New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour sends Cameron another warning over HS2

New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh echoes Ed Balls's argument that the £50bn for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere.

Labour aides were keen to emphasise yesterday that the departure of Maria Eagle, a committed supporter of High Speed 2, as shadow transport secretary did not signal any change in the party's position on the project. But it's worth flagging up the first statement from her replacement Mary Creagh

After the Treasury select committee warned that there were "serious shortcomings" in the economic case for HS2 and called for the project to be suspended until they had been addressed, Creagh said: 

Labour supports the idea of a new North-South rail link, but under this Government HS2 has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion.

David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project whatever the cost. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. There will be no blank cheque for this project or for any project, because we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.

The significance of this response is that Creagh has echoed Ed Balls's argument that the funds for the project could potentially be better spent elsewhere. When Balls first made those remarks in his speech to the Labour conference ("the question is – not just whether a new high-speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country"), some in the party suggested that he had overstepped the mark (with Maria Eagle doing her best to distance herself from Balls in her speech), but his words have now been adopted as party policy. 

For Balls, the main attraction of a U-turn on HS2 is that would allow Labour to outspend the Tories in politically vital areas ("building new homes or new schools or new hospitals") while remaining within George Osborne's fiscal envelope. Unless the coalition can significantly reduce the projected cost of the project (as Andrew Adonis has urged it to do), it does now seem a question of when, not if, Labour withdraws its support. 

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.