My Lords, we condemn all forms of workplace harassment, which is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. The Government are looking at all aspects of the wholly unacceptable behaviour which is alleged to have happened at the Presidents Club dinner. The Prime Minister has committed to reviewing non-disclosure agreements and any evidence that comes forward. The EHRC has sent a pre-enforcement letter to the Artista agency raising concerns about its actions, and the Charity Commission is considering whether further regulatory action is needed for charitable trusts.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Many reports on this incident have claimed that the women employed at the recent Presidents Club charity dinner knew what they were letting themselves in for, yet of the 360 male guests, none saw what was going on and apparently they all left early. This has exposed the fact that these women, some as young as 18, were required to sign their rights away under gagging clauses, and were not allowed to talk about or report any sexual harassment or discrimination. How will women be protected from these crimes that may be committed against them, and how can they be made aware of their rights?
My Lords, it is important to understand that non-disclosure agreements, which I think the noble Baroness is referring to and which are sometimes called confidentiality agreements, may legitimately form part of a contract of employment. But these would be legitimate to protect trade secrets, for example. They cannot preclude an individual from asserting statutory rights, either under the Employment Rights Act or the Equality Act 2010.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed response, which was helpful. The obtaining of charitable status brings responsibilities, and many people are shocked that the Presidents Club was a charity. Will the Minister elaborate a bit more on guidance that is given to charities—surely there is no place for a charity to issue gagging orders or confidentiality agreements—and please ensure that this is a thing of the past?
My Lords, every time something like this happens we hope that it is a thing of the past, and there have now been quite a few occasions at which this sort of behaviour has gone on. The Charity Commission is interested in this matter because of whether this charity acted in accordance with the rules.
Does the Minister agree that Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 was an important provision, providing protection for employees against harassment from third parties? Unfortunately, the coalition Government repealed the section in 2013, even though they held a consultation and 71% of people said they would like to keep it in. Does the Minister agree that Section 40 should be reinstated in order to guarantee legal protection against harassment from third parties, and would she go further and revise it so that it requires only one previous incident of third party harassment instead of the previous requirement of two or more? In that way, all those who experience harassment, wherever they work, will have some measure of protection.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. In 2013, the coalition Government did indeed repeal specific provisions of Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 which explicitly made an employer liable where they knew an employee had been harassed at work by a third party on at least two previous occasions and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. These provisions, as well as being quite confusing, were considered redundant, as an employer can be liable for third party harassment under the ordinary harassment provisions in Section 26 of the Act.
My Lords, given that these young women are not very confident, is it not unreasonable to expect them to read gagging orders, find out what the problem is and then deal with it? Would it not be better to put the responsibility on the employers, who should not be employing them in the first place with this kind of responsibility?
My Lords, I think the noble Baroness has made the point that I was trying, perhaps not very articulately, to make. A gagging clause will not, in and of itself, protect an employer or someone who is, say, employing, a waitress for an evening. In fact, it will go further than that and void that contract or agreement.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that if you want to influence the behaviour of men you should start when they are boys? That is why it is very important that the curriculum for PSHE lessons includes elements that ensure that young people leaving school understand that both genders should be properly respected.
The noble Baroness makes a very good point. It is only in educating our children through PSHE, relationships and sex education that that culture of respect towards one another, the opposite sex, and, for young girls, towards themselves, will change.
I hope that if any good can come out of this pretty grubby incident, it will be to highlight the fact that employers, or, indeed, people employing casual staff for the night, cannot hide behind confidentiality or gagging clauses if this sort of behaviour goes on, because they will be void.
The noble Baroness makes a very good point. The person who raised this was a journalist and she was also a woman. I understand that the Presidents Club has been meeting for 33 years and this is the first time, to my knowledge, that this sort of behaviour has been reported at one of its events.