When it responded to the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on sexual harassment in the workplace, the government promised to consult on various issues raised in the report. The consultation paper has now been published.
The key questions for consultation relate to:
- Whether the government should introduce a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from harassment in the workplace and if so, how that duty should be enforced. One suggestion is that there should be a financial penalty linked to breach of the duty, similar to the penalties that apply where there has been a failure to inform and consult staff about a TUPE transfer. The paper suggests that the government is prepared to introduce a duty only if there is "compelling evidence" that it would be effective.
- Whether new transparency obligations would encourage employers to put measures in place to prevent sexual harassment. For example, employers could be required to obtain board level sign-off for prevention and resolution policies and publish them.
- Third party harassment. The government appears to accept that formal protection against third-party harassment should be reintroduced. However, it is seeking views on whether a single incident of harassment should be sufficient to trigger liability and whether the "all reasonable steps" defence should apply to third party harassment.
- The protection currently available to volunteers and interns. Although the government takes the provisional view that most interns are already protected under the Equality Act, many volunteers will not be. The consultation paper asks whether all volunteers should be protected against harassment, or whether this would be unworkable in relation to informal volunteering relationships or for small volunteer-led organisations.
- Time limits for bringing harassment and discrimination claims. The paper seeks views on whether the current three month time limit should be extended to six months or some other period.
Although the paper focusses on sexual harassment, the government has confirmed that any changes will apply to all forms of harassment. The paper also states that the EHRC will issue technical guidance on sexual harassment later this year, which will form the basis for a statutory Code of Practice following consultation.
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