End of 'buying off' sexual assault victims hailed by campaigners, as gagging orders set to be banned

Martin Evans
A year after the launch of the #MeToo movement - which helped shine a light on the problem of sexual abuse in the workplace - the Government has pledged to ban gagging orders - AFP

Victims campaigners have welcomed plans to outlaw gagging orders which prevent employees from disclosing sexual abuse at the hands of their bosses.

The plans, which will be introduced as part of the domestic abuse bill, will stop companies from drawing up agreements that bar workers from going to the police.

It is estimated that thousands of workers, who have been subjected to harassment, bullying and abuse, have been successfully silenced after being persuaded to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA), in return for a pay off.

The gagging orders often threaten the victim with financial penalties if they go to the police to make a criminal complaint.

But a year after the launch of the #MeToo movement - which helped shine a light on the problem of sexual abuse in the workplace - the Government has pledged to ban NDAs.

Harry Fletcher, victims rights campaigner said it was important the new laws were wide ranging in order to cover all forms of workplace abuse.

He said: "This is welcome but the the government needs to be more explicit and explain what category of offences this covers.

“It is important that anyone who is the victim of sexual, physical or psychological abuse cannot be bought off by an employer and can have the confidence to come forward and report the abuse.

“Victims of serious crime also need to have an advocate to help them through the system and explain to them what their rights are."

Under plans set to be unveiled in the coming weeks, businesses will be prevented from drawing up gagging orders when dealing with complaints that are of a criminal nature.

In addition businesses will also have a new legal duty to protect their employees from unreasonable behaviour in the workplace.

This is intending to outlaw acts such as groping and unwanted sexual advances, but could also include inappropriate language and offensive jokes.

The true scale of the extent to which NDAs are used to silence victims in the workplace is yet to be established.

But the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which recently published the findings of a study into the issue, said it had found some “truly shocking” examples of sexual harassment.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, said: "We need urgent action to turn the tables in British workplaces, shifting from the current culture of people risking their jobs and health in order to report harassment, to placing the onus on employers to prevent and resolve it.

"It cannot be right that millions of people go to work fearing what might have happened by the time they come home."

The existence of non-disclosure agreements hit the headlines last year when a slew of allegations emerged about the American film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Since then similar allegations relating to NDAs have been made against other high profile figures, including the Portuguese footballer and former Manchester United star, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sexual harassment scandals have also engulfed Parliament and several high-profile businesses across the City and other sectors, with claims that victims have been silenced through the imposition of NDAs.

In order to help victims report abuse a new national database will be established which is also intended to help expose the true extent of the problem.

A Whitehall source said: “The intention is to stop NDAs being used to stop the victims of sexual harassment from going to the police and to introduce a new onus on employers to make it absolutely explicit to their staff that these agreements cannot be used in cases where a potential crime has been committed.”