Westminster’s Women and Equalities Committee has now produced its report on sexual harassment in the workplace after a six-month investigation.
The report was initiated earlier this year in light of widespread reports of instances of sexual harassment in the workplace highlighted by the high-profile allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the follow-on #metoo campaign.
The shocking verdict of the Committee is that sexual harassment is “widespread and commonplace” in British workplaces with groping, touching and sexual assault all found to be part of the culture of British industry. The report goes further by putting the blame on the Government, employers and regulators for failing to tackle the troubling problem.
Conservative MP, Maria Miller, who chaired the reporting Committee said: “Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long.” She compared the lack of action taken to prevent sexual harassment with the high focus given to protecting personal data and anti-money laundering measures and urged the Government to put the same emphasis on confronting the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
In considering the prevalent problem, the report calls for a host of measures and in particular focuses on five priority areas in an attempt to change workplace cultures and put overcoming sexual harassment at the top of the agenda:
- It is recommended that a new mandatory duty is introduced for employers to prevent and protect employees from sexual harassment. Such a duty would be supported by a statutory code of practice, enforceable by the EHRC and punishable by fines
- The report also considers the role of regulators and suggests that they take a more active role by setting out the steps they will take to tackle sexual harassment. Such measures should include the details of any enforcement actions they will take and a clear statement to those who they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions
- The report also considers ways to reduce barriers to those who experience sexual harassment including extending protection to interns and volunteers and reintroducing third-party harassment so that employers are liable if they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent others, such as customers or suppliers, from harassing their staff. Changes to the tribunal system itself are also proposed by extending the time limit for bringing a claim to six months along with a recommendation that tribunals award punitive damages where an employer loses a sexual harassment case
- Turning its attention to non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) which have often been criticised for preventing or dissuading victims from reporting incidents, the report recommends limiting the use of confidentiality clauses, instead suggesting that parties should adopt “government approved” standard clauses. Such clauses should be drafted in standard, plain English which set out clearly the meaning, limit and effect of the clause. In a further attempt to limit the use of NDA’s, the report also recommends that a new professional disciplinary offence is created for lawyers who propose the use of a non-approved confidentiality clause
- Finally, the report highlights the disproportionately low number of claims which are arising compared with anecdotal evidence suggesting that this is an extensive problem. In light of this, there is a recommendation that a spectrum of robust data is collected on the extent of workplace sexual harassment and the number of complaints arising from this. It is hoped that this will create a clearer picture of the reality of this large-scale problem.
It is clear that the recommendations are intended as a holistic and practical approach to addressing this common and concerning problem. Of course, the suggested changes are some way away from becoming law, should they ever be taken forward at all by the government, but many will find it encouraging that work is being done to ensure that this topic remains top of the employment law agenda in 2018.
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