Workplace Dress Codes (High Heels) — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 6th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 6th March 2017

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I will come on to that issue later in my speech. It is very important that people have information about their rights, but information by itself is not enough.

We found that there were real issues about enforcement and access to justice. Women told us that when they raised these concerns, they were belittled. One said,

“I was told that I would be fired straight away if I chose to put flats on.”

Another was told that she would have plenty of time to rest her feet when she was unemployed. Women do not take these matters further for several reasons. Many of them are in insecure employment; they may be on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts. They may not have worked for long enough to bring a claim against their employer.

Awards in this area are fairly low. We were given a ballpark figure of £250 to £1,000, which is less than the cost of going to a tribunal nowadays. That is simply not good enough. A right that cannot be enforced is not a right at all. We also found that these cases were not getting as far as a tribunal all the time. That is why we are calling on the Government to look at increasing the penalties on employers for breach of the law. Penalties should be set at a level that does not discourage people from bringing a claim but disincentivises employers from breaking the law. As one of our witnesses said, in the current climate, employers take a punt that no one will bring a claim.

We have a situation where not only is this happening in an insecure workforce, but because the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget has been cut, it is no longer bringing as many test cases to test out the law. We are in the same position with the Equality Act as we were many years ago with the Equal Pay Act 1970. The Equality Act sets out general principles, but because English law proceeds by an accumulation of case law it needs to be fleshed out by people bringing cases. We also think that if the Government gave tribunals the power to issue injunctions to stop the use of discriminatory dress codes, these cases could be dealt with more quickly.

Funding and access to justice are key issues. We are very grateful that since our report was issued, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the Equality Advisory and Support Service to notify it of any cases involving dress codes, so that it can decide whether litigation and enforcement action are required. We are also grateful that it has started a campaign on social media to inform women of their rights. However, as Ben Howlett said, much more needs to be done. We are calling on the Government to start a campaign targeted at areas where people are most vulnerable, such as the hospitality industry, to inform employees of their rights and employers of their obligations.