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Employment: Tribunals

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of individuals who have been dismissed to invoke their employment rights when they cannot afford tribunal costs.

On 11 June, we announced the start of the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in the employment tribunal. The review will consider how successful the policy has been in achieving its original objectives, which included maintaining access to justice for those seeking to bring disputes to the tribunal. Our intention is to complete the review later this year.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness not aware that for many people, losing their job is an absolute disaster? There is also a feeling of grievance. Those feelings can be assuaged if people have access to a tribunal. In fact, to get to a tribunal they must make a quite large payment of £1,000. Why should they have to do that? Where is the justice in it? It is about time we had a revision of these procedures. They are most unfair to many people.

I know that the noble Baroness has raised this issue on many occasions. I hope I can reassure her that the very purpose of this review is to ensure that the original objective of maintaining access to justice for everyone has been achieved. Of course she is right that there has been an implementation of fees, but we also introduced other reforms that have had an impact. For instance, early mandatory conciliation helps to divert people from going through acrimonious hearings. That must surely be a better approach. In its first nine months, more than 60,000 people accessed this scheme. We are very clear that of course people must maintain and have access to justice, but there are other, better ways for employees with legitimate claims to try and resolve their disputes outside a tribunal if they can.

My Lords, will the Government also establish a review into the substantial increases in court fees that are damaging access to justice for small businesses that seek to recover debts and for victims of personal injuries who are seeking compensation?

My Lords, I have a slight sense of how Daniel might have felt when he first faced Goliath when I have to answer a question from the learned noble Lord. I assure noble Lords that any specific proposals that the Government have for changes to court or tribunal fees will be consulted on and brought before Parliament for the appropriate level of scrutiny.

My Lords, the Minister referred the House to the review that will be carried out. Will she accept from me that the terms of reference of that review are grotesque, give the appearance of pre-judgment and ask questions that no human being could possibly answer? For example, one question that should win a prize is whether there has been a reduction in weak or unmeritorious claims—not whether there has been a reduction in meritorious claims but only in weak ones. How anyone could possibly answer that I do not know. Will the Minister please ask the Ministers dealing with this to review the terms of reference and consider whether an independent body ought not to carry out the review rather than the Government as a judge in their own cause?

My Lords, this will be a very fair review, which will look at all factors. It is absolutely critical to ensure that we understand what is happening. As I previously said, of course fees have had an impact, but they were not introduced on their own. The Government also brought forward early mandatory conciliation which, as I said, is having a good impact. But the system was not perfect before the introduction of fees. Individuals and employees with legitimate claims who were forced to go through acrimonious tribunals now have the option of mandatory conciliation. Businesses often had to face speculative claims, which obviously was very distressing and difficult for them to deal with, and the taxpayer was footing a £71 million bill. This review will look at all the factors involved and, if the Government believe that further action needs to be taken, of course it will be brought to the House and a consultation will happen in the normal way.

My Lords, let me ask a question which I have asked the Government before, both in writing and orally, and never had other than a completely evasive response. As the Minister and the whole House know, there are very widespread allegations of job discrimination among job applicants. When jobcentres encounter prima facie evidence of job discrimination against their applicants, what is their policy? Do they keep a record of those occasions? If so, what are the numbers for the latest period available? Do they take legal action or support the applicant in taking legal action under the law? They can hardly expect the applicant himself or herself to have the resources to pursue legal action. If they do, on how many occasions has such legal action been taken or supported?

Will the Minister address the problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about small businesses being prevented by rising court fees from having justice within the system? That was something echoed last week when we talked about late payment of commercial debt.

My Lords, we are doing everything we can to ensure that everybody has fair access to the justice system. Part of the reason we reformed the employment tribunals was very much so that small businesses could therefore start to be able to deal with these and go through conciliation.

My Lords, I understand why the Minister feels that she is entering the lions’ den, but is not that because the policy of this Government, as before, has been to reduce the opportunities for the vulnerable to seek legal advice and assistance—for example, through the destruction of the legal aid system? Would she consider the implications of that, please?

I am not sure whether the noble and learned Lord had the opportunity to hear the speech earlier this week from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. The speech was extremely clear about making sure that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that everyone has access to justice and that we are very focused on the needs of those most in need.