On 24 March 2023, the second reading of the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill is scheduled to take place in the House of Lords. It is a private member’s bill sponsored by Baroness Burt of Solihull (Liberal Democrat). The bill has government support and it received broad cross-party support during its House of Commons stages.
The purpose of the bill is to amend the Equality Act 2010 to make employers liable for harassment of their employees by third parties (such as customers or clients) and to introduce a specific duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment of their employees. The bill would also make provision for a compensation uplift in sexual harassment cases where there had been a breach of the employer duty.
The Equality Act 2010 already includes protections against sexual harassment. However, the government has said that it supports the current bill because sexual harassment “remains a problem” in the workplace. This was the finding of a 2019 government consultation on workplace sexual harassment. In response to the consultation, the government committed in 2021 to introduce a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment and to make employers liable for harassment by third parties.
When the Equality Act 2010 was originally enacted, it included provisions which made employers liable for sexual harassment of their employees by third parties. The provisions included a ‘three-strikes’ rule, in which an employee needed to be the subject of three separate incidents of third party harassment for the employer to be deemed liable. Those provisions were repealed by the Coalition government in 2013. The current bill would reinstate employer liability for third-party harassment in some circumstances, but without the ‘three strikes’ rule. A single incident of harassment may be sufficient to trigger the new protections.
During the bill’s House of Commons stages, the only amendments made to the bill were government amendments. The government said it had introduced the amendments to address concerns about the potential “chilling effect” the legislation might have on free speech and expression in the workplace. The amendments would provide that, in certain circumstances, an employer would not be liable if harassment resulted from an employee overhearing conversations at work in which opinions were expressed on “political, moral, religious or social” matters. The amendments would apply to cases of harassment related to the ‘protected characteristics’ in the 2010 act, but they would not apply in cases of sexual harassment. The House of Commons agreed to the amendments and the bill passed third reading without division.