Depending on which paper you read this morning, the government’s work experience scheme is either heading for the plug hole or going from strength to strength. The Guardian has an editorial praising Cait Reilly, the geology graduate who fought the workfare scheme she found herself on, The Telegraph says workfare can ‘still do the job for Britain’, and The Sun carries a bullish piece by Iain Duncan Smith on why the scheme is not ‘slave labour’.
The problem is that everyone has managed to interpret yesterday’s Court of Appeal judgement as favouring their own view of the scheme. Reilly emerged yesterday with her lawyer to claim victory, but the Work and Pensions department seemed relatively unperturbed, too. This case was well-known for the claim that putting people on jobseeker’s allowance on placements in Poundland was ‘forced labour’, so the assumption was that the government had lost the case on this point. This would have ended the work experience scheme for good.
But the court judgement actually backs the schemes overall. It says:
‘A policy of imposing requirements on persons receiving a substantial weekly sum, potentially payable for life, is readily understandable. Equally, the means sought to achieve that end are understandable; claimants should be required to participate in arrangements which may improve their prospects of obtaining remunerative employment.’
It added that ‘the entitlement to receive the weekly sum should depend on’ claimants co-operating with the government’s attempts to help them seek employment.
Where the government fell down was on the technical point that it hadn’t described these schemes in its regulations, and those regulations were ruled unlawful. This is awkward for the government, but not terribly awkward, as the useful thing about regulations is they are easy to change. So before the day was out, ministers had already tabled new regulations on the government’s work experience programme, even though the department is appealing the judgement.
The real problem is that the department may, after this judgement, have to repay the benefits that it docked from those who refused to take part in these schemes. But a DWP spokeswoman was pretty bullish on this, too, arguing that she didn’t expect the government to have to pay this money in the end:
‘We have a range of options that we’ll bring before Parliament. We are just working through with lawyers on what we have to do.’
So whether you view this as a victory or a loss for the government depends on your view of its welfare-to-work policies. If you disagree with the work experience scheme on the principle that paying someone benefits and expecting them to do work experience as a means of helping them into the workplace is ‘forced labour’, then you’ll be disappointed as this was rejected. You might be pleased that ministers have been ordered to tighten up the foundations for the scheme, and it isn’t helpful for the government to have weaknesses identified by a court. But if you expect this scheme to end as a result of Cait Reilly’s court action, then you probably need to re-read the judgement. If you’re a fan of the schemes, well, your biggest worry might be that the department still has a fight on its hands to avoid paying back the benefits. But the schemes are still here, and not heading down the plug hole any time soon.