Mandatory unpaid government work schemes that last up to six months should be declared illegal because they are a form of forced labour, lawyers acting for the unemployed argued on Tuesday.
At a judicial review at the royal courts of justice lawyers claimed that two jobseekers, Cait Reilly, 23, and Jamieson Wilson, 41, were illegally forced to take part in government work experience schemes, without pay and under the “menace of penalty” of losing their benefits.
They described the work schemes as a form of forced labour which breached article four of the European convention on human rights.
The court heard that Reilly, a geology graduate from Birmingham University, was made to sweep floors and stack shelves at Poundland, which was described as a profitable company with a £500m turnover. Wilson, also from the Midlands, was expected to wash and clean furniture for an unnamed organisation for six months unpaid under a pilot scheme called the Community Action Programme (CAP).
However Wilson, who trained and worked as a mechanical engineer and an HGV driver and has been unemployed since 2008, refused to attend the programme. He was later stripped of his benefits and judge Justice Foskett heard that Wilson was now “relying on family and friends” to survive. Reilly’s lawyers also argued that the scheme did nothing for her employment chances. Earlier this month the Department for Work and Pensions’ own research found that the Mandatory Work Activity programme in which the unemployed are forced to work for a month for free had zero effect in helping people get a job.
Acting for the claimants, Nathalie Lieven QC argued that thousands of unemployed people who had been sent on unpaid work schemes had no access to information setting out what they were expected to do. Lieven argued that under the 2009 Welfare Reform Act the government had to publish details of how the various back-to-work schemes worked, and that without publication before parliament or even of publicly accessible documents, almost half a dozen of the DWP’s schemes were operating illegally. She claimed that government ministers had changed the mandatory work rules “by fiat” and that nothing about the employment schemes was written down in statue or in public documents which ordinary people could access.
Government lawyers said that the government’s employment strategy would be in disarray if the jobseekers won their review. Arguing that the claimants were out of time to question the legality of the DWP’s employment schemes, Paul Nicholls QC said: “To allow the claim to proceed … would lead to unprecedented disruption and prejudice to third parties.”
He added: “The imposition of a condition on the entitlement to benefit that a person undertakes certain work-related activity does not require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour. The only effect of such provisions is that a person needs to do the required acts in order to be paid a benefit. They are not forced to do those acts.”
In a statement the DWP said: “We will be contesting these cases vigorously. These schemes are not slave labour. They play an important part in giving jobseekers the skills and experience they need to find work. It is entirely reasonable to ask jobseekers to take real steps towards finding work if they are claiming benefits.”
The case continues.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010