Employment associate, David Sheppard looks at the latest development in the campaign against discriminatory dress codes in the workplace

The controversy of high heels and discriminatory dress codes rumbles on, following the case of Natasha Thorp, who had been sent home from work for wearing flat shoes in contravention of her employer’s dress code requiring female workers to wear “2-4 inch heels”.

Miss Thorp set up a parliamentary petition following her treatment, which attracted 152,000 signatories and prompted a debate in Parliament in March 2017. A Parliamentary investigation into heels and company dress codes also found that there had been “widespread discrimination” in workplace dress requirements.

The UK Government’s formal response was issued on Friday 21 April 2017 (here). The Government refused to introduce specific new laws dealing with discriminatory dress codes, and concluded that the Equality Act 2010, which outlaws treating female workers less favourably than comparable male workers, such as requiring them to wear uncomfortable clothing or footwear, was “adequate”. However, they did acknowledge that there was a lack of awareness of the law and some employers even chose to “flout” equality laws. Whilst rejecting the possibility of new legislation, the Government stated that the Government Equalities Office would produce guidance on workplace dress codes in order to raise awareness for employees and employers.

Miss Thorp, who started the petition, expressed her disappointment at the Government’s position, and believed it was a “cop out”.

Given the snap general election scheduled for 8 June 2017, it remains to be seen if any of the main political parties will promise a heels law in their manifestos. Also, in absence of a specific law prohibiting discriminatory dress codes, there always remains factual issues which could be disputed, such as whether the dress code does, in fact, treat a female employee less favourably than a comparable male worker, who may arguably be subjected to equivalent dress code standards.

The Government’s refusal to introduce new employment legislation also potentially indicates its wider reluctance to increase employment protections, particularly in light of the freedom it will have to repeal and replace employment rights once the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. Once published, the Conservative Party’s 2017 Election Manifesto will be carefully examined by employment lawyers to see if it gives any sign of a future reduction in employment rights and deregulation of the labour market in the post-Brexit legislative landscape. We will be keeping you up to date on the major parties’ stances on employment issues as they emerge in the coming weeks during the election campaign.