ET fees: the BIS minister that time forgot

On Saturday, in a stunning example of the laughably low journalistic standards at the Daily Mail and the inability of some political dinosaurs to adapt to changes in the known environment, the paper re-ran it’s infamous story of the ‘£1.6 billion a year gravy train for employment lawyers’ derailed by ET fees.

In a bold attempt on the world record for the number of factual errors in the opening paragraph of a newspaper article, and appropriately illustrated with a stock photo of a gavel – never used in British courts, let alone employment tribunals – the paper’s political editor, James Chapman, writes:

“The £1.6 billion a year industrial tribunal gravy train has been brought to a shuddering halt. Official figures reveal there has been a fall of almost 80 per cent in the number of cases brought against firms by employees. Business leaders said the Government’s introduction of changes to deter vexatious claims appeared to have ended the damaging ‘no win, no fee’ culture that flourished under Labour.”

At no point in the article does Chapman bother to explain how he arrived at his figure of £1.6 billion a year, but he does throw around a few clues by telling us that, thanks to ET fees:

“The level of claims has returned to levels seen in the early 2000s, before the escalation of no win, no fee cases helped the number to spiral to almost 240,000 a year. Under the last government the taxpayer met the £86 million a year cost of running the tribunals. Firms were spending around £1.6 billion a year in defence costs. The British Chamber of Commerce estimated the average cost to a business of defending itself at tribunal is £8,500, and the average cost of agreeing a settlement is £5,400.”

However, we don’t need Chapman to tell us how he got his £1.6 billion figure, because we know this from the original version of his article, penned by Steve Doughty and which appeared in the Daily Mail as long ago as 29 July 2014. That article – headlined “Hallelujah! The gravy train’s derailed” – informed us that “there were 191,000 employment claims in the financial year to March 2013 … with the average defence costing £8,500.” Multiply £8,500 by 191,000 and you get … £1.6 billion.

Strangely, that July 2014 article made no mention of ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers – the target of Doughty’s wrath being “the multi-billion pound industry built on vexatious discrimination claims against employers.” But the evident source of that vexatious story (and another in the Sunday Express the same week), Conservative BIS minister Matthew Hancock, has this time put his head above the parapet to tell Chapman that:

“Labour’s compensation culture was totally out of hand. It cost millions and warned businesses off creating jobs because of the risk of being held to ransom by a spurious claim. We have worked hard to reform tribunals so they work better and more fairly … and genuine abuses can be dealt with properly and only reach court where absolutely necessary. Yet Ed Miliband has not learned lessons and would reverse this progress.”

In fact, it is Matthew Hancock and James Chapman who have failed both to learn the lessons from the debacle of the Daily Mail’s July 2014 article, and to absorb the factual evidence that has emerged from the Ministry of Injustice over the past eight months.

Let’s leave aside the facts that employment tribunals haven’t been called industrial tribunals since 1998, and that employment tribunal cases are down by some 65 per cent, not “almost 80 per cent”, and focus on Chapman’s ignorant confusion of employment tribunal claims, and employment tribunal cases. For the BCC’s average cost figures of £8,500 for a business to defend itself at a tribunal hearing, and £5,400 to agree a settlement, are per employment tribunal case, not employment tribunal claim. And there have never been 191,000 – let alone 240,000 – employment tribunal cases a year; those figures are for the total number of claims, including both single claimants and all the claimants in the relatively small number of multiple claimant cases. If the concern is the impact of ET claims on business, then it is the total number of cases (single claims/cases + multiple claimant cases) that is most meaningful, since that is also the number of employers affected.

In 2012-13, the headline total of 191,541 claims used by Doughty to calculate his £1.6 billion figure 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. So Doughty would have been a little more accurate if he had multiplied the BCC’s figure of £8,500 by 60,808, not 191,541.

Furthermore, the £8,500 figure is wrong, firstly because it’s a considerable over-estimate (the government’s own figure is £6,200), and secondly because only about one in five cases go to a tribunal hearing. Most cases are settled or otherwise resolved before they reach a hearing, so the BCC’s lower figure of £5,400 applies (though, again, the government’s own figure for settlements is £3,500). Indeed, the government’s figure for the average cost to employers across all tribunal outcomes is just £3,900.

So, all in all, Doughty’s bogus figure of £1.6 billion – mindlessly regurgitated eight months later by Chapman – is more like £366 million (£0.37 billion), if you accept the BCC’s dodgy average cost figures, and just £237 million (£0.24 billion) if you prefer the government’s more reliable average cost figure of £3,900. And, finally, only about two-thirds of that total cost to employers is borne by businesses, as one in three employment tribunal cases (including the vast majority of those pesky multiple claimant cases) are brought against employers in the public and voluntary sectors. In short, Doughty and Chapman overstate the ‘problem’ for their beloved private sector firms by a factor of 10.

As for the dinosaur Hancock, his entire argument rests on the assumption that only weak or vexatious claims/cases have been deterred by the hefty, upfront fees. But if that were true, and only strong claims/cases were making it to the tribunals, the proportion of successful claims would have risen towards 100 per cent, and the proportion of unsuccessful claims would have dropped towards zero. And what we – but seemingly not the Minister – have learned since he first fed the ‘£1.6 billion gravy train’ story to the Daily Mail and Sunday Express in July 2014, is that the very opposite is happening.

As the following chart (based on official figures) shows, the proportion of successful claims (the blue line) has gone sharply down, not up, and at just eight per cent in the most recent quarter for which the figures are available (July to September 2014) was less than half that in each of the six years before the introduction of fees. And the proportion of unsuccessful claims is markedly up, not down.

outcomes

Now, it might be said that the proportions shown in the above chart are not the full story, as four in five claims do not go to a hearing, and are either conciliated (i.e. settled) by Acas, or are withdrawn by the claimant. And, as Naomi Cunningham and Michael Reed have noted recently, “most of these withdrawals, but not all, represent some form of non-Acas settlement.” So, it might be said that the proportion that matters is the grand total of those claims that are successful at a hearing or result in a default judgment, plus those that are conciliated by Acas, and those that are withdrawn.

However, as the following chart shows, that proportion has also gone down, not up.

outcomesALL

So, another Hancockusaurus and Daily Mail #Fail. Though you do have to admire their persistence.

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.