Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2015 – Year group 12 and 13
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
In this quote, Orwell captures the reason why I am motivated to write. I believe that the best writing derives from outrage, from a sense that there is injustice in society that requires urgent action. Thus, it is the writer’s prerogative, and responsibility, to expose and promulgate those facts or lies that he feels need ‘to get a hearing’. It is from this standpoint that I wrote the following article.
The introduction of tribunal fees was a little covered but incredibly important decision made by this government. It is rare that any piece of legislation manages to disproportionately affect disabled people, LGBT people, ethnic minorities and women simply to save a relatively small sum of money. Reading and learning about this, I was struck by a profound sense of outrage that a government could act in such a callous way towards vulnerable people. I decided to write about this issue and was fortunate enough to have my article published on the website ‘Politics.co.uk’.
Adapted from an article published on Politics.co.uk on August 27th 2014
Tribunal fees are a silent bedroom tax
Since David Cameron reached No.10, government’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable has been ignored. Zero-hours contracts have soared to 1.4 million, food bank users have increased to 1 million, the bedroom tax has affected over 600,000 people, of whom 63% are disabled, and George Osborne’s austerity programme has been unleashed across the UK. While many of these issues have received substantial press attention, there has been little opposition or attention paid to the introduction of employment tribunal fees.
Tribunal fees are paid by those who have either left their jobs or are in a workplace in which they find it difficult to work. The costs of these tribunals are prohibitively high, meaning it is even more difficult for mistreated employees to take action as they are likely to have left or be leaving their jobs. The new system operates a two track system. Type A claims, which concern unpaid wages or disputes over leave, cost £160 to lodge and then £230 to pursue at a hearing. Type B claims, which concern discrimination or dismissal, are even more expensive, costing £250 to lodge and £950 to pursue. Appeals cost £400 initially with another £1,200 for the full employment tribunal appeal. This policy is unlikely to be reversed. UNISON’s judicial review in July 2013 of this policy was dismissed. A further request for an appeal has been granted, but the likeliest route for their abolition is political.
Tribunal fees were introduced for two reasons. Firstly, they were a crude tool used to encourage businesses to create jobs. If companies are aware that ex-employees will have little facility to complain if they are mistreated, it affords unscrupulous employers the opportunity to mistreat their workers, thus saving money. Secondly, it is another step to weaken the influence of trade unions in the British workplace. Such an outcome has many benefits for the Conservative party: weaker unions leading to fewer members and correspondingly lower incomes for the Labour party. Equally, the effect of weaker unions is to create an increasingly ‘free’ labour market, providing businesses with greater powers at the expense of employees, an important part of David Cameron’s economic policy.
The main group adversely affected by this policy are the lowest paid. With wage increases consistently below the level of inflation, zero-hours contracts, the benefits cap and the bedroom tax, the lowest paid have undoubtedly suffered more than any group under the coalition government. The number of tribunals has shrunk by 79% over the past year. Such a dramatic reduction is a clear sign that this policy hands considerable power to unscrupulous and negligent employers at the expense of ordinary workers. Despite this, the media has totally ignored this issue, treating it as a marginal issue rather than affording it the same level of scrutiny as similar policies such as the bedroom tax.
Research by Citizens Advice showed 70% of potentially successful cases are not taken forward and that in over 50% of cases the extortionate fees have a deterrent effect. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, where people are liable to mistreatment by their employers but are unable to take legal action because they do not have enough money to do so. Financial assistance programmes exist but, much like discretionary housing payments for the bedroom tax, are completely insufficient. To put a price on justice in this way is the mark of a government which has contempt for those it should be protecting.
Women are hit particularly hard. Research has found an 80% drop in the number of sexual discrimination cases brought forward. Pregnancy discrimination claims are also down by 26%. Tribunal fees exacerbate the issues resulting from the Coalition’s programme of austerity, which disproportionately affects women. Equally, on a geographical level, those areas which are more affluent (such as London) have had a smaller reduction in tribunals compared to less affluent areas such as Wales and the South-West.
Ethnic minorities and LGBT people are disproportionately affected by this policy. There has been a 60% reduction in tribunal claims relating to discrimination on the basis of race or sexual orientation. This highlights once again how this measure causes harm to groups who are most at risk of discrimination in the workplace. Considering that austerity also disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, this is another example of government exacerbating the inequality crisis that continues to worsen and threaten this country.
The sole benefit of this policy is the savings provided by it. A policy which disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, LGBT people, women, the disabled and those living in less affluent areas is an affront to fundamental principles of fairness and social justice. Tribunal fees have signalled the abolition of justice in the workplace.