Disability law experts say they are “bemused” by the government’s “disingenuous” announcement that it is considering cutting the compensation paid to disabled people and other victims of discrimination at work.
In the coalition’s latest attack on equality legislation, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said it was examining compensation payouts for discrimination as part of its review of employment “red tape”.
Businesses have “expressed concern” to the government about the levels of compensation awarded by tribunals in some discrimination cases.
Compensation levels for discrimination are – in theory – unlimited, and employers claim high awards may encourage people to take “weak, speculative or vexatious cases in the hope of a large payout”.
But Wonta Ansah-Twum, head of disability discrimination and employment for Disability Law Service, said she was “bemused” by the government’s announcement, as average payouts by employment tribunal panels for the disability discrimination element of employment claims were only about £8,000.
She said: “I think it’s disingenuous. It is not necessarily painting a true picture. Tribunal judges are not awarding high sums to people in the field of discrimination cases generally. That’s my experience.”
Ansah-Twum said discrimination cases reported in the media tended to be those involving people working in the City and “very substantial loss of income”.
An Equality and Human Rights Commission spokeswoman said: “Compensation levels are set by the Employment Tribunal and are not a part of our jurisdiction.” She declined to comment further.
BIS claimed the review was an “important part of the government’s plans to deliver growth by breaking down barriers”.
The announcement came just a day after MPs and peers called for action to fight back against a series of attacks on equality legislation during the coalition’s first year.
Members of four all party parliamentary groups, including those on equalities and disability, pointed to plans to cut the budget and responsibilities of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and weaken the duties of public bodies under the Equality Act, and the decision not to implement other parts of the act.
There has even been a suggestion on the government’s “red tape challenge” website that the Equality Act could be scrapped.
The plans to cut discrimination compensation were announced by the Liberal Democrat employment relations minister Edward Davey, who said: “We want to make it easier for businesses to take on staff and grow.”
He added: “We will be looking carefully at the arguments for reform. Fairness for individuals will not be compromised – but where we can make legislation easier to understand, improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy we will.”
And the chancellor, George Osborne, told the Institute of Directors in a speech: “Examining these areas of the law which could be holding back job creation demonstrates the government’s commitment to go for growth.”
A BIS spokesman confirmed that the review would include disability discrimination cases, but he said it would not be right to “pick out one or two examples” of payouts that Davey had thought were excessive.
12 May 2011