MPs slam government’s new sexual harassment code as ‘missed opportunity’

Proposals include better data collection on harassment and strengthened laws covering third parties

The government will introduce a new statutory code of practice to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, following calls from politicians to create new laws to protect workers. 

The women and equalities committee (WEC) welcomed the government’s response to its inquiry, which included the suggestion that a new code of practice be created and more awareness raised among employers and employees as a means of tackling sexual harassment. 

Minister for women Victoria Atkins said sexual harassment at work was something many women still experienced, even though it was clearly illegal. 

“We are taking action to make sure employers know what they have to do to protect their staff, and people know their rights at work and what action to take if they feel intimidated or humiliated,” Atkins said. 

ComRes, in 2017 research for the BBC, found 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work at some point. Among other measures, the government has now said it will gather data on the prevalence of sexual harassment at least every three years and will consult on strengthening laws affecting harassment involving third parties . 

But Maria Miller, MP and chair of the WEC, said the government had “missed the opportunity to place a greater onus on employers to protect workers from harassment”. 

“We welcome the actions it will take to raise awareness of rights and responsibilities, but it also needs to do more to show that it is taking these issues seriously,” Miller said. 

“Employers need to know that they face severe penalties if they don’t do enough to protect their staff from harassment and victimisation.” 

Sam Smethers, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, told The Guardian the steps the government is taking “are welcome but they fall short”. 

“Failing to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment is a missed opportunity and leaves women dealing with the problem alone,” Smethers said. “A new statutory duty is very much needed. We need to get on with it.”

In July, the WEC’s report on sexual harassment in the workplace found employers failed to address the issue and called on the government to put sexual harassment at the top of its agenda. The committee suggested regulators be required to take a more active role in tackling harassment and make enforcement processes work better for employees by setting them out in a statutory code of practice.

Claire McCartney, inclusion and diversity adviser at the CIPD, welcomed the introduction of a new statutory code of practice to ensure employers “take their preventative responsibilities more seriously”.

She said education around sexual harassment policies was also important as employers have an important role in engaging with employees on the issue and “raising awareness of their zero tolerance policy for unacceptable behaviour”.  

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said the new code was a “positive recommendation for employers who may be unaware of what steps they can take to prevent harassment occurring at work”, as it will provide proactive actions employers can take. 

The government will also consult on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and the WEC has already launched an inquiry to look at NDAs’ wider use in cases of harassment and discrimination

NDAs are often used in settlement agreements with departing employees to ensure confidential or commercially sensitive information is not shared. But their use in cases of harassment and discrimination has become increasingly controversial.  

Expert testimony at another WEC inquiry revealed most settled employment tribunal cases now involve the use of NDAs

The deadline for responses and evidence in the NDAs inquiry has been extended until 31 January 2019.