Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ on 18 May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: A win for Harman as Cameron prevaricates over Heathrow

Labour's acting leader declared: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land".

For the first time since she returned as acting leader, Harriet Harman unambiguously defeated David Cameron at today's PMQs. Labour's decision to swiftly endorse the Davies Commission's recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow allowed her to ably expose the PM's prevarication. After Cameron warned that the "legal position" meant he could not say anything before studying the report (merely promising a decision by the end of the year), Harman gently gibed: "They’re briefing it’s not going to happen. It looks like the PM has been overruled by the member for Uxbridge. He should tell him he’s not the leader of the Tory party yet. Will he stand up for Britain’s interests or will he just be bullied by Boris?"

In desperation, Cameron sought to change the subject (a tell-tale sign that he is losing) to last week's unexpectedly stable child poverty figures. Harman responded by deploying her best line: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land" (likely crafted by her aide and former stand-up Ayesha Hazarika). Cameron rightly reminded the House that Ed Miliband almost resigned over the third runway in government: "I seem to remember that the last leader of the Labour Party, although we've been churning through a few recently, had a totally different position on airports to the one she has just offered" (though Miliband himself U-turned before the election). But that only highlighted why Harman was able to pull off a victory that Miliband would have struggled to achieve. The PM's lukewarm welcome for Davies means that the odds remain against the third runway ever being built. 

The other politically notable moment of the session came when Cameron confirmed to the DUP's Nigel Dodds that the number of MPs would be reduced from 650 to 600 by the end of the parliament. Dennis Skinner made his first PMQs intervention of the new term when he berated the PM for not requesting EU aid for miners. Cameron, who was previously forced to apologise after describing the 83-year-old as a "dinosaur", again deployed this charge but with greater wit than before: "Very good to see the Labour Party in full voice cheering on Jurassic Park - I would stick to the movie."

The first PMQs since the Tunisia atrocity had started on an appropriately sombre note. In response to Harman, Cameron said that a taskforce would be established to coordinate support for families and victims and grimly announced that the number of Britons confirmed dead had risen to 27.

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.