Parliament ‘above the law’ on sexual harassment 26 February 2019 BY SAM SMETHERS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE AT THE FAWCETT SOCIETY Last year was dominated by #MeToo. The year when the world woke up to the fact that we all have a right to live and work in dignity, free from harassment and abuse. The legacy of that year continues with more news expected on Harvey Weinstein in the coming weeks. Employers have become more aware of the need to tackle the normalisation of sexual harassment in their workplace culture and we’ve had Philip Green named in parliament as the subject of a number of accusations. We have also seen Westminster itself under the spotlight on this issue. So, working with law firm Hogan Lovells, Fawcett wanted to take a look at the extent to which parliament itself operates like any other workplace in terms of legal protections for those who work there. Our new report reveals that MPs are not covered by the relevant section, (Part 5) of the Equality Act (2010), because they are not employees. Rather they are elected office holders and they are exempt under the Act. Peers too, are not treated as personal or public office holders under the Act. So, unlike the staff who work for them and other employees in the Palace of Westminster, those who make the laws are not protected against sexual harassment under the law. If a criminal offence such as assault or stalking is committed then the criminal law would apply, but sexual harassment covers a range of behaviours, some of which are not criminal, so this gap matters. Hang on, who put these exemptions into the Act then? Er, that would probably be MPs and Peers themselves, or at least the government at the time, but voted for by the Members of both Houses. I would hazard a guess that they were drafted because the norm is that we treat parliament as a bit of a special case. The laws applying to everyone else somehow don’t have to apply to parliament because, a bit like a private members’ club, MPs and Peers can regulate themselves. Although, the Leadsom inquiry and Cox report show very clearly that this is not the case. Parliament is clearly in need of some significant reform and the focus has been on how to change the workplace culture and practices, to address a lack of protection for those reporting abuse and a lack of accountability. Sexual harassment is about an abuse of power and that power imbalance is amplified in parliament. Staff who work in the Palace of Westminster are covered by the law as it stands, but there is no protection in the current Act against harassment from third parties i.e co-workers who have a different employer, clients, customers. In parliament it is very common for a staff member employed by the House authorities or another MP to come into contact with someone who is not their employer nor employed by the same employer. The law does not cover those situations. For volunteers the position is worse. They are not deemed to be employees so they are not protected at all. This is true of all workplaces, not just parliament. But it matters here because it is very common to see volunteers or interns working in MPs’ offices. They tend to be young and inexperienced, ideal candidates for people whom the law ought to be protecting. But in its narrow definitions, it does not. So what needs to change? Firstly, just as we did with baby leave for MPs and the introduction of proxy voting, we have to bring parliament into the real world and ensure that everyone working in it is protected. Australia, New Zealand and Denmark manage to do it so we can too. We also need to strengthen and extend section 40 of the Equality Act which would protect all workers from third party harassment. But we also need a new legal duty to prevent sexual harassment, backed up by a statutory code of practice. Finally, the recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox must be implemented. 80% of the public want to see independent investigations, 70% want meaningful sanctions. If we want to get more women into politics, and to stop turning the electorate off, we cannot delay reform any longer. If anything, Parliament should hold itself to a higher standard but at the moment it is falling far short of that. ABOUT AUTHOR Sam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society. We launched the Sex Discrimination Law Review to defend legislative protections for women in the face of Brexit, and also chart a course for the future by setting a progressive agenda for women's rights in the UK. The resulting report, which is the first of its kind, concludes that violence against women and girls is ‘endemic’ in the UK, and that our legal system is failing women and needs fundamental reform. READ OUR FULL REPORT ON THE SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN PARLIAMENT HERE If you believe in creating a more progressive agenda for Britain, take a stand with us. Join us today.