Consultation includes protections from third-party sexual harassment

Women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt.
David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

The government has published its consultation on plans to strengthen protections against sexual harassment at work, including harassment from third parties.

The Government Equalities Office is today (11 July) asking for views on whether it should introduce a new duty on employers to prevent staff from being harassed; whether legal protections should be extended to volunteers and interns; and whether the law around harassment by customers and other third parties should be clarified.

It follows the publication of the government’s 12-point plan to tackle sexual harassment at work last year and its gender equality roadmap last week.

The consultation says voluntary workers are in particular need of protection, as they might be unlikely to report sexual harassment either because they are unaware of their rights or because their position is more precarious than that of an employee.

Minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt, said: “Everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and that includes their time at work.

“The vast majority of employers take their responsibilities towards their staff in this regard seriously, however we know that some employees have not been protected from vile and degrading behaviour towards them.

“I’m determined government makes a lasting change on this issue, clamping down on the individuals that think they can treat people in this way, and empowering the UK workforce to come forward and get the justice they deserve.”

Proposals outlined in the consultation include:

  • reinstating section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, which made employers liable for harassment of their employees by a third party. This part of the act was repealed in 2013
  • extending all protections against sexual harassment to volunteers and interns – not just employees
  • extending the time limit for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal. This is currently three months, but the government is considering increasing this to six months or more
  • placing a new legal duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

The GEO said work was underway to introduce a new statutory code of practice on sexual harassment at work, which will further clarify what employers’ legal obligations are. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will release technical guidance around this later this year.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said there was a strong case to extend employment tribunal claim time limits to six months, but indicated that the statutory code of practice would need to be strongly enforced if it is to tackle harassment.

“While we welcome the focus on prevention of workplace harassment, we question whether or not introducing a new statutory duty on employers to prevent harassment will achieve the desired impact. Our view is that, as a first priority, we need stronger enforcement of the existing provisions of the Equality Act,” he said.

Matthew Percival, head of employment at the CBI, said: “Businesses are ready to play their part in tackling sexual harassment at work. They will welcome clarity that employees have rights to protection against harassment by third parties. They can also support a new duty that requires reasonable and proportionate steps to minimise the risk of sexual harassment at work.”

The CBI also called on the government to ratify the first global convention on violence & harassment at work to protect staff at organisations with international operations.

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