The Court of Appeal recently ruled that the government’s flagship scheme to tackle unemployment was unlawful and fundamentally flawed.
Under the back to work scheme, unemployed people would work for free in various voluntary roles in return for keeping their unemployment benefits. The theory behind this was that the unemployed would gain vital experience and skills to support subsequent job applications, in addition to keeping them in the world of work. In contrast, many critics have condemned the back to work scheme as slavery, given the fact that the work performed is entirely unpaid, contrary to legislation.
However, the Court of Appeal recently heard the twin cases of Cait Reilly, 24, of Birmingham and Jamieson Wilson, 40, from Nottingham. Miss Reilly had been working voluntarily at Poundland, and was told she had to remain working there to receive her benefits, in addition to the placement forcing her to quit her voluntary work at a museum. Mr Jamieson, a former HGV driver, objected to his unpaid placement- cleaning furniture- and lost his jobseekers allowance for six months.
In the unanimous judgement handed down by the Appeal Court, the three judges quashed regulations concerning the back to work initiative. In their verdict, the judges stated that the 2011 regulations behind the scheme were found to be lacking in providing information to the unemployed, especially as to the sanctions for non- compliance with the scheme (I.e. refusing the unpaid work placements), in addition to not complying with the relevant Act of Parliament authorising the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) to introduce the programme.
In a radio interview, employment minister Mark Hoban expressed his disappointment at the decision, stating that “what the judge said is that there should be more detail in the regulations. What we are doing [now] is introducing emergency regulations to provide that detail. So it’s business as usual for people who want support to look for a job. At the same time we are going to appeal this judgment.” Indeed, DWP has since then very rapidly brought in new, clearer rules and regulations to allow the unpaid back to work scheme to continue temporarily whilst an appeal is lodged. Long term, however, this judgement means that the scheme in its current format will either have to be scrapped or radically overhauled.
In the wake of this judgement another legal case is likely to arise, this time concerning whether the unemployed who lost their benefits for not enrolling in the scheme can get a refund for lost benefits. The government is adamant that there will be no such compensation- but if the matter is brought to court, that would be the decision of the judiciary and not ministers.