Employment Bill

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Rob Marris: I welcome this part of the Bill, or rather the absence of the measure, as I should say to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. The Bill's aim is to prevent premature applications to employment tribunals and to encourage employees to sort out their differences with their employers in the workplace. As a society, we should not try to put a price on access to justice in a regime where, except for the famous 242 cases about which we keep hearing, costs are not recoverable. That differentiates employment tribunals from, say, the civil courts. We should therefore try to encourage resolution of disputes at the workplace, which is the aim of schedule 2. However, if such a resolution is not possible, tribunal applications should be facilitated.

We keep hearing about the inexorable rise of tribunal applications, which is happening for the reasons that I outlined on Second Reading. However, we must also bear in mind that in the past few years we have had one of the lowest strike rates in the European Union. That is partly because disputes are resolved in different arenas, whether in the workplace or at a tribunal.

Mr. Hammond: I understand the hon. Gentleman's view. I presume that he held it before and would have argued against the Government had they kept the provision for charging. My amendment seeks to tease from the Minister what happened between the publication of the consultation document and his strong statements in favour of a charging regime, and 5 September. A half completed consultation process is not an appropriate basis on which to withdraw a proposal that Ministers so publicly and strongly supported.

Rob Marris: Happily, I do not face the dilemma of what I would do if the provision were in the Bill, and I am convinced that it will not be. It would be a retrograde step. The Government consulted—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will let me finish, I was going to say that perhaps the consultation process should have been finished. However, when the overwhelming response to that process is that it is a bad idea to introduce charging, as it would be a tax on access to justice, I have no difficulty with the Government withdrawing the provision. The amendment would reintroduce that power to the Bill, which is a bad idea, because Governments of whatever colour are liable to use such powers. It would lead to more problems in the workplace and could lead to more strikes, and that would be a retrograde step.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Amess.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) is overstating the case when he says that the provision would be a tax on access to justice. Even if the charge were to be implemented, it would only be a small amount of £10, £20 or £30. Certainly, those sorts of figures were discussed in the past. During the earlier consultation, the CBI welcomed them in its press release, which stated that the charges were ''not unreasonable'' and were

    ''already quite normal in other areas of the court system.''

It is incorrect to say that the charges are unprecedented.

Hon. Members would understandably be concerned if the poorest people were prohibited from access to justice, but as the Minister pointed out earlier in the year:

    ''At least a quarter of all tribunal applications which come from those who are on benefits or in genuine need will be exempt from any charges. These people will still have access to justice.''

I do not believe that the original intention was to tax that access to justice. The question that taxes Opposition Members is why it was dropped prematurely.

Alan Johnson: It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Amess.

The Government oppose the amendment. I note that it contains the word ''may'' instead of ''shall''. I understand the reason for that, but it is ironic, given other amendments that we have considered. We proposed a charge in our consultation document, to which there was a considerable reaction—more than 200 well considered responses. The weight of opinion, including that of employers' organisations, was overwhelmingly against the idea.

It was argued that an application fee would be seen as a tax on justice; it would bite not on applicants with weak cases, but on those who were short of money; and it would deter settlements shortly before the hearing, which are common and might even lead to employers defending more cases rather than less. That response was made to a consultation document in May 1988, when a previous Government suggested charging for employment tribunals, so they dropped the idea. We have been round this course before.

Mr. George Osborne: Does the Minister agree that charging a modest amount would create a faster and more customer-focused service, as he previously said?

Alan Johnson: No. I am pointing out what a previous Government concluded, following consultation on the same issue at the end of the 1980s. They did not raise the issue of charging again. That Government believed that charging would improve the service at employment tribunals, so they suggested it in a consultation document. However, when they considered the response, they dropped the idea, which was at the height of Thatcherism. We are doing exactly the same.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made a curious argument. The record will show that he said that all employers' organisations welcomed charging. Five minutes later, however, he said that the CBI was neutral on the issue. We are now the party of business and employees; the Conservative party seems to be the party of the Institute of Directors. The CBI was neutral because it sees admissibility as a far bigger issue. The need for grievance and discipline procedures in the workplace is also relevant.

The idea of charging was never about reducing applications to employment tribunals; it would have provided a funding stream, as we made clear at the time. Many employers objected to the arrangement because of the fee. In the absence of a figure, we slotted into the regulatory impact assessment at the back of the consultation document the figure of £50 to get into the system, and the applicant and respondent would have paid £150 if they came out of the conciliation process and went to a full-blown employment tribunal. Many employers objected to the second part.

The Newspaper Society, which represents the regional newspaper industry, said:

    ''The reduction of misconceived applications is paramount but not at the expense of employees with justified claims but little ability to pay.''

Mr. Hammond: No disrespect to the Newspaper Society, but the Minister seems to be dredging the bottom of the barrel to find an employers' organisation that spoke out in that way.

For the record, all the employers' organisations to which I spoke were favourable to the idea of charging. Indeed, the CBI was favourable to the idea when it was the Government's pet scheme. When they decided not to go with the charging regime, the CBI adopted a more neutral tone, but there is no inconsistency. All employers' organisations to which I spoke were, without exception, favourable to charging and certainly when that was the Government's favoured scheme.

Alan Johnson: Governments go through consultation processes and change their minds. The Conservative Government did precisely that on the same issue. Furthermore, not all employers' organisations supported the measure.

Mr. Hammond: The Conservative Government, unlike this Government, completed their consultation process in 1988 before they made a decision.

Alan Johnson: The consultation has been completed.

Mr. Hammond: It is not finished.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman has a touching faith in the speculation of The Guardian newspaper. We announced the outcome of our consultation in exactly the same way that the previous Government did in 1988.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) asks why we changed our mind. There were several reasons, one of which was the overwhelming response from those organisations that had the most experience in dealing with applicants. They said that there would be a significant deterrent effect on low-paid workers, particularly if the monetary value of the claim was small. Citizens advice bureaux strongly opposed the proposal. Even with the discretionary exemptions that were proposed in ''Routes to Resolution'', the proposed fees would inevitably deter would-be applicants with well-founded cases.

As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) mentioned, we said that there would be exemptions. We wished to mirror the civil courts; it would be strange to introduce a system for employment tribunals that was different from that in the civil courts. On further deliberation, we realised that the exemptions that apply in the civil courts are much more complex. They are based on calculations of disposable income that take into account payments to the Child Support Agency, school fees and so on.

We would have had to allow full or partial exemptions to a much greater degree than expected—about 60 per cent.—and we would have had to set up a bureaucracy to collect fees that previously had not been charged. As that would have cost almost as much as the proceeds from a modest fee, we would have had to charge a completely prohibitive fee.

People who have the greatest experience of dealing with applicants presented strong moral arguments, and there was a practical problem with respect to the point that the hon. Member for Hereford and Stortford rightly raised.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Does my hon. Friend share my bewilderment that the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge and for Tatton made absolutely no mention of the problems that face a vulnerable individual who is experiencing difficulties at work? Furthermore, they seem to be less interested in the practical issues arising from the consultation process and in allowing the Minister to listen to valid arguments than in point scoring.

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