Labour to support Tory plan to change law to avoid benefit repayments

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   By a Newsnet reporter

The Labour party is supporting a controversial move by Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to ensure that jobseekers will not be compensated for benefits which were illegally withdrawn, and cannot seek redress against companies for whom they were illegally forced to work for free.

The moves comes in the wake of the “Poundland case”, when the Court of Appeal in London ruled that jobless graduate Cait Reilly and unemployed lorry driver Jamieson Wilson had been unlawfully forced to take unskilled work for large companies including Poundland.  The court found that the Department of Work and Pensions had not adequately informed jobseekers.  

Ms Reilly, a geology graduate, was already carrying out voluntary work at a museum in the hope that this would help her employment prospects.  She had been hoping to find paid work at a museum.  Instead she was told by Jobcentre staff that she must give up her voluntary work and undertake unpaid work at Poundland, stacking shelves.  

When she started her court case, Ms Reilly found herself under attack from Mr Duncan Smith who branded her a “job snob”.  Ms Reilly angrily rejected the accusation, saying that her objection was against being forced to carry out unpaid work which would not assist her employment prospects, and explained that she would have been quite happy to accept any position if paid the minimum wage.  Ms Reilly has now found paid work as a cashier at Morrison’s supermarket.

Those who refused the unskilled and unpaid jobs were stripped of their benefit, even though, like Ms Reilly, many of them were already engaged in voluntary work which increased their skills and experience sets.  

The ruling opened the door to jobseekers reclaiming their lost benefits from the DWP, or for civil claims against the participating companies to force them to pay the minimum wage to those participating in the scheme.  Affected benefit claimants would be entitled to an average payout of between £530 and £570 each.

The Coalition government now intends to circumvent the ruling by introducing retrospective legislation to “protect the national economy” against payouts to those who had been illegally sanctioned which potentially reach £130m.

The government published the emergency legislation on Thursday of last week, and intends to push it through Parliament on Tuesday, with the support of the Labour party.  According to reports in the Guardian newspaper, the Labour party is currently in talks with the Coalition government in order to facilitate the bill’s passage.

A spokesperson for the DWP defended the new legislation, saying:

“This legislation will protect taxpayers and make sure we won’t be paying back money to people who didn’t do enough to find work.”

The Labour party has so far avoided making any public statement about their support for what many will see as a Conservative attack upon the poorest in society.  A spokesperson for the Boycott Workfare organisation, which campaigns against compulsory unpaid work, said they were “shocked” to hear that the Labour party was giving its support to the retrospective change in the law.

Just this weekend the Labour party’s shadow Scotland Secretary Margaret Curran condemned the Liberal Democrats for being “complicit” in the Tories’ attacks on benefits claimants.

Anti-poverty campaigners have condemned the decision as “repugnant”.  

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Tessa Gregory, the lawyer who represented Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson’s case at the Court of Appeal, said:

“The emergency bill is a repugnant attempt by the secretary of state for work and pensions to avoid his legal obligation to repay the thousands of jobseekers, who like my client Jamieson Wilson, have been unlawfully and unfairly stripped of their subsistence benefits.

“The use of retrospective legislation, which is being fast-tracked through parliament, smacks of desperation. It undermines the rule of law and means that Iain Duncan Smith is once again seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of his actions.

“It is time for his department to admit that maladministration and injustice costs. In light of the bill we are considering what further legal action we can take on behalf of our clients.”

John Wilson MSP, SNP member for Central Scotland and deputy convenor of Holyrood’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee, said:

“The latest announcement by the Labour spokesperson on the welfare reform proposal from the ConDems, and the indications that Labour would support the draconian welfare reforms being introduced, clearly shows how far removed Labour are from the their socialist principles.

“The Labour Party in Scotland have a clear choice to make, do they continue to support the drastic changes to the welfare state as proposed by the Tories and now endorsed by Labour at Westminster, or will they fight for a socially just Scotland that can break away from the Westminster purse strings and create a society worthy of the principles of the founding mothers and fathers of the Labour movement.”