The government has agreed to implement a statutory code of practice to tackle sexual harassment at work – though it has been criticised for falling short of properly tackling the issue.
It comes following calls from the Women and Equalities Committee to establish a five-point plan in a report published in July. The report found the government, regulators and employers were failing to tackle the issue.
The five-point plan would including a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, supported by a statutory code of practice; a greater role for regulators; improving enforcement processes for employees; cleaning up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs); and better government data.
Working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the government has agreed that a statutory code of practice should be introduced, however ministers have not yet agreed to introduce a duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, or to increase sanctions for poor employer practices.
The government also:
- Agrees that non-disclosure agreements require better regulation and a clearer explanation of the rights that a worker cannot abrogate by signing one and commits to consult on how best to achieve this and enforce any new provisions.
- Further agrees that employers “should have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect their staff from third party harassment where they know that their staff are at risk” and proposes to consult on “how best to strengthen and clarify the laws in relation to third party harassment”.
- States that it will amend whistleblowing law to make the EHRC a prescribed organisation and will consider further whether to add the police to the list.
- Agrees to work with Acas, the EHRC and employers to raise awareness of appropriate workplace behaviours and individual rights.
- Agrees to gather regular data on the prevalence and nature of workplace sexual harassment at least every three years, with a view to launching survey questions in 2019.
Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller MP, said: “Forty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. With this unacceptable statistic in mind, the government should not have taken five months to respond.
“I am pleased that ministers have woken up and have agreed to our recommendation of a statutory code of practice. But they have missed the opportunity to place a greater onus on employers to protect workers from harassment and to increase sanctions for poor practice. Just keeping an eye on how employment tribunals respond to the new code is inadequate.
“The government is placing a lot of emphasis on awareness-raising among employers and employees as a means of tackling sexual harassment. We welcome the actions it will take to raise awareness of rights and responsibilities, but it also needs to do more to show that it is taking these issues seriously. Employers need to know that they face severe penalties if they don’t do enough to protect their staff from harassment and victimisation.
“We welcome the government’s consultation on how best to clean up the use of NDAs, and we will keep a close eye on this issue in our new inquiry into the use of NDAs in discrimination cases, which will report in the spring.”