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Revelations about the behaviour of  (all male) guest at the Presidents Club charity event held last week at the exclusive Dorchester hotel in London have been met with outrage and condemnation from many quarters and have reinforced calls for a review of the legal regime in relation to s exual harassment. Reports suggest the women hired as “hostesses” were repeatedly groped and invited by diners to join them in hotel bedrooms. One of the staff reported that a guest exposed himself to her. It was also suggested that the women were paid £150 for a six hours shift not including time spent at an after party where one woman was allegedly told to “rip off your knickers and dance on that table”. The fall out has led to beneficiaries of the charity to indicate that donations will be returned and to a decision to immediately wind up the organisation completely.

The reports come in week where the campaigning women’s right organisation, the Fawcett Society published a comprehensive review of sex discrimination and gender equality law in the UK . The Fawcett Report identifies significant deficiencies in the legal regime. It also makes a host of recommendations to improve the law in this area. Among these are the reintroduction of section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 in relation to “third party harassment” i.e. harassment of an employee not by the employer or a fellow employee but by a  third party such as clients or indeed guests at a charity event.

The measure, as originally implemented, provided that an employer could be found to be responsible for third party harassment if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to prevent a third party from harassing  an employee and (crucially) the employer knew of two previous incidents of harassment of the employee by the same or any other third party. The provision having been introduced by the last Labour government, was abolished by the Tory/Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2013 as part of then Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Red Tape Challenge”.  The Fawcett Society review calls for the reinstatement and strengthening of the provision by providing that a single incident of harassment should be sufficient to require action from employers or liability for the third party harassment if they fail to do so. They also call for harassment related to pregnancy or maternity (not currently covered) to be specifically outlawed.

While a spokesman for the Prime Minister, Theresa May has condemned the behaviour of the guests at the Presidents Club event there has been no indication from the Government of a willingness to consider a strengthening of the law in this areas let alone the raft of measures advocated in the Fawcett Society report.

As we suggested in our previous Insight in response to the #MeToo outcry in the absence of new legal solutions being offered by government it may be for responsible employers to consider taking a range of proactive measures. These could include revisiting harassment policies, supporting these by staff and management training but also seeking to actively change culture within their own organisation insofar as sexual harassment of employees, even if not of the magnitude of the Presidents club, has become in any way normalized or tolerated.  For employees and such employers themselves  the benefits  of such progressive measures could be significant, but for the casualized hostesses of the Presidents Club event and other women like them, denied any viable legal remedy, the future may unfortunately seem somewhat less bright, and significantly less just.

If you have any queries in relation to the above or your organisation’s approach to these issues please get in touch with a member of the Stronachs Employment Team.

Eric Gilligan, Partner

Chambers Leading Firm 2019

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