This week I led a debate in Parliament on the effect on the introduction of fees in Employment Tribunal claims. As a former employment lawyer I know how vital the Tribunal system is to enable people to seek justice for discriminatory and unfair treatment at work. Since the introduction of fees in July 2013 though, the number of claims that have been lodged at Tribunal has fallen by up to 80%. Have employers suddenly started treating their staff better? No ,the imposition of a £1200 charge has had precisely the deterrent effect the Government intended and justice has been denied to thousands of people. In particular women have been disproportionately effected with an even bigger drop in sex discrimination claims.
Losing your job can affect your marriage, your health, your home, your finances and of course your family, yet we seem to be fostering a culture where an individual is considered a disposable item, to be cast aside with barely a second thought given.
To my mind we already have an imbalanced workplace that puts security of employment near the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities. People may be surprised to learn that countries such as Kosovo, Estonia and Mexico all are rated as having greater individual employment protection by the OECD. Security should be the cornerstone of any settlement on how the workplace operates, but no matter how imperfect the current system is, we should be absolutely sure that those rights we do have can genuinely be enforced if we are not to have an illusory system of protection
The fact that the only Conservative MP who bothered to speak in the debate and defend this policy was the Minister himself which suggests to me even the Conservatives struggle to defend the indefensible.
What was particularly disappointing was that despite being asked four times during the debate, the Minister refused to confirm that one possible outcome of the Government's review of Tribunal fees was that they could be scrapped altogether. The overwhelming evidence submitted by advice agencies, trade unions and others about the significant drop in tribunal claims since fees were introduced and the denial of justice to thousands that this means makes the retention of tribunal fees unsupportable and the Government are in denial over this.
Unfortunately this Government is showing scant regard to supporting people in work and failing to ensure that hard won employment rights are protected. They are leading the charge to a race to the bottom and fostering a hire and fire culture. Employment Tribunals play a vital role to ensure that basic rights such as the right to a minimum wage, rights to paid holiday, rights to time off and maternity leave and rights not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against are effective. If you value those rights and if you think those rights are important then you should also value the ease by which people are able to exercise those rights.
Those rights aren't just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace, they bring important social and economic benefits for this country. They ensure that more people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income. They help to encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their life, plan for a future, knowing that if they do a good job, if their employer runs its business well that they are likely to stay in work.
Employment rights are ultimately of benefit to everyone but the fee regime not only undermines those rights but actively encourages rogue employers to flout the law and I say it should be scrapped.
Justin Madders is the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston
This blog was first published on the Trade Union Group of MPs blog, and can be read here
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