New Equality Act Wouldn't Tolerate Downton Abbey Discrimination Antics!

The new period drama Downton Abbey currently showing on ITV is already proving to be a hit with the viewing public.  In light of the recently introduced Equality Act 2010, it is interesting to note the disability discrimination storyline featured in the first episode of the series and how things were so very different (for the worse!) in Edwardian times.

A new valet, John Bates, an ex-soldier who suffers with a limp as a result of an injury sustained in the Boer War, arrives at Downton Abbey.  Robert Crawley, the present Earl, who served with Bates in the war, employs him without knowing that he has a limp. First Footman, Thomas, is particularly angry at Bates’ recruitment, having been passed over for promotion for the same role, and colludes with a maid, O’Brien, to sabotage Bates’ first few days at work in order to force either a dismissal or resignation.  Their behaviour includes, in addition to making it clear to John Bates that he is not welcome, tripping him up in front of the Earl and informing members of the upstairs household that he is not capable of performing his role. 
The drama is set nearly 100 years ago when employees had no rights in the workplace.  Today the Equality Act 2010 affords disabled employees certain rights, and had the above behaviour happened today, John Bates would have a number of claims in the employment tribunals not only against the Earl as his employer, but potentially also against Thomas and O’Brien. 

An employer directly discriminates against another if, because of a disability, he treats him less favourably than he treats or would treat others.  At the end of the first episode, the Earl actually dismissed John Bates on the assumption that the complaints made by the other staff were correct, only to have a change of heart at the last minute. Under modern day employment law, if John Bates had refused to stay after being told to leave he would have had a claim for direct disability discrimination because he had been dismissed because of his disability.

Further, John Bates was subjected to unlawful harassment by his colleagues, in that they subjected him to unwanted conduct related to his disability that had the purpose or effect of violating his dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him.”

Awards of compensation for dismissal are unlimited and will include awards for injury to feelings.

It is important that all employers have in place up to date anti-discrimination policies and that they provide anti-discrimination training on induction and from time to time to (i) make discrimination less likely (ii) provide a possible statutory defence to claims and (iii) encourage the reporting of concerns regarding discrimination, so they can be dealt with in a timely manner, and so limiting potential awards of compensation.