on Saturday after he likened being interviewed by a BBC radio presenter to entering Weinstein's bedroom. After the analogy was widely criticised, Gove, a cabinet minister, apologised for what he said was a "clumsy attempt at humour."

The Sun newspaper said on Friday that women working in politics in Westminster had created a WhatsApp instant messaging group to discuss their experiences of harassment and warn others about potential perpetrators.

"The prime minister was very clear when we responded to the reports about Harvey Weinstein in the last few weeks that any unwanted sexual behaviour is completely unacceptable, and that is true in any walk of life including politics," May's spokeswoman said on Friday.