For a moment, imagine a world in which a bookshop owner was brave enough to invite Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to speak.
They ensured the event was ticket-only, and arranged the security necessary to quell the crowd of trans activists expected to protest against Ms Rowling’s famously gender-critical views.
Yet at the last moment, the organisers have to cancel.
Not because of the woke mob. But because the bookshop owner fears they could be sued by their own hyper-sensitive young employees, under a new law passed with the support of Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Government.
That law would allow bookshop staff to sue their employer simply because they felt offended by the presence of a Rowling-supporting customer wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan: ‘Woman = Adult Human Female’.
For a moment, imagine a world in which a bookshop owner was brave enough to invite Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (pictured) to speak
This bizarre scenario, outlined by Tory peer Lord Strathcarron, is one example of what could happen if the egregious Government-backed Worker Protection Bill — an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 — is passed into law in a few weeks’ time.
The Bill will let staff sue their bosses if they feel offended or insulted by something said by ‘third parties’. That could mean bar staff suing because of a remark made to them by a customer, or hospital staff suing the NHS over offensive comments from a patient.
The remarks don’t even need to be directed at the employee; merely overhearing a crude joke could be enough to lead to a tribunal or court case.
It must be said that the Bill contains worthy measures against sexual harassment at work that enjoy wide support.
The rest of this appallingly ill-considered draft law, which is now being considered by the House of Lords, has been denounced as ‘draconian’ by Tory MPs, and Conservative peers are preparing to put forward a list of amendments.
In its current form, this Bill will legitimise our creep towards victim culture and litigation culture. It could mean every workplace becoming a surveillance state.
How has a such a sinister Bill passed through the House in a Tory administration with a huge majority? The answer, it appears, is that the Government was asleep at the wheel.
It started as a Private Members’ Bill proposed by MP Wera Hobhouse and a member of the House of Lords, Baroness Burt of Solihull, both from the busybody Liberal Democrats. Hobhouse and Burt are determined to sanitise workplace interactions.
‘One person’s banter is another person’s harassment,’ explains Hobhouse piously, in the words of a person who clearly doesn’t respect the principle of free speech.
Normally, such Bills sink without trace. Yet this one has been allowed to pass almost unnoticed through Parliament — with the result that two little-known Lib Dems could soon be holding free speach to ransom.
There is a suggestion that the Worker Protection Bill only passed through the House of Commons thus far because the Tory Government, preoccupied with its internal leadership turmoil, lost focus.
After all, the Bill passed its first reading shortly before Boris Johnson’s government collapsed, and its second reading days after Liz Truss quit as PM. As one Tory rebel says: ‘It’s mad, and no one has thought it through.’
In technical terms, the Bill would impose an obligation on employers to prevent harassment by third parties that relates to any ‘protected characteristic’. As defined in the Equality Act, these are: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.
There cannot be many who could not claim to be a victim in one or more of those groups.
And given that it legitimises victimhood, it will surely entrench compensation culture: if you take offence, why not sue? This will not only be a problem for individual employers hit by potentially crippling legal costs. We will all end up paying a price.
The trouble and expense involved in corporate litigation culture is already pushing up our insurance premiums, and this Bill will only add more pressure to pass on the costs to us poor punters.
The Bill also applies to the public sector, including the stretched resources of the NHS — which last year paid out £2.4 billion for litigation for medical negligence — and to local government.
Why should any employer shell out for the behaviour of their clients and customers — over which they can have no real control?
In practice, the Worker Protection Bill is a sinister threat to our freedom of speech. It will impose on employers a responsibility to take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent their staff being offended.
That can only lead to bosses trying to impose pre-emptive forms of censorship to avoid being dragged to a tribunal. Do we want to see our lively pubs reduced to a state of silent sterility, as if they were public libraries rather than public houses?
The former Business Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has suggested that any establishment serving the public can in future ‘expect to run a police state in their business’.
Any cleaner, car mechanic, doctor’s receptionist or solicitor could effectively be signed up as Stasi-style agents, spying on the public for any sign of offensive speech or behaviour.
The Government claims to have introduced amendments to the Bill to ensure that people can still express ‘legitimately-held opinions’. But these amendments provide little protection, since employees would be prevented from making a claim only if four conditions were all met.
First, employers would have to prove that the offending comment was overheard by the employee but not directed at them; then that the offence was unintentional; that the offender had expressed an ‘opinion on politics, religion or social matters’; and that the remarks were not ‘grossly’ offensive or indecent.
This sets an impossibly high bar for employers in order to avoid a claim. How could a pub landlord, for example, hope to prove that a drunk customer did not ‘intentionally’ offend his barman, and that his remarks were political but not gross?
While campaigning to become Tory leader, Sunak vowed to stop the ‘mission creep’ of New Labour’s 2010 Equality Act, which he nailed as ‘a Trojan Horse that has allowed every kind of woke nonsense to permeate public life’.
So it seems unthinkable that the PM has let this legislation make its way through the Commons without proper scrutiny.
Which raises the altogether more worrying prospect that the Bill has been thought through. After all, Sunak’s spokesmen have made clear that the Government remains fully behind the Bill.
We must hope rumours of a Tory rebellion prompt the Government to regain focus, recognise the dangers ahead, and strike down this misnamed Worker Protection Bill.
For remember: in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the Big Brother regime not only represses freedom through jackbooted thugs. More insidiously, it does so through an informal system of surveillance that encourages your workmates, neighbours and even children to note down everything you say and do, instilling a fear of being seen to speak out of turn.
The Worker Protection Bill, with its suitably Orwellian double-speak name, would take us another step down that slippery slope.
- Mick Hume is the author of Trigger Warning: Is The Fear Of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
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