Government’s response to WEC’s report on sexual harassment in the workplace

Earlier this year, the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) launched an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, gathering a range of evidence from oral and written submissions. This culminated in July 2018 in the publication of its report on Sexual harassment in the workplace, which found that the Government, regulators and employers are all failing to tackle the issue. On 18 December 2018, the Committee published the Government’s response to its report.

The WEC recommendations

 The WEC’s report highlighted five key calls-to-action, including;

  • Putting sexual harassment at the top of the agenda by:
    • Introducing a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation, supported by a statutory code of practice;
    • Ensuring that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections and remedies as their workplace colleagues.
  • Requiring regulators to take a more active role.
  • Making enforcement processes work better for employees by:
    • Setting out in the code of practice what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment; and
    • Reducing barriers to taking forward tribunal claims, including by extending time limits.
  • Cleaning up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by:
    • Requiring the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses which set out the meaning, limit and effect of the clause and amking it an offence to misuse such clauses; and
    • Extending whistleblowing protections so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the EHRC are protected.
  • Collecting more robust Government data.

The Government’s proposals for the future

The Government has confirmed that it will progress some of the recommendations laid out in the WEC report; however, it has also confirmed that there are some recommendations which it will not take forward at this stage.

The recommendations that the Government has said that it will progress include:

  • Introducing a new statutory code of practice on sexual harassment, which will be developed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission under its Equality Act 2006 powers;
  • Commissioning a survey to gather regular data on the prevalence of sexual harassment;
  • Considering whether further learnings can be taken from the criminal justice system to use in the employment tribunal system, to ensure vulnerable claimants have appropriate protection;
  • Checking that the list of prescribed person who can receive ‘whistleblowing’ information includes the right bodies;
  • Working with regulators to make it clear that workplace sexual harassment is unacceptable;
  • Ensuring the public sector takes action to tackle and prevent sexual harassment; and
  • Running awareness-raising work with ACAS,  the EHRC and employers.

The Government will also consult on:

  • Non-disclosure agreements and, in particular, the use of a standard approved confidentiality clause;
  • How to strengthen and clarify the laws in relation to third party harassment;
  • The evidence base for introducing a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace;
  • Whether additional protections are needed for volunteers and interns; and
  • Extending employment tribunal time limits for Equality Act 2010 cases.

The Government, has, however, declined to commit, at this stage, to take forward the WEC’s recommendations to:

  • create a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment and victimisation;
  • impose a compensation uplift for failing to comply with the new Code of Practice on sexual harassment;
  • reintroduce statutory questionnaires;
  • reintroduce a tribunal’s power to make wider recommendations to employers in discrimination cases.

There is no estimated time frame yet as to when the Government’s proposals will be taken forward.