Vince Cable settles his scores

Business Secretary takes aim at Steve Hilton, the Murdoch empire and Gordon Brown in his conference

Vince Cable's speech at the Lib Dem conference (read it in full here) felt like a settling of scores. The Business Secretary took aim at the Murdoch empire, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron's policy adviser Steve Hilton. Of the latter, who once proposed abolishing maternity leave, he declared: "What I will not do though is provide cover for ideological descendents of those who sent children up chimneys. Panic in financial markets won't be stopped by scrapping maternity rights."

His attack on the economic right continued. He derided the Lafferites who believe that cutting taxes on the rich will "miraculously" generate new revenue, and asked what "solar system" those who depicted his mansion tax as an attack on "ordinary middle class owners" were living in. But the biggest applause came when, in reference to News International, Cable spoke of his pride that "we never compromised ourselves in that company."

Yet while Cable threw plenty of red meat to the Lib Dem faithful, he combined this with a robust but distinctive defence of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. In pursuing fiscal contraction, the Lib Dems, he said, were "following in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins in Britain and, abroad, the Canadian Liberals, Scandinavian Social Democrats and Clinton Democrats in the USA." In a swipe at messrs Balls and Miliband, he added: "They understood, unlike today's Labour Party - that the progressive agenda of centre left parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt Governments." The word that blows Cable's argument apart is "bankrupt". Britain was never on the "brink of bankruptcy" and debt as a percentage of GDP is still lower now than it was for most of the 20th century. Hardly ideal, but then as Cable himself argued: "[W]e now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war."

He was admirably frank about Britain's economic woes, insisting pace Cameron that there are no "sunny uplands", only "grey skies". Indeed, whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as the NS does) or Hayekian austerity, the truth is that the UK faces a permanently reduced level of growth (the reason why the structural deficit is £12bn higher-than-expected).

In an attempt to distinguish himself from Osborne (who was not mentioned by name), Cable made repeated references to the government's "stimulus" programme and to the need for "fairness", what he called a "more responsible capitalism". And he put some red water between himself and Nick Clegg by vowing to reduce income inequality (a concept Clegg has suggested is outdated). But for all his undoubted sincerity, Cable is a member of a government that is presiding over anaemic growth and that is likely to leave office with poverty and inequality higher than when it entered. When the time comes to assess the coalition's record, Cable's progressive rheotric will offer scant comfort.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.