Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Guardian's Jackie Ashley writes that Labour's defeatism is allowing an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party to ease itself into power:

Even now, there is an alternative. Labour politicians do have a story to tell. It's the story of underfunded public services being built up again, of health workers being paid decently, of a big expansion in further education, public investment in transport and of success in containing terrorism. It's about the emergence of a more tolerant country. It's about relative peace in Northern Ireland and democracy in Scotland and Wales.

Matthew Syed argues in the Times that the BNP should be provided with a media platform so that it can be exposed and humiliated:

[T]hey must be outplayed, exposed, given the run around until they get dizzy and fall over. It is not as if -- with their ramshackle policies and absurd racial obsessions -- they offer much in the way of opposition. If a cabinet minister really feels uncertain about his ability to give Griffin a good thrashing in a televised studio debate, we should be even more worried about the state of British politics than about the state of British tennis.

The Daily Telegraph's George Pitcher wonders how the new atheists will respond to research which suggests the brain is hard-wired to believe in God:

It will, nevertheless, be great fun to see Prof Dawkins & Co take on these new findings. Will they approach it with the reverence they profess to possess for all scientific discovery? Will they heck. They are ideologues, religious about their disbelief. And to accept that there is a scientific premise for religiosity would mean all is lost, not least some lucrative careers.

Mary Dejevsky writes in the Independent that the impasse in Afghanistan strengthens the case for dissolving Nato:

If, it is argued, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, under whose command this war is being fought, cannot prevail -- and, equally pertinent, be seen to have prevailed -- what price the continuation of the alliance at all?

The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl says that Obama's attempt to engage in "direct diplomacy" with the leaders of "rogue states" has failed:

None of this means that dialogue with enemies is inherently wrong or not worth trying. Obama may yet find an opportunity for talks with Chávez or Assad, if not Kim or Khamenei. But what seems pretty clear is that the most notable foreign policy idea Obama offered during his campaign has fallen flat during his first months in office.

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.