Grasping at straws: the government attempts to deflect criticism from workfare outcry

by richardhutton

The government received a major upset this week, as its Workfare regulations were declared unlawful. Unfortunately, the roseate response to this ruling by opponents of Workfare is wide of the mark. A lot of people campaigning against Workfare have taken the Court of Appeal ruling to signify a real, effective change that will stop the government forcing people to work without pay. But Workfare itself has not been declared illegal – it is set to continue. As one of the judges stated: “This appeal is solely about the lawfulness of the Regulations made by the Secretary of State in purported pursuance of the powers granted by the 1995 Act as amended”.

What has happened is that the regulations of the Jobseeker’s Allowance Act of 2011 were declared unlawful: which means that the government has been acting outside of the law since then, and above Parliamentary accountability, in its mistreatment of people seeking work. This is the real key fact which has been largely ignored. One very important question needs asking in light of the following statement made by the Court of Appeal: “these regulations interpret the Act very broadly so that future changes to the Scheme could be made administratively without any reference to Parliament”. In other words, the Department for Work and Pensions was able to place itself above Parliamentary accountability. Why didn’t the official opposition object to this? The most likely answer is that nobody of consequence was strongly opposed to the government abusing people who are unemployed.

Predictably, rather than accept that they had been acting unlawfully, the government’s immediate response was to blame their predecessors, and intimate that their own exploitation of people seeking work would carry on – if not expand. Instead of defending his own Workfare policies, Iain Duncan Smith was quoted by the Telegraph claiming that the Labour government’s Workfare programmes had fallen short of the Coalition’s achievements:

 “When the recession hit, Labour were not prepared and that extended right into Jobcentres. Then prime minister, Gordon Brown, decreed that Jobcentre Plus should not employ any more staff despite the sharp incline in numbers losing their jobs.

This led to huge pressures on staff and Labour gerrymandering the jobless figures by moving unemployed people from one category to the next. Employment is rising under this government and unemployment falling as Jobcentre staff help more people into work in this country than ever before”[1].

The hypocrisy of this is pretty staggering: Duncan Smith’s DWP has fired thousands of Job Centre staff[2]; and repeatedly manipulated unemployment data by classifying people on the Work Programme and similar schemes as employed, when they are not[3]. More importantly, Duncan Smith’s claims here are simply not true. The Telegraph attempts to help Duncan Smith pass the buck by quoting a report from the National Audit Office – which it avoids linking to. What this report actually says is that:

“Jobcentres coped with a rapid rise in claimants with limited staff after the start of the economic downturn. Between September 2008 and March 2009 claimant numbers increased by two-thirds (from 0.9 million to 1.5 million). Staff numbers did not significantly increase until April 2009 […] The Department recognised that the surge in claimants would create a temporary increase in workload. It appointed 10,000 jobcentre staff on fixed-term contracts to meet the expected rise in claimants. The proportion of fixed-term staff rose from almost none in 2008 to 25 per cent of full-time equivalent staff by the end of 2009, before falling to below 1 per cent by 2012.” (p. 13-14)

So, the Labour government actually did the opposite of what Duncan Smith and the Telegraph claim: it hired more staff. Needless to say, this bears no relation whatsoever to the rights and wrongs of Workfare. In fact the National Audit Office was highly critical of the current government’s claims about its success in helping people secure employment; recommending that the Department for Work and Pensions “improve how it understands performance, if it is to support claimants effectively. Simply measuring how many people end their claims for benefits does not reveal the true impact of jobcentre services”[4].

For once, Duncan Smith’s dissembling was not the most aggressive defence of Workfare. According to the Telegraph[5]: “Ministers are to order a major crackdown on the workshy by extending back-to-work schemes”. The inevitably anonymous DWP spokespeople were quoted issuing various quite brazenly vindictive statements, and veiled threats; such as:

“A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said they have ‘no intention of giving back money to anyone who has had their benefits removed because they refused to take getting into work seriously […] We want to increase the use of mandatory activity and sanctions for the unemployed as the schemes work …The short, sharp shock is usually enough to get the work-shy back into employment so the plan is to extend the practice, not retreat in the wake of this odd court decision’”.

It was not only the government which reacted to the Court of Appeal judgement in a predictable manner. Its cheerleaders in the media continued to do what they have been doing for the duration of the Welfare Reforms: namely, pretending that people who are unemployed are scroungers, or cheats, in receipt of unfair handouts – which they neither need nor deserve.

The Daily Mail[6] praised the government’s Workfare schemes, claiming that they had helped thousands of people gain employment; as well as recover their self-respect and self-reliance. It also claimed that the ruling was set to cost £40 million, as people who had been unlawfully sanctioned would be entitled to claim the money unfairly denied to them. In reality, no figures exist as to how many Workfare participants have secured employment – let alone as a result of unpaid work. More to the point, the government only has itself to blame for any financial penalties it has incurred. It deliberately misled participants in these Workfare schemes; and sanctioned people on a spurious basis.

The Sun[7] published a letter by Iain Duncan Smith, which distorted the Court of Appeal’s ruling, as well as Cait Reilly’s complaint about unpaid labour. It also printed a thoroughly grovelling editorial[8], praising Duncan Smith’s personal courage.

The Express[9] did what it always does in a moment of panic – refrained from journalism, and quoted somebody from the Taxpayer’s Alliance: “Matthew Sinclair, for the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said the Government must stand by the principle that benefits were a safety net for people ‘not a comfy hammock they can rest in indefinitely at the expense of struggling taxpayers’”.

These false claims about welfare reform are nothing new. They are responsible for inflaming public antipathy towards people seeking work; and make the government’s abuse of unemployed adults seem like a necessary tonic.

The Court of Appeal did not make Workfare illegal: it is set to continue. The official opposition did not oppose the government’s regulations, which undermined Parliamentary accountability, and allowed the Department for Work and Pensions to mistreat people with impunity. The government’s cheerleaders in the media continue to distort reality, and misinform the public about the nature of welfare reforms.