Political Beliefs and the Equality Act 2010

As employers will be aware, the Equality Act 2010 ("the Act") prohibits direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment in the workplace in respect of religion, religious belief and philosophical belief (or lack of such beliefs).

However, the scope of "philosophical belief" has been the subject of numerous cases, and what has been relatively unclear is whether a political belief amounts to a philosophical belief for the purpose of bringing a discrimination claim under the Act. Indeed, prior to the Act coming into force, a government spokesperson stated that the Act was not intended to cover political beliefs.

When considering the scope of the Act, it had previously been held by the Employment Appeal Tribunal that a philosophical belief was one which:

  • is genuinely held
  • is a belief not an opinion or viewpoint
  • is in relation to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • attains a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
  • is worthy of respect in a democratic society but need not "allude to a fully fledged system of thought"

The EAT further stated that while mere support of a political party would not qualify as a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine might amount to one.

A recent Employment Tribunal judgment has given some further guidance as to what amounts to a philosophical belief in the context of political views. In Olivier v Department of Work and Pensions, an employee who had strong ties to the Labour Party and a belief in "democratic socialism" was entitled to bring a discrimination claim on the basis that this amounted to a philosophical belief.

Mr Olivier worked for the DWP. He was elected as a Labour councillor during the course of his employment, and subsequently had a letter published in a local newspaper which criticised the government's taxation and benefits policies. Allegedly as a result of this action, he was dismissed and raised a claim for unfair dismissal and a claim that he had been directly discriminated against on the grounds of a philosophical belief, namely his affiliation with the Labour party. He was of the view that the Labour party enshrined "democratic socialism" and that this was a set of core values by which he chose to live his life. Therefore, such belief, it was claimed, fell within the terms of the Act.

At a Preliminary Hearing, the employment tribunal held that this belief was one which was genuinely held; was worthy of respect in a democratic society; and it was not one which conflicted with the fundamental rights of others. Mr Olivier's interest in the Labour party was more than a passing one - he was not simply supporting the party given his involvement with the party and his strong connection with its history. Mr Olivier was therefore allowed to continue with his claim to a full hearing to determine whether he was subject to discrimination.

As this is a tribunal decision and not a decision of an appellate court, it is not binding on other tribunals. Nor did the tribunal go so far as to say that membership or support of a political party itself will give rise to a 'philosophical belief'. What it seems to suggest is that it is the nature of the employee's political affiliation and whether they strongly identify with the party's values (for example, through heavy involvement in party activity) will be taken into consideration when determining if there is a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act.

However, it does provide a well-timed warning to employers. Despite the decision not being a binding one, it may prove to be persuasive to other tribunals determining similar matters and, as such, with the Scottish Independence Referendum due to take place later in the year, employers must remember that workers who have strong political views may be protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Furthermore, it is useful to note here the recent change (further to the case of Redfearn v United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights) that the usual unfair dismissal qualifying period of 2 years has been removed by The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 in cases where the reason, or principal reason, for the dismissal "is, or relates to, the employee's political opinions or affiliation". Again, this raises important considerations to be taken into account by employers when dismissing someone for reasons potentially in relation to their political views.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog or seek commercial advice on dealing with political beliefs in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our team.