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Tribunal Fees Are An Unjust Barrier to Women's Rights and Must Be Abolished

01/06/2016 15:31 | Updated 01 June 2016

Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is now more common in workplaces across the UK than ever before, with 54,000 women forced out of the workplace every year due to discrimination. All over the country, pregnant women and young mothers' careers are being brought to a standstill. Workplace discrimination is a daily occurrence, employment tribunals are often the last resort for many women seeking to redress the discrimination they face, and yet the introduction of employment tribunal fees, coupled with the existence of time limits, has done nothing to tackle workplace discrimination.

On a recent visit to Portsmouth with the Women and Equalities Committee, I spoke to mothers who had been dismissed or unfairly treated, forced into redundancy as a result of falling pregnant; women subject to bullying or harassment while pregnant; and women refused time off work for ante-natal appointments. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found these practices to be widespread, with 77 per cent of women having experienced negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work, and suggest that younger and single mothers and mothers-to-be are most at risk to be badly treated by an employer.

Those in precarious employment are at even greater risk. How does a woman with fluctuating hours and an unstable employment contract defend herself against a discriminatory employer? Many women often feel compelled to make a choice between their careers, or having children. Which leads to the question is this really a choice that women should have to make? Shouldn't we be calling for greater flexibility to allow women to have a real choice, when it comes to having a career and having a family? A number of women who work in service occupations, such as adult social care, childcare and hairdressing, found that insecure or part-time working conditions left them unable to challenge their employer for fear of losing their job. In these sectors, hundreds of thousands of women are employed on zero-hours contracts and as such are offered very little job security. However, even in professions such a law, accountancy, and business many women feared challenging the discrimination they face in the workplace.

Anti-discrimination laws have been in place for 40 years - yet more often than not women who have experienced discrimination and employers are not aware of exactly what rights are in place for pregnant women, and what is and what is not acceptable. This is compounded in cases where there is no trade union representation. Worse, for women wishing to make a claim, there is a three-month time limit from when the discrimination has taken place. Of course, for new mothers and pregnant women, seeking justice from an employer will not be the first priority at that point in their lives.

In July 2013 the UK Government introduced employment tribunal fees, amounting to a barrier for women's access to justice and a charter for rogue employers. As a result, less than 1 per cent of maternity discrimination claims now proceed to an employment tribunal. That means 99 out of every 100 women who experience pregnancy discrimination have no legal redress.

When I questioned the Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, on the issue of tribunal fees in October last year, she pointed to the Ministry of Justice-led Post Implementation Review being carried out on this policy. This review would allow the Government to consider any necessary changes to tribunal fees and flag up any damage caused by the new limits on access to justice.

The review had been ongoing since June 2015 and she said she believed it would be published by the end of that year. Nearly six months into 2016, the review has still not seen the light of day.

Meanwhile, the number of unresolved, unchallenged dismissals is rising.

To put it clearly, the Government's policy of introducing fees for employment tribunals could in fact seem to be driven by the relentless pursuit of austerity without consideration of the unintended consequences it produces - and further extension of the Tories' attempts to grind down worker's rights with the Trade Union Bill have created further barriers to challenging employment practices.

In a debate on 1 December 2015, the Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid Shailesh Vara defended tribunal fees as part of the drive to deliver Government's mandate to eliminate the budget deficit. In his words, that action "requires a responsible approach to funding public services, which must include the courts and tribunals". However, I put it to the Minister: is it responsible to allow people to be put out of work? Is it responsible for rogue employers to be allowed to act however they wish, regardless of employment law? Does the resulting knock to economic growth really help to reduce the deficit? These are questions that must be given serious consideration and highlight the urgent need for the Post-Implementation Review to be published.

The immediate future looks brighter for Scotland's workers compared to the rest of the UK. The Scotland Act 2016 will mean the Scottish Parliament is given enhanced powers, including over employment tribunals. I welcome the commitments made by the Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon to take action to challenge this issue, and the announcement made by Constitution Secretary Derek MacKay that the SNP Scottish Government will be abolishing tribunal fees in Scotland.

In practice this will mean Scottish women will face fewer barriers when exerting their employment rights and access to justice will not hold the same financial penalty, the same may not be said for other women in rest of the UK. It's time that someone spoke up for hard working women and demanded the same access to justice for women across the UK. For pregnant women and young mothers in Scotland the removal of fees, will mean a reduction in the stress and financial hardship that comes with challenging unfair dismissal and mistreatment from employers, giving more women the ability to challenge rogue employment practices. Yet this legislation will take time to implement in Scotland. In that time it is right that we should fight for women facing pregnancy and maternity discrimination, not just in Scotland, but in all parts of the UK.

Action needs to be taken now. Women have waited three years for justice - they should not have to wait any longer. In due course Scottish women will rightfully no longer face the same financial barriers to access to tribunals - neither should any woman in the rest of the UK.

Angela Crawley is SNP MP for Lanark and Hamilton East

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