Good work?

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

One of the consistent themes of my blog has concerned an individual’s employment status in the work-place – or the very real difficulties associated with the lack of such status.

Section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 defines an “employee” means an individual who has entered into or works under (or, where the employment has ceased, worked under) a contract of employment.

As I have stated on more than one occasion, those who have a contract of service rather than a contract for services tend to be in a much stronger position legally speaking when it comes to a range of employment rights such as:

  • Paternity and maternity pay/leave
  • Statutory adoption pay/leave
  • Consultation rights in redundancy and TUPE situations
  • Entitlement to redundancy payments
  • Entitlement to sick pay
  • Minimum notice periods
  • Protection against unfair dismissal

The above are just some of the rights that people with employment status potentially can acquire depending on their length (or continuity) of service with their employer.

Those individuals with more insecure working patterns (e.g zero hours and/or casual workers) will almost never be in a situation to acquire such rights because it is almost always impossible for them to build up the necessary period of continuous service with the organisations to which they provide services. Typically, many of these workers are part of what has become known as the “gig economy” where the feature of employment contracts known as mutuality of obligation is absent.

Admittedly, the UK Government has attempted to begin to address the disadvantages facing “gig economy” workers by setting up the Taylor Review (which published its findings in July 2017). The final report made 53 recommendations concerning modern, employment practices:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/good-work-the-taylor-review-of-modern-working-practices

The UK Government’s official response to the Taylor Review was entitled “Good Work” and a link to this document can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/679767/180206_BEIS_Good_Work_Report__Accessible_A4_.pdf

The desire to extend workers’ rights seems to be something of a trend as, in April 2019, the European Union also ratified a new Directive with the working title Transparent and predictable working conditions in the European Union. This Directive (for the remaining EU 27 member states) will certainly give casual workers greater legal rights, but given the current uncertainty over the UK’s Brexit position, it remains to be seen if this measure will ever be implemented in this country (for more information, see “The gig economy” published on 19 April 2019).

One of the most significant new rights that the UK Government is proposing to extend to non-employees is the right to sick pay from day 1 of their service. It is calculated that this reform (if implemented) will benefit some 2 million workers.

A link to how the story was reported by The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.160719/data/9005291/index.html

Although employment law is a matter reserved to the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Government has established its own Fair Work Convention with the express purpose of:

The Convention’s vision is that, by 2025, people in Scotland will have a world-leading working life where fair work drives success, wellbeing and prosperity for individuals, businesses, organisations and society.

A link to the Convention’s website can be found below:

https://www.fairworkconvention.scot

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 22 July 2019

Bad medicine

Photo by Kendal James on Unsplash

A story which caught my eye over the last few days comes from the fair Canadian City of Toronto and involves misconduct dismissals. For a change, the dismissals do not involve social media misuse, but rather good old fashioned fraud.

150 members of staff working at a Toronto hospital were sacked for involvement in a sophisticated prescription fraud which was reportedly in the region of £3 million over an 8 year period. Defrauding your employer is, of course, an extremely serious breach of trust which materially undermines the contract of employment.

Interestingly, at this point, the Police in Toronto have not charged any individual with the crime of fraud – yet – but clearly the employer feels that it has sufficient grounds to go ahead with the dismissals.

I often to say to students that the employer merely has to have a reasonable suspicion that the employee has committed an act of misconduct. There is no need for the employer to demonstrate that the allegation(s) of misconduct meets the criminal standard of proof.

A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/150-toronto-hospital-staff-fired-over-prescription-scam-11760982

Had this story occurred in the UK, we would be talking about the matter in the context of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. If employers can show that the reason for the dismissal of employees is justified i.e. on the grounds of misconduct (fraud), it will be a fair dismissal. As a point of good disciplinary policy, of course, employers should always follow the proper procedures when deciding to dismiss employees on the grounds of dismissal.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 13 July 2019

Tickets for “people of colour” … or the problem with positive discrimination

Photo by Ehimetalor Unuabona on Unsplash

Tickets for “people of colour” …

In a previous blog (The force is not with you … published on 28 February and updated on 10 June 2019), I discussed the problems associated with policies of positive discrimination.

So, it is with some interest that I read an item on Sky News today about Afrofuture Fest a music festival which was to take place in the American City of Detroit. The festival organisers had offered tickets for sale to members of the public. Absolutely nothing unusual in that readers will undoubtedly respond, but what was unusual was the fact that the price to be paid in conjunction with an ‘early bird’ promotion was to be determined by the customer’s racial origins (tickets for “people of colour”).

If you were an African American applying for tickets, you would pay less than a White American wanting to go to the gig. I admit that I was intrigued by this marketing approach and I wanted to know what were the underlying motivations of the organisers? I confess: I’m coming from a different cultural perspective here in the UK and, generally, we’re not too keen on the widespread use of positive discrimination as a tool for promoting equality.

Well, it would seem that the pricing policy was motivated by a genuine determination to ensure that African Americans (who happen to be in the disproportionately lower income section of US society) were not deterred from attending the event by high prices. Furthermore, the organisers wanted a racially diverse group of music fans to attend the festival.

All well meaning, but the event has now become mired in controversy with the organisers receiving threats from white supremacist groups and artists deciding not to perform. The ticket policy has now been scrapped.

A link to how the story was reported on Sky News can be found below:

Festival scraps cheaper ‘people of colour’ tickets after ‘white supremacist threats’
http://news.sky.com/story/festival-scraps-cheaper-people-of-colour-tickets-after-white-supremacist-threats-11758953

Positive discrimination: the legal position

Discriminating in favour of one group of people over another (whether this is motivated by a good intention or not) will most likely be regarded as an example of direct discrimination which contravenes Section 13 of the Equality Act 2010.

The judgement of the House of Lords in James v Eastleigh Borough Council [1990] 2 AC 751 was particularly strong on this point and it was irrelevant that the Council was acting from motives of good faith i.e. to promote healthier lifestyles for female residents of the Borough. The simple fact was that the Borough Council was acting unlawfully (in breach of the then Sex Discrimination Act 1975) when it charged men for entry to the swimming pool when women were not charged for access to this facility. The Borough Council had committed an act of direct, sex discrimination.

Positive discrimination has only really been successful in the UK when the Westminster Parliament has given it the full backing of the law and, additionally, it complies with this country’s EU legal obligations.

One notable example of positive discrimination is the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 which aimed to encourage more women to enter Parliament by having all women short lists. Previously, such an attempt to promote positive action would have been illegal under the (now repealed) Sex Discrimination Act 1975.  Some (male) Labour activists did, in fact, bring successful legal challenges under the former sex discrimination legislation on the grounds that they had suffered discrimination because of their gender in being automatically disqualified from the parliamentary candidates’ selection process (Jepson and Dyas-Elliott v The Labour Party and Others [1996] IRLR 116).

The other example of positive discrimination involves the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The PSNI was created in 2001 following the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The PSNI replaced the old Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) which was largely seen as a biased or sectarian police force by most Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland.

According to figures produced by the official Patten Report, the RUC was overwhelming Protestant in composition (91.7% to 8.3% Roman Catholic).

One of the key recommendations of the Patten Report was that:

“An equal number of Protestants and Catholics should be drawn from the pool of qualified candidates.” [para. 15.10]

This led to a deliberate 50/50 recruitment policy in which half of the candidates recruited to the PSNI had to come from a Roman Catholic background.

That said, there was significant criticism of the 50/50 recruitment policy coming from the Unionist and Loyalist community in Northern Ireland – who were never going to be reconciled to the demise of the RUC in any case. The recruitment policy was only ended in 2011 by Owen Patterson MP, the then Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Predictably, this development did not please the Nationalist and Republican community in Northern Ireland.

Affirmative or positive action

In the United States of America, of course, there is a completely different approach to the promotion of diversity and equality from what we would understand in the UK and the European Union. The Americans, for example, are very keen on affirmative action (or positive discrimination) and often employers will speak of filling quotas i.e. recruiting a certain number of African Americans or Hispanic Americans. This practice of affirmative action or positive discrimination is an attempt by the Americans to overcome the problems of historic and entrenched racism in their society. In the UK and the European Union, we too have had our problems with under-representation of certain groups in the work-place, but any attempt to introduce positive discrimination has been much more limited in scope.

Affirmative action has its limits: the ticket policy at Afrofuture Fest would, however, appear to be a breach of the Civil Rights Act 1964 (Title II) which states that:

“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.

The UK and EU approaches to positive discrimination

Limited positive action or discrimination has, for some time, been tolerated by the Court of Justice of the European Union where employers gave preference, as part of an equality policy, to female candidates over suitably qualified male candidates in order to address gender imbalances in the work-place (see Kalanke Freie Hansestadt Bremen (1995) C-450/93 and Badeck and Others (2000) C-158/97).

The Equality Act 2010 does, admittedly, permit what is referred to as ‘positive action’ in fairly limited circumstances and it has been observed that it does not really advance the law very much in this area.

Certainly, in terms of the public sector equality duty, organisations may be permitted to take specified forms positive action in the work-place to eradicate or minimise forms of discriminations e.g. ‘the need to tackle prejudice and promote understanding’ (see Section 149(5) of the Equality Act)

Section 158 of the Act permits an employer to take positive action to help individuals with a protected characteristic to overcome or minimise such a disadvantage. Such action on the part of the employer must, however, be a proportionate means of achieving this aim.

Section 159 also permits an employer to take positive action in recruitment and promotion in relation to people with protected characteristics. The employer will only really be able to utilise this provision if candidates for a job or a promoted post have the same or similar qualifications. In such situations, the employer will able to consider if candidates with protected characteristics are at a disadvantage or are under represented in matters of recruitment or promotion.

There is one important exception to the rules on positive action contained in the Act: it will not be illegal for an employer to treat a disabled person more favourably in comparison to a non-disabled person.

Conclusion

In the UK, positive discrimination in recruitment can be lawful under very limited circumstances. In other words, it is a practice which, if objectively justified, can be used to overcome historical patterns of discrimination e.g. to address the woefully low numbers of female politicians or the under-representation of Roman Catholics in the Police Service in Northern Ireland.

Such arrangements permitting limited positive discrimination tend to be governed by ‘sunset clauses’ i.e. they have a built in expiry date, so they will not last forever. Furthermore, positive discrimination is really only legitimate  in so called ‘tie-break’ situations where several applicants have the same qualifications and experience, but as a matter of public policy, for example, a female or minority ethnic applicant is given preference in order to address historic diversity imbalances in that particular work-place.

The Americans, on the other hand, have tended to pursue a very explicit policy of positive discrimination or affirmative action by placing an emphasis on the filling of quotas – either, for example, in employment or education. Such an approach places a legal obligation on employers and service providers (colleges and universities) to ensure that certain minimum numbers of people from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds are given a job or a place in training or education.

As we have seen with the ticket policy for events such as Afrofuture Fest, positive discrimination can be controversial and potentially unlawful.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 July 2019

Ouch!

Photo by Seán J Crossan

A salutary tale from Northern Ireland about the dangers of unequal pay for employers.

Margaret Mercer, a Belfast solicitor, has been awarded £273,000 in compensation by the Industrial Tribunal (yes, they still exist in Northern Ireland) after she won her equal pay claim against her employer, C&H Jefferson (a law firm).

The Tribunal concluded that Ms Mercer had been doing “like work” when a comparison was made with 4 other colleagues who held the rank of salaried partner in the firm. Three of these individuals were men.

It should be recalled that, under equal pay legislation in the UK, individuals can bring claims on a number of grounds:

  • They are engaged in like work with their comparator(s);
  • They are engaged in work of equal value with their comparator(s); or
  • They are engaged in work rated equivalent with their comparator(s).

C&H Jefferson has stated that it intends to appeal the Tribunal ruling.

More details about Ms Mercer’s claim can be found below in the BBC article:

Belfast solicitor wins £273k in equal pay case

Margaret Mercer found out she was not being paid the same as some colleagues at the law firm C&H Jefferson.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 26 June 2019

Sickness absence

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

An issue which many employers will have to deal with is that of long-term sickness and/or frequent absences of certain employees.

In terms of Section 98(2) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, it is open to employers to argue that a dismissal was fair when they terminated the employment relationship by reason of an individual’s sickness absences. The employer would justify such a dismissal on grounds of capability (meaning “in relation to an employee, means his capability assessed by reference to skill, aptitude, health or any other physical or mental quality”).

This is subject, however, to the requirements laid down in Section 98(4) of the Act as to whether the employer has acted reasonably or unreasonably and also having regard to the “equity and substantial merits of the case”.

I also stress to students and to members of the wider public, that an employer does not have a blank cheque (or an automatic right) to dismiss an employee on the basis of sickness absences. Many employers will rightly argue that they have a business to run and they must monitor sickness absence amongst employees.

A particularly problematic issue is the use by many employers of sickness absence trigger points. This is where employers designate a set number of days (usually within a 12 month period) and affected employees may find themselves being summoned to a meeting which, in reality, is a thinly disguised disciplinary action which could ultimately lead to dismissal on capability grounds.

The problem here for employers is that the use of such trigger points can be entirely arbitrary in nature. In other words, they are blunt instrument which take little or no account of individual personal circumstances.

What if the employee in question has a disability in terms of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010? In such cases, employers would be well advised to tread extremely carefully when dealing with members of the workforce who have (or might have) the protected characteristic of disability. Additionally, a female employee who is pregnant (and is suffering from short term ill health e.g. morning sickness) may fall foul of the trigger point. Again, caution should be exercised here because a pregnant employee will be entitled to the protection of Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010.

Let’s also discuss employees who are undergoing gender reassignment and, as this involves a prolonged medical process, it may be the case that this will involve a significant amount of absences from work for the person undergoing this process.  Section 16 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it very clear that an employer who treats such an individual less favourably by, perhaps, subjecting them to disciplinary action on account of these absences will be acting unlawfully.Let’s also discuss employees who are undergoing gender reassignment.

Indirect discrimination

When applying policies (practices or criteria) to the workforce, employers will have to be very much aware of straying into the perilous territory of the prohibited conduct known as indirect discrimination (Section 19: Equality Act 2010).

The Equality and Human Rights Commission provides guidance on what constitutes indirect discrimination in its Statutory Code of Practice on Employment:

Example 1

An employer has a ‘no headwear’ policy for its staff. Unless this policy can be objectively justified, this will be indirect discrimination against Sikh men who wear the turban, Muslim women who wear a headscarf and observant Jewish men who wear a skullcap as manifestations of their religion.

Example 2

Requiring a UK-based qualification, when equivalent qualifications obtained abroad would also meet the requirement for that particular level of knowledge or skill, may lead to indirect discrimination because of race, if the requirement cannot be objectively justified.

The concept of indirect discrimination in Section 19 of the Equality Act applies to all of the protected characteristics with the exception of pregnancy and maternity (which are specifically addressed elsewhere in the Act (Sections 17 and 18)).

A gung ho or insensitive approach by the employer may be very costly in the longer term as regards dealing with sickness absences (especially as an injury to feelings element could be part of an Employment Tribunal award).

A disability, for example, will affect not only the individual’s ability to perform her job, but also her ability to perform normal day-to-day activities. If this is the case, the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments, in terms of Section 20 of the Equality Act 2010 to the employee’s working conditions, in order to aid her return to work.

A failure to consider reasonable adjustments or to dismiss out of hand certain adjustments may constitute disability discrimination in terms of the Act.

Furthermore, it may be extremely ill advised for employers to place employees with disabilities on some sort of attendance monitor system. This could be an example of harassment (Section 28: Equality Act) and, if the employee in question was eventually dismissed, it may represent a breach of Section 15 of the Act i.e. discrimination arising from disability.

Section 15 is an area where many employers may be caught out and, consequently, they may treat a disabled person less favourably. The issue often arises when employers monitor attendance and time-keeping of employees. It may be the case that disabled employees face greater difficulty when it comes to maintaining an acceptable level of attendance and time-keeping and are thus placed at a disadvantage in comparison with their non-disabled colleagues.

Typically, employers will impose sanctions on all employees who do not meet attendance and time-keeping targets and they will doubtless argue that the issue disability has nothing to do with the way in which they treated an individual.

An example from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Statutory Code on Employment makes it very clear the dangers of such a blanket approach being taken by employers (which could leave them open to legal action under Section 15):

Example

A disabled worker periodically requires a limited amount of time off work to attend medical appointments related to the disability. The employer has an attendance management policy which results in potential warnings and ultimately dismissal if the worker’s absence exceeds 20 days in any 12-month period. A combination of the worker’s time off for disability-related medical appointments and general time off for sickness results in the worker consistently exceeding the 20 day limit by a few days. The worker receives a series of warnings and is eventually dismissed. This is likely to amount to disability discrimination.

Discrimination arising as a consequence of disability

Some of the pitfalls which employers face when dealing with employees who are disabled and who have accumulated a number of sickness absences which may trigger the organisation’s intervention policy was demonstrated in a case from 2018.

DL Insurance Ltd v O’Connor Appeal No. UKEAT/0230/17/LA [2018]

O’Connor, a disabled employee, was disciplined by DL Insurance because she had accumulated 60 days sickness absence during a 12 month period (she had been given a final written warning). Her employer had fallen foul of Section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 because both the Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal were of the view that disciplinary action to deal with her level of sickness was not a proportionate response given that she was a disabled person within the meaning of the Act. Her employer was aware (and had accepted previously) that O’Connor was a disabled person. Reasonable adjustments (principally flexible arrangements) had been put in place by the employer as per their duty under the Act.

Significantly, the employer had failed to involve an independent occupational health service in the matter before it made the decision to discipline O’Connor AND the manager charged with carrying out disciplinary action had not bothered to obtain a full grasp of the facts of the situation i.e. by going to discuss how what impact the absences were having on O’Connor’s colleagues. In particular, the failure by the employer to involve occupational health services in O’Connor’s case was a breach of the company’s own procedures.

In the employer’s defence, however, the Employment Appeal Tribunal did note that O’Connor had been treated sympathetically in the past and that more latitude had been given to her personally in relation to the number of sickness absences she had accrued. This was not enough and by placing O’Connor under disciplinary sanctions, the employer had subjected her to unlawful. less favourable treatment in that she would not receive contractual sick pay if she was absent from work in the future.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal placed particular emphasis on the fact that the employer had failed to explain how a written warning (with all the implications for O’Connor) would actually lead to an improvement in her attendance at work. It was noted that the employer accepted that O’Connor’s absences were genuine and unavoidable and were caused by her disability.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5b191137ed915d2cb78ace3a/DL_Insurance_Services_Ltd_v_Mrs_S_O_Connor_UKEAT_0230_17_LA.pdf

Conclusion

Dealing with employee sickness absence (whether of a short or long term nature) can be extremely problematic for employers. The blunt instrument approach where arbitrary trigger points are used to monitor and deal with sickness absence can store up problems for employers over the distance. Quite simply, such policies, criteria or practices (PCPs) may have a disproportionately, adverse effect on certain groups of people within the workforce e.g. individuals with disabilities. There is a very real danger for employees that they end up breaching provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and their argument that a capability dismissal was fair will fall foul on deaf ears at any subsequent Employment Tribunal hearing. Proceed with caution might be the best advice when dealing with employees who have poor sickness records.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 June 2019

Ungagged?

Photo by Igor Rand on Unsplash

Should employers be permitted to insist on the inclusion of a “gagging clause” or non disclosure agreement (NDA) when they settle a claim outside court or tribunal for alleged harassment or discrimination?

Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons certainly doesn’t think so. Ms Miller is firmly of the view that the UK Parliament should introduce legislation, at the earliest opportunity, to outlaw the widespread use of “gagging clauses” or non-disclosure agreements.

A link to the Committee’s Report can be found below:

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/women-and-equalities-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/nda-inquiry-17-19/

In April 2019, the BBC revealed that Ulster University in Northern Ireland had paid out approximately £226,000 as part of 6 settlement agreements involving former members of staff who had brought claims for discrimination and harassment while employed at the institution. These settlement agreements contained confidentiality clauses, “gagging” clauses or NDAs (the reader is free to decide which term is preferred). The BBC also discovered that 96 UK universities had used NDAs representing £87 million in value. A truly staggering figure and one can only wonder what would be the figure for settlements in privately run businesses.

Confidentiality clauses are often a staple feature of cases brought to the Employment Tribunal. The parties may well decide to settle the claim privately before proceedings are concluded. It tends to be the case that the employer party is keen to include a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement as a condition of making a payment to the ex-employee. It should be said of course that in these types of settlement agreements, the employer is making the payment without admission of liability and the reason for choosing this method to resolve the claim can often be purely about simple economics i.e. you weigh how much it would cost you in legal expenses and disruption to your organisation for representation at a 5 day Tribunal hearing as opposed to settling the claim quickly.

NDAs started life as a way of ensuring that former employees who had previously worked for organisations were not tempted to disclose trade secrets (or other information) to their new employers which they had acquired in their old jobs.

Admittedly, the common law imposes a number of duties on employees such as:

  • to provide loyal service;
  • to act in good faith;
  • to ensure confidential information remains secure

Now, it would be something of a stretch for employers to argue that the above duties permitted them to ‘gag’ employees who had been the victims of discrimination and harassment in the work-place – hence the rise of the NDA. This is where employers get the victims to enter into a legally binding settlement agreement where, in return for a compensation payment (and sometimes an agreed reference), the victim promises not to discuss their situation with anyone other than his or her legal advisers.

Since the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, there has been much more interest in these types of settlement agreements as more and more allegations about sexual harassment in the work-place have come to light. It has been alleged that individuals such as the disgraced American film producer, Harvey Weinstein and the British retailer, Sir Philip Green made use of NDAs to prevent people discussing how they were treated when they worked for these individuals. These agreements are seen as a sinister attempt to buy the victim’s silence by rich and powerful men who have seemingly bottomless pockets and inexhaustible legal resources.

Maria Miller and her colleagues on the Women and Equalities Committee are now saying time’s up for these types of arrangements.

Links to the stories about the work of the Women and Equalities Committee and the use of NDAs at Ulster University can be found below:

NDAs: MPs call for ban on ‘gagging clauses’ over ‘cover-up’ fears

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-47981244

Postscript

In July 2019, the UK Government announced that it plans to introduce a Bill to Parliament in order to ban the widespread use (and abuse) of non disclosure agreements in employment contracts.

A link to this story on the BBC news site can be found below:

NDAs: New laws to crack down on ‘gagging’ clauses

A ban will be placed on NDAs that stop people speaking to police, doctors or lawyers, ministers say.
The scale of the problem of alleged harassment in the work-place and how employers deal with this can be seen in the article below which appeared in The Independent:

Copyright Seán J Crossan , 12 June and 21 July 2019

I’m a political activist: don’t sack me!

Photo by Oprea Marius on Unsplash

Over the last few months, several of my blog entries have examined the impact of conduct or behaviour of employees which occur outside working hours. The focus of these blogs has largely centred upon social media use (or misuse if you prefer) by employees and the likely consequences of reputational damage which the employer might suffer. 

The overwhelming conclusion that visitors to this site should now have is that I take the view that what employees do in their private lives can have a significant impact on work-place relations. Yes, primarily we do  have rights to privacy, expression and association as enshrined in Articles 8, 10 and 11 respectively of the European Convention on Human Rights (amongst other things), but does this does not give us a blank cheque or free pass to behave badly or engage in downright  dubious activities outside working hours. In other words, our Convention rights are not absolute. 

I decided to write this recent blog entry on the back of a story which appeared in The Independent last month in conjunction with the lead up to the European Parliamentary elections held in Germany on 26 May 2019. It was reported that a German national – Dr Gunnar Beck – was a candidate for a far right political party in Germany called the AfD (the Alternative for Germany). 

Dr Beck is currently employed as a law lecturer at SOAS, University of London and many of his colleagues and the students were outraged when they learned that he was running as an AfD candidate for one of Germany’s seats in the European Parliament. There were calls for Dr Beck to be dismissed from his post at SOAS. 

As it happened, Dr Beck was one of 10 German MEPs elected for the AfD Party.

This story is a very good example of issues such as freedom of speech versus the employer’s duty to prevent discrimination and intolerance in the work-place. 

What should employers do if they stand accused of being complicit in the spread of extremist views or beliefs by one of their employees? It can be a very difficult call to make. 

A link to the story about Dr Beck as reported by The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.180519/data/8919156/index.html

Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right to dismiss employees (quite fairly) for misconduct – whether in the work-place or outside. 

Furthermore, we live in times where political extremism of all shapes is much more prevalent. Again, the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives employers – primarily agents of the State e.g. the Police and the intelligence services (and other sensitive posts) – the right to dismiss employees on national security grounds (see Home Office v Tariq [2011] and Kiani v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2015]). Such a dismissal – even where the evidence against the employee in question might be fairly tenuous – would still constitute an automatically fair dismissal. 

Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 does protect an individual’s philosophical beliefs, but this does not mean that all sorts of extremist views will necessarily be tolerated (or should be tolerated) by employers. 

In Redfearn v Serco t/a West Yorkshire Transport Services (2005) the  employer dismissed Mr Redfearn on health and safety grounds because of his membership of the racist British National Party (BNP). Redfearn’s political affiliations might lead to violence arising in the workplace. 

This was not the last word on the matter and Redfearn took his claim to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that the then United Kingdom equality laws did not provide sufficient protection to individuals like him who suffered discrimination on grounds of their philosophical (political) beliefs.

In Redfearn v UK [2012] the European Court of Human Rights stated that Redfearn had been dismissed on account of his membership of the British National Party and this was an example of unlawful discrimination. This decision effectively ensured that the protected characteristic of a person’s philosophical beliefs (now contained in the Equality Act 2010) is capable of including political beliefs.

In Grainger plc v Nicholson (2009), the Central London Employment Tribunal stated that individuals seeking the protection of the law [now contained in Section 10 of the Equality Act] must prove that the 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”.

This would seem to rule out protection for extremist beliefs, but as Redfearn UK [2012] clearly established employers will have to tread carefully. Essentially, the upshot of Redfearn is that employees are entitled to hold views which a large group within society may well find abhorrent and objectionable, but nonetheless such views fall within the protected characteristic of philosophical beliefs. Turning now to the employee holding such views or beliefs, the European Court of Human Rights made it very clear that such individuals did not have a right to act on these beliefs. So, for a person such as Mr Redfearn, he undoubtedly espoused racist beliefs by virtue of his BNP membership, but critically he had never acted upon these during his employment by, for example, subjecting a person from an ethnic minority group to unlawful, less favourable treatment. 

In 2018, Councillor Christopher McEleny of the Scottish National Party took legal action against his former employer, the UK Ministry of Defence for alleged discrimination and constructive dismissal  by reason of his political beliefs. An Employment Tribunal Judge, Frances Eccles ruled that McEleny’s beliefs in Scottish independence should be treated as a philosophical belief in terms of Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.

Whether McEleny ultimately wins his Employment Tribunal claim on what exactly motivated his ex-employer to act in the way that it did towards him remains to be seen. It is a decision or outcome in which many people are undoubtedly interested. 

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 5 June 2019