In a decision that will make ministers breathe a huge sigh of relief and leaves campaigners against workfare raging with fury, High Court judge Justice Foskett ruled that forcing the unemployed to work for free is lawful.
However, Justice Foskett did rule that stripping claimants of their benefits for refusing compulsory unpaid work was unlawful.
Cait Reilly, from Birmingham and Jamieson Wilson from Nottingham had both made claims that forcing them to work unpaid on workfare schemes had violated their rights under Article IV of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits slavery and forced labour.
Reilly, a geology graduate from Birmingham University, was already carrying out voluntary work experience in a museum when she was sent on the Government’s work experience scheme to stack shelves and sweep floors for no pay at Poundland, a profitable company with a turnover of £500m.
Wilson had trained and worked as a mechanical engineer and a HGV driver before becoming unemployed in 2008. He refused to provide his labour for free for the government’s Community Action Programme (CAP) pilot and as a result was stripped of his benefits. Since then he has been relying on family and friends to survive.
Justice Foskett, however, stated that “characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking”.
However, Justice Foskett did agree that mistakes had been made in how the Department of Work and Pensions failed to fully inform Reilly about the requirements of the Work Academy scheme and how the DWP also failed to provide Wilson with adequate notice of the Community Action Programme.
This has far-reaching ramifications for the Tory workfare policy.
As Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers who represented Reilly and Wilson stated:
“As of January 2012, over 22,000 people have been stripped of their benefits for failing to participate in the Work Programme alone. That figure must now have doubled. Today’s decision should mean that many of those that have been subjected to benefit sanctions will be entitled to re-imbursement by the Department of Work and Pensions. Its truly extraordinary that the Government should find itself in this position for failing to provide basic information to those affected.
We welcome the Court’s ruling on this issue but we continue to maintain that the Regulations themselves are unlawful and ought to be quashed. We are seeking permission to appeal the Court’s findings in this regard.”
No doubt Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith and Employment minister Chris Grayling will be pleased that Justice Foskett’s ruling had not totally invalidated workfare. However, the judgement that benefit sanctions were unlawful leaves them with a gigantic headache.
Effectively, the Government has stolen millions of pounds in benefits from the poorest in our society.
Ruling that forcing people to work is not forced labour is indeed a perverse judgement, though
However, in taking the Government to the high court, Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson with the support of Public Interest Lawyers they have served to put the government’s flagship employment policy under severe pressure and raise the profile of the fight against workfare and will help build the protests.
Time and time again we have learned through many injunctions taken by employers against strikes, that unelected judges tend to favour the rich and powerful and that they cannot be relied upon to deliver justice.
We must use the fury at the High Court’s rescue of workfare and the latest dent in the Tories workfare policy to build bigger and deeper protests against workfare.