No "lurch to the right", says Cameron as the Tories do just that

Conservatives set to announce plans to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and restrict access to the NHS for immigrants.

"The battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the Right", declares David Cameron in response to his party's defeat to UKIP in the Eastleigh by-election. But across this morning's papers there's evey sign of the Tories doing just that. The Mail on Sunday reports that Theresa May will soon announce that a majority Conservative government would leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), while the Sunday Times details new plans to restrict access to the NHS for immigrants.

May's planned announcement represents a significant shift in Tory policy. Until now, the party's position has been that it will replace the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights, something the presence of the Lib Dems has so far prevented. But since this would still allow UK citizens to petition the European Court of Human Rights, Tory MPs, including former justice minister Nick Herbert, have been arguing that the government should instead withdraw from the jurisdiction of the court and leave the ECHR altogether. It is this stance that May has now embraced. Tory discontent with the Strasbourg court has reached a new height since it prevented the deportation of Abu Qatada and forced the government to consider extending voting rights to some prisoners. As a result, as I predicted last year, a pledge to leave the ECHR is now expected to appear in the next Conservative manifesto.

One wonders if anyone has told Dominic Grieve. The Attorney General rightly warned that leaving the convention would make the UK a "pariah state", noting that only Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, does not currently subscribe to the ECHR. His likely opposition to the move, as well as that of Ken Clarke, raises the prospect of a cabinet split.

Another issue much discussed this morning is whether withdrawal from the ECHR would also require the UK to leave the EU. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the accession of the EU to the convention became a legal obligation. However, three years on from the ratification of the treaty, the EU has still not formally acceded to the ECHR. But the likelihood that it will eventually do so represents another obstacle to withdrawal.

The new plan to restrict access to the NHS for immigrants will see migrants forced to wait up to a year before being granted the right to non-emergency care. A Conservative source tells the Sunday Times: "The National Health Service is becoming the global health service. We are looking at the way in which services are open to people.

"You have to be ordinarily resident to access healthcare. We have to have a look at that and whether there is a prospect of changing that. We are looking in a bit more detail at the contributions you need to be entitled to free healthcare."

The government's increasingly hard line on migrant benefits prompts the question of how Labour will respond. Asked earlier this year whether he was willing to consider restricting benefits for EU immigrants, Ed Miliband said: "Of course that's an issue that should be looked at, the length of entitlement to benefits and how quickly can get them. All of these issues should be on the table." More recently, however, he has urged to government to end its "windy rhetoric" and concentrate on taking action against rogue employers that exploit cheap labour. With Miliband set to devote a party political broadcast to the subject this Wednesday and a speech (the Labour leader's third on immigration) expected to follow, he will soon come under pressure to offer greater clarity on Labour's position.

Home Secretary Theresa May makes a speech on immigration at Policy Exchange on December 12, 2012 in London. 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.