Earl of Leicester debates involving the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities during the 2019 Parliament

Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill

Earl of Leicester Excerpts
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I echo all that my noble friend Lord Hannan said, and I am delighted that we have reached agreement and a way forward on the Bill. I will just add a few words on why I added my name to opposing Clause 1 standing part of the Bill. This is not simply a free speech issue. Clause 1 amends Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. A new subsection (1B) defines a third party as

“a person other than … A, or …an employee of A’s”,

which noble Lords will recognise as a double possessive. It has both “of” and “A’s”. While a double possessive can occasionally be used to avoid ambiguity, there is no ambiguity in Clause 1. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is my Bible, has it listed as a sturdy but indefensible “freak of idiom”. My own view is that when we legislate, we should use the best possible version of the King’s English that we can find. I tried to table a specific amendment on this, but the usually very helpful Bill Office refused to let me do so, even though there is no direct prohibition in the Companion. I have no idea how one is supposed to correct grammatical errors or poor use of language other than by an amendment—I shall have to fight that another day.

The wording is also found in the Equality Act 2010, in Sections 39 and 40, so I can celebrate that by removing Clause 1 from this Bill, the Bill has been saved from repeating that poor use of the English language. But the 2010 Act remains intact with its double possessives, and I hope that my small intervention today might someday lead to its rectification.

Earl of Leicester Portrait The Earl of Leicester (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I employ over 350 people and in 30 years have been taken to an employment tribunal only twice. On both occasions the tribunal found in my favour. I hope that noble Lords see that as an indication of good management and of taking a responsible and caring attitude towards the workforce. Of course, there are bad employers, but I suggest that most employers care for and nurture their workforce, understanding that a happy and well-motivated team is a business’s greatest asset and will ensure better outcomes for the company.

It is for that very general reason, and for the reasons announced at Second Reading by my noble friends Lord Hannan, Lord Strathcarron and Lord Moylan, which do not need repeating now, that I oppose Clause 1 standing part of this Bill. I sincerely believe that it should be removed. Furthermore, I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, who is the Bill’s sponsor in your Lordships’ House, agrees that Clause 1 can be removed.

I thank the noble Baroness, and my noble friend the Minister, for our productive discussions on the Bill in recent weeks. While I hold reservations on the need for some of the specific measures and burdens that they place on employers, I trust that the amendments proposed today are a pragmatic way forward that allows the Bill to progress. The Bill, if amended, would retain the core purpose and send a clear signal that harassment is not acceptable in the workplace. It is right that employers take reasonable steps to prevent this, while balancing against the burdens on the business that the Bill, as originally drafted, could have imposed.

I have one point which I would be most grateful for clarification on, pertaining to Clause 2 and sexual harassment by a third party. If a company sends an employee away on a training course, having of course undertaken due diligence on said training provider, but while attending the course the employee is sexually harassed by someone from that company or another course attendee, in this example is the employee allowed to sue their employer—since the employer has very little control over what happens off their premises? I hope that my noble friend the Minister can clarify this.

During the progress of this Bill, I have learned a great deal about the consensual way in which this House undertakes its politics. Negotiations have led to sensible compromises, and I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for their friendly and helpful guidance. I look forward the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. I also thank the Minister for her ongoing engagement and steadfast resolve in seeking a way forward that the House can agree on. I hope that she can confirm that the Government are open to the proposed amendments.

Earl of Leicester Portrait The Earl of Leicester (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my tourism and leisure interests—within those businesses, I have probably 250 employees. I am extremely concerned about the Bill, which will have grave implications for freedom of speech as well as imposing huge compliance costs on Britain’s 1.5 million businesses. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is the most momentous and far-reaching piece of legislation currently before Parliament—yet it has received very little parliamentary scrutiny and provoked almost no debate in the public square. If the Bill were merely concerned with sexual harassment, I would have very few objections to it. Indeed, when it was flagged up to representatives in the hospitality sector, their understanding, without exception, was that the only form of third-party harassment that employers will be liable for if the Bill becomes law is sexual harassment. So there is a lack of understanding because of the lack of debate.

Clause 1 will create liability for third-party harassment of all kinds, not merely sexual harassment. Just as employers are currently liable if they have not taken all reasonable steps to prevent an employee overhearing another employee saying something offensive that relates to a protected characteristic, so they will now be liable if an employee overhears a member of the public saying something offensive. This should alarm any of us concerned with free speech, regulatory overreach and the spread of compliance culture.

If the Bill becomes law, businesses will treat their customers in the same way that they treat their employees, at least in some important aspects. Therefore, just like employees, customers are likely to be bound by formal and binding HR-style rules that govern how they interact with employees, so that the employer can demonstrate that it has taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent third-party harassment and so it can begin to manage the multifarious risks that arise from a legal prohibition against unintentional offence. Being told to use your staff’s preferred gender pronouns would be the tip of the iceberg.

Just earlier this week, I saw on Twitter—and I do not go on there that much these days—an unsavoury incident of a young trans woman filming herself shouting at a young server in a fast-food store. That server was doubtless themselves on the minimum wage. She was accusing him of misgendering her by calling her “sir.” The trans woman had evidently taken offence, but rather than quietly and politely correcting the young server that “he” was in fact a “she”, she was screaming blue murder and making quite a scene. The young worker was certainly harassed and could have a case against his employer, but how could the employer have guessed that this might happen? If they had guessed that this might be an eventuality, they could have instituted some gender recognition training, doubtless at a large cost to the company—and the quality of the training out there is arguable. Witness our own Valuing Everyone equally training here in this House, which was frankly patronising at best. That might have placated 48% of the 18-24 year-olds who believe that people should declare or display their pronouns, but not the remaining 52%, or the vast majority of older people who do not see the need or point of such virtue-signalling.

It is hard to conceive how any Government, least of all a Conservative one, should conclude that the compliance culture of HR departments, with their dogmatic rigidity, unreflective worship of fashionable orthodoxy and complete deadness to nuance and complexity, should be expanded beyond the workplace and into pubs, shops, theatres and sports grounds. Yet that is precisely what this Bill will do.

The Equality Act has chilled the atmosphere in workplaces up and down the country with people living in fear of saying the wrong thing and being reported to HR. That chill is now going to spread beyond the workplace into those places where people spend their leisure time. Is that really what the British people want—to live in a society where, if they are overheard telling a saucy joke or expressing an incorrect opinion, such as saying that they do not think trans women are women, they could be permanently banned from their favourite pub or restaurant? Hugh Osmond, the head of Punch Taverns, said:

“How could we stop a group of people coming into a pub and having an offensive chat in the comer? You may even need extra staff walking around the pub policing conversation. You wouldn’t find rules this strict in China or Russia”.

I question whether the UK’s under-threat pub sector will be able to shoulder the compliance costs and liability that Clause 1 imposes. An industry predominantly made up of small owner-operators, who do not have the resources to deal with this, is already under threat. One reason I voted to leave in the 2016 referendum was that, when we joined the EEC more than 50 years ago, Europe had 33% of world trade. When we voted to leave the EU, its share of trade had fallen to 17%. My take on this is that the EU is effectively legislating itself out of business. Extra-burdensome legislation is the last thing that this country needs as we struggle with the cost of living crisis, the mountain of debt built up as a result of our handling of the Covid pandemic, and inflation. This Bill needs a huge rethink.