MARCH 27, 2023

By Harry Mottram: There has been widespread support amongst MPs of all political parties in Westminster for Bath MP Wera Hobhouse’s Workplace Sexual Harassment known as The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill 2022-23. The private members bill has passed its second reading and will now go to the House of Lords for consideration.

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society and was the last in a long line of laws aimed at ending discrimination at work. There was the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Women have been part of the workforce for several hundred years but it was the Industrial Revolution that introduced more jobs women were allowed to do. By the late 19th century women filled roles such as clerks, shop assistants, teachers, nurses and increasingly in the early 20th century the professions.

The two world wars saw women take an increasingly important part of the workforce setting the agenda for women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s. In the USA there were court cases in the 1970s when women took their employers to court for the right to refuse sexual advances. The cases were ruled in favour of the women and that sexual harassment was discrimination.

Meanwhile women in the UK were also beginning a campaign to make sexual harassment at work illegal. Feminists within the trade union movement where there was a high proportion of female members such as the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) pushed the topic up the national agenda.

In 1986 school lab technician Jean Porcelli made a formal complaint to her employer Strathclyde Regional Council about two male colleagues over ‘lewd’ remarks and unpleasant behaviour to her forcing her to apply to move to a different school. Eventually the High Court ruled in her favour setting a legal precedent that began the long road to Labour’s The Equality Act 2010.

By their nature Private Members Bills are not introduced into parliament by the government but by back bench MPs. As such very few finally get passed into law due to a lack of time or support. The few that do usually enjoy support from all quarters of the House of Commons. The Bath MP’s bill does have a strong chance to succeed – assuming there isn’t a general election called earlier than expected.

This is from Wera Hobhouse’s office:

Workplace sexual harassment is experienced by at least 40% of women. Currently, the law on workplace sexual harassment is only enforced by individual women taking up cases – there is no duty on employers to take preventative steps. This is not working as 79% of women do not report their experiences. The reforms in the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, introduced by Mrs Hobhouse, will ensure more employees are protected and that more employers take reasonable steps to prevent harassment. 

The Bill will do this in two ways. Firstly, by protecting employees from third party harassment. Currently, if a staff member who works in a client facing role, such as hospitality, sales or services, is sexually harassed by a customer, they are not legally protected. Data from the House of Commons Library, using the Government’s own survey, indicates 1.5 million people experience sexual harassment from a third party each year.

Secondly, it will introduce a preventative duty on employers to take adequate steps to stop harassment of employees occurring in the first place. At the moment, the question of whether employers have taken adequate steps to prevent harassment only arises as a defence if an incident of sexual harassment has already occurred. This means employers are not required to take actions that prevent sexual harassment from occurring. 

In 2018, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found only a minority of employers had effective processes to prevent and address sexual harassment. The Bill would make employers liable to their employees for harassment committed by a third party – like a client or customer – unless they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it. 

Effective reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment could include: creating and communicating a policy; training employees; ensuring there are reporting routes; and responding appropriately to reports when they are made. Requiring these measures ought to drive structural change as it shifts responsibility from the individual to the institution.

The photo is from the BBC and is a generic image posed by actors