Is Michael Gove now going to be held to account for his advisers' "bullying tactics"?

There are accusations the Education Secretary misled Parliament.

Last week, my colleague Rafael Behr warned that the "ultra-partisan tactics" being used by Michael Gove at the Department for Education and reported by the Observer were just the start, given that the Education Secretary is considered to be one of the most effective Tory minister in government.

He's been proved right, and perhaps more quickly than we could have guessed, as today's Observer carries further details of how Gove is now facing accusations that he "may have misled parliament over claims of bullying and intimidation by key advisers". Toby Helm reports:

The Observer can reveal that a senior civil servant in the education secretary's department has received a secret payoff of about £25,000 out of public funds, after a lengthy grievance procedure involving members of Gove's team, including his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the department's former head of communications, James Frayne.

While an investigation within the department cleared the men, and said no disciplinary action was necessary, the final judgment made clear that their conduct had on occasions fallen short of the levels expected and that the behaviour of Cummings and Frayne, who has since left the department, "has been perceived as intimidating". After the internal investigation was launched in the spring of 2012, the civil servant also decided to lodge a case with a tribunal, where the allegations would have been heard in public. A date was set for last month, but after further negotiations the financial settlement was agreed and the tribunal was cancelled.

On 23 January, however, Gove – who under the ministerial and special advisers' codes is responsible for the behaviour of his advisers (known as Spads) – denied knowledge of any allegations of misconduct during an appearance before the education select committee.

Observer columnist Nick Cohen has also weighed in on the subject, explaining how Gove stays above the fray as a "Tory gentleman", allowing his advisers to do his enforcing:

Here is how the retaliation works. The gang around him treat any slight to their master as an affront. The lead comes from his special advisers Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. Cummings is a piece of work. He is a political hack of such reputation that Andy Coulson tried to blackball him from working for the coalition. If a former editor of the News of the World, now awaiting trial, warned me that a potential employee was too unsavoury to touch, I would pay attention. Gove did not.

Cummings and de Zoete can call on the services of Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes website. They also have Telegraph journalists, the Murdoch press and most of the rightwing blogosphere at their disposal.

Part of the allegations against Gove's advisers revolve around their alleged use of the @ToryEducation Twitter feed to publish personal, partisan attacks against Gove's critics. If Gove's special advisers are indeed behind it, it would constitute a breach of both the special advisers' and the civil service code. The virulent nature of its attacks have started attracting wider attention in recent weeks, as NS deputy editor Helen Lewis noted recently:

It's long been suspected that Gove considers himself a viable future Tory leader. As a former journalist, he already has excellent contacts among right-wing hacks, and it would seem that his advisers have made pains to maintain those links. Most definitely one to watch.

Michael Gove - a "Tory gentleman"? Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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.