Political beliefs: No automatic unfair dismissal, but belief in participatory democracy protected

Political beliefs: No automatic unfair dismissal, but belief in participatory democracy protected's Tags

Tags related to this article

Political beliefs: No automatic unfair dismissal, but belief in participatory democracy protected

Published 13 septiembre 2022

The EAT has considered the unfair dismissal and discrimination rights of an employee who claimed she had been dismissed for requesting permission to stand as a political candidate.

THE FACTS

Polly Jones was employed by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. A clause in her employment contract prohibited her from holding a “formal role” of a political nature and remain politically neutral. The clause did not prevent her from belonging to a political party. 

Ms Jones told the Scottish Federation that she wished to stand for Scottish Labour at the next General Election. The board told her that it did not consent to this, and she withdrew her candidature. At a later meeting, she was dismissed. The Scottish Federation gave several reasons for her dismissal: these reasons did not include her request for permission to stand for Scottish Labour.

Unfair dismissal

Employees cannot generally bring unfair dismissal claims if they have been employed for less than two years. There are exceptions to this, including where the reason, or principal reason, for the dismissal is, or relates to, the employee’s political opinions or affiliation. Ms Jones had been employed for under two years. She claimed that the real reason for her dismissal was that she asked her employer for permission to stand as a candidate in the general election. She claimed she therefore fell within an exception, and was entitled to claim unfair dismissal.  

Ms Jones agreed that her employer’s refusal to consent was unconnected to her political opinions or membership of the Scottish Labour party.

The employment tribunal held that, if Ms Jones could show that she had been dismissed because she sought to stand for election, she would fall within the exception.  The exception covers dismissals that “relate” to political opinions or affiliations.  The tribunal considered that her political opinions or affiliations were related to her dismissal since, without such opinions and affiliation, she would not have sought to stand as a candidate.  This was the case even though her political opinions and affiliation to a particular political party had nothing directly to do with her dismissal.   This indirect relationship between her political opinions/affiliation and her dismissal was, the tribunal considered, sufficient to bring her within the exception to the two year qualifying requirement for unfair dismissal claims.   

The Scottish Federation appealed to the EAT, which upheld the appeal. In doing so, the EAT held that the exception to the requirement for two years’ qualifying employment should be construed narrowly. The exception will only apply if the reason or principal reason for the dismissal is (or is related to) the employee’s political opinions or affiliation. On Ms Jones’ pleaded case, the content of her opinions and the identity of the party she wished to stand for did not form part of the reasoning leading to the dismissal. Rather, her dismissal was because she was not willing to be politically neutral. The EAT did not accept that a requirement to be politically neutral is a requirement that “relates to” someone’s political opinions or affiliations.  The exception to the two year qualifying requirement did not therefore apply, and she could not bring an unfair dismissal claim.   

Discrimination

Ms Jones also claimed that she had a belief in participatory democracy and that “those with the relevant skills, ability and passion should participate in the democratic process”, and that this belief is protected by discrimination legislation.  In dismissing her for this belief, she claimed, the Scottish Federation had subjected her to unlawful discrimination based on religion and philosophical belief. 

The employment tribunal held that this belief met the criteria that must, at a minimum, be satisfied for a belief to be protected by discrimination legislation, and that she had manifested this belief by seeking to stand for election.  The Scottish Federation appealed this decision, on the basis that the minimum criteria had not been met, focussing on the tribunal’s decision that the belief attained a sufficient level of cogency and cohesion. 

The EAT dismissed the appeal, holding that her belief in participatory democracy was sufficiently cogent and cohesive to meeting the criteria and therefore that it is a protected philosophical belief. 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR EMPLOYERS?

In this case, the EAT considered for the first time, the parameters of the exception to the two year qualifying period where a dismissal is alleged to relate to political beliefs or affiliation.  Its judgment, that the exception should be interpreted narrowly, is likely to be useful for employers. 

Scottish Federation of Housing Associations v Polly Jones

Authors

Hilary Larter

Hilary Larter

Leeds

+44 (0)113 251 4710

Zoë Wigan

Zoë Wigan

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6564

Ceri Fuller

Ceri Fuller

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6583

< Back to articles