The news is full of countdowns to the general election in May, and between now and then we will no doubt be inundated with electioneering and opinion polls. The outcome of the general election will inevitably have implications for employment law and the Tribunal system, and it will be interesting to see how the various parties’ policies in this area are developed and debated over the next few months. However, the run up to the election raises another interesting employment question: can political opinion constitute a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010?

The short answer is that it depends. Generally, merely supporting or being affiliated with a particular political party will not be enough to bring someone under the protection of the Equality Act 2010, even if the person is a long-term repeat voter. Therefore such a person is unlikely to be able to bring a claim for discrimination in the event of a dispute. Furthermore if they were, for example, to display rosettes or posters in their office any request by an employer to take these down would likely be permissible and not discriminatory.

However, the issue is less clear cut if the individual’s belief is in an underlying principle or principles which are enshrined in a particular party’s values. In that case, it might be that a Tribunal would find that the underlying belief qualifies as a philosophical belief capable of protection. This happened in the case of Olivier v Department of Work and Pensions, in which a labour party member’s belief in ‘democratic socialism’ was considered by a Tribunal to qualify for protection as a philosophical belief. Importantly, the Claimant was not just a ‘political animal’, and his belief in democratic socialism affected how he conducted his life. A belief in free market capitalism might similarly be capable of protection, if an individual could demonstrate that such a belief was firmly held.

Helpfully, a distinction may be drawn between an individual’s political belief or opinion, and the way in which they manifest that belief – the latter being less protected. In the case of Henderson v General Municipal and Boilermakers Union, the Tribunal accepted that the Claimant’s left wing democratic socialism constituted a philosophical belief. However, the Tribunal found that the principal reason for the Claimant’s dismissal was misconduct (though he succeeded on a claim of direct discrimination). This decision will be heard on appeal next month, and it will be interesting to see whether that decision develops this area of law.

It is perhaps unlikely that disputes will arise in the workplace regarding individuals’ political opinions, though a closely fought general election may make this more likely. Any disputes should be dealt with under the grievance or disciplinary policy, as appropriate, and if necessary employees should be reminded that political opinion is a facet of diversity which people need to respect. The issue for employers will be to identify in which cases a political opinion may constitute a philosophical belief, which will not always be obvious or straightforward. Where the manifestation of the belief becomes problematic, it can generally be dealt with.

Anna Worthington

Posted on 30/01/2015 in Legal Updates

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