Can an employer justify preventing staff from expressing political views?

Submitted on Wed, 14/10/2009 - 4:11pm

'The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open' - Gunter Grass, German Poet

'The Greek word for idiot, literally translated, means one who does not participate in politics. That sums up my conviction on the subject' - Gladys Pyle, US Senator (1890-1989)

Several low level civil servants have been sacked for making comments over MPs' expenses. So whilst MPs are cleaning their moats and houses with public money, civil servants are loosing their jobs for stating the obvious ridiculousness of the expenses scandal.

The quotes above state the common view of the importance of political engagement and citizenship. Should employees voice their political opinions no matter what the consequences?

Mark France recently lost his £15,000 admin role in the Jobcentre for getting involved with the campaign to get rid of his Bromsgrove MP, Julie Kirkbride. Mark France gathered signatures and made comments on TV and on the internet for the 'Julie Must Go' campaign.

Lisa Greenwood, 38, from Widnes, Cheshire, also lost her £16,000 administration role in the Department for Children, Schools and Family in June for sending a condemning message from her work email account expressing her views on MP Hazel Blears expenses:   

'You and your honorable members are all liars and thieves. I was appalled to see you on national television this morning waving a cheque around as if it was going to make everything OK. You are not sorry at all. (Only sorry that you have been caught.) You are a disgrace. Why haven't you been arrested and why have you not been sacked? Not that my comments will have any impact. I doubt you will even read this."

These civil servants fell foul of the civil service code which requires employees to remain politically neutral at all times. The thinking behind this is quite logical; central government employs civil servants to run government departments and thus civil servants must respect the current government and not bring it into disrepute. If you worked in the private sector and went on TV and gave derogative comments about your employer, you may not be surprised to get the boot.

Senior civil servants have been known to get political, but with little consequence or condemnation. Frank Swayne, a Child Support Officer in Hastings, stood as a BNP Councillor in 2008 and was allowed to stand by Hastings Borough Council. Rowan Laxton, a senior civil servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shouted anti-Semitic comments as a result of watching reports on the Gaza war in a gym in January this year. Rowan Laxton was taken to court, but he didn't loose his job, he was merely fined £350 for his outburst.

492,000 people are employed as full time civil servants in the UK and Commonwealth. That's half a million people who can't express their political opinions publicly without risk of sacking. The recent dismissals ask important questions on if and how individuals should separate their political views from the workplace:

  • Should employers be able to control you politically?
  • Are these dismissals anymore than Orwellian style employment by a big brother government?
  • How can individuals take roles of citizenship into the workplace?

It certainly seems unfair that there were difference consequences for certain grades, higher level staff shouldn't receive easier treatment.

Also both Mark France and Lisa Greenwood were unaware that making political statements would loose them their jobs; the civil service must ensure that all staff are aware that they must remain politically neutral.

Have your say

  • Mark France plans to stand as an Independent MP. If you support his cause, join his Facebook group.
  • Want to clean up politics? Don't want the MPs to get away with it? Send your views to electoral reform campaign Power 2010.
  • Controversial, but nonetheless popular blogger Guido Fawkes will be walking from Trafalgar Square to Parliament dressed as Guy Fawkes on the 5th November at 12pm. He invites members of the public to join him, especially if they're dressed as a pig or Guy Fawkes. Find out more on the Old Holborn website.

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