Almost a year after their introduction, employment tribunal fees have seen the number of claims fall dramatically. Photo: Getty
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Employment tribunal fees are a tax on justice

Employment tribunal fees are a tax on justice; Labour's National Policy Forum should commit to abolishing them.

Over the next three days, representatives from across our party will gather in Milton Keynes for one of the most important meetings Labour will have ahead of the general election. The agenda for our National Policy Forum meeting is packed and hopes for bold commitments and radical policy are high.  Whilst there will be many important issues discussed I wanted to set out why I think colleagues should support the amendment I’m putting forward to the Work & Business Policy Document which would commit a new Labour government to abolishing employment tribunal fees.

There have been many attacks on workers’ rights under this government – some receiving more press coverage than others.  It’s absolutely right that a light has been shone on the use of zero hour contracts and the living wage has moved up the national agenda.  But we also need to talk about the quality of life for those in work and about those who suffer injustice at work.

Employment tribunal fees are a deeply cynical ideological policy designed to deny workers justice and place additional burdens on trade unions, all the evidence points to that being the case.

Almost a year after their introduction employment tribunal fees have seen the number of claims fall at a dramatic rate.  In the months October to December 2013 the total number of claims fell by 79 per cent compared to the same quarter the previous year.  In the months January to March 2014 the total number of claims fell by 81 per cent compared to the same quarter the previous year.

It is the most vulnerable who are being hit hardest by this tax on justice. Within those figures it is equality based claims that have fallen most drastically. In the months January to March 2014 claims for equal pay fell by 84%, claims for sex discrimination fell by 81 per cent, and claims under the Working Time Directive fell by 90 per cent.

The fees are high – up to £1200 in total for an unfair dismissal claim – and the fee system is both complex and harsh.  If for example you reached terms of settlement with an employer the day before the hearing fee was due and your ACAS conciliator wasn’t in the office to turn the agreement around before the fee deadline you’d still have to pay it just to keep the case "live".  That’s £900+ for some claims.  For an individual who isn’t supported by a trade union, who has already agreed terms of settlement, that’s a huge outlay.  For trade unions – most of whom have now said they will pay fees where they believe the member’s claim has a reasonable prospect of success, it’s a massive new financial burden.

The Tories will say that this policy was to weed out vexatious (or malicious) claims.  The truth is anything but.  Employment tribunals already had the power to strike out or award costs to parties taking vexatious claims.  What has actually happened is that the poor and the unrepresented have been taxed out of justice and many more employees with legitimate concerns about their working conditions are leaving their employment via confidential settlement agreements.

There are no figures for the number of settlement agreements being signed off, but any trade unionist will tell you of their exorbitant increase under this government.  Why?  Because the Tories also introduced ‘protected conversations’ – where an employer can take you to one side, talk through your failings or concerns, tell you how difficult life will be if you pursue them and ask you to leave with a bit of money.  As long as they refer to that as a ‘protected conversation’ you will not be able to refer to it in any future litigation.

The vulnerable and the poor are most susceptible to that sort of pressure.  If you’ve been off work with stress and depression, fearful of what you might face on your return and feeling the pinch in your wallet it can seem like quite an attractive option in the short term.  But it doesn’t provide justice.  It doesn’t provide closure.  And an employer who has broken the law gets no comeback, no wrap on the knuckles or negative press as a result, because it’s all neatly wrapped up in a confidentiality clause.

We’re storing up problems both in terms of the impact on industry and the mental health of those at work.  The government talk of ‘mandating’ treatment for those claiming benefits due to mental ill-health.  There may not be so many of them if those leaving or moving employment were not so damaged by their experiences at work.

Our excellent leader in Scotland, Johann Lamont, has already made the commitment that if the No campaign wins in September and Scottish Labour is returned to government in Holyrood at the next Scottish Parliamentary elections, that administration would abolish tribunal fees.  The UK needs to follow Scotland’s lead and that’s why I’m calling on my colleagues at this weekend’s NPF to back my amendment and commit us to abolishing employment tribunal fees.  It won’t cost us anything and it should be a no brainer for a party such as Labour that is committed to social justice.

Johanna Baxter is a Constituency Labour Party (CLP) representative on Labour's National Executive Committee, a CLP Secretary and full-time trade union official

Johanna Baxter is a CLP representative on Labour's NEC and Chair of the Southwark Labour Campaign Forum

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era