Sex or gender: which term do you prefer? Can they be used inter-changeably?
These questions have now come into sharp focus as a result of an amendment to the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill.
Our understanding of the terms “sex” and “gender” may now have to evolve as a result of the debate surrounding aspects of the Bill, but before we discuss this Bill it’s worth looking at the current legal position surrounding gender recognition issues.
The Equality Act 2010
Section 11(1) of the Equality Act 2010 defines a person’s “sex” in the following terms:
In relation to the protected characteristic of sex — a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman
In other words, current UK equality law means that your sex is determined at birth when you will be categorised as ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ and this will be entered on your birth certificate. We, therefore, do not have a choice about our sex when we are born. It is a matter of biology.
What about a person’s gender? Section 7(1) of the Equality Act 2010 provides us with guidance on this matter:
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
The Gender Recognition Act 2004
In April 2005, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into force. This Act, which received the Royal Assent on 1 July 2004, currently provides people who have undergone gender reassignment procedures with legal recognition in relation to their newly acquired gender identity. The legislation applies across the United Kingdom and was passed by the Westminster Parliament.
Legal recognition of a person’s decision to reassign the sex or gender they have had from birth will follow from the issuing of a full gender recognition certificate by a Gender Recognition Panel. The individual applying for such a certificate must be able to satisfy certain criteria – the most important criterion will centre around the submission of medical evidence of physiological changes by the applicant.
The Scottish Government was intending to reform the 2004 Act, but in the teeth of strong opposition within the Scottish National Party, such proposals have been dropped for the time being.
Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, an individual would have been permitted effectivelyto self-identify as a person of the opposite sex without having to undergo invasive medical procedures and provide the evidence of this fact in order to obtain recognition from the Panel.
This meant that an individual wishing to undergo gender reassignment in Scotland would have to have met the following criteria:
A statutory declaration to the effect that they have decided to change gender or sex;
The declaration will contain a statement that the individual has been living as a man or a woman for at a minimum of 3 months;
The individual will have to undertake a compulsory or mandatory period of 3 months to reflect on the decision to undergo gender reassignment (no gender recognition certificate will be issued until this period has been completed).
Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill
This Bill has proved to be another flashpoint in the often fierce debate over gender recognition.
The Bill, which passed Stage 3 in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 10 December 2020, has reignited the debate about the terms “sex” and “gender” and their use in legislation.
The purpose of the Bill is set out below:
“… to improve the experience, in relation to forensic medical services, of people who have been affected by sexual crime. It does this by providing a clear statutory duty for health boards to provide forensic medical examinations to victims and to ensure that an individual’s healthcare needs are addressed in a holistic way in the context of any such examination (or where such an examination is not proceeded with). As well as placing a duty on health boards to provide forensic medical examinations when a victim is referred for such an examination by the police, the Bill allows victims to “self-refer”. Self-referral means that a victim can request a forensic medical examination without having reported an incident to the police. The Bill provides a statutory framework for the retention by health boards of samples obtained during a forensic medical examination, which may support any future criminal investigation or prosecution. In self-referral cases, this allows the victim time to decide whether to make a police report.”
A controversial amendment?
At first glance, no one could possibly object to the aims of the Bill, but Johann Lamont MSP, a former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, saw an opportunity to introduce an amendment to the Bill.
Such a development is not an unusual practice for parliamentarians to introduce amendments to Bills proceeding through Parliament. The introduction of amendments to Bills often permit reform to earlier pieces of legislation. In this case, the Lamont amendment was directed towards changing the wording of Section 9(2) of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014.
As things currently stand, Section 9(2) of the 2014 Act states that:
Before a medical examination of the personin relation to the complaint is carried out by a registered medical practitioner in pursuance of section 31 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, the constable must give the person an opportunity to request that any such medical examination be carried out by a registered medical practitioner of a gender specified by the person.
This could mean, under current law, that a victim of a sexual assault e.g. a biological or cis woman might have to undergo an examination by a medical professional who is a transgender female.
The Lamont amendment (which has now been accepted overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament) will ensure that the word “gender” will be replaced with the word “sex”.
Johann Lamont’s amendment will remove an anomaly in the law which currently permits a transgender person who is a medical professional to examine a victim of a sexual assault.
When one flashpoint is resolved, another disagreement about sex and gender is never far away in Scotland.
An organisation called forwomen.scot is raising a legal action in the Court of Session in Edinburgh for the express purpose of challenging the Scottish Government’s attempt to redefine the word ‘woman’ (see below):
“… We are challenging the Scottish Ministers over the redefinition of “woman” in the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018 which we believe is outside the legislative competency of the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998 and in contravention of the Scottish Ministers’ duties under equality legislation… The new definition includes some men, while, remarkably, excluding some women. This cannot be allowed to stand… The Equality Act 2010 states that a woman is “a female of any age” and maintaining this definition is key to maintaining women’s rights and protections in law…”
forwomen.scot describesrationale on its website in the following terms:
– sex is immutable and is a protected characteristic; – women are entitled to privacy, dignity, safety and fairness; – women’s rights should be strengthened.
Today, I was talking to a group of students about the fact that cultural factors can sometimes be a much more powerful driver towards changing society’s attitudes about certain issues.
Sometimes when Governments take a very legalistic approach to societal issues e.g. equality and discrimination, they can end up being accused of overkill or using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A good example of a current controversy is the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill making its way through the Scottish Parliament.
Lord Bracadale, a retired Scottish judge, was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2017 to review the state of Scotland’s hate crime laws and many of his recommendations are to be found in the Bill.
A link to Lord Bracadale’s Report can be found below:
The Scottish Government, of course, has been criticised in the past for passing laws to combat discrimination – think the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications etc (Scotland) Act 2012 which was eventually repealed on 20 April 2018.
The Scottish Government also had to put its proposals on the back burner to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify in the face of opposition within the SNP and in society more widely.
These are just some examples of the difficulties faced when you decide to go down the legal route. You can pass a law, but will people respect it and, more importantly, obey it?
When I was discussing the significance of culture versus the law this morning, what I meant by that is that organisations and individuals can often drive change in society much more profoundly – even when there is no legal duty to do so.
One example at the organisational level is that of Glasgow University’s recent attempts to confront and make reparation for its historical links with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Individuals such as Glasgow City Councillor, Graham Campbell, have done a lot of good work to highlight the City’s historic links with the Slave Trade. Councillor Campbell has also taken a lead in pushing for the creation of a National Museum in Scotland to commemorate the victims of slavery.
In the second of two articles for Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams reviews No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland (Luath, 2018) Neil Davidson, Minna Liinpaa, Maureen McBride and Satnam Virdee (eds.). This article originally appeared in The Scottish Left Review (Issue 106 July/August 2018).
Racism in Scotland is often relegated to the back burner. Even when the issue of racism is broached by anti-racists campaigners the stock responses they are met with is that ‘Things aren’t as bad as all that, you exaggerate; you’re indulging in special pleading or you must be paranoid’. Little wonder there is this widely held view both by politicians and academics that ‘there is no problem here’. Ethnic minorities are congratulated for integrating better and there is a welcoming attitude towards refugees and migrants.
Meanwhile research into the historical record and contemporary reality tells a different story. The racialized outsider faces discrimination in education, jobs, housing and at the hands of the police and criminal justice system. Racism in Scotland is, therefore, not a side issue and it is not peripheral either. It is central to the way things work. The question of racism in Scotland and the interplay, of race class, nationalism and other intersecting issues are very focal to this edited book. It brings together the views of academics, activists and anti-racism campaigners who argue that it is vital that the issue of racism be brought into public discourse.
In contrast to England, there has been relatively little public discussion about the historical or contemporaneous structuring power of racism in Scotland. ‘We wish to dig beneath the ‘race blind’ narrative that Scotland and its elites have crafted for many years, to perhaps unsettle them a little, so that we might begin to open up space for writing a historical sociology of racism in Scotland’ the book says. Its contributors ‘contend that the narrative of an absent racism in Scottish history and that the Scots are more egalitarian, more likely to place an emphasis on collectivism over individualism and on government intervention over self-reliance reinforces the myth that Scotland does not have a serious racism problem’. Instrumental to the consolidation of this powerful myth that ‘there is no problem here’ is that memorable Scottish phrase, ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamsin’s bairns’.
Such myth making has the effect of deflecting attention away from the disproportionate role that Scots actually played in the British Empire. It occludes any discussion of racisms in the country. Empire is central to the union. TheAct of Union, 1707, opened up English colonial markets to Scottish merchants and made it possible for Scots to play a role in the construction of the British Empire. But when we think of the British Empire our minds often drift to England rather than to Scotland. Yet Scotland was complicit in the slave trade and had colonies predating the joining of the union. It is significant to note here that slavery or the slave mode of production was central to early capital and racism became its justification. Thus racism has evolved entwined with capitalism over the last three centuries.
There is a level of amnesia that clouds the history of empire. Glasgow was the second city of the empire and, by the end of the Victorian era, Scots firms had attained a controlling position in key sectors of the economy of British India. Rather than sanitizing its past in order to re-imagine a post-union future, perhaps we need to look back at Scotland’s imperial history and connect it to a broader understanding of the British empire and Britain’s colonial past.
This perception that Scotland has less of a problem with racism than other areas of the UK is not borne out by the statistics either. In 2013-14 there were 4,807 racist incidents recorded by police in Scotland, the equivalent of 92 incidents a week without accounting for the many cases that go unreported. And lest we forget that there has been racist murders here many of which have still not been formally acknowledge as racist – Nuer Mohamed, Hector Smith, Shamsie Din Mohamed, Imran Khan, Sanjit Singh Choker and Sheku Bayoh to name a few. The growth of far right parties and the rise of Islamophobia across Europe and the US has to be challenged and driven back. Scotland is not immune from this.
The book explores the different modalities of racism in Scotland and the ways in which cultural racism has become central to the experiences of particular social groups. It also seeks to locate the contemporary debates on racialization and racism in their appropriate context in Scottish history. As the late historian E H Carr once put it: ‘There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write’. No Problem Here is a welcomed and important starting contribution that will invigorate the debate of what kind of Scotland we live in and what kind of Scotland we want it to be.
Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal.
To mark Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams recalls a forgotten chapter of the events around ‘Red Clydeside’ in 1919. This article was originally published in the Scottish Left Review.
The year, 1919, in Britain represents a high point in working class struggle and one un-matched since in its breadth and scale. Over 34m working days were not worked due to strikes compared to an average of 4.5m for each of the preceding four years. Two thousand soldiers, ordered to embark for France, instead mutinied and formed a Soldiers’ Union. Even the police force struck and demanded the right to unionise. Britain, it is said, was on the brink of a revolution. On 31 January that year a violent confrontation took place in Glasgow between the police and radical striking workers centred in and around the area around George Square. The workers were striking to demand a reduction of the working week from 54 hours to a 40 hour working week.
At a massive union rally in George Square on the day of the protest, the red flag was raised above 60,000 striking shipbuilding and engineering workers. Newspapers of the next day dubbed the demonstration which saw pitched battles between the police and strikers as ‘Black Friday’ or ‘Bloody Friday’. What began as a protest soon became a riot, with fighting across the city continuing throughout the night and 53 people were recorded injured. This dramatic incident and the leaders of the strike have been mythologised under the banner of ‘Red Clydeside’.
Meanwhile, a lesser known harbour race riot on Thursday 23, January 1919 in which black British colonial sailors were branded as unfair economic competitors by the national seamen’s unions and their local delegates, has been overlooked both in the personal and historical accounts of the general strike until more recently. The riot began in the yard of the mercantile marine office in James Watt Street where sailors gathered for their chance to be signed on to a ship. While waiting to see if they would be hired, competing groups of black and white sailors jostled and shouted insults at each other. This baiting descended into a pitched battle which spilled out of the yard onto the street. More than thirty black sailors fled the sailors’ yard pursued by a large crowd of white sailors. White locals joined the crowd which grew to several hundred strong. The rioters used guns, knives, batons and makeshift weapons including stones and bricks picked from the street. On being chased out of the hiring yard, the group of black sailors initially ran towards the nearby Glasgow sailor’s home on the corner of James Watt Street and Broomielaw Street. The white crowd smashed the windows of the sailor’s home and then invaded it. The two or three beat police officers in the harbour area were overwhelmed and an additional force of 50 police officers was called in. The large police force cleared the two set of rioters from the sailors home.
Though the staging of a general strike in Glasgow, its collapse following ‘Bloody Friday’ and the presence of tanks in the city centre the next day were far more eye-catching than the riot in the harbour a week earlier, the two events were explicitly inter-connected through the activities of the members of the leadership of the 40-hours strike movement. Emanuel Shinwell, leader of the Glasgow branch of the Seafarer’s was in addition, president of the Glasgow trades and labour council and chairman of the workers strike committee. Although a moderate, he advocated direct action in the most inflammatory terms in the days leading up to both the harbour riot and the mass protest of the 40-hours campaign. He and other strike leaders, such as William Gallacher, sought to encourage unskilled workers – including seamen – to take part in the sort of strike action that had been the province of the skilled workforce on wartime Clydeside. The two episodes ought to be viewed together as the harbour riot and the George Square demonstration occurred within a few days of each other. This proximity was much more than coincidental especially as the riot in Glasgow seaport, was soon followed by similar riots in South Shields, Salford, London, Hull, Liverpool, Newport, Cardiff and Barry.
It is important to note that the Glasgow harbour riot was the first instance of a spate of rioting focussed upon black residents in British ports which reached its height in June of that year. It was also part of the wider picture of industrial strife which has been simmering below the surface on Clydeside and other heavily industrialised regions throughout the war years and into 1919.
During these riots, crowds of white working class people targeted black workers, their families, black owned businesses and property. One of the chief sources of the violent confrontation in the run- down port areas was the ‘colour’ bar implemented by the sailors’ unions campaigning to keep black, Arab and Asian sailors off British ships in a time of increasing job competition. The imposition of a ‘colour bar’ on black workers at Glasgow and elsewhere around Britain’s seaports to protect white British sailors’ jobs illustrates the disregard for sections of the working class among many of those who considered themselves protectors of the organised workforce. Historically expressions of racist hostility have been tied to questions of employment. Hostility towards groups of fellow workers among trade unionists was nothing new. The opposition of white union members to the employment (in some cases) of cheaper overseas merchant sailors, violently demonstrated at Glasgow harbour, bears comparison to the wartime industrial action on Clydeside which aimed at preventing the ‘dilution’ of skilled with unskilled job losses and the permanent undercutting of ‘engineers’ wages.
The sea port riots of 1919 in which white crowds attacked black workers, their families and communities, have long presented a painful conundrum as they prefigure a century of conflict and harassment of people of colour in Britain. The causes of the riots are located in the interplay between on-going strikes, riots and other collective violence elsewhere in Britain and the Atlantic basin as well as the local context and meanings (including housing shortages and unemployment). In this light, the British riots appear less an isolated eruption ‘proving’ British racism, as they have often been portrayed. They were part of a broader political movement of resistance against post-war betrayals. This made the role of service and recently demobilised men a significant factor in the riots, one which was commented upon in many local press accounts of the violence. It is also clear that the specific grievances of the white sailors were not the only issues in the riots. The sense that the great sacrifices of the war years had been futile was being experienced at a national level as post-war shortages in housing and increased competition in the job market were the first results of mass demobilisation. Wider frustrations were being focused on the black community in Britain as a means of release. That the authorities in part recognised this is often apparent from the light sentences meted out to the white rioters in various centres around the country. However, there is also an element of racial antipathy revealed by the official response to the riots.
The fear of violence in the immediate post-war period became a worldwide phenomenon, and not without reason. The level of global unrest in the late 1918 and 1919 is also worth considering as it provides a wider context in which the race riots in Britain may be discussed. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918 provided governments worldwide with a spectre of the overthrow of the state in a situation of crisis. The attempted revolts of the Spartakist movement in Berlin, the establishments of soviets in Bavaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the socialist revolt in Austria fuelled the worldwide fear of Bolshevism. It was not merely in the ‘defeated’ nations that unrest occurred for the politicising effect of war service and the strains placed on every day society by the war resulted in riots in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa as well as in Britain. As one of Scotland’s leading expert calls for a permanent fixture to remember the demonstration which took place on 31 January 1919, the black sailors of the Glasgow harbour riots deserve a place to be commemorated too because there is a single working class in Britain by historic right and present participation.
Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal. Jacqueline Jenkinson’s ‘Black 1919 Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain’ (Liverpool University Press, 2009) is the best available study of the issues.
On Monday 15 June, 2020, the US Supreme Court issued a very important ruling (Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia (Case 17-1618)) that there can be no discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation or that they have (or are undergoing) gender reassignment. An attempt by an employer to dismiss a gay person or a transgender person will be an example of unlawful discrimination.
Surprise, surprise you might say: what took the Supreme Court so long?
Such discriminatory behaviour, the US Supreme Court has now declared, is a breach of Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act 1964 (which was enacted by Congress as part of President Lyndon B Johnson’s Great Society programme).
And this is where the American approach to the issue of discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation differs quite markedly from the UK.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 states that it is:
“unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
From a British legal perspective, the word “sex” in Title VII of the American legislation is problematic when applied to discrimination involving a person’s sexual orientation.
Quite simply, in the UK, we would understand the word “sex” in discrimination law as applying to an individual’s gender whether they are male or female; or identify as being male or female.
A link to the US Supreme Court’s judgement can be found below:
Readers of this blog might not regard the US Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia as in any way unusual. After all, in the United Kingdom and across the EU 27 member states, laws have been in place for a considerable period prohibiting unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Although the UK has now left the EU, the legislation protecting the LGBTI communities remains very much in place – by way of the Equality Act 2010 and other legislative instruments such as Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (primary legislation) and numerous Regulations and Directives (secondary legislation). The provisions in the Equality Act are, of course, an example of Westminster legislation and will remain hardwired into our legal system – for the time being at least.
The continuing status of European Treaty Articles, Regulations and Directives (in relation to the laws of the UK) will, of course, be up for debate when the Brexit transition period ends, as expected, on 31 December 20020.
The Equality Act 2010
Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010 addresses the issue of a person’s sexual orientation. This is a protected characteristic under the Act and means a person’s sexual orientation towards:
persons of the same sex
persons of the opposite sex
persons of either sex.
Sexual orientation discrimination: the historical perspective
Before 1 December 2003, in the United Kingdom, it was not unlawful to discriminate against an employee or potential employee by reason of that person’s sexual orientation. The situation changed dramatically with the introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The relevant law now being contained in the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits less favourable treatment on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation generally and such protection is no longer confined to the field of employment.
It should be noted, of course, that the Employment Equality Regulations were primarily brought into force to introduce protection for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people. If, on the other hand, you were heterosexual, you were very unlikely to face discrimination in the work place due to your sexual orientation.
The primer for this change to the law in 2003 was the European Union’s Employment Equality Directive (as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam 1999) which meant that the UK, as a member state, had to introduce legislation in order to guarantee that people who had suffered less favourable treatment in relation to employment had a form of legal redress. The Employment Equality Regulations 2003 (and now the Equality Act) implemented this duty on the part of the UK.
Employment Equality Directive was limited in its scope because it applied (unlike the more expansive Racial Equality Directive) to just two sectors: employment and vocational training.
Sexual orientation not sex
It is perhaps now instructive to examine the failure of UK laws to provide protection to individuals who suffered sexual orientation discrimination prior to the Employment Equality Regulations coming into force.
In Macdonald v Advocate General for Scotland and Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School  UKHL 34, the House of Lords held that discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation was not covered by existing UK equality laws (specifically the area of sex or gender discrimination then contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975).
Macdonald was dismissed from the Royal Air Force because he was homosexual or gay. Pearce, a teacher, had suffered an ongoing campaign of harassment while working at Mayfield School because she was a lesbian. Both Macdonald and Pearce claimed that the treatment that they had suffered was an example of direct sex discrimination.
Both claims failed because the treatment suffered by both individuals was an example of direct discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation – not because of their sex or gender. At the time of this appeal to the House of Lords, discrimination in employment on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation was not prohibited by UK equality laws.
In its judgement, the House of Lords drew attention to the ironic fact that a new equality law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination would soon be introduced, but this admittedly would be too late for Macdonald and Pearce! Small comfort indeed!
Had the cases occurred today, the employers would be liable for direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010.
The perspective of the Court of Justice
Before the European Union’s Employment Equality Directive, the Court of Justice had been reluctant to lay the basis for greater legal protection in relation to a person’s sexual orientation.
In Case C-249/96 Grant v South West Trains Limited  ECR I-621, Lisa Grant had argued that the failure by her employer to extend a concessionary ttavel scheme (worth £1,000 per year) to Gillian Percey, her same sex partner, with whom she had been in a stable relationship for more than 2 years, was an example of unlawful, less favourable treatment. The employer permitted heterosexual spouses (including common law spouses of more than 2 years standing) to enjoy the benefit of the travel scheme. Grant’s predecessor in the post had been male and his female partner had benefited from the travel scheme.
Grant chose her male predecessor as her comparator as part of an equal pay claim. It is important to appreciate that Grant was bringing her claim as a sex or gender discrimination legal action. Although Advocate General Elmer was broadly supportive of the couple’s claim that they had suffered discrimination under what is now Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the Equal Treatment Directive, the Court of Justice decided not to follow this Opinion.
The Court stated that two men in a same sex relationship would have been treated in exactly the same way as Grant and Percey by the employer. South West Trains did not wish to extend concessionary travel to same sex partners of employees and, currently, there was nothing unlawful about this policy as neither UK or EU equality laws prevented discrimination by reason of a person’s sexual orientation. At the time that this case was decided, it should be appreciated that same sex relationships in the UK were not legally recognised in terms of civil partnership or marriage – such legal recognition was still some way away.
To come back full circle, the European Union would, of course, later redress the situation with the Employment Equality Directive which led to the introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 into UK law. Had these Regulations been in force when Lisa Grant commenced her legal action against South West Trains, these would have given her and Gillian Percey significant legal protection from the discriminatory action of her employer. Admittedly, this was scant consolation for them and thousands of other same sex couples who experienced less favourable treatment in employment.
The European Convention on Human Rights
The provisions of the Convention have been implemented into Scots law via the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 which means that an individual will enjoy substantial legal protection in relation to his or her sexual orientation. Article 8 of the Convention places a duty on a public authority to have respect for a person’s private life. Fuirthermore, Article 14 of the Convention confers a general right on individuals not to be subjected to discrimionation. Employers who are defined as a public authority will have to ensure that they comply with these provisions. Private employers will also have to be aware of these provisions because there is nothing to stop an employee bringing a discrimination claim against the UK Government if some loophole exists which permits the employer to behave less favourably towards them on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
Interestingly, in Macdonald v Advocate General  (discussed above), the employee did attempt to argue that his dismissal by the Royal Air Force, by reason of his sexual orientation, was a breach of the European Convention, but this argument failed because the Convention had not yet been implemented by the Westminster Parliament.
Today, of course, Macdonald would have a very strong claim against his employer for the treatment that he had suffered. Although the war may ultimately have been won, this was a battle that the unfortunate Macdonald would lose.
By Saad Niaz, Anna Stevenson, Kaspar Stewart and Jodie Williams (Editor: SJ Crossan)
To put it simply equal pay is when both men and women who perform equal work get paid equally. This is set out in the Equality Act 2010 which we will discuss later in this post. If you are an employer, it is extremely important to take note of this. It does not only apply to salary. But it takes into consideration all terms and conditions in their contract such as holiday entitlement, bonuses, pay and rewards schemes, pension and any other benefits your company may offer (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2019).
Now we would think that in this day and age both men and women would be getting paid equally, unbelievably, in 2019 the data from Britain’s largest companies should that men are still mostly getting paid a lot more than women. Even with the amount of campaigns that women’s groups are bringing forward, the startling figures show that 78% of Britain’s biggest companies have a pay gap favouring men (Petter, 2020).
The Beginning of Equal Pay
Shockingly, this has been a problem for over 40 years. Prior to 1970, women in the UK, especially in the private sector, were on different and lower rates of pay, no matter what their skill levels were (Wage Indicator, 2020).
In 1968, women who were sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham Factory went on strike as they argued that their work demanded the same amount of skill and effort as work carried out by Eastman cutters and paint spray operators, even though their job had been graded higher. This strike sparked a movement and before we knew it, we had many other equal pay strikes throughout Britain. This led to the formation of the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights (NJACCWER) who then went on to organise a big equal pay demonstration in May 1969.
The Ford Dagenham Factory strike also motivated the Women’s Liberation Movement to take more action. They continued to fight for equal pay of equal value and also and sexual discrimination both in the workplace and at home. One of their main slogans was simple but effective “Equal Pay for Equal Work”. Two of their other demands included equal education and training as well as free 24-hour childcare. This was being fought for to allow women to be financially independent from their father, husbands and other males.
Barbara Castle MP, who was UK Employment Secretary of State at the time and eager to address the obvious unhappiness and distress caused by the issue, promoted the Equal Pay Act 1970. This allowed equal pay claims to be made by women who were working in the private and public sector. This act will be discussed further in this article. When this legislation was brought out, it really highlighted the problems in the workplace to do with equal pay and women (Wage Indicator, 2020).
It was said that women should be paid less for two reasons, first, because their work was less skilled than men’s and in return should be paid less and second, because a woman’s wage does need to support other dependents. We can see how these assumptions would make anyone unhappy within the workplace. Many women have to support other people besides themselves such as children, parents etc.
The first legislation which directly addressed equal pay was the Equal Pay Act 1970. This act was passed in 1970 but later came into force in 1975, and was introduced to “prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women” (Equal Pay Act 1970). This legislation arose after a series of high-profile strikes took place. These strikes were crucial in highlighting the inequalities in pay between men and women. (NEU, 2019)
The Equal Pay Act 1970 along with many other acts such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was replaced by an umbrella act in 2010 called the Equality Act. The Equality Act 2010 set to update and simplify previous legislation.
The Equality Act 2010 and the Equal Pay Statutory Code of Practise both include the equality of terms provisions, which states that employees/individuals have a legal right to equal pay, for equal work, as compared to employees of the opposite/same sex. Additionally, pay is not limited to just contractual pay, as it includes any element of a pay package and/or any employment benefits. Pay, for example, would cover bonuses, company cars, hours of work, overtime rates etc.
The Act further states that an individual/employee can bring forward a claim for equal pay if that individual meets the criteria of equal work in comparison to a comparator. Moreover, a comparator can be further defined as an individual who is/was employed by the same employer (or associated employer) at the same work environment or at an environment where there is identical terms and conditions. (The Law Society, 2015)
The Equality Act further defines equal work and separates it into three categories; like work, work rated as equivalent and work of equal value. Determining like work involves two stages, of which the first is to determine whether the comparator is employed in work of a similar nature with consideration to the skills/effort/knowledge required to carry out the work.
Once like work is established then the next stage is to assess whether any existing differences are not of any practical importance i.e. are differences, of crucial importance in the performance of the job regardless of job description. Additionally, at this stage particular attention is paid to the frequency of occurring differences and to the nature/extent of any differences. Employers responding to a claim must then sufficiently demonstrate that crucial differences of practical importance exist, justifying difference in pay.
Work rated equivalent
Work rated as equivalent is when work is evaluated in terms of how demanding it is and is determined under a job evaluation scheme, which ultimately makes a decision based on multiple parameters such as skill and responsibility, with a stronger focus on the demands related to work. A job evaluation scheme analytically assesses the relative value of a job and typically utilises a scoring-based system to determine equal work. These schemes must be fair, non-discriminatory and not influenced by any stereotyping. ACAS provides free information on how to design and implement a job evaluation scheme.
Work of equal value
The final and third way of determining equal work, is by determining if the comparators work is of equal value, with specific reference to the demands of work made on that individual, such as the physical/emotional effort involved in work. Furthermore, work may not be particularly similar however it may be of equal value as the demands of such work is equal. This category is similar to the category of work rated as equivalent, however work rated as equivalent takes an analytical approach whereas determining equal value is centred around a more methodical and logical approach where often an industry expert is needed to clarify whether effort, skills, decision-making etc are of equal value. (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2019)
Key Industrial Actions
It is also important to note, that any or all three stage of equal work can be used as comparison methods when bringing forward a claim. Additionally, when a claim is brought forward to an employment tribunal, the tribunal will determine the case based on its own facts so a decision for equal work in another case might not be relevant. Furthermore, an equal pay claim must be brought forth either when the individual is at the work whereby there is unequal pay or six months after leaving that position. However, if the time limit is exceeded it may be possible for the claim to be heard in ordinary courts such as the high court. Also, before launching a claim to the employment tribunal, employee/individual must before seek advice from ACAS and complete the ACAS Early Conciliation notification form before commencing. (Equal Pay Portal, 2020)
As we know, in 1970, the Equal Pay Act was passed, forbidding unequal pay and working conditions between men and women. However, the Act did not actually come into place until 1975. As previously mentioned, the need for this type of legislation was given huge impetus by the women’s industrial action at the Ford-car manufacturing plants in 1968 and also by legislation introduced by Barbara Castle in 1970. Further important industrial actions were conducted in the 1970s and 80s in which both men and women fought for their workers’ rights regardless of gender, ethnicity and class.
The Night Cleaners Campaign (1972-1975)
Three important campaigns/strikes that helped allow the Equal Pay Act to come into force were the Night Cleaners Campaign, the Grunwick Film-Processing Laboratories strike and the Miners’ strike.
During the early 1970s, and prior to this, many women across Britain were working late night shifts cleaning offices. These women were some of the most badly paid and were often taken
advantage of in the workforce. Contract cleaning was introduced, and the situation worsened – companies began to compete against each other over price which resulted in costs being cut and lower wages for the women. May Hobbs was a cleaner who had to experience this discrimination and played a key role in in initiating the struggle for better pay and conditions. She also allowed for union recognition to increase in which more protection was granted for women working in this industry.
This particular strike was in regard to Asian women working as film processers in Grunwick laboratories, the unfairness they were facing in this particular industry. In 1976 Jayaben Desai resigned from her job and instigated a strike along with other working-class Asian women. The protest was in regard to pay inequality, unreasonable overtime arrangements and even racist company practices. She led this strike for two years and within this period there were many violent affairs between the protesters and the police. Desai went to the extreme measures of going on a hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress which resulted in her union membership being suspended. The Grunwick strike was key in raising the profile of Asian women living and working in the UK. Its highlighted class and ethnic divisions in the workforce. Jayaben Desai showed passion and desire in her protests which increased the recognition of how important women’s work is in terms of industrial organisation.
The Miners’ Strike (1984-1985)
In the 1980s, the mining industry was key for thousands of workers across Britain who worked in this field. In 1984 miners went on strike in protest against the planned closure of numerous mining pits and the lack of discussion about this from the government. This would result in hundreds of lost jobs, taking a big hit at the income of many families across the UK. Women became involved in this by forming groups among the families of these miners and adding vital support to the strike. Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) was formed, essentially putting feminist ideologies into practice – the male dominated industrial dispute allowed for women to empower themselves and take a public role in campaigning against it. Communal feedings of families in April and May 1984 allowed for the group to grow even further as it began to take on a more explicitly political role. During the strike, numerous local support groups were organised which arranged demonstrations, influenced MPs, addressed public meetings and shone exposure onto the poor conditions of miners to the wider public.
Recent Stories Regarding Equal Pay
As mentioned previously, equal pay is the right for both men and women to be paid the same when doing the same or equivalent, work. Equal pay has been an aspect of UK sex discrimination law since the Equal Pay Act 1970 and now the Equality Act 2010, as well as EU primary and secondary legislation. Although equal pay has been the law for 50 years a significant difference in pay between male and female employees still exists in today’s world of work (CIPD, 2019).
The Equality Act 2010 incorporates an equality clause into employment contracts which means that employers have a duty to ensure that men and women are paid equally for carrying out the same work or work of equal value (Crossan, 2020). In November 2018, a survey by Young Women’s Trust (YWT) found unequal pay is widespread with 20 per cent of women reporting being paid less than male colleagues for the same or similar work (Gallagher, 2019).
In today’s world of work there are various women standing up for themselves to fight for the equal pay that they legally deserve. However, according to the Young Women’s Trust more than 50% of women said they would not feel confident enough to challenge their employer even if they knew they were wrongfully being paid less than a male colleague (Gallagher, 2019).
In order to fight for equal pay people all over the world dedicate one day a year to raise awareness of the gender pay inequality. Equal Pay Day is the point in the calendar at which the average man has earned the amount the average women will over the course of the year. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows women’s total earnings were 17.3 per cent lower than those of men in 2019, down from 26.9 per cent in 1999 (CIPD, 2019).
A recent equal pay case involved Kay Collins a former head chef for employer Compass Group UK & Ireland discovering she was being paid around £6,000 less than one of her male colleagues who was less experienced, less qualified and had a far less senior title. Collins was shocked by this news as she had more than 10 years’ experience than her male colleague so asked her employer to confirm this and after the employer confirmed this was the truth Collins gave her employer the chance to resolve the issue internally. However, they did not comply so she took it upon herself to raise an official grievance which could take up to three years to carry out and would see her lose her job in the process. The employment tribunal found that in most respects Ms Collins’ work and her male colleague’s contained differences of ‘no practical importance’ and most of their responsibilities were ‘substantially the same’ and that Ms Collins ‘appeared to shoulder greater responsibility’ than one of her male comparators in some respects. Therefore, Collins won her claim against Compass Group on the majority of the grounds upon which the employer had consistently said that Ms Collins did not do ‘like work’ to that of her male colleagues. Indeed, Compass Group’s own witnesses accepted that their own evidence on a number of these grounds was inaccurate (Gallagher, 2019).
Carrie Gracie and the BBC
Another recent equal pay case involved the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie who resigned from her post after discovering a male in a comparative role to hers was being paid far more. The BBC admitted Gracie had been told she would be paid in line with the north America editor, Jon Sopel, whose salary is in the £200,000-£250,000 range, but after she accepted the role her pay turned out to be £135,000. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, is paid between £150,000 and £199,999. Gracie won her claim about gender pay inequality, received an apology and a pay-out from the corporation, which she decided to donate to a charity that campaigns for gender equality (Sweney, 2018).
So, it can be said that even after all these years, equal pay problems are still here and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon regardless of all the work women are doing and no matter how many cases they win. We can only hope that one day, we will live in a world where men and women will be paid equally for equal work.
Every day is supposedly a school day and I have just learned that, 125 years ago today, Oscar Wilde, Victorian poet and novelist, began a sentence for 2 years’ imprisonment for the crime of gross indecency in terms of Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1885.
This was the culmination of several legal actions in which Wilde had become embroiled in order to end speculation about his sexual orientation. Although married and being the father of two children, Wilde had a secret: he was a gay man living in a very hostile environment.
It was such a hostile environment that Professor Dominic Janes of Keele University (and author of Oscar Wilde Prefigured: Queer Fashioning and British Caricature, 1750-1900) (University of Chicago Press, 2016) states that:
“Britain had some of the strongest anti-homosexuality laws in Europe … The death penalty was in place until 1861 [the last execution took place in 1835]. In general, one of the main images of what we’d call a gay or queer man was a sexual predator of younger men. Many people would have also been informed by religious arguments from the Old Testament.”
When Wilde’s ‘sexual transgressions’ with a number of younger men were finally exposed in court due, in a large part, to the work of a private detective, he didn’t really stand a chance against the ensuing moral outrage of Victorian society.
The trials and eventual prison sentence would ruin Wilde financially and reputationally – for good (or so it seemed at the time).
More information about the trials of Oscar Wilde can be found in an article which appeared in The Independent to mark the 125th anniversary of his downfall.
If Victorian society was uniformly unforgiving and scornful of Wilde in 1895, contemporary British society has certainly rehabilitated his reputation. There is now almost universal agreement that Wilde was the victim of oppressive laws and social attitudes.
Wilde himself would probably be astounded at the amount of progress that members of the LBGTQI community have made in the intervening 125 years.
I’m also sure that he would be delighted to know that he is still the focus of discussion in 2020 (“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”).
It has been a a long and winding road for members of the LBGTI community to achieve legal recognition and protection.
Before the introduction of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, society (and particularly the work-place) could be very hostile for LGBTI people (see Macdonald v Lord Advocate; Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School  UKHL 34).
Admittedly, the UK was (and still is in spite of Brexit) a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In particular, Article 8 of the Convention recognises the right to family and private life. It was this Article which was used to overturn extremely restrictive laws on same sex relationships which existed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
Reinforcing Article 8 is Article 14 of the Convention is Article 14 which contains a general prohibition on discrimination.
The late 1960s are often referred to as the key period of the start of gay liberation in the UK with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which decriminalised homosexual relationships between consenting adults (aged 21 or over) and as long as such conduct was in private. What is often overlooked is that the 1967 Act applied to England and Wales only. The picture was very different (and would remain so for over a decade – sometimes longer) in various parts of the British Isles.
Homosexual relationships were decriminalised in Scotland in 1980; in Northern Ireland in 1982; the UK Crown Dependency of Guernsey in 1983; the UK Crown Dependency of Jersey in 1990; and the UK Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man in 1994. The age of consent was set at 21 for all these parts of the British Isles; then reduced to 18; and then finally 16 years of age. Societal attitudes had moved on and the law had to follow.
In the last 20 years, the influence of the European Union has also been particularly profound regarding measures to combat sexual orientation discrimination. In spite of Brexit, there is a large body of anti-discrimination law which has been bequeathed to us as a result of our membership of the European Union.
In 1999, as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU adopted two Directives which considerably expanded the scope of its anti-discrimination laws (the Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) and the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC). Of particular interest to this discussion is the Employment Equality Directive which made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on grounds of sexual orientation. Admittedly, this Directive was limited because it covered the areas of employment and vocational training only.
This body of law is not just going to disappear overnight when the transitional period for Brexit ends (as currently anticipated by the UK Government) on 31 December 2020. As I often remark, European Union has become hardwired into the various legal systems of this disunited Kingdom.
Indeed, a person’s sexual orientation is, of course, a protected characteristic in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010. Such individuals should not be subjected to direct discrimination (Section 13); indirect discrimination (Section 19); harassment (Section 26); and victimisation (Section 27).
Even greater strides towards equality were ushered in as a result of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 which would give legal recognition (and protection) to gay and lesbian people who chose to enter such relationships. These rights would be further underpinned by permitting same sex couples to marry (in England and Wales in 2013 and in Scotland in 2014). Northern Ireland finally legalised same sex marriage in 2020.
When Oscar Wilde was serving part of his sentence in Reading Gaol (which inspired his Ballad of the same name) he could hardly have contemplated life as we know it in 2020.
In June 2019, I wrote an article which has become one of my most viewed Blogs – ‘Is it cos I is Black?’ The title was taken from Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic creation Ali G whose catchphrase it is. In that article, there was nothing actually that funny. My purpose was to highlight the shockingly high levels of racism that people of Afro-Caribbean origin still continue to experience in contemporary Britain – in spite of all the legislation (such as the Equality Act 2010) which theoretically puts people on an equal footing.
Race is a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 4 and 9 of the Equality Act 2010 and it is unlawful if a person is subjected to prohibited conduct e.g. direct discrimination (Section 13); indirect discrimination (Section 19); harassment (Section 26); and victimisation (Section 27).
It will, therefore, be unlawful in the UK to subject a person to a detriment because of race in relation to employment, education, training and the provision of services generally.
Bearing all of this mind, I was startled to read about a story from Guangzhou, China where a McDonald’s outlet has been severely criticised due to its staff refusing entry to African Americans. No reason has been given for this behaviour.
McDonald’s is understandably very sensitive about this issue and has apologised for the behaviour of its staff.
Had this incident occurred in the UK, you would be correct to conclude that legal action in terms of Sections 9 and 13 of the Equality Act 2010 would have been threatened. To anyone who doubts that discrimination against Black people is a thing of the past, this story will serve as a timely wake up call. Who would have thought that such things would still be going on in 2020?
A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:
Outrage after black people banned from McDonald’s branch in China
The story from China reminded me of an incident in the American city of Philadelphia which involved racism against two African American men who were arrested in a Starbucks outlet. The men were waiting for a friend to join them in the store when a manager called the Police because they had not purchased anything. They were taken from the store in handcuffs by the Police. The incident went viral and The ensuing publicity did Starbucks no favours at all.
A link to this story as reported by The Independent can be found below:
The title of this Blog refers to the not so distant past when discrimination was an accepted feature of life in the United Kingdom. In the 1950s and 1960s, these types of signs were routinely displayed in the windows of hotels, boarding houses and guest houses in the United Kingdom. They were blatantly racist, but completely legal.
It wasn’t just an unwillingness by White British landlords to rent rooms or properties to Afro-Caribbean and Asian families especially, ethnic minorities were often actively discouraged from purchasing properties in White neighbourhoods.
In 1968, Mahesh Upadhyaya, a young Asian immigrant to the UK, mounted legal challenge in respect of a refusal by a white British builder to sell him a house. It was the first time that anyone could do this. Mr Upadhyaya was able to do this because the Race Relations Act 1968 had just come into force. Although Mr Upadhyaya’s claim was ultimately dismissed on a technicality, the action generated a lot of publicity and greater awareness of the existence of anti-discrimination legislation amongst the British public.
A link can be found below which provides more information about Mr Upadhyaya’s story:
Even in the 1970s, you could still have a popular television sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour which dealt with the trials and tribulations of an Afro-Caribbean family moving into a white neighbourhood. If you watch it today, you can only cringe at the racist attitudes and name calling on display (see below) – you have been warned!:
This was the post-War period when Britain was suffering from acute shortages of labour and the solution adopted by successive Governments was to encourage immigration from former colonies such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the British Caribbean islands.
Today, with the Equality Act 2010 firmly in place, it’s unthinkable that this type of blatant discrimination in housing could or would still take place. From time to time, however, stories are reported in the British media which highlight blatant racial discrimination in housing, but most people would now recognise that this type of behaviour is completely unlawful (see link below):
With this historical background, it was with some interest that I read recently about a number of legal actions (which had resulted in out of court settlements) where landlords had refused to let properties to certain individuals. These refusals had nothing to do with the racial backgrounds of prospective tenants, but the cases usefully demonstrate that letting properties can still be something of a legal minefield for landlords.
If the prohibition regarding Asian, Black and Irish people was an example of direct race discrimination (now in terms of Sections 9 and 13 of the Equality Act 2010), what about a prohibition which states ‘No DSS’ tenants? This term refers to individuals who are in receipt of State benefits such as Universal Credit whereby their rent is effectively paid by the Government.
At first you might be forgiven for thinking how such a prohibition could infringe equality laws, but dig a little deeper and think things over. The prohibition is a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) imposed by the landlord. Admittedly, people receiving State benefits are a hugely varied group: they will encompass men and women; White and Black and Minority Ethnic individuals; disabled and non-disabled people; heterosexual and LGBTI individuals; and people with religious/ philosophical beliefs and those with none.
This is to miss the point: could such a PCP be an example of indirect discrimination by reason of a protected characteristic in terms of Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010?
The answer seems to be yes: it would seem that more women than men are adversely affected by the prohibition ‘No DSS’ tenants. In other words, the prohibition is an example of indirect sex discrimination. Indirect discrimination can be understood in basic terms as hidden barriers which lead to unlawful, less favourable treatment.
Landlords may argue that they are not intentionally discriminating against women, but this is precisely the effect of their unwillingness to let properties to people receiving State benefits.
In 2017, the UK Supreme Court clarified the meaning of indirect discrimination in Essop v Home Office; Naeem v Secretary of State for Justice  UKSC 27:
There is no obligation for a complainant with the protected characteristic to explain why the PCP puts her at a disadvantage when compared to other groups;
Indirect discrimination does not (unlike direct discrimination) have to demonstrate necessarily a causal link between the less favourable treatment and the protected characteristic. All that is required is a causal link between the PCP and the disadvantage suffered by the complainant and her group.
Statistical evidence can be used to demonstrate a disadvantage suffered by a group, but a statistical correlation is not of itself enough to establish a causal link between the PCP and the disadvantage suffered;
The PCP may not necessarily be unlawful of itself, but it and the disadvantage suffered must be ‘but for’ causes of the disadvantage. Put simply, if the PCP was not there, the complainant and her group would not suffer the detriment.
The PCP itself does not have to disadvantage every member of the complainant’s group e.g. some women may be able to comply with it, but , critically, more women than men cannot.
The pool of individuals to be scrutinised to assess the impact of the disadvantage should include everyone to which the PCP applies e.g. all those receiving State benefits whether they are negatively affected or not.
A link to the Supreme Court’s judgement can be found below:
It looks as if the phrase ‘No DSS’ may be consigned to the history books along with the more notorious example of ‘No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish’. Speaking of dogs: a general ban on these animals might constitute another example of indirect discrimination as individuals who are visually impaired (a disability) may be less likely to be able to comply as they rely on their guide dogs.
Links to stories about the legal challenges to the PCP of ‘No DSS’ tenants can be found below on the BBC News App:
The COVID-19 crisis continues to throw up some interesting legal questions e.g. employment rights, EU freedom of movement rights, frustration of contract etc.
One area which seems somewhat overlooked is in relation to the actions of many retailers – principally supermarkets and grocery stores – which have been restricting sales of particular items. The items in question include soap, hand gel and sanitiser, bleach, anti-septic wipes, paper towels and even toilet rolls.
The COVID-19 situation has led to panic buying of these essential hygiene items and supermarkets have imposed clear limits on their sale.
Can supermarkets and other retailers impose these sorts of restrictions?
This, of course, takes us back to the basic rules governing the formation of a contract. Retailers are especially guilty when applying the term ‘offer’ to the goods which they stock. It is no such thing: goods on the shelves; on display; or in shop windows are invitations to treat. It is the the customer who is being invited to make the offer (see Fisher v Bell 3 ALL ER 731 where the English Court of Appeal ruled that a knife displayed in a shop window was not being offered for sale, it was merely an invitation to treat. Lord Parker, the Chief Justice being particularly emphatic on this point).
In the seminal case of Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists  1 QB 401, the judges of the English Court of Appeal helpfully distinguished between an offer and an invitation to treat. The case arose as a result of a provision in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933 which stipulated that the sale of certain medicines must take place in the presence of a registered pharmacist.
Boots Chemists operated a self service system whereby it’s customers were able to place the medicines which they wished to purchase in their shopping baskets. The key question was whether Boots was breaking the law by allowing customers to do this. In other words, was the sale completed when the customer placed the medicines in their baskets? Now, if goods on shelves were to be regarded as ‘offers’, Boots would indeed be breaking the law because customers would be deemed to be ‘accepting’ these ‘offers’ by placing the goods in question in their baskets.
If, on the other hand, the sale was concluded elsewhere i.e. at the cash register where there was always a registered pharmacist on duty, Boots would be fully complying with the Act.
The Court of Appeal concluded that it was the customer who made the offer by presenting the goods at the cash register. The sales assistant (properly supervised by the pharmacist) could conclude matters i.e. accept the offer by ringing the sale up on the cash register. Furthermore, it was always open to the assistant to refuse the customer’s offer. Goods on shelves were, therefore, merely an invitation to treat.
In more normal times, a customer’s offer would and should be refused by retailers because they are an underage person who is attempting to purchase e.g. alcohol, cigarettes or video games or DVDs which are age specific.
So, in this way, retailers are generally within their rights to impose strict limits on the numbers of certain items that customers wish to purchase. The customer can offer to buy 20 bottles of hand gel or sanitiser, but the store will have the right to refuse.
Presently, retailers are putting these sorts of restrictions into place in order to protect and promote public health by giving as many customers, as possible, reasonable access to basic hygiene products. If we co-opt the language of the Equality Act 2010, retailers are putting restrictions in place because these are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. So, hopefully, such restrictions – if fairly implemented and monitored – will not be subject to a legal challenge on grounds of discrimination.