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Practice managers potentially liable for sexual harassment against staff, trade union says

by Valeria Fiore
19 February 2019

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Practice managers should be held to account if they fail to act after third-party sexual harassment incidents against their staff, trade union Unison has said.

As part of a motion debated at Unison’s annual women’s conference in Bournemouth on 16 February, the union said that all public sector employers – including NHS managers – should be liable for third party sexual harassment episodes against their staff.

Unison is now calling for the reinstatement of Section 40 of the Equality Act, which was repealed in 2013 following the Government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ – which aimed at cutting down unnecessary regulations.

Under this clause, employers were to be held to account if they were failing to act after two incidents of sexual harassment against their staff.

The regulation was repealed as the Government said that other laws were offering similar protection to staff, a claim that Unison has disputed.

However, in a written answer issued last year, MP Victoria Atkins said that the Government doesn’t believe it is necessary to reintroduce the section.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been approached for comments.

‘Workplaces should be harassment-free zones’

A 2016 study by the Trades Union Study found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes.

Speaking at Unison’s annual women’s conference assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: ‘Workplaces should be harassment-free zones. There must be tougher policies, a clearer understanding of what harassment is, and a zero-tolerance approach.’

According to the 2017 NHS Staff Survey, 28% of the over 480,000 staff who responded to the survey had experienced harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, relatives or the public in a 12-months period, up from 27.9% in 2016.

Clive Elliott, business partner at Court Street Medical Practice in Telford, said: ‘Employers have a duty to ensure that employees are protected from all forms of harassment at work and, speaking as an employer, I think it is vital that the law ensures that protection applies in all workplaces and not just where employers value their staff.

‘However, those guilty of perpetrating harassment of any kind should feel the full weight of the law and not be able to hide behind misguided legislation that could criminalise the employer rather than the offender.

‘For that reason I think it is vital that any change to current legislation ensures a fair balance between ensuring employers reasonably do what they can to protect staff whilst ensuring there is no diminishing of individual responsibility.’

Last year, the Government launched a strategy to achieve a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against abuse of NHS staff, which includes a partnership between NHS England and the police to help NHS staff quickly report episodes of violence.

Additional reporting by Costanza Pearce