On Wednesday, justice secretary Michael Gove gave oral evidence to the Justice select committee of MPs on the work of his department. And, thanks to two Labour members of the committee – Nick Thomas-Symonds and Richard Burgon – we learnt a little bit about the minister’s views on the impact of employment tribunal fees. If you have the time and the inclination, you can watch the whole thing on parliament TV, and there will be a full transcript in due course. However, as it may be a few days before that official transcript appears, here is my unofficial one.
In response to a question by Conservative member Alex Chalk about the “evidential underpinning” for the recent hike in civil court fees, Gove had just stated that the government had sought to ensure that the “fees better reflect the cost of the justice system”, but “we can’t know until fees are in place what the real impact will be”. Amen to that.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: You just said, Secretary of State, in the answer to Alex, that fees better reflecting the cost of justice is the general principle, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate Secretary of State that with employment tribunals, for example, they are in a cost-neutral environment, so surely the argument can’t apply, can it, to the enormous hike in employment tribunal fees that happened? Is that something that you intend to revisit, because there clearly is an access to justice issue if people who have lost their jobs are clearly not going to be in a position to fork out the kind of fees that they now have to?
Michael Gove: Well, there are two things I’d say. First, what we’ve got to try to do is make sure that, as much as possible, the justice system overall recovers costs. So it will be the case that there will be costs in one part of the justice system which will cross-subsidise other parts as well. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that, with respect to employment tribunals, we are committed to reviewing the impact o those changes. My predecessor entered into a commitment to review them, I think it was the former business secretary, the former member for Twickenham, who was concerned that that review should take place before the election. We are carrying out that review, and we will share with this committee and with the Commons more widely the results of that review.
And you are right, that it’s important with employment tribunals that we balance the rights of individuals who may have been dismissed, also with the need to ensure, as I think will have been the case in the past, that we don’t have – um, what’s the word? – too promiscuous use of the employment tribunals by individuals who have been fairly dismissed.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: If the evidence shows, Secretary of State, that there has been a severe and substantial reduction in the number of cases going through employment tribunals, would that be (a) a cause of concern; and (b) something that might lead you to rethink the level of fees and reduce them?
Michael Gove: Not intrinsically. Without wanting to pre-empt the review – because, by definition, there will be issues raised by the officials conducting that review that I might not be able to anticipate …
Nick Thomas-Symonds: I appreciate that.
Michael Gove: But, my view would be it’s only if one can point to examples of rough justice that one should seek to revisit it – a simple reduction in the numbers of people going to employment tribunals is not in itself proof that there’s been any injustice visited on anyone.
Nick Thomas-Symonds: One further point. The point I made was not simply whether there’s been a reduction, but a very substantial reduction. Some figures I have seen show, for example, a 79% reduction, something like that. Now, whilst in itself a reduction does not point to it, that level surely does and should be a matter of concern to you, Secretary of State.
Michael Gove: It’s certainly a cause to want to review things, yes, but it need not necessarily be the case that such a significant reduction has automatically led – automatically led – to people who should have had a particular outcome not enjoying the justice that they deserve.
Richard Burgon: My colleague did mention that there’s been figures of up to a 79% decrease in claims, particularly in relation to discrimination claims, so I’m wondering, do you think – if there’s been a decrease in employment tribunal claims of up to 80% – there has been a similar decrease in employers treating employees badly?
Michael Gove: I think that I’d have to see whether or not there was an example of people – or an individual – who’d been dismissed, who hadn’t had appropriate access to justice as a result, and that hard case – or those hard cases – would lead me to think again. But at the moment, what I think is likely to have been the case, is that the bar has been set at a high level, absolutely, but there is no evidence yet that the bar being set at a high level has meant that meritorious claims by people who feel they’ve been discriminated against aren’t being heard.
Richard Burgon: Secretary of State, it also concerns me not just that those who are seeking to bring a claim might have access to justice denied, but the effect it has on the whole workforce if employers know that the chance of an employment tribunal claim being brought against them is so much lower than it used to be that can effect the way that workers right across the field of employment are treated, including those who wouldn’t dream of bringing a claim even if they are treated badly.
Michael Gove: I absolutely understand your line of thinking. If it’s the case that it appears workers rights are eroded, then that can become a charter for tyrannical bosses to act in an outrageous fashion. But I don’t see any evidence of that. So, while its a perfectly internally coherent theoretical argument, I don’t see evidence that employers are behaving in an outrageous way. And I should say that if one looks at some of the other things that this government has done, from our proposal to increase the minimum wage to a living wage, through to the announcement yesterday by the prime minister of equal pay audits, then actually what this government has done is show that you can safeguard and enhance workers’ rights, but not necessarily in a way that a different political party would have done.
We can see the hand of Elias LJ in some of the minister’s comments, and there are several points that I intend to return to in a future post on this blog. In the meantime, please do feel free to express your own views by posting a comment.