Ministers were relieved today when the High Court ruled that the Work and Pensions Department's back-to-work schemes are not 'forced labour' and do not breach human rights.
The case had been brought by two people: Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, who argued that the unpaid schemes they had been put on violated article four of the European Convention on Human Rights. Ms Reilly, 23, was given 'unpaid menial work' at Poundland, while Mr Wilson, 40, was told that he would be required to undertake 30 hours' unpaid work each week cleaning furniture. Both had been subjected to sanctions for refusing to take part in the schemes, and were facing losing their jobseekers' allowance for six months, too.
Had the DWP lost the case, its back-to-work schemes would have been ruled invalid. This was a serious threat to its drive to bring people back into the marketplace for jobs. But Mr Justice Foskett said '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'. Iain Duncan Smith has leapt on the judgement, saying:
'We are delighted, although not surprised, that the Judge agrees our schemes are not forced labour. Comparing out initiatives to slave labour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression.'
But where the DWP fell down, and where it does continue to face a struggle, is on its failure to tell both claimants that the work experience schemes were not mandatory. It was not made clear to Reilly that the work academy scheme that she had signed up for was not mandatory. Similarly, Wilson was not given sufficient notice of the community action programme that he was involved in. The judge said both claimants were entitled to a declaration accepting that there had been breaches of the 2011 jobseekers allowance regulations. Lawyers for both claimants believe that this part of the ruling means 'tens of thousands of people stripped of their benefits must now be entitled to reimbursement by the DWP', which the department contests. That would still be a significant embarrassment to ministers.
Either way, dubbing a scheme that gets people into jobs 'slave labour' is, as IDS said, ridiculous, given the way many professions only consider applicants who have clocked up weeks of unpaid work experience. Fraser made this point in his column in June, and the only difference between unpaid work experience with an MP, at a law firm or with a newspaper and the unpaid work experience that was on offer here was that it was 'menial work'. Oh, and that the government was footing the bill for it rather than the person taking part in the scheme, who would normally have to give up the opportunity of paid work elsewhere and would probably have had to shell out for their own travel expenses. It's likely that Cait Reilly felt the work in Poundland was not suitable for her, and in the long-term, it might not have been. But retail provides a brilliant and well-structured career ladder: cutting that off because some people see it as beneath them is unfair.