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Employment Law

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Veale Wasborough Vizards , 30 MAR 2015

Allegation of being "too left wing" not discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief

Allegation of being "too left wing" not discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief
Helen Hughes
Solicitor, Veale Wasbrough Vizards

The recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) judgment in Henderson v GMB confirmed that philosophical belief should be afforded the same protection as religious belief.

However, it held in this case that an accusation that a letter written by the Claimant was "too left wing" did not amount to harassment relating to philosophical belief.

Mr Henderson, a GMB regional organiser, was dismissed on 7 December 2012 for gross misconduct. He subsequently brought various claims against GMB including unfair dismissal, direct discrimination and harassment on the basis of the protected characteristic of his “left wing democratic socialist beliefs” being protected philosophical beliefs.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) found that he had been dismissed fairly for gross misconduct but that he had suffered direct discrimination and harassment from three separate incidents in relation to his left wing philosophical beliefs. As such, he was awarded damages for injury to feelings. One of the incidents which was deemed to amount to harassment took place when Mr Henderson was shouted at by the General Secretary of the GMB for his 'letter of action', regarding a picket line outside the House of Commons. It was alleged that the General Secretary described the letter as being "over the top" and "too left wing".

The EAT upheld GMB's appeal finding that there was no discrimination or harassment on the grounds of philosophical belief. The EAT found that Mr Henderson's political beliefs had not played a part in the decision to dismiss and that the tribunal had failed to distinguish between Mr Henderson's political beliefs and his conduct arising from his beliefs. The EAT stressed that although individual incidents could amount to harassment, it was important to take into account the seriousness and the context of specific incidents. In this case, the EAT did not find that any of the incidents were serious enough, given the context to amount to harassment.

The EAT ruled out any suggestion that philosophical belief should be afforded any less protection than religious belief, finding that philosophical beliefs can be just as fundamental to an individual. However the EAT also made it clear that for there to be discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief against an employee, the employer needs to be aware that the employee was manifesting that protected belief.

Best practice

Employers should bear in mind that philosophical belief is given equal status to religious belief in the context of employment rights under the Equality Act. The courts have provided guidance on what will qualify as a philosophical belief, in particular:

  • the belief must be genuinely held
  • it must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
  • it must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and
  • it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
It is important to note however, that for there to be a finding of discrimination or harassment on the grounds of philosophical belief, it would need to be established that the employer was aware that the employee was manifesting a particular belief.

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