Equality Bill guidance on protected beliefs ‘confusing’ for employers

Employers are likely to be left confused as to what counts and does not count as a protected belief under the Equality Bill, employers groups have warned.

It follows the publication of a draft Employment Statutory Code of Practice, which explains that vegans, atheists and Scientologists could be given the same protection against discrimination as religious groups, under the legislation.

However, the government has distanced itself from the code, which was published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The consultation code states that the term religion can apply to any religion and non-religion, and points out that a belief can mean any religious or philosophical belief. This can include humanism and atheism. In addition, a belief does not need to include a faith or worship of a god, which can cover veganism.

However, a spokesman for the Government Equalities Office said the Equality Bill does not change the existing definition of religion or belief. “The government does not think that views or opinions based on scientific, or indeed on political, theories can be considered to be akin to religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs. Nor was it the intention in introducing the legislation that such beliefs should be covered.”

Employers’ bodies have warned this will send out conflicting messages to employers abut what is and isn’t covered.

Rachel Krys, campaigns director at the Employers Forum on Belief, said the draft code is correct and only interprets what the law says.

“If the government is not happy with the definition, it should have tightened it up in the Bill. The codes are not misinterpretation. It’s not good enough for employers and it leaves them in a difficult position.”

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said confusing messages were being sent out. “Until we get an end result and the Bill is passed, there will still perhaps be an air of confusion. The guidance is moving things in the right direction in terms of setting the agenda.

“Employers have to be in listening mode and be alert, pragmatic and be prepared to manage things in ways that are reasonable. They can’t use a tick-box approach.”

Peter Schofield, director of HR and legal service at manufacturing organisation EEF, said: “There is certainly scope for employers to be confused as to what counts and what does not count as a protected belief. The Code of Practice seems to me the best place to address this issue because you cannot realistically have a list of protected beliefs in the statute.”

An EHRC spokeswoman said: “This guidance is not something ‘thought up by the Commission’. Parliament makes the law, the courts interpret it, and the commission offers factual and proportionate guidance to organisations where necessary.”

Last year, Personnel Today reported how a senior manager who alleged he was unfairly dismissed on the basis of his views on climate change could take his employer to a tribunal.

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