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?