Dismissal on Grounds of Political Opinion or Affiliation

Current employment legislation in the UK provides protection for employees from discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, but not on grounds of political affiliation or belief. An employee recently brought a claim against his employer in the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”), asserting that UK law in this regard is incompatible with Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“the Convention”), which, in summary, provides a universal right of freedom of assembly and association with others.

The employee, Mr R, was dismissed without notice from his employment, as a result of his having been elected as a local councillor for the British National Party (“BNP”), news of which appeared in a local newspaper. Mr R was employed as a driver in a business which provided transport services on behalf of public authorities for disabled adults and children, most of whom were Asian in origin. Despite Mr R’s unblemished record and there being no concerns regarding his performance, he was dismissed as the employer believed that he would (i) present a risk to the health and safety of its employees and passengers; (ii) cause considerable anxiety to its passengers and their carers; and (iii) jeopardise the employer’s reputation and possibly result in it losing the contract with the local city council.

Mr R had been employed for less than a year and so was not eligible to bring a claim for unfair dismissal, but brought a claim for race discrimination, which was rejected. Mr R then sought to argue that his treatment was an interference with article 11 of the Convention, and applied to the ECHR for a declaration that UK law is incompatible with that article.

The ECHR agreed with Mr R, holding that there had been a violation of his article 11 rights and that UK law was deficient in not providing any protection against dismissal on grounds of political opinion or affiliation. The ECHR also criticised the employer’s decision to dismiss without considering the possibility of him undertaking a non-customer facing role and on the basis of hypothetical problems only. The ECHR did state that it would be sufficient if the usual unfair dismissal rules were amended to provide that, where a dismissal was allegedly on grounds of political opinion or affiliation, there was no requirement of a minimum period of continuous service.

Whilst this ruling does not directly affect employees in the private sector (who are unable to bring claims against their employers under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”)), it may well result in the UK changing the law to provide such additional protection to employees. Employees of public authorities, which must act in a way that is compatible with the Convention, who are dismissed on such grounds could now bring civil claims under the HRA citing article 11, regardless of whether they have any unfair dismissal rights.