HSBC found guilty of racism over Kilroy-Silk backer

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The Independent Online

A branch of one of the world's biggest banks has been found guilty of racism after a senior member of staff told a colleague she would be voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk at the last general election because she said he promised to "get rid of the foreigners".

The remark was overheard by another employee, who sued the bank, HSBC, for race discrimination. Ruby Schembri, 35, a Maltese national, reported the remark. This week an employment tribunal ruled the remark could be construed as racist and ordered HSBC and the supervisor to pay compensation. The case is one of the first to find that a comment not directly made to another person can constitute racism.

Ms Schembri, who lives in Welwyn Garden City, north London, claimed that Debbie Jones abused her by stating in her presence "I am against immigration" and "I hate foreigners".

In her witness statement, Ms Schembri, who came to Britain with her husband in 2004, said the incident took place on 19 April last year. She said she was in a back office at the bank at about 9.15am when she heard Ms Jones and Rosemary Johnstone [an assistant manager] discussing the election.

She said: "Debbie asked Rosemary if she supported the Tory or Labour Party and bluntly stated, 'I am against immigration'. My ears pricked up and then Debbie added 'I hate foreigners'. I was shocked and offended. Debbie made her statement with real conviction." Ms Johnstone had made no reply.

Ms Schembri added: "I found Debbie's racist comment to be offensive and very hurtful. I left the room and was on the counter. I began to cry." The case follows that of De Souza v Automobile Association in 1986, which found that the expression "give the typing to the wog" was not racial discrimination, even though it caused the victim distress, because it was not aimed at her.

In her witness statement, Ms Jones said that all she had said was that she would vote for Mr Kilroy-Silk because he would get rid of immigrants. She denied using the word foreigners.

But the tribunal considered her contemporaneous statement, made in 2005, when she admitted she had said she would vote for Mr Kilroy-Silk because he "would get rid of the foreigners". The tribunal chairman said it was reasonable to infer that the remark showed a "substantial dislike of foreigners".

Lawrence Davies, of Equal Justice Solicitors, yesterday called for the De Souza decision to be removed from British law.

He said: "The intention or aim of the maker is irrelevant, it is sufficient that it caused offence."

A spokesman for HSBC said that Ms Schembri had won on just one of five grounds, and that Ms Jones had since been given race awareness training.