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TX: 17.07.08 - European Court Ruling

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
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White
Now this morning the European Court has ruled that protection against discrimination in employment is not limited to disabled people alone but can apply to their carers as well.

Barclay
It's all to do with the case of Sharon Coleman. She used to work as a legal secretary for a large law firm. In 2002 she gave birth to a disabled son - Oliver - and three years later accepted voluntary redundancy. Subsequently she lodged a complaint with an employment tribunal for unfair constructive dismissal. She alleges the firm treated her less favourably than other employees because she was the carer of a disabled child. She took this case because she wants carers to have legal protection against discrimination by association with a disabled person.

White
Well Sharon won her case, as we said, campaigners say that this is a landmark ruling that could potentially give the UK's estimated six million carers new rights to enable them to combine work with their caring responsibilities. Well Sharon Coleman is with us. First of all, what's your reaction to this morning's verdict?

Coleman
Oh it's just absolutely fabulous. Well we're so excited and really glad that it's got this far.

White
Just explain what did you want the company to do - what would have helped you really to do what you wanted to do as far as employment was concerned?

Coleman
I wanted to be treated the same and given the same flexibility as other colleagues. I did ask for parental leave and flexible working and to work at home as others had.

White
And what difference would that have made to the way that you ran your life?

Coleman
It would have been less stressful and it would have enabled me to care for Oliver in a better fashion I believe.

White
Right now the firm in question denied Sharon Coleman's allegations, as we said, and to date Sharon's claims about the firm haven't yet been proven in court. We did approach the firm but they said that they had no statement to make on the issue at this stage. We're also joined by Madeleine Starr from Carers UK. Madeleine, how do you see the significance of this judgement?

Starr
We see it as being very significant indeed because carers currently have no protection under anti-discrimination legislation and this establishes the principle that you can't discriminate against someone because they have here obviously caring responsibilities for a disabled child. But we see no reason why that shouldn't equally apply to a disabled adult. And it opens the door to anti-discrimination legislation that will protect all carers who are trying to combine work and care.

White
But it has been quite an important criteria of the Disability Discrimination Act - that's the Alambritish legislation - that it applied directly to disabled people, that's how the legislation has been framed, so it is quite a departure isn't it?

Starr
Well this is how the UK framed it but I think the directive, the original EU directive, does make it quite clear that direct discrimination does apply beyond the individual person. So the wording in UK legislation refers to the disabled person directly but we think it's very significant that the discrimination by association has been ...

White
And do you have any idea how many people might be in Sharon's situation, how many people this might affect?

Starr
Well there are six million carers in the UK, three million of them combine work and care. Now obviously not everyone is caring for a disabled person ...

White
But is this legislation going to extend, for example, to the people who care for elderly relatives - for adults?

Starr
Well that's a very interesting point because the principle has now been established and I think we would look at lobbying hard to see the same type of ruling around discrimination by association with age. So I think it establishes a precedent and it shows the way in terms of good practice. Better to avoid the need for a test case and actually do what you should be doing in the first place.

White
So you're saying we're not sure from this morning's judgement whether it does actually include that on the basis of Sharon's judgement?

Starr
No.

White
Okay. Let me bring in Stephen Alambritis, who's head of public affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses. What will employers think of this judgement do you think?

Alambritis
Well I think employers shouldn't be too worried about the judgement, it doesn't change anything. What it does change is the incidence of increasing numbers of people rightfully asking for flexibility in the workplace and provided that the business grounds for refusing a request are there and they are there - the viability of the business, the hours the person is asking to work - there's no actual work to be done - provided that's all in place what message that this case sends is that employers need to sit down very carefully and be fair to all their staff and look at every request fairly across the board and not make any judgement whatsoever about the caring duties of that member of staff. What we would ask the government to do is to constantly review the legislation so employers have the time to consider these requests so we're not deluging employers with requests.

White
Because it does - it extends the right to ask doesn't it, which still leaves businesses with quite a lot of power, including the power to refuse although it's got to be on reasonable grounds?

Alambritis
Yes 90% of all requests for flexible working have been acceded to. So the system is working, there are some who want to actually make it an insistence that I want to change my hours of work and therefore I will. We don't think that is the right way forward at this moment in time. If you allow employers and employees to work together then the requests - most of them - will be acceded to.

White
Do you see the problem with workforces though because it's often - it's often said things are said well if I'm not a carer or I'm not a parent why should I bear the brunt of replacing somebody's work?

Alambritis
Yes there is some concerns and that's coming through from our members at the Federation of Small Businesses and that is of staff who are not carers, who are not parents, who haven't got children, seeing other new staff come on and within six months to a year they've got their hours of work changed. It's important that that resentment is dealt with and the government should publicise more the fact that this is government driven legislation.

White
Madeleine, do you accept the fact that there's quite a tricky balance here to be struck between being fair to someone like Sharon and being fair to employers who've got a business to run?

Starr
I think - I think caring is an interesting situation because it can happen to anybody. I do feel that within a workforce people do cover each other and I think there is a lot of understanding with regard to the situation of work colleagues. And caring can happen to anyone and so the colleague's slightly resentful at the working conditions of someone in the team next door to today could be the person with caring responsibilities tomorrow.

White
Would you accept that Stephen that actually there might in some senses, particularly if it is extended to older carers, this might relate to quite a lot of people in your companies?

Alambritis
Yes of course and within a small firm employing four people, as Madeleine said, they will pull together, they'll be very understanding. In a slightly larger firm employing 50 people you might get that element of resentment. But as I said 90% of requests are acceded to and obviously it is important that employers sit down with their employees and get the time to consider.

White
Let me go back briefly to Sharon. I mean will this make a difference to the way you're actually living - I think your son is what six now - will this influence - will you go - could you go for a job with more confidence now?

Coleman
Yes I believe I could. Just to be treated fairly I think takes the pressure off you.

White
Okay, well thank you very much indeed Sharon Coleman, Madeleine Starr and Stephen AlamAlambritis.

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