UK law does not currently protect employees specifically from dismissal on the grounds of their political beliefs or affiliation. In the controversial case of Redfearn v The United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has held that this omission is wrong in the UK, and breaches Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which protects freedom of association.
Mr Redfearn was employed in the Bradford area by Serco Ltd as a driver for children and adults with disabilities, many of whom were of Asian ethnic origin. There were no issues with his conduct or performance. Serco became aware that Mr Redfearn was a candidate for the BNP in forthcoming elections, and received advice that continuing to employ him would present a health and safety risk to passengers and employees, cause considerable anxiety to his passengers, and jeopardise Serco’s reputation. Following his election as a local BNP councillor in 2004, he was therefore summarily dismissed. Mr Redfearn had insufficient service to claim unfair dismissal and the Court of Appeal rejected his claim of race discrimination since his complaint was in fact for discrimination on political grounds, which fell outside anti-discrimination law.
Mr Redfearn then brought a claim in the ECHR on the grounds that his dismissal interfered with his Convention rights to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11) and freedom of expression (Article 10), and that the UK Government should have enacted legislation protecting him from termination of his employment because of his political affiliation. The ECHR agreed that the lack of a remedy in the UK for a dismissal motivated solely by an employee’s political opinion or affiliation infringed Article 11. The ECHR also held that Article 11 protects persons and associations whose views ‘offend, shock or disturb’, as well as those whose views are more favourably regarded, which obviously gives rise to interesting questions in relation to extremist political parties. Since Mr Redfearn’s dismissal, the Equality Act 2010 has introduced protection against discrimination arising from philosophical beliefs. The prevailing view is that this could cover a political philosophy or doctrine, but not support for a political party.
Subject to a possible appeal by the Government, this decision means that the UK will need to take steps to allow employees to contest a dismissal on the grounds of political opinion or affiliation. This could be done by creating a new claim of unlawful discrimination, or by creating a further exception to the qualifying period required for bringing unfair dismissal.