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: