The Equality Act and “philosophical belief” discrimination

Religion or belief is a "protected characteristic" under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”).  Direct discrimination takes place where, because of the protected characteristic of religion or belief, a person treats another person less favourably than that person treats or would treat other persons. For a philosophical belief to be recognised under the Act, it must, amongst other factors, be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour and attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (i.e. be of similar status to a religious belief).

In a case that was originally reported in the BBC News, it has now been decided by the Glasgow Employment Tribunal that a councillor's belief in Scottish independence amounted to a "philosophical belief" for the purposes of the Act, in that it was of sufficiently similar cogency to that of a religious belief.

The Claimant in this case was the Scottish National Party group leader on a Scottish council, who was working as an electrician at a Ministry of Defence (“MoD”) plant, when he announced his bid to become the SNP’s deputy leader. After the candidacy elections began, the MoD revoked his security clearance and suspended him from his job. The MoD’s National Security Vetting branch questioned him on his suitability for clearance, including examining him on his views on various political topics.

The Claimant’s security clearance was subsequently reinstated but the Claimant resigned and brought a discrimination claim against the MoD on the basis that the MoD’s decision to suspend him was due to his belief in Scottish independence. 

The judge ultimately decided that the Claimant's belief that Scotland, as opposed to any other country, should be independent was of sufficient weight and importance to human life and behaviour to be “philosophical” in nature.  The case will now proceed to a full hearing of the circumstances.

Comment

Whilst this case will be of more significance to Scottish employers and employees, it highlights the tribunals’ willingness to recognise a wide category of philosophical beliefs as requiring protection, provided they are of sufficient cogency to be on a par with a religious belief.  Whilst political beliefs generally would not qualify as a “philosophical” belief for the purpose of the Act, given the current emotionally charged discourse surrounding Brexit, it would not be surprising (if the issue were to come before a tribunal), for a “remainer’s” belief in the fundamental principles of the European Union, or a “brexiteer’s” belief in, for example, the absolute legal sovereignty of the UK Parliament, to be protected as a “philosophical” belief for the purpose of the Act.  As reported in the media recently, the broadcaster, Terry Christian has expressed the controversial view on Twitter that brexiteers that voted for the UK to leave the EU should be “laid off” from their jobs first if the economy takes a hit as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU. Clearly, if such a method of redundancy selection were to be adopted by an employer, this would amount to an unfair dismissal, but it is possible that employees dismissed for this reason would also be protected under the Act.