Sexual harassment at work laws in the UK: more detail needed

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The government wants to create a ‘new’ duty to prevent sexual harassment at work, but it remains to be seen if the legislation will be any different to what’s in law currently.

Measures will not only ‘strengthen’ current protections for victims of workplace harassment, says the announcement, but will also ‘motivate employers to make improvements to workplace practices and culture which will benefit all employees.’

Currently, employers can be legally held responsible under the Equality Act 2010 for the sexual harassment of their staff at work, if the harassment is carried out by a colleague, and the employer did not take all steps they could to prevent the harassment from happening.

Employers who can show that they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent their employees from acting unlawfully will not be held liable, says the Act.

It is not clear how the ‘proactive duty’ to prevent sexual harassment at work will be any different, in practice or effect, to the current law, say lawyers. Photograph: iStock

Under the proposed new legislation, the government will introduce a positive duty for employers to prevent sexual harassment at work. As in the Equality Act, employers will be required to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment in their workplace.

Commenting in a post on their website, lawyers including Paul McFarlane, Partner at Capsticks said: “It has been widely reported that these proposals show that the Government intends to ‘crack down’ on workplace harassment.

“However, what is not clear is how the ‘proactive duty’ will be any different, in practice or effect, to the current law (as an employer can defend an Equality Act 2010 harassment claim if they can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment).” 

There will be a new code of practice and guidance that outlines the ‘practical steps’ organisations can take. The lawyers added: “There is no doubt that the Code and Guidance will provide some very welcome (and, perhaps overdue) clarity on what amounts to ‘all reasonable steps’.”

The announcement was made as part of the government's response to its consultation into the issue which ran from July 2019 to October 2019.

Draft legislation on the new duties is expected although the government has not committed to any timescales.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP Minister for Women and Equalities, said: “We will be providing further protections to employees who are the victims of sexual harassment, whilst also furnishing employers with the motivation and support to put in place practises and policies which respond to the needs of their organisation."

"We now have a real opportunity to transform the workplace and guarantee everyone an environment in which they can thrive and feel safe.”

Read the government's Consultation response here


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