The Equality Act 2010 protects employees from discrimination on the grounds of their religion or philosophical beliefs. Previously it was thought that this should not apply to political beliefs. However, the tide may have started to turn, particularly as following the Redfearn case earlier this year, employees are protected against unfair dismissal on the grounds of their political opinion (see our previous article here). In the recent case of Olivier v DWP (2013) the Tribunal was asked to consider whether an employee’s political views were capable of amounting to a philosophical belief and were therefore protected by discrimination laws.
The employee in question, Mr Olivier, was dismissed from his post in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after standing for local election as a candidate for the Labour party, and for having a letter published in a local newspaper which criticised government tax cuts. The DWP required employees to obtain permission before taking up any political activity. Mr Olivier had not obtained such permission before standing as a Labour candidate.
Mr Olivier raised claims for unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of his philosophical belief in the Employment Tribunal. Mr Olivier cited his belief as his “democratic socialist” views as a Labour party activist.
The Employment Tribunal first held a hearing to determine whether Mr Olivier’s views could constitute a philosophical belief capable of such protection. When considering such matters, an Employment Tribunal will generally consider the following points:
- the belief must be genuinely held;
- the belief must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
- the belief must be a belief which is a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- the belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
- the belief must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
- the belief must “have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief”. However, it need not “allude to a fully-fledged system of thought”;
- the belief may be shared by others;
- a philosophical belief may (but need not) be based on science.
In this case, the Employment Tribunal did consider that Mr Olivier’s views met the test under the Equality Act 2010 and they allowed his claims to proceed to a hearing.
However, the Employment Tribunal also said that Mr Olivier’s case had “little prospect of success” and ordered him to pay a deposit order to continue with his claims. Employment Tribunals can make deposit orders where they believe that a claim has little reasonable prospect of success. The deposit is paid to the Employment Tribunal and returned to the payer if they succeed. We suspect this assessment is because Mr Olivier is alleged to have failed to fulfil a contractual duty by not informing the DWP of his political activities. Whether or not Mr Olivier will continue to pursue his case is yet to be seen; many claimants bow out when a deposit order is made as it is a strong message from the Employment Tribunal.
It is also important to point out that this decision is not legally binding as it is Tribunal level only, and it may be that the DWP decide to appeal if the case proceeds any further. We will of course keep you informed.
The case is interesting as it is the first of its kind and also provides a timely warning, with an election due in May 2015 that employers should bear in mind that strong political views may be capable of being protected under the Equality Act 2010.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).