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By Bishop of Leeds
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At this time of national crisis, we need the Department for Work and Pensions to be supportive not punitive

Seema Malhotra says a "punitive culture" has prevailed at the DWP

4 min read

The DWP has been ruled to be acting incompatibly with human rights legislation. The government must learn from this case – and work to build an improved system which supports people into employment

This week, Parliament passed legislation that will re-instate the right to a fair hearing for jobseekers, who between 2011 and 2013 had lodged an appeal of a sanction decision but who had the right to have their appeal heard removed by the 2013 Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013.

I welcomed this legislation, but it is extraordinary that we got here in the first place – and has been the result of a punitive DWP culture that has prevailed since the days of the Tory-led Coalition Government.

The Remedial Order passed on Tuesday is a route through which an Act of Parliament can be amended when there is an incompatibility between domestic law and a right under the European Convention on Human Rights. The cases in question go back to 2012, when Caitlin Reilly, an unemployed geology graduate, and Jamieson Wilson, an unemployed driver, brought a legal challenge against the Department for Work and Pensions on the basis that it had forced claimants to take on unpaid work for private companies or risk having their benefits cut through being sanctioned.

Ms Reilly was told by her jobcentre advisor that if she did not attend an unpaid work placement in a Poundland store, she would be sanctioned, and her Jobseekers Allowance would be cut. Yet at the time, Ms Reilly has just completed a paid work experience placement at a museum, where she continued to volunteer with ambitions of pursuing a career in the field.

There were consequences as a result of the Department’s instructions, which in the case of Ms Reilly were contrary to what the purpose should have been: helping her get back into the employment she sought. In contrast to Labour’s approach, which provided young jobseekers with paid opportunities through the Future Jobs Fund and engaged with employers for sustainable and fulfilling work opportunities, Ms Reilly was forced to give up her voluntary work in a museum, an industry in which she wished to pursue a career.

The Court of Appeal later ruled that the instructions she had been given were unlawful as the description of the schemes and the notices given to her were both insufficiently clear.

Following the ruling, the Department for Work and Pensions passed the 2013 Act, which meant that any decision to sanction a claimant could not be challenged on the grounds that the regulations in the earlier court case were invalid, or the notices given under them inadequate.

In 2016 the Court of Appeal ruled this legislation was incompatible with Article 6(1) rights of claimants who had a pending appeal against a sanction under the existing Regulations at the time the 2013 Act came into force.

The Government, in bringing forward the remedial order, has said it takes a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights seriously. But this case raises questions about both the quality of work support and the sanctions culture, punitive rather than enabling – with lessons that are important for today.

Moreover, it demonstrates the culture of a national politics that opts to fight citizens who win in the courts including taking away the rights of others to appeal, rather than learn from the rulings about what systemic change may be needed to improve the system and its goals of supporting people into employment.

It is also a matter of concern at the length of time it has taken – 18 months after the Joint Committee on Human Rights first reported on the matter and eight years since the initial court action.

An estimated 5,000 claimants from the time are affected. Behind these statistics are people who will have had their appeals and their life on hold, with all the stress and strain that this will have causes for themselves and their families.

The Minister has committed to starting the process of case reviews this autumn, with a view to them being concluded in twelve months. The concern now however is with how well the Government will mark its own homework – as the amendment gives the Secretary of State the power to supersede sanction decisions where possible, so that the claimant no longer needs to continue the appeal through the Tribunal system.

That’s why it is vital the Government set out how it plans identify, communicate with, compensate, and resolve any disputes for those affected, as well the timeframe in which it will do so.

The Department for Work and Pensions must learn from this case, including not re-introducing benefit sanctions at a time when there are nine jobseekers for every vacancy. To do so is unnecessary and incomprehensible. At this time of national crisis, we need the DWP to be supportive not punitive.

Seema Malhotra MP is the Shadow Minister for Employment

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