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UK party leaders agree anti-harassment safeguards

[LONDON] British political party leaders agreed on Monday to introduce new safeguards for parliamentary staff, as Prime Minister Theresa May called for a "culture of respect" in Westminster amid a slew of sleaze and sexual harassment allegations.

The leaders of Britain's main political parties met in parliament to give the go-ahead for a new grievance procedure and a face-to-face human resources service, upgrading an existing complaints hotline.

The new service will be in place by the end of the month, while the grievance procedure will be introduced next year, Mrs May told reporters after the meeting with opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others.

"I'm sorry that we have seen these abuses of power - too many taking place over too many years," she said.

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"And the fact that they have taken place here at our seat of democracy should be a matter of shame for us all."

About a dozen MPs from both Mrs May's Conservative Party and the Labour Party have been accused of harassment in recent days and the government has admitted serious failures in reporting procedures.

Defence secretary Michael Fallon resigned last week and First Secretary of State Damian Green, Mrs May's deputy, is under investigation by the government over the claims, some of which date back several years.

Speaking to the Confederation of British Industry ahead of the meeting, Mrs May had called for the new measures.

"We need to establish a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life," she said.

She added the new culture should be "one in which everyone can feel confident that they are working in a safe and secure environment, where complaints can be brought forward without prejudice and victims know that those complaints will be investigated properly".

But Mrs May also said "people's careers cannot be damaged by unfounded rumours circulated anonymously online" after many claims made via social media.

"Of course, people can be friends with their colleagues and consensual relationships can develop at work - this isn't about prying into private lives," she said.

'WATERSHED MOMENT'

On Friday, Mrs May announced a new code of conduct for the Conservative Party - under which several MPs were referred for investigation this weekend.

Two Labour lawmakers have also been suspended, another is facing an investigation by the party and a fourth has apologised for making women feel "uncomfortable".

One change that has been mooted is to make MPs' staff direct employees of parliament rather than of the politicians themselves - an anomaly that has made some harassment victims reluctant to come forward.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said on Sunday the scandals were a "watershed moment" that was "clearing out" inappropriate behaviour but the interior minister denied Mrs May's minority government was at risk.

Mr Fallon announced his resignation on Wednesday after apologising for touching a journalist's knee in 2002.

Another journalist alleged this weekend that Mr Fallon had "lunged" at her after a lunch in 2003.

She said she reported the incident to Downing Street this week, and he resigned hours later.

Mr Green meanwhile is being investigated for his own alleged inappropriate behaviour towards a journalist, which he strongly denies.

Mr Rudd confirmed that the probe had been widened to include a newspaper report on Sunday that "extreme" pornographic material had been found on his parliamentary computer in 2008.

Mr Green has strongly denied the story in The Sunday Times and accused the police source behind it of trying to cause him political damage.

Also on Sunday, Conservative lawmaker Chris Pincher resigned from his role as a whip - enforcing party discipline - and referred himself to the party's complaints procedure and the police following allegations over his behaviour.

The move followed a report in The Mail on Sunday newspaper that Mr Pincher was accused of making an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower and Conservative activist Alex Story.

AFP

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