The DWP will pay out almost £2m after breaching thousands of people’s human rights

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Andrea Needham

Correction: this article was updated at 13.10 on 10 August. It incorrectly stated that jobcentres no longer force unemployed people to do work. That assertion has been removed as, under current UK legislation, there are circumstances whereby claimants will be mandated to undertake unpaid work experience.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions will have to pay almost £2m to around 4,000 people who were sanctioned for refusing to do unpaid work.

Appeal Court rules scheme is unlawful

The scheme, known as ‘mandatory work activity’, started in 2011. It required people claiming jobseekers’ allowance to work, unpaid, for up to 30 hours a week, for up to four weeks. The DWP claimed that the unpaid work was expected to be “of benefit to the community”. However, the official guidance on the programme stated [pdf p12] that the placement could include “working towards the profit of the host organisation”.

By February 2013, up to 150,000 people had had their benefits docked for not taking part in the scheme. But that month, Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson won their case against the DWP after it sanctioned them for refusing to participate in it. The Jobcentre had forced Reilly to work unpaid in Poundland, rather than doing voluntary work at a local museum. Wilson, a mechanic, had refused to do unpaid work cleaning furniture. The Appeal Court ruled that the scheme was unlawful because the DWP had not given the pair sufficient information about their obligations.

Changing the law

The DWP then rushed through retroactive emergency legislation to prevent any more claims. At the time, then-employment minister Mark Hoban said:

We have no intention of giving back money to anyone who has had their benefits removed because they refused to take getting into work seriously.

The new legislation meant that people who were in the midst of appealing against sanctions had their appeals rejected. But campaigners fought on, and in 2014 the High Court ruled that the emergency legislation was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights as it denied the right to a fair hearing. The DWP appealed, but lost that in 2016.

Finally, in June 2018, employment minister Alok Sharma was forced to issue a ‘remedial order’. Those people whose appeals were pending at the time of the emergency legislation will automatically have their withheld benefits returned.

DWP to refund almost £2m

A Freedom of Information request by blogger Frank Zola has now revealed the scale of the repayment. The DWP says it estimates that between 3789-4305 people will have money refunded. The total amount is expected to be between £1.69-1.87m.

Unfortunately, the thousands of people who were sanctioned but who had not made an appeal by the time of the 2013 ruling, cannot claim.

The DWP said:

Sanctions are an important part of a fair and effective welfare system… It would be unfair and unacceptable that claimants who have failed to take all reasonable steps to increase their chances of finding work obtained advantage over claimants who complied with the benefit conditionality requirements.

Moving goalposts

In 2015, the government announced it would not be renewing the mandatory work activity scheme. But there’s no justice for the tens of thousands of people who lost millions in benefits because of the scheme but didn’t appeal before the DWP moved the goalposts.

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