February 5, 2024

Milton Harris banned – lessons to learn for racing employees and employers

The shocking events that have resulted in Milton Harris being banned from holding a licence, which have been widely publicised in the racing press recently, throws a spotlight on behaviours in general and attitude towards racing employees in particular.

George McGrath, CEO of the National Association of Racing Staff summed it up succinctly in the Racing Post on 2 February 2024 when he said, “The big picture here is the culture is something that we need to move the dial on in British racing. This is an extremely bad case, and not everyone in racing treats their employees like this, but we need to move away from the thought of trainers just training and to start viewing them as employers as well.” (The writer’s emphasis.)

Stable staff and equal employment rights

McGrath is absolutely right: stable staff are employees, human beings, and they have lives and families. They have a right to be treated with respect and dignity. The details of the way in which Harris behaved towards his employees is like reading something from the dark ages. While the tide is undoubtedly turning with a younger generation of more enlightened racing professionals, there remains a sector of the industry which expects its employees to “put up or shut up” regardless of the conditions in which they work or the behaviour they are expected to tolerate.

In many other professions, some of the behaviours witnessed in the Milton Harris saga and highlighted by the recent safeguarding review carried out by the BHA, would have resulted in claims for constructive unfair dismissal and allegations of bullying and harassment being aired in the employment tribunal. Racing employees, however, tend not to operate in that way, believing (whether or not justifiably) that to push back against unacceptable behaviours will result in losing their job and being rendered unemployable (as exemplified by a social media comment reported in the above mentioned article).

But this is no reason for these behaviours to continue to be perpetrated. Employers should not feel they can treat staff however they wish just because they know there won’t be consequences.

Worker Protection Act 2023 - how does it apply?

In my work as an employment lawyer, I regularly advise employees who have been subjected to inappropriate behaviour, bullying and harassment. Their response is to file grievances, some of which are upheld, and which result in the behaviours which caused the complaint to be rectified. Those which are not, will not hesitate to march their employers off to the tribunal where the employer’s bad behaviour is laid bare for public scrutiny. This would not need to happen if the employers exemplified proper behaviours and ensured their staff were protected from bullying and harassment in the first place.

There are a lot of protections in place for employees in the face of such behaviours which, if transgressed, give employees a remedy. That remedy can often result in employers changing their ways because they do not wish to be subjected to the scrutiny of a public tribunal. The RWK Goodman employment team regularly provides training to employers to raise awareness on workplace bullying and sexual harassment, how to recognise it and, most important, how to prevent it.

The reports of the behaviour Harris meted out to his female employees brings to mind a new piece of legislation which has recently come into force: the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act 2023. This amends the Equality Act, which is the existing legislation providing protection for employees and workers from harassment, victimisation and discrimination, to place a duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees. It also gives employment tribunals the power to uplift sexual harassment compensation by up to 25% where an employer is found to have breached the new duty to prevent sexual harassment.

Before becoming a lawyer, I worked in racing for over 10 years, several of those in yards. The male to female banter was prevalent and lively – and while it didn’t bother me (and we are talking 30 odd years ago) it might bother others who should feel they can speak up and push back without fear of retribution. But the bottom line is that they should not have to because this type of behaviour should not be tolerated – it is not acceptable and is fundamentally disrespectful.

It is to be fervently hoped that the appalling litany of events which culminated in Harris losing his licence sends a signal to the industry to look at itself and rectify any existing outdated behaviours to create healthy, transparent and comfortable working environments for all stable staff. Happy staff means happy horses means happy trainers and owners.

Gemma Ospedale is an employment partner and member of the Racing and Bloodstock sector here at RWK Goodman, along with Charlotte Ebbutt and others. Prior to specialising in employment law, Gemma Ospedale worked in the racing industry for over 10 years and with Weatherbys for half this time. She has been integrally involved with Women in Racing alongside Simply Racing, in the creation of the website, Racing Home, which provides a one-stop shop information portal on all things family friendly for everyone in the racing industry, whether employees, trainers or stud owners. Visit www.racinghome.org.uk for more information.