On its way

Bath MP Wera Hobhouse’s Private Members Bill, which aims to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, has passed Second Reading in the House of Lords.

It was introduced by the Liberal Democrat MP in the House of Commons and is now moving through the legislative process in the Second Chamber. 

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.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, commented:

“Sexual harassment is a workplace epidemic. Its cultural acceptance has run unchallenged for too long. Finally, something is being done that can start to address the problem.

“This Bill presents an opportunity to shift our culture to one where these behaviours are seen as unacceptable. An opportunity to protect each other from all too familiar actions that can cause so much trauma and hurt. An opportunity for us all to enjoy safe, respectful workplaces. 

“I am proud to have worked with brilliant organisations like the Fawcett Society through this process. They have supported this legislation at every stage and have truly been instrumental in its continued passage.”

“I would also like to congratulate Baroness Burt for taking this Bill forward in the Lords. Her closing remarks during the debate were so powerful and important for those wondering why these reforms are necessary.”