Harman on the ropes

Will she be forced to resign?

The electorate may be getting ever more used to its representatives facing criminal charges, but it's still acutely embarrassing for Harriet Harman, a QC and former law officer, to face prosecution over her involvement in a car crash in her constituency.

In the past, senior politicians who have faced criminal charges, such as Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, have always stood down in order to fight their case.

She may well be found innocent, but if not, this incident will put paid to any residual hopes she had of winning the Labour leadership. It increasingly looks as if the leadership election will be a fight between the "Blairite" David Miliband and the "Brownite" Ed Balls.

Among those who would be most disappointed by Harman's downfall are the Tories. They view her as a unique figure in British politics: the only politician who could boost their lead over Brown.

To her credit, Harman has responded to this by developing a neat line in self-deprecation, once quipping at PMQs that "there aren't enough airports for all the men who would want to flee the country" should she win.

Harman was one of the few senior Labour figures to put the case for redistribution and progressive taxation in the pre-crash days. Let's hope she survives.

 

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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.