Wera Hobhouse’s bill to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace passes Committee stage

We’re now into the annual 16 days of activism against gender based violence which runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November through to International Human Rights Day on 10th December.

We will be bringing you a series of articles to mark this important annual event, including a horrific story of the death of a young woman in Scotland after she was let own by all of the services who should have been there to protect her.

Today we report on the Committee Stage of Wera Hobhouse’s Bill to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, which took place on Wednesday. It would make employers liable for sexual harassment of their employers by third parties, eg contractors, as well as their co-workers.

Introducing the Bill, Wera said:

Workplace sexual harassment is a blight on our society. It remains widespread and vastly under-reported. Half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study. Too many people have been left to suffer for too long. The question of whether employers have taken adequate steps to prevent sexual harassment arises only as a defence if an incident of sexual harassment has already occurred. Employers are therefore not required to take actions to prevent sexual harassment. That leaves individuals with the burden of challenging it.

The Bill, which passed its Second Reading last month, introduces two new measures to strengthen protections for employees against harassment. The first is the introduction of explicit protections for employees from workplace harassment by third parties, such as customers and clients. The second is the introduction of a duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent their employees from experiencing sexual harassment.

Fellow Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine emphasised why the Bill was needed:

Most of us—most women, certainly—have faced some sort of sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in our careers, and one of the main issues was that it was much easier to solve it quietly or sweep it under the carpet because the employer had no liability to act. This Bill is a great step forward in tackling workplace sexual harassment and changing that culture, which is so insidious.

The good thing about this Bill is that it has cross-party support, including the crucial Government support it needs to become law.

Labour’s Tulip Siddiq looked at the intersectional aspects of sexual harassment:

Imagine being in the shoes of a young woman who has just entered the workforce and fallen victim to an unwanted sexual advance from a colleague in the office. I was that woman once. We might think that her employer would expect her to report the perpetrator, but we all know that that is much easier to say than actually do. As most victims of sexual harassment will know, she will feel the heavy burden of proof on her shoulders, and she may worry that reporting the incident will harm her career prospects as a young woman. She may also just think that no one will believe her. That weighs on a lot of young women’s minds. They think, “No one will believe me if I say this, because my employer is so much more powerful.”

If the woman involved is a woman of colour, gay, disabled, or a migrant—she may be all four—she is likely to feel an even heavier weight on her shoulders due to the intersectional nature of sexual harassment. Among some of those worst affected by sexual harassment are ethnic minority LGBTQ+ women, over half of whom have reported unwanted touching.

Government minister Maria Caulfield confirmed this during the committee stage.

Support for the Bill is not isolated to this room, and I also thank the numerous organisations, individuals and parliamentarians who have been involved in the development of the new measures. Those include, but are certainly not limited to, the Government Equalities Office, the Fawcett Society, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Women and Equalities Committee. The last of those, along with the Joint Committee on Human Rights, sent a letter in support of the new legislation to the hon. Member for Bath. We hope to see such a collaborative spirit maintained as the Bill continues its progress through Parliament. Personally, I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to ensure that it does.

Since her election in 2017, Wera has done such a lot of work on various aspects of women’s rights. Don’t just take our word for it. These warm words from Tulip Siddiq show how respected Wera is across the House:

The hon. Member for Bath has worked really hard on abortion rights as well as on eating disorders, which are becoming more of an issue in society. They have always been an issue but are highlighted now more than ever because of the effect of social media. Another strand of her work is on violence against women. Even though we are not in the same party, I am very proud that she is in Parliament, because these issues are important for women and for society, and we have to fight for them and legislate on them, as all Members have said.

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One Comment

  • ‘these issues are important for women and for society’. Absolutely. It’s dreadful that victims of any such harassment (or other bullying) in the workplace feel they have nowhere/no one to turn to.
    And that women’s fears for their safety are to this day dismissed by too many as imaginary or exaggerated.
    Great to see this Bill has cross-party support and therefore likely to reach the statute books.

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