Employment Tribunal claims: Will the Lewis-Thomson Theorem pass the test of time?

With the release this morning of the latest set of quarterly Employment Tribunal (ET) statistics, covering Q4 of 2020/21 (Jan – Mar 2021), and with last week having seen the latest farcical performance of the ‘spot a quirk in the ET stats and get our name in the papers’ PR party trick – this time by Stuart Lewis of Rest Less and Patrick Thomson of the Centre for Ageing Better – I thought it might be interesting to check on how the oh-so-confident predictions of previous performers of the trick have actually turned out.

The first of our past performers is DLA Piper’s legal eagle – but statistical sparrow – Jane Hannon, who in May 2020 secured a nice little piece in the Guardian, under the headline “29,000 claims a year despite 50 years since Equal Pay Act”. This ‘revealed’ that “a consistently high number of workers are alleging that their employers are illegally paying them less than colleagues in similar roles”, and that “the number of claims brought to employment tribunals [is] showing no sign of decreasing”.

Unfortunately for Ms Hannon – who really should have gone to Specsavers – a slightly more than cursory analysis of the ET statistics showed the somewhat inconsistent number of claims decreasing in no fewer than ten of the previous 12 years, including in each of the two most recent years, 2018/19 and 2019/20.

And today, the latest set of statistics confirms that this downwards trend continued in 2020/21, with the number of equal pay claims decreasing by another 65%, to its lowest level in at least the last 16 years. But hey, who could possibly have seen the signs?

Next up in our rogues’ gallery of past performers is Hannah Mahon, a partner at GQ Littler, which modestly describes itself as “the world’s leading employment law firm”. In July 2019, Ms Mahon secured near-identical articles in the Financial Times, the Daily Fail, the Metro and the Times about a 69% “spike” in the number of sex discrimination claims in 2018/19. Ms Mahon attributed this to “a big increase in the public airing of sexual harassment claims” in the era of #MeToo: “It’s a much more public thing now. People are starting to understand their rights and feeling less shy about speaking out.”

Unfortunately for Ms Mahon, a slightly more than cursory analysis of the ET statistics showed that pretty much all of the 69% spike had occurred in Scotland, and only in the two months June and August 2018. In England & Wales, the number of sex discrimination claims had actually fallen, by 8%. Ms Mahon would probably get on well with Stuart Lewis of Rest Less and Patrick Thomson of the Centre for Ageing Better, who failed to spot (or deliberately overlooked) the rather obvious fact that most of their 176% explosion in age discrimination claims in Q3 of 2020/21 occurred only in Scotland, only in October 2020, and had nothing whatsoever to do with firms ditching older staff during the pandemic.

And today, the latest set of statistics suggests that the #MeToo movement has yet to impact on women’s understanding of their rights, or their shyness about speaking out about sexual harassment at work, as the number of sex discrimination claims has fallen by 45% since 2018/19, and is now at a diminutive level rarely seen over the last 14 years.

Next up is Sophie Vanhegan, another partner at GQ Littler, who in June 2019 secured a lengthy piece in People Management – the official journal of the CIPD – about a 56% increase in pregnancy/maternity discrimination claims in 2017/18. Vanhegan attributed this ‘spike’ to the #MeToo movement making women more aware of unacceptable behaviour, especially related to pregnancy: “Things that may have simply just been accepted in the past are now being seen as unacceptable and people are feeling more confident in being able to challenge them” by bringing an ET claim.

Vanhegan was supported by Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser at the CIPD, who said that “while the removal of tribunal fees may have accounted for some of the increase, there has also been a greater awareness of maternity and paternity rights, and an increased willingness to make claims”. And campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed were quick to jump on the bandwagon, tweeting that “the number of women experiencing discrimination has definitely risen but this [56% increase] is more about women feeling empowered to do something about it – all our hard work feels like it’s paying off.”

Leaving aside the rather obvious point that the #MeToo movement didn’t even start, on the other side of the Atlantic, until half-way through 2017/18, a slightly more than cursory analysis of the ET statistics showed that the 56% increase in pregnancy/maternity discrimination claims was entirely in line with the 60% increase in the number of new ET cases due to the abolition of ET fees in July 2017, just three months into 2017/18.

And today, the latest set of statistics confirms that, if the #MeToo movement has had any lasting impact on the willingness of pregnant women and new mothers in the UK to bring a pregnancy/maternity discrimination claim, it has been in the wrong direction. For, having bounced back to just short of its pre-ET fees level in 2018/19, the number of pregnancy/maternity discrimination claims has since fallen by 21%. Clearly, Pregnant Then Screwed need to be working a little harder.

Who knows, maybe last week’s performance of the PR party trick by Rest Less and the Centre for Ageing Better will prove to be the exception to the rule, and they will secure a footnote in employment policy history as the discoverers of a sustained, upwards trend in the number of age discrimination claims linked to Covid19 and the associated lockdowns. Maybe employment lawyers and policy wonks will sit around talking reverentially about the Lewis-Thomson Theorem, and nodding sagely.

Time will tell. But today’s set of employment statistics doesn’t bode well for the Lewis-Thomson Theorem. After removing another obvious multiple claimant case (in Scotland, in February 2021, with some 1,400 claimants), we find that age discrimination claims have fallen by 27% over the two most recent quarters. Have employers stopped ditching older staff because of the pandemic already? I have no idea. Ask Stuart Lewis at Rest Less.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and before that at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK. Oh, and at McDonald's.
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