The Lib Dems' pledge to protect the NHS from cuts is another snub to Cable

The Business Secretary has long warned that ring-fencing some departments from cuts is not "a very sensible" approach.

By far the most significant policy announcement made by the Lib Dems at their conference is that the party will pledge to protect the NHS and schools from cuts after 2015. Nick Clegg suggested yesterday that both budgets should be ring-fenced until 2020 and Danny Alexander told the Today programme this morning:

We’ve said that we want to, as a party, maintain the commitments to the NHS in terms of keeping its budget protected in real terms, and also to the schools system.

Among other things, this is another snub to Vince Cable, a long-standing critic of ring-fencing. Before the recent Spending Review, he warned that shielding some departments from cuts and forcing others to endure even greater austerity was not "a very sensible" long-term approach. He said:

The problem about ring-fencing as an overall approach to policy, is that when you have 80 per cent of all government spending that’s ring-fenced, it means all future pressures then come on things like the army, the police, local government, skills and universities, the rest that I’m responsible for. So you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending.

But as in the case of Help To Buy and the future of the coalition, Clegg and Alexander have chosen to disregard Cable's advice.

It's also worth noting that the Lib Dems' pledge means that all three of the main parties are now likely to go into the next election promising to ring-fence the NHS. David Cameron and George Osborne havee long made it clear that they want to continue to protect the health budget ater 2015 and Ed Miliband told the BBC earlier this year: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority."

Promising to shield the NHS from cuts is both good politics and good policy. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. But it does mean all parties will be under greater pressure to say how they would continue deficit reduction without significant tax rises. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme, with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence.

Protesters from the National Health Action Party lead a mock funeral procession for the NHS along Whitehall on July 5, 2013. 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.