Congratulations to Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson who took the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to court over the workfare scheme. Judge Mr Justice Foskett rejected their claim that the scheme was unlawful last week. Most press coverage has focused on this and not noticed where the pair succeeded. In fact, they did manage to obtain declarations that the DWP had acted unlawfully.
The judgment’s defining principle is that the government can force people to take unpaid jobs under the threat of having their benefits taken away. But this should not happen if they have a good reason for not signing up.
In Reilly’s case, it hadn’t told her that the scheme was not (quite) compulsory, and that she could avoid it if she had a good reason. Instead, the DWP told her the scheme was compulsory, with the practical result that she was compelled to give up an (unpaid) volunteering job which might well have led to a skilled job. Instead she was made to work unpaid for Poundland helping that company to make as much money as possible during the Christmas rush.
In Wilson’s case, the department told him that he had to attend a training session. He was told that if he didn’t he might lose up to 26 weeks’ benefits. In fact, the maximum sanction they had power to impose on him was around two weeks.
Their solicitors, Public Interest Lawyers, estimate that around 20,000 people have seen their benefits removed under this scheme. There will be a significant proportion whose benefits have been deducted unlawfully and may be able to bring claims against the department.
First published in Socialist Worker, 18 August 2012