Watch: Lord Ashcroft tries to pwn Owen Jones, fails

Owen Jones announces he's donating Ashcroft-funded prize money to Labour candidate and anti-cuts activists; Tory peer fails to deliver a decent comeback.

Owen Jones caused a bit of a stir last night, when after it was revealed that he had won the Political Book Awards Young Writer of the Year award, he announced he would be giving his £3,000 prize money (donated by Lord Ashcroft) away – half to Lisa Forbes, Labour candidate in Peterborough, and half to the Disabled People Against the Cuts group.

He tweeted:

Thanks to Jones, Tory mega-donor Lord Ashcroft’s money is going to be funding a Labour parliamentary candidate and a group of activists who vehemently oppose the actions of the Conservative politicians in the coalition. When he came up on stage to present another award, Lord Ashcroft attempted to have a pop at Jones in return, and delivered an unconvincing comeback. Watch here (from 1:30):

Transcript of Ashcroft's remarks about Jones:

To Owen Jones, who very kindly said his prize that I was donating he would give to causes – I would like to have a chat with you Owen, because I’m very happy to pay these to charities of your choice for a number of reasons. One, I’ll get tax relief; two, they can get Gift Aid, which will give them a little bit more; and thirdly, you won’t have to pay any tax on the prize. Therefore, if I could invite you to lunch at my local greasy spoon, the House of Lords, to discuss that, I would be delighted.

PS If Owen turns down Lord Ashcroft's offer of a date, it'll only be the second time in 24 hours:

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.