Last week the Cameron government suffered another defeat, this time the embattled Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) saw its latest appeal against an earlier court ruling dismissed by the Court of Appeal, specifically that retrospective emergency legislation to stop claimants retrieving payments after being 'sanctioned' under workfare, was incompatible with Human Rights law.
Unemployed claimants Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson had brought legal action in 2013 against the DWP after being made to work unpaid on workfare, judges at the time finding the punitive schemes in question "flawed", and the High Court ruling against the DWP after it appealed the ruling, the following year.
The incumbent Cameron government like the Tory-led coalition before it has intensified and accelerated what is known by the umbrella term, 'workfare' in a way previously unseen in the UK, despite 'welfare-to-work' or 'active labour market policies' having been in existence here since the mid-80s. Actual 'workfare' in which claimants are made to work unpaid for commercial enterprises, or as bogus 'volunteers' for charities or 'social enterprises' as a condition of not being 'sanctioned', has also existed in some form or other since the early-90s, but was generalized in a myriad of separate schemes from 2011 on by former DWP minister Iain Duncan Smith and indeed chancellor George Osborne from 2014.
'Workfare' has however faced continuous challenge and opposition and has been hamstrung by concerted efforts from campaigners and the broader public alike: 100 organisations - companies, public sector, and third sector - ending their involvement in one or all of what were 7 different schemes until November last year, when it became 5 after the DWP quietly announced it was "not renewing" the two worst schemes: 'Mandatory Work Activity', and 'Community Work Placements'.
The DWP has fought a losing battle launching appeal after appeal in its desperate attempts to defer repeated judicial dismissals of its own flaky attempts to get a single ruling in its favour. In 2014 three Court of Appeal judges dismissed its challenge to the 2013 High Court ruling which found that panic retrospective legislation rushed through Parliament in 2013 was incompatible with human rights law.
Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled against the DWP again, meaning it could well be obliged to repay £130million in benefit payments to claimants who were 'sanctioned' after "refusing" workfare. The earlier 'Poundland' case in which Cait Reilly brought legal action against the DWP after being conscripted to stack shelves in Poundland unpaid, argued that it was unlawful to be compelled to work unpaid as a condition of being able to claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) - what the state defines as 'subsistence'.
The High Court ruled that the DWP had indeed acted unlawfully in providing little clear information to claimants on the actual implications of workfare and what would happen if they refused such 'help and support'. The DWP notoriously prefers to make the exact nature of its demands as opaque as possible, what can and can't be done being strewn with 'interpretive' tripwires, designed to trip up claimants at every turn.
The failing project of mass workfare and mass 'sanctioning' reveals its deeply ideological nature in the ridiculous supposed reasons for 'sanctions': being a couple of minutes late to the Job Centre being one of the less jaw-dropping. The punitive Victorian workhouse ideology of Duncan Smith and now his replacement, Stephen Crabb holds the unemployed responsible for unemployment and seeks to discipline and punish accordingly.
The desperate attempts of the DWP to retrospectively cover its own back and pig headedly launch appeal after failed appeal, found its apotheosis in the claim that the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act (sic) was passed so as to "protect the public purse" because the benefit sanctions it had imposed were justified on the grounds that the claimants had breached the rules - rules it set and imposed and deliberately made to set claimants up to fail.
Last week this especially desperate attempt at clutching at straws was once again dismissed by the High Court, Lord Justice Underhill ruling that the decision of the High Court should be upheld and noting that in the cases of claimants who had appealed against sanctions, the act was incompatible with the European convention on human rights.
It was again argued successfully that retrospective legislation rushed through Parliament by the DWP attempted to rewrite the law and make lawful what had been ruled unlawful by judges. In effect this attempt by government to backtrack and introduce retrospective legislation was the vain effort to determine the outcome of sanction appeals in advance.
The most recent court ruling against the DWP and in favour of JSA claimants, underlines the failing attempts of the incumbent Tory government to individualize social problems, the collapse of two of its flagship workfare programmes further bringing this out in stark relief.
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