Mind your language!

Photo by Ilya Ilford on Unsplash

“Great big girl’s blouse!” or “a girly swot”. Harmless insults; a bit of banter; or perhaps an example of sexist language? Deborah Haynes, a journalist with Sky News, certainly took the view that these remarks were sexist in nature – even though men were the targets (see the link below).

https://news.sky.com/story/sky-views-girly-swot-big-girls-blouse-are-sexist-jibes-and-shouldnt-be-used-by-the-pm-11804690

The first of these remarks was uttered allegedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in the House of Commons last week and directed towards the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The second remark was in a memo written by the Prime Minister in which he was critical of David Cameron (one of his predecessors).

Mr Johnson is well known for his colourful language in both print and in his speeches, but he was called out last week in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Tammanjeet Singh Dhesi who accused him in very blunt terms of making racist remarks about Muslim women who chose to wear the Islamic form of dress known as the burka as an outward sign of their religious beliefs and cultural background.

Mr Tammanjeet drew on his own experiences as a Sikh and the kinds of derogatory remarks that he had to endure. His speech was received very warmly on the Opposition benches of the House of Commons.

On the other hand, Mr Johnson attempted a defence of his language by saying that he had merely spoken up in favour of the good old fashioned liberal value of freedom of speech. It was not an entirely convincing performance from the Prime Minister and far from his finest hour at the despatch box.

The Equality Act 2010 recognises various forms of prohibited conduct such as direct discrimination (Section 13) and harassment (Section 26). Sexist, sectarian and homophobic remarks may well be taken as examples of direct discrimination. A sustained campaign of bullying to which an individual (with a particular protected characteristic) is subjected may amount to harassment.

It will be sensible for employers particularly to spell out to employees what is acceptable (and what is not) in terms of the kinds of language or behaviour in the work-place. If employers do nothing to check discriminatory remarks such as racist or sexist insults, there is a real danger that they could be held vicariously liable.

Had Mr Johnson been a mere mortal, some of his remarks may have come back to haunt him. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those employees who have committed acts of discrimination. After all, they are merely protecting their position by not leaving themselves open to the threat of legal action by the victims.

From the employee’s perspective, engaging in offensive language could give the employer the right to treat this type of behaviour as gross misconduct. It should be recalled that, in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1998, misconduct committed by an employee can be punished by dismissal and such a termination of the employment contract may be entirely reasonable in the circumstances.

In short, no one should have to work in a place where there is a hostile, degrading or intimidating environment. Racist or sexist remarks can be highly suggestive of such a working environment if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged. Maybe in future the Prime Minister would do well to mind his language.

Links to articles about the Prime Minister’s colourful turn of phrase can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/video/share-11802095

http://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-branded-david-cameron-girly-swot-leaked-document-reveals-11803807

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 7 September 2019

Barbaric!

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

We may think that in Western societies we’ve come a long way regarding the advances made by women.

Then, before we get too smug, something happens which forces us to confront the fact that we’re not quite as enlightened or civilised as we like to think.

Such an incident occurred last week in the United States of America when it was reported that a the authorities were negligent when Diana Sanchez, a pregnant woman who was being held in Denver County Jail, was denied proper medical treatment. The woman’s cries for help were allegedly ignored for 5 hours and she was forced to give birth to her son in the prison cell.

Had something similar occurred in the UK, lawyers might have been looking at Section 17 of the Equality Act 2010 (pregnancy and maternity discrimination: non-work cases) to provide grounds for a legal challenge against the operators of a prison. Clearly, this sort of failure by the authorities to implement a basic duty of care could be viewed as blatant sex discrimination.

In 2019, would have been too difficult for the Denver County Jail authorities to have ensured that this particular inmate had access to to the appropriate medical facilities? Surely, given her condition, this was not asking too much?

Lawyers for Ms Sanchez are now, unsurprisingly, pursuing a civil action against Denver County Sheriff’s Department.

A link to the story as reported by Sky News can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/woman-who-gave-birth-alone-in-denver-prison-cell-files-lawsuit-11797438

Postscript

Lest we become judgemental about the US Penal system, on 4 October 2019, The Guardian reported that the new born child of an inmate at HM Prison Bronzefield in Surrey had died. The mother had been in an “advanced state” of pregnancy, but had been left alone in her cell overnight when she had given birth to the child.

A link to the story can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/04/baby-dies-in-uk-prison-after-inmate-gives-birth-alone-in-cell

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 10 September and 4 October 2019

The trouble with pregnancy …

Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

According to a study just published by the Young Women’s Trust, it would appear that, in 2019, pregnancy discrimination in employment is more common than you might have thought.

The figures seem to show that 10% of those employers who were questioned would be very hesitant to hire a female candidate because of fears that she may decide to have a child in the near to long term future. Male bosses were much more likely to discriminate against female employees in this manner.

Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to treat a woman less favourably in relation to pregnancy and maternity. Thankfully, there is no longer a requirement for a women to identify a male comparator in cases of alleged pregnancy and maternity discrimination (Section 17 of the Act deals with discrimination in non-work cases).

The Equality Act was particularly significant for women. Probably, for the first time in UK anti-discrimination law, less favourable treatment in relation to the issues of maternity and pregnancy would be dealt with in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion. Under the older equality laws, such as the now defunct Sex Discrimination Act 1975, women could not always be confident that they would receive protection under the law in connection with these important issues. Regrettably, repeated failures by the UK Parliament in this area meant that the intervention of the European Union had to be called upon when domestic law was found to be inadequate.

Ultimately the Court of Justice of the European Union would improve the legal situation for pregnant women (see Dekker v Stichting Vormingscentrum voor Jonge Volwassen Plus [1991] IRLR 27, a case which originated in the Netherlands).

In Dekker, the Court of Justice stated unequivocally that it is always direct discrimination to refuse to offer employment to a woman for reason of her pregnancy. The Court also made it clear that a pregnant woman does not have to compare herself to that of a male co-worker/employee.

The provisions of Section 18 of the Equality Act implement the European Union’s Equal Treatment Directive (2002/73) in relation to maternity and pregnancy.

The Directive contained far stronger rules expressly forbidding discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave. This should mean that pregnant women now receive much stronger legal protection in employment. Pregnant employees must, however, prove that the less favourable treatment suffered by them was by reason of their pregnancy.

An employer will also commit an act of direct sex discrimination if a female employee is dismissed by reason of her pregnancy (see O’Neill v Governors of St Thomas More [1996] IRLR 27). The dismissal can also be challenged on the grounds that it is automatically unfair in terms of Section 99 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Yet, despite all this legal protection, we still hear stories about the prevalence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the work-place. The one bright spot in the story is that the number of employers who stated that they would be reluctant to hire a female employee due to pregnancy concerns had actually decreased. That, at least, is a small crumb of comfort, but still not much to be overjoyed about.

Links to the story can be found below

http://news.sky.com/story/dinosaur-bosses-reluctant-to-hire-women-who-may-get-pregnant-11790837

https://www.youngwomenstrust.org/what_we_do/media_centre/press_releases/1011_employers_say_theyd_be_reluctant_to_hire_women_who_may_have_children

A link to a recent case from Northern Ireland where a pregnant woman successfully sued her employer for discrimination can be found below:

Pregnant woman ‘unfairly dismissed’ rules industrial tribunal

Laura Gruzdaite was accused of “skipping work” despite telling bosses about a baby scan.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 22 August & 25 September 2019

Beardy weirdy?

Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

A common theme of this Blog over the last few weeks concerns banning certain forms of dress or appearance (Burka bans and horse racing in a hijab published on 1 August 2019).

Imposing a ban in relation to dress codes or appearance can be problematic legally speaking because such an approach could be tantamount to indirect discrimination in terms of Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010.

Several of my previous blogs have addressed the issue of indirect discrimination.

So it was with some interest that I read a story recently about Burger King’s plans to prevent male staff from wearing beards while working in its restaurants throughout the region of Catalunya/Catalonia in Spain. Immediately, I thought about the legal consequences of such a ban being introduced to UK Burger King outlets. The test for indirect discrimination is whether a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) imposed by an organisation is likely to have a disproportionately adverse effect on certain groups of individuals who possess a characteristic protected by law (in the UK, we are primarily talking about the Equality Act).

Unsurprisingly, this attempt to impose a blanket ban on Burger King’s male employees fell foul of the Spanish Constitution’s provisions on equality. I would be prepared to stick my neck out and argue that a similar result would almost certainly be replicated in the UK had Burger King attempted to introduce such a ban. I wasn’t really surprised by this outcome because Spain, as an EU member state, has very similar equality and discrimination laws to the UK. In fact, the current concept of indirect discrimination in the Equality Act 2010 is derived from EU Law.

So, who might be affected if an employer implements a blanket ban on the wearing of beards in the work place? Quite a lot of male employees as it turns out, for example, very religious and observant Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Furthermore, members of the Russian and Greek Orthodox faith groups and Rastafarians may also face real issues complying with such a requirement imposed by the employer. In short order, such bans may infringe religious and cultural expression and may not only be a breach of the Equality Act, but could also represent a breach of human rights laws under the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It is always open to an organisation, of course, to argue that dress codes or enforcing strict rules about an individual’s personal appearance can be objectively justified. In the past, banning beards or regulating the length of hairstyles in the work place have been justified successfully by employers or organisations on health and safety grounds i.e. primarily concerning hygiene (see Singh v Rowntree Mackintosh (1979) ICR 554 and Panesar v Nestle Co Ltd [1980] IRLR 64 CA).

Each attempt to justify a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) will, of course, turn on its facts and it would be very foolish for organisations to think that there is some sort of magic bullet or get out of jail card which can be used in every situation to justify or excuse conduct which would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination. Organisations should review policies on a regular basis and, if need be, this may necessitate the carrying out of an equality impact assessment.

Recently, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has significantly relaxed its total ban on male service personnel wearing beards (moustaches were permitted). This change of heart by the RAF has been motivated by the realisation that individuals from ethnic and religious minorities were being actively deterred from applying to join the service because of the ban on beards.

Even the argument that beards are unhygienic is being undermined with Professor Michael Moseley, presenter of the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor“, highlighting recent, scientific evidence that clean shaven men represent a greater threat to hygiene than their bearded counterparts.

Links to the stories on Burger King’s attempt to ban the beard, the RAF’s change of policy and whether beards are actually unhygienic can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/31/burger-king-beard-ban-infringes-workers-rights-says-catalonia

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49313406

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35350886

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 August 2019

Burka bans and horse racing in a Hijab

Photo by أخٌ في الله on Unsplash

I have just been reading two, contrasting stories about Islamic dress codes which appeared in today’s UK media.

The first story comes from our close neighbour and EU partner, the Netherlands which has decided to bring in a new law banning certain forms of Islamic dress – principally the Burka, Hijab and the Niqab – from being worn by female Muslims in hospitals and schools and while travelling by public transport. This ban imitates similar initiatives in other EU member states such as Austria, Denmark, France and Germany. Those individuals who ignore or flout the ban run the risk of being fined €150. Some Dutch politicians, for example, Geert Wilders of the far right Party for Freedom would like the law to be extended in order to ban Islamic headscarves.

The second story comes from the UK and couldn’t be more different in tone. The BBC reports that a female, Muslim jockey, who wears the Hijab, has made history by winning the Magnolia Cup at Glorious Goodwood.

Links to the two stories can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/netherlands-burka-ban-comes-into-force-in-schools-hospitals-and-on-buses-11774887

Khadijah Mellah: Hijab-wearing jockey triumphs on Haverland and makes history

These two stories made me think about the limits of tolerance in relation to the outward signs of religious belief in our communities. Under UK and EU laws, a person’s religion is a protected characteristic and s/he has the right not to be subjected to unlawful, less favourable treatment (discrimination).

The right to enjoy protection from religious discrimination was first introduced to the mainland UK as a result of the EU Directive 2000/78/EC on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation. The laws on religious discrimination were to be found in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. It should be noted that the scope of these Regulations was limited in that they applied only to the area of employment – not, for example, the provision of goods and services.

Previously, Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK which had laws on religious discrimination – for understandable reasons given the troubled history of that part of the world. The Regulations did not extend to Northern Ireland because it already had laws in place to deal with this issue.

The Regulations have now been superseded by the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 (primarily Section 10) which are much wider in scope in that they cover both religious discrimination in employment and the provision of goods and services.

Additionally, Article 22 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights recognises a person’s right to cultural and religious diversity.

Wearing Islamic dress is obviously a way in which very religious members of this community can express their religious beliefs. Reading both articles today, I found myself asking the question what would be the legal effects if a similar ban on Islamic dress was introduced in the UK?

The new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has made disparaging remarks about forms of Islamic dress, but admittedly he does not seem willing to introduce a ban.

Countries such as Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and now the Netherlands are just as much bound by laws such as Directive 2000/78/EC and the Charter of Fundamental Rights as the UK is at the time of writing, so how do they justify banning certain forms of Islamic dress?

Freedom of religion is not absolute and sometimes the State can decide that a person’s religious beliefs must take second place if they clash with other people’s human rights (e.g. sexual orientation) or general public safety goals. In the UK, discrimination less favourable treatment in connection with a person’s protected characteristics may be permitted under the Equality Act 2010 if it can be objectively justified i.e. it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Health and safety or concerns about terrorism are often grounds used by States across the EU to justify periodic crackdowns on the wearing of Islamic dress in public places.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 1 August 2019

Who’s the daddy?

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Coming on the back of one of my recent blogs about gender reassignment (Gender Neutral? published on 25 June 2019), I spotted an interesting story appeared on Sky News today.

It concerns a legal action taken by Freddy McConnell, a multimedia journalist with The Guardian newspaper, to have himself declared the father of a child. There would seem to be nothing particularly significant about this. Mr McConnell is a transgender man and he gave birth to the child in 2018 after he had undergone gender reassignment and was no longer legally recognised as female. During the process of gender reassignment, Mr McConnell chose not to have a hysterectomy.

When he attempted to register himself as the child’s father, the registrar refused to do this – hence the lodging of the legal action before the English High Court’s Family Division.

In terms of Section 7 of the Equality Act 2010, a person who has undergone or who is contemplating gender reassignment can bring a legal action under the Act if they believe that they have been subjected to unlawful, less favourable treatment (prohibited conduct).

The story has now hit the headlines because Mr McConnell had enjoyed anonymity while the action is still to be decided. He has now lost this anonymity because he participated in a documentary (partly produced by his employer) about his struggle to be named as his child’s father rather than its mother.

Other media outlets, such as The Telegraph, challenged the anonymity order as they argued that it infringed the right of journalists to comment freely on a matter of legitimate, public interest.

Human rights

Interestingly, the story then became not merely about transgender rights, but also one of human rights (in terms of the Human Rights Act 1998). There was a conflict between Mr McConnell’s right to privacy and a family life and the right of freedom of expression of journalists (Articles 8 and 10 respectively of the European Convention on Human Rights). On this particular matter, Mr McConnell has lost his attempt to remain anonymous as Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the High Court’s Family Division has found in favour of The Telegraph et al.

It remains to be seen whether Mr McConnell will win his legal action to be named as his child’s father on the birth certificate.

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

http://news.sky.com/story/man-who-gave-birth-loses-anonymity-in-his-bid-to-be-registered-as-father-on-birth-certificate-11764821

A link to Sir Andrew McFarlane’s judgement can be found below:

TT v YY [2019] EWHC 1823 (Fam) Case No: FD18F00035

https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/TT-anonymity-judgment-150719.pdf

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 17 July 2019

Boxing clever?

Photo by Ryan Tang on Unsplash

In a previous blog (Indirect discrimination? published on 21 February 2019 and updated on 8 July 2019), I discussed the form of prohibited conduct known as indirect discrimination in terms of the Equality Act 2010.

Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010 defines indirect discrimination:

‘A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s.’

Section 19(2) makes it very clear what it is meant by a discriminatory provision, criterion or practice in relation to a relevant protected characteristic:

(a) A applies, or would apply, it to persons with whom B does not share the characteristic,

(b) it puts, or would put, persons with whom B shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage when compared with persons with whom B does not share it,

(c) it puts, or would put, B at that disadvantage, and

(d) A cannot show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Employers and service providers (and other organisations) must be particularly wary when they apply a provision, criterion or practice (a PCP) to the general workforce or the general population. It may be the case that, in applying a PCP, that an employer or service provider unwittingly treats certain individuals with a protected characteristic (e.g. women, the disabled, older people, members of a faith group or people from certain racial or ethnic groups) less favourably when compared to other individuals who do not possess this characteristic. It is always open to an employer or service provider to show that although indirect discrimination has taken place, it can be objectively justified e.g. on national security grounds or health and safety reasons (e.g. Singh v Rowntree MacKintosh [1979] ICR 554).

So, bearing the above in mind, it was with some interest that I saw a story reported by the BBC about a policy imposed by the Welsh Amateur Boxing Authority that all boxers have to be clean shaven in order to participate in matches. This rule is being challenged by Aaron Singh, who is a member of the Sikh community. Singh is claiming that the rule prevents him from boxing. As outward manifestations of their race, religion and culture, many Sikh men will grow beards. Especially religious males in the Sikh community will also wear a Dastar, pagri or pagg (forms of headwear signifying religious and cultural observance). A Kirpan – a ceremonial dagger – will also be carried by many observant Sikh males. Both male and female Sikhs will also choose to wear iron bangles and bracelets (the Kara) which have both religious and cultural significance.

If you are unfamiliar with the Sikh religion, you can access the video below for more information:

You can also find a link to an article below about Sikhs which was originally published in The Independent:

https://www.indy100.com/article/sikhs-face-discrimination-get-mistaken-for-muslims-hardayal-singh-united-sikhs-8332796

Could this rule be an example of indirect discrimination which particularly impacts (in a very negative way) on members of the Sikh community? In terms of the Equality Act 2010, Sikhs are covered by Sections 9 (Race) and 10 (Religion). Some Sikhs may not be particularly religious (in other words non-practising), but they will be covered by the protected characteristic of Race (see Mandla v DowellLee [1982] UKHL 7).

Interestingly, as a point of reference, Judaism is also a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 9 and 10 of the Equality Act 2010.

In its defence the Welsh Amateur Boxing Association will be arguing the health and safety card as objective justification. Of the rule. In response, Singh is arguing that the English Amateur Boxing Association dropped its rule demanding that boxers be clean shaven.

It will be interesting to see how this dispute develops.

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

Boxing beard ban not fair says Cardiff University student

Cardiff student Aaron Singh says the rules in Wales are “not fair” and discriminatory.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also published guidance for employers and organisations about the Sikh community and its beliefs:

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/288201/response/709901/attach/3/guidance%20on%20sikh%20articles%20of%20faith%20for%20scotland%20pdf.pdf

More links to stories about Sikhism and potential indirect discrimination can be found below:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/2469905/Sikh-teenagers-bangle-discrimination-win-will-impact-rules-on-uniforms.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8500712.stm

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 July 2019