The Cait Reilly case and so-called “workfare”

There are several things which we wish to emphasise in the wake of the recent Court of Appeal decision which questioned the legality of unpaid government work experience schemes, which aim to get unemployed people into work. The actual Court of Appeal decision can be read here. We will be focusing on the case of recent university graduate Cait Reilly as she is the younger of the two claimants and her case raises interesting questions in relation to youth employment policy.

Problems with the case put forward by Cait Reilly

1. One of the grounds for legal action by Reilly was that the Regulations under which these schemes were authorised conflicted with article 4(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights. This provides, subject to some exceptions, that “No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”

This assertion is clearly ridiculous, and has been rightly noted as ridiculous by government ministers. As Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith puts it, “To compare work experience to “slave labour” is hugely insulting to people living in oppression around the world and sneers at hard-working taxpayers who pay for benefits” (a point also made in a more restrained way by Employment Minister Mark Hoban). Unsurprisingly, the Article 4 argument was rejected by the Court of Appeal.

It does Cait Reilly no credit to make that argument and undermines the legitimate complaints that she did have, which is unfortunate given that – as we shall see later – she did have good reasons to complain about her treatment.

2. Reilly claims she was not paid for her work at Poundland. Technically she was – in the form of Jobseeker’s Allowance. Obviously that is not the same as receiving a wage and it goes without saying that it would have been better if she had been paid by Poundland, but her assertion that she received nothing at all in return is simply incorrect.

3. In addition, Reilly claimed that her work at Poundland had been of no use to her. That also does not seem to be a fully accurate statement of the actual position, as she is currently working part-time in a supermarket.

4. Far from being a “victory” for the anti-workfare brigade, this was a victory for the Coalition Government. The Court of Appeal made it clear that: a) the Government was perfectly entitled to run welfare to work schemes; and b) it was entitled to run such schemes with the prospect of sanctions such as removal of Jobseekers Allowance. All the Court of Appeal ruled against the government on was in saying that the technical rules were drawn up incorrectly. As Lord Justice Pill put it:

49.      I readily appreciate the need for flexibility in devising arrangements which will
achieve the statutory purpose of improving prospects of obtaining employment.  The
needs of jobseekers will vary infinitely as will the requirements of providers prepared
to participate in arrangements with them.  I am impressed with the care shown in
attempting to devise arrangements and with the resources devoted to attempts to
achieve the statutory purpose.  There is an important public interest in getting people
back to work as well as a major saving in not having to pay Jobseeker’s Allowance,
and possibly other benefits.

50.      I also appreciate that there could be a substantial saving of public money if effective sanctions are available when jobseekers are not cooperating with proposals properly put to them under the Act.  The Secretary of State’s object in these proceedings is not to end Jobseeker’s Allowance but to ensure that it is only paid to those actively
seeking employment and prepared to cooperate with attempts made by the state to
achieve that end. The entitlement to receive the weekly sum should depend on such
cooperation.”

5. The Coalition Government has not done everything right on tackling youth unemployment by a long shot. But we should be congratulating them when they are genuinely trying to get young people into work and are doing so by focusing on one of the easiest ways of ensuring a young person has a better chance of getting a job – giving them work experience. The benefits of young people getting work experience are commonly understood and not disputed.

Concerns that arise from the case

It is clear that the problems in the case of Cait Reilly were down in large part to the failures of JobCentre Plus. As a university graduate who was keen to work in a museum, Reilly was doing exactly the right thing. She was assigned to a paid work experience placement at a museum in Birmingham and was paid the minimum wage during that placement – this was funded by a Government scheme. When the placement ended, she continued to work voluntarily at the museum.

However, the 1 week’s training she was promised somehow morphed into 6 weeks; her Jobcentre adviser incorrectly told her that she had no choice but to do the 6 weeks of “training” (it was only mandatory to continue the training if she had opted to begin the training in the first place – it was not in fact mandatory for her to do the placement at all); and her work in Poundland in this particular case involved no training at all (which anti-workfare campaigners understandably are up in arms about).

The worst of it is that this is not a one-off case. Many of the young people we talk to have told us “horror stories” about Jobcentre Plus and how useless they can be at helping them find work and many of us have had similar experiences. For example, in one case we have been made aware of, an unemployed graduate found a part-time internship on her own initiative while on Jobseekers Allowance and was eventually forced off Jobseekers Allowance by the Job Centre when they scheduled a “careers consultation” and a meeting regarding work experience with a supermarket on two of her internship days, with the understanding that failure to attend either of these would lead to a loss of benefit. This is despite the fact that she had provided proof from the internship provider that she was doing the internship but also that she was still seeking work; despite the fact that she had already arranged and was doing a placement on her own initiative; and despite the fact that the placement was in her field of interest.

The lesson of the Cait Reilly case is not that the Government should scrap its welfare to work programmes – quite the opposite. The lesson for the Government is that they need to ensure that JobCentre Plus and its advisers are much better equipped and trained to deal with young people, particularly graduates. They also need to be much more flexible and supportive of unemployed young people who are doing unpaid voluntary work, work experience or an internship on their own initiative to give themselves work experience and improve their chances of getting a job.

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