The government’s new statutory code of practice to address sexual harassment at work has been widely criticised for failing to address the issue.
The new code comes after a damning report by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee earlier this year found sexual comments, unwanted touching, groping and assault are still “widespread and commonplace” in British industry.
The six-month investigation found employers and regulators were “ignoring” their responsibilities and the government was failing to collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The committee hit out at the government’s response to its report for failing to follow up on calls for employers to have a legal duty to protect employers from harassment.
Maria Miller, chair of the committee, said: “I welcome the fact they roundly condemn sexual harassment of any form but it is really open to question if the strategy in place will tackle the problem. The onus is still on victims to take action rather than employers.”
The Tory MP for Basingstoke said the government had “cherry picked” recommendations rather than focusing on the key proposals.
She said: “The main proposals were to put in place a duty of care with clear sanctions on employers who failed to provide a safe place for staff. It is extraordinary that there is a duty of care to keep employees physically safe but not safe from sexual harassment.
“It is regrettable it has taken so long to get a response – it is at least two months late. This does not send a very positive message to the women who have had the courage to speak out. Four in ten women are affected by sexual harassment at work.”
The committee’s report, which was published in July, claimed the government, regulators and employers were all failing to address the issue.
Labour MP Jess Phillips said: “I’m disappointed with the government response and think without a duty on employers to act to protect, the statutory code will have little impact.
“The government had a chance to show their commitment to women in the workplace and I’m afraid what we got was a mild ‘there there’”.
Sam Smethers, of women’s rights charity Fawcett Society, said the government’s steps were welcome but they ultimately “fall short”.
“Failing to introduce a new duty on employers to prevent harassment is a missed opportunity and leaves women dealing with the problem alone,” she said. “A new statutory duty is very much needed. We need to get on with it. But again government fails to act.”
The chief executive said the issue required a rebalancing of responsibility and power between the individual and their employer and called for the government to bring back section 40 of the Equality Act – a provision that stated employers had a duty to protect their staff from harassment by clients or customers.
The report urged the government to place sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, require regulators to take a more active role, make enforcement processes work better for employees by setting them out in the statutory code of practice, clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and collect and publish better government data.
Minister for Women Victoria Atkins said: “Sexual harassment at work is illegal, but sadly that disgusting behaviour is something that many women still experience today.
“We are taking action to make sure employers know what they have to do to protect their staff, and people know their rights at work and what action to take if they feel intimidated or humiliated.”
Ministers will work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to tackle what they describe as some employers’ “failure” to take the issue seriously and to produce a code that makes it clear “what actions an employer must take to fulfil their legal responsibilities”.
The government has agreed to introduce a statutory code of practice, to regulate NDAs better, alter whistleblowing law, work with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and employers to raise awareness of the issue.
They will now collect data on the prevalence and nature of workplace sexual harassment at least every three years, look at tightening regulations around NDAs and consult on how to make sure explanations to employees are clear.