For the past 12 months or so, the press and other media have been awash with stories about the ‘spiralling’, ‘out of control’ number of ‘vexatious’ and ‘speculative’ employment tribunal (ET) claims that is, we are led to believe, striking fear into the hearts of employers and dragging the economy down into the depths. (What? You thought it was something to do with greedy bankers? Tsk tsk.)
Much of this media scaremongering was clearly based on briefings by ministers or their advisers, egged on by the employers’ lobby groups. But it is now clear that ministers and their officials knew all along that the number of ET claims is falling. Yes, that’s right: falling. As in, going down. Which is not the same as spiralling upwards, whichever dictionary you use.
Quarterly tribunal statistics published earlier this week by the Ministry of Justice show that, over the 12-month period October 2010 to September 2011 – early on in which, of course, ministers launched their consulation on ET reform – the overall number of ET claims was down by 13%, year on year. And single claims – among which one would expect to find the supposedly growing number of ‘vexatious’ and ‘speculative’ claims causing employers to lie awake at night – were down by 7%. Furthermore, in the first half of the current financial year (i.e. April to September 2011), the number of single claims was not only down relative to the same period in the previous financial year, but a whopping 19 per cent down from the same period in 2009-10.
So where, exactly, is the tidal wave of vexatious and speculative claims necessitating what the Department for Business calls the biggest ever shake up of the ET system? And where are the headlines trumpeting the reality of a substantial and steady fall in the number of claims? Such a reduction – without any action by Government – should surely be a cause for celebration on the part of both ministers and the employers’ lobby groups.
The sad, simple truth is that falling numbers of claims don’t fit into ministers’ increasingly threadbare narrative of poor, defenceless employers being frightened silly by a pack of rampaging beasts. One week it’s the Tribunal Claim Leviathan, the next it’s the Red Tape Dragon, and then it’s the Health and Safety Monster.
No doubt it will soon be the Maternity Mammoth and the Paternity Piranha. Or have we had them already? Oh yes, here they are, monstering about in the Financial Times last July.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.