Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Labour's workfare shame: How Labour abandoned support for the poorest over illegal sanctions!

Jonathan Reynolds MP

In February 2013, the Court of Appeal quashed ‘The Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise) Scheme’. The three Judges, Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Black and Sir Stanley Burton, ruled that the 2011 Regulations were ultra vires of section 17A of the Jobseeker’s Act 1995 because they failed to prescribe a description of the various schemes launched in August 2011 or the circumstances in which, a person can be required to participate in those schemes or the period during which, participants are required to undertake work on those schemes.

The case centred on whether the Secretary of State was able to create programmes and schemes at a whim rather than issuing Parliament with full details of the myriad of schemes in operation. It was declared that the Secretary of State, Ian Duncan Smith, had not given unemployed people sufficient information about their rights to appeal against being made to work up to 780 hours unpaid and the penalties they would face if they refused. The effect of the ruling meant that almost all of the Government’s work-for-your dole employment schemes were unlawful.

The Court of Appeal ruling meant that thousands of unemployed people (approximately 44,000) who had been unlawfully sanctioned (had their benefits stopped) for not participating in these schemes, were entitled to a refund of their benefits of around £130 million. On 30 October 2013, the decision of the Appeal Court was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) stated that they would resist paying out rebates until all legal avenues had been exhausted. However, following the Court of Appeal ruling, the Government introduced emergency legislation -  ‘The Jobseeker’s Allowance (Schemes for Assisting  Persons to Obtain Employment) Regulations 2013’ and the ‘Jobseeker’s (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013’  that was fast tracked through Parliament with the support of most of the opposition.

What both measures sought to do was to validate the 2011 Regulations retrospectively and undo the decision of the Court of Appeal. This did have the effect of retrospectively making unlawful benefit sanctions imposed under the 2011 Regulations lawful in order to deny people rebates.

When these measures were introduced in Parliament in the spring of 2013, some 44 Labour MPs voted against these measures. However, the Labour Party official line was to ‘abstain’ so the Government could get the legislation through.

One of the MPs, who abstained, was Jonathan Reynolds MP, who represents the constituency of Stalybridge and Hyde. In May 2013, he wrote to a constituent to explain why he’d abstained on the Government’s Jobseekers Bill. According to Reynolds, the DWP’s back to work schemes (2011 Regulations), were struck down – not because they were unlawful – but on a technicality, because the DWP had not provided sufficient information to jobseekers about the penalties involved in refusing to participate in their schemes. He added, “The legal judgement was not about the legality or ethics of so-called workfare schemes (which were introduced by the last Labour government). These will always be political, not legal, matters.” He stated that he thought it only reasonable that people should have their benefits stopped if they won’t try to find work. However, he points out that Labour had demanded two crucial concessions: first, that people can appeal against mistakes by the DWP; “We can’t have carte blanche retrospective legislation of sanctions.” Second, there should be an independent review of the sanctions regime.

What Reynolds fails to mention and must have known at the time, is that in supporting this nasty little bill, money illegally taken from jobseekers who had been illegally sanctioned, would not be paid back to them. Labour’s support allowed the Government to backdate changes to the law so they could steal money from the poor.

Even right-wing think tanks like Civitas,were appalled by this shocking move. They asked, is the Government above the law? Moreover, what is the point in taking the Government to court, when they can simply move the goal posts and ignore the ruling, by introducing retrospective legislation that validates it?

Though Labour and Jonathan Reynolds MP, supported the Tory Government, the High Court subsequently found that retrospective legislation designed to render lawful benefits sanctions that were issued under the 2011 Regulations, was ‘incompatible’ with the right to a fair trial. The court called the move ‘draconian’, stating it was not explained or justified and “incompatible with the European Convention on human Rights.” After the ruling, the Government announced that it would appeal to the Supreme Court.

A Blairite and Labour friend of Israel, Jonathan Reynolds was elected to Parliament at the 2010 General Election, following the resignation of his mentor and predecessor, James (work-or-lose-your-dole) Purnell, who turned the seat of Stalybridge & Hyde into a marginal. According to Labour NEC member, Tom Watson MP, Reynolds was not initially put on the NEC’s shortlist, having failed to impress. However, Watson told ‘The Times’, that Reynolds was put on the shortlist of candidates for the vacant seat, following intervention from James Purnell and Peter Mandelson, who wanted him elected.

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