Are we being unfair about “the big society”?

Taken as a whole, the coalition’s proposals amount to some seriously joined-up thinking.

 

Perhaps we need to be a little bit less harsh on Dave and his ministers about the "big society". As he's said repeatedly, it's something he feels really passionate about.

Ordinary people taking time out in the name of community cohesion and public-spiritedness to deliver services locally is a fine objective, and one that should not be sneered at.

What's more, the "big society" is not just a piece of glib sloganeering; far from it. Take a good look at the government's plans for Britain and you will find a coherent, well-thought-out scheme for national renewal.

"But where will we find the time for all of this in our busy lives?" squeal the detractors.

This is the clever part.

By closely consulting with his Chancellor, Dave has put together a fiendishly simple plan to create his "army of volunteers".

For George Osborne's Budget amounts to the unleashing of a veritable horde of potential do-gooders.

Shorn of their day-to-day "breadwinner" roles, hundreds of thousands of ex-civil servants will be able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to giving something back to their communities, unfettered by a salary, mortgage, car or any other fashionable trappings of postmodernity.

But the new Britain isn't just about pushy government compelling citizens to do things, it's also about choice.

The Mayor of London is doing his bit to this end. Taking Norman Tebbit's injunction at face value, BoJo has helpfully laid on bike upon bike, on which London's newly unemployed are free to get, should they decide that the whole "working for nothing" thing isn't for them.

We've heard politicians talk about "joined-up" government before. Now, finally, someone has moved beyond words to action. Dave, we salute you.

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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.