Wera Hobhouse MP: How new legislation will strengthen protections for workers against sexual harassment

On the  20th of October, the government took a bold step in the right direction towards ending workplace sexual harassment by letting my Private Member’s Bill the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill 2022-23 pass

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ Climate Change and Transport Spokesperson and MP for Bath 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an epidemic across the UK. Half of all British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or place of study. That is over 7 million women who have faced some form of sexual harassment while at work. The Government’s own data indicates that 1.5 million people experience sexual harassment at work from a third party, such as a customer, each year.

Yet an overwhelming majority of women – as high as 79 per cent – do not report their experiences to their employers. This number is sadly not surprising when you consider that the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that in nearly half of reported cases of harassment, the employer did nothing, minimised the incident, or placed the responsibility on the employee to avoid the harasser.

Clearly, we can do better. On the  20th of October, the UK government took a bold step in the right direction towards ending workplace sexual harassment by letting my Private Member’s Bill the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill 2022-23 pass. In a special additional sitting Friday, my Bill entered the final stage of the UK government’s legislative process before being signed into law. It has been a long journey, and I wish to share some of it with you below.

The impetus for this Bill came from a 2018 report into workplace harassment by the Women and Equalities Committee, which identified and criticised gaps in the existing legislation. In particular, it identified two serious failings: that employers had no formal responsibility to protect their employees from harassment by third parties, such as customers or members of the public; that the existing law on workplace sexual harassment is only enforced after the event, with the onus on individual victims to take up their case with employers.

In 2021, the UK Government committed to legislation for a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. On the 15th June 2022, I introduced my Worker Protection Bill in the House of Commons. The Bill creates a duty for employers to proactively prevent sexual harassment from occurring in their workplaces and requires them to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from third parties, such as customers or clients. 

These changes will mean that women no longer have to take their employers to tribunal to see action being taken on sexual harassment once an incident has already occurred. Instead, we will ensure employers protect their staff with proper policies, training, and appropriate reporting procedures.

By shifting the onus from the individual to the institution, the Bill hopes to foster a wider change in cultural and institutional attitudes towards sexual harassment in the workplace, one where these behaviours are seen as unacceptable. This legislation is not about creating offenders and criminals. Rather, it is about encouraging individuals to do the right thing and to behave respectfully in all places in society, including the workplace.

Most Bills introduced by an individual Member of Parliament never become law: since 2015, only two Liberal Democrat MPs have succeeded in getting their Bills through to Royal Assent. Passing a PMB requires careful negotiation through both Houses of Parliament and, inevitably, a fair amount of compromise and concession. My Bill was skillfully guided through the House of Lords by my fellow Liberal Democrat, Baroness Burt of Solihull, before returning to the Commons to pass through ‘Consideration of Amendments’, where the House of Commons considers Amendments made in the Lords. Only once both Houses agreed on the wording of a Bill can it be sent to receive ‘Royal Assent’ from the King, marking the bill’s passing into law.

The fight against sexual harassment at work has not ended with the passing of this bill, and more work is yet to be done. I am encouraged by the cross-party support that this Bill has received, with MPs from all parties speaking out in favour of it. I am also very grateful to have been supported in this sometimes arduous process by dedicated organisations such as the Fawcett Society and the ‘This Is Not Working’ Alliance. I hope that together we will take a meaningful step in the right direction towards safe, productive workplaces for all.

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