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London: Hostesses groped at men-only charity event attended by rich and powerful

The Financial Times newspaper said hostesses were told to wear skimpy black dresses with matching underwear before being paraded in front of men.

world Updated: Jan 24, 2018 21:39 IST
Reuters
Reuters
Reuters, London
London charity gala,Financial Express newspaper,FT report
A marcher carries a sign with the popular Twitter hashtag #MeToo used by people speaking out against sexual harassment as she takes part in a Women's March in Seattle on January 20. (AP Photo)

Women hired to entertain businessmen and politicians at a men-only charity fundraising gala in London were groped, propositioned and sexually harassed at the secretive event, the Financial Times newspaper said on Wednesday.

Coming at a time of intense public debate about sexual harassment in the workplace, the report caused an immediate backlash against the Presidents Club charity. One major corporate sponsor severed ties and two children’s hospitals announced they would return all donations.

The Financial Times reported that over a six-hour period, hostesses hired for the gala had been subject to fondling, lunging, attempts to kiss them, lewd comments and requests to join guests in hotel bedrooms.

Some said men had put their hands up their skirts, the report said, and one complained a guest had exposed his penis to her.

The club’s Charitable Trust, which says on its website it was founded more than three decades ago to raise funds for underprivileged children, told the newspaper that organisers were appalled by the account. “Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action will be taken.”

The Trust’s two joint chairmen were unavailable for comment.

In a hastily convened debate in parliament, furious women politicians lined up to denounce the behaviour described in the article as despicable.

“It is quite extraordinary to me that in the 21st century allegations of this kind are still emerging,” said Anne Milton, junior education minister, during the debate. “Words fail me.”

She announced that luxury goods businessman David Meller, one of co-organisers of the event, was stepping down as a non-executive board member at her ministry.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said she had been uncomfortable reading about the event, pointedly noting that as a woman she would not have been invited.

The Presidents Club gala had been an annual fixture on London’s social calendar, attended by property tycoons, financiers, politicians and other powerful men.

The newspaper sent two people undercover to work at the event held last week at the Dorchester Hotel on prestigious Park Lane. It was attended by about 360 men from business, finance and politics.

About 130 women had been hired to work as hostesses.

“Add spice to your wife”

The report said the hostesses were told to wear skimpy black dresses with matching underwear and “sexy” high-heel shoes before being paraded in front of braying men.

It said they all had to sign a five-page non-disclosure agreement about the event, though they were not given copies to keep.

Lots put up for auction included a night at a strip club and a course of plastic surgery, with the invitation “Add spice to your wife”.

The description of the event, with inebriated men in tuxedos pulling young women into their laps and groping them, conjured up stereotypes that women politicians said they had previously thought were a thing of the past.

“I think there is an association between rich, wealthy people and this sort of behaviour. We have to send a clear message that this is unacceptable,” Milton told parliament.

The Financial Times said the Presidents Club trust had two joint chairmen, London property developer Bruce Ritchie and Meller, who also runs a chain of schools.

Reuters contacted Ritchie’s Residential Land company, Meller’s luxury goods firm Meller Designs and his educational trust to seek comment about the FT report. No one was made available to speak about it.

Officials at the Bank of England said they were appalled that such an event could take place in the City today. One of the lots on offer at the auction was tea with the Governor Mark Carney, but the Bank said it had not approved the prize.

Also on offer for big donors was lunch with Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary. The Foreign Office declined immediate comment.

One of the people who attended the event was Conservative member of parliament Nadhim Zahawi, who is also a junior minister in the education department.

Milton told parliament Zahawi had not stayed long, prompting jeers from opposition lawmakers.

“I know he found the event extremely uncomfortable. He left and he was truly shocked by the reports that have emerged,” said Milton, adding that men from several political parties had attended Presidents Club events.

“You look far too sober”

The Financial Times reported that at an after-party, held in a smaller room off the main lobby of the Dorchester, a man described as a prominent society figure had grabbed a hostess by the waist and pulled her in against his stomach.

“You look far too sober,” the man was reported as saying. “I want you to down that glass, rip off your knickers (underwear) and dance on that table.”

The Dorchester Hotel said it was deeply concerned over allegations. “We are in discussions with the organisers and an investigation is underway.”

The Charity Commission, the not-for-profit sector regulator, said it would be urgently investigating the Presidents Club.

Two children’s hospitals, London’s Great Ormond Street (GOSH) and Evelina children’s hospital, said it would be returning previous donations from the organisation.

“We would never knowingly accept donations raised in this way,” GOSH said in a statement.

Advertising group WPP said it had traditionally sponsored a table at the annual event, but would now be ending its association with it.

First Published: Jan 24, 2018 17:10 IST