Jess Phillips MP on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The Panel: Catherine Atkinson, Deeba Syed, Ava Etamadzadeh and Jess Phillips MP

SLL and Fabian Society members met on the evening of Monday 2 July to discuss policy ideas to combat and investigate sexual harassment both as a future Labour government.

SLL Secretary, employment barrister and PPC for Erewash, Catherine Atkinson, opened the meeting by setting out the legal framework. Sexual Harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and with the purpose or effect of either violating the target’s privacy or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. The test includes the target’s own perception but is broadly objective, asking whether that perception was reasonable. Catherine noted that the same principle applies to harassment targeted at any other ‘protected characteristic’ (i.e. age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation). Further, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 creates a criminal offence of deliberate harassment (again tested objectively) and a civil remedy of damages for victims of that offence, with injunctions available in the interim.

The biggest frustration with the current law is the time limit: 3 months in employment claims. This can be debarring and there is growing consensus on the need for change. Secondly, employers are currently under no duty to take preventative steps to prevent harassment. A form of ‘vicarious liability’ would assist but should be extended to include interns and volunteers. Catherine pointed to the recommendations of the EHRC report ‘Ending sexual harassment at work‘: 1) extending the limitation period to 6 months; 2) introducing interim relief; and 3) allowing tribunals to make recommendations for future good practice.

Deeba Syed questioned why SH seems so prevalent currently (including reports within the Labour Party)? Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, suggested that the problem cuts across politics and centres on the exploitation of power dynamics. Young people eager for a career in politics are easy to take advantage of. Catherine Atkinson pointed out that the legal world must get its house in order: BSB and Law Society stats show a large-scale problem which is unsurprising given the huge differences in power between partner and trainee or QC and pupil. On a wider scale, the modern ‘gig economy’ is a breeding ground for abuse of power, as are unpaid internships and volunteering.

Ava Etamadzadeh told us about the accusations of sexual harassment she has made, beginning by explaining how the imbalance of power between politician and student can feel overwhelming. She first complained in 2014 and then complained again in September 2017, after the announcement of the party’s new policy. Her disappointments with the procedure were 1) the delay: she still has not received a date for a hearing of her application; 2) lack of clarity: no legal representation or clear explanation of the procedure; 3) lack of independence (the NEC are tasked with investigating their friends and colleagues); 4) lack of specialism in the investigation. She recommended mandatory training for young people working in politics and clear policies and procedures for dealing with harassment.

Jess Phillips MP decried the Party’s lack of response to sexual harassment as a dereliction of duty: we must get our house in order, then Parliament as a whole. She outlined the Inquiry into Sexual Harassment’s plan for a potential independent Parliamentary probe into sexual harassment, to be overseen by the Parliamentary standards committee. The decision-making panel would include lay people, whose voices would be hard to ignore. She hoped to include a power to remove an MP from their seat in the most extreme cases. Attendees pointed out that Parliamentary staff are frequently employed by their MP: for Jess this is an outdated system that does not reflect the reality of the relationship, as well as an unnecessary bother for MPs!

Will improved policies end sexual harassment? Perhaps not, but they ought to improve access to a remedy. For that matter, Catherine pointed out Labour’s role in campaigning for claimants to have genuine Access to Justice, advice centres and to the Courts. It’s more likely the long-term solution will require wider cultural change, but the first thing the Labour Party can do is to crack down on misogyny in our own institution. We heard about CLP and council meetings that can feel like an oppressive and sexist environment. Jess is confident this issue is on Jennie Forby’s agenda and that the party will make progress in the coming months. Catherine expressed the hope that Labour could spearhead the best example, but in the meantime calls that we are the pot calling the kettle black shouldn’t stop us aspiring for better policies to address the wider problem of sexual harassment in the workplace to implement once in government.

What can members of SLL do in the meantime? 1) Help plan our policies for Jess and other ministers; 2) Sign Ava’s petition for an independent Party complaints system 3) Pass @LabourWomensNet‘s CLP motion: 4) Call out sexual harassment when you see it: Jess asked us to learn to enjoy those awkward conversations!

For information about the Society of Labour Lawyers, Young Labour Lawyers or the Fabian Women’s Network, please contact Deeba Syed at