Tory backlash grows over law which could allow staff to sue their bosses over rude customers as MP warns it could be abused by business owners looking to take down rival firms
- Equality Act amendment could see workers suing bosses over rude customers
- But Sir Christopher Hope said it was an ‘opportunity’ for people to take out rivals
Legislation allowing workers to sue bosses could be abused by business owners seeking to take down rival firms, Tories warned yesterday.
Rishi Sunak is backing an amendment to the Equality Act that would let workers take employers to court if a member of the public offended or harassed them at work.
Proposed by two prominent Liberal Democrats, the Worker Protection Bill has already been waved through the Commons with No 10’s approval.
But ex-minister Sir Christopher Chope said: ‘I’m concerned about the way it can be abused – it only needs a third party to go into a pub, for example, and create a disturbance.
‘This then results in accusations being made against the owner of the pub for not having dealt with abusive behaviour by a third party.
Rishi Sunak is backing an amendment to the Equality Act that would let workers take employers to court if a member of the public offended or harassed them at work
‘It’s an opportunity for people to take down their rivals. Why not send somebody around to close one of your competitors by contriving a situation which this legislation, as it’s currently drafted, could facilitate?’
Sir Christopher suggested Tory backbenchers had privately raised concerns with Downing Street over the Bill, which had its first reading last June, and were assured that government amendments would be put down.
But they were ‘much weaker than had been expected’, he said, adding: ‘There’s the opportunity for peers to amend it significantly, which, from my perspective, I hope that’s what they will do.’
Fellow Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said: ‘This is a bit of a licence for employment lawyers to have something of a field day here.’
Under current laws, employers are not liable for third-party incidents on their watch, but the Bill will make them responsible for staff being harassed by customers or random members of the public. Others said the legislation might restrict free speech.
Lib Dem proposer Wera Hobhouse said the legislation was being ‘oversimplified’ by critics.
‘Employers will not be expected to take extreme steps, shut down conversation, or employ ‘banter bouncers’,’ she insisted.
‘The hurdles employees have to jump when holding their employers to account for failing to protect them from harassment are too high and victims feel silenced.’
A No 10 spokesman said: ‘The Bill is targeting genuine harassment that brings harms to workers. A claim could not stand purely because someone felt upset.’
WHAT IS THE WORKER PROTECTION BILL?
The legislation creates legal liabilities for businesses if their employee is harassed in the course of their work by a third party, such as a customer. If the employer fails ‘to take all reasonable steps to prevent the third party from doing so’, they will be treated as having harassed their employee.
Employers must also take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of staff.
Who introduced it?
Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat shadow leader of the House of Commons, and Lib Dem peer Baroness Burt of Solihull.
What stage is it at?
The legislation, which started as a Private Member’s Bill, was waved through the Commons without any opposition, receiving its first reading in June last year and clearing all the barriers in early February.
It passed the second reading in the House of Lords on March 24, meaning it will go to the committee stage.
How are staff protected now?
Section 40 of the Equality Act 2020 prohibits employers from harassing staff, while section 109 states that bosses may be liable for harassment carried out by their workers.
Employers are not currently liable where staff are harassed by third parties, such as customers or members of the public.
But an inquiry by the House of Commons women and equalities committee and an official consultation recommended that employers protect staff from third-party harassment.