international employment law firm alliance L&E Global
United Kingdom

UK: Update on proposed UK harassment law reforms

The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, which has been working its way through Parliament, is designed to encourage employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace by introducing a new duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees in the course of their employment.

This is a private member’s Bill with government backing so it had widely been expected to become law, particularly given the government’s long-standing desire to toughen up sexual harassment laws.  But on 21 April more than 40 amendments were added by Conservative backbench peers in the House of Lords leading to fears that this could lead to the Bill falling at the end of this Parliamentary session due to lack of Parliamentary time.

The proposed third-party harassment provisions have been criticised as striking the wrong balance between protecting free speech and tackling harassment.  The Bill builds in a type of ‘carve out’ provision to ensure that, while employers will be expected to take action against workplace harassment, those actions should not extend to prohibiting the conversation of others, subject to certain limitations. So, an employer would still be expected to take action to prevent racial slurs or rape jokes as such behaviour is never acceptable, but an employer would not be expected to stifle legitimate and appropriate workplace discussions about any political, moral, religious or social matters even though those topics can quickly become contentious.

Key Action Points for Human Resources and In-house Counsel

If the Bill falls this is unlikely to be the end of the matter given the government’s commitment to toughen laws on harassment. Even if the third-party harassment provisions do not survive, it’s unlikely that the government will drop the proposed new duty to prevent sexual harassment or the planned enhanced enforcement provisions which give tribunals a discretion to increase compensation by up to 25% for breach of the employer duty in sexual harassment cases.  Whether or not the Bill becomes law there is much employers should be doing to tackle harassment in the workplace.