Photo by Simon Matzinger at Unsplash
In a previous post (Philosophical beliefs) published on 22 January 2019, I noted that a person’s beliefs can be problematic as to whether they should be regarded as a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 4 and 10 of the Equality Act 2010.
What about veganism? The Vegan Society defines its core beliefs in the following terms:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose, and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Taken from: https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
So, it was with interest that I read about a story on Sky News where a customer of NatWest had been insulted by a call handler in relation to vegan beliefs:
NatWest call handler told customer: ‘Vegans should be punched in the face’
What if the call handler had uttered a homophobic, racist or sexist remark to the customer? I don’t think we would hesitate to label such remarks as unlawful discrimination and claim confidently that they would be potentially actionable in the courts.
Regular readers of this blog will already be aware that there is a case, currently before the Central London Employment Tribunal, where a vegan (Jordi Casamitjana) is claiming that his beliefs should have the status of a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 4 and 10 of the Equality Act 2010. I am certainly awaiting the Tribunal’s decision with interest.
A link to an article in The Independent about Mr Casamitjana’s case can be found below:
Defining beliefs as a protected characteristic
It will be recalled, that I discuss the concept of philosophical beliefs in Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law. The law relating to philosophical beliefs tends to be quite fluid and is often difficult to pin down. This means that disputes about whether or not beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010 will often be decided on a case by case basis.
Grainger plc v Nicholson  IRLR 4 is a very important case for this reason.
Tim Nicholson brought a claim against his employer, Grainger plc, a company involved in the development of residential property. Nicholson, who was Head of Sustainability at Grainger plc, alleged that he had been unfairly selected for redundancy by his employer because of his belief in the dangers of global warming and climate change. Nicholson was particularly vocal in his concerns that a company like Grainger had to promote environmental concerns as part of its business activities. The company had published environmentally friendly policies, but its alleged willingness to permit its executives to use certain types of vehicles which contributed to an increase in global warming suggested that there was contradiction between the company’s statements about its commitment to environmental issues and their actual implementation. The beliefs of Nicholson and his willingness to state these openly appeared to clash with his employer’s business objectives and this led Nicholson to conclude that he had been unfairly selected for redundancy.
Grainger plc attempted to have Mr Nicholson’s claim struck out on the grounds that his belief in environmental concerns was not a philosophical belief which was protected by UK equality laws.
Held: by the Central London Employment Tribunal at a Preliminary Hearing, that Mr Nicholson’s belief in environmental issues did fall within the meaning of a philosophical belief. This, however, was a procedural victory (albeit an important one) for Mr Nicholson who would still be in the position of having to convince a full Hearing of the Employment Tribunal that he had suffered discrimination in respect of these beliefs. On 3 November 2009, the Employment Appeal Tribunal concurred with the Tribunal’s finding that climate change could be capable of being a philosophical belief. In order to succeed in his claim, Nicholson still had to prove that his belief was “a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour”. A belief which demonstrates “a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” and this belief is ultimately “worthy of respect in a democratic society, [that it] be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others”.
Following the Grainger decision, an amendment was made to the law (and now contained in the Equality Act 2010), that it is unlawful to subject individuals to less favourable treatment on the grounds of their philosophical beliefs and it is immaterial whether or not these beliefs are considered similar to a religious belief. This is a highly significant development which demonstrates quite clearly that the Equality Act is not just confined to the protection of religious beliefs.
As I have previously noted, the trouble with the Grainger decision (and others like it) is that it has opened up a new whole area of complexity (or a can of worms) in attempting to determine when a belief is a philosophical belief worthy of legal protection.
Whether veganism is a system of beliefs deserving of the protection of the law remains to be seen. In any event, perhaps Natwest should be looking at disciplining this particular employee for the reputational damage clearly done to its brand. Whatever people think about the merits of veganism as a protected characteristic or not, most of us would be pretty appalled by the alleged treatment given out to the customer.
For students of employment law, would such conduct amount to a potentially fair reason for dismissal? Discuss.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, February 2019