Micro-level policy is sometimes the hardest to get right

Our education system still funnels people towards universities.

It's rare you come across a completely obvious policy prescription which ought to be implemented immediately and would be unlikely to be opposed by anyone of any political bent, but this from Tyler Cowen is one:

College students even get discounts at the movie theater; when was the last time you saw a discount for an electrical apprentice?

Of course, nothing perfect remains so for long, and the problem here is that student discounts are a thing of civil society, not government policy. Companies decide whether or not to offer them, and then decide what forms of evidence to accept as proof that a customer is a student; and most of the widely accepted student cards, like NUS and ISIC, aren't state-backed.

(The government might have more lobbying ability to get apprenticeship co-ordinators to issue "student" cards, but no guarantee that those cards would be accepted).

But the wider point is worth bearing in mind: the structure of our education system is still built around a 3-year full time undergraduate degree immediately, or shortly after, leaving school, and that's true for little things as much as it is for the general structure of society. If you're an apprentice, it's harder to get subsidised loans to pay for your education; it's harder to get subsidised accommodation if your apprenticeship is away from home; there are fewer companies aiming entry-level positions explicitly at you; there's no co-ordinated national entry scheme; and so on. It's not quite a case of "look after the pennies and the pounds will watch themselves" – fixing all of those things wouldn't solve anything if there wasn't also an effective nationwide apprenticeship policy backing them up – but it certainly underpins quite how hard it is to turn around the ship of state.

An apprentice blows glass in Germany. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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.