Talking of jokes in the workplace (see Catherine Berry’s 3 May post below), there was a political storm last week following Prime Minister David Cameron’s exclaiming, “Calm down, Dear!” to Opposition MP Angela Eagle during a debate in the House of Commons.  The line is taken from a well-known (actually only because of that line!) series of television advertisements for car and home insurance, in which film director Michael Winner thus sought to placate the owners of a variety of cars into which he had crashed his own. High art they were not.

It being a little quiet on the real news front at the time, many column inches were subsequently devoted to whether Cameron’s comment was offensive and patronising to women or so evidently tongue-in-cheek as to render it harmless. Since it was the PM who said it, the debate has of course been milked for all it is worth by people on both sides of the gender, party and political correctness divides – he should resign, she ought to take a joke, he should apologise, she should apologise for so repeatedly and stridently interrupting him that he felt it necessary to put her down in that way, and so on.

But meanwhile, back in the real world, could the comment be unlawful sex discrimination?  What if a male employee said it to a female colleague in your workplace? Whilst the comment seems on its face pretty trivial, it could certainly amount to discrimination on grounds of sex.  The comment has been said to a woman and, let us be honest, not many men are referred to by others as “Dear” either within the workplace or outside it, and certainly not on live television. The comment was undeniably a put-down as it was said at the height of a contentious debate and specifically designed to stop Ms Eagle in her tracks. Not that this is judicial precedent exactly but I am pretty sure that all Mr Winner’s television accident victims were women also. If this comment were made in your workplace and a woman took offence to it, therefore, it does seem that she would probably get home on a sex discrimination complaint.

As for David Cameron, his response to the media hurricane was that the comment was intended to be humorous.  However, humour is no defence to a discriminatory remark.  As highlighted in the 3 May blog post, the law protects employees from inappropriate banter and jokes in the workplace. Though the Court of Appeal appears to have carved out a tiny exception “where justified in the circumstances” this is hardly likely to include Parliament, where by the unwritten rule of centuries all attempts at humour must be clunking, predictable and juvenile.

The only defence that an employer may be able to rely on is that the comment was not made because of Ms Eagle’s gender.  Indeed, if he really thought it worthwhile, Cameron would be able to point to a male comparator; he said the same thing to Labour MP David Milliband in the Commons in 2007! Perhaps it is time for him to “Calm down, Dear” and get himself a new line.