Reshufflitis breaks out in Westminster

The prospect, however slim, of a cabinet vacancy releases a predictable surge of stored up speculati

So the Crown Prosecution has announced it will declare tomorrow morning whether or not Chris Huhne, Energy Secretary, will be charged in relation to allegations - steadfastly denied - that he persuaded his ex-wife to take speeding points on his behalf.

Huhne's statements on this have been unambiguous and robust, so if it turns out the CPS thinks there is a case to pursue he will be in trouble. A prosecution doesn't necessarily mean the man is guilty - he has the right to remain innocent until proven otherwise.

But the noises coming out of Downing Street and Lib Dem high command suggest a sword would quickly be offered for the Energy Secretary to fall upon. He could always use the old line of not wanting the whole business to be a distraction for the government, a position wholly consistent with protestations of innocence.

And indeed the CPS might well say there is insufficient evidence and Huhne can get on with his business (although there is no doubt he has been politically damaged by the accusations either way).

One reason why tomorrow's announcement is anticipated with inordinate excitement in Westminster is the high levels of pent up reshuffle energy. David Cameron has famously avoided swapping ministers between portfolios in the restless way that was Tony Blair's preferred management style. There were some movements and promotions when Liam Fox resigned last year but it was hardly a great re-ordering of the pack. There are good reasons why Cameron hates reshuffles. He wants ministers to actually master their briefs, which takes time. And he heads a coalition, which means a delicate balance of Lib Dems and Tories has to be maintained.

If Huhne has to go - and this is, I hasten to add, veering off a little prematurely into the realms of speculation - a vacancy would be created for David Laws to return to the cabinet, although it is uncertain he would want the Energy portfolio. There has been a fair amonunt of speculation that a lower ranking Lib Dem might up up for elevation. Edward Davey at the Business Department is often tipped for promotion.

But there is a feeling around government that it might, at last, be time for a more ambitious round of musical chairs. Crucially, anxiety about the passage and presentation of health reforms in Downing Street is approaching the status of panic. There is very little confidence left in Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, to explain to people what exactly it is he means to do to the NHS, let alone persuade them it is a good idea. Might a forced reshuffle provide an opportunity to put the Department of Health portfolio into a pair of hands somewhat safer than Lansley's have proved to be?

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.