Discrimination due to philosophical political beliefs

Posted on: March 10th, 2015

Protection from being discriminated against on the grounds of religious and philosophical beliefs has been covered for some time under the Equality Act 2010. But, what beliefs are protected and how are those beliefs manifested in the workplace?  We have already seen cases in the Employment Tribunal involving employees alleging that they have been discriminated at work because of their belief in climate change and the BBC having a higher purpose, other than just broadcasting.  Are political views also covered?

The Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal have been looking at this in the case of Henderson and the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB), and considering whether an employee’s socialist beliefs are protected.

The facts

Mr Henderson worked for the GMB as a regional organiser in London and had strong socialist beliefs.  He was dismissed for gross misconduct in 2012 on grounds that he was unmanageable, his involvement in external political work was inappropriate, and he had brought the GMB into disrepute. 

One of the key incidents in the disciplinary proceedings concerned planned strike action and a picket line at the House of Commons.  The vote to strike included a provision that Labour MP’s should not cross the picket line.  This was confirmed to the press by Mr Henderson and Mr Miliband’s position on this was challenged in the House of Commons.  This led to Mr Henderson and his line manager, Mr Kenney, having a heated exchange during which Mr Kenny said that Mr Henderson’s letter regarding the picket was “over the top” and “too left wing”.  Mr Henderson said that following this incident he experienced difficulties with his managers, which ultimately led to disciplinary action and his subsequent dismissal.

Mr Henderson challenged the dismissal and argued that the real reason for his dismissal was because of his philosophical belief in “left wing democratic socialism” contrary to the Equality Act and that Mr Kenny’s accusation to Mr Henderson about being “too left wing” amounted to harassment related to his beliefs.

Employment Tribunal’s decision

The Employment Tribunal decided that Mr Henderson’s dismissal was fair, but that he had suffered direct discrimination and harassment because of his “left-wing democratic socialist beliefs”.  The Employment Tribunal said that his socialist beliefs did constitute a philosophical belief and was capable of protection under the Equality Act.  The Employment Tribunal made an award to Mr Henderson for compensation for injury to feelings. 

Both parties appealed.  GMB appealed arguing that it had not discriminated against or harassed Mr Henderson.  Mr Henderson appealed arguing his dismissal was unfair.

 Employment Appeal Tribunal

The Employment Appeal Tribunal said that Mr Henderson’s political beliefs had not been at the forefront of the decision-makers minds when dismissing and upheld the Employment Tribunal’s decision that the dismissal was fair.

However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed with the GMB’s appeal in relation to the harassment claim.  They said that whilst one off incidents could constitute harassment, in order to do so they would need to be sufficiently serious.  The key when there is a single incident, will be the context and the seriousness of it.  In this case the Judge did not consider that Mr Kenny’s description of Mr Henderson’s letter being “too left wing” was sufficiently serious to amount to harassment. The Judge felt that this was an isolated incident rather than one in which an “environment” had been created and in which Mr Henderson was treated differently because of his beliefs.

To date the cases involving philosophical belief have been ones where the belief that the employee holds is intrinsically linked to the work that they do or the organisation that they work for.  The Judge in this case confirmed that qualifying beliefs, whether based on philosophical beliefs or religious beliefs, should be treated the same, and one should not be afforded greater protection than the other.

For it to amount to a qualifying belief falling under the protection of the Equality Act the belief must be an integral to a person’s individuality and daily life.  An employee’s political opinion could be as strongly held by that individual as someone’s religious belief.  The scope of what is covered by philosophical belief is therefore something that is likely to be continually challenged in the Employment Tribunal.