The Gay Cake Case

The Gay Cake Case, also technically (and correctly) known as Lee (Respondent) v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others (Appellants) (Northern Ireland).

A final (and unanimous) decision was reached by The Supreme Court in London on 10th October 2018. The court found for the bakers Ashers.

The bakers had refused to produce a cake for Mr Lee with the message “support gay marriage”. Mr Lee had previously ordered cakes from Ashers, (but without this message). Ashers took the order, but then subsequently refused the order, due to their committed Christian beliefs.

The cake then became a case – Mr Lee supported by The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland brought a claim for direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief or political opinion.

Mr Lee won the first round, Ashers then appealed and lost on appeal. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland then referred the case to The Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found that Mr & Mrs McArthur, the owners of Ashers did not discriminate against Mr Lee personally – they objected to the message because it was contrary to their religious beliefs – which can also be protected. As the court stated, “The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message, not to the man.”

This has proved to be a very expensive cake.

We would argue that the facts of this case a fairly unique and the judgment is actually quite limited in scope.

The argument now goes that discrimination because of your religious beliefs is ok. No, it is not. Mr Lee was not discriminated against; the objection was to the message.

It should also be remembered that religious beliefs still have a significant hold on society in Northern Ireland – this is partly for political reasons. Northern Ireland is also behind the mainland UK regarding gay marriage and equality, and will probably remain out of step for quite some time.

We would argue that if this case was brought by parties in another part of the UK, the decision may, (but only may) have been different.

The bottom line is that if as a business you offer a service be prepared for it to be used in different ways. The way to run a business is to provide the same service to everyone.

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How To Survive Meeting Hell

Meetings…we have to ask why?
It seems to be that when nobody wants to make a decision, or they do, but they want cover in case it goes wrong…they have a meeting.

The more significant the decision the large and longer the meeting. There is even the likelihood of pre-meetings ahead of the main meeting and post-meetings to dissect the result of the main meeting (if any).

I was talking to someone recently who said he could not get any work done because he was always in meetings…about work.

About work…rather than just doing the work.

His boss had set up a series of committee groups – this seemed like a good idea – except that it was not. The suspicion was that these committees gave the boss cover. If something went wrong, he could blame the committee in charge.

I then decided to waste even more time reading about how to effectively run meetings – a sort of LinkedIn Guide To Hell.

I will keep this post short because I am sure you have a meeting to go to.

I have come up with an almost foolproof way to conduct meetings and get stuff done.

1. Set a definite time limit for the meeting, (subject to a maximum of 30 minutes – see 2 below). Once that is done…halve it.

2. For any meeting that goes over 30 minutes. The person who called the meeting and is supposed to be running it buys everyone coffee & cake. This is important – do you want to run the risk of buying for 5 people or 50? Keep meetings small. If the meeting goes to 5pm, those present can elect to have their coffee & cake the following day – because we all have lives to go to.

3. Use Basecamp or Slack…before, after, or as a replacement for meetings. You can thank me later.

Other additional strategies can include going directly to the coffee & cake and holding the meeting in the queue, and for no more time than it takes to consume your beverage and cupcake of choice.

See simple.

As an endnote, please do not link to this wisdom from any social media…life is too short for “inspirational insights” – we all have lives to go to.

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No-Fault Divorce Reform

Finally, the current government has announced a consultation process to look at updating our divorce laws and introducing “no-fault divorces.”

Just in time for Brexit.

Brexit jokes aside – the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 is almost 50 years old and drafted in a different age. Under the Act couples effectively have to apportion blame:

Your partner has committed adultery
Your partner has behaved unreasonably

Or, there is a separation of between 2-5 years, depending on their partner’s consent.

However, the period of separation is probably used less frequently – leaving the first two grounds of “blame”.

It is important to understand that the law was drafted back in a time when divorce was the exception – the current rate of divorce in the UK is approximately 42% of marriages. Interestingly, the divorce rate is climbing in the over-50s age group, but declining in those married from 2000 onwards – so much for reckless youth.

The proposals are seeking to remove grounds for divorce and simply keep the current situation that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

The proposals will also remove the right of the other spouse to contest the divorce – this is due to the recent Tini Owens case. This involves a wife who has to wait until 2020 (five years) to divorce because her husband refused to accept it. This case alone highlights how archaic the law has become.

Relevant Links:

UK Divorce
Tini Owens Case
Buzzfeed UK

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Stockpiling Food – More Project Wake-Up

Mondelez International, owners of Cadbury’s (and many other food companies), have announced they are stockpiling ingredients and finished products in case of a Hard Brexit.

This will probably be dismissed as more “Project Fear” – when it is really Project Wake-Up.

Hubert Weber, the president of Modelez Europe, has calmly stated – “We have a contingency plan in place to manage [a hard Brexit], as the UK is not self-sufficient in terms of food ingredients, so that could be a challenge.”

Basically, the UK can’t feed itself – whether it is chocolate or salad.

Those that advocate, a Hard Brexit, appear to be deploying a WWII crisis management approach – a sort of, “We’ll show em”. It plays well to the papers with a reading age of twelve.

So, we have to ask at what point do the public start of taking note of the warnings and take them seriously? The sorry answer seems to be when it’s too late.

The whole Brexit campaign has been brilliantly run by appealing to stupidity, meaningless soundbites and disparaging experts. Never mind that these “so-called” experts happen to be experts in boring stuff like trade, logistics, business investment etc.

We appear to be entering a new golden age of the stupid.

This can be backed up by Nigel Farage’s mock outrage that Mark Carney has been asked to stay on to steady the ship through Brexit. Nigel Farage’s only response was that Carney is a Remainer. This Homer Simpson style response sums up Brexit. It also ignores (conveniently) two important facts:

1. The Bank of England is independent.

2. The Bank of England will seek to minimise any damage caused by Brexit.

Basically, it is easy to come up with the Brexit idea in the pub, it is slightly harder to deliver it and deliver it in a way that does not damage the economy and take away jobs.

But, there was never a plan for the complicated stuff – the complete lack of progress in two years shows that.

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When To Turn Off

The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe, but still lags towards the bottom of the productivity scale – this is something that has confused economists and politicians for years.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average hours worked stand at 37 hours per week. This has held steady for the last 10 years. However, productivity (the measure of work output per hour) has continued to drop since 2008. This is trendily known as the “productivity puzzle”.

In Germany the average working week is 40 hours, but Germany has higher productivity. Graphs show that the UK and Germany followed each other upwards from a low-point in 2009, (we assume due to the financial crash). However, despite following the same trend, the UK has consistently lagged behind Germany in productivity.

According to the OECD, this gap has grown since 2015. Germany has continued a smooth upward trend, whereas the UK plateaued in 2015 and bumps along this plateau with barely any growth.

It is impossible to come to any definitive conclusion as to why this trend continues and the gap widens. However, maybe (just maybe) the national attitude to work plays a part.

In Germany, workers tend to be more focused during work hours, partly because it is culturally expected, but also because German workers know when their working day ends – it really does end.

I am trying to avoid generalisations, but German workers have a cultural habit of leaving their work behind at the end of the day. This trait is shared with Scandinavian countries.

It seems to be that grey areas are not tolerated. The national psyche seems to be when I leave work – don’t bother me.

This is taken quite seriously too. Companies such as VW go so far as to turn off work email delivery outside work hours for all employees, except the most senior managers and board members. Furthermore, those with access to work email outside office hours are firmly instructed only to use it when absolutely necessary and not to send emails to subordinates outside hours. This instruction is backed up by an internal disciplinary code.
Compare that to the UK where email can be used as a passive-aggressive weapon, with emails sent by employees at odd hours of the day and night and over weekends – with Sunday afternoon a favourite with aggressive idiots.

We have seen organisation-wide emails sent on behalf of the boss on a Sunday afternoon. Not small organisations either, ones with 1,000s of employees.

In one instance a frustrated junior employee replied with a less-than-cheery “f**k-off”, but replied all – so not only did the boss receive the response, so did the other 15,000 employees on the list. On the plus side it gave some people a good laugh on a wet Sunday afternoon, but less fun for the sender on Monday morning. They kept their job, but their cards were forever marked.

The irony is that someone else on behalf of the boss sent the email. The boss was possibly away enjoying their weekend.

Amusing stories aside – the pressure of constant-on exhausts employees. There is little or no time to escape and recharge depleted batteries. Employees end up starting the working week already warmed up due to the constant stream of nonsense emails from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.

A recent study by the University of the West of England found that Wi-Fi introduced on some train routes had led to more people answering emails before and after work. Interestingly, many people welcomed this as a need transition period to and from work and to avoid work overload on reaching their workplaces.

Sadly, some people referred to time on the train as “dead time”. We would kindly refer these people to a good book, a good newspaper, a good magazine, some nice music, the crossword, chatting or even just looking out the window.

To paraphrase the saying – if you always use the saw and don’t stop to sharpen it, it becomes too blunt to use.

It’s almost 4pm on a sunny and warm late August day. I have focussed on writing this for a clear 90 minutes. Time to go and enjoy the world.

Before I do, I will leave you with a picture of the ultimate symbol of power and status, not a car or plane or another toy – no – the smartphone-free life. Ask Simon Cowell. If anyone is in touch with symbols of status and power, it is he.

Relevant links below, but please go read a good book instead.

BBC News
UK Average Hours
German Average Hours
OECD – Productivity – measured by GDP per hour worked

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Housing – A Window On A Broken Society

So more reports of housing woe in the papers today – and still nothing is done.

Latest reports show the decline in home ownership among younger adults who should be first-time buyers. The sad conclusion being that the next generation will be more divided than ever, divided between who owns and who rents property. Also, that our children will be poorer than their parents and substantially poor than their grandparents.

Just as a quiet reminder to the present government – if you don’t own property you will probably be less likely to vote Conservative. It does need pointing out, as the government seems to be missing a lot of obvious and important details recently. Such as the EU has no intention of negotiating away their stated position and weakening their status as an institution. Likewise, Donald Trump has absolutely no intention of offering the UK a quick and advantageous trade deal. After all, if you spend your waking hours on Twitter, you probably don’t have the time or attention span to oversee a trade deal.

New Zealand this week announced a selective ban on foreign companies and nationals buying new properties in New Zealand. This is in response to property prices in some areas, such as Auckland rising 75% in four years.

The only issue with the New Zealand ban is that it is selective – buyers from Singapore and Australia are not included, but buyers from China are. If there is going to be a ban, it should be for everyone, not selective and not discriminatory, that is just common sense. Plus New Zealand has the additional pressure of returning lands stolen from the original settlers, the Māori.

A ban in the UK would be completely unenforceable and too controversial. Besides the UK cannot even manage to reform leaseholds or prevent Crown Estates and the Duchy of Cornwall from exploiting arcane loopholes that belong to medieval times.

The best course of action is to tax any person or organisation that holds multiple properties heavily and to ban property being owned by offshore companies.

The concentration of property (and so entrenched wealth) in the hands of the few will ultimately damage the UK economy. Less money will flow through the economy, and successive governments will see a permanent decline in their tax take. Further, younger people will have fewer reasons to stay and contribute to the economy and pay the bills incurred by their parents and grandparents. After all, if you are aged 25-35+ trying and failing to buy a home you may decide to look elsewhere, Australia and Canada now hold greater prospects for the young.

Finally, we need to stop calling rental properties “affordable”. Renting is not affordable and in the long-term reduces your chances of actually own a home of your own. Affordable is decent freehold homes to buy – nothing more and nothing less.

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Can Brexit Be Delivered?

So now that the infamous lies of the Brexit referendum are disappearing into the mist – along with the people who promoted them – there still remains the issue of whether Brexit can be delivered.

There is also the other slight issue to consider – what exactly is Brexit?

During the referendum all the lies came out – the Brexit dividend, the extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Staying in the single market, but without having to abide by the key principles etc.

Two years later these have been shown to be not false hopes or promises, but cynical lies. More worryingly we now see evidence of British subjects conspiring with a foreign power to campaign for Brexit.

Our enemies love Brexit, (even more than the Tory far-right) – anything to divide and weaken Europe and undermine our alliances forged since the Second World War.

We now also know there was never any grand-plan for Brexit. “Taking back control” was as far as it went. In fairness, how can anyone plan for Brexit? The reality is too difficult to comprehend. The “cake-and-eat it” mythology and the simplistic money found down the back of the sofa is as far as any Brexiteer has got in explaining the intricacies of the process.

We are getting divorced after more than 40 years of marriage; it is going to be messy and expensive. Following that up with asking to come round with your mates to watch the England game on the big TV – well you know the likely response.

Brexit may be a success one day, but are you prepared for 10 years or more of hardship, (just after the last recession) to see if it works? Quite a few hard-line Brexit supporters are ready for you to make the sacrifice for their ideological purity; besides, their nests are robustly feathered, and they can weather the storm.

Now that “project fear” is “project reality” with businesses clearly signalling reduced investment and the movement of people and capital investment overseas it may be time to think through the realities.

The UK has spent 40 years reaping the benefits of free movement of people, goods and capital. That tide is now turning; the flow is starting to go the other way. The tide is going out on the economy; we may end up marooned at low tide.

But, is a soft Brexit deliverable? Is the (potentially) worst of both worlds the best option? Also, if Brexit is that soft, why go through with it at all?

Many invoke the ghost of Mrs T, whether you liked her or not she was always pragmatic, determined and disciplined. She would not have tolerated the frothing mouth of Boris Johnson; he would never have made it into the cabinet. As we all know Mrs T was no fan of the EU, quite the opposite. However, at no time did she ever contemplate leaving. She knew it was too lucrative a club to leave, despite its numerous serious flaws.

If we can have more pragmatism and less Tory-Taliban ideology, just maybe we can keep our jobs and prosperity – all of which grew as part of the EU.

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HR The Weapon Of Choice

It seems when reading press stories about certain high-profile companies, Uber, Tesla, Amazon etc. a lot of the coverage revolves around their employment practices (or abuse of).

They have all appeared in the news for conduct that conflicts with their shiny PR front – be it discrimination, (sex and race) or in Amazon’s case their infamous staff turnover.

However, when you read these stories the fact that they reach the media is an indication that their collective HR functions are failing. Moreover, the stories frequently highlight the failure of HR departments to handle complaints correctly. Some HR departments appear to have become part of the weapons used by poor employers – they have become part of the problem. They facilitate breaches of employment law and then hide the misdeeds of the employer. Imagine being the HR department at The Weinstein Company.

HR departments answer to the same bosses as other employees; however, there does appear to be a definite trend to facilitate malpractice. HR is never independent, but it seems to have lost some backbone. Instead of speaking truth to power weak HR departments are colluding in breaches, some of which are both serious and criminal.

HR departments should advise and direct management to take the right course – this is frequently not the easiest path – however, it is now more necessary than before. HR needs to reassert its importance as an independent function within organisations. This also means better recruitment of and training for HR professionals. HR should not be seen as a path from administrative or minor management roles.

Directors of HR should be board-level appointments – appointments that report to the board and no one else.

Due to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) those in charge of data protection and security are now being given board-level status. HR is long overdue for the promotion.

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The GDPR Bandwagon

So hopefully you remember the supposed millennium bug Y2K that was going to eat up and destroy all computers, servers and all the software on these machines – because it didn’t really happen. It wasn’t so much a hoax as a way for the IT industry to stoke fear and extract large fees from fearful clients.

Anyway, it is now 2018, and the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a bit of a golden goose for lawyers, IT consultants and others pedalling training courses, seminars and audits. A significant number of these people have no experience or expertise. You can tell this because the first fact to come out of their mouths is the new fines regime, specifically the maximum 4% of turnover figure.

That Fines Figure
The GDPR introduces fines up to 20 million Euros or 4% or annual global turnover whichever is the greater.

But as the Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner has pointed out – from 17,300 cases in 2016/17 only 16 resulted in fines. Fines are (and will continue to be) a last resort, and are reserved for the worst (and in some cases persistent) offenders. These tend to be individuals and businesses that know they are breaking the law – these are not businesses accidentally caught out by some arcane part of data protection law.

There is also the ultimate irony – GDPR related spam using stolen or unauthorised contact details.

Advisors are running around telling clients that the sky is going to fall on them – even though Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner has clearly stated it will not.

It is, however, true that some organisations have some catching up to do. Unsurprisingly, there are still quite a few organisations that are not even registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

But the ICO appears to have a clear policy of getting businesses registered and complying, rather than fining them for not being registered in the first place.

Anyway, you have heard of Facebook?
Facebook is an example of a company that the ICO is interested in – the ICO is interested in this level of misuse and abuse. It is also the reason Facebook is moving legal aspects of its business outside the EU, to avoid having to offer too many Facebook users the protection of the GDPR.

Do The Right Thing
If you do the right thing with your customers’ data all will be ok:

– tell them how you use it
– keep it safe
– don’t spam them
– let them opt-out

These are things that well-run businesses have been doing for years, long before the GDPR appeared – because it makes good long-term business sense.

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Equal Pay By Law

So all the equal pay kind words and half-hearted legislation in the UK (and Europe) has delivered little in the way of change and progress in the last 40 years. It is not that men are being paid more; it is that women are being paid less – for identical jobs. Sometimes (and embarrassingly so) while standing or sitting next to each other day after day, just ask the BBC.

We should call it what it is – “penis pay”.

Long-Term Loss
After 40 years there has been some progress, but not nearly enough. Also, depressingly the new titans of fluffy capitalism, companies such as Google are perpetuating the problem by deliberately enforcing the pay gap and then seeking to hide it from public and judicial scrutiny. If you are a woman and working for Google you are going to end up being paid a lot less, in some cases literally millions. It is not just pay that is unfair, that is just the start. It is the loss of, or reduced long-term benefits and incentives, such as shares, share options, bonuses and to cap it all, pensions.

So what is required is legally enforced equal pay and benefits.

On 1st January 2018, Iceland did just that.

Under Icelandic law businesses that employ 25 or more people must look at work done and obtain certification that men and women doing the same jobs are paid the same. No certification means the risk of fines. This law was passed by a centre-right coalition, with the aim of eliminating the pay gap completely by 2022.

Size Matters
The argument against legislation is the burden of complying, (along with actually paying the same). Critics point out that Iceland has a population of 323,000. This is a hollow argument as businesses have committed to the effort of deliberately paying less; deliberately paying the same is not exactly an administrative burden.

Pay Gap
The pay gap in the UK in 2017 was estimated to be 16.9% – the pay gap is the average pay in an organisation for men and women – the difference/gap between the sexes. However, even though it does not provide proof of unequal pay, it does provide some indication of unequal opportunities and promotion.

Unenforced and frankly feeble legislation has achieved only small steps in 40 years. The UK government (and other European governments) need to finish the task…there are a lot of votes to be won by the governments and political parties that step up and do it.

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