THE BLOG

Justice In 2017 - Nice If You Can Afford It

10/01/2017 16:54 GMT | Updated 10/01/2017 16:54 GMT

For most people in the UK, the concept of secure employment no longer exists.

Even for those who are lucky enough to avoid the pervasive traps of zero-hours contracts, agency work, bogus self-employment and the gig economy; workplace protections are now so watered down that they are close to worthless.

There is a culture in this country that views employees as a flexible and disposable and it is a culture that was deliberately created by the Conservative party.

They increased to a shocking 2 years the period of time before an employee can submit a claim for unfair dismissal, meaning that after 23 months of loyal employment an employee can be cast aside without any reason being needed. Just think about how much your life can change in 23 months, what commitments you can make in that time, yet your job can still be ended without any redress.

And for those who keep their job for longer than two years, justice now comes at a price following the introduction of employment tribunal fees.

While the Government absurdly claim that the fees will only deter vexatious claims; as Sybille Raphael of Working Families told the House of Commons Justice Committee, we are talking about "people who have just lost their income and are incredibly scared about the future. Paying any kind of fee looks like throwing good money away for something that is highly uncertain."

Following the introduction of fees, the number of single employment tribunal claims plummeted by 67% from an average of 13,500 per quarter until June 2013 to just 4,400 per quarter from October 2013, while the proportion of unsuccessful claims remained stable. It is therefore clear that all that the fees system has done is deter people who have valid claims from upholding their rights, a conclusion shared by the cross-party Justice Committee.

But despite the overwhelming evidence, the Government refuses to acknowledge that they have created a problem at all.

Last month, I challenged the Minister for Women and Equalities over the outrageous fact that only 1% of women discriminated against at work have brought a claim to tribunal. I asked her if she would make representations to the Ministry of Justice about the whole raft of evidence suggesting that tribunal fees are denying women access to justice.

The response was shocking. The Minister, Caroline Dinenage MP said, "There is no doubt that the number of tribunals has gone down, but in actual fact there is good news here."

The good news apparently is that "people have been diverted away from tribunal hearings and into mediation," a claim which the Justice Committee said was, "even on the most favourable construction, superficial."

Whilst it is true that there has been an increase in the number of cases going to conciliation, just 16% were formally settled by the Aces service, while 19% proceeded to a tribunal case and 65% were neither settled nor proceeded to a tribunal. What happened to the two-thirds of cases which proceeded no further?

The lawyer Kate Smith gave some very interesting insight, "when I advise an employer, why would they want to engage in early conciliation? You wait for an employee to pay a fee. Ultimately, you want to call their bluff." An opinion shared by the TUC, who have found that "employers do not engage until the hearing fee has been paid."

So we have a system where justice only exists for those who afford it. A banker on a six-figure salary who is unfairly dismissed can still take their employer to court; while a factory worker on the minimum wage would be much less likely to be able to uphold their rights.

This week Parliament will debate again access to justice but I have little confidence the Government will do anything to recognise their error in introducing tribunal fees. Their own review of the system has apparently been sat on the Minister's desk for over a year but the Government have so far refused to release it, let alone act upon it. Every day they decline to act though is another day many working people are denied justice and basic fairness at work.

During the referendum campaign, we saw that telling someone on a zero-hours contract or in agency work that there is a risk to their job from Brexit was futile. Until we begin to address these issues and reinstate the concept of secure employment, we will stand no chance of rebuilding our fractured society.