Cait Reilly, the graduate contesting the Government’s unpaid work schemes, commenced her judicial review application in the High Court this week. It has thrown the spotlight back on a contentious issue, discussed in an article we wrote for Employment Law Journal in April.
We commented that the Coalition was trying to encourage jobseekers to gain new confidence and skills though work experience, enabling them to bounce back into work and off benefits. However, it was doing so via unsophisticated schemes taking no account of a person’s qualifications, experience and career aspirations. What’s more, jobseekers on some schemes risk losing their benefits if they drop out – throwing into question the credibility of the Government’s own fair work agenda. You can read the full article here.
Reilly says she was forced to quit voluntary work experience she had organised for herself at a museum and instead had to join the Government’s unpaid “sector-based work academy”, stacking shelves at a Poundland store. Otherwise, she risked losing her jobseeker’s allowance. One of her main contentions is that the 2011 regulations under which Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) introduced the mandatory work experience scheme breach the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights outlawing slavery and forced labour.
The DWP has said that it will contest Reilly’s case “vigorously” and that its mandatory work placement schemes “play an important part in giving jobseekers the skills and experience they need to find work”. Indeed, ministers have recently announced the expansion of such unpaid schemes at an additional annual cost of an £5 million.
Yet this position is difficult to square with the findings of the DWP’s own recent report, Early impacts of Mandatory Work Activity, produced in conjunction with the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research. In essence, the report concludes that mandatory work activity has no measurable benefit for participants in schemes of this kind or the economy as a whole: they merely spend four fewer days on benefit as a result. Moreover, a few months after leaving such schemes, former participants are 3% more likely to have moved from unemployment benefits on to sickness benefits.
On a straightforward cost-benefit analysis, the DWP’s logic is hard to follow – as is its determined defence of Reilly’s case. Ironically, the report could itself provide what Reilly calls the “evidence that coercing people into unpaid work masks rather than solves the unemployment crisis”.
There has been a good deal of moral, socio-economic and political debate about the pros and cons of the Government’s unpaid work experience schemes. Now we await the outcome of the Reilly case to see what the law has to say about them.