Ministry spinning out of control on ET fees

While last month’s anniversary of the introduction of employment tribunal fees passed without the comment we might reasonably have expected from shadow ministers such as Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umunna, two articles in the Daily Mail and Sunday Express kept the #ukemplaw community busy debating which of the two is the worst thing ever written about the origin and impact of the fees regime.

Both articles are indeed wondrously dreadful, but their greater significance lies in what they tell us about the spin we can expect from the Ministry of Justice in the coming weeks, as it completes and announces the conclusions of its long-planned Post-Implementation Review (PIR) of the fees regime.

In the Daily Fail – under the headline “Hallelujah! The gravy train’s derailed: as workers are made to pay £1,200 fee, discrimination cases plunge by 75%” – Steve Doughty trilled that “the multi-billion pound industry built on vexatious discrimination claims against employers has virtually collapsed … with sex discrimination claims down 80% and race claims by 60%”. And “the spectacular decline follows a simple reform introduced by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling last summer – the charging of fees to workers who want to make a claim against their employer”.

Don’t you just love that ‘simple’, and the implication that only someone with the intellect of Chris Grayling could have come up with such a straightforward policy solution? Presumably, Doughty was still at journalism school in 2011, when the fees regime was in fact dreamt up by Grayling’s predecessor as Justice Secretary: the now much-lamented (by some) Kenneth Clarke.

“In the first six months of the new fees system”, Doughty continued, “the number of claims dropped from 109,425 to 20,678. The fall is a major boost for businesses, which were previously spending around £1.6 billion a year in defence costs. There were 191,000 employment claims in the financial year to March 2013”. And the article ended with two photos of unsuccessful ET claimant Stella English, who just happens to be female and blonde.

Meanwhile – under the headline “An end to abuse of the employment tribunal system” – Leo McKinstry informed readers of the Sunday Express that “a gigantic racket fuelled by whingeing trade unions, parasitical lawyers and money-grabbing litigants” has been “dramatically transformed by a reform introduced by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, in a move distinguished by its simplicity”. Ah yes, the simplicity.

“At a stroke”, McKinstry continued, “the compensation gravy train has been sent into the buffers. Before Grayling’s reform, the flood of employment litigation was unceasing. In 1998, there were 80,000 [ET] cases, an annual total that had risen to over 200,000 in recent years. Yet in the first six months since fees were imposed the number of cases plummeted to 20,678, compared to 109,425 in the previous two quarters”. And, naturally, the article included a nice big photo of the female and blonde Stella English.

These stunning examples of journalistic garbage would be best ignored and quickly forgotten, were it not for their remarkably similar wording, their use of identically precise figures for the number of claims in six-month periods before and after the introduction of fees (109,425 and 20,678) that I cannot match up with any of the figures set out in the Ministry’s most recent statistical bulletin (see endnote), and their misplaced crediting of Chris Grayling.[i]

To my mind, these curious coincidences suggest the articles were based on private briefing by none other than Chris Grayling (or a junior minister, special adviser, or press officer acting on his behalf). And, if I am right, that in turn betrays a 180° change of direction in the Ministry’s spin on fees.

In March this year, when the Ministry’s quarterly tribunal statistics revealed a 79% fall in ET claims in the period October to December 2013, compared to the same quarter in 2012, ministers spun the line that this cliff-shaped decline was in fact no more than the anticipated continuation of a “longer term downward trend” in the number of claims. In other words, the introduction of fees had had little if any impact on the number of claims.

But with the next set of quarterly tribunal statistics, released in June, confirming a similar evisceration of ET claims of all types and jurisdictions in the period January to March 2014, and the Ministry’s patently bogus line being easily blown apart by a few simple charts, ministers appear to have changed tack.

In short, the Ministry’s original line of ‘nothing to see here, move along please’ has given way to a story in which clever Chris Grayling has saved the nation from an ‘unceasing flood’ of (vexatious) ET claims with a ‘simple’ but highly effective reform. And I imagine we are going to hear much more about Grayling’s heroics over the coming weeks. So it is worth taking a few moments to note the flaws in the Ministry’s new spin, which is no more credible than its old spin.

Firstly, there have never been “over 200,000” ET cases a year, as McKinstry suggests in the Sunday Express. Nor were there 191,000 cases in the financial year to March 2013. There were some 191,000 claims in 2012-13, but that headline figure includes all the claimants in the relatively small number of multiple claimant cases, each of which is brought (on the same grounds) against one employer. And, if the concern is the overall impact of ET claims on businesses, then it is the total number of cases (single claims/cases and multiple claimant cases) that is most meaningful, since that is also the number of employers affected.

In 2012-13, for example, the headline total of 191,541 claims consisted of 54,704 single claims/cases brought against 54,704 employers (or slightly fewer than that, in fact, as some claims would have been against the same employer), and a total of 136,837 multiple claimants in just 6,104 multiple claimant cases brought against 6,104 employers. Furthermore, many – perhaps most – of those 6,104 multiple claimant cases were equal pay claims brought by trade unions and law firms against local authorities and other public sector bodies. So they didn’t impose any burden at all on ‘businesses’.

So Doughty’s “£1.6 billion a year in defence costs” for businesses in 2012-13 – which he calculates by multiplying his (or Chris Grayling’s) average cost per claim figure of £8,500 by 191,000 – was more like £0.5 billion (£8,500 x 60,808 cases) spread across just 60,808 employers in both the private and the public sector.

Secondly, the number of ET cases was not an ‘unceasing flood’ until Grayling’s heroics in July 2013. On the contrary, there was a long(ish)-term downward trend in the number of cases, and especially the number of single claims/cases – though that trend does not explain the sudden drop-off since the introduction of fees. Indeed, as the following chart shows, not only had there had been a steady decline in the number of cases since a recession-induced peak in 2009-10, but by the first quarter of 2013-14 (i.e. April to June 2013) the rate of new cases was at its lowest level for more than a decade. So, hardly a situation requiring heroic (and drastic) ministerial action.

Chart 1: Single claims & multiple claimant cases, 2000-01 to 2013-14*

cases

Source: Ministry of Justice. *The figure for 2013-14 is a projection based on Quarter 1 (April to June 2013) only.

Now, it is true that, in the late-2000s, the average number of claimants involved in each multiple claimant case increased significantly, largely due to trade unions and law firms trawling for claimants to join equal pay claims brought against local authorities and other public sector bodies. So the headline, total number of claims grew accordingly. But the number of such multiple claimant cases (the red area in Chart 1, above), and therefore the number of employers affected, remained relatively small. But in any case, as the following chart shows, since peaking in 2009-10 even the number of multiple claimants has been in decline.

Chart 2: Multiple claimants, 2000-01 to 2013-14*

multiples

Source: Ministry of Justice. *The figure for 2013-14 is a projection based on Quarter 1 (April to June 2013) only.

The third – and perhaps most significant – flaw in the Ministry’s new spin, of course, is the assumption that every single one of the tens of thousands of claims lost to fees since July 2013 was a ‘vexatious’ claim. That is not an assertion that is susceptible to proof (or disproof) by chart – you are either stupid and/or gullible enough to accept it, or you are reasonably intelligent and know that it is wholly implausible. Prior to the introduction of fees, not even the wackiest of the employer lobby groups ever suggested that 80% of all ET claims were vexatious.

The real test of Grayling’s new spin will be not whether he can feed willing journalists at the Daily Mail and Sunday Express – any idiot can do that – but whether he can bamboozle Parliament on this point when he announces the conclusions of the Ministry’s Post-Implementation Review.

Time will tell. But at least now it is common ground that the ET fees regime has had a dramatic impact on the number of claims/cases. In these grim days of evidence-free, ideological policy-making, that has to count as progress.

 

[i]             According to Table C.1 of the quarterly tribunal statistics published by the Ministry of Justice in June 2014, there were 21,809 ET claims (singles and multiples) in the six-month period October 2013 to March 2014; 32,292 such claims in the period September 2013 to February 2014; and 36,399 such claims in the period August 2013 to January 2014. Similarly, there were 102,066 such claims in the six-month period February to July 2013; 108,049 such claims in the period January to June 2013; and 94,937 such claims in the period December 2012 to May 2013.

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