Cameron is heading for defeat on Lords reform

70 Tory MPs sign a letter vowing to rebel against the government tomorrow night.

The news that 70 Tory MPs, including four select committee chairmen and three former ministers, have signed a letter (£) vowing to rebel over House of Lords reform means that the government is almost certainly heading for defeat in tomorrow night's vote. Even if the whips manage to talk some MPs round, the rebels only need 51 to defeat the programme motion, which would place a 10-day limit on debate. Labour, which plans to support the bill at its second reading, has also pledged to vote against the timetable motion. As a result, David Cameron is facing his first defeat on government business in the Commons.

With no time limit on debate, the rebels will aim to talk the bill into the ground, something that Downing Street's decision to rule out a referendum will do nothing to discourage. The upshot is that Lords reform is almost certainly doomed.

The key question for the coalition's future is what form the Lib Dem retaliation takes. If Nick Clegg demands the abandonment of the boundary changes, a split is no longer unthinkable.

The full text of the letter is below; the three former ministers who signed are Malcolm Rifkind, David Davis and Peter Lilley.

        Dear Colleague,

We come from all sides of the Conservative Party, and are writing as reformers to express our serious concern at the current proposals to create an elected House of Lords. It threatens to pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis

Specifically:

  • What is now proposed will undermine the primacy of the Commons, with competing chambers which will lead to legislative gridlock.

  • It will create hundreds of unaccountable new elected politicians at a time when we as a party are committed to reducing the cost of politics; and

  • It will produce a chamber which is less expert, less diverse and significantly more expensive than the present one.

The commitments in our 2010 election manifesto and in the Programme for government - to seek consensus and to bring forward proposals - have been fulfilled. We hope you will support us in giving this Bill the full and unrestricted scrutiny it deserves.

David Cameron is facing his first defeat on government business. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.