, Giving the finger to Harriet Harman: part 1: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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Giving the finger to Harriet Harman: part 1

This week's article and those succeeding it bring together various recent and apparently unconnected news stories. They include comments both by Harriet Harman regarding whether it amounts to sex discrimination for bankers to go with clients to lap-dancing clubs, business visits to lap-dancing clubs being deprecated by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, recent scientific research which shows both that the likely success of a city stockbroker can be seen by index relative to ring finger length (suggesting a testosterone-based genetic component to stockbroking success) and also a recent survey showing that women are less tolerant of each other than men are and hence possibly less tolerant of each other than they would be of men.

I understand that some people will have moral objections to the existence of lap-dancing clubs or people visiting them. What I find somewhat astonishing is that these points are being made by ministers of a government which has presided over a huge growth in the number of lap-dancing establishments. This has all come about because of the Licensing Act 2003. For all practical purposes the impact for lap-dancing clubs outside London has been to treat them like bars for licensing purposes, hence leading to a vast increase in the number of such establishments (the number of which have more than doubled), many of them in what most people would describe as totally inappropriate non-city centre settings. Although the official line has now changed, whatever happens it is not going to alter the large number of such clubs already opened. It seems somewhat curious to take a moral stance about such clubs (whether on the grounds of sex equality or otherwise) when government policy has fostered their expansion. Are they regarded as a legitimate form of entertainment or not? If they were not a legitimate form of entertainment, the expansion should not have been permitted in the first place. If they are, on what basis should the government purport to interfere with decisions made as regards who goes to them, and when and for what purpose?

Ms Harman apparently suggested that it was wrong for executives to go to lap-dancing clubs and suggested that this was equivalent to discrimination and harassment against women in the City. Amongst a raft of suggestions for gender audits and government interference (including suggesting that firms could be forced in some unspecified way to change their approach to women) her approach indicated that she thought that the entire culture of the City was unacceptable in terms of what was regarded as suitable corporate entertainment.

Plainly ensuring that women are not treated unfairly and have suitable career opportunities and pay commensurate with their efforts and abilities are all legitimate areas of public policy (although the degree to which it is necessary or desirable to impose "red tape" obligations is another matter entirely). However taking a view as to what is and is not an acceptable way of approaching client entertainment is wholly different.

Not only is this an impermissible interference with the needs of business to decide what clients want (assuming it is legal - but given its licensing approach the government can hardly complain about lap-dancing having become increasingly regarded as an acceptable form of entertainment) but it risks misunderstanding entirely the nature of the stockbroking world. Scientific research seems to show that the best way to decide how good a stockbroker will be will be to get them to give you their fingers to look at. The fact that genetic factors have been scientifically displayed to be far more important than training or experience in terms of showing how much money a stockbroker will make is highly significant in this regard. Next week we will seek to examine why.

Michael J. Booth QC