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Most workplace sex harassment cases fail as Tories drag feet over reforms

Four years on from damning report, government has failed to bring forward promised legislation to protect workers from predatory colleagues

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira Adam Bychawski
3 May 2022, 4.39pm

Women and equalities minister Liz Truss promised reform last year but it has yet to materialise.


Joshua Bratt / Alamy Stock Photo

Just 23 tribunal cases involving allegations of workplace sexual harassment in the whole of 2021 were successful, openDemocracy can reveal.

The findings come as the government has been accused of dragging its feet on reforms four years after a damning select committee report found sexual harassment is “widespread and commonplace” in workplaces.

The Conservative Party is also facing calls to investigate its own internal culture after a senior female Tory MP said the party was “institutional sexist” and a cabinet minister said that she had been sexually assulated by a colleague in the past.

They were prompted to speak out after Tory MP Neil Parish was suspended for watching porn in the House of Commons last week and another Tory MP reportedly claimed Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner had tried to distract Boris Johnson by crossing her legs earlier this month.

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Legal experts told openDemocracy sexual harassment is going unpunished in the workplace because it is too difficult for accusers to win cases at an employment tribunal.

Out of 56 tribunal cases identified by openDemocracy that involved an allegation of sexual harassment in 2021, 23 were successful. The government does not collect data on the number of sexual harassment cases reported in workplaces so the cases that reach tribunal represent some of the only available data.

But these are just “the tip of the iceberg”, according to the Women and Equalities Committee.

Women and equalities minister Liz Truss promised new legislation to tackle workplace sexual harassment in July 2021, which included extending the time allowed for accusers to file cases, and a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The legislation has yet to materialise.

Truss’s announcement came three years after a report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee that found politicians, employers and regulators were all failing to clamp down on sexual harassment in the workplace. “It is time for the government to put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda,” they said.

openDemocracy found that the tribunal rejected cases last year where there was a chance of success because they were not submitted within the existing three-month time-limit.

One case was dismissed even though a claimant provided video evidence that they were sexually harassed, simply because it was brought to the tribunal 18 months after the incident occured.

The judge in the case admitted that, “if the claimant had brought her sex harassment claim earlier, or had started work earlier, then the outcome of this case would have been very different and it is likely the respondents would be facing substantial awards of compensation for both unfair dismissal and sex harassment”.

Discrimination lawyers said accusers are being put off from going to tribunal because of the high burden of proof required, particularly if they don’t have legal representation.

“It’s very, very difficult to win these cases because it is an evidence-based system, and a lot of the conduct occurs between two individuals in a space where there are no witnesses,” said Arpita Dutt, a senior equalities lawyer.

“The burden is one word against another and people don’t necessarily take note of what happened at the time.”

Dutt said success was often dependent on “an individual’s ability to express that in a coherent way”. 

The number of workplace sexual harassment cases that reach the employment tribunal pales in comparison to the number of incidents reported by women in a survey two years ago.

Half of women in the UK said they had suffered unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, according to a YouGov survey in 2020. Around a quarter of women reported unwanted touching, heard colleagues make comments of a sexual nature about a fellow colleague in front of them, or were questioned about their sex life while at work, the poll found.

Legal experts said victims are opting for private settlements with employers rather than bringing their case to an employment tribunal because they face “too many hurdles” going to court.

“Claimants get some comfort from the fact that they’re not going to be named [in a settlement] or dragged into a public hearing [if they settle privately],” said Suzanne McKie, a senior discrimation lawyer.

However, McKie said that the use of non-disclosure agreements in settlements were contributing to a culture of impunity around sexual harassment by keeping allegations confidential.

“Sometimes a perpetrator will be paid off to leave and there’s no obligation for information to be passed on to their next employer,” she said.

The government announced proposals for new legislation in 2019 that would introduce additional legal requirements for NDAs, but it has not been signed into law.

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