PMQs review: on-form Miliband leaves Cameron rattled

After a perfectly-scripted joke from the Labour leader on alcohol pricing, the PM never recovered.

Rarely has Ed Miliband enjoyed PMQs as much as he did today. He began with what sounded like a deathly dull question on minimum alcohol pricing before producing his best opening line to date: "is there anything he could organise in a brewery?" 

After Vince Cable's intervention on the economy, the OBR's rebuke of Cameron, Theresa May's barely concealed leadership pitch and new forecasts of a triple-dip recession, the Labour leader was not short of material for the rest of the session. "When the Business Secretary calls for him to change course," he asked the PM, "is he speaking for the government?" After Cameron noted in his response that car manufacturing, at least, was up, Miliband ad-libbed: "never mind more car production, it's taxi for Cameron after that answer". Things had got so bad, he noted, that No. 10 had sent Baroness Warsi (the woman he sacked as Conservative chairman and no friend of Cameron) out to say that she had "full confidence" in the PM.  

An off-form Cameron resorted to his stock lines: Miliband had nothing to say about the deficit, Labour would borrow more, Ed Balls was still shadow chancellor, the party was in hock to union "dinosaurs". All of these fell flat, with Tory MPs entirely unmoved. 

The well-marshalled Labour benches again targeted Cameron with questions over the "bedroom tax" and whether he will gain from the abolition of the 50p rate. To the former, he replied by again declaring that only Labour could call "a welfare reform a tax". But with the phrase ("bedroom tax") firmly lodged in the public consciousness, Cameron needs to spend more time defending the measure itself, rather than arguing over the name. On the 50p rate, for the third week running, Cameron again refused to say whether he would benefit from the move, merely stating that he would "pay everything has to". But Labour, encouraged by how Barack Obama forced Mitt Romney onto the defensive over his tax bill, intends to keep pressing the PM on this subject. 

The session ended surreally with Cameron reading out an imaginary letter from "Ed who lives in camden" asking what he should do about the government's seven per cent stamp duty charge on £2m houses. The gag finally roused the Tory benches as the PM mocked Labour's "champagne socialist" (although Cameron, for reasons that do not need stating, is ill-suited to class politics) but their earlier silence means it was Miliband who left smiling. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference last 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.