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Government policy on employment tribunals based on wrongly inflated figures, study finds

23 April 2021

People gathered around table in discussion

Official statistics on the number of claims brought to employment tribunals have been over-inflated by at least 25% because of a hidden quirk in the way they are counted, according to a new study led by a Cardiff University PhD student.

The then Skills and Enterprise Minister, Matt Hancock, was relying on inflated figures when commenting on 2013 legislation brought in to cut the number of claims going to tribunals, likening them to “Japanese knotweed”, the research shows.

Speaking at the British Sociological Association’s (BSA) online annual conference, Jonathan Mace, a postrgraduate research student at Cardiff Business School, explained that the quirk came from the way that claims brought under the EU’s Working Time Directive, which the UK adopted in 1998, were recorded.

When an employee brought a claim against their employer for not following the Directive*, – for an incorrect calculation of holiday pay, for example – the system required them to renew their claim every three months.

So if their claim took a year to reach a tribunal, as some did, it was recorded as a new claim four times, instead of just once.

Where employees in a large firm brought the same action, this could lead to tens of thousands of claims being recorded as new which were in fact just repeats of an existing dispute. Some claims have taken 10 years to reach a conclusion.

Ghost claims

Mr Mace, who is carrying out the research as part of his doctoral study at Cardiff Business School, said that the official figures showed the number of employment tribunal claims rising from around in 90,000 in 1998 to a height of 236,000 in 2009.

In 2013, when the figures recorded 190,000 new claims, the government introduced a fee of up to £1,200 for employees to bring a claim. This led to a sharp drop in cases.

In 2014 Mr Hancock said: “Unscrupulous workers caused havoc by inundating companies with unfounded claims of mistreatment, discrimination or worse. Like Japanese knotweed, the soaring number of tribunal cases dragged more and more companies into its grip, squeezing the life and energy from Britain’s wealth creators.”

But Mr Mace believes that because of the ‘ghost claims’ the true figure was not 190,000 but around 110,000 or fewer, making the post-Directive rise much less dramatic.

“The number of claims filed and the number of people filing them are significantly different – there are ‘ghost’ claims in the system. This has not previously been noted. The rise in employment tribunal claims 2002/03 to 2012/13 was driven at least in part by ‘ghost claims’ and not ‘Japanese knotweed’ or vexatious claims. The statistics therefore do not validate some of the policy and political interpretations that have been based on them.”

Jonathan Mace

“The fall in employment tribunal claims following the introduction of employment tribunal fees may have been partially coincidental as a result of the ‘ghost claim’ issue unwinding itself” He added.

*About one third of claims before tribunals in the period 2002/03 to 2012/13 were brought under the Working Time Directive.

The British Sociological Association’s annual conference, its 70th, took place online from 13 to 15 April 2021.

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