The High Court has ruled emergency laws underpinning a government back-to-work scheme are “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ruling stems from a case brought by Cait Reilly in 2012, who said being forced to work for free at a Poundland store breached her human rights.
The government brought in new rules in 2013 allowing unpaid work schemes to continue pending further legal appeals.
Ministers said they were “disappointed” by the ruling and would appeal.
But lawyers for Miss Reilly claimed the government owed about £130m to people who had fallen foul of the retrospective legislation and ministers should admit they made a mistake.
The 24-year old graduate challenged the legality of an unpaid work placement she undertook in 2011, part of the government’s “mandatory work activity” programme.
She said that she was told that if she did not agree to take part in the scheme, which she said involved stacking shelves, she would lose her Jobseeker’s Allowance.
The government was forced to pass emergency legislation amending the scheme last year after Court of Appeal ruled that the regulations underpinning it did not comply with existing laws giving the Department for Work and Pensions the power to introduce the programme
The legislation was designed to reinforce the rules to make it clear that claimants must do all they can to find work in order to claim benefits and to ensure the government did not have to repay money to claimants who had not complied with the conditions of their benefit claim.
But Mrs Justice Lang, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled on Friday that the retrospective legislation interfered with the “right to a fair trial” under Article Six of the Convention on Human Rights.
The Department for Work and Pensions said it was “disappointed” by the ruling – which it said applied to a minority of claimants – and would launch an appeal.
“We disagree with the judgment on the legislation and are disappointed,” a spokeswoman said.
“It was discussed, voted on and passed by Parliament. While this applies to only a minority of past cases and does not affect the day to day business of our Jobcentres, we think this is an important point and will appeal.”
She said the legislation remained “in force” and the government would not be compensating anyone who had been docked benefits pending the outcome of its appeal.
But Paul Heron, a solicitor for Public Interest Lawyers, said it was a “massively significant” ruling and the DWP’s decision to appeal against it would be a further blow to the “upwards of 3,000 cases sitting in the tribunal system waiting for this judgement“.
He claimed people were owed anything from four weeks benefit, about £250, to several thousand pounds and were having to mostly represent themselves at tribunals.
He told BBC News it was “about time the DWP just held their hands up, admit they made an error, and pay people the money they were entitled to at the time. That is what a responsible government would do.”
The back-to-work schemes have been condemned by critics as “slave labour” because they involve work without pay but are seen by supporters as a good way of getting the unemployed back into the world of work.
The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the regulations last year although the judges also rejected claims that the schemes were “exploitative” and amounted to “forced labour“.
Ministers said that the most recent legal judgement had upheld this view.
“We’re pleased the Court recognised that if claimants do not play by the rules and meet their conditions to do all they can to look for work and get a job, we can stop their benefits,” the spokeswoman added.
Poundland, one of several employers which took part in the scheme, withdrew from it in 2012.
Source – BBC News, 04 July 2014
This article was written by James Meikle, for theguardian.com on Friday 21st February 2014
The government’s welfare shakeup has survived two legal challenges at the court of appeal after five disabled tenants failed in their attempt to get the bedroom tax declared unlawful and judges ruled against claims the £500-a-week cap on benefits violated the human rights of vulnerable families.
The decisions mean that central planks of Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits changes remain intact, although there may yet be further challenges at the supreme court.
The bedroom challenge questioned the legality of new “size criteria” regulations that have led to reductions in housing benefit payments to tenants in social housing assessed to be underoccupying their home. It was backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Two lone parents and a child from each family challenged the benefit cap after being forced into temporary accommodation in London.
Campaigners say the welfare cuts are having a particularly harsh impact on women fleeing domestic violence, and on their children, threatening to trap them in abusive relationships.
Those challenging the bedroom tax vowed to continue their battle following the ruling. Ugo Hayter from law firm Leigh Day, representing two people with disabilities who argue that their second bedroom is essential, said lawyers were disappointed and baffled by the ruling.
“The court recognised that our clients and thousands of disabled people across the UK had a need for accommodation not provided for by the new housing benefit rules. However, the court decided that disabled tenants should not have their housing needs met on an equivalent basis to their able-bodied counterparts just because they are disabled.
“Instead disabled tenants are being forced to rely on short-term and discretionary payments. We are currently considering whether an appeal to the supreme court is possible. Our thoughts go out to the thousands of disabled tenants who continue to be faced with uncertainty, poverty and the risk of eviction.”
Anne McMurdie, of Public Law Solicitors, which is acting for three of the appellants, said: “The government has sought to make savings by targeting the most vulnerable in our society. On the government’s own figures at least 440,000 disabled households will lose out under the new regulations.
“There is compelling and growing evidence of the terrible adverse impact on disabled tenants, having to make the dreadful choice between paying the rent and buying food or heating their homes. Disabled tenants are not asking for extra funds, they are asking for housing benefit to be paid at a level which meets their needs – for the same right as others.”
Richard Kramer, deputy chief executive of Sense, the national deafblind charity, said the bedroom tax policy had been devastating for many disabled people. “Many have been found to have a so-called extra bedroom despite requiring it because of their disability, for example needing extra space to store disability-related equipment and for short-term carers.
“Many disabled people, including the deafblind people that Sense supports, have been pushed to breaking point. They are struggling with the transition from DLA [disability living allowance] to Pip [personal independence payment] and many are facing huge cuts to their social care, leaving them without the support they desperately need to live full and active lives,” said Kramer.
“Alongside other benefits being cut, housing benefit has been the final blow for many disabled people and can lead to serious financial hardship.”
A statement from the Department for Work and Pensions said:”Reform of housing benefit in the social sector is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability of the benefit. But we have ensured extra discretionary housing support is available for vulnerable people.”
On the issue of the cap, the statement said: “We are pleased that the courts have ruled again that the benefit cap complies with the European convention on human rights. The benefit cap sets a fair limit to what people can expect to get from the welfare system – so that claimants cannot receive more than £500 a week, the average household earnings.”
In the judgments, Lord Dyson said Duncan Smith was aware of the “serious impact” of the new criteria for housing benefit, which was why so much effort had been devoted to seeking a solution. He recognised the benefit cap would “cause hardship to some (possibly many) people who are on benefit” but the government recognised it might need modification.
> I suspect the only modification Duncan Smith has in mind is extending hardship from “some” people to the greatest number possible.
The cap in its present form reflected the political judgment of the government and had been endorsed by parliament after considerable debate. It was not up to the court to say whether it agreed with the judgment or not, he said.
Rebekah Carrier, of Hopkin Murray Beskine solicitors, representing two women who had fled violent marriages along with their children and were challenging the benefit cap, said the judges had not decided important issues of principle affecting the large numbers of women and children made homeless by domestic violence every year.
“The government promised to address this in April 2013, 10 months ago, but has failed to do so. The court recognised the problem and expressed concern about the government’s delay in addressing it, but they have abandoned many domestic violence victims to their fate until the government chooses to act,” said Carrier.
“That is not good enough for my clients, or for the many women who will face a stark choice about whether to stay with a violent partner, or flee and risk losing their home or being destitute.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 21 Feb 2014