Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend is making a good argument for workers joining a trade union. One of the most significant benefits of being a trade union member are the excellent legal services that unions provide. I defy anyone to get the same level of legal protection from a firm of lawyers for the same amount of money as they pay for trade union membership. We should encourage people to join and make access to properly recognised unions easier.

Mr. Singh: I entirely agree, but what do we do in the meantime? What do we do about people who do not want to join a union? Should they not have access to justice?

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If workers choose not to join a trade union and not to avail themselves of the services that it provides, they clearly will not get them. I do not see why we should pass legislation to give them services that are available but which they have chosen not to take up. If members of a work force want those services, they should take the advice of Labour Members and join a union or some other organisation.

Mr. Singh: The hon. Gentleman clearly does not support access to justice for all. I do, and I hope many of my colleagues agree with me. We will find out later.
14 Oct 2005 : Column 529

Tribunals in London cost between £15,000 and £40,000. Evidence of intimidation and unjustified threats has also been revealed by Citizens Advice.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am interested in the figures that my hon. Friend quotes. In complex equal pay cases where barristers are employed and legal opinion must be obtained, such figures may pertain, but in my experience in some cases the tribunal will find in favour of the applicant because they are by definition unfair. Is it not possible that the Bill will be welcomed by lawyers in anticipation of higher fees for themselves?

Mr. Singh: One of the main selling points of the Bill is that it will do precisely the opposite, by setting up a system of advice and representation in which lay people and specialists in the subject who are not lawyers will also be involved.

Revised procedural rules introduced in 2001 increase the costs that can be awarded from £500 to a massive £10,000. Although there is little evidence that high awards are being made, this is not deterring employers from using the threat to intimidate complainants. Northampton citizens advice bureau was acting for a woman who had been dismissed two days after informing her employers that she was pregnant. She received a letter warning her that they could seek costs against her. Despite her strong case, she withdrew her claim. We can only speculate why more than half the sex discrimination claims were withdrawn in 2004–05.

Mark Tami: I worked for a trade union for 15 years and was involved in several tribunals. In my experience, it is rare that they even threaten to award costs. I am not aware of a case where that happened.

Mr. Singh: With his experience in the union, my hon. Friend has probably dealt only with a unionised work force. I am speaking about the huge number of people who are non-unionised. Perhaps my hon. Friend does not know about their experiences out there, but they are what I am describing.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I accept that many employers use such an approach as a threat against the applicant, but the applicant can always ask for a pre-hearing, or the tribunal chairman can have a pre-hearing to assess whether the case is frivolous and vexatious. During my long experience, I dealt with just one case during which a chairman applied a costs warning. Such a course of action is open to an applicant whether they are legally represented or they go themselves before a chairman.

Mr. Singh: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but some of the people I am discussing here number among the most vulnerable groups in society. They have the least support available to them, and they are also probably among the least well informed about their rights.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Perhaps my hon. Friend will comment on the role of community law centres in giving advice and in providing representation in employment tribunals. Such
14 Oct 2005 : Column 530
advice can often put people's minds at rest about pursuing an employment tribunal case and the associated potential costs.

Mr. Singh: Community law centres play a very important role, but the problem is that many of them rely on funding from local councils or other bodies, and such funding is not always secure. In fact, because of the funding situation my own law centre in Bradford no longer has an employment lawyer. The case for this Bill is that we need a solid system throughout the country that enables people to get advice and help, without having to rely on law centres obtaining funding from local councils or the Law Centres Federation. That said, law centres do play an important role.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I have a genuine question that I should like to put both to my hon. Friend and to the Government, and perhaps I can expand on it later if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. How many cases actually fall beyond the scope of the unionised work force and of legal aid? As it stands, I have no idea whether we are talking about a tidal wave of such cases, or just a few individual ones that are slipping through the net. If there is not a mass of such evidence, how relevant is this Bill?

Mr. Singh: I know that my hon. Friend is a very patient Member, and if he will bear with me I will deal with that point in due course.

Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Singh: Does my hon. Friend wish to monopolise these opening exchanges?

Mark Tami: I want to make just one further point, concerning the community legal service. I have compared the terms of reference of the body that my hon. Friend seeks to create with those of the CLS, and there appears to be a lot of overlap. Does he accept that in effect, he will be duplicating the CLS's role, and if so, what, in his opinion, is the future of the CLS?

Mr. Singh: The CLS's role will not be duplicated. The fact is that there is no nationwide system that provides assistance to victims of discrimination. We need such a system because the help available is very patchy; indeed, in many areas it is often non-existent. In Bradford, for example, employment advice, assistance and representation are now non-existent. My Bill will not lead to duplication; rather, it will set up a new system that will enable people to get proper access to justice, wherever they happen to live.

As I said, we can only conjecture as to why more than half of sex discrimination cases were withdrawn in 2004–05. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) asked for some figures, which I can provide. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that 1 million women will experience discrimination in the next five years. The snapshots that I have outlined today conceal the vast amount of discrimination and misery that is experienced at what should be a happy time for such women. Moreover, there is also a loss to the economy. Replacing these
14 Oct 2005 : Column 531
women costs industry £126 million, so such practices are not only in many cases illegal and immoral, but uneconomic.

It may surprise the House to learn that such evidence is not entirely partisan; it comes from many unexpected and independent sources, such as the Industrial Society and the Policy Studies Institute. Even the CBI has acknowledged that a problem exists. On 1 October, amendments to sex discrimination legislation came into force, and employment experts believe that that could lead to an increase in the number of tribunal cases, as more women will be aware of their rights. But as I said at the beginning of my speech, rights are only part of the picture; they are meaningless without the means to assert them.

Of course, it is not only women who suffer employment discrimination. Disabled people are nearly nine times more likely than non-disabled people to be out of work and claiming benefits. Unemployment rates for ethnic minorities are 10 to 15 per cent. higher than for the white population; in some regions, they are more than 20 per cent. higher. Racial discrimination still features extensively.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his lucid presentation of his Bill. He mentions discrimination against disabled people—a problem that has long since been recognised. Does he know the views of the Disability Rights Commission on this matter, and has it expressed an opinion about his Bill?

Mr. Singh: No, I do not know its views, but to be frank, in general, equal opportunities bodies are not in favour of the Bill. Funding for such a system would come from their existing budgets, and they are not going to support a Bill that would reduce their budgets.

Next Section IndexHome Page