EAT takes narrow view of political opinion exemption

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled that dismissing an employee in order to enforce a political neutrality clause was not for a reason relating to her political opinions or affiliation. So she could not benefit from the provision in the Employment Rights Act which removes the two-year qualifying period for these type of dismissals.

The claimant Polly Jones had been working for a few months as head of membership and policy for the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, when she applied for permission to stand as a Parliamentary candidate for Scottish Labour. Her employers refused her permission, relying on a clause in her contract which prevented her from having a “formal role” of a political nature. She was dismissed soon afterwards, though the reasons the employer relied on did not include her request for permission to stand.

At a preliminary hearing, the employment tribunal concluded that she was entitled to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. It concluded that she could rely on the exemption from the qualifying period if she could establish that she had been dismissed because she had asked for permission to stand as a Parliamentary candidate.

The EAT disagreed. It thought the exemption only applied where the dismissal was for holding a particular political belief or affiliating with a particular political party. On the facts assumed by the employment tribunal, she had been dismissed for seeking permission to assume a formal role of a political nature, and the identity of the political party involved was irrelevant. It therefore upheld the employer’s appeal on this issue.

However, it dismissed the employer’s appeal on a separate ground, confirming that Ms Jones could bring an alternative claim for discrimination relating to a protected belief. It upheld the tribunal’s decision that Ms Jones’ belief that, “those with the relevant skills, ability and passion should participate in the democratic process” qualified for protection under the Equality Act. That means that her employers will need to demonstrate that the imposition of the political neutrality clause – which puts the claimant and others with similar beliefs at a significant disadvantage – can be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

This decision shows that while employees wishing to challenge a political neutrality policy are likely to require two years’ service to bring proceedings for unfair dismissal, they may still be able to bring discrimination claims.

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