Also high on the TUC conference agenda last week were the many dangers of discrimination in the workplace. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) chairman Trevor Phillips was on hand to demonstrate how easy it was to inadvertently fall foul of legislation when he promised to back any union that licked out any member of the British National Party (BNP).
"While this may be a morally commendable stance, one must query whether the CRE is opening itself for significant liability," claimed Daniel Barnett, a barrister at 2 Gray's Inn Square Chambers and an employment law specialist. As he pointed out, from 2 December 2003 it will be unlawful for a trade union to expel members based on their religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief. "It is strongly arguable that membership of the BNP demonstrates a philosophical belief that persons of a particular race – or religion – should have different rights to white Anglo-Saxon protestants," he continued. "For a trade union to expel members because of this belief may contravene regulation 15 of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003."
According to the barrister, by inducing unions to expel members of the BNP, the CRE may be aiding the union's unlawful act which, in turn, is actionable under the regulations. But also it could amount to breach of contract "insofar as the unions have contractual membership rules by which they undertake not to expel members on grounds of political or other beliefs".
However, the barrister was quick to point out that the CRE boss could well have a defence. "Having said that, it could just as strongly be argued that membership of the BNP is not a 'similar philosophical belief'," Barnett continued. "Which would provide all the excuse a tribunal needs for rejecting a BNP member's claim in these circumstances."