Cameron's judgement remains the issue

The PM seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue.

One small but revealing moment in David Cameron's press conference earlier today: when he was asked whether he was warned about specific problems in Andy Coulson's past he said he couldn't "recall" being told. A warning light should go on any time a politician uses that formula. It is neither a denial, nor is it an acknowledgement. It is a holding device that says, in essence, "I don't have a line on this yet, my lawyers have told me to say nothing."

The main impression most people will get from that press conference is that Cameron wanted to deflect this whole story away from questions about his judgement. He failed. In the process he left hostages to fortune. All of those references to his personal friendship with Coulson will be problematic if there is a trial and conviction. Cameron seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue here. He said you'd have to be a "pretty unpleasant" person to casually drop an old chum.

But brutally cutting off someone who is damaging you is exactly what a politician in Cameron's position should be doing right now. That's the way it works. People won't respect him for staying loyal, they'll see him as part of a clubbish, mutual back-scratching conspiracy.

The attempt to scatter some of the blame around with references to the Blair era, Bernie Ecclestone's money, dodgy dossiers etc, was also pretty off-key, I thought. It sounded desperate, as if he wanted the whole of politics to take some of the heat when clearly the specific question of whether Coulson was an appropriate person to have running the government's communications operation cannot apply to anyone but the man who gave him the job.

What isn't clear is how much of the public anger over hacking will attach itself to the politicians who failed to get to grips with the issue. The principle villains are still the hackers themselves and the media bosses who tried to cover their tracks. Up to a point, all politicians stand accused of complicity. But the danger for Cameron is that, through the Coulson connection, he is associated in the public eye as part of that reviled media-boss class much more than anyone else in Westminster. He risks becoming the emblem of a corrupt power dynamic. With his press conference today he only made that more likely.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.