Britain attempts to weaken European domestic violence deal

Leaked documents show the UK questioning definition of violence against women as a violation of huma

Today, International Women's Day, will see the Home Secretary, Theresa May, launch the government's strategy on tackling violence against women.

Yet documents leaked to the Times (£) show that Britain is trying to water down an international agreement to protect women against domestic and sexual violence.

The Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence has been two years in the making and was ready to be signed off by the 47 member states.

But, in an unprecedented step, Britain has intervened to object to the wording "violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights". Instead, it wants "violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women's enjoyment of human rights".

It also wants to alter the document so that it applies only in peacetime, and not during armed conflict – a surprising request, given the widespread international use of rape as a weapon of war.

José Mendes Bota, president of the Committee on Equal Opportunities at the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, said he was "very concerned about UK objections". Reportedly only Russia supports the idea of reopening negotiations.

This intervention seems utterly inexplicable. As Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, points out:

Britain was part of establishing an international consensus in the 1990s that violence against women should be treated as a human rights abuse. So why on earth is the Tory-led government ripping up this now?

A spokesman for the Home Office told the Times only that a "detailed action plan" would be announced later today, including "the action we are taking worldwide" for the first time. It remains to be seen whether today's revelation will be addressed.

Back in July, May said that her ambition was "nothing less than ending violence against women and girls". The government's claims to be strengthening women's rights at home sound distinctly hollow if it is covertly seeking to weaken them internationally.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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.