Jobseekers try to overturn law denying them benefit rebates

Lawyers say Iain Duncan Smith undermined jobseekers’ rights with legislation allowing DWP to ignore court judgments

Shiv Malik
The Guardian, Tuesday 11 June 2013 13.22 BST

Iain Duncan Smith and parliament have conspired to undermine the basic rights of hundreds of thousands of jobseekers by enacting retrospective emergency legislation, according to the contents of a legal filing sent to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Lawyers acting on behalf of three jobseekers including Cait Reilly – the unemployed graduate forced to work unpaid in Poundland – are hoping to overturn a controversial law introduced by the DWP in March which allowed the department to ignore court judgments awarding more than £100m in benefits rebates to a quarter of a million jobseekers.

With support from Labour, the jobseekers (back to work schemes) bill was rushed through parliament in just three days in order to strike down a ruling from three appeal court judges who found that half a dozen of the government’s employment schemes, which made jobseekers work unpaid under threat of having benefits stripped, were operating outside of the law.

At the time the DWP said the bill would “protect taxpayers” and would ensure the department “won’t be paying back money to people who didn’t do enough to find work”.

In a 25-page letter submitted before lodging a judicial review in the high court, the solicitors Public Interest Lawyers argue that by retrospectively overturning a court ruling, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, flagrantly denied hundreds of thousands of jobseekers access to justice under article 6 of the European convention on human rights.

They also argue that under the same convention, their clients’ right to property was abused.

One of the claimants in the case, Manuela Aleo, 35, says she was stripped of her jobseeker’s allowance after lodging a complaint to jobcentre managers about being made to work unpaid in the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London.

According to the legal notice, Aleo, who worked in retail for six years in Milan and then as an au pair for around six months in London before becoming unemployed, has run up debts after the month-long sanction imposed earlier this year.

In the letter, her lawyers say: “Ms Aleo wishes to recover the benefits which were unlawfully stripped from her.”

A second claimant, Daniel Hewstone, 28, was sanctioned for almost six months after complaining that he was being made to fork out for his own travel expenses while being made to clean graffiti.

Despite winning an appeal in a social security tribunal which reimbursed his benefits, solicitors argue that Hewstone is being denied justice after the introduction of retroactive legislation overturned that compensation award.

Served upon DWP officials on Tuesday morning, the letter read: “The action of the secretary of state … represents a clear violation of article 6.

“The secretary of state procured parliament’s intervention in order to resolve a judicial review, to which he was a party, in his favour, before its final conclusion.

“Parliament intervened in these proceedings in order to retrospectively supply an interpretation to one of its own previous acts of parliament despite the fact that under the separation of powers it falls to the courts to interpret and apply legislation.”

The letter goes on to say that the emergency legislation “frustrates the rights of the claimants to claim back the subsistence-level benefits which the court of appeal ruled were unlawfully stripped from them and, in the case of Ms Reilly, frustrates her right to claim compensation” for being made to undertake unlawful tasks.

The supreme court has also confirmed that it will hear an appeal mounted by the DWP in the initial case involving Reilly. This is due to be heard in full in July and reopens the possibility that the highest court in the UK could again outlaw all benefit punishments meted out by Duncan’s Smith’s department since 2011.

Tessa Gregory, from Public Interest Lawyers, said her firm would be launching a judicial review in two weeks unless Duncan Smith backed down and repealed the act.

“This was a flagrant abuse of power,” she said. “It interfered in an ongoing judicial process and deprived our clients of their right to claim back what was wrongly taken from them. Contrary to the assurances Iain Duncan Smith gave parliament, the legislation is not compatible with the Human Rights Act and it is in clear breach of EU law.

“Unless the DWP seeks the repeal of the act and accepts that it is unlawful, we will issue judicial review proceedings.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The Jobseekers Act 2013 is about helping as many people off benefits and into work as possible and was supported by parliament. As always we will defend our policies – and the taxpayer – against any potential legal challenge.”


  • theunhivedmind

    DWP seeks law change to avoid benefit repayments after Poundland ruling

    Lawyer for Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, who won court battle over unpaid work, condemns ‘repugnant’ emergency law

    The Guardian, Friday 15 March 2013 14.41 GMT

    The Department for Work and Pensions has introduced emergency legislation to reverse the outcome of a court of appeal decision and “protect the national economy” from a £130m payout to jobseekers deemed to have been unlawfully punished.

    The retroactive legislation, published on Thursday evening and expected to be rushed through parliament on Tuesday, will effectively strike down a decision by three senior judges and deny benefit claimants an average payout of between £530 and £570 each.

    Last month the court of appeal ruled that science graduate Cait Reilly and fellow complainant and unemployed lorry driver Jamieson Wilson had been unlawfully made to work unpaid for organisations including Poundland because the DWP had not given jobseekers enough legal information about what they were being made to do.

    The ruling meant that hundreds of thousands of jobseekers who had been financially penalised for falling foul of half a dozen employment schemes, including the government’s flagship Work Programme, would have been entitled to a full rebate if a final government appeal was rejected by the supreme court.

    However, the government has instead published a seven-page jobseekers (back to work schemes) bill to head off a potential multimillion-pound payout and “protect the national economy”.

    The Guardian understands that Labour will support the fast-tracked bill with some further safeguards and that negotiations with the coalition are ongoing.

    The new bill would also put a stop to any potential claims for the national minimum wage, which could otherwise be due to those who spent weeks working for no pay at high street chains such as Tesco, Matalan and Argos.

    Lawyers and campaigners branded the DWP’s move as “repugnant” and “unbelievably disgusting”, saying it undermined the rule of law.

    Official notes to the bill admit the legislative mess was caused by the court of appeal’s ruling. “The effect of the court’s judgment is that the Department for Work and Pensions had no right to impose a sanction on claimants who had failed to meet their requirements,” they say.

    However, the explanatory notes add: “Once enacted, [the bill] will ensure that any such decisions cannot be challenged on the grounds that the [back to work employment scheme] regulations were invalid … notwithstanding the court of appeal’s judgment. Therefore benefit sanctions already imposed or to be imposed, will stand.”

    A DWP spokesperson said: “This legislation will protect taxpayers and make sure we won’t be paying back money to people who didn’t do enough to find work.”

    Tessa Gregory from Public Interest Lawyers, who successfully represented Reilly and Wilson at the court of appeal, said the legislation smacked of desperation.

    “The emergency bill is a repugnant attempt by the secretary of state for work and pensions to avoid his legal obligation to repay the thousands of jobseekers, who like my client Jamieson Wilson, have been unlawfully and unfairly stripped of their subsistence benefits.

    “The use of retrospective legislation, which is being fast-tracked through parliament, smacks of desperation. It undermines the rule of law and means that Iain Duncan Smith is once again seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of his actions.

    “It is time for his department to admit that maladministration and injustice costs. In light of the bill we are considering what further legal action we can take on behalf of our clients.”

    A spokesperson for Boycott Workfare, a grassroots organisation that has campaigned to stop forced unpaid work schemes, said the move was disgusting. They added that they were shocked that Labour was supporting the move.

    “This is almost unbelievably disgusting. They [the DWP] broke the law, now they want to retroactively change the law so that they didn’t break the law in order to keep £130m out of the pockets of some of the poorest people in the country.

    “The high court found workfare unlawful precisely because people had no way of knowing the rules that applied. It shows an incredible level of arrogance and disregard for the poorest to now attempt to backdate laws to challenge this ruling.”

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