Landmark ruling could allow civil servants to participate in party politics

“Participation in democracy” is a philosophical belief, protected under equality legislation, judge rules
Tellers from political parties at a polling station. Photo: Richard Baker/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

19 Oct 2022

A landmark ruling could pave the way for civil servants to be allowed to stand for election or engage in party-political activities.

A court in Scotland confirmed that “participation in democracy” is protected under equality legislation after a senior policymaker at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations was dismissed after telling her bosses she wanted to stand to become an MP.

Polly Jones, who was head of membership and policy at SFHA, launched an unfair dismissal case against the organisation, arguing that standing as a parliamentary candidate was a vital democratic role.

However, an appeals tribunal determined that she could not claim unfair dismissal because of the nature of her case.

SFHA and Jones agreed a settlement after three years of legal proceedings, with the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling that “participation in democracy” is a philosophical belief protected under equality legislation.

The case could pave the way for civil servants to be allowed to stand for election and participate in party politics, according to the union that provided Jones’s legal representation.

“Through principle and determination, Polly has set a legal precedent which has opened the door to more candidates, who may otherwise have been deterred from standing due to the risk to their employment,” Unison Scotland legal officer Karen Osborne said.

“Civil servants and local government employees, as well as many in the charitable sector, should now be allowed to stand for election and take part in public political activity.”

Currently, all civil servants are disqualified from standing for election to parliament by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and must resign before doing so.

The civil service code meanwhile says civil servants must not act in a way that is determined by party-political considerations or allow their personal political views to determine their actions or advice. Civil servants are also banned from using official resources for party-political purposes.

The code also says officials must service the government "in a way which maintains political impartiality", regardless of their political beliefs; and comply with "any restrictions that have been laid down" on their political activities.

Jones, who is a Unison member, said she hopes the ruling will help to pull down workplace barriers facing people who hope to become MPs and encourage under-represented groups to get involved in politics.

“I am delighted my case has wider implications. It protects us all from employers that want to restrict broader political activity outside work, whether that’s campaigning or simply being involved in a political party,” she said.

SFHA chair Helen Forsyth said: “We entirely refute the allegations made by our former employee. We chose to settle this case in the interests of making best use of our resources: at a time when our members are facing increasingly serious challenges, it is vital that we are fully focused on supporting them in every way we can.”

Jones donated her full settlement fee to three organisations: Unison’s There for You welfare charity, Living Rent Scotland’s tenants’ union, and Refuweegee – a community-led charity which welcomes people forced to flee their homes. She is now head of the Scotland arm of food bank charity the Trussell Trust.

'Not willing to keep politically neutral'

Normally, an employee cannot claim unfair dismissal if – like Jones – they are employed for less than two years.

The employment tribunal that heard Jones's initial case ruled that she could rely on an exception to this rule that allows for claims to be heard if the dismissal “relates to the employee's political opinions or affiliation”.

But on appeal, the judge said this exception was not valid as Jones’s political opinions and membership of the Scottish Labour Party were not the reason for her dismissal. Instead, the judge said her employer’s refusal to let her stand for election related to her being “not willing to keep politically neutral”.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal accepted the court’s decision that Jones had a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010, specifically that “those with the relevant skills, ability and passion should participate in the democratic process”.

This article was updated at 1pm on 20.10.22. A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Jones was unfairly dismissed

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