Why sexual harassment must not be done in private in the UK

The gathering at the House of Commons heard how claimants battling in private against the public or private sector could be exempt from the same procedural protections that protects workers in tribunals at large, arguing that in the private sector private law firms make it too hard for claimants to pursue cases.

Sir Philip Mawer, an independent commissioner appointed by the Human Rights Act, led the hearing. He warned that providing judicial review opportunities for victims of sexual misconduct is vital for the rule of law, as “fully ventilated discussion of these matters is not a farce”.

Reparations could have lasting effects on the nation. The Committee heard evidence from victims who felt forced into paying their alleged abusers money for them to drop their claims. In some cases, these were secret settlements made without the knowledge of the individuals.

Sexual harassment is a real issue and has been in the news a lot of late. An investigation earlier this year found that:

• Nine per cent of women and 2.5 per cent of men in British workplaces had been sexually harassed by someone they work with.

• 28 per cent of women, 15 per cent of men had been sexually harassed by someone in the same workplace in the previous five years.

• More than one in four women and half of men had been sexually harassed by someone in the past two years.

• One in eight women had been sexually harassed by someone at work in the past two years.

Yet very few members of the public know of the stories of sexual misconduct and pay-offs in relation to these allegations.

During this public hearing, some members of the public were still unaware of the payment of cash to silence alleged perpetrators, which may set a troubling precedent and norm in our culture. Many survivors of sex abuse are also too afraid to come forward, with one witness stating that she felt more afraid than any time in her past 30 years.

Businesses have similar concerns and are in favour of open and transparent public debate on this issue. If a tribunal hears allegations in private, that record cannot then be referenced if those individuals are subject to court proceedings. Moreover, if parties are in private court proceedings, witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence, particularly if they are being paid.

The difficulties for those who wish to speak out are enormous. Mr Mawer, the former chief executive of the Police Complaints Commission (PCC), has represented a range of public bodies and has spoken up for transparency and accountability in the justice system, calling for fairness for all parties. He points out that arbitration panels often appear “arbitrary and adversarial” and claim that having a written time limit to bring proceedings or to end arbitration usually protects the interests of all parties, and “the interests of the taxpayer, in particular, by discouraging claimants’ abuse of tribunals.”

Mr Mawer supports the offer of the work-planning process as a compromise as it has safeguards on confidentiality and which can be made available to claimants regardless of whether they are working in the public or private sector.

However, he also acknowledges that the inclusion of women’s input in the setting of the work plan process does not go far enough.

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