How did the Labour Party ever find itself supporting a piece of Coalition legislation that, according to its own members, was “the result of an abuse of power and incompetence, mixed with an ideological drive to run down our welfare state”, “a typical component of oppressive regimes”, and something that “undermines the judiciary and the rule of law”?
According to Liam Byrne, it’s because the government’s power to impose sanctions on jobseekers who don’t do their bit to find work needs to be protected; also because amendments had been introduced to protect the power of appeal with good cause, and because there is to be an independent report on the matter. That’s not enough.
Labour MPs who abstained from voting on the issue, or who voted with the government, should not only hang their heads in shame but fear deselection by their local constituency parties. If they won’t stand up for the low-waged and unwaged workers of this country, they should not be allowed to stand for Parliament.
We are, of course, discussing the Jobseekers (back to work schemes) Bill, passed in such injudicious haste by the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Let’s look at the issues. The legislation was brought before Parliament after the government lost a case in the Court of Appeal on February 11. The ruling was that the regulations under which jobseekers had been sanctioned for refusing to carry out Mandatory Work Activity or Workfare schemes were themselves illegal, laying the Department for Work and Pensions, and its Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, open to legal action by any of those jobseekers wishing to claim the money that was illegally taken from them.
Instead of admitting his mistake and paying up, Mr Smith chose to create a law that would legalise his actions retrospectively. This is an appalling abuse of governmental power.
This was not done in order to improve the law or the position of British citizens in relation to it. It was done for the worst possible reason: to save some money.
Employment Minister Mark Hoban gets wheeled out whenever Mr Smith has work to do that he finds too embarrassing to carry out himself – therefore he has been receiving a large amount of exposure in Westminster of late. It was he who told Parliament, and the British public, that “the Bill will ensure that the taxpayer does not have to repay previous benefit sanctions to claimants who have failed to participate in certain employment programmes, and it ensures that we can properly impose sanctions for such failures. Without this Bill, the cost to the taxpayer would be up to £130 million”. He added later that “it is vital that, in the present economic climate, the public purse be protected from such claims.
Is it? Or is it vital to the Conservative-led Coalition government that it is protected from the embarrassment of having to admit that these people deserve to have their money back, and it is poor administration of ill-conceived jobseeker schemes that has created this issue?
“The reality is that our schemes are helping to get people back into work,” Hoban claimed, against the evidence. “It is vital that people who are looking for work are given help to get into work, and we are offering that. Up to the end of September, 200,000 people found work as a consequence of the Work programme.” This is not strictly true. See previous Vox Political articles on the failure of Mandatory Work Activity, Workfare and the Work Programme. A strategy that had, as its low target, finding lasting employment for five per cent of users did not even manage half that staggeringly unambitious total.
“To allow people not to take part in [these schemes] is breaking a contract between us and the unemployed,” he said, conveniently ignoring the fact that any contract between the government and a private individual is perverted before it is even entered. What sanctions can a jobseeker bring against a government that reneges on its contract, as was proven in the case of Wilson and Reilly, when the government can legislate to remove its liability?
“We give them the support that they need to get back into work,” or rather they give money to work programme providers who take it and do the absolute minimum, see previous Vox Political articles, “and we expect them to take up that offer of support. If they do not take up that offer, it is right that they are penalised.” Even if they have a good reason? His argument had so many holes he should have been wearing it as a string vest.
“The unemployment rate in the UK is below the average of the eurozone and the European Union,” he prattled on. Does that figure include people on Mandatory Work Activity? Of course not – the government removes those people from the figures, claiming by the omission that they are in work – but if they are not receiving minimum wage, how can that be right? There should be no claim that they are in work at all if they are only getting Jobseekers’ Allowance. Mr Hoban claimed that the Office of National Statistics insists on this for reasons of “international consistency” – an excuse.
“We are seeing one of the fastest rates of job creation in the developed world and we have record numbers of people in work,” he said. Is that part-time work? Full-time work is very hard to find and the government is doing nothing to promote it other than jeopardising part-time workers’ positions by pushing them to ask for more hours.
“And record numbers of women in work.” Down by 5,000 in the last month, according to figures released the following day.
“Our policies to help people into work are effective.” No. They are not.
“We have seen the effectiveness of our welfare reforms — 230,000 fewer people are claiming out-of-work benefits than they were in May 2010 — and they have contributed to an increase in the numbers of people in work,” said Mr Hoban. “People are coming into the labour market and finding jobs.” Are they? Or is the government’s system of unfair – and currently illegal – sanctions stopping people’s claims from being registered? The weight of evidence suggests the latter – and this could be another reason for this pitifully poor excuse for legislation.
“When a person signs on to receive jobseeker’s allowance, they accept that they have certain responsibilities. It could be called a contract between the jobseeker and the taxpayer. We will offer a huge amount of support to jobseekers, including help to search for jobs” – this would be the Universal Jobmatch online jobsearch programme which is universally derided as it is riddled with identity theft schemes, open to data mining from even the poorest of hackers and bereft of any major job opportunities – “work experience” – the schemes that enrich work programme providers and those companies and charities that don’t want to pay even the minimum wage, while removing jobseekers from activity that could help them into a useful, long-term career – “and jobseeker’s allowance. That is our part of the deal. The jobseekers’ part of the contract is to take up the help that we offer.” Considering the drawbacks of the government’s side of this contract – as outlined above, why would anybody accept those conditions unless they were given no choice?
And in a supposedly free country, why is the government forcing such poor conditions on people who need real support to get the previously-mentioned useful, long-term career?
“For that group of people, it is right that we have the power to mandate them on to different back-to-work schemes, which we think will help them improve their chances of finding work,” said Mr Hoban. That’s interesting – schemes they think will help people improve their chances of finding work. Is the government, then, required to state its reasons for thinking particular schemes will improve a particular jobseeker’s chances of finding work? If not, why not? It can hardly be said to be living up to its side of a fair contract if the contract it offers is no help to the other participant.
Mr Hoban then damned the Labour front bench with the following words: “I am grateful for the constructive way in which the right hon. Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions) and for East Ham (Stephen Timms, shadow employment minister) have approached this topic. In supporting the Bill, they have allowed us to expedite its progress, thus safeguarding taxpayers’ money.” So the Labour employment team supported this travesty. We can infer from his words that Labour was blackmailed into giving support, under threat of seeing £130 million removed from the current benefit budget to pay claims for back-benefit. But that’s not what was said. Hoban said Byrne and Timms were “supporting the Bill” in a “constructive way”. My conclusion is that the Labour frontbenchers conspired with the Coalition on this.
Mr Timms’ words seem to confirm this: “We do not want to risk an additional £130 million cut to benefit spending over the period ahead, particularly not on a day on which it has emerged that the Government want to cut £2.5 billion from spending across Government, some of it doubtless from the budget of the Minister and the Secretary of State. Nor do we want to be in a position in which people who were sanctioned months ago — in many cases, well over a year ago — have to be refunded.”
In other words, it’s all about the money.
Mr Byrne also gave his approval to the Bill, as a tool allowing the government to impose draconian sanctions. “I do believe that the DWP should be equipped with the power to issue sanctions,” he said. “However, nor do I believe they should be in the ether — in the hands of ministers who have no obligation to put in place genuine back-to-work programmes that are better than doing nothing, unlike today’s Work programme.” This is confusing. Why support it, then?
He said amendments agreed with Labour included the commission of an independent report, to be brought before Parliament within 12 months, after which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions would have an unspecified period to consider its findings. This is unsatisfactory as he could delay any response forever. If this is the carrot the Coalition used to gain Labour’s support, it lacks nutritional value.
Also, the grounds of good cause in respect of appeals will remain undisturbed and will include an unsuitable course, full-time study, health and caring reasons, travel time that is inappropriately long, religious belief, bereavement, attending court and other emergencies, while the timetable for lodging appeals will remain at 13 months. The DWP breaks these rules already on a regular basis. The House of Commons heard, during this very debate, the tale of a woman who was offered work experience too far from her home. When she requested a posting that was easier to attend, she was refused and sanctioned for breaking her “contract” with the government.
It simply wasn’t enough to justify a law that violates justice to such a catastrophic extent.
Byrne and Timms should have listened to their own backbenchers. They made their arguments against the Bill abundantly clear.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth), said: “The Bill is a new low for the Government. It is the result of an abuse of power and incompetence, mixed with an ideological drive to run down our welfare state. I, for one, do not support it.
“Not only are the Government trying to push through retrospective legislation that undermines the judiciary and the rule of law, with all the appalling implications that that has; I believe that the Bill is part of the divide-and-rule narrative that underpins the Government’s ideology. They are again pointing the finger at the undeserving poor. They are emaciating our hard-fought-for welfare system on the convenient back of austerity. I believe in our country and our people. I believe that in good times and bad the welfare system is there to protect them. There will always be a few who abuse that system and we need to have measures in place to prevent that. However, the Bill goes beyond the pale and I, for one, will fight this emaciation of our welfare system.”
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) pointed out: “It is unfair to claimants to legalise, retroactively, penalties that the Court has judged unlawful… It is of constitutional concern if the DWP undermines the judiciary and the rule of law by using retroactive legislation to avoid accountability for its own errors… Other civil liberty groups and human rights campaigners have today explained to the press… that they believe this type of retrospective legislation is a typical component of oppressive regimes…they said that 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’.
“It has been correctly argued that the Bill would set a dangerous legal precedent if passed, and send a message that when citizens defeat the Government in court, the Government can overturn the Court ruling retrospectively with primary legislation — effectively making the Government, and the DWP, above the law.”
Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway): “In life, when things regrettably go wrong, we have to face the consequences. I firmly believe that the Government should be facing the consequences in respect of this £130 million penalty. Can the Minister tell me exactly how many of these people were, like Reilly and Wilson, innocent? I think that a fair number of those 300,000 should have had their money repaid to them.”
Grahame Morris (Easington): “The Government, and especially Government backbenchers, have characterised jobseekers who have been sanctioned as workshy and feckless — the sentiment expressed was ‘Are you really suggesting these people shouldn’t be sanctioned?’ Let us have a look at the Work programme, however. It has gone from chaos to farce. We talk about ‘workshy’, but what about wage-shy employers who exploit the unemployed, with the connivance, approval and funding of the Government?
“The programme has … had the perverse effect of blocking real jobs.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas added: “This is a multi-billion pound failed flagship scheme, which was condemned by the Public Affairs Committee as extremely poor. Having lost a case and fearing that they will lose the appeal, the Government, instead of respecting our justice system, are abusing our emergency procedures to fix the consequences of losing. Does that show not a shocking disrespect both for our courts and for the principle that workers should be paid the minimum wage?” Labour supporters will no doubt be asking why Parliament needs a Green MP to make these valuable points in favour of justice and workers’ wages.
Angus Brendan MacNeil of the SNP sealed the argument when he asked, “Is it not the case that it is not only the low-paid, but the non-paid that Labour are not backing? By sitting on their hands, Labour members are helping the Government to ensure that the people who are already being affected – by the bedroom tax – get no further support.
“It is worse than two bald men fighting over a comb.”
Travesty though it was, the Bill was passed with only 57 votes against it at the second reading, and 52 against it at the third.
Below are the names of the MPs who voted with their consciences, to block the Bill. If you are a Labour Party member, and you have a Labour MP, consider this: The selection process for future Parliamentary candidates is beginning, with a view to the 2015 election. If your MP’s name does not appear below, should they really be in Parliament? Or should a new name be chosen – that of someone who can show that they genuinely stand for the rights of the common British citizen, whoever they may be, low or high?
Here are the names; you decide.
Anderson, Mr David
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Campbell, Mr Gregory
Crausby, Mr David
Davidson, Mr Ian
Dodds, rh Mr Nigel
Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.
Glindon, Mrs Mary
Godsiff, Mr Roger
Goggins, rh Paul
Havard, Mr Dai
Healey, rh John
Howarth, rh Mr George
Leech, Mr John
Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn
MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
McCrea, Dr William
Meacher, rh Mr Michael
Moon, Mrs Madeleine
Morris, Grahame M.
Riordan, Mrs Linda
Ritchie, Ms Margaret
Sheerman, Mr Barry
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry
Weir, Mr Mike
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Winnick, Mr David