PMQs review: Miliband's fiercest attack yet on the welfare cuts

Labour leader says the government is hitting people "they don't meet and whose lives they will never understand".

Rarely has Ed Miliband sounded as outraged at the government as he did at today's PMQs. Challenging David Cameron on the coalition's welfare cuts, he declared: "They look after their friends, the people on their Christmas card list and, meanwhile, they hit people they don't meet and whose lives they will never understand." He turned George Osborne's rhetoric on its head by declaring that the Chancellor's cleaner would lose out "while his curtains are still drawn and he's still in bed." Despite the political risks (the majority of voters support the benefit cuts), this is a battle that Miliband has decided he must fight.

Cameron didn't deny that the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases would fall most heavily on working households ("everyone who is on tax credits will be affected by those changes," he said), rather he argued that the cap was necessary to reduce the welfare bill and pointed out that families would benefit from the large increase in the personal allowance. "This is the party for people who work, his is the party for unlimited welfare," he declared. In response, Miliband highlighted research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that the average one earner couple will be £534 a year worse off by 2015, a point Cameron was unable to rebut.

But it was the personal, not the policy clashes, that were most memorable. After Cameron described Ed Balls as a bully who can "dish it out but can't take it", Miliband replied: "I've heard it all when the boy from the Bullingdon Club lectures people on bullying. Have you wrecked a restaurant recently?"

The Tories remain confident that voters will support their tough stance on the deficit and welfare, rather than Labour's. Conversely, Labour believes that the government has badly miscalculated by hitting the very "strivers" it claims to support. The outcome of the next election will likely rest on which is right. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband addresses a Trade Union Congress (TUC) rally in Hyde Park earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.