Tag Archives: Public Interest Lawyers

This benefits bully harasses the powerless but runs away from criticism

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Several months ago this blog accused Iain Duncan Smith of being a liar and a coward because, not only had he fabricated statistics on the number of people leaving benefits because of his new benefit cap, but he had also weaseled his way out of an appearance before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee to account for this behaviour.

The very next day, we had to apologise (to readers) and publish a correction saying that the man we call ‘Returned To Unit’ would be attending a follow-up meeting in September, at which the 100,000-signature petition calling him to account for the benefit cap lies, organised by Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers, would also be presented to MPs.

Apparently the meeting was being timed to coincide with publication of the DWP’s annual report for 2012-13.

Now it is November, and we have still had no meeting with RTU. Nor have we seen the annual report, which is now almost eight months late. Meanwhile the calamities at the DWP have been mounting up.

The latest appears in a Guardian report published yesterday, about the ongoing disaster that is Universal Credit. You may remember, Dear Reader, that the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted it had to write off £34 million that had been spent on the scheme; it subsequently emerged that the total amount to be written off might actually be as high as £161 million.

The Guardian article appears to confirm this, adding £120 million to the £34 already written off if the DWP follows one of two possible plans to take the nightmarish scheme forward.

This would restart Universal Credit from scratch, creating a system based on the Internet – and reducing the need for Job Centre staff – and tends to confirm the suggestion that staff are seen as a liability in the government’s plan to cut back on benefit payments; despite being told to bully, harass and intimidate everyone who darkens their doors, they have an annoying inclination to help people claim the benefits due to them.

The other plan would attempt to salvage the existing system, and is understood to be favoured by the Secretary-in-a-State. The drawback is that it could lead to an even greater waste of taxpayers’ money (not that this has ever been a consideration for Mr… Smith in the past. He’ll waste millions like water while depriving people of the pennies they need to survive).

Universal Credit aims to merge six major benefits and tax credits into one, restricting eligibility for the new benefit in order to cut down on payouts. It relies on the government creating a computer programme that can synchronise systems run by HM Revenue and Customs, the DWP itself, and employers. So far, this has proved impossible and a planned rollout in April was restricted to just one Job Centre, where staff handled only the simplest claims and worked them out on paper. Later revelations showed that the system as currently devised has no way of weeding out fraudulent claims.

A leaked risk assessment says the web-based scheme is “unproven… at this scale”, and that it would not be possible to roll out the new system “within the preferred timescale”. Smith has continually maintained that it will be delivered on time and on budget but, as concerns continue to be raised by senior civil servants that systems are not working as expected and there are too many design flaws, it seems likely this is a career-ending claim.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the Work and Pensions Committee?

Earlier this week, the government lost its appeal against a court ruling that its regulations for Workfare and other mandatory work activity schemes were illegal. Public Interest Lawyers, who handled the case against the government, has taken the view that anyone who fell foul of the regulations may now take action to get their money back. But the matter is complicated by the fact that the government unwisely passed a retrospective law to legalise the rules, in a bid to stop the 228,000 benefit claimants it had sanctioned after they refused to work for their benefits from demanding the money that ministers had – in effect – stolen from them. Iain Duncan Smith is the man behind this mess.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the committee?

We have yet to learn why this man felt justified in claiming 8,000 – and then 12,000 – people had left benefits because of the £26,000 cap he introduced in April (he claimed it is equal to average family income but in fact it is £5,000 and change short of that amount as he failed to consider benefits that such families could draw). Information from polling company Ipsos Mori showed that the real number of people who had dropped their claims after hearing of the scheme was more likely to be 450 – just nine per cent of the figure he originally quoted.

Is this why he hasn’t put a meeting with the committee in his diary?

Perhaps we should not be surprised, though – it seems that RTU has never had a decent grip on the way his department works. For example, he allowed George Osborne to cancel Disability Living Allowance for one-fifth of claimants in 2010, claiming that the benefit had been “spiralling” out of control because it had 3.1 million claimants – triple the number since it was introduced in 1992. Smith said the rise was “inexplicable” but in fact the explanation is simplicity itself, as The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee pointed out just two days ago:

“DLA is only paid to those of working age, but when they retire they keep it, so as more people since 1992 move into retirement, numbers rise fast. There has been no change in numbers with physical conditions, despite a larger population; back injuries have declined with the decline of heavy industry. There has been a real growth in numbers with learning disabilities: more premature babies survive but with disabilities, while those with Down’s syndrome no longer die young. More people with mental illness claim DLA now, following changes in case law: there has been no increase in mental illness, with 7% of the population seriously ill enough to be receiving treatment, yet only 1% claim DLA. Psychosis is the commonest DLA diagnosis, hardly a trivial condition. This pattern of disability mirrors the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with nothing exceptional here.”

In other words, from the moment he took over this hugely important government department, with its huge – and controversial – budget, Iain Duncan Smith had about as much understanding of its workings as a child.

It seems Sir John Major was exactly right when he expressed fears about the DWP Secretary’s ability last week, claiming his genius “has not been proven”.

Is this why we’ve seen neither hide nor … head of the Secretary of State?

Finally, Dear Reader, you will be aware that Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request to the DWP, asking for up-to-date statistics on the number of Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died during a claim or while appealing against a decision about a claim – and that the request was dismissed on the indefensible grounds that it was “vexatious”. This was not good enough so the matter went to the Information Commissioner’s office and, according to an email received this week, will soon be brought to a conclusion.

Is this why Iain Duncan Smith is hiding?

Perhaps it’s time to drag him out of his bolt-hole and force some answers out of him.

Jayne (Linney), in her blog, has called on people who use Twitter to start tweeting demands for Smith to come forward, using the hashtags #whereisIDS and #DWPLateReview. This is good, and those of you who do so are welcome to use any of the information in this article as ammunition in such a campaign.

There is nothing to stop anyone writing to the press – local or national – to ask what is going on and why benefit claimants are being left in suspense about the future of their claims. People have to work out how they will pay their bills, and the continued uncertainty caused by Mr… Smith’s catalogue of calamities is causing problems up and down the country.

A short message to your MP might help stir the Secretary of State out of his slumber, also.

In fact, let’s use all the tools at our disposal to expose this man for what he is – just as this blog stated in July and in May: A liar and a coward who has committed contempt of Parliament and should be expelled – not just from public office, but from public life altogether.

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Defeated again over work schemes: Iain Duncan Smith loses his case in court

Victory at last: The Supreme Court's ruling means vindication for Cait Reilly, who has spent nearly two years battling against a system that costs the taxpayer millions while failing to increase employment.

Victory at last: The Supreme Court’s ruling means vindication for Cait Reilly, who has spent nearly two years battling against a system that costs the taxpayer millions while failing to increase employment.

It’s a return to the drawing-board for the man we call ‘Returned To Unit’ after the Supreme Court ruled against Iain Duncan Smith’s Workfare appeal.

The five Supreme Court justices upheld a Court of Appeal decision, made against the government in February.

The case had been brought by Cait Reilly, a geology graduate who, while unemployed but volunteering at a local museum in order to gain experience towards getting a curator’s job, had been ordered by the Department for Work and Pensions to work for her benefits, stacking shelves at Poundland.

It should be remembered that Poundland is perfectly capable of employing its own workers on full wages. At the time, it ran 390 stores nationwide and made £21,500,000 profit in 2010 – enough to employ extra staff at all its branches and still make a good profit.

The amount it was saving by not paying Ms Reilly, coupled with the fiscal multiplier that adds around 60p to every pound she would have earned if she had been an employee, means Poundland could have made a £1,188.48 profit from the work she was doing for the firm at the taxpayers’ expense.

Total profit for all companies using benefit recipients on ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ between June 2011 and July 2012 (878,000 people): £894, 416, 090 – nearly £1 billion.

Loss to the taxpayer: £16,933,000 (not including payments to Work Provider companies).

Together with another claimant, Jamieson Wilson, Ms Reilly brought a judicial review against the scheme, claiming it was a violation of human rights under article 4 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights: “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour” – and the government lost the case.

Mr Justice Foskett stated: “Her original complaint arose from what she was wrongly told was a compulsory placement on a scheme that (a) impeded her voluntary efforts to maintain and advance her primary career ambition and (b) having embarked upon it, from her perspective, did not offer any worthwhile experience on an alternative career path. It is not difficult to sympathise with her position from that point of view.”

At the time (August 2012), the right-wing media slanted their reports to make it seem that Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson had lost, but this was soon rectified because the government appealed against the ruling, which stated that, if Ms Reilly had been properly informed of the regulations, she would not have been led to believe she was being put into forced labour.

The problem for Mr… Smith was that Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson were not the only ones to have been misled in this way, and the ruling opened up the government to claims for compensation, from thousands of benefit claimants, for millions of pounds that had been taken away from them because they had refused to take part in the ‘work-for-benefits’ schemes. The illegality of the regulations meant the DWP, under Iain Duncan Smith’s supervision, had broken the law more than 228,000 times – RTU is a criminal more than a quarter of a million times over.

In any case, evidence quickly piled up, proving that Workfare doesn’t work. During its first 14 months, only 3.53 per cent of jobseekers who took part in the government’s mandatory work activity programme – of which Workfare is a part – actually found a job for six months or more. They would have had a better chance of finding a job if the work programme had not existed.

This did not prevent the Department for Work and Pensions from appealing against the ruling and, in February, the Court of Appeal responded – by upholding the claim that the scheme was unlawful.

This meant that anyone who was penalised for refusing to take part, or for leaving the scheme once they had started it and realised what it was, could claim back the Jobseekers’ Allowance that had been withdrawn from them for non-compliance. The payout could have been as high as £130 million.

Smith wasn’t going to have any of that! He launched emergency legislation to reverse the outcome of the decision and change the regulations retrospectively, making it impossible for benefit claimants to demand payouts of between £530 and £570 each for decisions made while the illegal rules were in force.

Lawyers and campaigners branded the DWP’s move as “repugnant” and “unbelievably disgusting”, saying it undermined the rule of law. This blog concurs with that assessment. It is an appalling abuse of governmental power.

But the government succeeded in undermining the rule of law after all but a few members of the Labour Party allowed it to pass, having negotiated a few “safeguards” that have proved to be useless in practice.

Fortunately, some people have a little more backbone and Ms Reilly and Mr Wilson took their case to the Supreme Court. It is from this body that today’s – final – judgement has come.

Now comes the nitty-gritty.

After the introduction of the emergency law, the solicitors Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), who represent Reilly and Wilson, lodged a judicial review accusing RTU of conspiring to undermine basic human rights by enacting the retroactive legislation. They say they will continue to pursue that judicial review after their success in the supreme court.

A spokesperson for PIL said: “Following today’s judgment, any… jobseekers can object to sanctions that have been imposed and seek the repayment of their benefits. It is truly staggering that Duncan Smith has found himself in this position even after fast-tracking emergency retrospective legislation through parliament. We intend to work with advice organisations to ensure that, following this ruling, affected individuals have the right information and assistance.”

It seems the firm believes the retrospective part of the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act 2013 is no longer valid. That means all 228,000 Workfare victims who were penalised by the DWP will be able to claim their compensation and force the £130 million payout.

Not only that, but it seems reasonable that a legal penalty should be imposed on ‘RTU’ himself. Not only did he enforce the schemes under the illegal regulations, but he also imposed a lengthy and costly legal battle on those who stood up against it, even though it had been found to be wrong in law.

Who knows how much hardship this has caused to people who were already on the breadline before his brutal sanctions were imposed?

How much despair has he caused to people who had no other means of support?

Has anybody died because of this – through health problems, mental health issues leading to suicide, or for other reasons?

It is time for the people who have been most seriously affected by this to get together and start talking to lawyers – Public Interest Lawyers might be a good place to start – about getting restitution from the man who caused this mess.

The taxpayer may well have to foot the bill for the illegal benefit sanctions, and that is only right. They should never have been imposed in the first place and this will only set matters straight.

But the individual minister who caused this should not get away without paying a personal penalty.

Let’s have some accountability in government, Mr… Smith.

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Perverting the course of justice: Once a crime, now government policy

Chequebook justice: Your unelected government wants to ensure that nobody can challenge its policies and decisions - by putting justice within the reach of only the wealthy.

Chequebook justice: Your unelected government wants to ensure that nobody can challenge its policies and decisions – by putting justice within the reach of only the wealthy.

David Cameron and Chris Grayling have been messing with the justice system again. This time, according to The Telegraph, they are planning to make it “tougher” for judicial reviews to be brought to court, to stop the process being “abused” by pressure groups and campaigners.

There’s a lot of Telegraph-speak in that first paragraph, as the Tory-supporting newspaper was working desperately to make governmental perversion of justice acceptable. What this actually means is that Cameron wants to make it impossible for organisations that are capable of mounting legal opposition to unreasonable Conservative/Coalition policies ever to do so.

The only people able to seek judicial reviews of government policy would be individuals who are directly affected – and the government is hoping that these mostly poor people would be unable to afford the cost, thanks to changes in Legal Aid that mean it could not be claimed for welfare or employment cases.

You see how this works? With those changes to Legal Aid and the possibility of wholesale privatisation of the entire court system, where justice was once open to everyone, it will soon be a privilege available only to the wealthiest in the UK.

To Cameron, and his crony Grayling, justice isn’t for you. In fact, it won’t be for anyone. The UK will be about money and power, just as Michael Meacher stated in his recent blog article.

So, for example: The ‘Poundland’ case, which The Guardian reported was to be heard in the Supreme Court yesterday (Monday). The original judicial review was launched in the names of Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, who were both directly affected – but were both unemployed and penniless, and therefore could not afford to take the case to court on their own. Their case was brought with the aid of Public Interest Lawyers – who would most likely be barred from taking part, being considered a pressure group with no direct interest in the matter.

The original case resulted in the government taking the unusual – and highly suspect (in legal terms) – step of passing an emergency retroactive law to legalise its employment schemes, after the tribunal ruled that all of the Coalition’s schemes were acting illegally and opened the government up to a potential £130 million worth of claims for wrongfully-withheld benefits.

PIL has now started a second judicial review – on the retrospective law – claiming it undermines its clients’ right to justice and violates article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under the new procedures this, too, would be inadmissible.

On the same lines, the judicial review that ruled (in May) that the test used to decide whether people are fit for work actively discriminates against the mentally ill, brought by the Black Triangle Campaign with the charities MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, would also be inadmissible.

So we have examples in which it is clearly in the interests of justice for new laws to be challenged – but which would be blocked outright under Cameron and Grayling’s plan.

According to The Telegraph, “Ministers plan to change the test for applying for a review so that only people with a direct link to policies or decision can challenge it, rather than anyone with a ‘sufficient interest.’

“The concerns echo those of the Prime Minister who previously said the judicial review process was slowing the country’s economic growth as well.”

In fairness, the paper adds: “There are fears that changing the judicial review process could lead to government decisions going unchecked, and charities have also raised concerns about not being able to use the process to challenge decisions and ensure the government is meeting its obligations.”

Meanwhile, Unison has been given leave to launch a judicial review of the introduction of fees for workers seeking employment tribunals.

The BBC reported that people wanting to bring tribunals must now pay a fee for the first time since they were created in the 1960s. It will cost £160 to lodge a claim for matters such as unpaid invoices, with a further charge of £230 if it goes ahead.

More serious claims, such as for unfair dismissal, would cost £250 to lodge, and a further £950 if the case goes ahead.

The plan here is clearly to make it impossible for an unfairly-sacked worker to take a firm to judicial review; how many poorly-paid working class people (and remember, wages have fallen by nine per cent since the credit crunch) have twelve hundred quid knocking around in their back pockets?

“The introduction of punitive fees for taking a claim to an employment tribunal would give the green light to unscrupulous employers to ride roughshod over already basic workers’ rights,” Unison general secretary Dave Prentis told the BBC.

“We believe that these fees are unfair and should be dropped.”

The judicial review will take place in October. Considering Lord Judge’s recent change of heart over privatisation of the courts, it’s a safe bet that by then the government will have ‘persuaded’ any judges hearing the case to support the new charges.

As Mr Meacher wrote: David Cameron’s instincts are “that there is no such thing as the rule of law, and that the only things that ultimately matter are power, fear and money”.