Name discrimination: the formal case to answer

This week, I finally started real (i.e., legal) action against nPower in respect of the proofs it required in order to demonstrate a “change” of name.

The case is simple – although it is also quite obvious that many individuals don’t quite get the concepts involved. At base, it is unlawful to discriminate in the provision of good, services, employment, etc. in respect of various criterion (aka “protected characteristics”).

In law, there are two kinds of discrimination: direct, and indirect.

Most people understand the first. If I advertised a job and stated on the ad “no blacks”, “men only need apply” or similar, this is obviously direct discrimination. You will find that direct discrimination is far less common nowadays, since it IS so obvious and people understand it is wrong.

But that’s not the case with nPower – and a number of similar organisations. They may apply policies that discriminate “indirectly”. What’s that?

Well, I would be discriminating indirectly if I applied a condition to provision of goods, services, etc. if that condition has an adverse impact disproportionately on one group or other.

“No-one under six foot” would be indirect discrimination, since although that condition applies to all job applicants, it is clear that more women than men would be unable to meet that condition. But the condition can be more subtle: individuals required to work on Sundays could be construed as indirect discrimination on religious grounds. Ditto a condition requiring staff not to wear hats, which could impact on groups whose religious observance requires them to cover their heads.

Likewise, a particular rostering pattern could be held – as it has been – to be discriminatory because it fails to take account of the childcare needs of single mums. Even postcode targeting of services could fall foul of the indirect discrimination provisions, because selection by a particular social demographic could also impact on the racial mix of service provision.

This is at the heart of my dispute over requiring documentation to show a name change. In essence, it creates an additional burden for anyone wishing to obtain the service provided. In this case, energy – but the same argument would apply elsewhere.

Tesco Clubcard, for instance, requires certification before it will change the name on a Clubcard account: some might consider this excessive, since Tesco Clubcard can hardly be considered to be a critical service.

Women and the transgendered are far more likely to change name than men – and the systems in place, supposedly there for our “security” make great play of the need for documentation in this respect. They therefore place a requirement – to provide documentation – that is not applied to any other aspect of a given service.

For most of the organisations that demand this sort of “proof”, it is quite possible to carry out all manner of significant transactions, including paying bills, withdrawing or transferring money, setting up standing orders, and so on, on simply “proving” one’s identity – usually managed by asking various pre-arranged security questions. Anything and everything, it seems, apart from changing your name.

So you end up with the peculiar situation where a customer can have the following discussion: “I am Joan Smith”. Yes. “You are sure I am?” Yes. “And you are happy to move £10,000 out of my account on the basis of proofs already seen?” Yes.

“So now, can you change my name to Joan Brown?” No.

The logic is not there.

Organisations can claim – by way of legal exemption – that their action is proportional. There are three tests: that this is the only means of achieving the aim (ie there isn’t a non-discriminatory alternative) ; it actually achieves the aim; and the approach provides benefits that outweigh the negative effects of the discrimination.

In the case of nPower (and other organisations), this simply doesn’t wash. Alongside my coruscating wit, my charm, and my flashing fingers (well, I’m a writer, doncha know?) I can also boast twenty-plus years working with IT systems and systems security. I know this territory rather well.

Not only does nPower’s approach FAIL to achieve the intended result in respect of security – because obtaining the proofs required such as deed poll is actually a trivial act costing a few pounds and taking very little time at all – but there are better more secure ways of doing this.

I have offered, many times, to explain to them how they can achieve this. But they have adamantly refused to engage in debate, preferring instead to run out a load of platitudes around identity theft, fraud, security, etc. Sure: if this was the only way of achieving those aims, I’d be with them. But it isn’t.

I sincerely hope we can resolve this without court action. But if worst comes to the worst, we will go to court on it. The EHRC have expressed some interest – subject to reviewing the actual case, of course. And I am now talking to a number of Equal Rights lawyers who also see this as a suitable case for trying.

To be honest, though, in a world where the Inland Revenue, the NHS and the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages doesn’t demand documentation, the idea that an energy utility does is bizarre.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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2 Responses to Name discrimination: the formal case to answer

  1. Pingback: Marriage documentation and Banks | Sex Matters

  2. Meena Ali says:

    “Mr. President, my name is Khan. I’m not a terrorist. My name is Khan. I’m not a terrorist,” were the words of a movie character, Rizvan Khan, played by Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan. I hate Bollywood movies. I always have.
    What a contradiction! I was forced to watch a genre of movie I hate by nature because the topic was for me. My name is Khan. I’m not a terrorist.
    I know pejudice exists, however, I used to dismiss most claimants of discrimination as being ignorant of the real situation until it happened to me.
    Now, I’m not talking about the clerk at the Chinese store hiding behind here two and a half feet high desk and then peering just high enough to see my movements. I am also not talking about the arrogant girl in the Indian owned shoe store who refused to sell me a pair of boots. I’ve stopped purchasing from folks who think I’m carrying a bazooka in my tiny purse. I recall something like that transpired with the late Selena. Hmmm.
    The character in the movie, Rizvan Khan, who suffered from a mental disorder was held up under suspicion of being a terrorist. There was no evidence to prove his guilt and a lot of hard work went into securing his release. I need that sort of release.
    Years ago, when I was getting married, I was ignorant. People were warning me not to marry a man named Khan because I will not be able to renew my passport and if I were in the lucky ‘lotttery type’ few to get through, I will be guaranteed never to have a single visa.
    Moreover, I was warned not to give my children Arabic names. I did not listen and I have paid the price.
    I do not know what will happen with my passport but I have doubts on earning visas. Wasn’t it a right to be able to secure these? I have never been tried of any crime and I do not discriminate nor celebrate Islam. However, I believe standing up for the rights of one man means standing up for the rights of all men.
    I see local families losing their American visas because of alleged terrorist knowledge. I fear. I gave my kids Arabic names because the firstnames and surnames sound right together. If I married an Espinosa, I may have named one son Jose and the other Miguel. If I married a Leequay, I would have named one son Awing and the other Zhang. You get the point now.
    I was in denial of this type of discrimination but it is becoming rampant and it is very alarming so it made a great movie topic but it doesn’t sway from reality.
    Last Friday, I pitched my manuscript to an American agent who was very haughty and rude by sending an instant and automated three page long rejection. It came seconds after I sent my query. In her guidelines, she requested the query, a synopsis and three chapters. Those were twenty-six pages. Is she a magician? Is it name discrimination or also national discrimination?
    The three page long instant rejection which was the rudest thing I’ve ever read stated that either she or the agency she belongs to accepts 20-40 manuscripts each year which are thoroughly pitched and of that the vast majority are turned down by publishers. I guessed that she failed to get 85% of her manuscripts published. She went on to say that of those published, the vast majority end up unsuccessful so I inferred that 85% on top of that fall out of publication at the end of the first year due to poor sales. This was her sole reason for her rejection. There supposedly was nothing to do with my topic.
    Yesterday, I saw her blog on a site against discrimination. She claimed a woman’s work was turned down because it deeply resembled something at the publishing house. It was promised representation then she suggested resemblance. That souns like an adaptation, piracy and plagiarizm to me. I thought agents were looking for brand new, unique topics but she said she was hoping to find the next Catcher in the Rye. She said there that she was guaranteed a sale on two different novels with the lead characters both being gay. Then somewhere else she claimed she was always looking for something new. How could she guarantee these people sales when she promised me how high her fail rate was? How could she claim to be looking for something new when she keeps looking for work that looks like another author’s? Did my Arabic name offend her? She would be so shocked to know I don’t have a look that matches the name. I wish every guilty person stops the discrimination or if not, let it be returned. Lady, you know who you are, I will be on your concience. My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.

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