Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) on winning first place in the ballot and introducing this private Member's Bill today. Having successfully steered the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill through the House last year, with the assistance of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I know how much work has to go into preparing for these Fridays and ensuring that people are aware of the Bill before it reaches the Floor of the House.
Like many colleagues who have spoken, I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West because he is a passionate advocate of the cause against discrimination, and he should be supported in that. However, unfortunately, I cannot support the Bill as it stands. I was going to go through the Bill, but the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) did an excellent job of doing so clause by clause. He raised a lot of fundamental problems with the Bill. We saw there the future of the Conservative party. That contribution must have been a relief to the Conservative Front-Bench team following the contribution of Mr. Gradgrind, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), which was ill informed and
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plainly wrong on occasions. He told the House that he had worked for Asda. All I can say is that his election to the House is Asda's gain and this House's loss.
Another reason that I have reservations about the Bill is to do with the way tribunals work. For many years, for my sins, I practised, not as a lawyer, but as a trade union official in tribunals in Newcastle. I found it sad that, over the years, many lawyers and barristers came before the tribunal who frankly were not needed. It appalled me that sometimes large multinational corporations employed lawyers for the simplest case, which was offputting for a lot of applicants, but welcome from my point of view, as it used to irritate many chairmen who did not like being told by a top London barrister about points of law.
Mr. Jones: I do not think I ever came across a barrister who was from those chambers. The fact is that tribunals were set up to be a simple way of considering disputes. Older colleagues in the trade union movement have told me that, in the 1960s, tribunals were exactly that: people got around a table and discussed the case or injustice. Unfortunately, this Bill would lead to many more lawyers being engaged and the legal profession having a banquet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) said.
The Government have taken some sensible measures to make it easier to get justice, but at the same time to stop the frivolous and vexatious cases. It is sad when there is a contribution in the House by someone who clearly does not understand the present system and has no knowledge of it. The hon. Member for Shipley made comments on the compensation culture and frivolous and vexatious cases as though he were talking in a local golf club bar. The important thing is that the frivolous and vexatious cases will not get to an employment tribunal. Processes have been put in place to involve ACAS and to ensure that employers and applicants have to go through the grievance procedure before they can take a case to a tribunal. It is right to try to get the case resolved at the workplace. That has to be welcome.
I congratulate ACAS, which does a fantastic job advising not just applicants but, increasinglythis is importantfirms about their procedures, bringing them up to date. From my experience, if an employer had good disciplinary procedures in place, they would never end up in a tribunal.
The worst ones I dealt with were working men's clubs, whose chairmen were often trade unionists: they were Arthur Scargill during the day and Margaret Thatcher at night, when they went into the club committee room. If the right procedures had been followed, many of those cases would never have ended up at a tribunal.
Trade unions play a vital part in giving free legal advice but they are not the only option. I would not want to set up, as the Bill proposes, an expensive organisation that cut across a raft of organisations that are doing a good jobreference has been made to citizens advice bureaux and law centres. If one has to get a lawyer to go before a tribunalI certainly would not recommend it unless one had to have onethere are
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ways in which to fund that. For example, conditional fee agreements limit the costs and allow people to get legal redress.
I am aware that there are more complex cases, such as sex or disability discrimination cases, which need input from the legal profession, and I acknowledge that there are gaps in provision and people who cannot get access to legal aid, but we need to examine that problem rather than invent an expensive new organisation. If the Bill were passed in its current form, we would need a lorry load of smelling salts to bring round the Chancellor of the Exchequer after he had realised its implications.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I begin as other hon. Members have by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), first, on coming top of the private Members' ballotan ambition held by us all at some point in our careers in Parliament, but realised by only a fewand, secondly, on bringing the issue of employment discrimination to the House for debate today. The principle of removing discrimination is one that we all supportperhaps with the exception of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) made a passionate speech in which she outlined the importance of removing discrimination in the workplace and explained precisely why we should all work to achieve that.
First, let me respond to some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West in his opening speech. He said that he was concerned about cost and suggested that it cost between £15,000 and £45,000 to take forward a discrimination case in London. According to the Department of Trade and Industry survey of employment tribunal applications, however, the average legal costs of those complainants who paid for advice and representation in discrimination cases amounted to £4,433.
Mr. Harper: The Minister helpfully clarifies the costs for those who brought a case to an employment tribunal. Does she have the equivalent figures for the amount spent in those cases by the defendants, so that we can see the total cost of bringing and defending a case?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West voiced concern about the success rate in pregnancy cases and gave some harrowing examples. The Equal Opportunities Commission conducted a review of the employment tribunals in 200203. As my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) pointed out in their exceptional speeches, the success rate for women who represent themselves compares favourably with the rate for women who are represented: approximately
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53 per cent. of unrepresented women were successful, compared with 50 per cent. of those who had a barrister in tow and 47 per cent. of those who had a solicitor with them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) about the views of the Disability Rights Commission. The DRC has said:
"While being strongly supportive of the principle of equal access to justice for all, we are not sure that this Bill is necessarily the best means of tackling the current barriers to justice. Moreover we are concerned that it proposes removing funding from the future Commission for Equality and Human rights and the Commission for Racial Equality to help fund the proposed Tribunal Representation and Assistance Board."
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West asked about the situation in Scotland. In an intervention on the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), I made it clear that not only is legal aid granted for employment tribunals in Scotland in very limited circumstances where there has been a breach of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, but in England and Wales we have a similar test for exceptional funding. That provision goes further than the Scottish one, because it allows for cases with a significant wider public interest to be funded.