European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso gives a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The EU's wise advice to the UK shouldn't be ignored

It's not up to the unelected commission to determine Britain's policies, but it has reason and evidence on its side. 

You can't accuse the EU of lacking chutzpah. Less than a day after David Cameron denounced it as "too big, too bossy, too interfering", the European Commission has called on the government to change its economic policy - and much else. In a document released last night, it urges Cameron to raise taxes on high-value properties, to increase the supply of housing, to adjust the Help to Buy scheme, to make childcare more affordable, to raise capital spending and to improve the implementation of Universal Credit. A day before the state opening of parliament, it adds up to a draft Queen's speech. 

Here are a few extracts:

Action is needed to further boost the supply of houses - by creating appropriate incentives to raise supply at the local level. The authorities should continue to monitor house prices and mortgage indebtedness and stand ready to deploy appropriate measures, including adjusting the Help to Buy 2 (loan guarantee) scheme, if deemed necessary.

Reforms to the taxation of land and property should be considered to alleviate distortions in the housing market. At the moment, increasing property values are not translated into higher property taxes as the property value roll has not been updated since 1991 and taxes on higher value property are lower than on lower value property in relative terms due to the regressivity of the current rates and bands within the council tax system.

The commission's proposals have prompted a predictably sardonic riposte from the Treasury: "As one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, we always listen to the commission's recommendations with interest." Conservative eurosceptic Dominic Raab said: "Having helped bankrupt the eurozone and delivered the biggest anti-EU election results in history, the chancellor can be forgiven for treating the commission’s advice as spam when it arrives in his inbox." 

But while it's not up to the unelected commission to determine Britain's fiscal policies (although like bodies such as the IMF, the OECD and every think-tank going, it was merely offering advice), the inconvenient truth for the Tories is that every one of its suggestions is entirely sensible. 

It would be better for the government to make property more affordable by building more homes, rather than subsidising mortgages. It is absurd that the council tax bands have not been updated since they were first introduced in 1991, despite house prices rising by more than 250 per cent since then. There is a strong moral and economic case for increasing taxes on land and property. (Wealth taxes are progressive and hard to avoid, and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into more productive industries.) It is lamentable that there are just 5,910 people claiming Universal Credit (994,090 short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million) despite the government spending £612m on the programme. 

That it takes the profoundly flawed EU to tell the government all of this is the real cause for outrage. 

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.