The Lib Dems moved on from Huhne a long time ago

Party activists are tired of being told that there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that the former Energy Secretary leaves a vacuum behind him.

Twelve months and two days ago I was sitting in the broom cupboard the BBC uses in Millbank for its less than stellar guests, waiting to pronounce on what would happen to Chris Huhne should the DPP decide to prosecute, when the news came through that the case was indeed proceeding to court.

"Oh brilliant," said the BBC researcher who was with me. And then remembering that I may not think this was the absolutely best news I’d ever heard added "oh, sorry".

And of course, this whole 368 day merry-go-round has been the gift that kept on giving for the media, with the recurring theme that it’s an absolute nightmare for the Lib Dems.

It’s really not.  It’s an absolute nightmare for Chris Huhne, I grant you, and I imagine only the hardest heart can read those texts between him and his son and not feel some sympathy for him. And for a party already struggling with a few trust issues, finding out  that one of your former leading lights has been economical with the actualité over and over again is not ideal.

But most in the party, while sorry to see a man of Huhne’s undoubted skills brought down in an ultimately needless way, moved on a while back. We get a little tired of being told there is such a paucity of Lib Dem talent that Chris's departure leaves a vacuum behind him. Ed Davey has moved seamlessly into the Energy Secretary’s seat, culminating in last month’s launch of the Green Deal.

And let’s not forget, if it wasn’t for the Christmas post in 2007, we’d be looking for a new leader right now, not just a new member for Eastleigh. In some ways we’ve had a lucky escape.

For us now, the coming by-election is an opportunity as much as a threat. A test of just how the general election is likely to play out in 2015. Here we are, mid-term in government, opinions polls at an absolute nadir – yet we’re the bookies' favourite to retain the seat. Would we really want to be fighting Eastleigh right now if we had a choice? No. But the party goes into the by-election enthusiastically and optimistically.

I’m sure journalists and media researchers were jubilant that the Huhne story took yet another unexpected twist yesterday morning. But for many in the party, we’d mentally navigated that particular bump in the road a while ago.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne prepares to address journalists at Southwark Crown Court after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.