New government proposals launched on harassment

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​Women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt has launched plans to protect staff from sexual harassment, as two separate reports find extensive bullying and harassment in Westminster

Under Mordaunt's new proposals staff may be able to take an employer to tribunal under the Equality Act 2010 if they are harassed by third parties such as customers. Currently employers are usually only liable for harassment committed by colleagues.

The proposals seek to address sexual harassment scandals such as that exposed in January last year at a Presidents Club black-tie event attended exclusively by men and staffed by women. An undercover Financial Times report revealed that hostesses were groped by attendees.

Mordaunt said: "Everyone has the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and that includes their time at work.

"The vast majority of employers take their responsibilities towards their staff in this regard seriously, however we know that some employees have not been protected from vile and degrading behaviour towards them."

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said that the body welcomes strengthened protection for employees. "A whole range of scandals across the business, charity and political spheres have demonstrated that sexual harassment at work is still far too commonplace," he said, adding that the CIPD believes "there is a strong case to extend the time limit that employees have to make a claim to an employment tribunal from three to six months".

However, Willmott said that there must also be greater emphasis on enforcing existing laws more robustly: “While we welcome the focus on prevention of workplace harassment, we question whether introducing a new statutory duty on employers to prevent harassment will achieve the desired impact. Our view is that, as a first priority, we need stronger enforcement of the existing provisions of the Equality Act.”

This news came as an independent report led by lawyer Naomi Ellenbogen into the House of Lords released findings revealing 'a culture of deference'.

The report was set up in 2018 after a series of bullying and sexual harassment scandals hit Parliament. It has found that one in five peers behave inappropriately or in a 'rude' or high-handed manner, and instances relating to sexual harassment by staff of other employees.

Female contributors said they had been subjected to inappropriate comments from male senior colleagues and 'handsy' behaviour, such as repeated touching of a woman’s knee during a meeting.

Recommendations for the House of Lords include installing CCTV in harassment hotspots around the upper chamber, training for peers, and a new head of the Lords to oversee any allegations that might arise.

In another report published on 11 July, staff working for MPs in the House of Commons were found to also be subject to a culture of bullying and harassment. Among the most common forms of offending behaviours outlined were MPs who 'shout at, demean, belittle and humiliate their staff on a regular basis, often in public'.

The report stated: 'The constant ‘drip, drip’, as more than one contributor put it, eats away at the employee’s self-confidence until they become anxious, exhausted and ill, incapable of performing their job and (often following a period of sick leave) resign or are dismissed'.

It added: 'Well over half of the people who contributed to this inquiry described suffering significant mental and/or physical illness as a result of this type of bullying behaviour'.

Staffers who contributed to the report spoke of 'being subject to unwanted sexual advances, often accompanied by touching, sometimes forceful'.

The report concluded that recent steps taken by the House of Commons to address bullying and harassment across the parliamentary community ‘do not engage sufficiently with the particular issues faced by members of staff’.

The report recommended that there must be 'other methods of tackling workplace bullying and harassment' and that MPs should 'adopt and follow employment practices and procedures that are aligned with those followed in other public sector workplaces'.

Staffers had been warned that the contents of the report would be “distressing” and were offered pop-up counselling workshops at Westminster office Portcullis House.

The GMB union has made a number of recommendations in light of the report. It said that staff must be given a central HR service rather than a helpline, called for a completely independent body to investigate complaints, and for mandatory training for MPs on how to be good employers.

Speaking to HR magazine, founder and CEO of Equality Group Hephzi Pemberton said that the report signals a lack of progress on tackling harassment and toxic work cultures: "As a society we should be striving to stamp out harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace by creating and implementing positive policies. For this to be done it is so important for all professions to continually assess the prevalence of harassment and bullying behaviour so those at the top can address ways to improve the working culture.

“Progress cannot be made if parliamentarians are burying their heads in the sand about the scale of the problem at hand," she said. "These statistics have unveiled the true extent of the problem MPs are currently facing and the toxic culture and bullying practices can no longer be swept under the rug."

Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, added: "There is no excuse for the abuse of power in the workplace that results in bullying, harassment or simply failing to treat people with common decency and respect. This report shines a light on disgraceful practices in Westminster but sadly bullying is endemic in most workplaces; causing real distress, anxiety, depression and damaging people's wellbeing, as well as forcing many to leave workplaces."

Westminster must lead by example, added Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions: “This report follows a series of allegations made against MPs over the past 18 months that show inappropriate behaviour is rife in the House of Commons. This is not good enough from our elected representatives. Bullying and sexual harassment affects the mental and physical wellbeing of the victim.

"Where it becomes endemic it affects all staff and performance suffers. Inappropriate behaviour often filters from the top down. So by holding individuals accountable for their behaviour the report should remind MPs that they must instead lead by example.”

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