New Government Proposals on Sexual Harassment at Work – A Missed Opportunity?
The global #metoo movement, which took off in 2017 following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, has shone a welcome light on workplace sexual harassment in the UK. In recent years we have seen women working in a number of sectors make very public disclosures about how they have been mistreated at work. This has created an understandable feeling that the current protections offered by equality law may be insufficient to protect (mainly) women from sleazy and unwelcome advances by colleagues.
The government’s attempt to address these concerns can now be found in the response to its public consultation which is available online. The headline proposal is the introduction of a new positive duty upon employers to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent workplace sexual harassment. The new duty would be enforceable by both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and by individual employees, with employers potentially liable if they do not take reasonable steps to prevent harassment in accordance with a statutory code of practice.
The response proposes further reforms so that employers can be liable in the event of sexual harassment by third parties, such as contractors, upon their premises. It also recommends that the time limit for bringing tribunal claims for discrimination should be extended from the current three months to six months.
So, will these proposals make much of a difference? The short answer is, unfortunately, probably not. There already is a duty upon employers to prevent workplace harassment so the ‘new’ duty is really a repackaging of something which already exists. The fact that the government envisages that the EHRC will play a leading enforcement role is not promising. Whilst the EHRC does a lot of excellent work it is underfunded and simply does not have the capacity to police hundreds of thousands of workplaces up and down the country.
The proposals on third party harassment and the extension of time limits could significantly advance employee rights. However they are unlikely to happen. The language of the report is frustratingly vague. The third-party harassment measures are ‘subject to pressures on parliamentary time’ whilst the extension of time limits is expressed more as a general aspiration than as a concrete proposal.
Overall then, this feels like a missed opportunity. It is good to know that the government is opposed to sexual harassment but frankly, who isn’t? Kind words do not equate to legally enforceable rights and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is an attempt to be seen to be doing something whilst imposing the minimum ‘red tape’ upon business.
This blog was prepared by Mark Alaszewski, Employment Solicitor at didlaw.