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Employment Tribunals

Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

I will raise the case of a constituent that has far-reaching concerns for those across the House. I have been joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who will probably intervene. The subject of the debate is an unfair dismissal tribunal.

My constituent Anna Hardie came to see me at my surgery. Her husband had been ill for some time. She was very worried because he was really stressed at work—I will not, in any way during this short debate, say who would have been right and who would have been wrong should the case have got to a tribunal for unfair dismissal—so they eventually decided as a family that he would leave that employment.

The family had financial commitments so Anna’s husband, Gordon, first wanted to get back into work. Then, Anna told me, they wanted to claim for unfair dismissal. Anna believed that they had actually submitted a case for unfair dismissal. It was a difficult time as her husband was very stressed and unwell when he came home from work, but she thought that that had happened. Gordon was 40 years of age. In January, he died of a heart condition, which Anna and some of the specialists feel was exacerbated by the stress.

Anna has a family and, as I am sure the Minister can imagine, it must have been an enormously stressful time for them. First they were worried about their finances and Gordon finding a new job, although he then found a new job. But they were still also worried about the tribunal. Then, of course, came the terrible situation of Gordon passing away at 40, which must have been absolutely appalling for the family. The autopsy clearly showed that he had an underlying condition, which is why he had been so tired and stressed when he came home from work.

Once Anna got her affairs together, she wanted to proceed with a constructive dismissal claim on behalf of her deceased husband. But when she went to the preliminary hearings, not only was she cross-examined by the company’s legal team—asking why she did not come forward earlier, whether her husband had really wanted to go for constructive dismissal and so on—at a time when she was still mourning and under a great deal of stress, but the judge also ruled that she was out of time. The time-barred rule had come in because the three-month limit had passed.

The judge did have a degree of ability to decide that the case could be heard and moved on to a tribunal because of the exceptional circumstances. However, I have learned that one of the problems is that there are different rules on exceptional circumstances rulings for judges at different tribunals, even those under the same Department. I would argue that, in natural justice—or just in humanity—someone who had been through such a traumatic time and lost their husband at such a young age would surely fit the criteria. But the judge ruled that Anna could not bring a claim, and the case was dismissed—without the judge hearing any evidence about what could have brought on some of the problems that led to Anna’s situation.

I am not going to say whether Anna would have won or lost if she had got to the tribunal—that is not for us to decide in this House. What we are looking for for our constituents is natural justice, and what Anna wants is not just natural justice for her, although we would like to meet the Minister to see whether there is an opportunity to take her claim forward. She can appeal the decision, but if the appeal is based on the same criteria, and possibly in front of the same judge she was in front of in the first place, the logic is that she will not be successful.

My hon. Friend is making a compelling case for his constituent about the importance of access to justice. However, the case he makes about the time limit on accessing justice involves other groups of people as well, and particularly women who may be subject to discrimination at work and who may need to seek redress through a tribunal, but who have only three months to do that, when they may well be pregnant or have very small children. Does he agree that reviewing the three-month period could be an important thing for the Government to do?

Absolutely. My right hon. Friend touches on exactly what I am coming to.

Because the different tribunals have different rules, it is really difficult to find out whether someone’s exceptional circumstances will be accepted. One thing Anna and I discussed in my surgery is what would happen if someone had had a nervous breakdown, had been sectioned or had been in a road traffic accident and was not well enough to make a claim in time. Would the judge rule that those were exceptional circumstances, or would the person be time-barred?

One thing the Minister should look at is simplifying the process—I had a preliminary conversation with her earlier, and she was very generous with her time with me. We should ask why there are so many different rules on this. I was lucky enough to be a Minister in the Justice Department and the Department for Work and Pensions—I have been a Minister in lots of Departments, although not now—and there are different tribunals in each of them. I thought this was an issue for the Justice Department when I discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, but it has ended up with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because that is the right place for it to be.

However, if we are going to have tribunals and natural justice, and if we are going to get this right, we should move from three months to six months so that people have time to mourn or to get well before they have to bring a claim. Then we should give the judges proper, simple guidance about what the exceptional circumstances would be if someone needed to appeal outside that time.

Six months would limit things quite a bit. I know there are arguments that people might forget what went on or that the company would be left in abeyance, but that is not going to happen a huge amount of times. What we are looking for is fairness and natural justice, and our constituents have the right to feel that justice has fitted them. I am not saying that Anna would have won or lost, but she never had the opportunity to stand up for her husband, and now she wants to stand up for others. I hope the Minister will spend some more time with me after the debate so that I can introduce her to Anna.

More importantly, I hope the Minister can try to change the system. I know how difficult it is to change the system. I have been a Minister—my right hon. Friend was a Secretary of State—and I know how many brick walls will come up. The Chinese walls and everything will come up, and there will be a million and one reasons why we cannot resolve this, but there is one reason why we should—and that is Gordon Hardie, Anna’s husband.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing today’s important debate, and I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mrs Hardie for the loss of her husband.

I am aware of the Law Society Gazette article on my hon. Friend’s constituency case relating to unfair dismissal and how the judge treated the matter of discretion. Although I cannot comment on the detail, I am very sympathetic to the position in which Mrs Hardie finds herself, and, of course, I am very happy to meet her with my hon. Friend.

I can confirm that the “just and equitable” test is wider than the “reasonably practicable” test. A tribunal can extend time for bringing a discrimination claim forward where it considers it just and equitable to do so. For unfair dismissal cases, the claimant must demonstrate that it was not reasonably practicable to bring the claim within three months for the tribunals to extend the time and to allow the claim to proceed. Case law has established that demonstrating that it was not reasonably practicable is a more demanding test than establishing that it is just and equitable for the claim to proceed. This is what Parliament has set out in legislation. The time limit in both cases is stipulated in the relevant Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to my attention, because I was not aware of the impact that the difference in wording can have in cases such as that of his constituent.

One of things that was so distressing to Anna was that she was cross-examined about whether she had had conversations with her husband and asked where was the proof. There is no proof that I proposed to my wife. It was a very personal thing between me and her—there is no written evidence about the proposal. To say in a cross-examination that she had no proof that her husband wanted to do this, even though Anna had clearly discussed it with him, is abhorrent. She was cross-examined at a time that was enormously distressing for her.

Although I said I could not comment on the details of the case, I must say, given what my hon. Friend says, that there are situations in which the law itself is insufficient to guide the behaviour of barristers in their work. I find myself very sympathetic to the concern and horror expressed by my hon. Friend.

Yes, I would be delighted. I wanted to refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), but before I do so I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Can I just say that I have had the honour of kissing the Queen, so I am a right hon. Member? That might give the Minister a bit of time to find the right page. It is sometimes hard to do that; it has happened to me on more than one occasion. It was a great pleasure to have kissed the Queen’s hand.

I do apologise to my right hon. Friend—and indeed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. Towards the end of the day, one forgets these terms, but they are important.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke raised the issue of pregnant women or women who have just given birth and the time limit in respect of bringing cases to employment tribunals. She and I have discussed this in the past, and I am aware of the recommendations of her Select Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee, on this point. I can confirm that we are reviewing whether we need stronger protection against redundancy for pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave. We will consult on options in due course, and we would very much welcome her views during that process.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s announcement, which will draw very positive comments from well beyond these walls. Could that review perhaps be extended to cover the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has made a most compelling case for people who are in the particular circumstances that his constituent found herself?

I thank my right hon. Friend, who makes a sensible proposal. I hesitate to make too much of a commitment based on one case, no matter how harrowing it is. I think I must first meet Anna, if I may call her by her first name, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. However, I will certainly take the suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke into consideration, as we are indeed reviewing the position with regard to pregnant women and women returning from maternity leave.

I have not said much about bringing cases to employment tribunals, but the first step, of course, is for people to refer themselves to the arbitration service ACAS. The Government are committed to encouraging people to resolve their workplace disputes without the stress and cost of an employment tribunal. I reiterate that I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead for bringing this harrowing case to my attention. Although I have had to reserve my position regarding whether to include the situation in which his constituent finds herself—

I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet my constituent. She has opened a Pandora’s box, because she has quite rightly said that she wants to see other evidence to show that this is not a one-off. I took advice, as she probably saw from the article in the Law Society Gazette, from eminent lawyers, including Kerry Underwood from Underwoods Solicitors, who is a specialist in this area. She will find that not one, not two, but lots and lots of cases like this have been time-barred, when common sense and natural justice might have suggested that they should be allowed to go through.

In the case that there turns out to be a substantial body of evidence, as my right hon. Friend has indicated, I am sure that it will be very persuasive. I suggest that he invites the relevant Minister from the Ministry of Justice to join our meeting, because responsibility for this matter is shared across two Departments. With that, I conclude my remarks and thank my right hon. Friend again for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.