News & Insights

Worker Protection Bill Watered Down

The House of Lords have made significant amendments to the Worker Protection Bill, limiting the obligations on employers to prevent harassment.

Introduced in 2022 by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse and Liberal Democrat life peer Baroness Burt of Solihull, the Worker Protection Bill was intended to introduce stronger protections from harassment for employees, by amending provisions of the Equality Act 2010. As initially drafted, the Bill would have made an employer liable for the harassment of its employees by third parties, unless the employer could show that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment by the third party. The Bill also imposed a positive duty on employers to prevent the sexual harassment of employees, requiring employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent such sexual harassment.

However, following a debate in the Lords in July 2023, clause 1 of the Bill – which made employers liable for third-party harassment – has been removed entirely. The Earl of Leicester argued that, while preventing harassment in the workplace is important, this must be balanced against the potential financial burdens on businesses. Lord Jackson of Peterborough suggested that the additional liability imposed by clause 1 might have had an inflationary effect, at a time when the UK already looks set for a period of stagflation.

Lord Jackson also stated his belief that the clause would have had a chilling effect on free speech, and that the government should not engage in “draconian” policing of everyday interactions between staff and customers. Baroness Thornton, who supported the Bill proceeding unamended, indicated that the Government will still need to take steps to better protect workers against harassment from third parties, in light of the scale of workplace harassment.

The Lords’ amendments also removed the word “all” from the general duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. As such, employers will not need to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent sexual harassment – just “reasonable steps”. This is an unusual departure from the usual language of the Equality Act, which already includes a statutory defence for employers who take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination.

Baroness Burt, who sponsored the Bill but ultimately conceded on the amendments in order for it to pass through the Lords, questioned why Baroness Noakes had seen fit to make such an amendment, given that it will create a different statutory test with a lower bar, simultaneously creating confusion for employers and watering down the protections afforded by the Bill.

Of course, it is still possible that the House of Commons will seek to reintroduce the provisions removed by the Lords – but, for the time being, it seems that the Worker Protection Bill will provide employees with less comprehensive protection against harassment than first anticipated.

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