Conservative cabinet ministers at the party's press conference at Millbank this afternoon. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The trap the Tories have set for Labour on cuts

Osborne's claim of a "blackhole" in Miliband's plans is forcing his party to shout louder about its commitment to continued austerity. 

The sight of five cabinet ministers (George Osborne, William Hague, Theresa May, Nicky Morgan and Sajid Javid) taking the stage at the Tories' first press conference of this election year was a rather odd one. As I noted on Twitter, it looked like a leadership hustings with Boris strangely absent, or the reformation of an aged pop group. But the quintet were all unambiguously singing from the same hymn sheet. The choice, we were repeatedly told, was between Tory "competence" and Labour "chaos", between sticking to "our long-term economic plan", or returning to "the mess" of 2010. 

The event was held to mark the launch of the Conservatives' attack dossier on the opposition's spending plans. The 82-page document (decked out in Budget red to lend it spurious authority) claimed to have uncovered a £20.7bn black hole in Labour's programme (alleging £23.26bn of spending commitments against £2.52bn of cuts/tax rises). But it quickly began to unravel under the mildest of scrutiny. As several journalists noted during the Q&A, the document falsely equates criticism of cuts with a commitment to reverse them. For instance, nowhere has Labour suggested that it will cancel £3.35bn of local authority cuts, or £83m of Arts Council funding reductions. 

But Javid, the Tories' attack dog of choice, had a ready response: "If Labour thinks that we're wrong in asserting this, then it's up to them to come out today and they can say 'We will not reverse those cuts.'" This the Labour press team promptly did, tweeting that "p.44 of Tory dossier says Labour will cancel cuts to the arts budget. We won't." The rapid rebuttal allows Labour to claim that its plans are fully costed and credible (as the IFS has said) but at the cost of reminding voters of its commitment to continued austerity. In short, "We didn't like the cuts, we attacked the cuts, but we're going to have to keep them." 

This frugal stance opens up political space for the SNP and the Greens, both having recently eaten into Labour's left-wing support. The dilemma that the party faces is between appearing less credible than it would like or more austere than it would like. At the briefing that followed, an Osborne aide declared satisfiedly: "If they want to pull out other examples and say 'That's not our policy' that is going to cause them massive problems." 

The Tories are not short of their own problems. When challenged on how they would pay for their promise of £7.2bn of tax cuts, Osborne merely asserted that his cuts were forecast to produce a surplus of £23bn. But having pledged in 2010 to all but eliminate the deficit and ended up only halving it (and even then only as a share of GDP), why should we take his word for it? Javid fared even worse on The World At One when he conceded that the Tories hadn't "spelt out" how they would afford the planned tax cuts. But their wager (and it may prove right) remains that their poll lead on economic credibility is so great as to allow them to play faster and looser than Labour. In the meantime, they can be reasonably satisfied with forcing the opposition onto the mine-laden pitch of austerity. 

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.