In a sad, but not unsurprising move, Labour yesterday abandoned any support for the poorest by allowing Iain Duncan Smith’s retrospective workfare legislation to pass into law virtually unimpeded.
The nasty little bill rushed through Parliament by IDS means that money illegally taken from claimants who were wrongly sanctioned will now not be paid back. This shocking move, which has even appalled right wing think tanks*, means there is no longer any real point in taking the government to court as they can simply backdate changes to the law – seemingly with cross party support – to avoid any consequences resulting from their crimes.
The Labour Leadership could have stalled the timing of this bill until it had proper scrutiny. They could at the very least have voted against it. But instead they chose mass apathy, with just 44 Labour MPs defying Liam Byrne and voting with their consciences.
In a squirming piece on the Labour List website, Byrne claims that benefit sanctions were ruled illegal simply because Iain Duncan Smith bungled the legislation when he introduced workfare. The truth is that this is only half the story as Byrne himself well knows.
The judgement which ruled many workfare schemes, and the benefit sanctions which resulted from them illegal, was about much more than poorly drafted laws.
The Appeal Court judgement also slammed the information given to claimants as inadequate, warning it was:
“unclear and opaque”
with one judge stating
“the answer to my mind is plainly that there could be no question of sanctions being validly imposed if no proper notice of the sanction consequences was given.”
Simply put, claimants were not given the correct information about what would happen if they didn’t attend workfare. And many lost vital benefits as a result, plunging them into immediate poverty and in some cases probably facing homelessness.
Many claimants have learning disabilities or difficulties with literacy. Some do not speak English as a first language. When Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) was introduced, the Social Security Advisory Committee, who scrutinise welfare laws warned (PDF):
“Evidence from the Department’s Equality Impact Assessment and DWP research shows that ethnic minority claimants and those with a learning difficulty tend to be disproportionately sanctioned for not actively seeking employment. This, alongside other societal factors, could lead to these groups being disproportionately referred to this scheme and, as a consequence, at even greater risk of sanction.”
These are the people Labour yesterday enabled the Tory Government to steal money from. The most marginalised and poorest claimants, who despite the difficulties they face are now expected to second guess what information from the DWP really means or face losing money they are entitled to. If any other group in the country were treated so disgracefully there would be an outrage. But when the government steals money from those with virtually nothing, who face countless other difficulties in their lives, the Labour Party stands back and does nothing.
Despite their crocodile tears over the bedroom tax, Liam Byrne has sent a clear message to those with least. They will all too happily exploit the suffering of the poor if they think there might be a few votes in it. But when it suits them Labour will turn a blind eye when the Government robs those with least of what little they have.
There is no real difference at all between Labour and the Tory Party on social security reforms. Labour introduced workfare, Atos, and their own bedroom tax for private tenants after all. And as for the Lib Dems fake commitment to civil liberties, they have just allowed a bill to be passed that would make most tin pot dictators blush.
For those who have never trusted Labour, or any other shiny faced class traitor with a cheap suit and a manifesto, their utter contempt for those with least will be of no surprise. Even those dwindling few who thought Labour offered even a glimmer of hope will have had those hopes dashed. The Labour front bench, alongside the bulk of the party, are every bit as committed to banker imposed austerity and the resulting war on the poor as the toffs in the cabinet. And as for any change of heart on civil liberties since Blair’s totalitarian tendencies, well yesterday showed that even that is a sham.
*As pointed out by @revstu on twitter, the original version of this post on the Civitas website has ‘been disappeared’.
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RIGHT TO REPLY BY IAN MURRAY MP (LAB, EDINBURGH SOUTH)
As your constituent I’m writing to ask you to oppose the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill, which will be debated in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 March.
As you may be aware, last month the Court of Appeal ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had acted illegally in sanctioning jobseeker’s allowance claimants on workfare schemes, because they had not given claimants the correct information about the schemes to which they were referred.
The bill seeks to retrospectively change the law to excuse the DWP from reimbursing wrongly sanctioned claimants like Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson (who brought the successful case).
The DWP estimates that around 225,000 people would be entitled to an average reimbursement of £550 for being incorrectly sanctioned.
The bill would set a dangerous precedent if passed – sending the message that when citizens defeat the government in court, it can overturn the court ruling retrospectively with primary legislation – effectively making the government above the law.
Please oppose this bill which not only seeks to rob incorrectly sanctioned jobseekers of deserved benefits, but also sets a dangerous precedent.
Many thanks for your email on this important subject. I apologise for the length of the
response but I think it is important to explain the detail of the decision to abstain and
the contents of the Bill.
I hope you will see that I’m completely on your side with this but the pragmatic politics of this issue is that we would have lost the vote in any circumstances and had to find amendments that would be accepted to assist the situation for those who had been wrongly sanctioned.
There has been a bit of confusion over the Jobseekers (Back to Work) Bill and what it is seeking to resolve. This Bill is not about the much mentioned Poundland case, nor is it a Bill that would stop the Government workplace schemes. Some commentators have said that defeating this Bill would stop those dreadful schemes but that is not the case. The Bill is primarily about the sanctions that were applied to JSA claimants. It is not about the dreadful situation of the Government forcing people onto work schemes and that is why it must be seen as being simply about sanctions that were applied to people for not being correctly informed of the consequences of not participating in work experience schemes. The explanantions not being as detailed as they should have been in regulations and in letters to JSA claimants were the main issue.
All Governments since 1911 have had a sanctions regime of some description in the system. There were sanction regimes in place for Labour’s flagship work schemes of the past in the New Deal and the successful Future Jobs Fund. Sanctions are an appropriate way to ensure that there is fairness in the system and that those who do the right thing and try to get themselves back into work are not disadvantaged by those who do not participate.
The reason the Government are in such a mess is due to their complete incompetence in their work programmes. It is a mess of their own making. It is also a symptom of them being completely incompetent at improving the economy and getting more jobs to get people back into work. Their economic plan is not working and that can be emphasised by there not being jobs for people to get employment. That is where their work schemes fall down as there can only be fairness in the system if there are jobs for people to do. It is statistically correct to say that the Governments work programme is such a disaster that it would be more
effective to do nothing.
This is why Labour are calling for a compulsory jobs guarantee for every young person
unemployed for more than 1 year and for every adult out of work for more than 2 years. A proper back to work programme that offers a guaranteed REAL job at its conclusion is the only way to get people into employment, off benefits and paying tax.
The Government’s total incompetence has resulted in a figure of £130m being due to all people who were sanctioned since 2011 not just those who were on the work place schemes. The result would be that where claimants were sanctioned for refusing to sign on or refusing to apply for jobs, attend skills training or were consistently refusing paid jobs, they would have received the money back also. This would have been exceptionally unfair to people who are doing the right thing. Most people who are unemployed are desperate to get back into work and it would have been unfair to them to allow those who are not engaging but on support from the tax payer to be compensated. The fact that it is called “Job Seekers Allowance” should mean that those who are not seeking work should be encouraged to do so and if that is not forthcoming, sanctions should be applied.
This is why the Labour Party demanded safeguards in the Bill to ensure that it could clear up the Governments mess and assist the people that were affected in the work schemes. This relates directly to the £130m as the Government was persuaded to accept our safeguards in terms of:
1. The Government will guarantee that appeal rights are protected for JSA claimants who have been WRONGLY sanctioned. This means that people who had good cause for not participating will still be able to claim their JSA back and that includes all people who were wrongly sanctioned for not participating in the work place schemes. Good cause makes it wide enough to allow appeals for those who are caught up in this case without compensating those who were not seeking work. This should cover all those claimants who were sanctioned illegally, as upheld by the Courts.
2. The Government must launch an independent review of the entire sanctions regime, with an urgent report to parliament. This would allow an analysis of where sanctions are being applied, to whom and expose the cases where sanctions should not have been applied. The urgency of this should assist with the people who wish to appeal as per point 1 above.
These 2 safeguards are clear in their intention to ensure that all those Job Seekers claimants who were sanctioned for not participating in the workplace schemes due to the scheme instructions and information letters being defective should get their JSA refunded through an appeal process.
Finally, it is the case that the coalition Government have a working majority of 100.
Had Labour not pushed for these changes and amendments to the Bill then it would have passed easily without there being a mechanism for the compensation of people who were wrongly sanctioned as a result of the Court rulings. That is the critical point and is a matter of justice and fairness. It is also the case that the sanctions regime would have continued unrevised and that, too, would have been unjust and wrong. By insisting on these safeguards we have made sure that this is a better Bill, resolves the court ruling, compensates those who were affected and reviews the sanctions regime. Otherwise, it would have been a dreadful Bill that punished those who should not have been punished in the eyes of the law.
I was satisfied, after these changes were made, that something had to be done. I lodged my abstention in order to allow the government the opportunity to sort the problems of their own creation. I still disagree with the government’s policy in this area, which is why I did not vote in favour. We cannot have a welfare system which does little to support people back to work. I believe people who can work should not be able to claim benefits with no obligation to find a route back into work.
Constituents tell me consistently that they also find this unfair.
The decision to abstain was not an easy decision. This issue has generated strong feelings about the injustice of unpaid work and I appreciate why some of my colleagues decided to vote against the motion, but this was not the subject of the Bill. It may be that you disagree with my decision but I hope you can see my reasoning for doing so.
Please do not hesitate to get back in touch should you require more information on this or any other matters.
Labour Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South
Shadow Business Minister
Constituency Office: 0131 662 4520
House of Commons: 0207 219 7064
Write: 31 Minto Street, Edinburgh, EH9 2BT
Sheila Gilmore (Lab, Edinburgh East) replied to our request to vote against:
‘Secondly taxpayers became liable to pay back Jobseekers Allowance to all the people who had been sanctioned following their refusal to participate in various work experience schemes. This would have come to £130 million. I chose to abstain because I did not think it reasonable to expect the taxpayer to have to foot the bill for the Government’s incompetence.’
A sorry excuse if ever we heard one! We have responded by twitter stating that we remain ‘Unimpressed’
Labour Party member Louise Sutcliffe wrote on Black Triangle and DPAC’s petition at 293:
‘Until I see evidence that forced labour improves quality of life and societal cohesion in any way I will disagree with the Parliamentary Party over this.
‘I proposed an anti-workfare motion to Newcastle City Council for a reason – I do not believe in slave labour for less than minimum wage, it is not only not morally right, and contravenes minimum wage laws, but I do not believe it is a functional way to deal with unemployment.
‘Policy should be driven by evidence, not by pandering to scaremongering Daily Mail rhetoric on “scroungers”.’