Following the Supreme Court judgment on employment tribunal fees of the end of July, we immediately stopped charging them. We are putting in place arrangements to refund those who have paid the fees in the past, and we will announce the practical, detailed arrangements shortly.
I have been contacted by a constituent who highlighted the stress and financial burden that was placed on them while going through an employment tribunal case that they ultimately won. Will the Minister ensure that those who are entitled to claim back employment tribunal fees are made aware of the process and reunited with their money in a timely fashion?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it can be quite an ordeal to go to an employment tribunal—or any tribunal—which is why I pay tribute to the conciliation work of ACAS. We will set out practical arrangements for the reimbursement of those fees. We want to ensure that all the points—particularly about people’s awareness—are properly thought through before we do that.
Ah! The Chair of the Justice Committee, no less.
It is no pleasure to say that a number of the criticisms of the development of this policy were foreshadowed in the Justice Committee’s report in the previous Session. As well as rightly and promptly acting to reimburse fees paid, will the Minister undertake to look at some of the specific recommendations in that report and at the factual findings on the evidence in the Court’s judgment? That would highlight a better way of developing policy in this area so that we do not end up in this situation again.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee. We will certainly further consider his Committee’s report into this—[Interruption.] The former Chair of the Select Committee—
In due course.
The cost of employment tribunals last year was £68 million. Only £8 million came from fees; the rest was from taxpayers. It is inherently difficult to balance the contribution required by those who use the justice system against the amount that needs to be borne by the taxpayer, and we recognise that we got that balance wrong. We have ended those fees and are looking at practical arrangements to ensure that those affected are reimbursed.
We certainly accept the Supreme Court ruling. We think that we got the balance wrong and we have ended the fees. We are looking to ensure not only that we reimburse those affected, but that we learn lessons for the future.
The Women and Equalities Committee also called for changes in tribunal fees, particularly because they affect pregnant women and new mums, who have experienced significant increases in discrimination at work in the past 10 years. Will the Minister undertake to look at the other part of our recommendation, which is to increase the time limit from three months to six months for pregnant women and new mums to bring cases to court?
May I start by welcoming the Minister to his place?
The Supreme Court ruled that the secondary legislation that brought in the employment tribunal fees interfered with access to justice and employment rights, and that it discriminated unlawfully. Does the Minister accept that the Supreme Court’s judgment illustrates that fundamental rights such as equality and access to justice should not be changed or undermined by secondary legislation that receives little or no parliamentary scrutiny?
The hon. and learned Lady makes her point in a typically powerful way. The Supreme Court also recognised that fees can have a role to play. Of course, they do help to secure justice and access to justice by making the necessary resources available. Equally, we recognise that we got the balance wrong. That is why we have taken immediate action to end the fees. We will be coming up with proposals on the practical arrangements for reimbursement shortly.
In 2015, the Scottish Government said that as soon as the power to do so was devolved—and that is pending—they would abolish employment tribunal fees. Does the Minister agree that the fact that the Scottish Government chose to do that voluntarily—the UK Government were forced to do so by the Supreme Court—shows that the case for the devolution of employment law to Scotland is strong so that the Scottish Government may protect the interests of Scottish workers and access to justice?
We are fully in favour of the principle of devolution. A whole range of justice matters have been devolved, and we will look very carefully at how we get the balance right.
In the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale was very concerned about meritorious claims being put off by the fees. She also acknowledged that there are some unmeritorious claims, and those are the ones that damage relations in the workplace. Will the Minister consider fairer ways of sifting out unmeritorious claims, such as having a sift before the application is made into a full case?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point and that is certainly something we can look at. Equally, it is fair to say we got the balance wrong on the specific issue of fees. One of the strong elements we are looking to reinforce is the role of ACAS. We have seen that conciliation and the number of cases referred to conciliation have had a strong impact on reducing the number of cases that need to go to court or a tribunal.
I wrote to the Secretary of State back in July to call on him to issue a full and unequivocal apology to working people for deliberately and unlawfully blocking their access to justice through employment tribunal fees. Last week, I received a wholly inadequate reply, which I have here. Will the Minister apologise today for the suffering that this policy has caused hundreds of thousands of working people?
We have conceded that we got the balance wrong. I am happy to say that I am very sorry for any frustration or deleterious impact that this has caused anyone who has been affected. That is why we are acting so quickly to end the charges and to make sure there are practical arrangements for the reimbursement of anyone affected by these fees.