Government and employers failing to tackle 'widespread and commonplace' workplace sexual harassment, MPs say

'Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long', says influential committee in major report

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
@BenKentish
Wednesday 25 July 2018 00:10
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The government is failing to tackle sexual harassment despite incidents being an "everyday occurrence and part of the culture" in many workplaces, a committee of MPs has warned.

In a damning report, the Women and Equalities Committee accused ministers of "dodging" their duties under domestic and international law.

A six-month inquiry found that behaviour such as groping and unwanted touching was "widespread and commonplace" in the workplace but that regulators and employers were ignoring their responsibilities to protect staff.

The committee said employers have more obligations on issues such as data protection and preventing money laundering than they do in relation to tackling harassment.

Evidence suggests 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace.

The committee launched its inquiry into sexual harassment after the issue hit headlines following allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and high-profile accusations involving a number of celebrities and politicians.

It found that the government, regulators and employers were all failing to take sufficient action to prevent harassment in the workplace.

MPs expressed concern that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for overseeing employers' efforts to tackle harassment, had not mentioned the issue as a specific area of focus in any of its annual reports since the organisation was created in 2007.

Ministers must make tackling sexual harassment a top priority, they said.

Maria Miller, the former culture secretary who now chairs the committee, said: “It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces. Government, regulators and employers have been dodging their responsibilities for far too long.

“There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action. In contrast, there is considerable focus on other corporate governance issues like protecting people's personal data and preventing money laundering, with stringent requirements on employers and businesses to meet their responsibilities. It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment."

The committee published a series of steps it said ministers should take to prevent harassment, including making it a legal obligation for employers to “protect workers from harassment and victimisation in the workplace". Failure to do so should carry "substantial financial penalties", it added.

A statutory code of conduct should also be introduced to outline employers' responsibilities, it said, while national and industry-specific regulators should be made to explain how they will tackle sexual harassment. The government should also begin collecting data on the prevalence of workplace harassment.

The MPs also called for tighter regulation on the use of non-disclosure agreement (NDAs), which some organisations use to prevent victims of harassment speaking out. It should be made an offence for such agreements to be misused, they said.

Responding to the report, a Government Equalities Office spokesperson said: "Workplace sexual harassment is against the law.

"Any behaviour that causes people to feel intimidated or humiliated in the workplace is unacceptable, and failure to comply with the law must not be tolerated.

"We will be considering the findings of this report very carefully as we work to stamp out harassment, protect victims and ensure everybody can feel respected and safe at work."

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