Workfare ruled illegal, but only on narrow terms

A minor victory for campaigners against mandatory work

Cait Reilly, the graduate who was forced to work for free at Poundland, has won her Court of Appeal claim that to do so was unlawful.

Reilly was joined in her appeal by Jamieson Wilson, an unemployed HGV driver who had been required to clean furniture for six months under the government's Community Action Programme. When Wilson refused, he was stripped of his jobseeker's allowance for six months in sanction.

The solicitor for the pair, Tessa Gregory, told the Press Association:

Today's judgment sends Iain Duncan Smith back to the drawing board to make fresh regulations which are fair and comply with the court's ruling.

Until that time nobody can be lawfully forced to participate in schemes affected such as the Work Programme and the Community Action Programme.

All of those who have been stripped of their benefits have a right to claim the money back that has been unlawfully taken away from them.

The ruling is not a universal victory for opponents of the government's workfare programmes, however. It rules that the schemes are illegal on fairly narrow technical grounds to do with the expressed powers of the secretary of state.

The schemes in question did not match with published policy, and Reilly and, in part, Wilson had not been notified correctly about their rights. (Reilly should have been given the option to refuse her scheme, but she was not; Wilson was not informed clearly enough that refusing would result in six months without benefits).

As a result, Mandatory Work Activity, which involved nearly 17,000 people being compelled to do a month's full-time unpaid work between May 2011 and February 2012 alone, is unaffected by the case. And there is every chance that re-drafted legislation could enable the other workfare programs to resume.

Crucially, although the case included a reference to article four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that "no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour," the presiding judge held that that did not add anything to the substantive legal issues at hand, concluding:

Given arrangements properly made under the Act, article 4 would not be engaged.

Similarly, the court finds no overall problem with the concept of unpaid work, arguing that Parliament has the right to create schemes that "are designed to assist the unemployed to obtain employment", and that it is "equally entitled to encourage participation in such schemes by imposing sanctions."

In short, the case was won because the government failed to legislate correctly when introduced the workfare schemes in question. That's a very different, and much less heartening, conclusion than original reports claiming a victory on grounds of "forced labour" suggested.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.