James Sunderland supports Bill aimed at preventing sexual harassment in the workplace

James Sunderland supports a Bill that creates a legal duty for employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees in the workplace, but raises concerns at making employers’ liable for harassment by third parties.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

As a proud Conservative, I am always keen to commend legislation when it is the right thing to do. I think the Government have had a very proud record in this Parliament of putting Bills through that are very positive and a force for good. This Bill is no exception and I rise to support it, but I would not be doing my duty as a Back Bencher if I did not air some of the concerns I have with elements of it. The first point I want to make is that I believe the Bill to have greater significance than a sitting Friday might justify. I think it goes a lot further than might be gathered by just firing it through on a Friday, and I will explain why.

The Bill is an important step. Sexual harassment in the workplace is abhorrent. There is no justification or cause for it whatsoever; it is vile. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra): I do not know of many women, in particular, who have not suffered from it at various times in their lives. The Bill creates accountability. Its target is stopping any form of harassment in the workplace and overall, it is absolutely a step in the right direction in the war against harassment in the workplace. Therefore, I am entirely comfortable with clauses 2, 3, 5 and 6. However, I am less comfortable with clause 1, which creates an employer’s liability for harassment of their employees by third parties, and clause 4, which provides for a compensation uplift in sexual harassment cases.

Clauses 1 and 4 are too ambiguous in their wording. We discussed this on Second Reading and Report. Terminology is really important. I hope that the Minister will note my observations. An individual should always be liable for one’s actions, especially in the workplace. We are a party of individual responsibility. However, what we cannot afford to do as a nation is get into the culture of always blaming somebody else—it is always somebody else’s fault. What I want to see in the legislation is the individual perpetrating this vile behaviour being brought to account fully in accordance with the law. Holding a third party to account for a second party’s behaviour does not sit easily with me, and that is why I am pleased that the Minister has come to her place today to talk about the amendment. The amendment is important and necessary, and I support it. I would not have been comfortable had it not been tabled.

First, it is important that an employer is aware of his or her legal responsibilities in this case. An employer cannot just be held responsible for the actions of somebody else in the workplace, so it is important to me, as mentioned earlier, that the amendment clarifies for employers what the Bill means for them and what responsibilities are placed on them. To quote what was said earlier, those who are not a participant cannot reasonably be expected to face liability. It is also important that we do not end up with an over-sterile environment; one that is too sanitised. We have to be able to call out individual behaviour without necessarily seeking to blame or hold to account somebody else who may not be responsible for that.

What I am saying is that the Bill should result in fewer cases coming to court. It may make employers think twice about what they do in the protection of their employees in the workplace. Perhaps it will allow them to plan measures to minimise risk. However, it is important—I urge the Government to consider this—that we are not writing a blank cheque for those who may seek to make complaints and to hold others to account. We have a duty to employers, too, and whatever we ask of them has to be reasonable. I therefore support the amendment and the Bill, but I hope the Government will hark to my words.