At what point do I tell my child that life just isn't fair?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Larry and I are feeding the ducks in the park when I spot something out of the corner of my eye. What is that? I squint and peer, and eventually walk over to the plastic bag glistening in the sunlight by the side of the pond. It is full of lamb chops. Raw, sweaty, slightly greenish lamb chops.
 
My stomach heaves and rage rises up in my chest. What kind of beast dumps a bagful of raw lamb chops in a public park? The same kind of beast that rips up the daffodils planted by local schoolchildren. The same kind of beast who lets their horrible slavering Staffie shit all over the children’s playground. The same kind of beast who is still drilling for fossil fuel even though the human race is headed for a slow, hideous extinction. What is wrong with humans? We seem determined to make life unpleasant for ourselves.
 
“What is that?”
 
“It’s nothing, bubs. Somebody has left some meat in the park, that’s all.”
 
“Why?” Larry is going through a “why” phase.
 
“I don’t know. People do strange things. Sometimes they do things that aren’t very nice.”
 
“Why?”
 
I have been wondering when and how to introduce Larry to the idea that people are often complete idiots. Brutal honesty is my new policy. Middle-class mothers spend too much time telling their children to be nice, to share, not to hit anybody, to say please and thank you, not to drop litter in the street, or tease cats, or stomp on worms. I feel we should prepare our offspring a little better for the harsh, selfish, brutal and misguided reality they will inevitably face at some point.
 
Yet, before I can say anything, I feel a tear trickle down my cheek and disappear into the collar of my coat. What is going on? I wipe it away quickly. But then there’s another one, and another, and before I know it I am crying, really proper snotty unstoppable crying.
 
“Mummy, what’s the matter?”
 
“Don’t worry, darling, I’m fine.”
 
But I’m not, that much is obvious because my mouth gapes and I have to cover it with my hand before I start to dribble. The truth is, I haven’t been feeling too good recently. Perhaps it’s because Moe hasn’t been sleeping, or because Curly and I haven’t been getting on, or because I’ve been trying to work too much, or because the house thing fell through and now we’re going to be stuck in our slightly-too-small-flat for evermore. I don’t know. I wish it would all just go away.
 
Larry stares at me, puzzled. He’s lost some of his baby chub and his features are starting to take on the more defined angles of a little boy. The thought that he will one day grow up sends me into another round of ribcageracking sobs.
 
“Hey, you know what?” He scoots over to the buggy where Moe is lying asleep and rummages around until he finds the stained and tattered rag he has been sleeping with since he was a baby. “You need blankie.” 

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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.