[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. An essential part of any democracy is an economy that works for the whole population. That means there should be not only full employment, or as close to that as can be managed, but opportunities for everyone to make the most of that economy. There should be no glass ceilings. People from different backgrounds should all have the same chance of making it into their chosen job. Crucially, in the context of this debate, an individual should have the security of knowing that if things go wrong, they have a realistic avenue through which to seek redress.
To my mind, we have a system in place that puts security near the bottom of the pile in terms of priorities. Security should be the cornerstone of any settlement on how the workplace operates. No matter how imperfect the current system is, if there are workplace rights and protections that this place has deemed a necessary part of the social contract between Government and the country, we should be absolutely sure that those rights can be genuinely enforced, if we are not to have an illusory scheme of protection.
The employment tribunal system has a social benefit for everyone and should therefore be accessible to all members of society. It is worth reminding ourselves that tribunals took on their present character as employment courts to resolve disputes between employers and workers in 1971, as part of that year’s Industrial Relations Act, largely arising from the recognition that unresolved workplace grievances had led to a proliferation of official and unofficial industrial action. Those origins should serve as a clear warning that if we are to live in a just society, we need an accessible and fair system for resolving disputes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to the Chamber. Does he agree that the introduction of these fees disproportionately affects women, particularly those who are pregnant or in part-time employment? That issue must be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will address later some of the disproportionate impacts of the fees, but they are part of a bigger picture: they are part of a sustained attack on working people in this country. A lot of the legislation in the previous Parliament and currently going through the House is nothing more than an attack on basic workplace rights and protections. If our ambition is to have an economy and country where everyone has a stake in their prosperity, we should value the security and sustainability of jobs as much as the means of creating them.
It is widely recognised that losing a job is one of the major occasions in life on which people face extreme pressure and stress. Obviously, it is not quite as significant as some other issues, but for many, it can be a pretty traumatic experience. It can affect a person’s marriage, health, home, finances and, of course, family, yet we seem to be fostering a culture in which an individual is considered a disposable item to be cast aside with barely a second thought. While that culture exists, it is important that we have strong protections in place and—this relates to today’s debate—an effective and accessible system enforcing those protections.
Let us look first at the stark data, which show that the number of tribunal claims lodged has fallen off a cliff since the introduction of fees in July 2013.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. One of the reasons given for the introduction of these fees was to protect hard-working taxpayers from having to contribute to the cost, ignoring the fact that the people bringing these claims are hard-working taxpayers. Does he agree?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; his record on representing working people is one of note. He is absolutely right that everyone who takes part in the system contributes already through their taxes. As I will go on to demonstrate, there is little sign of any wider benefit to society. In fact, it could be argued that the fees are creating more problems than they solve.
Between October 2013 and September 2014, there were 32,671 fewer single claims brought by individuals than in the previous 12 months. That is a decrease of 64%. Over the same period, the number of multiple claim cases—those brought by two or more people against the same employer—was down by 3,527. That is a decrease of 67%. Comparing different periods can produce different figures, and an awful lot of different comparisons can be made. Indeed, some comparisons show up to an 80% drop in claims lodged. Whatever the comparisons or periods used, there is an average drop of around 70% in the number of claims lodged. It is therefore indisputable that there has been a significant drop in the number of claims since the introduction of fees.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I held a debate in this room a few weeks ago on women and low pay, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) just raised. The tribunal process is an important mechanism through which women can secure equal pay in their place of work, because if the claim is successful, their employer is instructed to carry out an equal pay audit. The financial barrier, however, means that many women are not getting to that stage, and therefore fewer equal pay audits are being done than could be done. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) agree that tribunal fees represent a barrier to equality in the workplace for not only the women making claims, but those in workplaces where claims could be made but are not?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution in the debate she referred to. She is, of course, right that there are significant issues of barriers to justice, and of employers not learning lessons about inequality; that needs to be put right. She makes a valid point about equal pay audits. Tribunals have additional powers beyond simply awarding compensation. We hear a lot of rhetoric from the Government about cutting down on the compensation culture, but tribunals have important powers that go beyond compensation. They also, for example, have the power to make a statement of an employee’s terms and conditions. That is absolutely basic, bread-and-butter stuff that we should expect to happen in an employment relationship, but occasionally it is necessary for an employee to go to a tribunal to get that basic statement of terms and conditions.
We can bandy the figures around in a number of ways, but the common thread is that there has been a 65% to 70% drop in the number of claims lodged. It is little wonder that, with such overwhelming evidence, Lord Justice Underhill stated the following when he considered in the High Court Unison’s judicial review of the fees regime:
“It is quite clear from the comparison between the number of claims brought in the ET before and after 29 July 2013 that the introduction of fees has had the effect of deterring a very large number of potential claimants.”
That is a very clear statement.
There has no doubt been a reduction in the number of claims made. Have employers suddenly started treating their employees better? [Laughter.] I do not think there is any suggestion among Opposition Members that that is the case. It is worth remembering that since the introduction of fees, the general trend has been an increase in the number of people in work, so the proportion of people in employment who are bringing tribunal claims is actually decreasing even more than is suggested by the raw data.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I would like to make reference to the TUC’s submission to the Select Committee on Justice inquiry on tribunal fees, which stated:
“The EHRC and BIS recently funded a large-scale survey of the experiences of new mothers in the workplace...The survey findings suggest that 54,000 women a year (one in nine new mothers) are dismissed, made redundant when no other employee is, or are treated so badly while pregnant or on maternity leave that they are forced to leave their jobs.”
Indeed, I know women who have suffered exactly that. That is happening at a time when, despite all the joy of adding a new member to their family, they are under a huge amount of pressure. In 2012-13, prior to the introduction of fees, there were 1,593 claims for pregnancy-related detriment or dismissal.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I understand the passion that led her to speak for slightly longer than is the norm. She is absolutely right that pregnancy discrimination is still rife in the workplace. Figures that I have seen suggest that of the 54,000 women who are dismissed on the grounds of pregnancy each year, only 1.5% proceed with a tribunal claim. Is that not a damning indictment of the difficulty that people have in accessing justice?
We need to examine the supposed reasons that the Minister may put forward for why the number of claims has dropped. I am sure that the Government would like to claim that the success of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service early conciliation scheme is part of the explanation, but we should remember that the scheme was not in place for the period immediately after fees were introduced, so that cannot explain the number of claims dropping so dramatically immediately after fees were introduced. The figures that we have seen on early conciliation provide little comfort for those seeking to explain the reduction; indeed, as I will argue, the fee system can be seen as an impediment to effective early conciliation.
The figures on early conciliation tell us that of the 60,800 notifications made to ACAS in April to December 2014 as part of the early conciliation scheme, 15% were formally settled by ACAS and 22% progressed to an employment tribunal claim. That leaves a massive 63% that were not formally settled through ACAS but did not progress to an employment tribunal. Of course, it is not possible to identify how many of those claims had merits, but it is too large a figure to ignore, and the similarity between that figure of 63% and the figures that I have already referred to is too much of a coincidence for us to ignore.
Interestingly, if we look at employers taking up early conciliation through ACAS, we find that Government Departments are some of the worst offenders for not participating in early conciliation; that includes the National Offender Management Service, which is very poor at engaging. Does my hon. Friend have any comments on that?
My hon. Friend, of course, has great experience in this area. The Government should be setting an example. They should be leading from the front and be seen to be engaging in the processes that promote and encourage good workplace relations. Is it not really something when we have a Government Department potentially discriminating against someone or impinging on their workplace rights, then refusing to engage with the systems that that Government have set up to try to resolve that dispute? And then the Government charge that person to force their rights. What kind of situation is that? It is not a fair, equitable or just way of dealing with matters.
Let me turn to the significant amount of evidence submitted to the Justice Committee. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) has referred to evidence that was given to the Justice Committee in respect of NOMS, and I recommend anyone who has not read those transcripts that look at that evidence. In it, multiple witnesses demonstrate the deterrent effect that fees have had; that evidence goes well beyond the data that have been referred to.
The hon. Gentleman is making a number of excellent points. On fees, does he agree that there will be an impediment to cases in which a worker brings a case for an illegal deduction of wages, because the fee will be higher in some cases than the amount that the worker is looking for in their claim?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that point, which I will come to later. Speaking from personal experience as a lawyer before I entered this place, I have a number of examples of such situations, and that cannot be right in a fair and just society. Returning to the Justice Committee, it received evidence from Citizens Advice, which published a report called “Fairer Fees” in January 2015. It stated that 82% of its clients said that the fees deterred them from bringing an employment tribunal claim.
All the Government talk at the introduction of the fee regime was about weeding out vexatious claims. As I will go on to demonstrate, there has been no convincing evidence put forward that this system has done anything to reduce such claims, in stark contrast to the significant body of evidence suggesting that people with genuine complaints have not been able to pursue their rights as a result of the fee system. It may be that part of the Government rationale is that those who use the system should contribute to it, in which case far more equitable solutions can be found. It may be that despite everything else, it is and always was part of the Government’s plan to reduce the number of claims being made, in which case they have succeeded.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this very important debate. Does he agree that one of the reasons given in the Beecroft report, which initiated the imposition of tribunal fees, was the desire to make business more efficient, and that the very notion that people being prevented from having access to justice within the workplace would increase productivity and make a business more efficient is completely misguided?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The suggestion that workplace rights and treating people with respect and decency is somehow an impediment to a business running well is the stuff of nonsense. Having a stable and well-motivated workforce actually helps to improve productivity. The Beecroft report is really where all this is coming from. There is a view that employment rights are somehow an impediment to the good operation of business. If someone has the misfortune of having worked somewhere for less than two years, they effectively have no employment rights, so that has been got through almost by the back door.
Let me return to the reduction in the number of claims. Undoubtedly, that has been stark, and if that is the Government’s intention, it has been successful, but it is unfair, crude and a denial of basic justice. The Citizens Advice report stated that 47% of its clients who were potential type B claimants—those bringing unfair dismissal or discrimination claims—said that they would have to save all their discretionary income for six months in order to be able to proceed with a type B claim. And those are the lucky ones—many who have lost their job have no discretionary income. Keeping a roof over their head and putting food on the table will always take priority over pursuing a claim for which the outcome is uncertain and which will not be resolved for months.
Somebody facing a situation in which they may want to go to an employment tribunal is stressful enough, and they may well be thinking that they might lose their job or have to leave their job because they are so unhappy. With that in mind, there was the figure from Citizens Advice that four out of five clients they dealt with felt that the current levels of fees would deter them from even bringing such a claim. Does my hon. Friend think that is an acceptable state of affairs?
No, it is not an acceptable state of affairs. My hon. Friend makes a really pertinent point: if somebody is still working for an employer, the last thing that they want to do is take them to a tribunal. It does not help the employment relationship to improve, and it almost certainly leads to a parting of the ways one way or another. We should be there to help people if they have had a violation of their rights. There should be an easily accessible system to enable them to resolve things.
Let me go back to the startling statistic that those bringing type B claims would have to wait six months in order to afford the fee. Does that not tell us something? When the time limit for bringing such claims is three months, the fact that a person would have to wait six months in order to afford the fee is a complete exposé of how wrong-headed and unjust the system is, so if the Government are minded to make any changes, at the very least, they should look at the level at which fees are set.
I will say a few words on remission, because no doubt that will be used to justify the level of fees. However, do not forget that the comments that I just referred to have been made by people at a time when fee remission is available, so it obviously is not working for many. It is worth noting that when the Government first looked at the fee remission system, they estimated that about 63% of claimants were predicted to benefit from fee remission in whole or in part, but in reality, only about 21% have. The average monthly take-home salary in this country is just under £1,800. Remission is not available to people on that salary, but they are asked to stump up two thirds of that sum just to pursue a tribunal claim. Does that not highlight how unrealistic the fee remission system is?
We also have the completely indefensible situation in which an employer does not pay their staff, which is one breach of the law, but that is then compounded by the fact that the employer does not issue payslips and, because the individuals have not received payslips, they cannot access the remission system. How can that be a just situation?
If the objective of introducing fees was to weed out unmeritorious claims, the policy has been a failure. The success rate has not really changed, and I argue that the employment tribunal structure has plenty of well-developed measures to deal with unmeritorious claims, such as deposit orders, strike-outs and costs awards. Indeed, over the last decade or so, there has been a general ratcheting up of measures designed to deter and weed out frivolous, vexatious and misconceived claims. The rules are there, are clear and are perfectly capable of being applied, so I suggest that that is the route to go down if the concern is really about stopping people pursuing claims unreasonably or vexatiously.
While my hon. Friend is on that point, I want to mention the fact that under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, legal help was available to advise clients on whether they had a claim that was worth pursuing at a tribunal. Would it not have been better for the Government not to mess around with legal help under that Act, and to allow people the opportunity to receive that legal advice, which often acted as a safety net?
I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for his intervention. Of course he is absolutely right: that advice is an important safety net. I know from experience that the majority of people who are advised that they do not have a claim will take that advice on the chin and will not pursue the claim, so the fact that we have not been able even to maintain levels of access to advice has probably only made the situation worse.
As I was saying before the intervention, there are rules to deal with unmeritorious and vexatious claims. I want the Minister to tell us today whether he considers that those rules are effective, and if he does not, what he will do to change them.
Denying access to justice via a high fee level is arguably making no difference at all to the number of vexatious claims being lodged, because if this system was weeding out vexatious claims, the success rate would increase. The fact that it has not suggests that the fee system is a deterrent to all. Ministry of Justice statistics indicate that success rates have in fact remained broadly the same, rather than increasing. In the four quarters before fees were introduced, success rates ranged between 10% and 9%. In the four quarters after fees were introduced, success rates were broadly similar at 9%, 9%, 5% and 13%. Even the president of the employment tribunals, Mr Brian Doyle, suggested that only a very small percentage of claims can be identified as weak or unmeritorious and that we need to be careful about the way in which we bandy around the term “vexatious” when it comes to claims.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is of course absolutely right. Trade unions play a vital role in ensuring that justice is served for their members, but they also play a wider role by not supporting or endorsing claims that are considered vexatious or weak. We really should mark out that contribution that is made. Of course the vast majority of people who work in this country are not trade union members. Perhaps that is one reason why the figures have not substantially changed as a result of these initiatives from the Government.
The myth that there is a vexatious culture out there has been perpetuated by parts of this Government and certain sections of the media. It is almost as if they believe that there is an army of litigious individuals out there who are routinely fleecing employers with spurious claims. That view has no basis in fact. As I said, there are already rules to stop vexatious claims proceeding. Each case is considered by a legally qualified judge. Most employers have access to professional advice on their case and far more are legally represented at tribunals than claimants—and all of that in a country that regularly appears near the bottom of the pile in any OECD studies of the strength of employment protection across the planet. It is far from the easy ride for employees that some people would portray.
In addition, it is simply not the case that there are hundreds of no win, no fee lawyers out there ready to exploit employers by bringing forth spurious claims. The clue is in the title: “no win, no fee”. If the lawyer does not think that the claim will win, they will not get paid for it, so why would they waste time pursuing a claim that they know will ultimately be unsuccessful?
The idea that employers are a soft touch in these matters is simply untrue. Most are professionally represented and should be able easily to spot someone trying it on. There is a question about how those who are not members of trade unions access affordable representation. We have dealt with that in some of the interventions today. Of course I would say that the best thing that anyone can do to protect themselves in the workplace is to join a trade union, but that is not a substitute for basic advice and support for people who find themselves in these very difficult situations. The Government have pulled the rug out from under them.
This system not only prevents access to justice, but feeds the myth that employment rights are some sort of undesirable impediment to properly functioning businesses. At its worst, it acts as encouragement to those rogue employers who think that employment protection and workplace rights are an optional extra to be ignored whenever possible.
There is plenty of evidence from those representing individuals in employment tribunals, including those who gave evidence to the Justice Committee, that some employers will deliberately decide not to engage in any kind of discussion about resolution of a claim until the very end of the process, even when they may very clearly be in the wrong. The pre-claim conciliation process run by ACAS can be and often is met by employers refusing to engage at all. They know that if they have dismissed an employee, they may not have the funds to pay for a tribunal claim. Even when one is under way, they still hold off until the hearing fee is paid before seriously considering whether they should engage in settlement negotiations. That can be as little as three weeks before the tribunal hearing. That wastes everyone’s time and the tribunal’s and the taxpayer’s resources. There is a category of employers who will not engage with anything unless they know that the employee has paid their £1,200, but even in the cases in which the lower fee applies, there is now a real dilemma facing employees, who are asking themselves, “Can I afford to take this on even though I know I am in the right?”
The starkest example—I referred to this earlier—is one from my own experience shortly before I was elected to this place. It involved an employer systematically refusing to pay their staff over a period of weeks. They refused to engage with ACAS in early conciliation and decided instead to sit back and wait for the tribunal claims that never arrived. The people affected whom I saw were all women and had all lost several weeks’ wages. There was no doubt that money was owed, but all of them questioned spending £390 to recover a similar amount and some of them were actually seeking to recover less than their initial outlay in fees, so for them the dilemma was even greater. Of course, there was no reason to suppose that they would not succeed in their claims, but it is a sad fact that employers, even if they do lose, do not actually pay the compensation due to the employee more than 50% of the time. Given the intransigence shown up to that point, I could not criticise those people at all for not wanting to take that risk.
How can anyone defend the bad employer playing the system and preventing very basic employment rights, including the right to be paid, from being enforced? It does not take a great feat of imagination to see how that attitude can inform an employer’s thinking on whether they should, for example, take steps to dismiss an employee fairly in the first place. After all, if they want rid of someone, why waste too much time on that process if they think that the person will not have the resources to challenge it afterwards? Far from the picture painted by some, this Government are actually creating a culture in which an employer can hire and fire with impunity.
Then there is the situation in which the employer becomes insolvent. The claimant has to apply to the Redundancy Payments Service for redundancy pay, but if there is no employer left to order reimbursement from and it is not recoverable from the national insurance fund, the claimant never recovers their fees. How can it be right that the state can profit from that situation? What kind of situation allows an employee to be, in effect, fined for attempting to exercise their rights in the already difficult situation in which there is an insolvency?
The GMB union has provided a very clear example of what amounts to a significant profit made off the backs of trade union membership fees. It was involved in a claim in Sheffield against a company that in February 2015 went into administration. The business was later sold to new owners, with the original company being wound up. There were redundancies, and the employment tribunal found in favour of the 48 people who brought claims in respect of a failure to consult and unfair dismissal. The claimants were supported by the GMB and three other unions, with fees totalling £13,200 being paid to issue the claims and have them heard. Although the tribunal ordered the respondent to refund the fees, there was virtually no chance of recovering them, as the legal entity had been wound up. Notably, it was only possible for those employees to bring claims because they were supported by a union to get their case before the tribunal. That is a tribute to the importance of trade union membership, but it cannot be right that trade unions or individuals have to make such payments with no avenue for recovering the cost. In that situation they were completely blameless, so why should the state penalise them?
On the question of costs, it has been suggested that one of the justifications for the fee system is that it will recoup some of the costs of the tribunal system. If that was the intention, the system has been a failure. The latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15, the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million and expenditure on employment tribunal services overall was £71.4 million, which means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the employment tribunal service. The Government seem to have been unable to quantify, in response to written questions, the extra administration and staffing costs in the tribunal service of having to administer the fees and the remission system. In reality, the gain in revenue is probably lower than 12.5%, and it has been achieved at the expense of a 69% drop in the number of claims.
There is no mention anywhere in any of the documents I have seen of the benefit to the taxpayer from the application of the recoupment regulations, which can result in an employer paying back to the taxpayer thousands of pounds—for example, in jobseeker’s allowance already paid to the claimant—which is offset against the claimant’s compensation. Such repayment is normally ordered where a tribunal has made a finding of unfair dismissal. Why is that clear benefit to the taxpayer not included in any considerations, and has anyone stopped to consider that the level of recoupment will have reduced as the level of claims has reduced—
I will be brief, Mr Streeter. As we have discussed, do not the participants contribute to the system through their taxes anyway? Is it not simply part of the cost of a civilised society? In the long run, we all benefit from stable and balanced employment relations. If the Government are so determined to recoup costs and if they are genuinely interested in ensuring access to justice, surely the obvious way to deal with the matter is to levy a fee or apportion a percentage of compensation at the end of the process, not at the beginning.
At the moment, if a claimant is successful, they can recover their fee from the respondent, but what is the respondent’s contribution to the costs of the tribunal? It is nothing. I suppose it could be argued that they indirectly contribute by recovering the fee and repaying it to the employee, but as we have seen, that outcome is not certain, and the burden disproportionately falls on those who seek to enforce their rights.
Employment tribunals play a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of basic rights, such as the rights to the minimum wage, paid holiday, time off and maternity leave, and the right not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. If we value those rights and think that they are important, we should also value the ease with which people are able to exercise them. Those rights are not just about individual dignity and respect in the workplace; they bring with them important social and economic benefits for the country. They ensure that most people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income than they would have. They encourage a committed and engaged workforce and the retention of skilled workers. They allow people to plan their lives and plan for the future, knowing that if they do a good job and their employer runs its business well, they are likely to remain in work. Employment rights are, ultimately, of benefit to everyone. The fee regime not only undermines those rights but actively encourages rogue employers to flout the law, and I say that the regime should be scrapped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on making an excellent contribution. Like him, I believe it is clear that the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has led to a reduction in claims, and we can only conclude that that is denying workers access to justice. In April to June 2014, the first three months after the introduction of fees, there was an 81% drop in claims. Discrimination claims, for which a £1,200 fee is required, have fallen, and sex discrimination cases were down by 91% in the first year. As indicated earlier, unpaid wages claims, which attract a fee of £390, are down, often because in those cases the fee is more than the amount sought by the worker.
There is no evidence that fees are needed to prevent unfounded claims from being made; on the contrary, evidence gathered by the Trades Union Congress, Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice England and Wales, the Law Society of Scotland and Bristol and Strathclyde Universities shows that workers with genuine cases are being prevented from lodging their claims by their inability to pay the fees. That can only mean that a growing number of unlawful employment practices are going unpunished, which is detrimental to the achievements of a fair workplace. As the general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, said recently:
“There is stark evidence that workers are being priced out of justice and it is women, the disabled and the low-paid who are being disproportionately punished.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are also talking about gender discrimination, because women who are suffering from pregnancy discrimination or maternity discrimination will be afraid to take cases with a price tag of £1,200, so they will suffer in silence?
I agree with that, and there has been growing evidence in the last few years of pregnant workers being dismissed unfairly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to say that the fee of £1,200 would be a natural barrier for women workers, particularly in sectors of the economy that are traditionally low paid, such as the retail sector. It would be very difficult for someone in such circumstances to progress. The hon. Lady’s statements are backed up by the legal affairs spokesperson of Citizens Advice Scotland, who has said:
“Employment Tribunals regularly include cases where people have been un-paid or under-paid for work they have done, or cases where they have been mistreated—including bullying, racism, sexual harassment. People who have suffered such treatment surely have a right to justice, and that right should not be based on their ability to pay.”
All the evidence suggests that the review of employment tribunal fees should include an equality impact assessment. As I have indicated, I am concerned about the divisive rhetoric that we sometimes hear on workplace and trade union issues. We are told that fees were introduced to save the hard-working taxpayer money, but those who are chasing a tribunal or who wish to submit a tribunal claim are, indeed, hard-working taxpayers.
In Scotland, the administration of employment tribunals is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. In the Scottish Government’s programme for government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:
“We will abolish fees for employment tribunals, when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work. We will consult on the shape of services that can best support people’s access to employment justice as part of the transfer of the powers for Employment Tribunals to Scotland.”
That proposal is supported by Scotland’s “workers’ parliament”—the Scottish TUC’s annual congress—and by Citizens Advice Scotland. I will end with the words of the latter in welcoming the Scottish Government’s intention to abolish tribunal fees:
“So we are delighted that the government has addressed this issue, and has seen the urgency in putting it right. These fees should never have been introduced, and they need to be scrapped as soon as possible.”
I could not agree more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my previous occupation as a director of Thompsons Solicitors, which is a national firm of employment law specialists that conducts a substantial number of employment tribunal cases on behalf of trade unions and their members?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. Like him, I am deeply concerned about this issue. As he outlined, the impact of the coalition Government’s tribunal fees has been to price people out of access to justice. The Conservative party calls itself the party of working people, but if there is one single policy that totally exposes that statement as a myth, it is the introduction of employment tribunal fees. The Conservatives knew exactly what the impact of the policy would be, because they and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners at the time were told repeatedly and forcefully that the proposal would decimate access to justice. Just as with legal aid cuts, civil court fee increases, restrictions on judicial review, the Trade Union Bill, the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act and the intended increase to the small claims limit that the Chancellor announced in last week’s spending review, employment tribunal fees were not introduced to solve a real problem. They were introduced to diminish the voice of ordinary working people, of trade unions and of their members.
I am sure the Government will try to say that the rationale for introducing the fees was to defray the cost of the Courts and Tribunals Service. If that really was the rationale, it has failed spectacularly, because so few people can afford to bring claims that the revenue has not been generated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General openly stated that the purpose of the fees was to deter people from bringing employment tribunal claims. In an article for The Telegraph website in March 2014, he wrote:
“Unscrupulous workers caused havoc by inundating companies with unfounded claims of mistreatment, discrimination or worse. Like Japanese knotweed, the soaring number of tribunal cases dragged more and more companies into its grip, squeezing the life and energy from Britain’s wealth creators.”
He went on to say that the tribunal system had
“become a system that in too many cases was being ruthlessly exploited by people trying to make a fast-buck.”
Where is the evidence for that? If the situation really was as he stated, the success rate in employment tribunal cases brought after the introduction of fees would have risen significantly, because the fees would have acted as a disincentive for unmeritorious claimants. What has actually happened? The success rate has stayed at the level it was at before the introduction of fees.
Preventing access to justice through high fees, therefore, weeds out not just unmeritorious cases—I accept there will be a few of those—but nearly all cases. In that respect, the policy has been tremendously successful. Fees have had a severe negative impact on the ability of people—particularly those on low and average household incomes and the more vulnerable in society—to access the justice system. That was a shameful intention. We had a Minister openly stating that he and his coalition partners wanted to prevent members of the public from accessing the justice system.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised by that attack on hard-working people in the workplace who want to seek justice. Like me and other Members, she has experienced the gagging Bill part 1, the gagging Bill part 2 and what is classified as a trade union Bill. All in all, they are a concerted attack on people who just want to get on in life. If there is a problem with justice in the workplace, they want to be able to challenge it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I could not have put it better myself.
As we have heard, there has been a 69% drop in single-applicant cases since the introduction of fees. However, I want to comment on a couple of other statistics. There has been a 90% drop in sex discrimination cases and a 45% drop in pregnancy-related unfair dismissal cases. That is yet another example of the Prime Minister’s problem with women. He does not want public money spent on women, so they bear the brunt of 75% of his Government’s public sector spending cuts. He does not want to do anything about the grossly unfair VAT regime—the tampon tax. Instead, he cuts funding for domestic violence refuges and rape counselling services, and he makes women pay for those services themselves through the VAT on sanitary products. Furthermore, if any of us is subject to sex discrimination at work or sacked because we are pregnant, he prices us out of access to an employment tribunal to challenge that unlawful treatment.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Irony is alive and well in this House. I do not quite know where to start with my thanks to the Prime Minister for the way he treats women.
I turn to what I expect the Minister to refer to as the Government’s mechanism to mitigate people’s being priced out of justice: the fee remission system. Given that the affordability of fees is a central issue in the debate, the remission system’s effectiveness in addressing it is important. However, the reality is that the system is little more than a fig leaf. For each separate fee incurred, a separate application for fee remission, with detailed evidence of income, must be provided. The booklet to guide people through the process is 31 pages long, and the preparation of applications can take up to 30 minutes, increasing the costs of the case every time a court fee is incurred. That work also has an impact on the time of court and tribunal staff. It represents unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as a backward step in the Government’s stated intention to move towards deregulation, efficiency and cost cutting.
In a speech to the Engineering Employers Federation in November 2011, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said:
“I want to make it very clear that for those with a genuine claim, fees will not be a barrier to justice. We will ensure that there is a remissions system for those who need help.”
The latest available information on remission comes from statistics issued by the employment tribunals. They show that, from July 2013 to June 2015, only 17.7% of issue fees requested were remitted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston commented on the redundancy fund. Claimants are forced to pay tribunal fees out of their redundancy pay. I really hope the Justice Committee will address that issue in its report on access to justice. I also hope it will look specifically at the terrible problem of employment tribunal fees, which affect women in particular. I ask the Minister to take those comments back to his colleagues to ensure that fees are scrapped.
Like my colleagues, I can confirm that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Special thanks to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing what I, like his colleagues, consider to be an extremely important debate.
I rise as a member of the Scottish National party to put the SNP’s case, and I want to start by putting the issue in a Scottish context. The issues of employment law and employment tribunal fees are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. There is an expectation that clause 37 of the Scotland Bill will devolve the financial arrangements and management of employment law tribunals to Scotland. The Scottish Government have a clear policy of abolishing the fees as soon as we have the power to do so. To quote the Scottish programme for government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) did, that will be done
“when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work.”
The devolution of any part of the administrative justice sphere in Scotland is done through a separate Order in Council. We are yet to see whether the Government will sign off the relevant Order in Council and whether it will include the right to adjust employment tribunals, but we are working on the basis that that is what will happen.
Why does Scotland have an interest in this issue? We could argue that, if these issues are devolved, it will be for Scotland to decide whether to abolish fees. Of course, that disregards the funding arrangements between the UK and Scotland. If fees are abolished in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s funding mechanism will be increased by the extra amount the Scottish Government will have to spend in future years on employment law tribunal fees. While we have a commitment to abolish fees, therefore, unless the fiscal arrangements are correct, Scotland will have to find the money to do so from the remainder of its budget—which we are willing, at this juncture, to do, because that is clearly the moral thing to do.
As I said earlier, the imposition of employment law tribunal fees follows from the Beecroft report. The premise on which it was based was high-handed. The report stated that business must be allowed to grow and to be more efficient, but that employment law impedes that. That statement is very contentious. As I said in my intervention, simply stripping a firm of its cost liabilities and potential need to spend money does not, in itself, make that business more efficient. I would argue that if a business treats its staff correctly, the staff will treat the clients correctly, and that will make the business more productive and efficient. The premise on which the imposition of the fees was based is therefore flawed at best. This is all being done to save the £82 million or so a year that was spent on employment tribunal cases.
The upshot is that someone with a simple claim for being refused time off, or for a breach of working time regulations, faces a £160 issue fee and a £230 hearing fee. For a more serious case of discrimination for wrongful dismissal, there is a £250 issue fee and a whopping £950 hearing fee. God forbid that anyone would ever need to go to appeal, as the combined cost is £1,600 on top of what has been paid for the previous hearing. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this will be a material deterrent to claimants bringing their cases.
Every litigator worth their salt—I speak with some credibility as I used to be a litigator—understands acutely that quite often the way to win a case is not to win a substantive argument, but to pile cost pressure on the other side. This is the Government trying to use a litigious tactic to pile cost pressure on claimants who, ordinarily, just want their grievances heard. It is a disgraceful course of action. The result in Scotland has been a 92% reduction in redundancy claims, an 81% reduction in sex discrimination claims, and a 90% reduction in claims for breaches of working time regulations.
Legally, through free access to employment law tribunals, we went as far as we could in making rights that protect workers absolute; now, they are not absolute. The right to not be unfairly dismissed, to be free from sex discrimination, and to be consulted on redundancy is no longer absolute. I asked the Minister what kind of message this sent out. It sends out a message that it is okay to abuse workers because, essentially, they have no course of redress, and that it is okay for the rest of the workers in that organisation to feel that their fellow workers have been marginalised. That has a direct impact on their productivity levels, wellbeing, morale and, ultimately, the financial success of the organisation for which they work. With these changes, it appears that the lower someone is on the income scale, the more inaccessible justice becomes.
I will pick up on points made by previous speakers. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right to highlight that tribunals do not just award compensation. They can provide a statement of fact—of terms and conditions that give vulnerable workers clarity about their position in a company. He is also right that there has been substantial evidence to the Justice Committee—which, as a member of that Committee, I have heard—highlighting how much of a deterrent the fees are. He is right to point out that some employers will not even consider the claim until the issue fee is paid. That is piling even more cost pressure on to the vulnerable workers and works in favour of the employer. It tips the balance away from justice and towards employers for no good reason, as far as I can see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West rightly made the point that workers have been priced out of justice. The changes disproportionately affect women, minorities and those at the lower end of the income scale. He is also right to point out that there is wide support in Scottish civic society for the Scottish Government’s policy of abolition.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made some excellent points very well. She is right to say that the policy completely makes a mockery of the Conservative party’s claims to be the party of working people, and it is not evidence-based. As with much of the legislative agenda that I have witnessed since becoming a Member in this House, particularly the Trade Union Bill, this seems to be an ideological attack with no evidence base whatever. That follows a consistent theme in the legislation that I have seen come before Parliament since joining the House in May.
The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) also mentioned the wealth creators. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the genuine wealth creators in this country are low-paid, long-hours workers—many of them women—who are helping to keep the economic wheels turning, yet they are the ones under attack?
I completely agree with that. Any business that sees its staff as disposable units of production is headed for disaster. I go back to what I said: if businesses treat their staff properly, the staff treat customers properly. If customers are treated properly, the business will be successful. If a business is successful, there is a dividend for shareholders, which, no doubt, is the motivation of the Conservative party.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to persuade the Government, when he takes this information back to them, that their review should conclude what the Scottish Government, Scottish civic society and Opposition party Members conclude: that they should abolish these draconian fees without delay.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this very important debate. He speaks with huge experience—far more than me. He was, I think, an employment solicitor from 1998. I ought to declare my interest: I am a lawyer. Prior to my election to this House, I was a barrister at Wilberforce Chambers in Hull. Since then, I have been admitted to the roll of solicitors, practising only occasionally on a completely pro bono basis. As we are discussing tribunals, including employment tribunals, I ought to declare the fact that my wife is a fee-paid judge in the social entitlement tribunal, and a legal aid lawyer. She does not practise employment law. If she did, she would not do so through public funding, because the Government took away the little public funding that there was for employment law in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Since the introduction of employment tribunal fees in 2013, there has been a massive decline in the number of cases brought to tribunals. The number of single employment tribunal claims has fallen by 69%, and the number of discrimination cases has fallen by a massive 80%. It cannot be said that that is a result of weeding out unmeritorious claims. It is beyond what is reasonable to suggest that the Ministry of Justice could have calibrated fees perfectly to deter 50,000 or more vexatious cases every year while ensuring that all meritorious cases were heard before tribunals.
It is important to look at a couple of cases that have come to my surgery. One is the case of Steve, who is a full-time forklift truck driver in Hull, working for a builders merchant. He had worked five consecutive Saturdays but had not been paid. A simple wage claim amounted to £280, but the fee was £390—completely prohibitive. He would have been entitled to fee remission had he been advised, but as the Minister knows, there is no longer legal help for employment law. In any event, the procedure for claiming fee remission is so complex and long-winded that it would put anybody off. The suggestion that a layperson could tackle the complexities thrown at them in applying for the fee remission is just ludicrous, and the Minister probably knows that. He might not accept or want to concede that, but it happens to be absolutely right.
There are three problems. One is the possibility that fee remission is not brought to the public’s attention. I do not think that people know about it, and even if they did, it is too complex to tackle without some legal help. The fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. I looked at it briefly today. [Interruption.]
Order. We have a fourth problem: there is a Division in the House, so the sitting is suspended. I understand that we are expecting possibly two votes, so we will suspend for 25 minutes. If it is only one vote, please come back as quickly as possible, as we will suspend for 15 minutes.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before the short suspension for us to run along to the Division Lobby, I was explaining that there is a difficulty with the Government suggesting that the fee remission scheme is the answer to employment tribunal fees. I said that there were three problems. First, there is the possibility that the remission scheme is not being brought to public attention. As far as I understand it, most people do not know it exists. I have spoken to various law centre staff and citizens advice bureau advisers who have said that people genuinely do not know that the scheme exists and are sometimes surprised to find that it does. Secondly, the fee remission scheme is an absolute minefield. Thirdly and lastly, how can any individual without legal help know what their own legal position is and whether they might be entitled to a fee remission?
I mentioned the first case study, but another one has come to me as an MP. It is the case of Mary, who was employed as a personal assistant. She brought a sexual discrimination claim when her employer was not happy that she had become pregnant. She left the job and immediately found other employment. Even with the fee remission, she was still required to find £840. It is fair to say that she begged and borrowed to come up with that money. However, she said to me that if she had not had family members and friends who were prepared to help her out financially, she would have had a problem. She could not have gone to a loan shark, and clearly she did not want to borrow money, but she considered it and eventually borrowed from friends and members of her family. But for that, she estimated that it would have taken her three months, even on a reasonable salary, to save the money to pay for the fee. We know that the statutory bar for bringing an employment case is three months. Clearly, people are not managing to get the money together to get an application in on time.
Such examples show that since 2010 the Government have attacked the rights of workers. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, employment cases were taken completely out of the scope of legal help; the Government have increased the time required to gain employment rights from 12 months to two years; we have seen the introduction of employment tribunal fees; and we have also seen the introduction of the Trade Union Bill, which further dramatically undermines the rights of working people. Any claim that this Government are on the side of working people is utterly disgusting, and I put that in the strongest possible terms. It is absolutely disgusting to suggest that this Government are on the side of working people.
The Government argued that the reason for introducing fees was to prevent vexatious claims, and then they argued that it was mainly to recover the cost of running the employment tribunal service from users who could afford to pay. However, the latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15 the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million, while the expenditure on the service was £71.4 million. That means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the service. That12.5% gain in revenue was achieved at the expense of a 69% overall drop in people bringing claims to employment tribunals—tens of thousands of workers deterred from seeking justice for breaches of their employment rights. The evidence must suggest that the Government’s introduction of tribunal fees is purely ideological. It is punitive and shuts thousands of workers out of accessing justice.
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
I am conscious of the time, and I am keen for the Minister to reply to hon. Members who have spoken. As I said at the outset, they are probably an awful lot better informed on the subject than I am. I do not want to take up too much more time, but I have some questions that I hope the Minister will make a note of and try to answer.
What is the Minister’s assessment of the high expenditure of the employment tribunal service? If it is terribly difficult for him to come up with a full answer immediately, I am happy for him to write to me. Given that the volume of cases is down massively, will the Minister explain why there has not been a corresponding drop in running costs? We are all keen to save money—we all want to make efficiency savings wherever possible—but the evidence seems to suggest that there is no genuine saving from the completely unfair introduction of fees.
I just want to provide an anecdote. I was talking to an employment tribunal panel member last week. He is supposed to sit for 31 days a year, but in the past 12 months, because of the paucity of cases being brought to the tribunal, he has been able to sit for only nine. We have some expensive people sitting in employment tribunals having to string cases out because people cannot afford to bring claims.
I said that Opposition Members have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field, and my hon. Friend has just highlighted that. Employment judges, who are paid—I will guess at the amount—probably upwards of £140,000 a year often sit idly without any work, as a result of what the Government have done with fees.
Finally, if, as the Government have claimed, the dramatic fall in the number of cases is down purely to the removal of vexatious claims, why have we not seen an increase in the percentage of successful claims? If the necessity to introduce the fee scheme was about preventing vexatious and unmeritorious claims, surely the success of the claims that are in the tribunal system should be going through the roof, but that is clearly not happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing the debate. It is an important subject, and I know that in his case it is particularly so, given his background as an employment solicitor. I thank the other contributors, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), and the two Front-Bench spokespeople, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). I also thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for allowing me the opportunity to put on record the Government’s position.
The Government recognise the crucial service that employment tribunals provide to those employees who have serious disputes with their employers. It is vital that people in that position have meaningful access to justice and an effective way to remedy their problems.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, as I will turn to that issue, and also to the issue of working people that has been mentioned by a number of colleagues.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Government were elected as a majority Government with a clear mandate to eliminate the budget deficit during this Parliament. That requires a responsible approach to funding public services, which must include the courts and tribunals, both now and in the future. When the Government introduced fees in employment tribunals in 2013 it was estimated that the cost of running the service was about £84 million per year. Before the introduction of fees, the whole burden of that cost was met by taxpayers. Fees were introduced to reduce the burden, and to ensure that those who were using the service and benefiting directly from it were making a reasonable contribution to the cost, when they could afford to do so.
At the time the fees were introduced, we also applied Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service fee remissions. That scheme is there to ensure that those on low incomes are not prevented from lodging a claim. Under the scheme, those who qualify may have their fees waived, either in part or in full, depending on their financial means. I am a little disappointed that although much has been made of the employment tribunal fees, only a passing reference was made to the conciliatory scheme introduced by ACAS, to which I will turn shortly.
As far as remissions are concerned, I am grateful for, and have very much taken on board, hon. Members’ practical comments, and I can assure colleagues that my officials are looking at how applications are made to see how the process can be made simpler and more user-friendly.
I will not make any instantaneous decisions. I will look at everything in the round. We are considering the matter, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are undertaking a review—which I will come on to—of the whole employment tribunal fees structure, of which I am sure that matter will be a part.
The Minister mentions the review that is under way. The terms of reference for the review make no reference whatsoever to the question of whether the fees should be abolished. They simply say that the review will make
“recommendations for any changes to the structure and level of fees”.
Will the Government reconsider the terms of reference, and think about whether the fees should be scrapped?
The terms of reference are a little broader than the hon. Lady says. They are “to determine how successful” the employment tribunal fees have been in achieving “the original objectives”. There were three original objectives. One was financial, to consider transferring
“a proportion of the costs from the taxpayer to those who use the tribunal where they can afford to do so”.
The second objective was to consider any behavioural aspects,
“to encourage parties to seek alternative ways of resolving their disputes”,
and the third was to ensure that we maintained “access to justice”. We are carrying out the review in terms of those three broad original objectives.
I do not wish to labour the point, but the question is simple. We are not asking the Minister to make a decision today; we are simply seeking clarification and confirmation that he is not ruling out the abolition of fees altogether as part of the review.
It is important to appreciate that once the Government website publishes terms of reference, which have been there for many weeks, it is not appropriate to seek to change those terms of reference simply because one is in a debate, no matter how many times colleagues try to press me to respond in that way.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave setting out the three objectives against which we are basing the review.
It is important to note that the introduction of fees was designed to encourage parties to use alternative ways of resolving their disputes. Colleagues will appreciate that such means can often be more effective, less stressful and less expensive than formal litigation. For that reason, the previous Administration introduced the new early conciliation service, under which anyone contemplating bringing a complaint to an employment tribunal must first contact ACAS, which will offer conciliation that is free of charge.
ACAS’s evaluation of the scheme during its first year shows that the early results are promising. Although participating in early conciliation is not compulsory for either party, the vast majority do so. In 75% of cases, both parties agree to participate. The scheme was used by more than 80,000 people in its first year. Recent research by ACAS shows that more than 80% of participants in early conciliation were satisfied with the service. Much has been said so far about lawyers acting for people, so it is important to note that we have a free option, without lawyers who charge fees, that will also be less stressful and in an environment that is constructive to arriving at a solution. Sadly, it is often the case that when lawyers are involved, it can be antagonistic. That is not always the case, but it can be the case when two sets of lawyers are acting.
I assure colleagues that it was always our intention to carry out a post-implementation review of the impact of fees on employment tribunals. As Members will be aware, we announced that review in June. The aim of the review is to look at how effective fees have been in meeting the original objectives, as I mentioned. Following their introduction, there has been some concern—it has been expressed today—about the impact fees have had on people’s ability to bring claims before the tribunal. Those criticisms have tended to focus on selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context. In particular, the fall in the volume of claims issued in the employment tribunal has been pointed to as proof that people are being denied access to justice. That is too narrow a perspective when considering this rather broader issue. The fall in the number of claims is likely to be the result of a number of factors. Crucially, there is a failure to take account of the significant increase in the take-up of conciliation.
I maintain that it is too simplistic to say that the fees were responsible for the drop. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for just a moment, I will explain the other reasons that may have contributed to the decline in the numbers. As I have already mentioned, ACAS’s evaluation of the service suggests that the early results are promising. It is noteworthy that the trend was that the number of claims was declining before fees were introduced. It is likely that that was related, at least in part, to the improving economy, which has delivered higher levels of employment. The economy and employment have continued to improve, and it is therefore likely that we would have continued to see a trend of falling claim numbers, irrespective of whether fees were introduced.
I am giving a general analysis of the number of claims that were made to the employment tribunal. The trend of the total number of claims was declining. The hon. Lady seeks to talk about specific types of cases, and I am not going to go into that. I am talking about the general trend, because the debate and the numbers given so far have been broad and have related to the total number of applications received to employment tribunals.
Is the Minister casting doubt on the specific research on this matter carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice for England and Wales, the TUC and others? Will he write to me with the figures on the declining number of employment tribunals prior to the introduction of fees?
I am certainly not casting doubt on research. If the hon. Gentleman recalls, I said that I was not going to discuss specific issues and specific types of case. It is important to take things in the context of how the debate has been going so far. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke in broad-brush terms about the fees coming in and the total number of reductions.
I politely ask the Minister, when he takes the information from this debate back to the Government and his colleagues, to point out to them that although there may arguably have been a small decline or a trend before the imposition of fees, since then the numbers have fallen off the edge of a cliff. The trend has not continued.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. As I have said, we are undertaking a review at present.
Other policy reforms, including changes to employment law, which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to, are also likely to have had some impact on the figures. It is clear, therefore, that a wider range of factors needs to be taken into account if we are to have a proper assessment of the true impact that fees have had, and that needs to be considered in the round. That is why we are doing a review, and that is what the review will seek to evaluate. If, after the review has reported, the Government believe that there are compelling arguments for changes to the fees structure or to the operation of the fee remissions scheme, we will, of course, bring forward proposals for a consultation, to which Members may wish to contribute.
We recognise that fees are never popular, but in the current financial climate we have a duty to consider all possible ways of ensuring that the courts and tribunals are adequately funded, so that access to justice is protected in the long term. Let me be absolutely clear, however, that at every step we have ensured that the most vulnerable are protected through the fee remissions scheme, so that the burden falls on those who can afford to pay. The conclusions of the review will provide us with a clearer picture of how fees have affected the way people seek to resolve their disputes.
Turning to some of the issues that were raised by colleagues in the debate, there was a charge that the fees were a sustained attack on working people. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] I do not accept that for one moment. I refer to something that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said in his speech—I will more or less quote him—which was along the lines of, “If you are still working, taking your employer to a tribunal is the last thing you want to do.”
That is exactly why an ACAS proposal and early conciliation is a lot better than going to the tribunal. I like to think that the proposal for ACAS fits in nicely in the context of that interpretation of his sentence. The conciliation system is free. Colleagues talk about considering the working man but it seems that, by proposing to scrap or not recognise the free early conciliation system, they are showing that they would prefer a system where lawyers are instead paid by the people whom they speak about.
I am glad that the Minister has praised ACAS and the service that it provides. On that basis, will he please therefore speak to his colleagues in government about the fact that Government Departments are not engaging in early conciliation via ACAS, and specifically, on the point that I made earlier in the debate, about the National Offender Management Service?
I take on board what the hon. Lady says, and I will certainly look into the matter further. On the remissions system, I have already said we are looking to see how it can be made more user-friendly, and we will continue to look at it. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston also quoted Lord Justice Underhill in the case in which Unison had been involved. I gently point out to him that both the cases brought by Unison to seek judicial review were rejected by the Court of Appeal. Unison is seeking permission to appeal from the Supreme Court, but let me put it on the record that we will object robustly if the appeal process is granted.
We still have about three and a half minutes, so I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if necessary.
On the issue of women and pregnancy discrimination, let me make it absolutely clear that it is unacceptable that women, pregnant or not—indeed, anyone—should be discriminated against when there are laws against it. We have strict laws and the Government take the matter very seriously, as do all Members of all parties. The reviews that have been referred to will certainly be taken into account by my Department’s review into the employment tribunals.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway spoke of the Scottish aspect. I can assure him that my officials are in contact with Scottish officials to ensure that, pursuant to the Smith Commission, there is a smooth transfer in the running of the tribunals. I hope I have managed to persuade colleagues that the matter is not simply about preventing vexatious claims; it is much broader than that and is intended to ensure that where there is a need to reach a settlement with an employer, it is done in an environment that is less stressful than the court environment. Given the financial climate in which we operate, it is right that those who use the court service should in some way contribute to it.
I will conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston on securing this debate. It is absolutely clear from the 90 minutes or so that we have had that it commands a huge amount of interest from colleagues. I am grateful to him for giving his colleagues an opportunity to air their views, and for allowing me to take on board their comments and views and put on the record the Government’s view.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I will be brief. I am disappointed in what the Minister has said today. I do not believe that he has really taken on board our concerns. I am very disappointed that, despite having had four opportunities to confirm that there is a possibility that the review of the fees will lead to their abolition, he has declined to confirm that. So we have a consultation and a review of the system, but it is nothing more than a comfort blanket to justify the original decision. I am also disappointed that, apart from the Minister, who spoke as best he could in a difficult situation, no one else from the Conservative party was here today to speak up on behalf of the Government’s policy. Perhaps they do not want to defend the indefensible.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Government’s approach is all part of a strategy in a race to the bottom. It is not a race that we should take part in. In the long run, we will all be the poorer for that kind of mentality. Let us get a system that allows workplace justice. Let us have a proper consultation and take on board all the evidence—the weight of evidence from the Justice Committee that we have heard today—about how the fees have really denied access to justice. Let us get a system that really allows access to justice. The only way to do that is to scrap the fees altogether.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.