By James Sweetland
Since David Cameron got into No.10, government's responsibility to protect the vulnerable has been largely ignored. Zero-hours contracts have soared to 1.4 million, food bank users have increased to nearly 1 million, the bedroom tax has hit over 600,000 people, of whom 63% are disabled, and George Osborne's austerity programme, which inflicts disproportionate suffering on disabled people, ethnic minorities, women and the lowest paid, has been unleashed across the UK. While Labour confronted many of these issues, there has been little opposition to the introduction of employment tribunal fees.
Tribunal fees were introduced for two reasons. Firstly, they were a crude tool used to create press coverage which emphasised the Tories pro-business agenda; this is important to a prime minister shaping his election strategy around Labour's 'recklessness' and 'anti-business' agenda. Secondly, it is another step in Cameron's grand plan to weaken the influence of trade unions in the British economy. Such an outcome has many benefits for the Conservative party: lower incomes for unions leading to lower incomes for the Labour party, an increasingly de-regulated labour market and increased power for business over ordinary employees.
Tribunal fees are paid, by definition, by those who have either left their jobs or are in a workplace which they find difficult to work in; therefore the fact that the costs of these tribunals is so high means it is even more difficult for mistreated employees to take action because they are likely to be claiming jobseekers' allowance. It now costs either £160 or £250 to lodge a claim, with charges ranging from £230 to £950 if the claim goes ahead. Appeals cost £400 to lodge and another £1,200 for the full employment tribunal appeal. These fees are unlikely to be reversed. Unison was granted a judicial review in July 2013, which was dismissed. A further request for an appeal has been granted, but the likeliest route for their abolition is political.
The main group adversely affected by this policy are the lowest paid. With wages in decline compared to inflation, zero-hours contracts, food banks, the benefits cap and the bedroom tax, the unemployed and lowest paid have undoubtedly suffered more than any group under the coalition government. The number of tribunals has shrunk by 79% over the past year. Such a dramatic reduction is a clear sign this policy hands considerable power to employers, who now have far greater capability to mistreat employees than before.
Research by Citizens Advice showed 70% of potentially successful cases are not taken forward and that in over 50% of cases the extortionate fees or costs are deterring people from bringing forward their claims. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, where people are liable to mistreatment by their employers but unable to take legal action because they do not have enough money to do so. Financial assistance programmes exist but, much like discretionary housing payments for the bedroom tax, these only pay out in a tiny number of cases. To put a price on justice in this way is the mark of a government which loathes civil rights and is unafraid to act against them.
Women are hit particularly hard. Research has found there's been an 80% drop in the numbers of sexual discrimination cases brought forward following the introduction of tribunal fees. Pregnancy discrimination claims are also down by 26%, another example of the way that this policy overwhelming affects those in the greatest need, those who deserve the greatest protection by government. Tribunal fees also exacerbate the issues with Osborne's programme of austerity, which disproportionately affects women.
Indeed, this is also true on a geographic level, as those areas which are more affluent (such as London) have had a smaller reduction in tribunals compared to less affluent areas such as Wales and the south-west. It is clear that this policy is extraordinarily discriminatory and exacerbates inequality on multiple levels.
Ethnic and sexual minorities are disproportionately affected by this policy. There has been a 60% reduction in tribunal claims relating to racial and sexual orientation, highlighting once again how this measure causes harm to groups who are most at risk of discrimination in the workplace. Considering that austerity also disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, this is another example of government exacerbating the inequality crisis that continues to worsen in this country.
Ethnic minorities will increase as a percentage of the population and policies such as these are therefore politically dangerous for the Tories. In the future, to win general elections they will need to improve their relationship with ethnic minorities as they become a bigger part of the British electorate.
It is obvious that the Conservatives will not reverse this policy. It's seen as unimportant and perfectly coherent with Cameron's pseudo-compassionate 'big society'. Labour should oppose tribunal fees but is unlikely to, due to the union-bashing which will be unleashed at the election. But if the Liberal Democrats and the Green party were to make this into a 'big issue', Ed Miliband would be compelled to oppose them. If he did not, he would risk leaking the left-of-centre, ex-Lib Dem voters who are so crucial to slim poll lead.
The sole benefit of this policy is the savings it provides, of just £6.7 million a year. A policy which disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, LGBT people, women, the disabled and those living in less affluent areas is not only an affront to basic principles of fairness and social justice but also exacerbates the inequality crisis which continues to worsen across the UK. Tribunal fees signalled the abolition of justice in the workplace. It's sickening that they've received so little attention by the opposition and the wider media.
James Sweetland is a student at the RGS Guildford studying for A levels in Politics, Geography, English and Economics. He writes occasional columns on political strategy, policy and subjects such as secularism for a number of sites including Progress and LabourList. He is a member of the Labour Party, the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association.
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