Lawyers warn on sacking hooligans

World Cup: Respectable-seeming England fans turn violent while other nations stay out of trouble
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The Independent Online
EMPLOYERS COULD find themselves on the wrong end of the law if they followed Tony Blair's advice and sack workers found guilty of football hooliganism at the World Cup.

Lawyers warned yesterday that while it might be possible to take such tough action in some cases, in others employers could be faced with financial penalties for unfair dismissal.

Companies are on reasonably safe ground if they sack employees who have worked for them for less than two years, as the full protection of the law only applies to those who have worked for one employer for longer than that. Even for those cases, however, businesses should follow their own disciplinary procedures before showing trouble-makers the door, lawyers say.

An employer would have a strong case for dismissal where it was well known that a worker who dealt with the public was a convicted thug. In some jobs such as teaching, the probation service or police force, employers would have a particularly strong case.

But where the offender was a "backroom boy" who simply answered the telephone, the employer would have a far more difficult time proving the fairness of the dismissal. They would have to prove that the image of the organisation might be tarnished if it was found to be employing someone who was guilty of a particularly nasty crime. The business could also attempt to show that the offenders' ability to do the job had been undermined by deteriorating relationships with other staff.

Mary Stacey, a partner with Thompsons solicitors which represents union members, pointed out that the Prime Minister was an employment lawyer and clearly knew the pitfalls. "I think it's more of a threat aimed at modifying people's behaviour than a serious piece of legal advice," Ms Stacey said.

Robert McCreath, a partner at solicitors Eversheds, which normally acts for employers, said management would often be better off using a form of "yellow card" warning to convicted soccer hooligans among their staff: "Employers wishing to strengthen their position for the future, should also review their disciplinary procedures to ensure that hooliganism and related activities are covered,' he said.

Those in the firing line who were arrested after clashes in Marseilles during the England-Tunisia game include a Nuneaton railway man and two postal workers. The RMT rail union said that it would represent any member who thought they were being unfairly dismissed, while the Communication Workers Union preferred not to comment.

The Prime Minister's comment in the Commons that employers might consider dismissing hooligans, was followed by a statement from Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who said that employers should look at the particular circumstances involved. "They may well want to consider the impact of the behaviour on the reputation of the business and the suitability of these individuals to deal with customers and fellow workers," he said.