When politics and work just don’t mix

Thousands of employees across the UK got a shock last week when a leaked list revealed they were members of the BNP. Lorraine Teague, of the employment team at Shakespeare Putnam, explains why politics and work just don’t mix

The appearance last week on a website of membership details for 12,000 members of the British National Party raises questions of how employers should react to news of a member of staff’s political affiliation.

Many public sector employers have clear policies on this. For example, since 2004 serving police officers have been prohibited from being members of the far right party on the basis that affiliation to the far-right group conflicts with the Police’s duty to promote race equality. Indeed, Merseyside Police has launched an investigation into the possibility that one of its serving officers is a member of the BNP.

Several other areas of the public sector, such as the Prison Service, also have similar policies. While there is no ban on teachers, doctors and nurses joining the BNP, its seemingly racist approach, such as its whites-only membership policy, is likely to be viewed as an undesirable influence on those delivering front-line public service.

However, an employer discovering the name of one of its employees on the leaked BNP list may feel that they should take some action whether they work in the public or private sector.

It is important to be aware of the implications of a change in the law in 2007 to the Religion and Belief Regulations before dismissing an employee for membership of the party.

“Following the change in the law employees may try to bring a claim of discrimination if they are dismissed,” Lorraine said. “Before April 2007 the definition was ‘any religious belief or similar philosophical belief’. Now the word ‘similar’ has been removed. This makes it possible that employees who are dismissed for belonging to the BNP may claim that the protection of the legislation now extends to the views of the BNP.”

A case to bear in mind is that of Redfearn v Serco in 2004. Mr Redfearn was employed as a driver by Serco, which provided transport services to public authorities. The majority of Serco’s passengers were Asian, as were about a third of its employees.

When Mr Redfearn was elected a BNP Councillor in a local election, Serco dismissed him summarily on the grounds that his employment represented a risk to the health and safety of its employees and passengers, despite the fact that Mr Redfearn’s far-right views had never affected his conduct at work.

Mr Redfearn brought a claim of race discrimination in the employment tribunal, alleging that his employer had treated him less favourably on the grounds of the Asian race and origin of its passengers. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, stating that this would be inconsistent with the aim of the legislation.

However, the Court of Appeal noted that if Mr Redfearn had had one year of service (he had worked for Serco for less than a year) he might have been able to bring a claim of unfair dismissal. It is highly likely that employees with more than a year’s service dismissed in the light of the leaked BNP list would claim unfair dismissal.