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Workplace Sexual Harassment

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

4. If the Government will bring forward legislative proposals to amend section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 to protect employees from sexual harassment by third parties in the workplace. (903877)

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection from harassment for employees, whether committed by their employer, co-workers or a third party. The coalition Government repealed the third party harassment provisions in section 40 of the Equality Act because they were unnecessary and overcomplicated. Employers have a legal obligation to protect their workers, and may be liable if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of workers by third parties.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Unite’s campaign “Not on the menu” in the hospitality sector, and its research with cabin crew showing that the majority experience sexual harassment, demonstrate emphatically why section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 is vital. Will the Minister commit to implementing it, but with intervention after one episode not three, and focus on a zero-tolerance approach to any form of sexual harassment in the workplace?

I am most concerned to hear about those incidents of harassment, and the hon. Lady should be reassured that they are covered already by the Equality Act. The reason those provisions in section 40 were repealed was that, as she has identified, they required not one but three occasions of harassment, and we know that, in the three years those provisions were in place, they were used only once. We have tried to improve the law, and I would encourage her to encourage people to use it.

It is really encouraging to hear my hon. Friend’s response, but does she not agree that it is not just about getting the law right? We have to get the remedies within the law right. We have to encourage anonymised reporting in the workplace. We must also make sure that the unethical use of non-disclosure agreements does not work to stop people bringing forward claims of sexual harassment in the first place.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. With her expertise on the Women and Equalities Committee, she knows only too well the challenge we have in advertising the rights that people have in the workplace. I am particularly concerned with non-disclosure agreements. We know that they can be used for lawful reasons—for example, to protect client confidentiality—but they cannot be used to shield employers from claims of harassment or discrimination, and any work that her Committee can do to help the Government in advertising that, I would very much welcome.

I know from my many battles in the coalition Government—some successful, some not—that the Conservatives’ obsession with deregulation often gets in the way of protecting vulnerable workers. It is that obsession, I say to the Minister, that is the real reason why the provisions in the Equality Act were repealed—I know because I was in the discussions at the time. Surely, in the light of the Presidents Club and all the other evidence that is now in the public domain, it is time to look again at the issue and, by all means, to improve on the original provisions, as suggested by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I very much pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she did as a Minister and that she continues to do now in the House. We of course keep this matter under review, but on the point I made about the section 40 amendments, general protection exists under the Act. However, we will continue to look at the evidence, and we are very, very clear: discrimination and harassment in the workplace is simply not on and is against the law.

We have to be very clear about this. Because the Government repealed section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, there is now no statutory protection over third party harassment. If the Government are committed to protecting women and girls, will they show this by either reinstating section 40 or, at the very least, introducing stronger legislation to ensure protection against third party harassment?

I hesitate to correct the hon. Lady, but that is simply not true: there is a general protection against harassment in the workplace; it is in the 2010 statue—it is a general protection against harassment. Of course, if there are any instances that Members on both sides of the House have of particular types of harassment or discrimination, I and the Home Secretary will always be willing to listen. However, the Equality Act protects workers, the general protection is there and, what is more, it is better than the section 40 protections, because it does not require three occasions of harassment; it requires just one.