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Employers must factor in political beliefs

Extending philosophical belief protection to political activities is a significant progression. Picture: Jane Barlow

Extending philosophical belief protection to political activities is a significant progression. Picture: Jane Barlow

A TRIBUNAL ruling in Cornwall, which examined an evolving area of law called “philosophical belief discrimination”, could have implications for workplace discussions, including debate on the independence referendum.

Philosophical belief discrimination is part of the 2010 Equality Act; an act that has already been stretched to protect employees with a diverse range of beliefs from anti-foxhunting to climate change. This recent case shows that it continues to produce unintended consequences.

The ruling in Cornwall found that belief in “democratic socialism” can amount to a philosophical belief and trigger protection under the Equality Act. Scottish employees who have taken a stance on the independence referendum are now just a small step away from using this ruling to seek additional protection from discrimination at work.

The claimant in the Cornish case had been an active member of the Labour Party for over 30 years. He lost his job because he failed to follow the Department for Work and Pensions policy on political activity by employees. He disagreed and raised an unfair dismissal and philosophical belief discrimination claim.

The claimant satisfied the established philosophical belief test, which showed that his belief in “democratic socialism” was genuine and not merely a temporary opinion. His belief was worthy of respect in a democratic society and did not conflict with others fundamental rights. This clearly lends itself to affording protections to employees for their political beliefs

This success in extending philosophical belief protection to political activities is a significant progression in employment case law. From a legal perspective, whilst this decision is that of a first tier employment tribunal, it will be persuasive authority in Scotland.

As the workplace independence debate starts to heat up, this case may well expand to Scotland. Employers should be aware that there might be employees who will seek to use their political views to gain protection against discrimination. Mature and professional discussions should avoid some of the pitfalls presented by this development.

• Jonathan Rennie is an employment partner at TLT Scotland Ltd

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