Who needs European Employment Rights


I logged into Twitter and someone had posted this image into my timeline. My eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets. The Brexit debate could scarcely be said to have been characterised by the accuracy and honesty of the arguments advanced, but this seems to me to be very seriously misleading.

I am going to deal with each of the points made. But two general points can be made immediately. First, the EU does not have the power to regulate Employment Rights generally. It is perverse to criticise the EU for not creating a right to a minimum wage where Member States have been scrupulous to ensure it does not have the power to do so. Second, the EU law sets a floor not a ceiling. There is nothing to stop the UK having more generous rights whilst remaining a member of the EU. The only thing continued membership prevents is having less generous rights.

Right to Holidays

The Holidays with Pay Act 1938 did not create a general right to paid holiday. It applied only to those workers who had their minimum wages set by a wage regulating authority (section 1(1)). Any worker whose pay was fixed under the Trade Boards Act 1909 and 1918 or the Agricultural Wages (Regulation) Act 1924 were not to be entitled to more than a week’s paid leave in each year and the former were not to be allowed to take more than three consecutive days of leave (Section 1(2)).

The relevant part of the Act was repealed in 1975. By 1997 there was no statutory right to paid annual leave (unless you were an agricultural worker). That position changed as a result of the Working Time Regulations 1998. The Regulations were intended to implement the Working Time Directive 93/104/EC.

The Directive created a right to four weeks’ annual leave.

The UK fought tooth and nail against the introduction of the Directive. It went to the European Court of Justice in an attempt to get it annulled. The attempt failed (see United Kingdom v Council of the European Union C-84/94).

It is true that the UK subsequently increased the entitlement by 1.6 weeks. The reason for the increase was that UK employers had insisted that bank holidays should count towards the four week entitlement. The significant point here is, as stressed above, that the Directive does not prevent the UK being more generous. It does, however, prevent the UK being less generous. It sets a floor not a ceiling.

So in Bear Scotland Ltd v Fulton UKEATS/0047/13, the Employment Appeal Tribunal made the latest in a series of findings that the UK had failed properly to implement the entitlement to paid annual leave. The Working Time Directive was used to bring the rights of UK workers up to the standard that applies across Europe. Without the Directive, UK workers would have had less protection.

Equal Pay

Should we pat ourselves on the back for having legislated for equal pay before even joining the EEC? In short, no.

The right to equal pay was enshrined in Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome itself, which was signed in … 1957. That meant that we were going to have to legislate if we wanted to join.

Although the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1970, it was not in force in 1973 when the UK joined the EEC. In fact, it did not come into force until December 1975. By then the Equal Pay Directive 75/117/EEC was in place. It required a substantial broadening of the right so that it covered cases where men and women were performing work of equal value. Again, Europe enhanced the rights of UK workers.

A number of subsequent decisions identified respects in which the Domestic legislation had failed properly to implement the European right. One example was the fact that the 1970 Act limited back pay claim to two years. That was held to be inconsistent with European Law and extended to 6 years.


Couldn’t the EU be more generous in respect of Maternity Leave? Couldn’t it set a minimum rate of pay?

In 2010, the European Parliament (that bunch of ELECTED Eurocrats) voted in favour of a series of amendments to the Pregnant Workers Directive 92/85/EU. These provided for, amongst other things, 20 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay.

The proposals were blocked in Council. The UK (you’ll probably have guessed) opposed the amendments. Who went along to block them? Vote Leave’s very own Chris Grayling MP: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-ministers-lobby-europe-against-socially-regressive-maternity-proposals

The ECJ has on a number of occasions forced changes to the UK Law protecting pregnant women and those who take maternity leave against discrimination that would have been permissible as a matter of Domestic Law.


It is entirely correct that there is no EU minimum wage law. The EU does not have competence to legislate in this area (see Para 4.4 here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332524/review-of-the-balance-of-competences-between-the-united-kingdom-and-the-european-union-social-and-employment-policy.pdf).

It is true that not all Member States have national minimum wages. Some have sectoral minimum wages and others achieve the same result by way of widespread use of collective agreements.

We were late to the party. The French have had a statutory national minimum wage since 1950.


Since we joined the EEC in 1973 and the Sex Discrimination Act was not passed until 1975, a TARDIS seems to be required.

[Edit: The article responds to the specific points made in the graphic circulating on the Internet. The scope of European influence on UK Employment Rights is much greater than the subset addressed here. If you are interested in a complete picture of what rights are under-pinned by European Law, I strongly recommend this opinion produced for the TUC by Michael Ford QC: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Brexit%20Legal%20Opinion.pdf ]

When is an ET claim not a claim? (Answer: When it’s part of a case)

For some years now, policy debate around reform of the employment tribunal (ET) system has been befuddled by confusion – some of it inadvertent, some of it wilful and malevolent – about whether the system’s workload should be measured in terms of the number of claims, or the number of cases – which includes the relatively small number of multiple claimant cases consisting of tens, hundreds or even thousands of claims. In 2011 and 2012, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition grubbily presented its erosion of the legal protection against unfair dismissal and introduction of hefty tribunal fees as necessary responses to ever-rising numbers of ET claims, even though the number of ET cases (mostly comprised of single claims by individual workers) peaked in the last year of Gordon Brown’s Labour government and fell in each of the Coalition’s five years, reaching a near-historic low even before the evisceration from July 2013 onwards due to fees.

With both claim and case numbers having hit rock bottom since the introduction of both fees (in July 2013) and Acas early conciliation (in May 2014), and the Ministry of Justice having switched to regarding case rather than claim numbers as the most meaningful measure of the ET system’s workload, the distinction has become somewhat less significant, and last month I paid little more than cursory attention to the latest set of quarterly ET statistics, covering the period July to September 2015. For the number of cases was remarkably similar to previous quarters. Move along, nothing to see.

But an article in the Guardian earlier this week by the campaigning journalist Frances Ryan – about how, thanks to fees, disabled workers cannot afford to challenge workplace harassment and discrimination – had me scurrying back to add the monthly figures for July, August and September 2015 to these three charts, created when the latest available figures were those for April to June:




Clearly, LGBT and ethnic minority workers cannot afford to challenge workplace harassment and discrimination any more than disabled workers. However, when it came to summing these and other monthly figures to add Q2 2015-16 to the following chart, I noticed something my cursory study of the Ministry’s spreadsheets in December had missed. Whereas in most discrimination jurisdictions the claim numbers were little different to those in previous months, as shown above, the number of age discrimination claims shot from 93 in May and 85 in July, to 11,415 in September. With the result that the total number of discrimination claims, not including equal pay claims, rocketed from 875 in May, and 1,047 in July, to 14,020 in September.


From which – especially if you are, say, a super-intelligent but rather slow-reading Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for justice, or a crack reporter at HR Director, the Solicitor’s Journal or the Law Society’s Gazette – you might conclude that the ET caseload has finally ‘rebounded after its post-July 2013 slump’ as ‘claimants adjust to the fees’.

Except it hasn’t, of course. Claim numbers don’t just leap from a 12-month average of 80, to 11,415 – at least, not in any meaningful way. My first thought was that it must be a data input error (of which there were several in the previous quarter’s set of statistics). But then I looked at the figures for equal pay claims, and saw that they also rocketed, from 359 in May and 529 in July, to 11,471 in September.

Yet, over the same period, the total number of ET cases fell, from 1,555 in May 2015, to 1,453 in August, and 1,433 in September. How does that fit with the stellar increase in age discrimination and equal pay claims in September?

Most people reading this won’t need me to spell it out, but just in case you are junior justice minister Shailesh Vara MP, or Emma Burns of Hugh James Solicitors, or David Barr QC of Temple Garden Chambers, here’s the explanation. In September 2015, when the number of multiple claimant cases was at a record low – just 80, compared to a pre-fees monthly average of 450, and a more recent monthly average of 171 – there were one or two exceptionally large such cases, involving a total of some 11,400 claimants bringing claims for both age discrimination and denial of equal pay. That case (or cases) aside, everything else continued much as before. So, there was no associated stellar increase in the workload of the ET system – which will have to determine only a handful of lead claims from among the some 11,400 claimants in that unusually large case (or cases) – even though the updated charts for age discrimination and equal pay claims now look like this:



All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying it’s about bloody time HMCTS started breaking down its figures for jurisdictional claim receipts, so as to distinguish between ‘single claim receipts by jurisdiction’ and ‘claim in a multiple claimant case receipts by jurisdiction’. We have these things called computers these days, which can easily make such distinctions, at minimal cost. We should use them.

Oh look, a new set of quarterly ET statistics …. zzzzzzzzz

Warning: This post contains selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context (© S Vara)

I have already written here about how yesterday’s latest set of quarterly tribunal statistics has cast yet more doubt over whether we humans will ever solve the Hancock Theorem, the last great unsolved mathematical puzzle of our time. But that post contained only two charts. And that is never enough to satisfy Gem Reucroft. So here are some more. With new colours!

ET case numbers are now really, really boring

Never mind the denial of justice, just look at the stability! Great for management planning. In Q2 of 2015/16, there were 4,345 single claims, just 58 fewer than in Q1. Such uniformity is unprecedented, and suggests ET claim/case numbers really have hit rock bottom.


Except ….

One story partly hidden in the above chart is the long, slow death of the multiple claimant case – that is, the kind of case that, in 2011, provided Coalition ministers with their bogus reason to introduce fees.


Have such multiple claimant cases been displaced to the civil courts by fees? Or have Stefan Cross QC, and the trade unions, simply run out of local authorities and NHS trusts to bring equal pay claims against? I haven’t got a clue, but someone who must know is Shailesh Vara, the cleverest man in the Government, who’s been reading the report of his Ministry’s post-implementation review of ET fees for the past two months. One paragraph at a time, it seems.

One day – quite possibly within the next year or two – Mr Vara will get to the end of the report, and will then tell the rest of us what it says. Maybe it just doesn’t have enough colourful charts for someone of Mr Vara’s intellect. They could have asked me!

In the meantime …

… while the junior injustice minister makes his stately progress through the post-implementation review report, as of the end of September 2015 the number of single ET claims/cases ‘lost’ to fees since July 2013 was somewhere between 52,290 and 58,380. But then my projections are so selective and out of context. And, in any case, according to the Hancock Theorem, not one of those 52-58,000 claims would have been well-founded.

Yes, the ability of the Ministry of Injustice to calibrate their ET fees so precisely as to weed out up to 58,000 vexatious and otherwise unfounded ET claims without denying access to justice to one single exploited worker makes the RAF’s Brimstone missile – now pounding Syrian sand into even smaller grains of sand with great if highly expensive accuracy – look like, well, an unguided missile.



Impact of ET fees: a Hancock and bull story

Warning: This post contains selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context (© S Vara)

So, today the Ministry of Injustice has coughed up another set of quarterly tribunal statistics – this one covering July to September 2015 (Q2 of 2015-16) – and we can hammer a few more nails into the coffin of that wonder of Tory intellectual thought, the Hancock Theorem of Vexatious ET Claims.

According to the second cleverest member of the Government – I’m sure Mr Hancock himself would concede top place to that titan of intellect, injustice minister Shailesh Vara – the success rate of employment tribunal (ET) claims should by now be bobbing around at or just below 100 per cent, all the vexatious and otherwise unfounded claims having been weeded out by the hefty, upfront fees introduced by the also very clever Chris Grayling in July 2013.

Unfortunately – not that the Cabinet Office minister gives a flying fuck – the Hancock Theorem has not been supported by the Ministry of Injustice’s own figures, even when taken in context. These have so far suggested that, far from going through the roof, the success rate has fallen significantly since mid-2014. Oops.

And today’s new figures will not increase Mr Hancock’s chances of winning the Fields Medal. Once again, in what is the sixth quarter since we could first have expected to see the impact of fees reflected in the outcome figures, the overall success rate – that is, including claims conciliated by Acas, or settled – is well down on pre-fees levels (but, at 63%, is one whole percentage point up on the last two quarters, so maybe there’s still some hope for the Hancock Theorem).

At 14%, the narrow measure of success is also down on pre-fees levels – and certainly not zooming towards 100 per cent, as the Hancock Theorem predicts. And, at 37%, the proportion of unsuccessful claims is once again significantly up on pre-fees levels, despite all the weak and vexatious claims having been weeded out by fees.

Luckily for Gem Reucroft, who likes charts, this is best illustrated by means of two charts:




Given that the Ministry statistics on which the above charts are based are highly selective, are taken in isolation and are 110 per cent out of context, I can’t really be arsed to explain the dotted lines in Q1 of 2015-16. But if you really need to know, all is explained towards the end of this previous post.




Vulnerable workers: Tories boldly go where Labour and the Lib Dems feared to tread

WARNING: This blog post contains words of praise for the Tories.

This post should have appeared on Hard Labour a couple of months ago. However, when I realised what I would be saying, I had to undertake a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. But I’m all right now.

Between 2000 and 2013, while working as employment policy officer at Citizens Advice, I wrote a deadly boring series of research and policy reports arguing for a consolidation of the three main labour market enforcement bodies – the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA), the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI), and the HMRC minimum wage enforcement team – into a single Fair Employment Agency fit for the 21st century, with the legal powers and resources to “root out the rogues” without imposing unnecessary regulatory burden on the great majority of compliant employers.

In the reports – and in any number of shorter articles, parliamentary submissions, campaign leaflets, and conference presentations – I noted that, all too often, vulnerable workers are too fearful of further victimisation or dismissal to issue an employment tribunal claim, the principal means of enforcing most statutory workplace rights. And, as a result, rogue employers can profit from exploitation with near impunity.

From the outset, my proposal was firmly opposed by the Great Protector of workers’ rights, the TUC. Protecting workers’ rights is a job for the trade unions, not government, I was told. And union membership was now growing so rapidly that all workers would be unionised by the 26th century. Well, all workers in whatever remained of the public sector in the 26th century, anyway.

However, as few if any of the tens of thousands of vulnerable, exploited workers seeking advice from CABx would live to cheer the arrival of the TUC’s cavalry, I plodded on. Occasionally, I would win over a key policy actor – the then Equal Opportunities Commission, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the trade union Unison – only to watch them get nobbled by the brothers and sisters at the TUC.

Then, in early 2006, the Labour government became interested, announcing – in a DTI policy document, Protecting vulnerable workers, supporting good employers – that “we need to ensure that vulnerable workers are not mistreated but get the rights they are entitled to.” Policy officials at the DTI (or was it BERR by then?) made encouraging noises. And in 2007 I was invited to join a Vulnerable Worker Enforcement Forum, chaired by the employment relations minister. This included senior officials from the enforcement bodies (including the HSE), as well as officials from each of their sponsoring departments, and my friends at the TUC were there to ensure nothing significant ensued.

Sure enough, when the Forum concluded in August 2008, having decided to do little more than create a single telephone gateway to the enforcement bodies – the Pay & Work Rights Helpline, since abandoned and rolled-up into the Acas helpline – the minister, Pat McFadden MP, told me that, while he agreed a Fair Employment Agency was a great idea, he couldn’t be arsed with all the inter-departmental wrangling that would be involved in setting one up. (To be fair to Pat, what I think he meant was “Gordon Brown won’t let me, and I can’t spend two years arguing with him”).

Fast forward to 2011, when (I’m told) the Coalition’s first employment relations minister, Ed Davey MP, used to wave a copy of my last report for Citizens Advice on the issue at BIS officials and demand to know “what we are doing about this.” Not a lot, seems to have been the answer, and in July 2012 a ministerial review of “the existing workplace rights compliance and enforcement arrangements, to establish the scope for streamlining them and making them more effective” quietly concluded that a single agency “would not provide significant benefits to workers.”

However, the idea appears to have stuck around in someone’s head, because in October 2014, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, then business secretary Vince Cable MP quietly announced that his party’s manifesto for the May 2015 general election would promise a new Workers’ Rights Agency combining the remits of “the minimum wage enforcement section of HMRC, the working time directive section at the Health & Safety Executive, the BIS Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the GLA.” According to Cable, this “joined-up enforcement approach” would “ensure the minority of unscrupulous employers who break the law do not get away with undercutting other employers who play by the rules.” So, there would be significant benefits to workers after all.

In the event, Cable’s clumsily-named Workers’ Rights Agency didn’t make it into his party’s 160-page manifesto, though when asked about this his then junior minister Jo Swinson tweeted “the idea’s still there.” By which Ms Swinson appears to have meant “the idea’s now been stolen by the Tories.”

For, while the Tory manifesto was as silent on the idea as those of the Liberal Democrats and Ed Miliband’s pathetically timid Labour – of six references to ‘enforcement’ in the Tory manifesto, five are to enforcement of immigration law, and one is to “tackling aggressive parking enforcement” – within a few weeks of his Clegg-free return to Downing Street, David Cameron announced the creation of “a new enforcement agency that cracks down on the worst cases of exploitation.” And Part 1 of the Immigration Bill – which earlier this week I watched being hand-delivered, all tied up in green ribbon, from the Commons to the Lords – establishes “a new statutory Director of Labour Market Enforcement, responsible for providing a central hub of intelligence and facilitating the flexible allocation of resources” between “enforcement of the national minimum wage by HMRC, the regulation of employment agencies by [EASI] and the licensing of legitimate labour providers by the GLA.”

OK, ‘Director of Labour Market Enforcement’ isn’t as snappy as Fair Employment Agency. But if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Indeed, it’s clear from the joint BIS and Home Office consultation exercise – which ends on Monday night – that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement not only looks, waddles and quacks like a Fair Employment Agency, but actually is my Fair Employment Agency in all but name.

The consultation document states that “the Director will have a high public profile as a leadership figure for labour market enforcement and against exploitation of workers,” and will “set out an effective and coordinated plan to promote compliance in areas where the intelligence indicates a threat of labour exploitation or greater levels of non-compliance. The Director will also need to be able to call on any of the enforcement bodies to assist in the implementation of that plan.”

Furthermore, the Director’s strategic plan will “set out, for the financial year ahead: the priorities for enforcement; the outcomes required from the enforcement bodies; and the budgets for the enforcement bodies, within the total envelope of available funding.” And “once approved by Ministers … the plan will be the starting point for all of the work of the three enforcement bodies [my emphasis].”

So, eat your heart out, brothers and sisters of the TUC. What Labour’s Pat McFadden and Gordon Brown couldn’t be arsed to do when they had the chance, and what the Liberal Democrats couldn’t even find space for in their 160-page tome of liberal do-gooding, the Tories are now doing, just like that.

Sure, it’s unfortunate they’re using an Immigration Bill to do so, and naturally a lot will depend upon that ‘total envelope of available funding’. But if the new Tory Government had simply wanted to diminish (or even abolish) the GLA, EASI and minimum wage enforcement, it could quite easily have done so without going to the trouble of creating its Director of Labour Market Enforcement, and without proclaiming its determination to “bring to justice those who are exploiting workers [and] stop such exploitation happening in the first place.”

So, well done you Tories. And now I’m going to go and lie down for a bit.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 14.44.28

Hurry up, Mr Vara!

If you were travelling to work on the 159 bus yesterday morning, and the peace of your journey was ruined by a lot of swearing, moaning and face-palming by a clearly disturbed man in the front seat, then I apologise. Yes, that was me. And I was reading my print-out of the Hansard of Tuesday afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate on the impact of employment tribunal (ET) fees.

At that point, I hadn’t even got to the Alice in Wonderland contribution of the junior injustice minister, Shailesh Vara. My huffing and puffing was due to the failure of Justin Madders, who had initiated the debate, and other opposition MPs to grasp that, far from rising dramatically since the introduction of fees in July 2013 – as one could expect if the fees were deterring only ‘vexatious’ or otherwise weak claims – the success rate of claims has fallen significantly.

“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,” said Mr Madders, before reiterating, a minute later, that “Ministry of Justice statistics indicate that success rates have in fact remained broadly the same, rather than increasing.” Mr Madders even flourished some of those Ministry figures, stating: “In the four quarters after fees were introduced, success rates were broadly similar at 9%, 9%, 5% and 13%.”

And Mr Madders wasn’t alone. Later in the debate, former Thompsons lawyer Jo Stevens noted that there is no evidence for ministerial assertions that fees are simply deterring ET claims by “people trying to make a fast buck” because “the success rate has stayed at the level it was at before the introduction of fees.”

Except it hasn’t. As set out ad nauseam on this blog, the success rate – however one measures it, and there are two ways of doing so – has fallen significantly in the four most recent quarters. I don’t recognise the four quarterly figures cited by Mr Madders, but if he really means the first four quarters after July 2013, then he is looking at the wrong quarters, for the simple reason that most of the claims decided in those four quarters were made before the introduction of fees. On average, it takes the system some nine months to determine a claim, so we can’t expect to see any noticeable impact of fees in the outcome figures – upwards or downwards – until about the middle of 2014. And, as the following chart shows, that is indeed when we see a sharp downwards change in the overall success rate.

Outcomes 2010 on

To be fair to Mr Madders and Ms Stevens, they are not alone in getting this wrong: Citizens Advice – which appears to have briefed the MPs – is guilty of the very same oversight. But then Citizens Advice hasn’t had an employment policy officer since 2013. These facts may or may not be related.

Anyway, I’m not going to repeat myself here, especially as the next set of quarterly figures will be published next week, and I will update my analysis of the data on outcomes then. But perhaps Mr Madders and Ms Stevens could spend five minutes reading the final section of this blog.

So, back to the real villain of the piece, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Injustice, Shailesh Vara. Luckily for Aviva, I had got off their bus before I got to Mr Vara’s contribution to the debate, otherwise I may have done it serious damage with my forehead. As noted previously on this blog, Mr Vara is not one of the Government’s most high-profile ministers. Apart from anything else, he’s one of the diminishing minority of MPs who don’t have a Twitter account, which begs the question: how on earth does he fill his working day?

Whatever Mr Vara does get up to in his Ministry office, it doesn’t appear to include reading the ET fees review report that was completed by Ministry officials and dumped on Mr Vara’s desk at least two months ago. Throughout his contribution to Tuesday’s debate, Mr Vara gave the impression that the review – belatedly launched in June – is still keeping his officials busy looking for ways to back up his evidence-free claim that “it is too simplistic to say that the fees [have been] responsible for the drop [in claim numbers].”

Yet, no sooner had I finished reading the Hansard, and recovered from the shock of learning that “criticism [of the fees] has tended to focus on selected statistics, taken in isolation and out of context”, that I came across the minutes of the 7 October meeting of the ET National User Group. And, according to Ministry official Bill Dowse, as recorded in the minutes, the review report was by then complete and “with the relevant minister.” Which is Shailesh Vara.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 21.24.10

So, come on Mr Vara, don’t tell us what the review report might say. Tell us what it does say. We’ve been waiting long enough. Or are you waiting for the Justice select committee of MPs to give you cover?


The one in which Mrs Wonky and I are as one

Last weekend, as Mrs Wonky and I walked to the bus stop together – not something that happens very often – conversation turned to the abolition of the paper tax disc. We know how to live, do we Wonkies. How the ****, Mrs Wonky wanted to know, do the wardens know who to clamp these days?

I may have muttered something about digitalisation before we mwah-mwahed and went our separate ways, but it was quite early and I was busy trying to solve, in my head, an outstanding clue from that Saturday’s Guardian prize cryptic crossword. Well, the setter was Mrs Wonky’s half-sister’s daughter – the incomparable Arachne – so I was simply fulfilling familial duty. And cousin Sarah had come up with some crackers, such as: Principled Greek, close to Syriza, agreed to be bound by resolution (10).

Anyway, it turns out Mrs Wonky is a better policy wonk than I may have credited in the past. Because a few days later it emerged HM Government has lost some £80 million in car tax revenue in just 12 months, as the number of unlicensed vehicles has doubled. So much for digitalisation. As Mrs Wonky postulated, thanks to the absence of colour-coded paper tax discs the wardens now don’t know who the **** to clamp. Even with their hand-held, digitalised thingamabobs. And their Nazi uniforms.

Now, £80 million may not seem very much, especially when set against the £4 trillion that the suddenly profligate George Osborne will be splashing out on what remains of the Welfare State over the next four years. But it’s still quite a lot of money. It’s certainly more than Mrs Wonky and I bring in each year, despite our obvious brilliance. And, as I quickly realised – me being a genuine policy wonk, unlike Mrs Wonky, who works in what she calls ‘marketing’ but I still call ‘fundraising’ – it’s equivalent to about four years’ worth of abolishing the Coalition government’s employment tribunal (ET) fees.

Back in the happy-clappy days when even serious people like Sean Jones QC believed Ed Miliband would win the May 2015 general election and justice secretary Sadiq Khan would then reverse all of Chris Grayling’s stupidity, I suggested that the total cost of scrapping the hefty, justice-denying ET fees introduced in July 2013 would be in the region of £20 million per year. Net income from the upfront fees may be negligible – just £4.3m in 2014-15 – but the near 70% fall in case numbers has generated substantial operational cost savings.

So, £80 million could go quite a long way, if one was genuinely concerned that mistreated and exploited workers have access to justice, so as to ensure a level playing field for law-abiding employers. Especially if one was prepared to consider replacing the existing, grossly disproportionate ET fees regime with an income-generating, nominal fee regime for both claimants and respondent employers.

As Stephen Cavalier of Thompsons Solicitors noted in his oral evidence to the justice committee of MPs earlier this month (see Q127), “if the [ET] system is to be funded by users, it should be taken into account that employers are users, as well as claimants.” Such a pragmatic, balanced approach could replace much if not all of that £20 million per year cost of abolishing the current fees regime. So that £80m could last a lot longer than four years.

But then that would be giving in to the existential threat to the UK economy of the Vexatious Claim Ogre. So Michael Gove and his officials at the Ministry of Injustice probably won’t be going there. They are too busy looking for ways to throw millions of pounds down the toilet. Like abolishing paper car tax discs.

Anyway, here’s me and Mrs Wonky as one, at Grounds for Sculpture, New Jersey, August 2011:



Will the Justice committee prove to be au fait with access to justice?

We should perhaps take encouragement from the fact that, on the same day it published the transcript of its oral evidence session on the impact of the Coalition’s disastrous employment tribunal fees, the Conservative-majority Justice Committee of MPs also published a scathing report calling on ministers to scrap the Coalition’s disastrous criminal court charge. However, even a quick reading of the transcript reveals deep levels of ignorance and prejudice on the part of some committee members that may yet prevent delivery of a double-whammy to everybody’s favourite justice secretary, Michael Gove.

In particular, several Conservative members of the Committee appear unable to shake off their irrational fear of the patently non-existent Vexatious Claim Ogre. “What is the solution for the employer facing a vexatious complaint? What is your solution to that particular issue, which affects lots of small businesses around the country?” demanded Philip ‘filibuster’ Davies, blithely ignoring a mountain of actual evidence, from the 2007 Gibbons review of employment tribunals – which concluded that “weak and vexatious cases make up only a small minority of tribunal claims” – to any number of past statements by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) that the number of such businesses affected by a tribunal claim, vexatious or otherwise, is actually very small indeed.

In October 2014, for example, in its written evidence to the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Bill committee, the FSB stressed to MPs that “only 3 per cent of our members were summoned before an employment tribunal between 2004 and 2009”, and in its oral evidence to the committee it happily noted that “a very small percentage of our members are damaged by tribunals, which is good news”. Indeed, as noted previously on this blog, at the time Coalition ministers decided (in 2011) to introduce hefty upfront claimant fees, the average private sector employer risked facing an ET claim about once every 27 years. Now, it’s about once every century. Can our valiant entrepreneurs really not cope with such minuscule risk? Maybe they should just stay in bed.

And before anyone says “yes, but 2004-09 is a long time ago”, Mr Davies himself had gone back to the last century to look for data that might prove the existence of the Vexatious Claim Ogre. In what must have been a frustratingly short intervention for a man used to talking non-stop for 52 or even 90 minutes at a time, Mr Davies stated that “between 1999 and 2005, the success rates for discrimination cases at employment tribunals were 28% for sex discrimination, 15% for race discrimination cases and 29% for disability discrimination cases. To most people, that would indicate that quite a lot of vexatious [claims] were being dealt with by the employment tribunals.”

Fortunately, Sybille Raphael of Working Families was on hand to point out to Mr Davies that his figures “do not take into account the far bigger number of claims that are settled, either during the tribunal process or before the tribunal process. They would not be settled if there was no tribunal there.” Shantha David of Unison noted that, in his written evidence to the Committee, the current President of the Employment Tribunals, Brian Doyle, had indicated “that only a very small percentage of claims can be [readily] identified as weak or unmeritorious, and that we need to be a bit careful about the way in which we bandy around the term ‘vexatious’.” Furthermore, Ros Bragg of Maternity Action noted that “we see no evidence that fees are effective in removing weak or vexatious claims”, and Rebecca Hilsenrath of the EHRC agreed that “there is no evidence of the fees having an impact on vexatious claims.”

I suspect that Sybille, Shantha, Ros and Rebecca would be more likely to convince the Pope that God does not exist than to rid Mr Davies of his faith in the Vexatious Claim Ogre, but some of the other myths about fees propagated by Matt Hancock and his mates in the tabloid press took a good pasting during the evidence session. Front-line practitioners Kate Booth of Eaton Smith LLP, Stephen Cavalier of Thompsons solicitors, and Shantha David all confirmed there has been no significant displacement of ET claims (such as breach of contract claims) to the county courts. And, in what may well prove to be the killer evidence to the committee, Kate Booth – who acts for both employees and employers – laid to rest the Ministry of Injustice’s canard that fees would “encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution services, for example, Acas conciliation”:

I sit on both sides of the fence. When I advise an employer, why would they engage in early conciliation? You wait for the employee to pay a fee. Ultimately you want to call their bluff – are they prepared to put their money where their mouth is? – so you sit back and see whether they do it. There is absolutely no incentive to engage early, unless you know you are going to go down. Why would you?

Stephen Cavalier confirmed that “fees have had the opposite effect [to that intended by ministers] – employers sit on their hands and do not engage”, while Sybille Raphael told the committee that, in her experience, “employers [now] wait until the very end – until the hearing fee is paid, three weeks before the hearing – to engage in meaningful discussions, wasting everybody’s time and the tribunal’s resources.” And Shantha David noted that “the average clearance times for multiple [claimant] cases are actually longer than they used to be.”

On fee remission, Emma Wilkinson of Citizens Advice noted that “the complexity of the eligibility requirements is particularly harsh for vulnerable [CAB] clients,” while Sybille Raphael told the Committee that “in our view the fee remission system is very unfair. For instance, if you have just above £3,000 in savings – I believe that we want to encourage people, especially low-paid employees, to save – you cannot benefit from fee remission. We have terrible cases of women who were sacked the minute they told their employers that they were pregnant, but cannot bring a claim for unfair dismissal because there is no way that they can spend nearly half their savings on a highly uncertain employment tribunal claim – especially when we know that, even if they win, there is a 50% chance that the employer will not pay anything, so she would be £1,200 worse off for having dared to claim her rights.”

On the question of whether the cost of the employment tribunal (ET) system should be “moved away from the taxpayer on to those who can afford it”, Sally Brett of the TUC gave the committee members a quick lesson on the wider social and economic benefits of the system:

Often a division is made between taxpayers and users of the ET system, but all taxpayers are potentially users of the ET system, [which is] a very important backstop to ensure that basic rights such as the right to the minimum wage, rights to paid holiday, rights to time off and maternity leave, and rights not to be unfairly dismissed or discriminated against are effective.

Those rights bring important social and economic benefits for this country. They ensure that more people can participate in the labour market without facing unfair discrimination. They give vulnerable workers more job security and stability of income. If there is not that ultimate sanction that employers may face if they breach employment rights, it encourages rogue employers to flout the law, which undermines and puts at a competitive disadvantage businesses that are striving to meet the [statutory minimum] standards or to exceed them and use good practice.

Hopefully, such evidence will help steer the committee towards the only just outcome of its inquiry, even if some of its Conservative members would personally much prefer to accept the laughable oral evidence of James Potts of Peninsula Business Services. Despite having to concede to Andy McDonald MP that he is “not au fait with the particular nuances of the [fee remission] system”, Mr Potts stuck to the line first set out in his firm’s evidence-free written evidence to the committee, that up is down and down is up, and “there really is not an access to justice issue” with fees because “access to justice is through the remission system” – the system, that is, with which he is not au fait.

Thieving an idea from FT journalist and legal blogger David Allen Green (see link in first paragraph, above), I can only imagine the conversation went something like this:

Tory member of the Committee: “So, this inquiry is to give Michael some political cover for a retreat?”

Bob Neill (Committee chair): “That’s right.”

Tory member: “In which case, we need the pro-fees evidence from the employer lobby to be really crap.”

Bob Neill: “We do.”

Tory member: “Peninsula Business Services?”

Bob Neill: “Make the call.”





The Independent: It isn’t, are you?

Having spent three decades banging my head against the brick wall of government policy-making, and trying to persuade our famously independent press and media to pay just a teeny weeny bit of attention to important issues of social and legal injustice, it never fails to amaze me how easy it seems to be for businesses with no evident goal other than their own enrichment to get their name and the services they offer in the paper. Indeed, sometimes those businesses make it look so easy that I’m simply left wondering what it is that I’ve been doing wrong for 30 years.

Take the Manchester-based Peninsula Business Services, a “consultancy firm providing advice to companies primarily on employment law and health and safety.” This is a firm so deeply committed to justice and corporate social responsibility that, last month, it told the Justice committee of MPs that the employment tribunal fees introduced by Equality Dave and his minions in July 2013 have “improved access to justice for all.” Yes, really. Not only that, but the fees “have, in the main, improved the quality of the claims presented at tribunal.” Which – duh! – explains why the success rate has gone down.

And I suppose that, given such insightful analysis, we shouldn’t be surprised that it is Peninsula Business Services that newspapers of record such as The Independent turn to for comment at times of national crisis. Times of national crisis such as the departure of Zayn Malik from One Direction, the staging of the Rugby World Cup, and the existential challenge of – cue scary music – Black Friday. Woooooo.

“Black Friday: employers fear online shopping will spur productivity meltdown” screamed the headline in yesterday’s (online) Independent. Yes, productivity meltdown! And how did the Independent learn of this approaching business armageddon? Well, “almost 8,000 employers have called a leading employment law consultancy in the last three days after being overwhelmed by holiday requests for November 27, or Black Friday. Peninsula Business Services said that many employers feared office productivity would be hit by online shopping after most of these holiday requests had to be denied.”

Not only that but, according to Alan Price, Employment Law Director of Peninsula Business Services, “employers were right to feel concerned about holiday requests and internet usage” over Black Friday. “With the Internet being an integral tool in the working environment and with every employee having access to it, unauthorised conduct can spiral out of control and policing employees’ Internet usage can feel like an overwhelming task”. Mr Price urged employers to “make sure their HR policies are up to date by throwing shed-loads of money at Peninsula Business Services”. [Yes, I made that last bit up]

PBS Black Friday

And, it has to be said, 8,000 is quite a lot of worried employers. It’s certainly 7,300 more than the nearly 700 “anxious employers” that, according to The Independent, called Peninsula Business Services over the weekend before the start of the Rugby World Cup in late September. “It’s almost as though the Rugby World Cup has cast a spell over rugby fans, causing everyday life to stand still, consequently resulting in employees forgetting that they have an obligation to the company they work for,” said Alan Price, who urged overwhelmed employers to get “an implemented up-to-date policy regarding expected conduct during sporting events by throwing shed-loads of money at Peninsula Business Services.”


And 8,000 – or 7,953 to be precise, as Peninsula are in the press release that, thanks to the obliging Personnel Today, we are able to read in full – is a lot more than the 220 calls that, according to the always on-point Independent, were made to Peninsula in March this year by “workers asking for compassionate leave following the news that Zayn Malik had quit One Direction.”

As ever, Peninsula’s Alan Price was on hand to tell the Independent‘s Jenn Selby that “it was a situation you just couldn’t make up. While I sympathise with One Direction fans, I hardly think this qualified as compassionate leave.” Clearly something of an expert on pop music as well as employment law, Mr Price went on to “draw comparisons between the event and that of the big parting of ways of Robbie Williams from Take That in 1996, where [Peninsula] again experienced a huge spike in calls from concerned bosses.”

Hang on, I thought the Zayn Malik-related calls were made to Peninsula by “workers asking for compassionate leave”, not their bosses. Pah, who cares about such details, this is a time of national crisis, employers are overwhelmed by people skiving, everyday life is at a stand still, and PRODUCTIVITY IS IN MELTDOWN.

PBS Zayn Malik

Are hairdressers really *that* bad at paying the NMW?

With the Workers’ Party – or is it the Party of Equality? – leaving no stone unturned in its titanic struggle to “end discrimination and finish the fight for equality in our country”, last month saw the Department for Business, Innovation & Workers’ Rights name & shame another 115 minimum wage (NMW) rogues. Well, another 113 NMW rogues, once you exclude the two businesses – London-based Danhouse Security and Scottish business C & R Tyres – the Department had already named & shamed for the very same breaches of the NMW, in November 2014 and February 2015 respectively.

How hard can it be to manage an Excel spreadsheet? Too hard for the mandarins at BIS, obviously.

The inclusion of Monsoon Accessorize for the retailer’s failure to pay an average of £72.68 to 1,438 of its employees predictably dominated press and media coverage, but otherwise the list of 113 was much like all previous rounds of naming & shaming in being comprised almost entirely of small fry – many of them very small fry indeed. Excluding Monsoon Accessorize, the average underpayment (and so financial penalty) was £2,537.65, and the average underpayment per worker just £1,124.53 (that is, less than the £1,200 that the Party of Equality thinks it is entirely reasonable to charge low-paid workers to pursue a tribunal claim for race, sex or other discrimination). And, excluding the 1,438 Monsoon Accessorize employees, NMW underpayments were recovered by HMRC for just 255 employees of the other 112 firms.

In 53 of all 113 cases, the total underpayment (and so financial penalty) was less than £1,000, and in all but 15 cases it was less than £5,000. In 77 of the 113 cases, just one worker was underpaid, and only in 13 cases were five or more workers underpaid by the employer. Lucky the Coalition government upped the maximum penalty to £20,000 per worker, eh?

And, as with previous rounds of naming & shaming, the list of 113 was dominated by local hairdressers & beauty salons (25); pubs, cafes and hotels (16); and second hand-car dealers (8). I know – not least because former BIS mandarin Bill Wells keeps telling me – that the NMW apprenticeship rates might be difficult for small hairdressing business owners to fully understand, but does that really explain HMRC’s apparent obsession with the sector? And when-oh-when are BIS going to start naming & shaming some of the 100+ social care employers that, back in April this year, then BIS minister Jo Swinson said HMRC were then investigating? (Yes, Bill, I know, there is absolutely no abuse of the NMW in the social care sector, the authors of all those reports saying the opposite are simply deluded).

So – not that Gem will notice, she’s far too busy fighting HR wars with her lightsaber at #CIPD15 – here’s an updated chart, showing the 398 NMW rogues named & shamed by BIS to date, by sector.

NMW Nov 15