I am happy to say that I did not, because I worked for the NHS and our dress code was very much along health and safety lines and about protecting people at work, rather than forcing them into garments that are unsuitable for the workplace.
The third reason why I wanted to speak in this debate is that I am a feminist and I find the idea of women being forced to wear certain items—any items, but particularly those that are uncomfortable and inhibit our ability to walk properly, stand for long periods of time or even run away—quite abhorrent. I find the idea that an employer might make the wearing of such items a prerequisite for a job even more abhorrent still.
I can remember when the NHS trust that I used to work for produced a 30-page document outlining what staff could and could not wear—from the contents page containing headings such as “acrylic nails”, “make-up”, “hair”, “jewellery”, “tattoos” and “piercings”, to the extremely prescriptive details on each subject that followed. I was interested to hear the flesh-coloured tights dilemma that my hon. Friend Helen Jones highlighted—I remember the long conversations we had about what exactly was meant by the requirement to wear flesh-coloured tights. Given the diversity of our workforce, what colour of flesh did management have in mind? After much discussion, management finally agreed to drop that requirement.
Piercings and tattoos were another source of much agitation. I worked in a laboratory and recall our laboratory manager, having interviewed for a lab assistant, appointing a young man who turned up for his first day with his face resplendent with various piercings that he had not worn to the interview. I remember the anguished cry of our laboratory manager—“We’ve taken on Metal Mickey!” He appeared to feel that he had been duped in some way. Yet that young man proved to be conscientious and good at his job, and given that his role involved minimal contact with the public, his visible piercings were not really too much of a problem.
Of course, a lot of dress code issues in the NHS are necessary because of health and safety at work and the need to wear personal protective equipment. I certainly do not think there was any emphasis at all on making women conform to some odd standard of stereotypical attractiveness, as the petition concentrates on. However, I mention those details to emphasise that dress codes do not have to be 30-page documents stipulating down to the tiniest detail what can and cannot be worn. I recall the deathless phrase in our code, “Underwear must not be visible”, and wondering whether that also applied to my boss’s string vest, which was always clearly visible through his white shirt, and exactly where people buy such things from.
A good dress code only has to be a few lines long, and my own council, Rochdale Borough Council, has an exemplary policy that is brief but covers all eventualities and health and safety requirements. It simply states:
“First impressions count and there is a general expectation that employees dress appropriate to the nature of their duties and responsibilities. The Council values and welcomes the ethnic diversity of its workforce and therefore expects all employees to recognise and respect this in terms of dress. Where there is a clear business, service or health and safety reason appropriate dress codes may be introduced following consultation to suit the service needs and meet public expectations. Uniforms must be worn where required and provided. Personal Protective Equipment must be worn where it is appropriate to do so or if directed by the manager or Health and Safety Advisor.”