THE BLOG

Exploitative Workfare Scheme Was a Disaster - Now the Government Must Pay the Price of Failure

19/03/2013 18:35 GMT | Updated 19/05/2013 10:12 BST

The 'Opposition' may be backing the Government, but some MPs are outraged by its desperate bid to change the law to avoid pay-outs after the Poundland ruling.

Anyone who has ever lost a case in court may well have wished that they had the power to change the law to avoid having to deal with the consequences. Unlike individuals, who are expected to respect the rule of law, the UK government does have that power - and this administration is all too ready to use it.

Last month, the Court of Appeal ruled against the Government on its controversial welfare-to-work scheme, under which more than 230,000 jobseekers had been forced into work placements at below minimum wage levels and with scant information about what was happening and why. It now faces a huge bill of £130m in benefit rebates to all those who had their welfare payments docked.

One of those caught up in this shambolic forced labour programme - condemned by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee as "extremely poor" - was Cait Reilly, a science graduate who successfully took the Government to court after being made to work without a salary in a Poundland store.

In my own constituency, I've seen the real-life impact of this flawed initiative. A 58-year-old constituent with secretarial skills, unemployed for seven months, was told she had to travel miles to work in a charity shop or lose her benefits. Unable to afford the travel costs, she found a job in a similar shop closer to home, but the Job Centre would not allow it.

Now, instead of respecting the British justice system and accepting the fundamental principle that workers should be paid the minimum wage, ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions are trying to push a retroactive law through Parliament that will overturn the ruling and prevent people from claiming what they are owed.

As one of a group of MPs to push this shameful legislation to a vote on Tuesday so that Members would have the opportunity to register opposition to the Bill, I was hugely disappointed when the official 'Opposition' refused to join us.

In fact, the Labour front bench's opposition to these proposals has amounted to nothing more than seeking very minor 'concessions' that completely fail to address the core principles at stake. A meek call for a review of the regulations in a year's time is frankly no 'Opposition' at all.

By failing to vote against this Bill, Labour is effectively supporting the Government and indicating that it, like David Cameron's administration, sees no problem in bringing in emergency legislation to overturn a court's findings when it goes against them.

In a fair society, the solution to unemployment is not to force people into workfare programmes which do little more than supply big companies with free labour. It's to create jobs that pay a living wage, for example, by investing in new sustainable infrastructure projects and boosting the jobs-rich low carbon economy.

Tuesday's vote was about sending a signal to all of those people being hit by this Government's cuts and thinly-veiled attacks on the poor that there is an effective Opposition in this Parliament willing to stand up for these principles - even if Labour won't.