I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a statutory definition of bullying at work; to make provision relating to bullying at work, including to enable claims relating to workplace bullying to be considered by an employment tribunal; to provide for a Respect at Work Code to set minimum standards for positive and respectful work environments; to give powers to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate workplaces and organisations where there is evidence of a culture of, or multiple incidents of, bullying and to take enforcement action; and for connected purposes.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We all have power: how we use it matters. We can use it to encourage and elevate others, or we can use it to denigrate and destroy. For those who are harmed, there are few protections. We see it in schools and online, we see it with elder abuse, and we see it in workplaces. My Bill will break the cycle of bullying at work. It will call to account those who abuse their power, while protecting others and, for the first time, providing a legal definition of bullying at work. The TUC reports that bullying is the second biggest workplace issue. Some 29% of workers will experience workplace bullying at some point, and one in 10 has experienced it in the past six months. Academia backs those figures up. That lack of access to redress and justice explains why 53% of those who are bullied never report it. What is the point, if it exposes you further and there is no legal protection?
My Bill will not just help people at work; it will help employers. Bullying costs UK businesses £18 billion a year, and according to the Health and Safety Executive, over 17 million working days are lost each year due to work-related negative behaviours such as bullying. Sometimes bullying is corporate, embedded in the culture of an organisation. Sometimes it is peer on peer, where workers are left out, denigrated publicly or privately, and targeted or ignored. Slowly and painfully, the worker dies inside. Bullying hurts: it destroys confidence, crushes mental health and causes physical ill health. For some, the pain is so great that they simply crumble. There is lasting trauma; some never recover, and some lose their lives. The power of a human to destroy another is very real.
As a Parliament, we have failed millions of workers by not legislating. Like most MPs, I have had a constant stream of constituents seeking help, but there is no legal definition, no legal protection and no legal route to justice. Without protection, many workers will leave their employment. Without a route to an employment tribunal, people depend on the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or a claim for constructive unfair dismissal following resigning from work. Most suffer, or leave their place of work. While my Bill seeks to promote respect at work and positive behaviours, it recognises that legislation is needed to protect workers and to have a chilling effect on negative workplace cultures for employees, workers, the bogus self-employed or office holders. As with other rewards, the tribunal service would depend on the remedies determined by the Vento tariff, and would therefore access the compensatory award for injury to the applicant.
Twenty years ago, there was a concerted effort by Government, trade unions and employers to address bullying at work. They formed the Dignity At Work Partnership, undertaking important work to understand bullying, its causes, its effects and how to reduce incidents. Sadly, the impact did not last and its reach was limited. Labour’s late Baroness Gibson sought to legislate. Since, barristers and solicitors have been calling for a change in the law. Trade unions want their members protected.
ACAS has, within its code of practice, set out a definition. Any definition would require a subjective test—what is its impact—fettered by an objective test of the behaviours being offensive, malicious, intimidating or humiliating. As ACAS has more recently determined, this does not have to be a repeated act, but could be. Such tests provide for a robust threshold for a claim.
Bullying can be by an individual or group. It can be organisational, as with deliberate procedural delays in grievance management—delayed to cause harm. Fundamentally, it springs from a power imbalance—positional from a manager, psychological or relational. It can be direct or through a third party, by proxy. It can be with intent or without, although remorse can be the judge of this. Often, the perpetrator will reverse the blame and those innocent of bullying are accused of being a perpetrator. This can be the worst bullying of all—being publicly labelled by the very people who bully while they play victim themselves.
Currently, employment tribunals only hear cases of constructive unfair dismissal. We know that the time and thresholds for such claims are high, the applicant first having to resign, and they would also be required to have two years of employment. Civil courts may further be used to handle a personal injury claim. While employers have an implied duty to provide a safe working environment, the absence of legislation makes this difficult to enforce or address harm. Many workplaces have policies, but ultimate restitution is yet to sit with the tribunal, since bullying is not a legal concept, while discrimination and harassment rightly are.
For those with a protected characteristic, section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 provides a route to seek remedy. For someone who does not qualify under the Equality Act, there is no legal protection. However, with legislation, a dismissal arising from bullying could seek remedy, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, as an automatically unfair dismissal. The power of that approach is that, once the threshold tests have been met, the burden of proof moves to the employer to demonstrate that the reason for the resignation of the employee was or was not due to their failure to protect the individual from the perpetrator.
My Bill follows the tradition of harassment, but extends it to those without a protected characteristic. Like harassment, it will have a six-month limitation to bring a claim. My Bill seeks to extend the ACAS code of practice to promote positive workplace behaviours. Clearly, the failure of an employer to instil this could see a compensatory award raised, but, moreover, also see positive change ensue at work.
A perpetrator of bullying often targets more than one individual. My Bill empowers employers to challenge and bring about change. Failing to would enable the tribunal to compel an employer to abide by the code, securing better workplace safety. Should the perpetrator continue to bully, the code assists employers to manage the situation through conduct procedures and, where necessary, escalate a case to gross misconduct. However, it must be recognised that some places of work have an endemic bullying culture. I have therefore set out a role for reporting, investigation and enforcement in line with the management of environments where discrimination occurs.
In extending the role and powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate and report, and to issue enforcement notices, workplace cultures will change. We need only look at some recent reports on the NHS to recognise failure, but we are acutely aware that we need to get our own House in order. Indeed, political parties would not be exempt from my legislation. This will clean up workplaces and clean up politics. The UK is behind the curve. Jurisdictions from Canada to Australia, Scandinavia to many across Europe have well established law in this field.
It is my experience that all can be subject to the destructive forces of bullying and all must receive protection under the law. In bringing forward this legislation, I hope that we can change the culture of work—for workers to no longer fear a day in the office, on a ward or even in this Parliament, but instead for them to know that the law is on their side, justice is protecting them and they can receive the very help they need. We have an obligation to protect people at work, and my Bill passing its First Reading today is the first step.