‘A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on’, said the then Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the 1970s (though earlier versions of the same proverb have been attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill). And poor Jim didn’t have to deal with Twitter.
Late on Sunday evening, the weekend before last, I was quickly scanning Twitter before packing myself off to bed. Not for nothing am I known to my work colleagues as ‘that nerdy geek who sits in the corner’. It was a quiet night on Twitter, and much of my timeline consisted of a series of tweets by noted employment law blogger Laurie Anstis, about an article that had, just a few minutes earlier, been published online and tweeted by the Times law pages.
Due to the Times paywall I was only able to read the first three sentences, but that was all I needed to join Laurie in bemusement. Here they are in full:
‘Employers have been hit with a deluge of unfair dismissal cases as sacked staff rush to bring claims before new restrictions come into place. According to EMW, a law firm, claims surged by 44% in the third quarter last year to 15,300, compared with 10,600 the previous quarter. Under proposals due to take effect this summer, under the Government’s Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill, the compensation that former employees can claim from their employer will be capped.’
It had struck Laurie, and it struck me too, that there are several obvious problems with this startling claim. The first is that, far from there having been ‘a deluge’, in the third quarter of 2012/13 the number of unfair dismissal claims fell by some 20% compared to the previous quarter, and by 2% compared to the third quarter of 2011/12. Furthermore, the overall number of ET claims has been falling steadily for more than two years.
A second problem is that it’s very hard to see how a measure that will impact on relatively few unfair dismissal claims, and which has not yet come into force, could have induced ‘sacked staff’ to ‘rush to bring claims’ in late 2012.
By this time, however, the @Timeslaw tweet (‘Thousands rush to beat unfair dismissal deadline’) had been retweeted by 11 people, including a barrister, a law firm, and a legal journalist on a broadsheet newspaper.
So I fired off a few tweets to @Timeslaw, asking them to withdraw the article, and each of the retweeters, drawing attention to the actual figures. I even tweeted the BIS employment relations minister, Jo Swinson, urging her to challenge the Times article.
An hour or so after I gave up and went to bed, much the same story was reported online under the headline ‘Dismissal claims spike ahead of job law change‘ by the Daily Telegraph. ‘Incoming government measures making it easier for employers to dismiss underperforming workers have prompted a 44% spike in unfair dismissal claims before the new rules take effect’, said the paper’s ‘award-winning Jobs Editor’, before quoting Jon Taylor, principal of ’employment law firm EMW’ as saying:
‘There will have been a spike in very lightweight claims for unfair dismissal. The incoming changes increase the incentive for sacked employees to launch a ‘free’ unfair dismissal claim now; some people will be trying their luck while they still can.’
By the time I fired up my laptop at 7 am the next morning, the Daily Telegraph article had already been retweeted, to some 3,500 followers, by an employment law blogger. And within hours both HR Magazine and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Directors (CIPD) had regurgitated the story, with the former quoting Jon Taylor of EMW as saying: ‘People have been racing the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill through Parliament, since it was announced last May, to get their claim in under the current claims regime.’
As it happens, the law firm EMW has form. Back in June 2012, it was cited as the principal source for another story by the Daily Telegraph’s award-winning Jobs Editor, about how the ‘backlog’ of ET cases awaiting determination had ballooned to more than half a million. Louise Holder of EMW was quoted as saying ‘the tribunal system is completely overstretched. Cases are continuing to pile up, leaving both employees and employers in limbo.’
That ‘story’ was also a pile of pants.
As the justice minister, Helen Grant, later confirmed, in response to a Parliamentary Question tabled at my request by Caroline Lucas MP, at the end of June 2012 there were just 31,400 ET cases awaiting determination (25,700 single claims, and 5,700 multiple claim cases).
But back to last Monday. A few hours after I blogged much of the above for Citizens Advice, I received a phone call from Nick of Mattison PR, acting for EMW. Nick wanted me to know that the Times had misreported the EMW press release on which it had based its story: the figures cited by EMW relate to the second, not third, quarter of 2012/13.
And the Daily Telegraph was also wrong to report that EMW had obtained the figures ‘under Freedom of Information law’; in fact, the figures cited were taken from the quarterly tribunal statistics bulletin, published by the Ministry of Justice in December.
Now it is true that, in the second quarter of 2012/13 (i.e. July – September 2012), unfair dismissal claims did increase, to 15,300. And that does represent a 44% increase on the previous quarter (10,600), and a 30 per cent increase on the second quarter of 2011/12.
However, as I’ve noted already, in the next quarter unfair dismissal claims fell by 20 per cent, to 12,249, close to the number in the same quarter of 2011/12 (12,500).
But there is absolutely no reason to link this minor statistical blip – a matter of three or four thousand more unfair dismissal claims than one might have expected – in the summer of 2012 to provisions in the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill that have yet to become law.
It’s EMW’s ‘theory’ (in the words of their PR) that, in the summer of 2012, a lot of sacked workers heard or read about the introduction of the ERR Bill, and decided to put in an unfair dismissal claim. However, by the next quarter (i.e. October to December), this effect had somehow worn off, hence the fall in the number of claims to the expected level.
Well, I guess it is one ‘theory’, but it’s not a very credible one. One could easily come up with any number of alternative theories. But officials tell me that the entire ‘blip’ in unfair dismissal claims in the second quarter of 2012/13 occurred in just one region (London South), with all other regions showing no significant change one way or the other.
So, for EMW’s theory to be right, all the ‘sacked staff’ frightened by radio, TV and newspaper reports of the ERR Bill into making a ‘lightweight’ unfair dismissal claim a full year before the Bill becomes law would all have to live in the same region.
It seems much more likely that the blip represents no more than one or two large multiple claim cases, together involving three or four thousand claimants. And one or two cases do not a ‘deluge’ make.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re an award-winning Jobs Editor on a national newspaper, please take the next press release you receive from law firm EMW with a large pinch of salt.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.