In what looks like an item based on an informal Government briefing, the Sunday Express reported on 13 May that the Government Equalities Office is to issue new guidance on wearing religious symbols at work. In its report, which was subsequently picked up elsewhere, Equalities Minister Victoria Atkins is quoted as follows:
“Discrimination in the workplace is not only completely unacceptable but also against the law. We will not stand for it. We live in an integrated and cohesive society with a proud tradition of religious tolerance and I want to see that reflected in workplaces across the country. As long as it doesn’t interfere with someone’s work they should just be allowed to get on with the job.”
Reactions have been on the whole welcoming. The Church of England was reported as welcoming the decision, while Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented,
“Humanists UK welcomes the Government’s announcement that it will produce clear guidance for employers and employees regarding religious dress in the workplace. Over recent years there has been a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding company dress codes. We hope that this guidance will provide clarity in this area.”
In a slight note of caution, National Secular Society spokesperson Chris Sloggett said that the announcement was “thin on substance”, adding that Ministers “must consider proportion and context in this debate”:
“The law is already well-established in this area and we hope this intervention from the government isn’t an attempt to rally support from those pushing false narratives of religious persecution in the UK. The new guidance must not excessively hamstring employers, who may have a legitimate reason to restrict the way their employees present themselves. For example, they may have concerns over health and safety, treating staff equally or presenting a philosophically neutral stance to clients or the public. But if an employer does place restrictions it’s reasonable to require them to be proportionate in the context of its wider dress codes, and to have a legitimate purpose.”
We are inclined to agree with Humanists UK about the current state of misunderstanding and confusion – not least after the rather ambivalent CJEU judgments in Achbita and Bougnaoui. At the time, we noted that they seem to blur the helpful distinction drawn by the ECtHR between dress codes designed to promote a company “image” (Eweida) and restrictions for reasons of health and safety (Chaplin). Although we do not agree with the National Secular Society that the law is “well-established in this area”, we think that the NSS makes a fair point about “false narratives of religious persecution”. As the Archbishop of York pointed out in an interview with The Spectator in 2015: “I had to get out of Uganda because I had opposed Amin on a number of things … I know what persecution looks like. What is happening at the moment in England, it ain’t persecution.” Likewise, there may be an issue with regard to health and safety, though this is an area with potential difficulties in terms of its practical application.
The Sunday Express report says that the forthcoming guidance will state that “Employers should be flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work”. That would certainly fit with the reply of the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Caroline Dinenage, to Maria Miller’s Urgent Question in the Commons on 15 March 2017, the day after the two CJEU judgments:
“The UK’s legal position has not changed. The EHRC has already published guidance for employers on religion and belief in the workplace, and we will work with it to update that guidance to take account of these rulings and to carefully explain how they should be interpreted in UK workplaces.”
The source of the latest statement by Victoria Atkins remains a mystery, however: diligent searching on the Gov.uk website has totally failed to unearth it. If any reader has located it, we would very much welcome a copy or a link.