Committee chair says it is clear the current system is broken, and TUC boss says abuse is happening on ‘industrial scale’
The government must urgently strengthen laws around sexual harassment to stop abuse continuing on “an industrial scale”, according to a coalition of MPs, union leaders and women’s groups.
Under increasing pressure to take meaningful action to tackle harassment after a deluge of scandals in Westminster and Hollywood, MPs are launching a formal inquiry into the subject.
Evidence from police, women’s groups and legal experts could pave the way for a hardening of laws and lead Britain to follow the example of countries such as Belgium and Portugal in making street harassment illegal.
The inquiry will concentrate on whether current laws around sexual harassment in public places are sufficient, and the impact of harassment on victims and society.
Maria Miller, chair of the Commons women and equalities select committee, which will lead the inquiry, told the Guardian it would push the government to disclose how it is dealing with sexual harassment, which is not currently central to its strategy on violence against women and girls.
“I think it’s clear that the current system is broken,” Miller said. “It’s all well and good to have strong laws when it comes to sexual harassment, but if we have a culture that has accepted it for decades as part of the price of being a woman then we have to change that culture [and] make sure our laws are the best they can be.”
According to a YouGov survey, 52% of women aged 18 to 24 say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, and 38% say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching. Reported sexual offences on trains and tubes have more than doubled in the past five years. Research from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project suggests half of all working women – and two-thirds of young women – have been sexually harassed at work.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said recent government policies had actively contributed to creating working conditions where abusers could thrive.
“It’s not just a case of them failing on this; they have made the situation worse,” O’Grady told the Guardian. “The government has removed protections from women and they have made it harder for women to get justice. It is about power and I don’t think women should be expected to solve this on their own.”
She pointed to the government’s decisions to introduce employment tribunal fees, scrap employers’ duty to protect workers from third-party harassment, and abolish an equality questionnaire.
The law had to be strengthened and damaging policies reversed, she said. “If the government was honest about their contribution to making this problem worse, maybe they would be in a position to think about how to put things right and ask what is going on in the world of work when we are seeing the abuse of women on an industrial scale.”
O’Grady accused the government of failing to tackle insecure work, which left workers more vulnerable to abuse. Research by ComRes for the BBC found workers on zero-hours contracts and in insecure work were more likely to receive abuse.
Hospitality workers told the Guardian that employers regularly withheld shifts if complaints about sexual harassment were made about managers or clientele. One bar worker said there was no point moving elsewhere as abuse was likely to happen in every bar. “That’s why you put up with it,” she said.
Charlotte Bence, a hospitality coordinator for Unite, said removing the duty to protect workers from third parties had “effectively allowed employers in the hospitality industry to wash their hands of the issue and given a free pass to bad customers to sexually harass workers”. She added: “Employers need to get a grip and put in place dignity at work policies. Workers can get the added protection of joining a union like Unite.”
Bence said government policies had also deliberately attempted to weaken trade union membership, which she argued gave workers “the best chance of preventing harassment in the first place”.
The women and equality committee’s inquiry is likely to consider evidence from Portugal and Belgium, where street harassment is illegal. “We are potentially a little way behind some of our neighbours in Europe in dealing with this problem in a way that gives women the confidence to report it,” said Miller.
It is also likely to call on Nottinghamshire police, which last year took the decision to record misogynistic abuse as a hate crime.
Miller said “hard questions” needed to be asked about the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in workplace sexual harassment cases. “We have to turn the worm on this. Non-disclosure agreements have become incredibly prevalent in many employment situations in a way they were never designed to, with very few rules in place.”
Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said there was a desperate need for the government to face up to the problem and gather more data. “We are at a tipping-point moment where we can either retreat back into our comfort zone or we can say this is really bad for our economy and our society and we are going to end it. And that will require difficult conversations, some data and probably some legislation.”
She called for the use of NDAs to be tracked and for sexual harassment complaints to be recorded in a similar manner to maternity discrimination claims.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which is expected to publish a wide-ranging review calling for a change in the law next week, said direct action was required. “I don’t think we will get there unless we look at the law. Warm words are never going to be enough,” she said.
“We are only at the beginning of solving this problem, we are at the point of waking up to it as a society, but we are a long way from dealing with it.”