By Richard Burgon MP
Labour is looking ahead to policies that will win the next election and it is clear that the Conservatives in government have reduced access to justice – including fairness at work.
Work is now less secure and pays less, leaving employees in increasingly precarious situations.
At the same time as overseeing the proliferation of zero-hours contracts and holding down people’s pay, the Conservative government has pursued an agenda of removing employee protections, denying access to justice and fairness at work.
One example was the introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees in 2013 – putting a price on justice – with a financial barrier to challenging employers over equal pay, sex or gender discrimination and a host of workplace issues.
Getting a hearing in a case such as unlawful deduction of wages now has a price-tag of £390 – even if the deduction was less than that. Getting a hearing when you’ve been unfairly sacked now costs £1,200 – and even if you win your case, there’s only a tiny chance of getting your job back.
As a trade union lawyer, I’ll never forget the first time I lodged an Employment Tribunal case after Employment Tribunal Fees were introduced, when the message “Customer – Please Enter Your Credit Card Details” flashed up on the screen.
It says a lot about a government’s view of workers seeking justice when citizens attempting to assert their workplace rights are viewed as consumers or ‘customers’.
And it’s no wonder that fees have seen the number of people attempting to assert their rights plummet. There has been a fall of up to 70% in the number of cases being brought. Employment Tribunals received around 60,000 cases in the year before fees were introduced but that fell to below 20,000 the year after. Common sense tells us this isn’t because bosses are suddenly treating employees more fairly.
The TUC have highlighted the huge fall in discrimination cases. Sex discrimination cases have dropped by 68%, equal pay cases by 58%, pregnancy discrimination cases by 54%, cases brought for breach of the part-time workers’ regulations by 80%. And at the same time, an Equality and Human Rights Commission survey has estimated that 54,000 mothers a year are losing jobs due to discrimination.
Women already suffering a 20% pay gap with men, now have a barrier to justice if an unscrupulous boss sacks them to dodge their maternity leave obligations. We may now have a second woman Prime Minister, but under the Conservatives women are always second class citizens.
This impact was wholly predictable and Labour cited the government’s own Impact Assessment when we condemned the fees as a “discriminatory measure” and voted against them.
The Conservatives tried to argue that they are encouraging ‘early settlement’ through compulsory conciliation at ACAS before Employment Tribunal proceedings can even start. However, evidence shows employers wait to see if an employee is prepared to ‘go through with it’ and pay the tribunal fee.
The fees brought in just £8.5 million last year – slightly down from £9million on the first year they operated. The low level of income from fees shows this was a purely political decision, not an economic necessity. Despite the fees, the cost of the service to the government has not changed significantly.
The government evidently believes that a reduction of nearly 70% of Employment Tribunal cases – 40,000 cases a year and many of which are women facing gender, equal pay, or pregnancy discrimination – is ‘a price worth paying’ to take £8.5 million a year.
Outside the Conservative Party in Parliament, supporters of Employment Tribunal fees are few and far between. Growing concern and outright opposition to them is overwhelming.
Britain’s trade unions consistently opposed the introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees and demand that they are abolished. Unison is continuing to pursue its legal challenge through the Supreme Court. Equalities campaigners have exposed the discriminatory impact of Employment Tribunal Fees, with the Fawcett Society and Equality and Diversity Forum opposing. The Law Society has said that they “have harmed access to justice”.
Even the Conservative-led Justice Select Committee in Parliament has concluded that “the regime of Employment Tribunal Fees has had a significant adverse impact on access to justice”.
Under the Conservative government, the growing casualisation of work has led to more and more people falling out of the scope of basic employment rights.
Recent reports of the treatment of staff at a host of well-known companies has yet again demonstrated the urgent need for a Labour government committed to restoring access to justice for working people.
Labour rejects the Conservative requirement for individual service users to pay fees – employment tribunals are a safety net for everyone and users should not be priced out and denied justice.
Fairness at work must be available for everyone and is entirely affordable. These fees have no economic merit when they deny justice to thousands of workers.
That is why Labour will be delivering on access to justice and fairness at work in government by abolishing employment tribunal fees.