Tory minister Blunt blunders again

Prisons minister says that the riots were a "one-off" event. How can he be so sure?

The prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, who seems to make a habit of embarrassing the government (he promoted the idea of "prison parties" and suggested that soldiers could be used by probation chiefs as cheap labour), has just left a huge hostage to fortune and described the riots as an "exceptional" event that will lead to a "one-off increase" in the prison population. Given that there is every possibility of further civil unrest, his comments are premature to say the least. As Tom Watson observes, there is now a "newly primed timebomb under his career".

Blunt said that he was "completely confident" that the system could cope but the prison population is now at a record high of 86,654, just 1,439 places below operational capacity, and a recent Ministry of Justice memo warned of outbreaks of violence between rioters and serving prisoners. Two young prisoners, who were arrested after the disorder, were hospitalised last week after a "nasty" assault at Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution in Kent. As the Prison Reform Trust has warned, parts of the system are "becoming human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education."

The coalition still plans to cut more than 2,500 prison places but Blunt declared that there would be places "for all those sent to prison by the courts", adding that "we will continue to do that regardless of how many people are sent to prison." Blunt is almost certain to be moved by Cameron at a future reshuffle, so it will be left to his successor to reconcile this pledge with Ken Clarke's ambitious justice reforms.

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.