Workfare is illegal

by Daphne Liddle

THE COURT of Appeal in London last Tuesday ruled that forcing unemployed people to work for no wages is illegal. The landmark ruling came in two test cases, one involving university graduate Cait Reilly and the other was heavy goods vehicle fitter Jamie Wilson.

Both had been ordered to work for employers with no pay — or face losing their unemployment benefits — as part of the Department of Work and Pensions back-to-work scheme.

The three-judge panel ruled that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had acted unlawfully by not giving the unemployed enough information about the penalties they faced and their rights to appeal against being made to work unpaid for, in some cases, hundreds of hours.

The Government was dismayed and surprised by the ruling; it likes to give the impression that the back-towork schemes are helping unemployed people into work.

But they do no such thing; they actually create more unemployment because the companies involved prefer to get free labour than to pay wages, so that for every person doing unpaid work for a company that is a properly waged position lost.

In the case of Cait Reilly, the order to work unpaid for the bargain chain Poundland prevented her carrying on with the voluntary work she had been doing at a museum and from looking for a regular waged job more in keeping with her qualifications.

Jamie Wilson, from Nottingham, was told that his jobseeker’s allowance would be stopped, leaving him destitute, if he did not take part in the Community Action Programme.

This would have meant working 30 hours-a-week for six months (780 hours total) for no wages at all — a gift of nearly £5,000-worth of free labour to his employer, at the minimum wage rate, but nothing for him.

Sick and disabled people were among those who could be forced to work in the Community Action Programme.

Thousands of people who have had their benefits cut could now claim those lost benefits back. But the Government has declared it will pay nothing yet. The Appeal judges ruled the DWP could not appeal against this verdict but it can take the case to the Supreme Court.

Amend

In the meantime the DWP is seeking to amend its regulations swiftly to comply with the Appeal Court ruling. But the back-to-work schemes are also under pressure because statistics are showing they do not get people into regular waged jobs, even after many months of unpaid labour — because there are no jobs.

There have been cases where workers have been made redundant and then forced to go back to working for their former employer for no wages just to get their jobseeker’s allowance because bosses prefer free workers to those on wages.

The unions have welcomed the ruling. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, which represents around 80,000 DWP staff, said: “This is a very significant ruling that we believe supports what we have said all along, that no one should be forced to work without pay.

“The Government cannot continue to help private companies and charities to exploit people who are out of work, and these schemes must surely now be scrapped and the work brought back in-house.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This blows a big hole through the Government’s workfare policies. Of course voluntary work experience can help the jobless, and it is right to expect the unemployed to seek work.

“But it is pointless to force people to work for no pay in jobs that do nothing to help them while putting others at risk of unemployment.

“This policy is about blaming the jobless, not helping them. Ministers should now abandon this misguided approach, and instead guarantee real jobs for the long-term unemployed, especially the young.”

The Public Interest Lawyers, who represented both claimants, said the decision was a “huge setback” for the DWP. Solicitor Tessa Gregory said: “Today’s judgment sends Iain Duncan Smith back to the drawing board to make fresh regulations which are fair and comply with the court’s ruling.

“Until that time, nobody can be lawfully forced to participate in schemes affected such as the Work Programme and the Community Action Programme. All of those who have been stripped of their benefits have a right to claim the money back that has been unlawfully taken away from them.”

She claimed the case had shown that the DWP was “going behind Parliament’s back” and failing to seek proper approval for mandatory work schemes.