New Clause 12 — Equality Act 2010: third party harassment of employees and applicants

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities) 5:30 pm, 16th October 2012

One concern is that the workers affected are likely to be low-paid—often women—or people with low levels of qualifications, and they will lose out most by the removal of third-party harassment provisions. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—I draw attention to my membership of that union and its support for my constituency party—is aware of cases in which shop staff have been victims of harassment, sometimes by customers or perhaps outside the store if customers have been asked to leave for disruptive behaviour. Those staff have used third-party harassment provisions to work with employers and ensure that steps are taken to protect shop workers, particularly late at night when few staff may be on site. The Opposition are worried that the provision has worked well to protect more vulnerable workers, and we regret that the Government now seek its removal.

The statutory questionnaire procedure has been in place since the sex discrimination legislation of the 1970s, and Labour Members are at a complete loss to understand the Minister’s objections. Far from being costly and burdensome to business, we see the procedure as helpful and something that businesses can use to focus on the essentials of a problem, and make clear to employees—and potentially to their representatives—whether there is a case to answer. As colleagues with trade union backgrounds have pointed out, in many cases, the advice received by the employee following the completion of a statutory questionnaire is that there is no case. Where there is a case, however, or structural discrimination in the workplace, surely we want to offer employees who are the victims the best possible means of uncovering and dealing with it, and maintain the strongest possible regulatory framework to enable information to be elicited, analysed, and used by employees when discrimination has occurred.

The Minister suggested that the statutory questionnaire procedure was burdensome for business. As colleagues have pointed out, however, over a three-year period only 2% of businesses—0.7% a year—completed the questionnaire. To the best of my knowledge, no micro-businesses—none of the smallest businesses for which the Minister may argue that the measure could be more burdensome—have ever completed a statutory questionnaire. If they have, it was not in the written evidence received during the Government consultation. I therefore suggest that the burden on business that the Minister seeks to portray, and the cost to business of around £1 million—as I think we were told—is pretty negligible in the context of other costs borne by businesses for the protection of workers in the workplace.