Cameron’s government rocked by major defeat just days before election time

Kerry-anne Mendoza

The Conservative government has been rocked by a major defeat just days before the local elections that look set to deliver significant gains to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

On May 5, voters across the country will put a cross in the box of the party they wish to run their local councils. Labour continue to lead Conservatives in the polls, despite one of the most dogged and morally questionable smear campaigns run in modern times. This news was bad enough for the Conservatives, but worse came on Friday when a central policy of the Department of Work and Pensions was defeated by the Supreme Court.

The Government has a whole host of programmes purportedly in place to support the jobless back into paid employment. Workfare refers to all of the programmes which are mandatory, long term and paid less than minimum wage. The Government’s Work Experience ProgrammeSector Based Work AcademiesCommunity Action ProgrammeMandatory Work Activity scheme and The Work Programme all fall into this category. Under these Workfare programmes, unemployed people have been forced in long term, full time work for no more than the benefits to which they are entitled as citizens.

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Workfare was ruled illegal in 2013. But instead of complying with the orders of the court, the government has continued to appeal the decision – suffering defeat after defeat. And now, the highest court in the land has told Cameron’s government that its workfare schemes are illegal, and they must pay back benefit claimants who were forced into these unlawful programmes. As the Press Association reports:

Five justices at the highest court in the land ruled, in what became known as the Poundland case, that the Government’s flagship back-to-work schemes were flawed because sufficient information had not been given to claimants to enable them to make representations before benefits were stopped.

The Government brought in emergency retrospective legislation, the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013, to “protect the public purse” and stop the payouts.

It was argued the sanctions had been justified and the claimants would be receiving “undeserved windfall payments”.

But a High Court judge, Mrs Justice Lang, declared the 2013 Act “incompatible” with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to fair hearings.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided not to make any payouts pending the Court of Appeal bid to overturn Mrs Justice Lang’s decision.

Appeal judges ruled on Friday that when Parliament enacted the 2013 Act in order to retrospectively “validate those sanctions” it was “successful in doing so as a matter of English law”.

Three Court of Appeal judges in London have dismissed its challenge against an earlier High Court ruling.

The Government had appealed in a bid to prevent thousands of individuals who had jobseeker payments stopped from clawing back millions of pounds in lost benefits.

There are three main reasons that we should all, regardless of political stripe, oppose Workfare:

Firstly, as a society, we have agreed that forced labour is against the law.  Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights clearly states – No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. If the government threatens to withdraw a person’s sole lifeline unless they supply their labour, then it can clearly be argued that this labour has been obtained forcibly. The labour is also clearly compulsory.

Secondly, it creates state-subsidised forced labour for private companies. It is completely unconscionable to many, that whilst the government is taking a chainsaw to the welfare state on the stated grounds of ‘austerity’– it chooses to use taxpayers’ money to fund forced labour for private corporations. Aside from being principally abhorrent in and of itself, there are a series of undesirable outcomes. It means corporations get to choose between salaried and free staff, creating competition with the ‘real’ jobs market and a further means of suppressing wages in the real economy. It also means that Topshop owner Arcadia (an infamous tax avoider) gets free staff paid for by taxes they themselves refuse to pay.

Thirdly, it entirely subverts the minimum wage. We agreed as a society that we needed a minimum wage in order to provide a balance between a corporation’s rational ambition to reduce its labour costs and a workers need to gain a fair, living wage. This policy not only allows corporations to avoid paying a minimum wage, but any wage at all.

In fighting, and losing this battle so close to the May 5 elections – Cameron and his government have provided the country with a last minute reminder of exactly what’s at stake. That will do local Conservative candidates no favours at all.

Featured Image via Flickr Creative Commons

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