The Worker Protection Bill, which if passed would make employers liable for third-party harassment, passed through the second reading stage in the House of Commons today (21 October).
The new Bill is aimed at giving workers in hospitality, leisure and retail sectors better protection in the event of sexual harassment.
Currently, section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 prohibits employers from harassing their staff, and section 109 states that employers may be vicariously liable for harassment carried out by their employees, unless they can show they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent it. However, employers are not currently liable where staff are harassed by third parties, since the 2013 repeal of subsections 40(2)-(4) of the 2010 Act.
In 2018 the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee’s inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace criticised the lack of protections from workplace harassment. It recommended that legislation be introduced to impose new employer liabilities for third-party harassment and general duties to prevent harassment that could be enforceable by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
In 2019 the government launched a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace. Among other measures, this consultation sought feedback on the potential introduction of a new mandatory preventative duty “that requires employers to protect workers from harassment in the workplace” and on the introduction of new explicit employer liabilities for third-party harassment. It appeared that ministers were going to act and help protect those at sexual harassment.
But the measures were not followed through, to the dismay of campaigners and employment specialists, and a private member’s bill has had to be introduced by a Liberal Democrat MP to bring forward the policy.
Sean Nesbitt, partner and employment expert at international law firm Taylor Wessing, said the success of the Bill, sponsored by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, was not yet assured despite it passing the second reading stage.
Nesbitt said: “Many businesses with extended supply chains, such as media and entertainment and professional services, will be affected by this strengthening of their duties. The #metoo evidence persuaded many that it is necessary.
“This is not official government business. The MP sponsoring the Bill has had success previously with a law on upskirting. No one spoke out against the Bill in its second reading today but there is limited time available in the parliamentary agenda and, especially given the current turmoil, it would take only one determined MP to talk out the Bill’s chances of making law –as originally happened with Ms Hobhouse’s Upskirting Bill.” In 2018, the Bill was blocked by Conservative MP Christopher Chope, but eventually received royal assent in 2019.”
He added: “Perhaps the government might be minded to take it up if it is reforming other employment laws – as it has said it plans to.”
Separately, a Labour MP today quit after a parliamentary watchdog recommended he be suspended for “serious sexual misconduct”.
Two allegations of sexual misconduct against Christian Matheson, MP for Chester, by a former member of his staff were upheld. The MP allegedly invited her on a private trip abroad, which was found to be “sexually motivated”.
Matheson admitted he had committed a minor breach of the code and tendered his resignation. The Independent Expert Panel parliamentary watchdog had recommended he be suspended from the Commons for four weeks.