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Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill

Volume 831: debated on Friday 14 July 2023


Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

My Lords, I rise to oppose Clause 1 standing part of this Bill. It is the first time I have ever done anything like this, so I hope noble Lords will bear with me if I get anything wrong. My impression until now has been that when people oppose these clauses, they do so in a theatrical or perfunctory way. In other words, they declare their opposition as a prelude to them bellyaching about the various things they do not like in it, but in the expectation that the clause will eventually be included. But not on this occasion—as a result of constructive talks among interested parties on all sides, I rise in the expectation that Clause 1 will not be part of the final legislation.

In that spirit, I will take this opportunity to thank noble Lords on all sides for the generous and constructive way in which they have approached this, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, colleagues on her Benches and on all Benches, and not least my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook, who with great delicacy and aplomb has had to find a solution that all sides can live with. I assure noble Lords on the Benches opposite that those of us who had problems with this Bill have moved considerably. I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments that we heard at Second Reading from my noble friends Lord Leicester, Lord Moylan, Lord Strathcarron, and others. Suffice to say that this is, in every sense, a solution which all sides have moved towards.

Speaking for myself, I would much rather have a world in which we had something closer to free contract, whereby if you want to employ me and I want to work for you, and we are both happy with the terms and conditions, the Government should not come between us and declare this or that clause of it to be illegal—but we are a long way away from that. So let me simply take this opportunity to thank all of those who have been involved. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords on all sides, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and from my noble friend the Minister. I beg to oppose this Clause.

My Lords, I echo all that my noble friend Lord Hannan said, and I am delighted that we have reached agreement and a way forward on the Bill. I will just add a few words on why I added my name to opposing Clause 1 standing part of the Bill. This is not simply a free speech issue. Clause 1 amends Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. A new subsection (1B) defines a third party as

“a person other than … A, or …an employee of A’s”,

which noble Lords will recognise as a double possessive. It has both “of” and “A’s”. While a double possessive can occasionally be used to avoid ambiguity, there is no ambiguity in Clause 1. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is my Bible, has it listed as a sturdy but indefensible “freak of idiom”. My own view is that when we legislate, we should use the best possible version of the King’s English that we can find. I tried to table a specific amendment on this, but the usually very helpful Bill Office refused to let me do so, even though there is no direct prohibition in the Companion. I have no idea how one is supposed to correct grammatical errors or poor use of language other than by an amendment—I shall have to fight that another day.

The wording is also found in the Equality Act 2010, in Sections 39 and 40, so I can celebrate that by removing Clause 1 from this Bill, the Bill has been saved from repeating that poor use of the English language. But the 2010 Act remains intact with its double possessives, and I hope that my small intervention today might someday lead to its rectification.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I employ over 350 people and in 30 years have been taken to an employment tribunal only twice. On both occasions the tribunal found in my favour. I hope that noble Lords see that as an indication of good management and of taking a responsible and caring attitude towards the workforce. Of course, there are bad employers, but I suggest that most employers care for and nurture their workforce, understanding that a happy and well-motivated team is a business’s greatest asset and will ensure better outcomes for the company.

It is for that very general reason, and for the reasons announced at Second Reading by my noble friends Lord Hannan, Lord Strathcarron and Lord Moylan, which do not need repeating now, that I oppose Clause 1 standing part of this Bill. I sincerely believe that it should be removed. Furthermore, I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, who is the Bill’s sponsor in your Lordships’ House, agrees that Clause 1 can be removed.

I thank the noble Baroness, and my noble friend the Minister, for our productive discussions on the Bill in recent weeks. While I hold reservations on the need for some of the specific measures and burdens that they place on employers, I trust that the amendments proposed today are a pragmatic way forward that allows the Bill to progress. The Bill, if amended, would retain the core purpose and send a clear signal that harassment is not acceptable in the workplace. It is right that employers take reasonable steps to prevent this, while balancing against the burdens on the business that the Bill, as originally drafted, could have imposed.

I have one point which I would be most grateful for clarification on, pertaining to Clause 2 and sexual harassment by a third party. If a company sends an employee away on a training course, having of course undertaken due diligence on said training provider, but while attending the course the employee is sexually harassed by someone from that company or another course attendee, in this example is the employee allowed to sue their employer—since the employer has very little control over what happens off their premises? I hope that my noble friend the Minister can clarify this.

During the progress of this Bill, I have learned a great deal about the consensual way in which this House undertakes its politics. Negotiations have led to sensible compromises, and I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for their friendly and helpful guidance. I look forward the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. I also thank the Minister for her ongoing engagement and steadfast resolve in seeking a way forward that the House can agree on. I hope that she can confirm that the Government are open to the proposed amendments.

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Hannan in his opposition to Clause 1 standing part of this Bill and support the amendment to Clause 2. I apologise for not being present at Second Reading. Fatherly duties in visiting prospective universities intervened, which I could not put off.

We have today a much-improved Bill and a very sensible and pragmatic British compromise. I pay tribute to the flexibility and pragmatism of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, and thank my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Moylan for their work in this respect. I was very concerned at the outset of this Bill that we were seeing legislation by anecdote, which is never a good thing. However, we have reached a position which is mutually beneficial.

I was concerned particularly about Clause 1 because I thought that it had a pernicious and consequential chilling effect on free speech. Of course, we all deprecate incivility, discrimination and sexual and other harassment, but this was not the right vehicle for addressing those very significant societal issues.

I accept that the honourable Member for Bath sought in good faith to address some of those concerns through a very narrow exemption tabled in Committee or on Report in the other place but, to me, this was insufficient to safeguard free speech and guard against the very real dangers in the Bill of damaging and divisive litigation. Clause 1 as it now stands—if kept in the Bill—would have an impact that would surely lead to regulatory overreach and a new compliance culture in business and commerce, especially in the hospitality and leisure industries, at huge, avoidable cost to entrepreneurs and business owners. It would change the relationship between businesses and their customers and, I believe, would be illiberal and draconian in policing everyday interactions between staff, customers and business owners, as well as making vexatious complaints hugely more likely.

I also have concerns about the lack of proper costings via a definitive cost-benefit analysis based on empirical data. I did not think there was proper consultation; indeed, the results that the Government have come forward with following the very limited consultation have been inconsistent and not based on the evidence collected. The likely indicative costs would also mean that the risk sharing would have inflationary ramifications because those costs would inevitably be passed on to customers.

On the substantive issue, Clause 1 sets up a conflict with the rights and obligations of third parties under the Equality Act 2010 in respect of their own protected characteristics and, of course, it may have impacts on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

In conclusion, should your Lordships’ Committee accept these changes, specifically the opposition to Clause 1 standing part, we would still be indicating a serious resolve to tackle sexual harassment while restricting the burdens on business and protecting the principle of free speech. For that reason, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, will be able and willing to support these changes so that we can take this Bill forward and reach the conclusions that we all genuinely want.

My Lords, I apologise for not having been in the House in March to speak in the Second Reading debate on this Private Member’s Bill. I am afraid I was out of London for the day, but I can see from the record that my noble friend Lady Blake did a great job from these Benches in giving our strong support to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and to the Bill.

I was keen to lend support to the Bill then, as I am now, partly because I am a veteran of the Equality Act 2010 and I participated in the debates about why we put these clauses into that piece of legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, possibly did not like it at that time—2009 and 2010, when we were discussing it—either. I can remember the debates precisely about this clause; we were putting provisions on the statute book then. I am also a veteran of the debate in 2013, when I was fulfilling the same shadow role that I do now, when the coalition Government, in one of their deregulation splurges, justified taking out the imposed protections as an unnecessary burden on business.

At that time, of course, our argument was that protecting people from harassment, especially in the workplace, should be seen not as a burden but as a responsibility. It is pleasing that, nine years later, there has been a change of heart by the Government, which I welcome enormously, and we now have this Bill before us. We should pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for bringing this Private Member’s Bill to us from the Commons. I pay tribute to all the parties that have been involved in this and given it their support both in the Commons and in this place. I also place on the record my thanks to the Minister for her work in seeking a way forward.

It is important to restate, momentarily, the scale of what we face. It needs to be listened to and heard on all occasions, because workplace harassment is experienced by a minimum of 40% of women. The noble Lords who have just spoken talked about freedom of speech and burdens on business, but that has to be balanced against the right to work and not to be harassed and insulted in a detrimental fashion.

I have two questions for the Minister. If these amendments are accepted—the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, accepted that they have to be to get the Bill through—it raises a couple of questions that need to be asked. If Clause 1 is removed, how do the Government propose to deal with, or reinstate, protections for workers against harassment by third parties like customers? I say this partly as a non-executive director of one of our hospitals, where we have to deal with the harassment of our employees—nurses, doctors and so on—and we have to work out how to support them, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable and what to do about it. It is a real issue; we are not talking just about people going into shops or restaurants, or some of the issues that led to this legislation coming forward. I would like the Minister to reflect on that question.

I also want to ask a question about the removal of the word “all”. As I recall from the discussions about this in other legislation, “all reasonable efforts” is an expression that is used in other places in the legislation and in this Bill. I have always thought that that word was there as much to protect employers and others as anything else—it is not superfluous. So can the Minister explain the implications of removing it from the Bill and what ramifications that might have for the rest of the legislation that covers this area?

I cannot promise the House that we will not return to this issue when we are in government. But I definitely give my support to the noble Baroness. I want to see the Bill, even as amended, on the statute book. We will give her every support.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and fellow Peers for our productive discussions on the Bill in recent weeks. I was honoured to sponsor it in our House, following the efforts of my colleague, the honourable Member for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, who introduced this important piece of legislation in the other place. Like me, she is deeply concerned about the scourge of workplace sexual harassment, which we know is a persistent and prevalent problem across the United Kingdom.

The Government Equalities Office’s own survey into sexual harassment in the workplace in 2020 found that nearly one-third of all employees surveyed—this is slightly different to the figure of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, but it is what I found—had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their workplace or work-related environment. That is one in three members of staff. The Bill sought to address this problem by protecting workers, specifically from workplace harassment. It would have amended the Equality Act 2010 to strengthen the legislative protections against workplace sexual harassment and harassment committed by third parties.

While I still firmly believe that the provisions of the Bill would have gone a long way towards tackling workplace harassment, I understand that several noble Lords have reservations about how it is drafted, specifically the entirety of Clause 1 and the word “all”, as in “all reasonable steps”, in Clause 2. Clause 1 would have instated protections for workers against harassment by third parties such as customers by introducing employer liability for such conduct. The Motion by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, against Clause 1 standing part means that incidents of third party harassment will continue not to be covered by law, other than in extreme cases resulting in demonstrable personal injury or where a criminal offence has been committed. None of the existing legal routes will provide an effective alternative to the ability to bring harassment claims against third parties in the employment tribunal. For example, circumstances such as the reported harassment of hostesses by customers at the Presidents Club will still not be covered.

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in Clause 2 will narrow the concept of “all reasonable steps” to simply “reasonable steps”. I have listened carefully to her comments on this issue, and her understanding of it is somewhat different from mine. The Equality Act 2010 already contains a statutory defence that requires an employment tribunal assessment to say whether an employer took all reasonable steps to determine legal liability. The amendment will not change the Act’s existing statutory defence but will create a different test for the new duty on employers. That could be considered as setting a different and lower bar than “all reasonable steps”, and as such could be considered to be a watering down of provisions.

The amendments proposed today will change and ultimately attenuate the provisions of the Bill, but I am a firm believer in not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. While it is disappointing that the Bill as sent to us will be changed by these amendments, I recognise the need for compromise in order to retain its core purpose, while allowing it to progress and reach the statute book. Noble Lords and I have reached an understanding whereby we can assure the passage of the preventative duty in respect of sexual harassment in exchange for accepting the amendments we are discussing today.

I am therefore happy that we have reached a consensus on a pragmatic way forward. As we in this Chamber all know, it is vital that we send a clear signal to prevent this behaviour. I am glad that, even in the Bill’s amended form, that remains the case.

I thank the Minister again for her ongoing engagement and steadfast resolve in seeking a way forward that the House Could agree on. I hope she will be able to confirm that the Government are also willing to accept the proposed amendments.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for raising the risks to free speech and the potential impact on burdens for business that the Bill could bring by introducing employer liability for third-party harassment and requiring all reasonable steps.

I thank my noble friends and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for the constructive discussions we have had on the Bill. The pragmatism shown by all to ensure that a version of the Bill can progress with support across the House, while respecting the strongly held views that noble Lords hold, is most welcome. I therefore assure my noble friends that we hear the level of concern that has been expressed about the reintroduction of third-party harassment. While the Government believe it important that workers be protected against this form of harassment, having heard the debate, I recognise the strongly held views of those who have spoken.

I will answer a few of the questions raised today by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Leicester asked about sending staff on an external training course. I can assure him that employers are not currently liable for the harassment of their staff by third parties. Following the removal of Clause 1 from the Bill, that will continue to be the case, meaning that the employer in question would not be liable for harassment of their staff by such a trainer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked what the effect will be of removing Clause 1. We will not water down any existing protections; the situation will remain as it has been since the repeal of the third-party harassment protections in 2013. While it could be said that the duty in Clause 2 to take “reasonable steps” is a lower bar than “all reasonable steps”, it has to be remembered that this will be a new duty. As such, a duty to take reasonable steps is still an improvement for employees in respect of sexual harassment, compared to the status quo. It is important to take into consideration that the amendments will ensure safe passage of the remaining measures in the Bill.

The noble Baroness also brought up the issue of consultation. We have been consulting regularly across the sector throughout the passage of the Bill. I have met with the Fawcett Society twice, including just last week, to keep everyone up to date with what is happening. That has been an important part of working our way through to some consensus on the Bill. Finally, in response to my noble friend Lady Noakes, I will take back the grammatical errors in the 2010 Act and will ask for further consideration of those.

I welcome the signs of compromise and consensus breaking out on this issue. There appears to be agreement across the Committee that we should remove Clause 1. The Government will therefore seek to accept the amendments on Report and, before then, check that no further consequential or drafting amendments—and perhaps even revisions of grammatical errors—are required to implement the changes. I hope that removing Clause 1 and changing the concept of “all reasonable steps” to simply “reasonable steps” in Clause 2 will ensure that noble Lords support the Bill’s progress.

My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords on all sides who contributed to this part of the debate. I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Leicester—this is what we are here for: finding compromises, and that is what we have done on this issue. This compromise goes too far for some of us and not far enough for others, but all sides can at least live with it. It seems to me that that is precisely why this Chamber exists as a revising and scrutinising body.

I repeat my thanks to all those who have made the compromise work: my noble friends Lady Noakes, the Minister and Lord Moylan, who is not present, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull. Confident that the Minister will ensure that these changes happen on Report, and conscious that I am all that stands between your Lordships and the weekend, I will not detain the Committee further.

Clause 1 disagreed.

Clause 2: Employer duty to prevent sexual harassment of employees

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 2, page 2, line 27, leave out “all”

My Lords, the debate on Clause 1 stand part has already touched on the substance my amendment to Clause 2, which is to take out “all” from “all reasonable steps”. Let me reiterate that this is not intended to water down what is currently in the Equality Act, where employers are responsible for the acts of employees in relation to harassment unless they have taken “all” reasonable steps.

My reason for taking out the “all”, which is what my amendment does, in the new duty to prevent sexual harassment, which all parties around the House believe is an important part of this legislation, is that it now applies to third parties for the first time for some considerable time. The kinds of steps that you can take for employees are many and various. You have handbooks, training, town halls and all kinds of ordinary management mechanisms to allow you to ensure that you take reasonable steps.

When we come to third parties, the number of third parties is boundless. They are not just customers; you do not have to have a contractual relationship with them; they could even be passers-by. There is no bound to the number of third parties who could be brought within the scope of the new duty on employers. For that reason, “all reasonable steps” seems to imply an almost infinite number of steps that employers could take. We have to think about the impact on employers and, in particular, on small businesses which struggle to cope with things such as that. I submit that where other duties are placed on corporate bodies to do things, they are normally accompanied by a simple reasonableness test, not one embellished with something such as “all”. I believe this amendment is not malign. It tries to fit with the new duty and the expansion of the area it covers. I beg to move.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 3 to 6 agreed.

House resumed. Bill reported with amendments.

House adjourned at 1.53 pm.