Government Work Experience Scheme Attacked in Court

Posted: 26th June 2012

The Government denied accusations of ‘slave labour’ today as a jobless graduate asked the High Court to rule her human rights were breached when she was forced to work for free in a discount store on a work experience scheme.
Cait Reilly, 23, said as she arrived at court today: ‘Forcing people to work for free does nothing to tackle the causes of long-term unemployment.’
An unemployed 40-year-old is also challenging the legality of another Government work scheme that pays no wages.
In both cases, the claimants seek the quashing of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) regulations under which the schemes were set up and declarations that there have been violations of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
As the challenges got under way, the DWP put out a statement saying: ‘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.’
Nathalie Lieven QC, appearing for Miss Reilly, told the High Court that the geology graduate’s stint at the discount store involved carrying out very basic tasks such as sweeping and shelf stacking five hours-a-day for two weeks ‘without training, supervision or remuneration’.
Ms Lieven submitted to Mr Justice Foskett: ‘Such work did not contribute to (Miss Reilly’s) search for work to any extent.’
Miss Lieven said that Miss Reilly graduated from Birmingham University in 2010 and first claimed jobseeker’s allowance in August that year soon after graduation. She hoped to work in museums and was now undertaking voluntary work at a local museum.
No-one had questioned her level of effort in seeking employment and she had been happy to look for paid work in the retail sector.
In October 2011, her Jobcentre Plus adviser told her that if she accepted a place on a ‘sector-based work academy’ scheme she would undergo a week’s training followed by a job interview, but she was not told what her rights and obligations were. There was no interview.
Ms Lieven said that Jamieson Wilson, who lives in the Midlands and is the second applicant for judicial review, was a 40-year-old who had been unemployed since 2008.
He was told last November that he would be required to undertake up to six months of unpaid work cleaning furniture in the DWP’s community action programme (CAP), and further periods of required work could follow.
Ms Lieven said that Mr Wilson had recently been subjected to sanctions after refusing to take part in the scheme and now apparently faced the loss of jobseeker’s allowance for six months.
Ms Lieven argued that the regulations underpinning the schemes did not comply with the 1995 Jobseekers Act as they failed to give details of each of the schemes and the circumstances in which individuals could be required to take part.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had also failed in his duty to publish a policy for each scheme, the barrister argued.
Ms Lieven said that it was clear on the facts of Miss Reilly’s case that, although participation in her work scheme was said not to be compulsory initially, she had not been given the option of not working unpaid for a private company.
Miss Reilly had undoubtedly undertaken the work under ‘menace of penalty’, in breach of her human rights, the barrister added.
Mr Wilson’s human rights case was simply that the CAP scheme was not compatible with Article 4, she said.
Paul Nicholls QC, appearing for the DWP, argued that both legal challenges were misconceived.
He said the purpose of various work schemes was to assist the unemployed to better equip themselves for work and thousands of people in different situations had benefited.
A total of 7,390 people had participated in the sector-based work academy scheme up to February this year and around 4,000 had been involved in the CAP between August and November last year.
Mr Nicholls also argued that both legal challenges should not be allowed to succeed because of the delay in bringing them to court.
He said that the Secretary of State was not legally obliged to have a policy about the nature of work schemes, nor was he obliged to publish one.
There were other means by which information was provided about the schemes, including Jobcentre Plus advisers discussing details with individual participants.
The hearing is continuing.