Clegg’s “savage cuts” return

The Lib Dem leader promised “savage cuts” last year — and now this year he’s got to defend them.

The Lib Dems can't say they weren't warned. At last year's conference Nick Clegg promised "savage cuts"; this year he's got the chance to defend them. With Clegg due at the UN General Assembly this evening, his keynote speech comes several days earlier than usual.

We've already got a flavour of the address from the extracts in the papers this morning and, judging by those, Clegg has two key messages: 1) The coalition is a temporary, not a permanent alliance, and 2) The cuts are necessary and Labour's position on the deficit is absurd and irresponsible.

Of the coalition, he will say:

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are, and always will be, separate parties with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. That is the right government for now.

And on Labour and the deficit, he will attack the "absurd cardboard cut-out argument that there is this la-la land where you do not have to take any difficult decisions, no jobs are lost, no cuts are made, there is no pain, where everything recovers miraculously by osmosis -- the Ed Balls view of the future -- and that we are like modern-day Herods, slaying the firstborn".

It won't go down well with the left of his party. Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth, has admitted that he's "straining at the straps" and isn't even attending conference this year. The reliably rebellious Bob Russell has said he agreed to the coalition through "gritted teeth".

Meanwhile, Evan Harris, standard-bearer of the party's secular left, has a typically cogent piece in the Guardian this morning, reminding Clegg that it's really not good form to dress regressive cuts up as "progressive".

But, much to the media's dismay, the Lib Dem grandees are on-message this morning. Simon Hughes, that barometer of grass-roots opinion, has declared that the decision to back early cuts was "terribly simple", and Paddy Ashdown has said he backed the coalition "right from the start".

A debate on free schools and academies this afternoon may provide an opportunity for dissent but, for now, it doesn't look like there'll be any blood on the floor this year.

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.