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Tory leaflets "falsely claim" Labour MPs in Stoke voted against Brexit

Local MPs Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello have sought legal advice. 

The Conservative campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central could face a legal challenge after a mailshot claimed two of the city’s Labour MPs – both of whom voted for Article 50 – had “voted against” Theresa May’s Brexit plan. 

It is understood that both Stoke North’s Ruth Smeeth and Stoke South’s Rob Flello have sought legal advice.

A Tory leaflet in which the Prime Minister addresses voters in the by-election accuses the two MPs of trying to block Brexit in the Commons last week.

Yet while the decision to vote for the Article 50 bill divided Labour, both Smeeth and Flello voted with the government to begin the process of Brexit.

The letter reads:

“Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can’t agree whether they want to take control of our laws and our borders. They seem to be intent on finding new ways of frustrating the process of leaving. Last week, Stoke’s two other Labour MPs and the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme [Paul Farrelly, who voted against Article 50] all voted against my plan to deliver Brexit.”

In response, Smeeth tweeted that she was "utterly disgusted" that Theresa May had "lied" about her voting record. A Labour source said the MP, a senior figure in Labour’s by-election campaign, has written to the prime minister to demand a public apology and retraction. 

The Conservatives maintain the letters are only referring to MPs' support for amendments to the bill.

A similar leaflet was delivered to homes in Copeland, where Labour faces another crucial by-election next Thursday. It also accused neighbouring Labour MPs of voting to block Brexit the day before last Wednesday’s Article 50 vote. Neither John Woodcock nor Sue Hayman, the MPs for the adjacent constituencies of Barrow-in-Furness and Workington, voted against Article 50. 

The leaflets matter because both constituencies voted decisively for Brexit – Stoke was 70 per cent Leave, and Copeland 62 per cent. The Prime Minister’s uncompromising rhetoric on the EU has featured prominently in the Tories’ campaign material.

With Labour's existential bind on Brexit increasingly apparent, the row provides an early indication of the sort of campaigns Labour MPs of all stripes will face in leave constituencies at the next general election. 

Sue Hayman, the Workington MP and shadow environment secretary, said she was disappointed that the Tories had tried to spin her votes for Labour amendments to the Article 50 bill as attempts to block Brexit. She said: "I'm disappointed that the Conservatives are trying to claim that Cumbria's Labour MPs are blocking Brexit. While I campaigned for a Remain vote last year, I of course accept the democratic result of the country and of my constituency, which voted to Leave the EU.

"That is why I voted for the bill to trigger Article 50 at both second and third readings in the House of Commons. However, nobody voted to leave the EU in order to make our country or economy poorer, which is why last week I voted for Labour amendments to the Bill on a range of issues, including our continuing membership of Euratom, which was supported by the nuclear industry that is so important to my constituency."

Defending the controversial campaign tactic, a Conservative spokesman said both MPs had backed amendments to the Article 50 bill that “would have put restrictions on the Prime Minister’s negotiation position and curbed her ability to negotiate the very best deal for Britain”.

He said: “The Prime Minister has set out a clear plan for Brexit which Jeremy Corbyn's Labour MPs, including the two Labour MPs in Stoke-on-Trent and the Labour MP in Newcastle-under-Lyme, tried to block or delay in Parliament. Only Jack Brereton will back the Prime Minister’s clear plan to deliver a successful Brexit for Stoke-on-Trent and the United Kingdom.”

A Downing Street spokesperson also confirmed that the letters were intended to refer to Labour MPs' votes for amendments to the bill, and not votes against the bill itself. 

 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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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.