Karin Smyth MP backs Bill to close loophole and protect employees from harassment at work

Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South and Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, has thrown her support behind a new Bill to close a loophole in the Equality Act: a move which will protect people in work from harassment.

The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, a Private Members Bill brought before Parliament by Wera Hobhouse MP, would create new legal liabilities for employers by treating an employer as harassing their employee if the employee is harassed in the course of their employment by third parties – such as customers or clients. If the employer fails “to take all reasonable steps to prevent the third party from doing so” they will fall foul of this legislation.

The Bill would also create a new corresponding duty on employers to “take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment” of their employees in the course of their employment. This duty would be enforced by the EHRC but employment tribunals would also be allowed to apply an uplift of up to 25% to employees’ compensation in sexual harassment cases where the employer had failed to uphold this duty.

In 2018, the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) held an inquiry on sexual harassment in the workplace. The WESC report highlighted a number of concerns with the coverage of sexual harassment protections in the existing legislation. In response, the Government committed to consulting on the concerns raised with a view to ensuring that the legislation is operating effectively.

Abuse and verbal and physical harassment is a daily reality for women and girls on the streets of the UK. Recent research by UN Women UK found that 71% of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, rising to 86% among 18-to-24-year-olds. In the first national coronavirus lockdown, a fifth of women and girls aged 14-to-21 were catcalled, followed, groped, flashed or upskirted. This rose to 51% during the summer months. There have been several high-profile reports in the media regarding the response from police forces across the UK to this matter. Ensuring that members have the ability to hold their local force to account and share best practice will prove extremely beneficial to all involved. It is but another reason for this debate.

Moreover, UN Women UK released data showing that 97% of young women have been sexually harassed, and more than 70% of women of all ages have suffered this abuse.

Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South and Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, said:

“Workplace sexual harassment remains widespread, underreported and poorly enforced. This is only compounded by the glaring loophole in the Equality Act. By supporting this Bill we are progressing women’s rights in the workplace, making the law work for working people and safeguarding future generations from abuse.

“I have long supported campaigns, by trade unions like Usdaw, to increase protections for people working in customer facing roles. The data is clear that most of these jobs are held by women. Be them retail, hospitality or leisure they are at the greatest risk of abuse. We need this Bill to give women freedom from fear in the workplace that nothing will be done when they face abuse or harassment.

“As the Chair of Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, I only see this is a step forward in addressing harassment culture. I will work with MPs of all political persuasions if they want to join our campaign to close this loophole once and for all.”