Vegan Rights in the UK
The 1998 Human Rights Act made it possible to enforce the human rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the ECHR”) through the UK courts as well as by taking a claim to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”).
The relevant rights contained in the ECHR are set out in European Vegan Rights. It is quite clear from previous human rights cases that veganism is a protected philosophical conviction in terms of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for monitoring UK compliance with its European and International human rights obligations, also confirms in its literature that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief covers veganism.
Vegans in the UK therefore have the absolute right to believe that it is morally wrong to subjugate, exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily and, because it is protected, to live according to that belief or conviction. The extent of this right and how it has been applied in practice is set out in European Vegan Rights.
In the UK we are unlikely often to encounter a direct, express legal restriction on our ability to manifest our vegan convictions; for example, a law requiring us to use or consume animals or animal products. What we do see, however, is apparently neutral laws that have an impact on the ability of vegans to live according to their vegan convictions. For example, where vegans are relying on the state to provide them with food and no suitable food is available.
Some examples of situations vegans living in the UK have encountered in recent years include:
- a vegan patient in a hospital did not eat for three days because the hospital failed/refused to provide suitable food;
- vegans with eating disorders have been denied access to suitable food and force-fed animal products against their convictions;
- a vegan was told by the Department for Work and Pensions that they must apply for a job in a slaughterhouse or else they would lose access to benefits;
- vegan children have been made to sit through presentations by dairy farmers during which they were told that they should not be drinking plant milk and that they would only get the nutrients they need from consuming dairy (entirely incorrect information, but which went wholly unchallenged/was reinforced by the teacher supervising the class);
- vegan children have been taught, against their moral convictions and those of their parents, that animals are ours to use and kill (for example, by schools themselves bringing animals onto school grounds for a period of months to “rear them” before sending them to be slaughtered and through egg hatching activities);
- vegan children and their parents have been ridiculed by students and by teachers;
- vegan children are being forced to participate in unnecessary experimentation on other animals;
- vegan children and their parents have been told by their school that they will not provide food that is suitable for vegans, with some schools expressly stating that they do not support veganism;
- vegan police officers and fire fighters have been refused uniform items made from animal-free materials.
In addition to our human rights, everyone in the UK has protections under European equality law. European equality provisions require the government to prohibit discrimination on a number of protected grounds, including on the grounds of philosophical beliefs, as set out in European Vegan Rights. These protections have been incorporated into national law through the Equality Act 2010 (“the Equality Act”), applicable in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Equality Act provides that “philosophical beliefs” are a protected characteristic.
The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (“EHRC”), which is the regulatory body responsible for monitoring the UK’s implementation of the EU equality provisions in Britain, recognises veganism as a protected philosophical conviction under the Equality Act.
While there have been no public decisions on vegan equality claims as such, cases that might be said to have relevance to potential vegan claims include a claim by: (1) an environmentalist and (2) a vegan, based on his “belief in the sanctity of life” which extended to “his fervent anti-fox-hunting belief”.
In the case of Grainger plc v Nicholson 2009, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) drew on decisions from the ECtHR regarding protected non-religious beliefs and found that a philosophical belief about the environment and climate change could be a protected belief, if genuinely held. In reaching this view the EAT had regard to human rights cases such as W v UK, (the prison print room case referred to previously in European Vegan Rights) and the protection afforded to the vegan conviction under human rights law.
In the case of the vegan claimant who claimed to have been dismissed for his anti-fox-hunting views, Hashman v Milton Park, the Employment Tribunal held that a belief in the sanctity of life and the moral duty to avoid unnecessary suffering to animals constituted a protected philosophical belief.
There is therefore little doubt that veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act.
The Equality Act refers to four main ways in which a person can suffer discrimination and unfair treatment in relation to protected characteristics. These are: a) direct discrimination; b) indirect discrimination; c) harassment and d) victimisation. These protections are set out in more detail in European Vegan Rights.
For a recent example of direct discrimination against vegans in the UK see: www.thelawyer.com/vegan-rights-uk/
Who has the obligation?
The Equality Act applies to all employers, public and private, and to all providers of goods and services to the public, whether public or private, and to public functions and education. By extending protections beyond employers the UK has chosen to go further than is required under EU law.
The prohibition against discrimination, direct and indirect, applies in all these areas. The prohibition on harassment and victimisation in relation to protected beliefs applies expressly in the employment context but does not expressly feature for service providers or in primary education. However, in practice harassment and victimisation will often also constitute direct discrimination.
Public Sector Equality Duty
In addition to the specific requirements to refrain from and prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation on account of vegan convictions, government bodies also have a duty called the “Public Sector Equality Duty” or “PSED”. This requires the public sector (including hospitals, schools, local authorities, police, fire, transport authorities, and private organisations carrying out public functions) to go further than merely refraining from discriminating against people who hold vegan beliefs. They must also have due regard, in carrying out their functions, to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity.
This duty means that public bodies must remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by vegans on account of their vegan convictions, and take steps to meet the needs of vegans, where those needs are different to the needs of non-vegans. This is important to keep in mind when dealing with a government entity which is failing to take steps to enable vegans to live according to their convictions.
Northern Ireland is not covered by the Equality Act. Northern Ireland has devolved powers to develop and administer its own equality laws. The Fair Employment and Treatment (Amendment) Regulations (NI) 2003 (FETO) outlaw discrimination in employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services and the provision of further and higher education, and public bodies are under a general equality duty in terms of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. The NI Equalities Commission has confirmed that veganism is a protected characteristic, as it is a protected philosophical belief.
Leaving the EU/Brexit
Withdrawal from the ECHR does not flow automatically from Brexit. The UK would need to make a separate decision to withdraw from the ECHR. It remains to be seen whether or not the UK government will seek to do so.
European Equality Directives are EU law and therefore the UK will not necessarily be bound by them after we leave the EU, depending on the terms of our exit. The Equality Act will remain part of UK law unless and until it is repealed or amended. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill indicates that the equality protections will remain part of UK law post-Brexit and that current European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) caselaw interpreting those provisions will continue to be applied. This is a developing situation and there is much ongoing discussion about how the Government’s plans would work in practice.
UK Vegan Rights Conclusion
Our right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief gives us a basis upon which to press for adequate provision for vegans in our state entities and for government action to ensure adequate protection in the private sphere, while our equality laws protect us from discrimination based on our fundamental convictions in both the public and the private spheres. We can refer to both our human rights and the equality protections in advocating for suitable provision and alternatives. In terms of human rights we must also keep in mind the parental right to respect for their fundamental convictions in education and in relation to equality laws we should refer to the PSED as well as the rules on discrimination when dealing with a public entity.
The above points are covered in much more detail in the book Vegan Rights in the UK Bolton Rowley.