Industrial Tribunals: Fees — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 19th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 3:22 pm, 19th October 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what evidence they used in deciding to introduce fees of up to £1,000 for access by workers to industrial tribunals.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government will launch a consultation on the introduction of fees in employment tribunals and the employment appeal tribunals later in the year. That consultation document will set out options for proposed fee structures and the indicative levels that might be applied. No decision will be made on the level of fees to be paid until that consultation has been completed.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the most recent consultation he has announced is only about the amount of fees and not about the principle, at a time when the BIS consultation has not yet been completed? Would he care to enlarge on the evidence to justify Mr George Osborne's pre-emptive statement to the Conservative Party conference on 3 October, when he cited as evidence simply "perceptions" of "weak or vexatious claims", when these are in fact being weeded out? Secondly, is the Minister aware of the recent statement by the chairman of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council that the Government's policy is based on limited evidence, which would have,

"a disproportionate and chilling effect on employees", and, moreover, that he has expressed great concern about tearing up the BIS consultation process, which has not yet been completed?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government announced the introduction of fees into the employment tribunals and the employment appeal tribunals in the Resolving Workplace Disputes consultation published in January 2011. The consultation I have mentioned today will seek views on the fee levels, charging points and so on.

On the points that the noble Lord made, this is the whole reason for this second stage of consultation. Small businesses gave evidence about the burdens of what they describe as vexatious claims brought to them. I am sure that others will give evidence to the contrary. That is the point of consultation.

Photo of Lord Martin of Springburn Lord Martin of Springburn Crossbench

My Lords, I can recall the days when there were no industrial tribunals. Decent men and women were sacked and could not take any legal action. Are we now introducing a blocking mechanism-that is, fees-for industrial tribunals when the industrial tribunal system has been excellent in resolving disputes?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, there is no aim to go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Martin, could rightly describe as the "bad old days". The industrial tribunals system will remain and people will still have access to it. We expect that the tribunals will have the power to order that unsuccessful parties reimburse the fee paid by the successful party so that costs are ultimately borne by the party which causes the system to be used. There is nothing in the system that does not say that a small proportion of the costs cannot be charged. We do not believe that that would fundamentally undermine the very good work that the tribunal system does.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that meritorious claims will be as much discouraged by the imposition of fees as vexatious ones? The Government should not base their policy of charging fees on trying to limit the number of cases that come to the tribunals. My noble friend will recall the discussion that we had about this in the immigration appeals tribunal last week.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I suspect that we will have discussions along these lines over a range of issues. I suspect that small charges for access to courts such as the tribunal service will not have a deterrent effect on meritorious cases. One small range of consultations suggested that there might be a small fall-off in applications with the introduction of fees. As part of the consultation that will take place in December, we hope to widen that impact assessment to make sure that we are going down the right road. Between 2001 and 2010, there was an 81 per cent increase in cases going to employment tribunals. There is a limit to what a free service at the taxpayers' expense can bear.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, instead of charging workers for exercising their statutory rights to claim whatever it is that they want to claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination, et cetera, we should try to return to the position when employment and industrial tribunals started, replacing the courts to provide a more informal, less costly and simpler system to operate so that people would have the opportunity to put their case to a body that could deal with matters free of charge without incurring the sort of expense now being suggested.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I fully endorse the growl of approval from the Benches opposite but this is precisely the argument that we will have again and again in the weeks and months to come. The problem is that a system that started off as a non-confrontational, non-legal settlement of disputes has become peopled by m'learned friends at great expense. We are trying to move away from a legalistic approach to settling disputes to one that will settle more by arbitration, conciliation and mediation.

Photo of Lord Scott of Foscote Lord Scott of Foscote Crossbench

My Lords, the accessibility of a civil justice system is one of the features of the structure of the administration of justice that every civilised country ought to provide for its citizens. Is not the danger of a fee structure system that the fees might be set at too high a level, thereby denying access to justice to those unfortunates who could not afford such a fee?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, that is precisely why we are consulting and taking a further impact assessment-so that we will have a fee structure that will not have the detrimental effects the noble and learned Lord is suggesting.