Manifesto manifestations: Labour & Lib Dems offer hope on employment tribunal fees

I had been thinking I would save writing this post until after the main political parties have published their general election manifestos – which, back in the day, surely used to happen at the start of election campaigns? But it’s not often that I get a chance to write about good news and, well, I can contain myself no longer. For, over the past week or so, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have restated their policy position on employment tribunal (ET) fees with a certainty and clarity that was previously somewhat lacking.

First up was Labour, which chose the afternoon my builders locked me out of my house (so away from my computer) to publish its Better Plan for Britain’s Workplaces (i.e. what normal people might have titled ‘Labour’s Manifesto for Work’). This states:

The introduction of fees of up to £1,200 for employment tribunal claimants has failed. It represents a significant barrier to workplace justice, and has failed to raise any money. Labour will abolish the Government’s employment tribunal fee system as part of reforms to make sure that workers have proper access to justice, employers get a quicker resolution, and the costs to the taxpayer are controlled. We will ask Acas to oversee a process led by the CBI and the TUC to agree reforms to the system.

Which is a significantly clearer (and bolder) statement of policy than that set out in last summer’s National Policy Forum report and first announced publicly if somewhat cryptically by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna at the TUC conference in September, even if it still fails to answer the question of what kind of fees regime Labour might put in place of the current, “failed” regime. Which is an important question if, like me, you find it hard to believe that Labour would abolish fees outright. Or if you find it hard to believe that “a process” jointly led by a powerful business lobby group vehemently opposed to outright abolition would result in ‘agreement’ on outright abolition. Whatever, the clarification is vindication for those within Labour who have bravely pushed hard on the issue, especially NEC member Johanna Baxter.

However, the revised position also raises some new questions. If abolition of the current, “failed” regime would be tied to completion of a process, led by the CBI and TUC, of reaching agreement on a wider package of reforms aimed at ensuring that “employers get a quicker resolution, and the costs to the taxpayer are controlled”, how long would that take? Weeks? Months? A year? And would the current, “failed” regime continue in the meantime?

Call me picky, but to my mind that would be unacceptable. I suggest there would need to be an interim solution, involving an immediate (and substantial) reduction in the current level of claimant fees. Ideally, that would involve lowering both issue and hearing fees to a nominal level, at which I would hope to see them remain in the longer term as part of a revised fees regime including similarly nominal fees for employers to defend a claim, and a ‘polluter pays’ penalty on employers found by a tribunal to have flouted the law. The CBI has already indicated it could live with nominal fees for claimants, though of course it would have to be persuaded to accept nominal fees for respondents. Whatever, I very much doubt we will get answers to these (and other) questions before 7 May.

Three days later, and with much less fanfare, it emerged that Labour is not alone in tightening up its policy position on ET fees. On 4 April, employment lawyer (and Chair of the Law Society’s employment law committee) Laurie Anstis tweeted extracts from the contributions by each of the three main political parties to the April 2015 edition of the Employment Lawyers’ Association briefing (unpublished, but available online to ELA members, of which I am not one). The ELA had invited the three parties to “provide their manifesto proposals on employment law”, and the briefing sets out responses from Lord Hunt for the Conservatives, shadow BIS minister Ian Murray for Labour, and BIS employment relations minister Jo Swinson for the Liberal Democrats. Laurie has now very kindly provided me with a copy.

The section of Ian Murray’s contribution on ET fees is simply a reiteration of Labour’s previous, somewhat strangled position, now overtaken by the above events. And Lord Hunt hints that a Conservative government would go even further than the Coalition in restricting access to the ET system, as “There is still work to be done to ensure that ‘frivolous’ claims, which cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds in legal fees, are reduced”. There is? Really? But it was the contribution of Jo Swinson that most excited me (no, I never thought I’d write that either :-)). In a refreshingly candid section on ET fees, that is worth setting out in full (with my emphasis added), Ms Swinson says:

Liberal Democrats only supported the Conservative proposal to introduce employment tribunal fees on the basis that a rigorous review would be conducted, within a year of its introduction, to assess its impact and ensure no one was deterred from legitimate access to justice. Since fees were introduced, claims received by the employment tribunal have fallen substantially between July 2013 and September 2014 (notwithstanding the pre-claim conciliation service changing to the early conciliation service in [April] 2014).

Employers know that fees will put many potential claimants off bringing a claim. While I appreciate that many employment disputes will settle out of court, there is a real concern that bona fide claims are being unheard due to workers being unable to afford fees. Two years after its implementation, the Ministry of Justice’s failure to deliver an open and objective assessment of the impact of these reforms is inexcusable. It’s an issue repeatedly raised by myself and my colleague, Vince Cable. There is a clear, necessary and urgent need for this review to take place which goes to the credibility of our judicial system, not just the need for fairness.

There is also scope for tribunals to require the employer to reimburse a successful applicant. Studies have shown that over a third have not received any [of their monetary award] at all. It is absolutely wrong that employees end up paying fees in respect of successful claims for which they will never receive an award. The Liberal Democrats believe that a balance can be struck between managing the costs in terms of time, money and stresses of the tribunal system, and ensuring that employees’ rights are protected. That’s why we would review the level of tribunal fees to ensure that they do not prohibit people from making bona fide claims. A nominal fee could be appropriate to not unduly deter sound claims.

This is music to my ears, both on ET fees and on the shockingly common non-payment of awards, an issue I banged on about for a decade when at Citizens Advice, to very limited effect. Section 150 of the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Act 2015, which received its Royal Assent in the last week of the Coalition, provides for the imposition of a financial penalty on employers who fail to pay an award (though as yet there’s no date for implementation). And just this week BIS added: “We are also introducing a scheme whereby employers who receive [such] a penalty may be publicly named.” But the next government needs to return to this issue, as there is still more to do, and Labour should think about including it in its proposed ‘reform process’ led by the CBI and TUC (which would, one hopes, include others such as the ELA).

So, I was a very happy bunny over the Easter weekend, and I’m looking forward to reading the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Normal service will no doubt resume shortly.

[With thanks to Laurie Anstis for granting me permission to include the above extracts from the ELA briefing]

Have your say on the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Bill

After a slow start – nothing much happened until early 2011 – the Tory-led Coalition has kept us employment policy wonks pretty busy over the last four years. We’ve had one significant piece of primary legislation – the Employment & Regulatory Reform Act 2013 – and several pieces of secondary legislation providing for extensive reform of both employment law and the employment tribunal system. We’ve had an overhaul of the employment tribunal rules of procedure, some tinkering (yet to come fully into force) with the law relating to parental leave, and a major consultation on how to tackle the proliferation and abuse of zero-hours contracts. And, last but not least, we’ve had the introduction of hefty, upfront fees for tribunal claimants that have demolished access to justice on workplace rights.

However, with the Tories and Liberal Democrats having arranged for the nation to enjoy a full five years of coalition government, irrespective of what the nation might want, ministers have decided there’s still time for a tad more employment law reform.

Well, I say ‘reform’, but the handful of clauses on employment law in Part 11 of the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Bill – which starts its committee stage in the Commons on 14 October – are more tidying-up than fundamental change. And at least three of them are likely to make little if any practical difference, however sensible and welcome they might seem at first glance.

Given the scope and arguably more fundamental nature of the rest of the 142-clause Bill, it seems unlikely that these employment provisions will receive more than limited scrutiny by MPs and peers. But the Committee of MPs that starts work next week is keen to receive external input, and if you have the time and the inclination you can submit your views and comments up until 6 November.

I urge you to do so. And, for what it’s worth, the following is what I have submitted to the Committee, covering clauses 136, 138, and 139.

Clause 136: Financial penalties for non-payment of an ET award

Clause 136 provides for the imposition of a financial penalty of up to £5,000 on an employer who fails to pay a tribunal award (or Acas-conciliated settlement), the aim being to discourage such non-payment.

During my time at Citizens Advice (2000 – 2013), I researched and wrote three reports on the widespread non-payment of tribunal awards: Empty justice (2004); Hollow victories (2005); and Justice denied (2008). So I warmly welcome the financial penalty mechanism provided for in clause 136, not least because it is pretty much the same mechanism that I proposed to ministers in 2012, during the passage of the then Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill. Ministers were not (sufficiently) impressed by the idea then, but pressure from the opposition front bench did lead to BIS minister Jo Swinson commissioning further research on the issue (replicating the research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, in direct response to Justice denied, in 2009). And the damning findings of that BIS-commissioned research have evidently led to a ministerial change of heart.

Some have been quick to note that clause 136 would not solve the problem of non-payment of awards and Acas settlements. Indeed it would not, but then no single measure would, as the problem is extremely complex. There are other steps that BIS and the Ministry of Justice could and should take, such as ‘naming & shaming’ those employers who fail to pay up. But, by creating a meaningful financial disincentive to non-payment of an award, clause 136 could be expected to at least reduce the rate of non-compliance.

Except that, the kind of relatively low-value claim for e.g. unpaid wages, holiday pay and/or notice pay that has in the past often culminated in a hollow victory for the claimant when the employer fails to pay up, is also the very kind that has been eviscerated by the hefty, upfront tribunal fees introduced by the Ministry of Justice in July 2013.

Not surprisingly, vulnerable workers subjected to wage theft by a rogue employer have proven to be reluctant to throw up to £390 of good money after bad. So the number of claims for unpaid wages etc. has tumbled, from an average of 4,587 per month in the nine months immediately before the introduction of fees, to an average of just 1,073 in the nine months up to June 2014.

In short, thanks to the tribunal fees introduced in July 2013, the longstanding problem that clause 136 seeks to (partly) address is no longer quite the problem that it was. So, while BIS might now seek credit for trying to close the stable door, most of the horses have been galloping around the fields since July 2013, and will continue to do so until such time as the tribunal fees regime is substantially reformed.

Clause 138: Maximum financial penalty for breach of the NMW

Clause 138 provides for an increase in the maximum financial penalty that can be imposed by HMRC for breach of the national minimum wage, from £20,000 per employer (technically, £20,000 per Notice of Underpayment), to £20,000 per underpaid worker.

On the face of it, clause 138 is welcome. Fifteen years after its introduction, there can be no excuse for not paying the NMW. But the practical impact of clause 138 would be negligible, for two reasons.

Firstly, as the average underpayment (and penalty imposed) per worker was just £205 in 2013-14, the number of employers who pay even the current maximum penalty of £20,000 is small: just 52 (eight per cent) of all 652 employers penalised in 2013-14. So the number liable to receive a penalty anywhere near the proposed maximum of £20,000 per underpaid worker would be even smaller.

Secondly, HMRC already can in effect impose a penalty of up to £20,000 per underpaid worker, by the simple expedient of issuing more than the normal one Notice of Underpayment to the employer. This practice was adopted in March 2014, when the penalty percentage was increased from 50 per cent to 100 per cent of the total underpayment, and the maximum penalty was increased from £5,000 to £20,000. (I am not aware of any published figure for the number of employers issued with more than one Notice of Underpayment since March 2014, but the Minister may be able to provide that figure to the Committee).

In short, all that clause 138 would do is align the statutory power to set the maximum penalty with the practice adopted by HMRC in March 2014 (in order to meet the Prime Minister’s announcement in November 2013 that penalties would be both increased and imposed on a ‘per worker’ basis). According to the associated BIS Regulatory Impact Assessment, this would save HMRC some £250,000 per year in administrative costs associated with serving a small number of employers with more than one Notice of Underpayment.

However, that would be the sum total of the impact of clause 138. And, as it is not clear from the Regulatory Impact Assessment how HMRC (or BIS) arrived at the total costs figure of £250,000, even that figure might well be an over-estimate.

Clause 139: Banning exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts

According to a BIS facts sheet on the Bill, clause 139 would “make exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts invalid and unenforceable,” the aim being to address the abusive use of zero-hours contracts.

Such exclusivity clauses – which prevent an individual on a zero-hours contract from working for a second employer, even when no work is on offer from the first – are easily labeled as unfair. But even if clause 139 achieved its aim of making such clauses “invalid and unenforceable” – a rather large ‘if’ – it would still have little if any impact on the abusive use of zero-hours contracts, for the simple reason that such exclusivity clauses are far from essential to that abuse.

In practice, all that an abusive employer has to do is let it be known that taking work with another employer will result in no further work being offered. Employment law specialist Mark Tarran has put it this way:

Zero-hours contracts before [clause 139]: “If you work anywhere else you will be in breach of contract and I won’t give you any more work.”

Zero-hours contracts after [clause 139]: “If you work anywhere else you will not be in breach of contract but I still won’t give you any more work.”

It is worth noting that, according to BIS, only 125,000 – about one in ten – of the estimated 1.2 million zero-hours workers have an exclusivity clause in their contract. And why would employers not have bothered to insert such a clause into nine out of ten zero-hours contracts? They didn’t, because they don’t need to. Take away the exclusivity clause, and the worker is still on a zero-hours contract, with no guarantee of work from one week to the next. And that is what makes them vulnerable to abuse.

To my mind, zero-hours contracts are best viewed as one (very nasty) symptom of a killer disease: the abuse of vulnerable workers by exploitative employers. That disease has become more prevalent and more virulent in recent years. But treating a symptom will not cure the disease, even if it makes the doctor feel more comfortable.

[Postscript: my submission has now been published by the Bill Committee]