Gaps in equality legislation leave Parliament 'above the law' on sexual harassment

By agency reporter
February 28, 2019

New research published on 26 February 2019 has revealed MPs, Peers, volunteers and staff are unprotected if they are sexually harassed in Parliament. The report by the Fawcett Society and global law firm, Hogan Lovells, found glaring gaps in equality law covering these groups. MPs and Peers are exempt from Part 5 of the Equality Act (2010), which includes provisions on sexual harassment in the workplace that apply to employees. Volunteers are left completely unprotected and staff who are sexually harassed by a third party are also not covered.

The report also reveals:

  • 73 per cent of both men and women believe there needs to be a change in how unwanted sexual behaviour is dealt with in politics. Little difference in opinion was shown across gender, political affiliation or age
  • Strong public support for sanctions against MPs, with 70 per cent backing removing the MP from office and banning them from running for a period of time
  • 70 per cent of people think that the MP’s constituents should be able to trigger a by-election
  • 70 per cent think the MP should be required to issue a public apology
  • 80 per cent back independent investigations into allegations of sexual harassment
  • The issue has knocked public confidence and engagement in politics with 29 per cent of people saying that accusations of sexual harassment made them less likely to get involved in politics and 23 per cent said it has made them less likely to vote

The report is launched amidst heightened focus on sexual harassment in Parliament following Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom’s inquiry into bullying and harassment of the staff of MPs and the complaint about sexual harassment which was made against Lord Lester which was upheld by the House of Lords Privileges and Conduct Committee. Since these allegations, new measures have been introduced to enable those who work in Parliament to report sexual harassment, but they do not address gaps in the law.

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Chief Executive said: “Everyone is entitled to work in dignity, free from harassment and abuse. Parliament and other political workplaces should be no different.  However, MPs and peers have exempted themselves from the Equality Act, making Parliament effectively ‘above the law’ on this issue and leaving women unprotected. This is fundamentally unacceptable.”

“It is vital that we increase women's representation in Parliament, but in order to do that we need to end sexual harassment in our politics which is deterring women from getting involved and also alienating voters.” Volunteers and interns, who are often young and inexperienced, can routinely be found working in Parliament so it should be of concern to all of us that they are left completely unprotected by the law.”

Jo Broadbent, Counsel at Hogan Lovells, commented: "Parliament is a working environment. Like any other, people need to feel safe and protected, and know that there is an accessible and independent system in place that can be trusted to evaluate complaints fairly. As a national legislature, making laws about employment, Parliament should itself be setting an example for all those responsible for the working environments of people in the UK".  

Dame Laura Cox added: “This compelling report provides a timely, comprehensive and comparative review of the gaps and exemptions in our equality laws, which leave many of those working in our Parliament unprotected if they are sexually harassed in the course of their work. The views expressed in the public survey are striking. They reveal the extent of the damage being done to public confidence by the present state of affairs and serve as a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in apathy or delay. The report as a whole presents a cogent and powerful case for urgent reform.”

The Fawcett Society is calling for:

  • The Government to reform legislation to ensure that everyone working in the parliamentary estate is protected. The report points to Australia, Denmark and New Zealand as examples where MPs and volunteers are covered under existing laws.
  • Section 40 of the Equality Act to be strengthened and reinstated. This would provide third party protection for all workers.
  • A new legal duty on employers to prevent and tackle sexual harassment, backed up by a statutory code of practice.
  • The recommendations made in Laura Cox’s report to be implemented, ensuring that the future complaints process in Parliament needs to be completely independent and transparent and prioritises the wishes of the complainant in the process.
  • Independent complaints policies within political parties which are effective and adequately address sexual harassment.

 Additional findings:

  • The public is in favour of making sexual harassment complaints public, if the complainant wants it: 43 per cent think that investigations should be made public so that other victims can come forward, whereas slightly fewer (36 per cent of respondents) thought that investigations should be kept private to protect the anonymity of the MP. Seventy six per cent of people think that if an investigation was to take place, information about it should only be made public if the accusations are found to be true.
  • Internal party complaint processes for reporting and dealing with sexual harassment are ineffective: individual testimonies of women submitted to the report show that party processes are slow, inefficient and ineffective.

* Read the report Sexual harassment in Parliament: protecting MPs, Peers, volunteers and staff here

* Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

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