Do different rules apply to sexual harassment at Westminster?

As the scandal continues to rage around parliament, Tania Goodman considers how Westminster employees can protect themselves

When sexual harassment happens in the workplace, the vast majority of organisations have clear policies and HR departments that are able to guide and support staff through the process to ensure fair play and enable appropriate disciplinary sanctions to be applied to the perpetrators.

However, the situation is not so clear cut within Westminster. Labour MP John Mann has said that there are no effective and credible reporting lines and that it should not be a matter for the party whips.

The problem is that MPs are self-employed and employ their staff directly. If they behave inappropriately towards them, there is no defined mechanism within Westminster to deal with the situation.

The employee could bring a claim in the employment tribunal against their employer (the MP) for sexual discrimination and harassment, as long as it is brought within three months of the act complained of, but in reality this rarely happens as many victims do not want to jeopardise their political career – which is just how the Hollywood glitterati felt until someone was brave enough to blow the whistle on Harvey Weinstein.  

Now the climate is changing, what recourse will public servants in Westminster have to protect themselves? Since 2014, parliament has opened a confidential hotline enabling staff to report harassment and bullying, although it is not known how effective this has been.

Theresa May’s spokeswoman has recently said: “Any allegations that may come to light will be taken extremely seriously and we would advise people to contact the police if there is such an allegation, so it can be fully investigated.”

That’s all very well, but the police will only be interested in very serious incidents of sexual harassment that constitute assault. The more benign remarks, innuendos and knee touching will not be investigated by the police but would not be tolerated by most responsible employers.

Given Michael Fallon’s recent fall from grace and the shockwaves reverberating around parliament, bad behaviour might be curtailed in the short term but this does not answer concerns about the lack of meaningful employment protection for many who work in politics.

This responsibility should perhaps rest with each political party to have its own clearly stated policy on sexual harassment and publish the sanctions for those who breach it. Logically, this should require expulsion from the party as an inevitable consequence after buying into a zero-tolerance philosophy. The question is whether political parties really have the stomach for such a response. 

Tania Goodman is head of employment at Collyer Bristow