Joining the Lib Dems...

Conference season sees various New Statesman staff dashing around the country to take part in fringe

Down to Bournemouth to join the Lib Dems. Not literally you understand. No, I'm actually here to chair a couple of New Statesman-organised fringes: one a debate on whether digital equality matters. Another - still to take place at the time of writing - on Network Rail.

Now I have a similar attitude to computers that I do to cars - I love to drive but have next to no idea as to what's going on under the bonnet. But the issue of who we help gain access to technology is vital because it interlinks with all sorts of issues to do with education, opportunities and in the end employment. It's also interesting to hear the different views about this subject. For example, is access to the internet a human right, given all the opportunities for research, transactions and socialising it gives us?

Among the guests speaking at the fringe meeting on digital equality we had Andrew Pinder of BECTA and one of the former Blair 'tsars', Richard Younger-Ross MP, Helen Milner of UK Online Centres and Becky Hogge wearing her Open Rights Group hat.

The great fear, if you're chairing one of these things, is they'll be lacklustre so a certain amount disagreement, of give and take is vital. In the end we covered a lot of ground from the slightly off subject issue of downloading music and copyright to the numbers of UK adults now using the web. Apparently just more than two thirds.

The audience seemed to enjoy it shouting rubbish at each others comments and getting stuck in to the arguments. Well sort of. Actually it was fairly polite on the whole.

Anyway being down here is a good chance to wander around a bit and get a sense of the atmosphere at this year's gathering.

I made the mistake of remarking to Lynne Featherstone MP, who I met in a corridor, that there didn't seem to be many people here this year. She disagreed - apparently the number of registered attendees were a record high. Still doesn't feel like it as you walk around the BIC conference centre. It really is curiously empty, although Lynne said that was because of all the training sessions the party now runs.

The Lib Dems are pleased with themselves for ratifying a plan to cut taxes for low and average earners but attending a briefing ahead of Nick Clegg's speech tomorrow there was a sense the wheels might already be coming off that particular bandwagon. Certainly a lot of the Fleet Street crowd were having quite a bit of fun quizzing Danny Alexander who was fronting the press conference.

Still it'll be interesting to see tomorrow what sort of mark Clegg makes. Obviously he'll get a warm welcome but one can't help but wonder if the Lib Dem thunder has been stolen by David Cameron's 'liberal' Conservatives.

Next stop Manchester to see the state Labour's in.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.