Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 14th September 2021

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
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15. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on upholding the rule of law.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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17. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on upholding the rule of law.

Robert Buckland Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Robert Buckland)
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Naturally, I do not disclose the details of my private conversations with Cabinet colleagues, but they and everybody else should be in no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, a very active Lord Chancellor in supporting the rule of law. I use the authority of my office to advise, to warn and to encourage. I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took, to my constitutional duty to respect the rule of law.

Draft Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2019

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 26th June 2019

(2 years, 11 months ago)

General Committees
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. The Minister will appreciate that our exchanges today will be less adversarial than those on the Trade Union Bill Committee, on which he served. I will support the statutory instrument today. I understand that, as the Minister says, there have been quite intense discussions with Humza Yousaf MSP, the Justice Secretary of the Scottish Government, with whom I share a parliamentary office.

As has been outlined, the order makes provision in connection with the proposed victim surcharge fund. It is important in this debate to recognise that it is about supporting the victims of crime. The order will provide for sums to be deducted direct from offenders’ benefits, as takes place in England and Wales. It is estimated that the measure will add £1 million to the fund available to victims. It will make offenders accountable for any harm or damage caused by their actions and will support the needs of victims.

Examples of what that might mean include financial assistance for funeral costs, increasing the security of a victim’s home and the replacement of essential furnishings that have been damaged during an offence. I will support the statutory instrument today. I do not think it is very controversial and there have been discussions in the Scottish Parliament about it. I am sure that any debates about implementation or concerns about the funds can take place at that level. I thank you, Mr Hanson, for allowing me to make some remarks.

Civil Liability Bill [Lords]

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has tried several times to intervene, so I must give him an opportunity to make his point.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has been generous. May I put a different scenario to him, because this aspect of what he is saying is confusing me? If, in the course of his employment, a resident of Glasgow South West were injured in Croydon South, why would he be treated less favourably because the injury was sustained in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency than he would be in the constituency of Glasgow South West? In Scotland personal injury claims are exempt from the small claims limit, and civil legal aid is available to claimants.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I infer from the hon. Gentleman’s question that these matters are devolved in Scotland. Is that the case?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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It is a different system.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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The two cases are treated differently because there is an entirely different legal system in Scotland, and there is a devolved Government there. It is perfectly within the competence of that devolved Government to take a different view. Clearly the Government in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament, have taken a different view, as they are entitled to do so, but I, as an English MP—as a London MP—take my own view, and it is the one that I have been expressing here today.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but does he realise that the Bill affects 407,000 people—Scottish residents who are employed in England and Wales?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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It may well affect residents of Scotland. Of course, it also affects residents of France, Germany, the United States and Kazakhstan who may choose to visit my constituency. I strongly encourage all of them to do that, by the way. If, heaven forbid, they were to suffer an injury in Croydon South, they would be equivalently affected. The mere fact that there are different rules in different jurisdictions is no reason not to change the rules in this one. Which jurisdiction is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we align ourselves with? Scotland? France?

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Scotland!

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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While I admire the hon. Gentleman’s patriotism in inviting us to follow the Scottish example, I am afraid that this Parliament will form its own view on what is appropriate, and I do not think that he can be in any doubt about what I think the right view is on the question before us today.

Draft Civil Proceedings, First-tier Tribunal, Upper Tribunal and Employment Tribunals Fees (Amendment) Order 2016

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 7th July 2016

(5 years, 10 months ago)

General Committees
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Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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The right hon. Gentleman asks a good question, but he will be aware that running the courts and tribunals system costs a lot of money. Given the economic difficulties that the country is in, we have found it necessary to impose fees that will contribute towards the cost of keeping Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service operating.

As I was saying, the order will uplift a number of fees charged in the civil and magistrates courts by 10%. That will include all the fees that are currently at full cost recovery levels including, for example, the fees for judicial review proceedings, but the uplift will not apply to fees in civil proceedings that are already set above cost. The uplift will also apply to judicial review proceedings heard in the immigration and asylum chamber of the upper tribunal to ensure that the fees in judicial review proceedings are consistent across jurisdictions.

The order also introduces a new, consistent fee-charging approach across the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal. The current structure that operates in the tribunal is complex and inconsistent, with a range of different fees charged for some application types and no fees charged for others. Our changes will simplify and standardise the approach, reducing the burden on the general taxpayer by raising the overall recovery rate in the tribunal from about 4% to about 10% and sharing that burden more equally between all those who use the tribunal.

As we announced in our consultation response last December, the target is to recover about 25% of cost from fees in the property chamber. Achieving that aim will require us to revisit our specific proposals relating to leasehold enfranchisement cases, and we will make an announcement on our plans for fees in those proceedings in due course.

Finally, the order will change the default classification of two new appeal rights that have been created in the employment tribunals from a type B claim, which attracts the higher fee, to a type A claim, for which the fee is lower. The normal rule is that when those who use a public service are charged a fee to access them, the fee should be set at a level designed to cover the full costs of the service. The civil and family courts have operated on that basis for a number of years.

Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides the Lord Chancellor with the power to prescribe fees above cost, but requires that those fees are used to

“finance an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals”.

That power was used for the first time in March last year to increase the fees for money claims, and again earlier this year to increase the fees for possession claims, general applications in civil proceedings and applications for a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership. The power will be exercised again in this order to increase the fees in a range of civil proceedings by 10%, which will take those fees above cost recovery levels.

The fee changes that affect the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal and employment tribunals will be made under section 42 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, given that even after these changes, the fees will remain well below cost recovery levels.

The case for revisiting the fees that we charge in courts and tribunals is based firmly on the need to ensure that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is properly funded to protect the vital principle of access to justice.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Can the Minister confirm that the fees recovered in the last year were about 12.5% of Ministry of Justice income?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I am not familiar with the precise figure and I am keen to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets it, so I am happy to write to him with the details of whether the figure is 12.5% or more or less than that.

A fully functioning and properly funded justice system is the cornerstone of our democratic society. It should provide everyone with the ability to redress their problems in an efficient and effective forum, and it should also underpin our economy. The Government have committed to an historic, once-in-a-generation investment of more than £700 million to transform our courts and tribunals system. The scale of that investment and the ambition of our reform plan will enable us to build a justice system that is simpler, swifter and more efficient, using modern technology.

In a tough financial climate, there is only so much that can be delivered through spending cuts and efficiencies. That is why we have had to look again at the balance between what users pay towards the overall cost of court and tribunal services and the financial burden that falls on the taxpayer. We estimate that the measures set out in the order will generate about £6 million per annum in additional income, with every pound collected being spent on providing our system of courts and tribunals. I recognise that no one will ever welcome an increase in fees, but I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that increases are required so that we can ensure that the courts and tribunals are properly funded and access to justice is protected.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East on his appointment as shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice? I look forward to having debates with him on many occasions, and I hope that the debates will be constructive for the benefit of all those who need access to justice.

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the Minister for his kind remarks, and I look forward to having many a constructive conversation and debate with him and his colleagues.

This is our second opportunity this week to debate court and tribunal fees, following the debate on Monday in the Chamber, during which we had the opportunity to discuss the Select Committee on Justice’s recent report on the issue. Hon. Members will recall that although it was an estimates vote on Monday night, Labour decided to treat it as a vote on tribunal fees in order to make clear our opposition to the Government’s policy on employment tribunal fees, so strong is our belief that they are a barrier to justice. Today we have an opportunity to make another clear statement on barriers to access to justice, as we discuss the proposed increases in court and tribunal fees set out in the order.

On Monday, I made it clear that I see it as my priority in my new role as shadow Justice Secretary to speak up for all those whose access to justice has been deliberately obstructed by this Government and the coalition Government who preceded them. We will assess the order on two grounds: affordability in providing access to justice and the Government’s evidence base for the proposals.

In principle, we can be in no doubt whatever that civil litigation fees discourage claims, particularly from those least well placed to afford them, such as people in receipt of benefits, whether unemployed or on low pay, women, black or minority ethnic individuals, the disabled and those seeking asylum. The introduction of fees in employment tribunals has coincided with an enormous fall of 70% or thereabouts in claims being brought, particularly those relating to sex discrimination, pregnancy or maternity rights, race discrimination and disability discrimination.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Is the shadow Secretary of State aware that there has also been a 70% drop in workers pursuing claims for non-payment of the national minimum wage?

Richard Burgon Portrait Richard Burgon
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important and alarming point. The reason for the drop in claims, whether those for enforcement of the national minimum wage or the other claims that I have outlined, is not that bad employment practices have suddenly become much rarer since the introduction of employment tribunal fees; it is that the fees are deterring people from making claims. That is not good for anybody, because employment tribunals deter bad employers from following bad practices and even protect employees who would never dream of making a claim themselves.

Today, the Government are proposing a 10% increase in civil litigation fees across the board. When did anyone who has to pay those fees have a 10% pay rise? I know from my previous brief as shadow City Minister that there are some people who might expect a 10% pay rise, but which council worker, health worker or factory worker—which of our constituents—last received a 10% pay increase? We need to be clear: this inflation-busting increase will lift access to justice further out of the reach of ordinary people on ordinary pay who receive ordinary pay awards. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East put that point well in his intervention.

Today’s debate is also about the principle of court fees and how the legal system is increasingly used, in the words of the Law Society, as “a profit centre”. On Monday, I highlighted in the Chamber how concerned I was that litigants are increasingly treated as customers. As I said, I remember the first time, as an employment lawyer, I assisted a claimant to make a claim following the introduction of employment tribunal fees. I was sickened to see the following words on the Employment Tribunals Service website: “Customer, please enter your credit card details”. I was shocked and saddened to see that we are not treating people as citizens trying to assert their statutory rights; we are increasingly seeing them as consumers or customers. That shows the wrong priorities on the Government’s part.

We also need to be clear that the fee remission system in employment tribunals often requires people to provide a humiliating level of detail. I remember receiving remission forms requiring bank statements, and on one claimant’s remission form the Employment Tribunals Service had highlighted the fact that in December they had received a bank transfer of £12 from a relative. They were asked to explain what that £12 was for and why it was sent to them. If I remember correctly, it was money relating to a Christmas present, but that is the kind of intrusion that people are subjected to. It is almost as though the service did not want people to apply for fee remissions. Of those who do apply, only about 3.7% get any joy.

So why are the Government doing this? On Monday we discussed employment tribunal fees, which contribute something like £7 million of the £70 million-plus that it costs to run the Employment Tribunals Service. Today we are discussing a measure that the Government’s impact assessment says will bring in £5.9 million, but which will see fees leap up in a way that will make individuals think twice before applying. Some of those increases are as follows. A request to reconsider at a hearing a decision on permission in the immigration and asylum chamber will increase from £350 to £385; the High Court fee will increase from £480 to £528; and the fee for a contested hearing in the magistrates court will increase from £515 to £567. In the civil court, the fee for permission to proceed with a judicial review will increase from £700 to £770. Those increases are simply unfair and will deny access to justice.

The Government are clearly concerned enough by the fall in applications to employment tribunals that they have agreed, correctly, to initiate a review of the impact of employment tribunal fees. They are yet to produce or publish that report, five months after it was given to the Minister. Now they wish to push ahead with increasing civil litigation fees in a number of areas—including the property chamber, the immigration and asylum chamber and others—without publishing their review of employment tribunal fees or carrying out a further review of the affordability of civil court fees and the fee remission system. Such a review should take place, and it is not just those on the Labour Benches saying that. A number of stakeholders advocated that approach in response to the Government’s consultation. I am sad to say that the Government do not seem to be listening to those stakeholders.

The Government conducted a consultation on the increases in court and tribunal fees, following which they concluded that they still wished to impose a general 10% increase in civil litigation fees. That decision flies in the face of the submitted evidence. I would argue that the key question in that consultation was the one that asked:

“Do you agree with the proposal to uplift all civil fees not affected by one of the other specific proposals by 10%?”

The Government’s response noted that of 82 responses to that question, four agreed and 78 disagreed, and stated:

“Those who disagreed raised a number of opposing arguments,”

including that

“it would deter people from bringing claims”

and

“prevent people from accessing justice”.

There were 46 responses to the question:

“Do you agree with Government’s proposal to increase the fees charged for proceedings in the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber)?”

Some 37 of those responses disagreed with that proposal, saying that

“people seeking asylum in many cases were vulnerable and would be unable to afford the fees”,

and that

“the fees would prevent access to justice”.

The Justice Committee report, the words of which should weigh heavily on Members from all parts of the House, highlighted considerable concern at the Government’s proposals to set immigration fees at a cost recovery level.

I wish to highlight some of the arguments that the Law Society set out in opposition to the increase in fees in its submissions to the Government consultation and the Select Committee inquiry. I will quote the Law Society at some length, because it is worth listening to. It said:

“It is wrong in principle for the court service to be treated as a profit centre—the courts have a vital social function which it is for the State to provide, and should not be treated as a commercial activity to subsidise other work…The Government’s decision will discourage people from bringing legitimate cases, thus reducing access to justice…The proposals are not supported by any evidence or concrete proposals to indicate how the Government will use the money gained to improve the court service ... The research on which the decision was based is inadequate.”

The submission says that there is limited evidence of the impact on the poor in society, particularly in the immigration field.

The submission continues to say that

“fee increases will shift the burden of responsibility and costs onto innocent parties, deterring individuals from seeking redress and creating another barrier to access to justice…The income level at which fee remissions is available is far too low to be of any assistance to the majority of individuals—it is below the threshold for eligibility for civil legal aid…Increased fees could lead to the prospect of clients having to take out loans to fund court fees. This will only serve to create a further barrier to justice as many clients will not want to take out a loan or will not meet banks’ lending criteria. Those who do take out loans will have to pay interest…The process of applying for the remission of court fees is also highly complicated, designed seemingly to deter ordinary people from applying and in urgent need of simplification.”

I apologise for quoting at such length, but it is important that the Law Society’s comments are heard, heeded and put on record. They are damning words from a respected body of professionals who keep our legal system running.

I will also take a moment to highlight the concerns of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association. It highlighted the fact that the Immigration Act 2014 dramatically reduced rights of appeal in immigration and asylum cases. It said to me that in many cases, access to judicial review

“will provide the only remedy to challenge the certification of a case as one in which the appeal may be conducted from outside the UK without leading to a breach of human rights including serious and irreversible harm”.

It said that access to judicial review

“will therefore be an essential safeguard against poor quality decision-making in this context and the risk of removal leading to breaches of human rights breaches.”

It concluded that in many cases, applicants

“will be facing imminent removal. Finding the funds to pay court fees or completing complicated applications for remission of the fees”

is complicated by the urgency of their cases. It also blames the Home Office for creating those court costs through

“poor decisions with (high overturn rates on appeal), to create delays in immigration proceedings and to fail consistently and timeously to give effect to the decisions of the courts.”

On the back of those concerns, we also have the latest proposal to increase immigration and asylum chamber fees, but I will leave that point there.

The one positive item in the order is the proposal to reclassify posted workers’ claims against employers in the employment tribunal as type A rather than type B claims, meaning that a lower fee will be payable. But one swallow does not make a summer, and in any event we remain committed to the abolition of employment tribunal fees under a Labour Government.

The Law Society has advised me that

“in light of the damning report from the Justice Select Committee on the impact of fee increases, the Law Society believes that any further increases should not be implemented until at the very least the MoJ has responded to that report, and preferably until a proper review has been carried out of the impact.”

I agree. I therefore ask the Minister the following. Will he listen to stakeholders from across the legal profession and conduct a review of the impact of civil litigation fees? Since it is three days since our last debate, is there any news on when he will publish the review of employment tribunal fees?

Given the evidence that court fees are a barrier to justice and given that the Government have refused to conduct or publish sufficient reviews of the impact of court fees, I confirm that we will divide the Committee to demonstrate the Opposition’s commitment to access to justice and to oppose the across-the-board, inflation-busting increase of 10% that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East so eloquently described.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I welcome the hon. Member for Leeds East and congratulate him on his new role and responsibilities.

At a time when maternity discrimination and the number of workers being made redundant are on the increase and, according to the National Audit Office, 209,000 workers were not paid the minimum wage last year and a further 56,000 are awaiting payment of national minimum wage arrears, an above-inflation increase will price low-paid workers out of justice. That is exactly what has taken place since employment tribunal fees were introduced.

The Trades Union Congress report “At what price justice?” shows that the introduction of fees in July 2013 has led to a 79% fall in the overall number of claims being taken to employment tribunals. Women are already the biggest losers: there has been an 80% fall in the number of women pursuing sex discrimination cases. Just 1,222 women made such claims between January and March 2014, compared with 6,017 in the same period in 2013. In addition, race discrimination and sexual orientation claims both fell by 60% in that timeframe, and there was a 46% year-on-year reduction in disability claims.

The TUC also argues that workers are being cheated out of wages. There has been a 70% drop in the number of workers pursuing claims for non-payment of the national minimum wage, and in many cases claims for unpaid wages are lower than the fees themselves. That is another barrier to workers pursuing justice. Working time directive claims are down 78%; unfair dismissal claims are down 72%; equal pay claims are down 58%; breach of contract claims are down 75%; and as I said earlier, sex discrimination claims are down 68%.

I think I misspoke slightly when I asked the Minister about the Ministry of Justice accounts. I understand from a Unison report that the introduction of fees has contributed a net 12.5% gain in revenue: income from fees is £9 million, compared with the Employment Tribunals Service’s total budget of £71.4 million.

On tribunal fees, as has been said, the order adds claims under the new Posted Workers (Enforcement of Employment Rights) Regulations 2016, but there is evidence in the Justice Committee’s recent report on access to employment tribunals that there has been a drop in access to justice in that regard. The Committee agreed with that evidence. The fact that there is sometimes no automatic financial award for successful tribunal claims also does not seem to have been taken into account. Some claims that are lodged—for example, those relating to written pay statements and written statements of reasons for dismissal—do not attract such a monetary award.

Statutory employment rights exist to ensure minimum standards of treatment in the workplace. Rights such as the minimum wage, paid annual leave and paid time off for maternity, paternity or parental reasons, and the rights not to be discriminated against or unfairly dismissed, are important and have social and economic benefits. If observed, they help to ensure decent standards of living, stability of income, job security and equality of opportunity. They can also contribute to the creation of a committed and engaged workforce, help to reduce sickness absence and support the retention of skilled workers—all things that boost productivity.

We are also concerned about the proposed increase in fees for the immigration and asylum chamber. As the hon. Member for Leeds East pointed out, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association has consistently argued that there should be a “polluter pays” approach, and in its view, the Home Office

“continues to make poor decisions (with high overturn rates on appeal), to create delays in immigration proceedings and to fail consistently and timeously to give effect to the decisions of the courts. If the Home Office were to bear the costs of these myriad failings, not only would court costs (and legal aid payments) be reduced but there would be a strong incentive for immigration and asylum decision-making to improve, and thus for savings in all cases.”

The cases that we are talking about are challenges to the lawfulness of detention; challenges to the validity of legislation, including incompatibility with the Human Rights Act; and challenges relating to the inclusion of sponsors on the register of sponsors for the points-based system and to nationality law and citizenship.

The Scottish Government will be removing employment tribunal fees in Scotland. I agree with that, and the trade union movement, the citizens advice service and many other organisations share that view. It is our view that the order will have an impact on the most vulnerable in our society and therefore does not deserve our support.

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Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I start by thanking the hon. Members for Leeds East, for Glasgow South West and for Bassetlaw for their contributions. Much of what was said is not relevant to the debate, because the order is about the narrow confines of the order, but I will take a moment or two to reply to some points that have been raised, for the sake of balance in Hansard.

On the need for fees, which the shadow Lord Chancellor raised, I reiterate that we live in difficult times and it is necessary to take measures to deal with the economic and financial climate in which we are living. The total cost of the courts and tribunals system in 2014-15 was £1.8 billion and the fee income was £700 million, leaving a net cost to the taxpayer of about £1.1 billion. I hear loud and clear the criticisms that have been made about fees, but there is a deafening silence on Opposition Members’ alternative for getting the money to meet the £1.1 billion shortfall. I suppose that the luxury of opposition is the ability to make grand promises and be critical without having to take the tough decisions that government requires.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister would surely concede that the Scottish Government have taken a more enlightened approach, and have indicated that they will abolish employment tribunal fees. At least one part of the United Kingdom is taking a different approach, and the Scottish Government will find that in their budget.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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The hon. Gentleman is right that the Scottish Government have taken a different approach. However, there has been a distinct lack of any mention of where they will get the money from. From which other budget will they take it? Until that response is given, the promise of scrapping one set of fees is somewhat hollow, commendable though it is. There is an element of balancing budgets here.

It is not unreasonable to charge people who use the courts and tribunals system so that they make a contribution for that use. The order is not about profit—it is simply wrong to say that it is. In fact, it shows a complete lack of understanding of how the courts and tribunals system operates. It is abundantly clear that the fees will be used to help run the courts and tribunals system and will go towards the additional £700 million that the Chancellor has made available to ensure that we have a 21st-century, first-class courts system that is the envy of the world. There is simply not a bottomless pit of money, and we must remember that we are talking about taxpayers’ money.

The issue of employment tribunal fees is not relevant to this debate, but I will briefly make one or two comments to rebut some points that have been made. As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, the latest figure for the cost of employment tribunals was £71 million a year. It is therefore not unreasonable that the public should contribute towards the use of those tribunals. What has not been taken note of, however, is that some 83,000 people have used the ACAS early conciliation scheme, which is free.

It is ironic that some Members here claim to represent the public, given what they have said today. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said that we are not in touch with the public. He is the one who is not in touch with the public, because he is seeking to scrap fees. We are instead encouraging people to use a system that is absolutely free, with no lawyers’ fees, no court fees—no anything. We have the irony that these people are standing up and advocating a system of people going to employment tribunals, which would necessitate cost.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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The hon. Gentleman said that he was not a lawyer, but he does not have to be a lawyer to know that people who go to employment tribunals and win are entitled to have their costs repaid, including the cost of the fee.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw indicated, settlement in ACAS relies on the employer also joining ACAS and playing ball. In many cases, rogue employers do not play ball. ACAS is one route, but that relies on the employer going to ACAS and joining the discussion, which does not happen often enough.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that where it is necessary for cases to go to the tribunal, people can recover their costs if they win.

International Women’s Day 2016

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 8th March 2016

(6 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Portrait Ms Ahmed-Sheikh
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Absolutely. We stand on the broad shoulders of the giants who came before us and had to deal with so much in this Chamber and beyond. Huge strides have been made to improve the representation of women in Parliament at Westminster and Holyrood, but there is much more to do. I pay particular tribute to the significant work of the Women 50:50 campaign in Scotland.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Is it the case that advances in female representation came about from positive action, and that more positive action is required?

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh Portrait Ms Ahmed-Sheikh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with my hon. Friend, and until we believe that there is a level playing field in how people are chosen, positive action is welcome.

It is as important to seek to modernise practices and attitudes towards women in public and political life now as it was 100 years ago. We cannot stand still. It is vital for democracy that those who make laws across the world are representative of their countries at large, and that is important in the fight against Daesh and in the debate on our continuing membership of the European Union. Last year, I was privileged to chair an event that aimed to give a platform to the female perspective in Syria. Women are so often the forgotten victims of conflicts, and the forms of terrorism that we see today greatly impact on them.

Women have been at the forefront of action in Syria to combat child recruitment to armed groups, and they have led and co-ordinated the disarmament of men in public places in some refugee camps so that children do not have to walk around and see armed men. Those initiatives also disguise the names of their community projects to keep their work hidden from Daesh networks. Only by taking such action can we prepare Syrian society for a future beyond the current conflict. Women have so much to offer, and to date the debate on the European Union seems largely to have been led by men in grey suits jockeying for position. It is time for women’s voices to be heard. We must not underestimate the part that the EU has played in protecting and promoting equality and the rights of women across our continent.

I wonder what the world might look like if more women were at the top table, heading campaigns in EU institutions, peace talks and diplomacy. I respectfully suggest that it would be a more equal world, and a better place for us all. The Scottish Government are committed to working towards gender equality, and I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who will speak further on that matter. Everybody appears to believe in gender equality, but simply believing in it is not enough. The WASPI women, the female workforce and victims of domestic violence are waiting. We must get on with the job.

Here is to those women who championed equality before us, against greater odds and much higher obstacles. To all the girls who will follow us, we are here to support you; to the men who support us, we welcome you. Women and girls hold the key to change and progress, so let us not waste a minute in unlocking these doors and creating opportunities across the world. Equality is a fundamental human right.

Women and the Economy

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 9th December 2015

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
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That is absolutely right. Our economy is losing out through women’s under-participation in the labour market. They are underperforming in earnings and therefore in their ability to provide the financial means to support themselves and their families and to contribute to the local economy. That leads to a drain on our public spending.

For women in work, low pay remains a significant issue. Since 2010, over half the jobs growth for women has been in low-paid sectors. In Scotland, six out of 10 jobs have been created in low-paid, more insecure sectors over the period of the majority Scottish National party Government. Seventy-eight per cent. of women work in low-paid social care, but 86% of workers in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—industries, which pay much better, are men. According to the Young Women’s Trust, 20% of young women have been offered jobs paying less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, as has been noted, the overall gender pay gap stands at 19.2 %—considerably higher than the European Union average—and has been falling more slowly than under the previous Labour Governments. That reflects a downward convergence between women’s and men’s wages, not women’s earnings rising to close the gap.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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On women being paid less than the minimum wage, another factor is that the Government are making cuts to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will stop the enforcement of the minimum wage in many sectors of the economy.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is right. These cuts are false economies. “Penny wise and pound foolish” underlies the Government’s whole economic strategy, and that is a very good example of it.

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Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I hope that she will speak in the debate, because her contributions are always useful.

Overall, the Government’s strategy for women at work is simply insufficient. That is not just bad for women; as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) noted, it is bad for our economy. The Government’s own consultation report, “Closing the Gender Pay Gap”, which was published this year, states that equalising the level of women’s productivity and employment with men’s could add almost £600 billion to our economy, while equalising participation rates could add 10% to the size of the economy by 2030. Action is urgently needed.

Meanwhile, women are also seeing their rights in the workplace attacked and eroded. The introduction of tribunal fees means that few can now afford the £1,200 to pursue an equal pay claim. The number of maternity discrimination cases has nearly doubled, while the number of cases going to tribunal has fallen by 80%. So much for the Government’s commitment to economic equality.

Cuts to spending on public services also hit women hardest. There are 763 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010. The care sector has been affected badly by the 31% cut in local council budgets. The additional £3.5 billion earmarked in the autumn statement fails to compensate for the drastic cuts that have already taken place, let alone adequately meeting future need.

Kate Green Portrait Kate Green
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

It is women who will lose out from the lack of paid-for care, as they so often have to step in to fill the gap.

Terrifyingly for women at risk of or fleeing sexual or domestic violence and abuse, there have also been substantial cuts to services and access to justice that protect women’s safety. Research for Women’s Aid in 2014 showed that a third of women were being turned away from refuges because there was no room for them. Thirty-two specialist services closed between 2010 and 2014 due to lack of funds. The Chancellor’s short-term proposal to fund domestic violence services from the unfair tampon tax makes their funding symbolically and literally the responsibility only of women. Two women a week are killed as a result of domestic violence, and that must be the responsibility of everyone in society.

Why does all this happen? Why are women hit the hardest? It happens because we are not present where decisions are taken. Our voices are not heard. The Fawcett Society has shown that 80% of stories in the media about the economy are about men or quote men. Although there has been a welcome improvement in the number of women on company boards following the Davies report, the proportion of women in executive positions on FTSE 100 boards remains lamentably low.

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Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)
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Equal pay day was marked this year on 9 November. On that day, women across the United Kingdom started working for free, while men continued earning. It should be a day talked about in the history books, not a 21st-century reality. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, men still earn two months more wages a year than women.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments and his ambition to end the gender pay gap in a generation, but that must be followed by action. The reality is that unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before, with 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers forced out of their job each year. Hundreds of thousands of women are employed on zero-hours contracts and in other precarious forms of employment that offer little in the way of guaranteed hours or job security. The introduction of employment tribunal fees is acting as nothing more than a barrier to female justice and a charter for rogue employers. I welcome the Government’s review of this measure and hope that they will take serious action on employment tribunal fees.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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It was curious that the Minister did not mention tribunal fees in her contribution, even though they are clearly mentioned in the motion. Does my hon. Friend agree that asking women to pay £1,200 for a discrimination case is an outrage, and it explains why there has been a 91% drop in sex discrimination cases in this country?

Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, I hope the Government will take serious action on tribunal fees, because they are acting as a barrier to women taking serious action against rogue employers in the workplace.

The Shrewsbury 24

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 9th December 2015

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The debate is timely and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), who for many years has been a stalwart in trying to get justice for the Shrewsbury 24. I will say this on the record: this case is a catastrophic and deliberate miscarriage of justice deliberately organised by the state. Of that there is no doubt. If they have nothing to hide, let us see the papers. It is simple. I can see the Minister staring at me. He is a former worker, which is highly unusual among the Conservatives. He has worked in the services with distinction, so I appeal to his good side. We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary other than to see some documents. According to the Conservative Government, there is not anything in them. If there is not anything in them, why can we not see them? That is fairly straightforward.

We have discussed this case on various occasions in the Commons. The Back-Bench debate in the Chamber was one of the best debates we have had. We were solid behind the motion that was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson).

I am a former miner. I have been through many strikes. I have been a picket and have suffered the same as some of the representatives of the Shrewsbury 24. It is simply not right for an ordinary person, who has never had any problems and never been arrested before, to get arrested for trying to save their job and look after their family. It is just not right. It is an abuse of political power. It is an abuse of the judiciary system, an abuse of individual human rights, and an attack on the fact that someone is prepared to be part of a collective organisation in the trade union movement. That is what happened back then. This was not an industrial dispute, but a political dispute. The state wanted to show, by example, what would happen if people dared to stand up against the state.

We have seen legislation after legislation introduced since then. The recent Trade Union Bill, which should be the anti-trade union Bill, builds on what happened all those years ago in the early 1970s. These people were on strike; they were not raving, militant lunatics and revolutionaries. They were on strike because people were getting maimed and killed in the building industry. They were fighting for wages and, in the main, for health and safety on building sites. Is there any better cause for trade union members to fight for than the health and safety of the people they work with in the workplace? I think not.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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We hear much in this country about aspiration and about who represents those with aspiration. Surely, those involved in this dispute were an example of that—their aspiration was for a better life, better working conditions and better pay.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to be here and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing the debate. His speech was informative, persuasive and, above all, powerful.

As the SNP spokesperson on trade union and workers’ rights, let me say it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Before coming to this place, I was a Unison activist. Two years ago, in the hon. Gentleman’s city of Liverpool, Ricky Tomlinson addressed the UK Unison conference to raise awareness of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign. It was my pleasure, as the then treasurer of Glasgow City Unison, to sign a cheque to the campaign, and I would encourage all members of the public watching the debate to consider making a contribution to it.

I want to assure the campaign that all right hon. and hon. Members of the SNP support it. It is important that justice be done. I should add that the campaign resonates with me because the arrests and charges came one month before I was born. Throughout my whole lifetime, therefore, the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign has been waiting for justice.

We know from the campaign that the National Federation of Building Trades Employers compiled a dossier. At the time, the Financial Times dismissed the dossier, saying:

“This document is itself flawed since it suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations. Many of the incidents that have been listed seem to be little more than the ordinary spontaneous angry behaviour that might be expected on a building site at any time (and especially during an industrial dispute)…the publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.”

That is a good way of putting it.

I want to praise the speeches we have heard so far. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) referred to the previous debate, on the Floor of the House, in January 2014, and to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). When I read the report of the debate, I noticed that that hon. Gentleman bragged about his membership of the Freedom Association—what we would consider to be the Consulting Association’s wee cousin.

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made a number of excellent points. I was surprised to hear that promises made in correspondence to him since 2010 have not been kept. I think he is due an explanation.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, beyond this huge injustice, something else is at stake—the reputation of this Parliament? Deceit upon deceit has been practised here, and the reputation of the word of Minister after Minister is now in the gutter. There is a deep-seated smell of corruption, which goes right to the heart of the Government, and it needs to be expunged.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He makes the valid point that members of the public outside watching this debate will be very confused that promises about the release of information keep getting made but are not kept. That is why many of them do not trust parliamentarians and Parliament. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.

In making his powerful address, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton got to the nub of the issue for those involved in the campaign. The eldest of these men is 90, and the youngest is 68. They should not have to wait five years for the release of these documents.

The SNP supports the decision taken in the House in January 2014. I want to emphasise the result of the vote: there were 120 votes in favour of releasing the documents, and three against. Many of us are concerned that national security is being used as a reason not to release the documents. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has said:

“It is time to end this 40-year conspiracy of silence and release all the government documents relating to the Shrewsbury 24. There is something deeply wrong in this country when a 21st century government uses national security to withhold documents about ordinary working people who tried to improve their working conditions four decades ago. We believe the Tories are desperately trying to hide the stench of a great miscarriage of justice and we urge fair minded MPs to back our campaign to release all the government papers on the Shrewsbury 24.”

Alex Deane, a Conservative public affairs consultant, wrote on the ConservativeHome website in January 2014,

“whilst deeply unsympathetic to their cause, I find it simply impossible to conjure up what the national security concerned might be in hiding the decisions taken by officials and elected persons relating to the prosecution of builders in Shropshire 40 years ago. What technique of surveillance or undercover work might possibly justify non-disclosure after this passage of time? Any technique will be outdated or universally known about. Any individual involved in undercover work can have his or her name redacted from the papers which might otherwise be released. Consideration of the wider disclosures rightly made in recent times of papers relating to Northern Ireland, where on any view those concerned were more dangerous, makes a mockery of any such claim to national security concerns.”

We believe a great injustice has been done, and hope that the Minister will confirm today that he will release the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24.

George Howarth Portrait Mr George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I am about to call the shadow Home Secretary. Although I think there will be plenty of time for both Front-Bench spokesmen, I ask them to bear in mind the fact that Steve Rotheram has the right to a few minutes at the very end. I hope that they will make sure that he gets them.

Employment Tribunal Fees

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 1st December 2015

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will address later some of the disproportionate impacts of the fees, but they are part of a bigger picture: they are part of a sustained attack on working people in this country. A lot of the legislation in the previous Parliament and currently going through the House is nothing more than an attack on basic workplace rights and protections. If our ambition is to have an economy and country where everyone has a stake in their prosperity, we should value the security and sustainability of jobs as much as the means of creating them.

It is widely recognised that losing a job is one of the major occasions in life on which people face extreme pressure and stress. Obviously, it is not quite as significant as some other issues, but for many, it can be a pretty traumatic experience. It can affect a person’s marriage, health, home, finances and, of course, family, yet we seem to be fostering a culture in which an individual is considered a disposable item to be cast aside with barely a second thought. While that culture exists, it is important that we have strong protections in place and—this relates to today’s debate—an effective and accessible system enforcing those protections.

Let us look first at the stark data, which show that the number of tribunal claims lodged has fallen off a cliff since the introduction of fees in July 2013.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. One of the reasons given for the introduction of these fees was to protect hard-working taxpayers from having to contribute to the cost, ignoring the fact that the people bringing these claims are hard-working taxpayers. Does he agree?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; his record on representing working people is one of note. He is absolutely right that everyone who takes part in the system contributes already through their taxes. As I will go on to demonstrate, there is little sign of any wider benefit to society. In fact, it could be argued that the fees are creating more problems than they solve.

Between October 2013 and September 2014, there were 32,671 fewer single claims brought by individuals than in the previous 12 months. That is a decrease of 64%. Over the same period, the number of multiple claim cases—those brought by two or more people against the same employer—was down by 3,527. That is a decrease of 67%. Comparing different periods can produce different figures, and an awful lot of different comparisons can be made. Indeed, some comparisons show up to an 80% drop in claims lodged. Whatever the comparisons or periods used, there is an average drop of around 70% in the number of claims lodged. It is therefore indisputable that there has been a significant drop in the number of claims since the introduction of fees.

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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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My hon. Friend, of course, has great experience in this area. The Government should be setting an example. They should be leading from the front and be seen to be engaging in the processes that promote and encourage good workplace relations. Is it not really something when we have a Government Department potentially discriminating against someone or impinging on their workplace rights, then refusing to engage with the systems that that Government have set up to try to resolve that dispute? And then the Government charge that person to force their rights. What kind of situation is that? It is not a fair, equitable or just way of dealing with matters.

Let me turn to the significant amount of evidence submitted to the Justice Committee. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) has referred to evidence that was given to the Justice Committee in respect of NOMS, and I recommend anyone who has not read those transcripts that look at that evidence. In it, multiple witnesses demonstrate the deterrent effect that fees have had; that evidence goes well beyond the data that have been referred to.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is making a number of excellent points. On fees, does he agree that there will be an impediment to cases in which a worker brings a case for an illegal deduction of wages, because the fee will be higher in some cases than the amount that the worker is looking for in their claim?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that point, which I will come to later. Speaking from personal experience as a lawyer before I entered this place, I have a number of examples of such situations, and that cannot be right in a fair and just society. Returning to the Justice Committee, it received evidence from Citizens Advice, which published a report called “Fairer Fees” in January 2015. It stated that 82% of its clients said that the fees deterred them from bringing an employment tribunal claim.

All the Government talk at the introduction of the fee regime was about weeding out vexatious claims. As I will go on to demonstrate, there has been no convincing evidence put forward that this system has done anything to reduce such claims, in stark contrast to the significant body of evidence suggesting that people with genuine complaints have not been able to pursue their rights as a result of the fee system. It may be that part of the Government rationale is that those who use the system should contribute to it, in which case far more equitable solutions can be found. It may be that despite everything else, it is and always was part of the Government’s plan to reduce the number of claims being made, in which case they have succeeded.

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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for his intervention. Of course he is absolutely right: that advice is an important safety net. I know from experience that the majority of people who are advised that they do not have a claim will take that advice on the chin and will not pursue the claim, so the fact that we have not been able even to maintain levels of access to advice has probably only made the situation worse.

As I was saying before the intervention, there are rules to deal with unmeritorious and vexatious claims. I want the Minister to tell us today whether he considers that those rules are effective, and if he does not, what he will do to change them.

Denying access to justice via a high fee level is arguably making no difference at all to the number of vexatious claims being lodged, because if this system was weeding out vexatious claims, the success rate would increase. The fact that it has not suggests that the fee system is a deterrent to all. Ministry of Justice statistics indicate that success rates have in fact remained broadly the same, rather than increasing. In the four quarters before fees were introduced, success rates ranged between 10% and 9%. In the four quarters after fees were introduced, success rates were broadly similar at 9%, 9%, 5% and 13%. Even the president of the employment tribunals, Mr Brian Doyle, suggested that only a very small percentage of claims can be identified as weak or unmeritorious and that we need to be careful about the way in which we bandy around the term “vexatious” when it comes to claims.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - -

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that those workers who have the benefit of trade union membership will find that a trade union also has a test as to whether to proceed with a claim to a tribunal?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is of course absolutely right. Trade unions play a vital role in ensuring that justice is served for their members, but they also play a wider role by not supporting or endorsing claims that are considered vexatious or weak. We really should mark out that contribution that is made. Of course the vast majority of people who work in this country are not trade union members. Perhaps that is one reason why the figures have not substantially changed as a result of these initiatives from the Government.

The myth that there is a vexatious culture out there has been perpetuated by parts of this Government and certain sections of the media. It is almost as if they believe that there is an army of litigious individuals out there who are routinely fleecing employers with spurious claims. That view has no basis in fact. As I said, there are already rules to stop vexatious claims proceeding. Each case is considered by a legally qualified judge. Most employers have access to professional advice on their case and far more are legally represented at tribunals than claimants—and all of that in a country that regularly appears near the bottom of the pile in any OECD studies of the strength of employment protection across the planet. It is far from the easy ride for employees that some people would portray.

In addition, it is simply not the case that there are hundreds of no win, no fee lawyers out there ready to exploit employers by bringing forth spurious claims. The clue is in the title: “no win, no fee”. If the lawyer does not think that the claim will win, they will not get paid for it, so why would they waste time pursuing a claim that they know will ultimately be unsuccessful?

The idea that employers are a soft touch in these matters is simply untrue. Most are professionally represented and should be able easily to spot someone trying it on. There is a question about how those who are not members of trade unions access affordable representation. We have dealt with that in some of the interventions today. Of course I would say that the best thing that anyone can do to protect themselves in the workplace is to join a trade union, but that is not a substitute for basic advice and support for people who find themselves in these very difficult situations. The Government have pulled the rug out from under them.

This system not only prevents access to justice, but feeds the myth that employment rights are some sort of undesirable impediment to properly functioning businesses. At its worst, it acts as encouragement to those rogue employers who think that employment protection and workplace rights are an optional extra to be ignored whenever possible.

There is plenty of evidence from those representing individuals in employment tribunals, including those who gave evidence to the Justice Committee, that some employers will deliberately decide not to engage in any kind of discussion about resolution of a claim until the very end of the process, even when they may very clearly be in the wrong. The pre-claim conciliation process run by ACAS can be and often is met by employers refusing to engage at all. They know that if they have dismissed an employee, they may not have the funds to pay for a tribunal claim. Even when one is under way, they still hold off until the hearing fee is paid before seriously considering whether they should engage in settlement negotiations. That can be as little as three weeks before the tribunal hearing. That wastes everyone’s time and the tribunal’s and the taxpayer’s resources. There is a category of employers who will not engage with anything unless they know that the employee has paid their £1,200, but even in the cases in which the lower fee applies, there is now a real dilemma facing employees, who are asking themselves, “Can I afford to take this on even though I know I am in the right?”

The starkest example—I referred to this earlier—is one from my own experience shortly before I was elected to this place. It involved an employer systematically refusing to pay their staff over a period of weeks. They refused to engage with ACAS in early conciliation and decided instead to sit back and wait for the tribunal claims that never arrived. The people affected whom I saw were all women and had all lost several weeks’ wages. There was no doubt that money was owed, but all of them questioned spending £390 to recover a similar amount and some of them were actually seeking to recover less than their initial outlay in fees, so for them the dilemma was even greater. Of course, there was no reason to suppose that they would not succeed in their claims, but it is a sad fact that employers, even if they do lose, do not actually pay the compensation due to the employee more than 50% of the time. Given the intransigence shown up to that point, I could not criticise those people at all for not wanting to take that risk.

How can anyone defend the bad employer playing the system and preventing very basic employment rights, including the right to be paid, from being enforced? It does not take a great feat of imagination to see how that attitude can inform an employer’s thinking on whether they should, for example, take steps to dismiss an employee fairly in the first place. After all, if they want rid of someone, why waste too much time on that process if they think that the person will not have the resources to challenge it afterwards? Far from the picture painted by some, this Government are actually creating a culture in which an employer can hire and fire with impunity.

Then there is the situation in which the employer becomes insolvent. The claimant has to apply to the Redundancy Payments Service for redundancy pay, but if there is no employer left to order reimbursement from and it is not recoverable from the national insurance fund, the claimant never recovers their fees. How can it be right that the state can profit from that situation? What kind of situation allows an employee to be, in effect, fined for attempting to exercise their rights in the already difficult situation in which there is an insolvency?

The GMB union has provided a very clear example of what amounts to a significant profit made off the backs of trade union membership fees. It was involved in a claim in Sheffield against a company that in February 2015 went into administration. The business was later sold to new owners, with the original company being wound up. There were redundancies, and the employment tribunal found in favour of the 48 people who brought claims in respect of a failure to consult and unfair dismissal. The claimants were supported by the GMB and three other unions, with fees totalling £13,200 being paid to issue the claims and have them heard. Although the tribunal ordered the respondent to refund the fees, there was virtually no chance of recovering them, as the legal entity had been wound up. Notably, it was only possible for those employees to bring claims because they were supported by a union to get their case before the tribunal. That is a tribute to the importance of trade union membership, but it cannot be right that trade unions or individuals have to make such payments with no avenue for recovering the cost. In that situation they were completely blameless, so why should the state penalise them?

On the question of costs, it has been suggested that one of the justifications for the fee system is that it will recoup some of the costs of the tribunal system. If that was the intention, the system has been a failure. The latest accounts from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2014-15, the net income from employment tribunal fees was £9 million and expenditure on employment tribunal services overall was £71.4 million, which means that the increase in net income from fees covers 12.5% of the cost of running the employment tribunal service. The Government seem to have been unable to quantify, in response to written questions, the extra administration and staffing costs in the tribunal service of having to administer the fees and the remission system. In reality, the gain in revenue is probably lower than 12.5%, and it has been achieved at the expense of a 69% drop in the number of claims.

There is no mention anywhere in any of the documents I have seen of the benefit to the taxpayer from the application of the recoupment regulations, which can result in an employer paying back to the taxpayer thousands of pounds—for example, in jobseeker’s allowance already paid to the claimant—which is offset against the claimant’s compensation. Such repayment is normally ordered where a tribunal has made a finding of unfair dismissal. Why is that clear benefit to the taxpayer not included in any considerations, and has anyone stopped to consider that the level of recoupment will have reduced as the level of claims has reduced—

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on making an excellent contribution. Like him, I believe it is clear that the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has led to a reduction in claims, and we can only conclude that that is denying workers access to justice. In April to June 2014, the first three months after the introduction of fees, there was an 81% drop in claims. Discrimination claims, for which a £1,200 fee is required, have fallen, and sex discrimination cases were down by 91% in the first year. As indicated earlier, unpaid wages claims, which attract a fee of £390, are down, often because in those cases the fee is more than the amount sought by the worker.

There is no evidence that fees are needed to prevent unfounded claims from being made; on the contrary, evidence gathered by the Trades Union Congress, Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice England and Wales, the Law Society of Scotland and Bristol and Strathclyde Universities shows that workers with genuine cases are being prevented from lodging their claims by their inability to pay the fees. That can only mean that a growing number of unlawful employment practices are going unpunished, which is detrimental to the achievements of a fair workplace. As the general secretary of Unison, Dave Prentis, said recently:

“There is stark evidence that workers are being priced out of justice and it is women, the disabled and the low-paid who are being disproportionately punished.”

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are also talking about gender discrimination, because women who are suffering from pregnancy discrimination or maternity discrimination will be afraid to take cases with a price tag of £1,200, so they will suffer in silence?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - -

I agree with that, and there has been growing evidence in the last few years of pregnant workers being dismissed unfairly. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct to say that the fee of £1,200 would be a natural barrier for women workers, particularly in sectors of the economy that are traditionally low paid, such as the retail sector. It would be very difficult for someone in such circumstances to progress. The hon. Lady’s statements are backed up by the legal affairs spokesperson of Citizens Advice Scotland, who has said:

“Employment Tribunals regularly include cases where people have been un-paid or under-paid for work they have done, or cases where they have been mistreated—including bullying, racism, sexual harassment. People who have suffered such treatment surely have a right to justice, and that right should not be based on their ability to pay.”

All the evidence suggests that the review of employment tribunal fees should include an equality impact assessment. As I have indicated, I am concerned about the divisive rhetoric that we sometimes hear on workplace and trade union issues. We are told that fees were introduced to save the hard-working taxpayer money, but those who are chasing a tribunal or who wish to submit a tribunal claim are, indeed, hard-working taxpayers.

In Scotland, the administration of employment tribunals is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. In the Scottish Government’s programme for government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:

“We will abolish fees for employment tribunals, when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work. We will consult on the shape of services that can best support people’s access to employment justice as part of the transfer of the powers for Employment Tribunals to Scotland.”

That proposal is supported by Scotland’s “workers’ parliament”—the Scottish TUC’s annual congress—and by Citizens Advice Scotland. I will end with the words of the latter in welcoming the Scottish Government’s intention to abolish tribunal fees:

“So we are delighted that the government has addressed this issue, and has seen the urgency in putting it right. These fees should never have been introduced, and they need to be scrapped as soon as possible.”

I could not agree more.

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Richard Arkless Portrait Richard Arkless (Dumfries and Galloway) (SNP)
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Like my colleagues, I can confirm that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Special thanks to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing what I, like his colleagues, consider to be an extremely important debate.

I rise as a member of the Scottish National party to put the SNP’s case, and I want to start by putting the issue in a Scottish context. The issues of employment law and employment tribunal fees are reserved to the Westminster Parliament. There is an expectation that clause 37 of the Scotland Bill will devolve the financial arrangements and management of employment law tribunals to Scotland. The Scottish Government have a clear policy of abolishing the fees as soon as we have the power to do so. To quote the Scottish programme for government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) did, that will be done

“when we are clear on how the transfer of powers and responsibilities will work.”

The devolution of any part of the administrative justice sphere in Scotland is done through a separate Order in Council. We are yet to see whether the Government will sign off the relevant Order in Council and whether it will include the right to adjust employment tribunals, but we are working on the basis that that is what will happen.

Why does Scotland have an interest in this issue? We could argue that, if these issues are devolved, it will be for Scotland to decide whether to abolish fees. Of course, that disregards the funding arrangements between the UK and Scotland. If fees are abolished in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s funding mechanism will be increased by the extra amount the Scottish Government will have to spend in future years on employment law tribunal fees. While we have a commitment to abolish fees, therefore, unless the fiscal arrangements are correct, Scotland will have to find the money to do so from the remainder of its budget—which we are willing, at this juncture, to do, because that is clearly the moral thing to do.

As I said earlier, the imposition of employment law tribunal fees follows from the Beecroft report. The premise on which it was based was high-handed. The report stated that business must be allowed to grow and to be more efficient, but that employment law impedes that. That statement is very contentious. As I said in my intervention, simply stripping a firm of its cost liabilities and potential need to spend money does not, in itself, make that business more efficient. I would argue that if a business treats its staff correctly, the staff will treat the clients correctly, and that will make the business more productive and efficient. The premise on which the imposition of the fees was based is therefore flawed at best. This is all being done to save the £82 million or so a year that was spent on employment tribunal cases.

The upshot is that someone with a simple claim for being refused time off, or for a breach of working time regulations, faces a £160 issue fee and a £230 hearing fee. For a more serious case of discrimination for wrongful dismissal, there is a £250 issue fee and a whopping £950 hearing fee. God forbid that anyone would ever need to go to appeal, as the combined cost is £1,600 on top of what has been paid for the previous hearing. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that this will be a material deterrent to claimants bringing their cases.

Every litigator worth their salt—I speak with some credibility as I used to be a litigator—understands acutely that quite often the way to win a case is not to win a substantive argument, but to pile cost pressure on the other side. This is the Government trying to use a litigious tactic to pile cost pressure on claimants who, ordinarily, just want their grievances heard. It is a disgraceful course of action. The result in Scotland has been a 92% reduction in redundancy claims, an 81% reduction in sex discrimination claims, and a 90% reduction in claims for breaches of working time regulations.

Legally, through free access to employment law tribunals, we went as far as we could in making rights that protect workers absolute; now, they are not absolute. The right to not be unfairly dismissed, to be free from sex discrimination, and to be consulted on redundancy is no longer absolute. I asked the Minister what kind of message this sent out. It sends out a message that it is okay to abuse workers because, essentially, they have no course of redress, and that it is okay for the rest of the workers in that organisation to feel that their fellow workers have been marginalised. That has a direct impact on their productivity levels, wellbeing, morale and, ultimately, the financial success of the organisation for which they work. With these changes, it appears that the lower someone is on the income scale, the more inaccessible justice becomes.

I will pick up on points made by previous speakers. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right to highlight that tribunals do not just award compensation. They can provide a statement of fact—of terms and conditions that give vulnerable workers clarity about their position in a company. He is also right that there has been substantial evidence to the Justice Committee—which, as a member of that Committee, I have heard—highlighting how much of a deterrent the fees are. He is right to point out that some employers will not even consider the claim until the issue fee is paid. That is piling even more cost pressure on to the vulnerable workers and works in favour of the employer. It tips the balance away from justice and towards employers for no good reason, as far as I can see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West rightly made the point that workers have been priced out of justice. The changes disproportionately affect women, minorities and those at the lower end of the income scale. He is also right to point out that there is wide support in Scottish civic society for the Scottish Government’s policy of abolition.

The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made some excellent points very well. She is right to say that the policy completely makes a mockery of the Conservative party’s claims to be the party of working people, and it is not evidence-based. As with much of the legislative agenda that I have witnessed since becoming a Member in this House, particularly the Trade Union Bill, this seems to be an ideological attack with no evidence base whatever. That follows a consistent theme in the legislation that I have seen come before Parliament since joining the House in May.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) also mentioned the wealth creators. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the genuine wealth creators in this country are low-paid, long-hours workers—many of them women—who are helping to keep the economic wheels turning, yet they are the ones under attack?

Richard Arkless Portrait Richard Arkless
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I completely agree with that. Any business that sees its staff as disposable units of production is headed for disaster. I go back to what I said: if businesses treat their staff properly, the staff treat customers properly. If customers are treated properly, the business will be successful. If a business is successful, there is a dividend for shareholders, which, no doubt, is the motivation of the Conservative party.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to persuade the Government, when he takes this information back to them, that their review should conclude what the Scottish Government, Scottish civic society and Opposition party Members conclude: that they should abolish these draconian fees without delay.

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Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, as I will turn to that issue, and also to the issue of working people that has been mentioned by a number of colleagues.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Government were elected as a majority Government with a clear mandate to eliminate the budget deficit during this Parliament. That requires a responsible approach to funding public services, which must include the courts and tribunals, both now and in the future. When the Government introduced fees in employment tribunals in 2013 it was estimated that the cost of running the service was about £84 million per year. Before the introduction of fees, the whole burden of that cost was met by taxpayers. Fees were introduced to reduce the burden, and to ensure that those who were using the service and benefiting directly from it were making a reasonable contribution to the cost, when they could afford to do so.

At the time the fees were introduced, we also applied Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service fee remissions. That scheme is there to ensure that those on low incomes are not prevented from lodging a claim. Under the scheme, those who qualify may have their fees waived, either in part or in full, depending on their financial means. I am a little disappointed that although much has been made of the employment tribunal fees, only a passing reference was made to the conciliatory scheme introduced by ACAS, to which I will turn shortly.

As far as remissions are concerned, I am grateful for, and have very much taken on board, hon. Members’ practical comments, and I can assure colleagues that my officials are looking at how applications are made to see how the process can be made simpler and more user-friendly.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Will the Minister reassure us that he will pay particular attention to cases in which there is a claim for an illegal deduction of wages, the amount of which is lower than the fee demanded by the service?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I will not make any instantaneous decisions. I will look at everything in the round. We are considering the matter, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are undertaking a review—which I will come on to—of the whole employment tribunal fees structure, of which I am sure that matter will be a part.

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Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I am giving a general analysis of the number of claims that were made to the employment tribunal. The trend of the total number of claims was declining. The hon. Lady seeks to talk about specific types of cases, and I am not going to go into that. I am talking about the general trend, because the debate and the numbers given so far have been broad and have related to the total number of applications received to employment tribunals.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I will give way first to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Is the Minister casting doubt on the specific research on this matter carried out by Citizens Advice Scotland, Citizens Advice for England and Wales, the TUC and others? Will he write to me with the figures on the declining number of employment tribunals prior to the introduction of fees?

Shailesh Vara Portrait Mr Vara
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I am certainly not casting doubt on research. If the hon. Gentleman recalls, I said that I was not going to discuss specific issues and specific types of case. It is important to take things in the context of how the debate has been going so far. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke in broad-brush terms about the fees coming in and the total number of reductions.