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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.