News of a big free speech victory emerged this month, when the government withdrew its support from the “draconian” Worker Protection (Amendment to Equality Act 2010) Bill following a Tory backlash (Telegraph). Members will recall that our Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, produced a very thorough briefing note on the Bill and it’s this note, which we’ve circulated widely in Parliament, that prompted the rebellion.
If the Bill had reached the statute books in its current form, it would have introduced a legal requirement for companies and public bodies to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent their employees being harassed by third parties (i.e., customers or members of the public) in a way that related to a “protected characteristic” as defined by the Equality Act 2010 (such as sex, gender reassignment, age, race, religion, etc).
The obvious danger, apart from the compliance costs, is that the legislation would have caused an explosion in costly litigation, forcing pubs, bars and restaurants to expel clients for “banter” and other trivial, perfectly lawful incidents.
Another more subtle, but just as significant danger was the ‘chilling’ effect the Bill would have had – as the Tory peer Lord Strathcarron pointed out during the second reading of the Bill in the House of Lords. For instance, it would have meant bookshops not inviting authors such as JK Rowling and Helen Joyce to give talks “knowing that an employee could sue for hurt feelings”.
With Tory peers having tabled numerous amendments to the Bill, a government source has now confirmed that there won’t be enough time to debate them all before the end of the Parliamentary session – making “passage of the Bill impossible”.
According to the government source quoted in the Telegraph, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch (who was responsible for the Bill), is now looking to ensure any future legislation is focused solely on preventing the sexual harassment of employees by third parties – an element of the current Bill that commands broad support.
The FSU is relieved that the government has listened to our concerns and those expressed in the House of Lords and withdrawn its support for this piece of legislation. The Equality Act 2010 undoubtedly needs reforming, but not in a way that further erodes free speech.
You can read more about this important victory on our home page.