New parlour game: hunt the ET fees review

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.

 

 

 

 

Equal pay audits: the wrong tool in the box?

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, a newly-elected Prime Minister claimed to have invented a wondrous thing: joined-up government. From now on, the purer-than-pure premier said, ministers and their departments would work together to ensure both that an initiative in one policy area would not have unwanted consequences in another, and that only the best and most effective policy tools were selected and prioritised to tackle any particular policy problem. But the years passed, a number of wars were launched, and Tony Blair gradually lost his enthusiasm for joined-up policy making.

This was unfortunate, as ‘joined-up government’ was undoubtedly one of Blair’s better ideas. For decades if not centuries, far too much government policy has been made in silos, with ministers in one department giving little if any thought to how policy ‘owned’ by other departments (or even just by other ministers in the same department) might be reformed or developed to help them achieve their own policy objectives. And, frankly, much the same can be said of many of the campaigning and lobby groups that seek to influence government policy.

This fundamental flaw in the policy process came to mind in recent weeks, with a set-piece speech on the gender pay gap by Gloria De Piero MP, Labour’s shadow minister for women and equalities, and a survey report on the gender pay gap among senior managers by the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR, setting off a wave of outraged comment pieces and renewed calls for the introduction of mandatory equal pay audits for large employers (i.e. of the sort promised by Ms De Piero).

In the Guardian, noting that, at the current rate of change, it will take 60 years to close the current gender pay gap of 19.7 per cent, columnist Lauren Laverne posed the question: “we have to wait a hundred years for the 1970 Equal Pay Act to work? Are you on glue?” Meanwhile, over on the paper’s Women in Leadership pages, the first of Harriet Minter’s five proposals “to end the gender pay gap” was: “make reporting on pay data mandatory”. According to Minter, this would “bring an end to the madness” of “women being paid less than men”, and “guarantee a fair and equal wage for all”. And, noting the CMI/XpertHR finding that male company directors take home £21,000 more each year than their female counterparts, the Work Foundation’s Professor Stephen Bevan found it “hard to resist the conclusion that equal pay audits should now become mandatory”.

Hmmm. The problem with that line of argument is that it assumes – or, at least, conveys the message – that (a) the gender pay gap is all about women being paid less than men to do the same job; and (b) this is all due to wicked employers having gender discriminatory rates of pay. Accordingly – or so the argument runs – all you have do to close the gender pay gap is shame all those wicked employers into paying their staff equally by making them conduct and publish equal pay audits.

In reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Discriminatory pay by employers is just one of many factors behind the gender pay gap, and is quite possibly one of the least influential, overall (which is no consolation if you are one of the all too many women subject to such discrimination). As Professor Bevan notes, “a range of factors are frequently shown to have strong explanatory power, including occupational segregation (and a lower societal value placed on so-called ‘women’s work’), [and] the impact of part-time working both on pay itself and the life-time accumulation of ‘human capital”, as well as “both direct and indirect discrimination”. In 2012, research commissioned by the Government Equalities Office could find only 13 successful ‘equal pay’ employment tribunal claims against employers other than the NHS and local authorities in the three-year period 2009-11, and only 41 such claims between 2004 and 2011.

Furthermore, most if not all of those calling for mandatory equal pay audits are in fact proposing only that they be mandatory for large employers – that is, those with more than 250 employees. Yet such companies employ less than 10 million (40 per cent) of the national workforce of some 24.3 million. So equal pay audits wouldn’t bring any benefit to 60 per cent of the workforce.

Accordingly, as supportive as I am of gender equality and of tackling sex discrimination in the workplace, it’s never been entirely clear to me how or why mandatory equal pay audits would effectively address such a complex range of factors. Furthermore, even if such pay audits did eliminate gender discriminatory pay rates, a gender pay gap would still remain, due to the influence of other, arguably more powerful factors – not least the significant impact on women’s earnings of taking time out of the labour market to have and care for children.

As FlipChartRick demonstrates this week in a must-read blog post, the gender pay gap is not spread evenly among women of all ages and all pay brackets. Far from it. Citing analysis by David Richter of Octopus HR, FlipChartRick argues that “the full-time pay gap at the median has almost disappeared for those in their twenties, with women earning slightly more than men [on average] in recent years”. And “there has been a significant fall in the gender pay gap for those in their thirties”.

Moreover, while “the pay differential for those in their twenties is fairly narrow, even at the very top level [of pay], the pay gap for those over 40 is significant at all levels of the pay distribution but much higher at the top”. In short, “age and position in the earnings distribution has a significant effect on the gender pay gap. Women over 40 and/or in the upper income bracket earn significantly less”. That is, “the gender pay gap appears just at the point in the age distribution when many women have children” and “children have more of an impact on women’s pay than men’s” because it is women “who take on most of the childcare responsibilities”.

FlipChartRick concludes that introducing mandatory equal pay audits “might yield some interesting information for pay data geeks to pore over, but I doubt that it [would] tell us much that we don’t already know, or even whether it [would] reveal some major employers to be significantly worse than others. It is unlikely that the gender pay gap will disappear until equal proportions of women and men take equal responsibility for childcare”.

Which brings me back to my point about joined-up government policy-making. In recent weeks, as part of her “mission to promote shared parental leave”, a policy reform intended to make the proportions of women and men taking responsibility for childcare more equal, the BIS minister Jo Swinson has given a number of major media interviews – including in the Independent, the Evening Standard, and with Family Networks Scotland.

However, while Ms Swinson used these interviews to make much of “recognising that dads want to have a bigger role in their child’s life from the first days” and boosting parental choice, she signally failed even to mention the gender pay gap and the central role that shared parental leave (and more shared parenting) might play in closing it. And the Minister’s omission is even more surprising when one considers that, in the middle of her media push on shared parental leave, she also launched the Liberal Democrats’ campaign to “deliver equal pay in the workplace”. Which consists entirely of – you guessed it! – “plans to require large companies [i.e. those with over 250 employees] to publish the difference in pay between male and female workers”.

Of course, the nine months before a General Election is not the best time to find joined-up thinking within a government made up of two competing political parties, or even just within each political party. But perhaps after May 2015 both elected politicians and the relevant campaign and lobby groups will pay greater attention to the (rather obvious) link between the gender pay gap and the need for more shared parenting. And then we might just see progress on policies – such as increasing the shockingly low rate of statutory maternity and parental leave pay – that would help close the former while facilitating the latter.

NMW ‘naming & shaming’: Vince Cable gives hostage to fortune

You may by now have forgotten – always assuming you noticed in the first place – that, last Wednesday, Labour devoted one of their precious Opposition Day debates to the National Minimum Wage (NMW).  And you’d be in good company, for the entire Labour front bench seem to have done their best to forget it too.  And with good reason.

The most obvious reason is George Osborne’s brilliantly-timed NMW coup on Thursday evening, which seemed to catch shadow ministers not just napping but comatose.  And the real genius of Osborne’s strike was in crudely tossing aside the 15-year-old political pact that setting the NMW rate will be left to the Low Pay Commission (and, bar a few growls from the CBI, getting away with it).  For Osborne knew Ed Miliband couldn’t use his set-piece speech on the economy the following day to launch a counter-attack – “I’ll see your £7.00 per hour, George, and raise you £7.50 per hour”, perhaps – without the trade unions throwing their toys out the pram.

But even before Osborne launched his coup via Nick Robinson and the BBC, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, who kicked off Wednesday’s debate, had blasted both barrels of her shotgun through Labour’s own feet by launching a puerile and ill-informed ad hominem attack on business secretary Vince Cable, over his non-attendance at crucial votes on the then National Minimum Wage Bill in 1998.  An admirably restrained Cable initially declined to rise to the bait, but when he did it was both dignified and devastating:

Vince Cable: The Honourable Member for Leeds West [Rachel Reeves] made a great deal of the fact that, as she put it, the Conservatives opposed the national minimum wage and many Liberal Democrats opposed it. She speaks with all the self-confidence of somebody who was not here at the time.

Chris Bryant (Labour): You were and you didn’t vote.

Vince Cable: I did not particularly wish to raise this, but I am being asked personally to explain why I did not vote [in 1998]. It had a lot to do with the fact that my late wife was terminally ill at the time and I was in the Royal Marsden hospital. That is why my voting record at the time was poor on that and other issues.

As Isabel Hardman noted in a scathing Spectator blog post the following morning, “it’s not the first time someone has made the mistake of assuming that non-attendance at a vote has a sinister rather than sad explanation, but it rather blunted Labour’s attack on the Liberal Democrats” and was “all the more surprising given [Labour’s] recent rage over a Sun article describing Lucy Powell as ‘lazy’ when she had in fact been on maternity leave”.  Both Reeves and Chris Bryant later apologised to Cable.

For Labour and the hapless Reeves – who must surely be looking for a new researcher – it was all downhill from then on, and I’d be very surprised if anyone in Labour ever mentions this car crash of a debate ever again.  Cable was even able to parry Labour’s pledge to increase the civil penalties for non-compliance with the NMW (or ‘fines’, as shadow ministers wrongly insist on calling them) by confirming plans, first announced by the Prime Minister in November, to substantially increase the penalties from next month.

However, before sitting down Cable himself made a comment that I suspect may also come to be seen as something of a mistake.  Without having been pressed to defend the fact that only one employer has been ‘named and shamed’ for non-compliance with the NMW by his department since he introduced the practice in January 2011, the business secretary volunteered that “new guidelines for the naming and shaming process were issued to HMRC in October” – as indeed they were.  And he went on to say:

“There is also the question of due process.  Companies that are about to be named and shamed can appeal, and it is estimated that that process takes roughly 150 days.  I imagine that a significant number of cases would begin to emerge by the end of February; we can test that when the issue arises.”

The new guidance issued to HMRC in October under “revamped plans to make it easier to clamp down on rogue businesses” is certainly wider in scope than the original, clearly duff scheme.  According to the BIS press release at the time, “the revised scheme will name employers that have been issued with a Notice of Underpayment (NoU) by HMRC. This notice sets out the owed wages to be paid by the employer together with the [civil] penalty for not complying with minimum wage law”.  And, every year, HMRC issues some 700 NoUs.  So, were every employer issued with a NoU to be ‘named and shamed’ under the new scheme, then allowing for Cable’s 150-day due process we might indeed expect a first tranche of some 60 employers to be ‘named and shamed’ in late February or early March.

However, shortly after this revamp of the naming and shaming scheme came into force in October, the BIS employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, let slip on Twitter (in an exchange with the magnificent @HRBullets) that employers will not be ‘named and shamed’ via some kind of central, publicly-accessible register, as one might reasonably expect, but “through [BIS] press releases to maximise coverage” in “local [and] regional newspapers”.  So, either BIS will be issuing an awful lot of ‘naming & shaming’ press releases each month, or it will be releasing one or two press releases each containing the names of dozens of employers.  And, frankly, neither scenario sounds terribly likely to me.  Certainly, Jo Swinson didn’t take the opportunity provided by the Twitter exchange to confirm that all employers issued with a NoU by HMRC will be ‘named and shamed’ by BIS.

Whatever, as Vince Cable says, come the end of February, we will be able to test the issue.  And I will be very happy to be proven a cynic.

Postscript: Since posting the above, I have come across this written statement by Jo Swinson’s maternity cover, Jenny Willott, in the House of Commons yesterday in response to a PQ by Paul Maynard MP:

The revised NMW Naming and Shaming scheme which came into effect on 1 October 2013 made it easier to name employers that break national minimum wage law. By naming and shaming employers it is hoped that bad publicity will be an additional deterrent to employers who would otherwise be tempted not to pay the NMW. We anticipate naming employers very soon.

Tribunal fee remission: a very small fig leaf?

In response to widespread concern about the detrimental impact on access to justice of the employment tribunal fees regime introduced on 29 July last year, Coalition ministers have repeatedly claimed that low-income claimants will have their access to justice protected by the accompanying fee remission scheme.  In late October, for example, just days after the Ministry of Justice published provisional statistics indicating a sharp fall in the number of individual claims since July, the BIS employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, stated (in a letter to Maternity Action):

“The Government believes that all users of the tribunal system should make a contribution to the costs where they can do so, regardless of the type of claim.  Where claimants cannot afford the fees, the remission system ensures that nobody will be denied access to the tribunal.”

However, the  tribunal fee remission scheme, under which a claimant can receive full or partial exemption from the fee, is simply a revised version of the pre-existing County Court fee remission scheme, which in 2012 was condemned by Citizens Advice as “not fit for purpose” on account of its complexity and maladministration by HM Courts & Tribunals Service.  Under this revised scheme, any individual living in a household that has £3,000 or more in savings will not be entitled to any fee remission. This eligibility criterion applies to everyone, including those out of work.

And let’s not forget, the upfront fees introduced last July are substantial.  To issue and pursue a claim for unfair dismissal, for example, costs £1,200 (an issue fee of £250, and a hearing fee of £950).  Will summarily dismissed workers who have acted prudently to protect their family from sudden financial shocks by building up moderate savings of just £3,000 want to risk £1,200 of those savings on a tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, when there is no guarantee that the employer will repay the fees even if the claim is ‘successful’?  As recent government research has shown, half of the workers awarded compensation by a tribunal do not receive their award in full, and there’s no reason to think that those employers who fail to pay an award will be any more forthcoming when it comes to the repayment of hefty fees.

Furthermore, the upper income limits, above which claimants will not receive even partial remission of the fees, are set extremely low.  An analysis by economist Howard Reed, commissioned by the TUC, shows that “even among households where someone is earning just the national minimum wage, fewer than one in four of these workers will receive any [fee remission] and will have to pay the full fees”.  Reed’s analysis further suggests that just one in nine disabled workers, and one in 20 workers aged 50-60 (i.e. those most at risk of age discrimination) would qualify for full fee remission.

So, has the fee remission scheme protected access to an employment tribunal since the introduction of fees in July?  Last week, I stumbled across a Ministry of Justice response to a Freedom of Information request, published on-line by the Ministry in November (FoI 86412) but, as far as I can tell, not otherwise reported by whoever it was that submitted the request.  This states that, of “the 852 employment tribunal fee remission applications submitted nationally between 29 July and 11 November, 672 were rejected”.  That is a rejection rate of 79 per cent.

In other words, during the first three months of the fees regime, just 180 tribunal claimants received full or partial fee remission.  And we know that, in the same period, there were some 4,500 tribunal claims by individual workers (i.e. single claims; I have left multiple claims out of this analysis).  So, only 22 per cent of all single claimants applied for fee remission, and just four per cent of all single claimants received full or partial fee remission.  Yet as recently as September 2013, in its final Impact Assessment on the revised fee remission scheme, the Ministry of Justice suggested that 31 per cent of all claimants would be eligible for full (25 per cent) or partial (six per cent) fee remission.

Furthermore, the figure of 4,500 individual claims in the three-month period August to October is substantially lower than the average number of such claims prior to the introduction of fees.  But for the introduction of fees, we could have expected about 13,200 single claims in that period.  So a mere 1.4 per cent of the individual claimants we might have expected in the first three months of the fees regime received full or partial remission of the fees.

Whichever way you look at it, the fee remission scheme didn’t do a great deal to preserve access to justice in the first three months of the fees regime.  That said, the fee remission application rate may have risen in subsequent months, and the rejection rate may have fallen, as legal advisers became more familiar with both the fees regime and the fee remission scheme.

Well, maybe – time will tell.  But there’s certainly no room for the sort of ministerial complacency exhibited by Jo Swinson in October.  If the numbers don’t improve significantly, and soon, the fee remission scheme is going to look a very small fig leaf.