Controversial Tax Credit Change Passed With “Underhand” Methods

A controversial change to the new reforms and restrictions affecting tax credit claimants has been passed without parliament having the chance to either debate or vote on the matter. This particular reform, which has become known as the “rape clause,” is proving highly controversial with many opponents being especially critical of the way the government virtually bypassed parliament in approving the law.

As of 6th April this year, significant changes to how new claimants are assessed for tax credit eligibility will come into effect. Under the new system, parents will usually only be entitled to claim tax credits for up to two children. Two exceptions will be made; multiple births, and cases where a mother who already has two or more children falls pregnant again as a result of rape.

The “rape clause” refers to this latter exemption, under which the mother will have to prove to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that she was raped in order to claim the full financial support to which she is entitled.

Opponents have a number of concerns about the way the exemption for rape victims is set up. The fact that the people in question have experienced rape, and especially the fact that this was the circumstance of their child’s conception, is naturally very sensitive information. In many cases, it is something the child may not themselves find out about until later in life, so there are concerns about how appropriate it is to require victims to have this fact registered with the DWP in order to claim the financial support they are eligible for.

There are particular concerns about the need for victims to prove that the child was conceived as a result of rape in order to make their claim. Not only could this could be a potentially difficult and distressing process for somebody who is already dealing with a difficult time, but many critics have pointed out that the process that will be used for verifying conception through sexual assault is currently not well defined. Although the changes are weeks from coming into effect, there have been no details released about how a person might make a claim, how they could prove their entitlement, and whether anybody has been traind to make the assessment properly.

From a legal standpoint, the key source of controversy is the way that there was no parliamentary debate and no vote by parliament to decide whether these changes should be passed into law. The comprehensive reforms were instead passed through a channel known as a statutory instruments, which allows amendments to be made to existing laws without the approval of parliament.

One opponent of the law, SNP MP Alsion Thewliss, has accused the government of using an “underhand parliamentary tactic” to push the reforms through without subjecting them to proper debate and scrutiny. The lack of clarity on the process of claiming under the “rape clause” or proving eligibility, she said, was “frankly astonishing” when the reforms are so close to taking effect. Thewliss has tabled a motion that could potentially see the moves overturned.

Employee Rights: Only A Valid Concept If Enforced

Employees today have greater rights and protections than ever before. Thanks to human rights legislation, subtle changes to employment law over the decades, stronger regulations protecting against discrimination, and ever increasing health and safety legislation, British employees today have greater legal protection than ever before.

Despite that, exploitation of workers still happens, due to the ever growing gig economy, zero hours contracts, self employment, and other non – traditional working arrangements. Despite such protections, employers are still under great scrutiny over employment rights. To start with, an ever growing number define themselves as self employed. Equally, research from Citizens Advice Bureaux suggests that up to one in ten people are falsely defined as self-employed. This means that they lose out on statutory holiday and sick pay, and the right to earn the National Living Wage (NLW). This also means loses of up to £314 million a year for the Treasury, and places this many responsible businesses at a competitive disadvantage to those unscrupulous employers willing to bend or break the rules.

A comparable exploitation was illustrated by a recent National Audit Office (NAO) review into adult social care. The NAO found that up to 220,000 adult care workers were receiving less than the NLW. The Living Wage is £7.20 for workers aged 25 or over, with the old National Minimum Wage rules applying for workers 24 or younger. Indeed, HMRC discovered that 50% of care sector providers received less than the statutory minimum for providing often extensive care to the long term ill or elderly. Despite such damning evidence, a mere six care providers have been identified and forced to provide back pay to 202 care workers.

Attempting to tackle that and other examples of employee exploitation, the Government recently launched a £1.7 million advertising campaign encouraging employees to check that they are being paid at least the statutory minimum. However, that only addresses half the problem. The other part of the equation is less simple.

A great many workers have little, if any, knowledge of their rights, and of the statutory obligations of employers. Even those that know something about employee rights still would feel uncomfortable in tackling any infringements, with many more not knowing how to go about challenging their employer for such breaches. If an employee feels able to do so, they have to start an unknown legal process with an unknown outcome. This also runs a very real (and illegal) risk of being blacklisted, denied promotions, or other employee benefits, or similar reprisals from management. In that context, it is of little surprise that in many cases, workplace exploitation – sometimes significant – goes unreported and unchallenged.

Sometimes employee exploitation or simple carelessness happens regarding employee rights. When that does happen, it is important for employees to enforce their rights, otherwise all the workplace reform will be meaningless. Employees not being prepared to enforce their legal rights makes a mockery of the legal sector, and employee rights. Although a daunting prospect, employees should remember that they have certain rights in the workplace – and further, it is their right to challenge their employees if those rights are infringed.

The allegations levelled against ‎Sports Direct regarding a culture of ignoring workplace legislation highlighted this – as does the never ending legal row over the exact employment status of Uber drivers as contractors or employees. At least those cases are receiving attention due to the sheer level of media, political and legal scrutiny. Many other similar cases go unreported and unchallenged. It is up employees to be vocal about, and challenge, working practices that are either illegal or exploitation.

Despite great advances in the workplace, and in employee rights – there is still much to be done.

MPs Criticise Reduced Access To Justice As Court Fees Rise

There are increasing fears in the legal sector surrounding rising court fees and costs. Such rises are seen as detrimental to justice, as it reduces access to justice. Recent years have seen such measures criticised by many in the legal sector. The matter recently came into the spotlight recently, as rising court fees were again condemned – this time, by MPs themselves. 

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) departmental budget was not ring fenced like some key government departments. Some court and related fees have risen in recent years – and will only rise further. This comes not only as no surprise, but at a time when many courts and tribunals are set to close.

This means that the average citizen had had increasingly less access to justice, in what will be an ever increasing trend. The cuts and closures gave been roundly criticised in all circles, from judges, legal reporters, civil rights activists, lawyers themselves and other concerned parties. Now a Parliamentary committee has been the latest in condemning such enforced cuts.

The MoJ had long defended the raises in fees and the court closures. Repeatedly, the Ministry has cited desires to “streamline” the justice system, encourage people to arbitration or out of court settlements, and the regrettable need for cutbacks in an era if austerity. Further, by reducing the number of cases brought to courts and tribunals with the “enhanced” fees, the argument is that more people in the judicial system will be able to get their case before a judge or magistrate. As such, the rising fees only serve, ironically, to increase access to justice at a time when some cases (such as in the Family Division) can wait up to a year before coming to court.

Some (but not all) of the key fee changes are that court fees for financial claims for sums in excess of £300,000 rose last year from £1,920 to £10,000. Plans to double that level to £20,000 have (temporarily) been halted. The cost if getting a contested divorce also rose, from £410 to £550. An uncontested divorce remains comparatively cheap at a mere £270. Employment Tribunals saw fees of up to £1,200 introduced in 2013. This led to employment hearings falling by 70%.

Amidst an ongoing refugee and asylum crisis, with asylum becoming ever more sensitive politically and socially, of mist controversy are MoJ plans to increase immigration and asylum tribunal fees by a massive 600%. Under the proposals, applications for decisions on papers will rise to £490 from £80, with similar fees for a full oral hearing being £800, up from £140.

A Justice Select Committee recently examined these and other related issues. Chaired by former barrister Bob Neill MP (Con- Bromley & Chislehurst), the Committee was most scathing in its assessment of the fee increases, and has called upon the Ministry to rescind some of the fees.

Whilst acknowledging the financial difficulties faced by a non – ring fenced governmental department at a time of fiscal austerity, the Committee is unhappy with how those cuts have to all intents and purpose been passed onto citizens seeking justice. Access to justice for all, according to the Justice Select Committee, must prevail over “cost recovery,” it stated in its report, as it dismissed “superficial” government excuses for a failure to provide adequate evidence to justify such successive steep rises.

The report, which has yet to be published, makes painful reading for the government. For example, the MPs state that the latest increase in divorce fees are “approximately double the cost to the courts of providing the service, is unjustified… It cannot be right that a person bringing a divorce petition, in most cases a woman, is subject to what has been characterised in evidence to us as effectively a divorce tax. We recommend that the increase in the divorce petition fee to £550 be rescinded.”

Turning to Employment Tribunals, the MPs describe Justice Minister Shailesh Vara’s (Con – North West Cambridgeshire) “heavy reliance on the figure of 83,000 cases dealt with at Acas early conciliation to support his contention that access to justice has not been adversely affected by employment tribunal fees [as], even on the most favourable construction, superficial… It is difficult to see how a Minister can urge his officials to progress a review which they apparently submitted to him four months or more previously.”

The MPs are equally scathing if the rise in immigration fees, stating that “there is a danger that they will deny vulnerable people the means to challenge the lawfulness of decisions taken by the state about their … status” if the fee rise goes ahead.

The Select Committee MPs, however, do not object to the fees in principle, since “some degree of financial risk is an important discipline for those considering legal action.” It is overly high court fees, which act as a barrier to those seeking justice, that concerns them. In some instances, the overly high fees might be considered as a “tax” on justice – which is absolutely against the key democratic principle that justice should be available for all citizens, regardless of wealth or status.

The Justice Select Committee (predominantly consisting of Conservative MPs) is but the latest voice to to question or condemn the changes in the legal sector in recent years. Many of those changes, such as legal aid cuts, court closures, and the fees, have ultimately reduced access to justice. It is necessary for citizens to have the knowledge that they can seek justice at at time if needs be, and take their grievance to court. All and every step should be made to to make that so; rising court fees has the opposite effect, and is contrary to democratic and legal principles.

Quoting again from the Justice Select Committee report, “the introduction of fees set at a level to recover or exceed the full cost of operation of the court requires particular care and strong justification. Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.”