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Presidents Club Charity Dinner

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he thinks that it is appropriate that David Meller remain a non-executive director in the Department for Education following the revelations about the men only Presidents Club dinner.

Mr Speaker, I am sure you have seen the papers this morning. It has been reported that last Thursday, the Presidents Club—this is the first time I have heard of the club—[Interruption.] I am just saying, I had not heard of it before. This club hosted a charity dinner to raise money for causes such as Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I understand from reports that there are allegations of inappropriate and lewd behaviour at this event.

It is quite extraordinary to me that, in the 21st century, allegations of this kind are still emerging. Women have the right to feel safe wherever they work, and the type of behaviour alleged to have occurred is completely unacceptable. I have recently taken on ministerial responsibility for the board of the Department for Education and was previously Minister for Women. As hon. Members will know, David Meller has been a non-executive board member in the Department for Education and chair of the apprenticeship delivery board. The Government expect board members to adhere to the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, which clearly states that they should adhere to the seven principles of public life.

David Meller is stepping down as a non-executive board member for the Department for Education and as a member of the apprenticeship delivery board. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely clear that that is the right thing to do. In case right hon. and hon. Members or you, Mr Speaker, are in any doubt, the event was absolutely nothing to do with the Department for Education.

I thank the Minister and welcome David Meller standing down. The undercover report in the Financial Times about the event organised by the charitable trust that David Meller chairs tells more than just an alarming story. I notice that the organisation wants to put the blame on the individual members, but what actually happened is that women were bought as bait for men—rich men—not a mile from where we stand, as if that is acceptable behaviour. It is totally unacceptable.

The Department for Education recently published a response to the Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in schools, saying:

“The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools set out by the inquiry shines a light on a worrying picture: sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life…and a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’. It is clear that action is needed”.

Those are the words of the Department. Does the Minister think that one of the junior Ministers in that Department attending that event is appropriate? Did that Minister—the Minister for children and families—raise concerns with the Department about David Meller and his conduct after he realised what was going on at the event? What is the Department going to do to make sure that a message is sent that this “lads culture” has no place in our Department for Education and it has no place in our country?

My hon. Friend raises a number of important issues, not least sexual abuse and harassment in schools, and that is where the sort of culture that ends up at a dinner like last night’s starts. Unless we get it right in schools, it will simply feed through to the rest. The Department for Education is clear that this is unacceptable right from the word go. All Departments and public bodies need to ensure that this sort of behaviour is not going on anywhere; it cannot be tolerated. This is not just about forcing people to do the right thing; it is about changing attitudes. The reports of women being bought and sold are extraordinary. I contributed to a WhatsApp group this morning and said that words failed me. I am quite old—I was born in 1955—and as I have said at the Dispatch Box before, I thought that things had changed. However, it is absolutely clear that things have not changed. I think that there is an association between wealthy people and this sort of behaviour, and we have to send a clear message that it is unacceptable.

As a mother of three young women who are the same age as the hostesses who attended this function, I can only describe my initial response as emotional and like a lioness. I immediately put myself in the position of it having been one of my daughters. That must be the reaction of every woman and every mother across the country—[Hon. Members: “And fathers!”] And fathers, too. My apologies. I am a single parent; I never think of fathers. I support the Minister in her response. It was not just Conservative men at that dinner; they were from all political denominations. The problem is with the dinner itself, and the fact that there are men who attend those dinners and think that that is appropriate. One of the prizes on the brochure was plastic surgery to

“add spice to your wife”.

It is appalling that this continues, and I support the Minister in her response. We all have a duty to ensure that these dinners never happen again.

My hon. Friend is a lioness in so many ways. I also speak as the mother of a daughter, and this can become very personal. I have also been the Deputy Chief Whip, and to some extent had duties and responsibilities towards women in the House. This is an issue on which women across the House combine. We have to send out a clear message that this is unacceptable. People need to know where the line is, because there is a line. This is about changing attitudes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this urgent question. I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place and thank the Minister for her comments today. I hope that the Secretary of State is as disappointed as I am that a board member and a Minister in his Department attended an event that described itself as

“the most un-PC event of the year”.

Let us be clear about what that meant. It meant an event where women were invited not as guests but as objects for rich and powerful men. They had to act as hostesses and were forced to wear revealing clothes. A number have reported that they were groped and sexually harassed. Will the Secretary of State make it clear that, like me, he believes those women and that the reported events were totally unacceptable?

I welcome the Minister’s comment that organising this kind of event should not be acceptable for any official, let alone a member of the board of the Department. I also welcome the fact that David Meller is standing down. He should not have any other role in education. Will the Secretary of State also investigate the attendance at the event of the Minister for children? Can he confirm reports that the Minister attended previous events and was invited personally by David Meller this year? His Department is responsible for safeguarding millions of children, for caring for thousands of victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, for tackling sexual harassment and violence in our schools, colleges and universities and for educating another generation of girls and boys. Is it not time that it started leading by example?

I will lead by example. I have spoken to the Secretary of State this morning, and I know that he is equally appalled by the reports of this event. I have also spoken to my fellow Minister in the Department. He did not stay at the event long—[Interruption.]

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister found the event extremely uncomfortable. He left, and he was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) said, this is an event that is attended by men of various party political allegiances—[Interruption.] Sadly, they do not know any better, and that is the tragedy—[Interruption.] That is the tragedy. Opposition Members are right to feel appalled. Believe you me, I also feel appalled. It is a tragedy that they do not know where the line should be and that they attended these events.

In this centenary year of suffrage, is this not an opportunity for all female parliamentarians to unite and send a clear message on behalf of all women in this country that this behaviour is no longer acceptable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In this centenary year, there is an important opportunity for women not just in this House but around the country —but particularly here—to join together and send out the message that this has to change. If there are men who do not understand what precisely it is that needs to change, they can come and talk to me and I will tell them.

Obviously, the Minister has been fairly robust in the comments she has made so far, but she said that those men “do not know where the line should be”. This event was billed as

“the most un-PC event of the year”,

so they clearly do know where the line should be, and they decided to cross it. We have heard reports of toilets being monitored and of women who were lingering too long in them being called out and led back to the ballroom. That is not sexism; that is slavery. It is appalling. I was a teacher for 20 years, and I had occasion to deal with sexism, but never on this scale or to this degree. Back in October, the previous Secretary of State for Education said that

“sexist…language must have no place in our society, and parliamentarians of all parties have a duty to stamp out this sort of behaviour wherever we encounter it”.

We might think that everyone agreed with that statement, but we need to ask ourselves whether the current Secretary of State and the Government really do agree with it. This comes at the start of what we were told would be a radical shake-up of the culture of sexual harassment—

Order. I recognise the extreme sensitivity of this subject, and I respect the hon. Lady and want to hear what she has to say, but she has now exceeded her time. She has given us a real sense of her anger, and I ask her now to put her question, please.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will put a couple of questions. First, what message does this send to our young people, and how are we giving our teachers the ability to fight sexism when the Government are appointing such people to prominent roles? I also ask the Minister, what screening is being carried out of people who are being appointed to all Departments?

I thank the hon. Lady, but I would just like to say that I do not think my attitude towards this issue and many others affecting women could be described as “fairly robust”. I am extremely robust and extremely radical. She made a point about where the line should be drawn. I have not seen how the event was billed, but the people who attended it clearly did not know where the line was. We need to make it clear where it is—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members would listen for a minute, I would just like to say that this is not about this Government. I will answer the points about due diligence and governance, but this is an issue for women that goes right across the political spectrum. This is not just about this Government or Conservative Members; this happens everywhere. If hon. Members do not think that it happens everywhere, they will be in for shock. The Government do understand, and there is no doubt that measures will be put in place so that proper due diligence is done. We cannot do that just once, however; we have to look at people’s behaviour continually. We cannot just do it as a one-off and leave it at that.

I thank the Minister for her strong condemnation of this event. Does she share my disgust for the women who put themselves in a position of leadership and groomed and pimped the young ladies involved? Does she agree that their actions are also abhorrent?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that related but important issue. There were women in leadership roles who painted these women, and it does not fall far short of payment for sex. It is shocking that such women were probably encouraging other women into these sort of jobs.

Is the Minister aware that, according to the Financial Times, the Presidents Club actually includes the following disclaimer in its corporate literature for the event? It states:

“The Presidents Club shall accept no responsibility and shall not be held liable for any actions of its members, staff or event attendees that amount to harassment.”

The fact that it tried to include that disclaimer in the first place shows how shocking things are. It was trying to disclaim any responsibility for what happened. The organisers chose to make it a men-only event. They chose to treat the hostesses in this way, making them parade across the stage in front of the men, making them wear black skimpy outfits and specifying the colour of their underwear. They chose to ask them to drink before the event. Does the Minister agree that all the organisers, including the Presidents Club and all the private companies involved in organising the event, should be investigated for breaches of the law and charity rules?

The right hon. Lady is obviously very angry about this, and her report—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, do I look like somebody who is not angry? Do I look like somebody who is in any way excusing this sort of behaviour? I am not. I am absolutely shocked by the Presidents Club. If the organisers were trying to deny responsibility in their literature, perhaps they will wake up at the end of this urgent question and realise that they now do have some responsibility. Things are now out in the public domain, and Members’ contributions today will have added to that. It is shocking, but do not cry at me; I feel as appalled as all Opposition Members.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement today. She has done absolutely the right thing. I share everybody’s anger, disgust and, frankly, astonishment that an event of this nature can even have taken place. Does she think that possibly one of the best things that we could do is to ensure that every single person at that dinner who runs a big business in our country damn well gets their gender pay gap data published?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Never miss an opportunity, I say, to mention the gender pay gap. She is absolutely right that every single business and organisation that attended that dinner should report that data at least by the end of this week.

The Fawcett Society recently published a report stating that violence and harassment against women was endemic in our country, with two thirds of women over 16 reporting that they have suffered sexual harassment. Does the Minister note that the employment contracts and notes for the women attending the event as hostesses asked them to be “tall, thin and pretty” and that they had to deal with what was expected to be harassment? That is surely against the law. Will she look at employment law protections and make it certain that the law is enforced, that the Equality and Human Rights Commission looks at the event and that we get some protection for vulnerable women?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I will certainly ensure that the situation is looked at with regard to employment law. I commend the Fawcett Society, which does brilliant cross-party work to further women’s rights and women’s political representation. But clearly—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks me from a sedentary position whether these women were self-employed. I do not know anything about the Presidents Club—[Interruption.] Let me finish. I know nothing about the Presidents Club, but we will clearly look into it, particularly if there is a suggestion that the law was broken. If any hon. Member knows of something that they think should be investigated, it would probably be helpful if they used me as a conduit and sent me their emails. I will investigate and ensure that, if any law has been broken, the full force of the law will come down on those who have broken it.

Order. I selected this urgent question because I regard it as a matter of the utmost importance, and I would like to accommodate every colleague who wants to contribute. I ask colleagues to bear in mind that there is a ten-minute rule motion to follow and two Opposition day debates, the first of which is particularly heavily subscribed. If we can have brief questions and brief replies, that would be helpful, but I do want colleagues to be heard.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s response and the resignation of the individual concerned. Does the Minister agree that there is much cross-party work that we could do to ensure that such events have no place in our society and that such behaviour is condemned?

“Cross-party” is absolutely the phrase to use, and perhaps that work will start from today.

The outstanding journalism of Madison Marriage at the Financial Times shines a spotlight on a real problem in our society. Some men, especially the rich and powerful, feel entitled to women, view their bodies as playthings and think that the lecherous pawing and groping of women is acceptable behaviour. That a charity is prepared to facilitate that behaviour as long as wealthy men are opening their chequebooks beggars belief. I am glad that David Meller has stepped down from the board of the Department for Education—perhaps he was encouraged to do so—but does the Minister agree that the Charity Commission urgently needs to investigate the failure of the trustees of this charity to discharge their duties to protect health and safety and the reputation of the charity?

The hon. Lady mentions rich entitled men, but I will also mention powerful entitled men because this is not just about the rich. I gather that Great Ormond Street Hospital is not going to take the money that was raised by the event, which is a start, and I also gather that the hon. Lady has raised her point with the Charity Commission.

I thank the Minister for her robust response, which is unequivocally supported by Conservative Members. The businesses involved need to be hit in the pocket. What more can the Minister do to send out a clear message that this culture is unacceptable and to damage their profits?

Today’s contributions from all around the House should send an important message to businesses that such behaviour is unacceptable, but this does not just happen at big charity events. We have heard about sexual abuse and harassment in this House but, believe you me, it is also going on in the workplaces of businesses up and down the country.

I suggest to the Minister that this is more than a collective misjudgment; it is a deliberate sticking up of two fingers to those who are perceived to be part of the PC culture. One way in which her Department could root out this behaviour is to expedite the introduction of compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools, so that at least the next generation of men will know that it is totally unacceptable.

Sex and relationships education is now compulsory. The hon. Lady raises an important point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) also raised. What really matters is that we breed a new generation of young people who understand where the boundaries lie. What has gone so terribly wrong that we have bred young men—I suggest that a lot of people at the event were perhaps 20 or maybe even 30 years younger than me—who think that this sort of thing is acceptable?

I thank the Minister for her considered response. However, it is frankly not good enough to say that the Minister for children and families stayed a short time, which is a very subjective term—it might be an hour to some and three hours to others. Can she advise whether that same Minister reported back after he had seen, at worst, illegal or, at best, unsavoury activities during that event?

The hon. Lady will have to take me as vouching for the Minister for children and families. I know he felt deeply uncomfortable. I would be surprised if he had seen all the publicity material for the event, but I know he felt very, very uncomfortable. The hon. Lady will have to believe me that, from his demeanour this morning, the Minister for children and families was truly shocked.

I was profoundly shocked by the reports of what happened at the event organised by the Presidents Club, and I am pleased that the Minister has given such a robust condemnation of the event. Although she has been very loyal to her ministerial colleague, who reportedly did not stay for any long period of time, it is also reported that the same hon. Gentleman attended the Presidents Club event on a previous occasion. I have no idea whether that is true, but that is what has been reported. If that is the case, should he not consider his position?

I have no idea whether the Minister for children and families has attended the event before, but I know that senior Members on both sides of the House have attended this event. Let us hope that this urgent question draws a line in the sand and demonstrates to hon. Members that they should think twice about attending any event like this ever again.

With 64% of teachers in mixed secondary schools telling UK Feminista that they hear sexist language on a weekly basis, what message does the Minister think the attendance of the new Minister for children and families at this event sends to those teachers who are trying to combat sexism in their classrooms? And what action, not words, will the Department take to address it?

I know the Secretary of State will want to look at all aspects of this, not least the due diligence. The hon. Lady is right, but hearing sexist language in the playground and in schools is just the tip of the iceberg. The stories of sexual abuse, rape and harassment happening in some of our schools are shocking.

In light of the fact that a departmental non-executive director and a Minister attended this despicable event, does the Minister agree that it may be time for a review of the ministerial code of conduct and of the seven principles of public life to ensure that they reflect the commitment to the standards of equality and decency that we expect from our public servants? That will set an example and send a message to society as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking at a number of issues, and I believe the code of conduct is being reviewed. The tragedy is that we should not need a code of conduct, but we clearly do. It is a tragedy that we need it. Why do people need to be told to behave appropriately? Why do they need to be told not to use sexist or racist language? Why do they need to be told where the boundaries are? People clearly do, and that is the sadness of it. I am robust and angry, but a little bit of me is also extremely sad.

As a former Education Minister, I know jolly well that civil servants brief Ministers on what events are in their diary and give them information. I have a lot of time for the Minister. Can she find out exactly what was said to the Minister for children and families about attending the event last week?

The Minister for children and families did not attend in any official capacity. I understand that he attended not as a Minister, but as a private individual.

The Financial Times reports that lot four of the charity auction last week included lunch with the Foreign Secretary. Has the Minister spoken to him? Does she know whether the lunch is still going ahead? What message does it send out to the world that our Foreign Secretary endorses such an event?

I make it absolutely clear that the Foreign Secretary knew nothing of his inclusion in any auction, and he in no way endorsed the event.

It is absolutely clear from the Financial Times report that the women were employed to be harassed. They were forced to sign a disclaimer beforehand that they were not given time to read. Whatever the Minister’s personal views, will she take away the message from this House that we do not have confidence in the Minister for children and families, who attended the event and who is meant to be in charge of child protection?

Yes, I think they were employed to be a great deal more than harassed. We will look at all aspects of this in relation to employment law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said earlier, this brings into sharp light the women leaders—the people who run the businesses that employed these young women. We need to look at it all, and we will take robust action. Have no fear about that.

As a former teacher, I woke up this morning thinking, “What on earth will my former students be thinking this morning about the state of the world?” It is absolutely disgusting. I press the Minister on the point already made about bringing sex and relationships education into schools for the upcoming academic year. Sex and relationships education has never been more needed. Please can we have it sooner rather than later?

We have an ongoing call for evidence. [Interruption.] I think it is extremely important to hear the views of young people themselves, because they are very aware of what sort of relationship and sex education is needed. There is no doubt that the Department will make sure these guidelines are out as soon as possible, because there is clearly an urgent need. It is absolutely right that we hear the views of young people on how they feel this should be delivered.

What talks does the Minister intend to have with the Financial Times? This was not a one-off incident, and the Financial Times must have had some suspicions that something like this was going to happen. How many times has it happened before?

That is a very good question. It is important to talk to journalists about this event and about whether they know of any others, how they found out about it, et cetera, particularly if we want to pursue the issues that have been raised about a possible breach of employment law.

It seems to me that the Minister for children and families has attended this event and failed to report his concerns about its nature. Will the right hon. Lady please inquire with him as to why he did not submit a report, and will she urge him to do so even at this late stage?

The Minister for children and families submitted a report to me first thing this morning, at the earliest opportunity.

The Minister talks about the importance of talking to young people. I am sure that all Members here spend time talking to young people, and I have been shocked, in my six months of being an MP, at the young girls who have an expectation that it is normal to sleep with their boyfriend’s friends, carry their boyfriend’s knives and behave in a certain way; and language is so important, as well as words. If it transpires that the Minister did not report his concerns, and that he attended the event on previous occasions, it is obvious that he needs to resign. Our women, our young girls are too important to be getting this kind of message from our leaders and to think that it is acceptable.

Language is critical because language says more than the words that are said, because it describes underlying attitudes. With relationship and sex education in schools, I think we can make young people understand what attitudes lie behind the words that they use.

These were crimes against women, but I hope the Minister will also agree that these were crimes against a decent society, and that plenty of men share my bewilderment and revulsion at what has gone on. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) the Minister offered to be a conduit, so would she possibly be a conduit to Home Office Ministers, who might then refer the matter on to the Metropolitan police for consideration of crimes such as indecent exposure and sexual assault?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, because it is important that we all recognise that men can be very powerful agents for change, at all levels, concerning the abuse of women. The appropriate authorities will look at all of this. Obviously, today’s exchanges in the Chamber will be read by Home Office Ministers, and I know they will take this matter very seriously; I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance of that.

What can I say? It is an absolutely appalling event. It objectified women, undermines the steps we have taken towards equality and perpetuates fundamentally abuse in society. When it comes to the Minister, I have to say I believe it is absolutely incongruous to be working seriously on sexual harassment in Parliament and beyond whilst attending this type of event.

I will finish where I started, and that is to say that I share the hon. Lady’s views. Words absolutely failed me when I heard reports of this event.