Picking up where the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Justice left off at the end of 2011 – hailing their erosion of hard-won workers’ rights as a panacea for the economy’s anaemic growth rates – last week Prime Minister David Cameron told a gathering of business people in Maidenhead that he and his ministers were out to slay ‘the health and safety monster’, so that ‘businesses can get on, they can plan, they can invest, and they can grow’.
But who – and where – is this abominable creature? Does he have terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws? Does he have knobbly knees and turned-out toes, or a poisonous wart at the end of his nose? Is he green, or is he black? And does he have prickles all over his back? He’s obviously very fearsome, because – according to the Prime Minister – employers large and small live in constant fear of being ‘endlessly taken to court’ by him.
Not every now and then – perhaps once every few years – but ‘endlessly’. Which means innumerably, according to my dictionary. Which means ‘quite a lot’. So, given this frequency with which the health and safety monster attacks, one might expect there to be quite a lot of evidence to form a picture of what he looks like. You know, statistics, actual case studies of an attack, a summation of the damage done to the monster’s hapless victims, a few clips of grainy film.
But no. Because – silly old me, don’t I know – there’s no such thing as a health and safety monster. He’s a figment of the fretful and overactive imagination of members of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). But, as with the supposedly ‘spiralling’ number of ‘vexatious’ and ‘speculative’ employment tribunal claims, the mere fact that members of the BCC believe the health and safety monster to exist – and frighten themselves silly – is enough for the Prime Minister to act. And no doubt, if the economy fails to respond to this momentous stimulus, the BCC will be telling the world that the Prime Minister did not go far enough, and needs to lay a few more monster traps.
What the Prime Minister should be taking aim at, of course, is the claims management monster. That is a very real – and rapacious – monster. And Mr Cameron should have no difficulty in hitting the target, because his own Justice Minister, Jonathan Djanogly MP, knows only too well where that monster lives. Only two months ago, Mr Djanogly had to give up his job as the claims management gamekeeper, after it emerged that his children owned shares in two claims management companies – Going Legal and Legal Link Introductory Services – owned by his brother-in-law, and which solicit people who might have experienced some kind of employment or health and safety issue and then sell their details to lawyers.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Legal Link Introductory Services, which trades as Justice Direct, has been ‘repeatedly criticised by regulators [but] continues to be authorised by the Ministry of Justice’ – that is, until October 2011, by Mr Djanogly.
Justice Direct (which describes itself as ‘The UK’s leading compensation brokerage’) asks visitors to its website ‘Lost your job unfairly? Sufferered an injury caused by someone else?’ and invites them to ‘find out FREE if your claim qualifies for our Genuine NO WIN, NO FEE scheme’.
Mr Djanogly may have had to give up his role as the claims management regulator, but he is still a Justice Minister. And it was in that capacity that, last month, he penned the foreword to the Ministry’s consultation paper on the introduction of an employment tribunal fees regime. In which he said that such fees are right because ’business tells us that the fear of high awards being made against them creates uncertainty and can put them off taking on new staff’. But of course the only way in which fees could reduce that fear is by deterring those with meritorious claims, unable or unwilling to gamble money they cannot afford to lose in the hope of obtaining justice.
So, welcome to 2012, a year that looks set to be characterised by fear. But not by hard evidence.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.