For much of this year, whenever the justice-denying impact of the employment tribunal fees introduced by the Ministry of Justice in July 2013 has been raised in public with business secretary Vince Cable or BIS employment relations minister Jenny Willott (covering Jo Swinson’s maternity leave), they have shielded themselves from any criticism by suggesting that the fees regime is under review.
For example, at a conference of employment lawyers in April, just weeks after the release of the first full set of quarterly figures showing a dramatic fall in the number of cases, Jenny Willott reportedly deflected questions from the floor by stating that “the level of fees” will be one of several issues considered under a review of the fees regime.
And, in the House of Commons in mid-July, just two weeks before the first anniversary of the fees regime coming into force, Vince Cable responded to an intervention by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, drawing attention to the drop-off in the number of cases in the months up to 31 March, by stating:
“Yes, I am aware of a substantial fall in numbers. There are several reasons, which we are currently investigating, one of which could be connected with fees. Another reason is that earlier legislation sought to introduce an arbitration mechanism through ACAS as a first port of call.” (Hansard, House of Commons, 16 July 2014, col. 909)
Let’s leave aside the fact that the system of early conciliation by Acas to which Dr Cable was referring did not come into force until 6 April, so played no part in the dramatic fall in tribunal cases in the six months up to 31 March, and focus on that phrase “we are currently investigating”. Not ‘we will consider as part of a review at some point in the future’, but “we are currently investigating”.
The MPs who listened to Dr Cable that day in July, and anyone who subsequently read the Hansard record of the debate, could be forgiven for concluding from this that the government (or, at least, that part of the government in which Dr Cable includes himself) has been ‘investigating’ the tribunal fees regime for at least the last three months.
Except that … it hasn’t. At least, not according to Jo Swinson, who returned from maternity leave to her role as BIS employment relations minister over the summer.
Asked on Twitter last Thursday to confirm whether she agrees with Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 120 – adopted at the party’s conference in Glasgow earlier in the week – when it states that the “high level of tribunal fees presents too much of a barrier” to justice, Ms Swinson dodged the question but volunteered that the “lead department on this is [the Ministry of Justice] not BIS so they will be launching the review [of the fees regime]”.
Er, they will be launching the review?
Yes. Asked to clarify whether her earlier tweet meant that the government’s review of the fees regime is in progress or has yet to start, on Friday Ms Swinson tweeted confirmation that the review has “yet to start”. And, asked to say when it might start, Ms Swinson declined to answer but suggested the question be directed to the Ministry of Justice.
So, contrary to the statement made by Dr Cable to the House of Commons in mid-July, no one in government is yet investigating the “substantial” fall in tribunal cases since July 2013 (at least, not in any meaningful sense). And this despite just about everyone outside government – including the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses – having concluded that the dramatic fall in the number of cases is entirely due to the fees being set far too high.
Ministers at the Ministry of Justice may start ‘investigating’ these matters at some point in the future, but if they have a timetable for doing so they don’t appear to have shared it with the BIS employment relations minister.
Which begs the question: what the **** are they waiting for? It’s not as if there is that much to ‘investigate’. Fees came in, and the number of cases dropped off a cliff that no one in government saw coming. End of.
It’s perhaps worth adding that, according to the answer to a written question in the House of Lords given by justice minister Lord Faulks, the Ministry was “currently finalising arrangements for the timing and scope of the review” as long ago as 24 June. Almost four months have passed since then. What are they doing? It’s not as if they are being asked to rerun the Hutton Inquiry.