Thanks to Government support, a private members’ bill by the Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse to protect employees from third-party ‘harassment’ sailed through the Commons last week and is on its way to the Lords. Unfortunately, it poses a grave threat to free speech, writes Toby in the Spectator.
The difficulty arises because the legislation Hobhouse and the Government are proposing to amend is the Equality Act 2010. Among other things, this imposes a legal duty on employers to protect workers from harassment by other employees, defined as “unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic” (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation) if that conduct has the purpose or effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. The bill will expand that duty so bosses will be liable for harassment of employees by members of the public they come into contact with while doing their jobs.
If we were just talking about sexual harassment, that would be one thing. But the bill extends third-party liability to every type of “unwanted conduct” prohibited by the Equality Act, including overheard comments. You may think I’m making that up, but in 2017 an employment tribunal awarded £1,000 to a former administrative assistant at the law firm Shoosmiths who was upset when she overheard another employee say “struggling immigrants should go back to their country”. The tribunal found it “reasonable” for the woman – an immigrant herself – to be upset, even though the remark wasn’t directed at her, and her harassment claim was upheld.
Such findings have poisoned the atmosphere in offices up and down the country, with employers frantically trying to limit their legal liability by banning an ever-expanding list of phrases, forcing staff to undergo ‘unconscious bias training’ and insisting they declare their preferred pronouns to curry favour with trans and non-binary employees. If the Hobhouse bill becomes law, this climate of fear will spread. Employers will have a duty to protect their workers from overhearing ‘upsetting’ remarks made not only by colleagues, but also by third parties.
This means, says Toby: “If a barmaid or stadium steward overhears something they find upsetting that relates to a protected characteristic, even if it isn’t addressed to them, they can still sue their employers for harassment.” This will lead owners to “inevitably start policing their customers’ speech”.
So much for the Tories’ war on woke, he concludes.