Qatada's deportation won't end Cameron's headache

The Lib Dems will frustrate Cameron's efforts to reform human rights law.

It was with cheers that Conservative MPs greeted Theresa May's announcement that Abu Qatada has been arrested and will be deported to Jordan at the end of the month. Having decided not to contest the European Court of Human Rights ruling blocking Qatada's deportation, the government has received "assurances" from Jordan that evidence obtained by torture will not be used against him.  After nine years, it looks as if the man who allegedly acted as the intellectual inspiration for 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and other terrorists is on his way home.

But ministers are keenly aware that the Tory backbenches won't be satisfied for long. In her statement to the Commons, May pointedly referred to the need for "a British Bill of Rights". As things stand, for instance, the government is unlikely to win its appeal against the ECHR's ruling in favour of prisoners' votes and it may struggle to deport other extremist preachers. But as long as the Tories remain in coalition with the Lib Dems, it's hard to see any progress being made towards a British bill. The government commission examining the proposal is dominated by supporters of the ECHR (one Conservative appointee, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, resigned in protest) and Clegg is determined not to see the Human Rights Act undermined. As he declared in his speech to last year's Lib Dem conference:

The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are not, as some would have you believe, foreign impositions. These are British rights, drafted by British lawyers. Forged in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War. Fought for by Winston Churchill. So let me say something really clear about the Human Rights Act. In fact I’ll do it in words of one syllable: It is here to stay.

Cameron's recent statement that the Tories "would be going quite a bit faster, in fact, quite a lot faster" if they weren't in coalition was an admission that the Lib Dems are winning this political tug-of-war.

Jordanian preacher Abu Qatada was arrested on Tuesday morning by officers from the UK Border Agency. Photograph: Rex Features.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.