Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour to turn focus to health with 10-year NHS plan in January

Having addressed the deficit and immigration, the party plans to focus on its greatest strength. 

Labour has spent much of the last fortnight addressing its political weaknesses. Ed Miliband has made high-profile speeches on the deficit and immigration (the two subjects he forgot to mention in his conference address) and has announced general election pledges related to both. On the former, Labour has promised to reduce borrowing every year and to avoid unfunded manifesto commitments. On the latter, it has pledged to control immigration with "fair rules", to ban migrants from claiming benefits for two years after their arrival and to make it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers. Both are aimed at providing the party with the protective cover it will need during the election campaign. 

Having "cleared away the undergrowth", in the words of one strategist, Labour now plans to focus on maximising its strengths: living standards and the NHS. January will be the party's "health month" with the conclusion of its mental health taskforce and the publication of a 10-year plan for health and social care by Andy Burnham. The party rightly regards the NHS, the issue on which it enjoys its biggest poll lead, as central to election victory. Voters consistently rank it at as one of the most important policy areas (or even the most important) and the role it played during the Scottish referendum (despite health being a devolved issue) was a reminder of the public's affection for our national religion. 

The Tories' recent panicked pledge to spend £2bn more on the NHS was aimed at neutralising Labour's attack. But the deteriorating state of the health service, and the blame the Conservatives have incurred as a result of their reorganisation, means they will struggle to reduce the opposition's advantage. Labour's lead on the issue has remained stubborn despite the Tories' repeated attacks over Mid-Staffs and Wales. Indeed, one aide recently told me that every time Cameron mentions the NHS, Labour benefits as the subject rises up the agenda. Expect Miliband to now focus on ensuring that the health service, as he put it at a recent PMQs, is "on the ballot paper" in May. 

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.