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Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment released

Graham Irons

The Women and Equalities Committee (a Parliamentary select committee) has published the results of its six-month long inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and has set out a number of recommendations which it is calling on the Government to implement. Contributor Graham Irons – Howes Percival.

The report details a number of focus points, in an attempt to change workplace cultures and attitudes towards sexual harassment and to give victims greater ability to raise concerns and bring the unwanted conduct to an end. The Committee wants sexual harassment to be subject to the same level of regulation as is seen for other areas that employers will be well aware of, namely GDPR and money laundering. There is currently a lack of support for victims, and many do not come forward as they have little trust in their employer and fear being victimised as a result of any complaint.

Howes Percival employment law partner Graham Irons comments: “Employers will have to wait to see what, if any, of the Committee’s recommendations are implemented. Of course, employers should already be taking action to ensure sexual harassment is properly addressed in their workplaces. However, it is clear that many workplaces still need overhauling for the widespread culture of sexual harassment, identified by the report, to be eradicated.”  

The Committee is asking the Government to deal with workplace sexual harassment, by introducing a duty on employers to prevent it. The Equality and Human Rights Committee has already announced that it is developing a code of practice to support employers with this, as it too has recommended a mandatory duty on employers to introduce measures to prevent sexual harassment. While this may mean an extra burden on employers, it will ensure that employees (and, as recommended, interns and volunteers) experiencing harassment will have clarity on the procedures and confidence to address the problem.

In relation to Tribunals, the recommendation is that the time limit for bringing a sexual harassment claim is extended to six months, with the time being stopped while internal processes and investigations are undertaken. Further, the idea of introducing punitive damages has been suggested.

The Committee is also calling for the Government to “collect robust data” on workplace sexual harassment and statistics for sexual harassment employment tribunal claims. The report says that the number of these claims is low, which does not correspond with how prevalent an issue it is, as BBC statistics reveal that 40% of women and 18% of men have encountered incidents in the workplace of unwanted sexual behaviour, and it is hoped the combination of better procedures for employees and increased awareness of the areas of concern will help to overcome the issue.

The report also calls for the “clean up” of the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to stop their use to keep victims silent. The Committee recommends the introduction of legislation requiring legal professionals to use standard form confidentiality clauses.

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