The 2019 BMA annual representative meeting (ARM) voted in favour of all five parts of a motion condemning the BMA's existing in-house complaints process as 'not fit for purpose', warning that 'BMA members with valid complaints are actively discouraged from raising a concern due to the current complaints system'.
Doctors backed a statement that 'sexism and harassment are not seriously addressed by the BMA', and welcomed the independent investigation set up after senior GPs spoke out earlier this year about incidents including being harassed, excluded and in one case sent a naked photo by a male colleague. They called for its findings to be published and recommendations to be implemented.
The debate, which came just days after doctors began giving evidence to the investigation, exposed fresh concerns about sexism and harassment within the BMA, with one junior doctor speaking out about medical students who had been propositioned or groped by a senior BMA official.
Dr Jennifer Barclay said a colleague who attended ARM some years earlier as a second-year medical student had been forced to ask other council members to intervene to stop 'drunk and creepy' behaviour by a 'senior member who was on council at the time'.
The man called the student 'the hottest lesbian he had ever seen' and made comments about taking her home to bed, Dr Barclay told the conference. She said the same man had later been witnessed behaving in a similar way at other BMA events, and that two years later he had approached another medical student. 'This time it progressed to groping,' the junior doctor said - to cries of 'shame' from conference delegates.
Dr Barclay argued against the conference condemning the existing BMA complaints process, however. She said that when the first incident occured to her colleague, 'there was no process, no guidance or support', but that BMA processes had changed by the time the groping incident took place.
'This time there was a process in place. A complaint was submitted, the individual was suspended from his elected position and subsequently decided to step down,' she said.
Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer, whose decision to speak out earlier this year along with fellow GPC member Dr Zoe Norris triggered the BMA investigation, told the ARM that other women felt unable to speak out as it would 'make their BMA life too difficult'.
She told the ARM: 'I have served on national branch of practice committees for 18 years, maintaining corporate confidentiality throughout. Deciding to speak out was not undertaken lightly.
'By going public, I know that I will have offended many of you who feel that the current processes should have been used. But here lies the issue - it appears the current processes are not trusted by the people who need them most.'
She urged the conference not to 'pre-judge the independent investigation' by backing the existing BMA complaints process.
East Lothian GP Dr Amy Small told the conference that when she became involved in the BMA in 2010 she had 'naively thought in the 21st century that sexism and bullying were not issues that I would have to face in my own union'.
Dr Small revealed that she was among doctors who have given evidence to Daphne Romney QC, the senior barrister leading the investigation into sexism and harassment within the BMA.
She said: 'I spent an hour and 20 minutes with Daphne Romney QC last week. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary and vitally important. She needs to have the information to help move the organisation forwards. I have the utmost faith in her, in her confidentiality and fair and unbiased approach. I urge any of you who have ever experienced or witnessed behaviours that fall short to contact her.'
Dr Bramall-Stainer urged the BMA to tackle problems with sexism and harassment, by making a decision to 'own it, acknowledge it and change it.'
Buckinghamshire GP Dr Matt Mayer, who proposed the motion debated at the conference - chosen only after a last-minute BMA U-turn - said: 'When colleagues tell us they have been subject to sexist abuse we owe it to them, to our organisation and above all to our members to take it seriously.'
He said that although there were examples where the complaints process worked well, it had not worked for others. 'If you have a bucket with holes in it, it is not fit for purpose,' he said.
Dr Mayer warned that Daphne Romney must be given 'the freedom to tell us the truth'. He added: 'We can pretend our processes are fine, or we can examine the processes, scrutinise ourselves and recognise that we have a very long way to go before we get this right.'
Responding to the debate, BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said he wanted the BMA to be a 'learning organisation' - and thanked people who had come forward to speak out about sexism and harassment.
He said that he hoped doctors could see that the BMA was taking concerns about sexism and harassment seriously - pointing out that he had met with the Medical Women's Federation (MWF) soon after doctors initially spoke out.
In addition to launching the independent investigation, the BMA has announced a joint conference with the MWF on gender bias to take place later this year, and has said that elected members will be obliged to undergo equality and inclusion training.
Doctors wishing to report concerns - both current and former members of the BMA - can contact the investigation by email at email@example.com.
Read the motion in full:
Motion by BUCKINGHAMSHIRE DIVISION: That this meeting:
i) believes the current BMA in-house complaints procedure is not fit for purpose;
ii) believes that BMA members with valid complaints are actively discouraged from raising a concern due to the current complaint system;
iii) believes that sexism and harassment are not seriously addressed by the BMA;
iv) welcomes the announcement of an independent external investigation into recent complaints of sexism and harassment within the BMA , as long as the investigator has the confidence of the complainants;
v) expects the findings of the external investigation into complaints of sexism an harassment within the BMA to be published in a timely manner and any recommendations to improve the complaints procedure to be implemented.