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Sexual Harassment

Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support women to use the legal system to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace.

My Lords, the Government are clear that unwanted conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace that violates a person’s dignity or creates a hostile or degrading atmosphere is unlawful. Any employee placed in that situation can seek impartial advice or conciliation from ACAS or contact the Government’s Equality Advisory and Support Service or contact a citizens advice bureau before deciding whether to pursue a claim in an employment tribunal.

I thank the Minister, but I am really concerned. In the campaign that took place after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, many women went online under the heading of the “#MeToo” signature to say that they had experienced serious sexual abuse in the workplace. I am concerned about women in low-paid jobs, who do not have human resource departments, who are on the shop floor doing zero-hours contracts, for whom getting work—overtime, for example—depends on the will of or whim of supervisors who make sexual demands on them. Those are women whose lives are made really difficult. Have cuts to legal aid made a huge difference to whether women can have the reality of legal recourse? Does the overworking of the CAB also limit the opportunities of women to find out what their rights really are?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. Obviously, I am well aware of the “#MeToo” campaign, which was very effective. The high-profile cases that led to the campaign have resulted in a much greater understanding of the scope and scale of the problem, and we must use all available means to tackle it. If there is one positive thing that came out of that campaign, it is that people are far more aware of sexual harassment, whether it be low-paid workers on the shop floor right up to the Prime Minister. On the issue of legal aid, legal aid subject to the statutory merits test continues to be available for legal advice and representation for cases alleging unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation under the Equality Act.

Does the Minister agree that it is axiomatic that women or men subject to sexual harassment in the workplace should be able to obtain a proportionate and, if appropriate, serious remedy for what has occurred? Does she agree that it is equally axiomatic that those accused of such conduct should be able to enjoy due process before they are condemned?

Of course, my Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The routes to resolution are many, and they do not necessarily have to end up at an employment tribunal. Many of the grievances that victims may bring forward to those accused of this can go through an employer’s formal guidance procedure, and there is obviously the early conciliation service from ACAS. There are many different routes, and one hopes that they can be resolved early on and not result in an employment tribunal.

My Lords, sexual harassment is often an abuse of power, an imbalance of power. Can my noble friend say what the Prime Minister is doing? What leadership is she showing to ensure that this issue is tackled, particularly in Parliament? What remedies are available to people who make such complaints?

My noble friend is quite right that it is often where there is a disproportionality of power that abuse occurs. The Prime Minister took immediate action when these allegations surfaced. She set up a cross-party working group, chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, which aims to set up, as quickly as possible, an independent complaints and guidance system for everyone working in Parliament. The group is making good progress and will report back to Parliament before the Christmas Recess.

My Lords, sexual harassment in the workplace is covered under the Equality Act, but outside the workplace it is not a criminal offence in its own right. Prosecutors have to use different pieces of legislation, depending on the nature of the offence. Two-thirds of UK women report having been sexually harassed. In light of this, does the Minister think it is time for the Government to look at this and conduct a review of whether sexual harassment should be a specific criminal offence in its own right? Everyone would then be clear on what it is and where the boundaries should be.

The noble Baroness is quite right that sexual harassment and other more serious sexual offences are addressed in a number of pieces of legislation, for example the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. In these cases, the first port of call for a victim is obviously the police. The police have received a significant increase in training about sexual offences. We are not currently planning to review the legislation, as we feel that it is working.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that sexual harassment and sexual violence is a culture not limited to any one industry, workplace or institution? It is an issue rooted in unequal power relationships that treat women in a subordinate manner to men. Is she aware of reports which show that more than two-thirds of girls reported being sexually harassed at school last year? What are the Government doing to tackle this worrying problem so that girls at school can be as protected as possible?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. She is quite right; we must do whatever we can in education to ensure that everyone, young and old, understands that sexual harassment—or, indeed, any harassment—is not acceptable. Schools and parents must take responsibility for educating young people. I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that the Department for Education is currently consulting on the new relationship and sex education curriculum, which will be brought into schools as soon as it is ready.