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British prime minister Theresa May has defends handling of the Westminster sleaze scandal

Britain's first secretary of state Damian Green PICTURE: Andrew Matthews/PA
By David Hughes, Press Association Chief Political Correspondent

British prime minister Theresa May has defended her handling of the Westminster sleaze scandal as she called for a "new culture of respect" in public life.

Mrs May said a "number of issues" that "didn't appear in the press" had led to action being taken, with MPs referred to the internal Tory grievance procedure.

Speaking at the CBI conference, Mrs May said the scandal was about the "use and abuse of power" as she renewed calls for a new cross-party approach to tackling the problem.

Asked if she could say "hand on heart" that she had not been aware of sleaze allegations before the scandal broke, she said: "Obviously what has happened over the last week, a number of stories have appeared in the press.

"A number of issues were raised with me that didn't appear in the press and you can see action has been taken.

"A number of people have been referred to the Conservative Party's grievance procedure and arrangements have been put in place.

"And a number of people have been referred to the cabinet secretary, where they are in ministerial positions it is appropriate for the Cabinet Secretary to look at these issues."

In her speech to business leaders in London, Mrs May said: "What has been revealed over the last few weeks has been deeply troubling – and has understandably led to significant public unease.

"Women and men should be able to work free from the threat or fear of harassment, bullying or intimidation.

"But for too long the powerful have been able to abuse their power, and their victims have not felt able to speak out."

Mrs May, who is hosting a meeting of party leaders later to address the issue, said: "Let me be very frank – political parties have not always got this right in the past. But I am determined to get it right for the future."

She wants to establish a new common, robust and independent grievance procedure for people working in parliament who face having to confront their MP employer or go to their political party.

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

"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.

"And where people's careers cannot be damaged by unfounded rumours circulated anonymously online.

"Of course, people can be friends with their colleagues and consensual relationships can develop at work - this isn't about prying into private lives. What we are talking about is the use and abuse of power."

Downing Street said that Mrs May was not aware of any further allegations of misconduct.

"Where allegations have been raised we have proceeded and made sure action is taken in the right way. All claims that she is aware of are being investigated in the proper way," the PM's official spokesman said.

Mrs May spoke ahead of a meeting with other party leaders designed to get agreement on parliament-wide anti-harassment procedures, with sleaze allegations continuing to dominate Westminster.

First secretary of state Damian Green is being interviewed on Monday as part of a Cabinet Office investigation which has been expanded to include claims that pornography was found on one of his parliamentary computers in 2008.

Mr Green, who is effectively the prime minister's deputy, has strongly denied the claims.

The inquiry was triggered after Kate Maltby, who is three decades younger than Mr Green, claimed he "fleetingly" touched her knee during a meeting in a Waterloo pub in 2015, and a year later sent her a "suggestive" text message after she was pictured wearing a corset in a newspaper.

Mr Green said any allegation that he made sexual advances to Ms Maltby was "untrue [and] deeply hurtful".

The probe was broadened after The Sunday Times reported that a statement prepared by ex-Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Bob Quick alleged "extreme porn" was discovered by officers searching Mr Green's parliamentary office following a spate of leaks of Home Office information in 2008.

Mr Quick said that he had not disclosed the allegations to the newspaper.

The first secretary of state said: "This story is completely untrue and comes from a tainted and untrustworthy source.

"The allegations about the material and computer, now nine years old, are false, disreputable political smears from a discredited police officer. And amount to little more than an unscrupulous character assassination."

Mr Quick is also being interviewed by the Cabinet Office inquiry.

Chris Pincher became the latest Tory MP to become embroiled in controversy when he stood down from the Whips' Office and referred himself to the party's complaints procedure and the police following allegations over his behaviour.

The move came after the Mail on Sunday reported that Mr Pincher had been accused of making an unwanted pass at former Olympic rower and Conservative activist Alex Story.

Mr Pincher told the newspaper: "If Mr Story has ever felt offended by anything I said then I can only apologise to him."

On a turbulent weekend for the Tories, which saw four MPs referred to the party's newly established disciplinary committee regarding allegations against them, home secretary Amber Rudd signalled that MPs found guilty of sexual harassment could be kicked out of the Commons.

The home secretary said she wanted the sanction of sacking MPs to be considered as part of a major overhaul of anti-harassment procedures at Westminster.

She told Sky News: "I think that that is one of the things that I would encourage the review to look at. It may be the case, it may not."

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