Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has apologised for putting his hand on a female journalist’s knee.
The incident involved Julia Hartley-Brewer, who said she does not regard it as anything other but “mildly amusing”, and came to light as sexual harassment at Westminster became a focus in the wake of reports that International Trade Minister Mark Garnier asked his secretary to buy sex toys for him and calling her “sugar tits”.
A spokesman for Sir Michael said: “He had apologised when the incident happened 15 years ago and both Julia and he now considered the matter closed.”
A friend of Sir Michael said: “Julia’s a good friend of Michaels. He overstepped the mark when he put his hand on her knee. She made it clear it was unwelcome and he rightly apologised 15 years ago.”
Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “I have spoken previously about a Cabinet Minister who repeatedly put his hand on my knee during a party conference dinner.
“I calmly and politely explained to him that if he did it again I would punch him in the face. He withdrew his hand and that was the end of the matter.
“I have had no issues since with the man in question and do not regard the incident as anything but mildly amusing.”
In a statement, Hartley-Brewer went on to criticize how the distinction between flirting and sexual harassment were being merged in some media reports.
“I believe it is absurd and wrong to treat workplace banter and flirting – and even misjudged sexual overtures – between consenting adults as being morally equivalent to serious sexual harassment or assault.
“It demeans genuine victims of real offences. Anyone with any allegations against an MP, or anyone else, should speak up now and provide the evidence to ensure any necessary action is taken.
“I have not been a victim and I don’t wish to take part in what I believe has now become a Westminster witch hunt.”
Commenting on the Sun’s front page story on the incident, Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “This happened in 2002. No one was remotely upset or distressed by it. My knees remain intact.”
This view was shared by Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of the New Statesman.
The revelation came as Parliamentary authorities are drawing up plans to allow victims of sexual harassment to report incidents “without fear” with abuse allegations continuing to dominate Westminster.
Commons Speaker John Bercow met with senior parliamentary figures on the House of Commons Commission to plot a way forward as fresh claims of sexually intimidating behaviour emerged.
In the latest of a slew of allegations about MPs misconduct, the Daily Telegraph reported that a minister’s inappropriate actions forced two female staff members to move to other jobs.
A spokesman for Commons Speaker John Bercow, who chaired the Commission meeting, said: “The Commission discussed the recent allegations relating to the harassment of staff, following todays exchanges in the House of Commons.
“It recognised that the current processes for dealing with this required review and a more thorough understanding of how they are put into practice by political parties.
“The Commission therefore committed to urgent work, in concert with the key stakeholders, to identify a way forward which would command general confidence and enable people to speak up without fear or favour.”
Earlier, Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs that ministers would be sacked for inappropriate behaviour, saying: “If people are made to feel uncomfortable, that is not correct.
“In terms of the consequences for the perpetrators, I think I’ve also been perfectly clear that in the case of staff they could forfeit their jobs, in the case of Members of Parliament they could have the whip withdrawn and they could be fired from ministerial office.”
In a statement to MPs, Bercow called for change in Parliament amid what he described as “disturbing allegations about a culture of sexual harassment”.
Leadsom is pressing the case for the establishment of a new external, specially trained support team to offer confidential advice and support to anyone suffering from sexual harassment at Westminster.
The move came as a Cabinet Office investigation got under way into alleged misconduct by Garnier.
Theresa May’s official spokesman earlier declined to confirm that the Prime Minister has full confidence in Garnier, saying he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry.
The Wyre Forest MP has insisted that the incidents did not amount to harassment, describing the purchase of the vibrators as an instance of “high jinks”.
Julia Hartley-Brewer’s statement on Twitter
I have received a number of calls today from newspapers and broadcasters asking me to comment on a claim that I was the victim of sexual harassment by a current Cabinet minister.
I have spoken previously about a Cabinet minister who repeatedly put his hand on my knee during a party conference dinner. I calmly and politely explained to him that, if he did it again, I would “punch him in the face”. He withdrew his hand and that was the end of the matter.
I have had no issues since with the man in question and do not regard the incident as anything but mildly amusing, which is why I have declined to name him. It has also been claimed that the same minister made remarks to me about my breasts. If he did, I certainly don’t recall those comments.
Wild rumours and claims are circulating about many male MPs at Westminster in a media feeding frenzy. I have worked in and around Westminster for 20 years and, as far as I am aware, incidents of genuine harassment involve only a small number of MPs from all parties.
I believe it is absurd and wrong to treat workplace banter and flirting – and even misjudged sexual overtures – between consenting adults as being morally equivalent to serious sexual harassment or assault.
It demeans genuine victims of real offences. Anyone with any allegations against an MP, or anyone else, should speak up now and provide the evidence to ensure any necessary action is taken.
I have not been a victim and I don’t wish to take part in what I believe has now become a Westminster witch hunt.