Job seekers should not have to ferret around for 'inaccessible' regulations
Unpaid work schemes for the unemployed do not amount to ‘slavery’ under Article 4 of the ECHR, the High Court has ruled.
Mr Justice Foskett said the ‘sector-based work academy scheme’ and the ‘community action programme’ were “a very long way removed from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of Article 4”.
Foskett J went on: “The Convention is, of course, a living instrument, capable of development to meet modern conditions, and views may reasonably differ about the merits of a scheme that requires individuals to ‘work for their benefits’ as a means of assisting them back into the workplace.
“However, characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking.”
Foskett J said research had suggested that the schemes had a beneficial effect in helping the long-term unemployed get work.
The court heard that Caitlin Reilly challenged the ‘sector-based work academy scheme’, claiming that if she had been correctly informed that she would be working at Poundland for five days a week for no pay, she would not have participated.
She said her Jobcentre adviser told her the scheme was mandatory, and she had to do it to retain her jobseeker’s allowance.
Jamieson Wilson, aged 40, was a former lorry driver. After losing his job, he said the Jobcentre told him that to keep his jobseeker’s allowance he would have to take part in the ‘community action programme’.
He claimed he was told he would have to work unpaid for six months collecting old furniture, repairing it and distributing it to the needy.
Wilson’s counsel said the letter given to him by his Jobcentre did not “provide any details, or indeed any information at all, about what he was required to do by way of participation” in the scheme.
Delivering judgment in R(on the application of Reilly and Wilson) v the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC (Admin), Foskett J said: “I consider that anyone, whatever their position or background, is entitled to a straightforward letter dealing with his or her personal position.
“It should not be necessary for them to ferret around for what for most people would be inaccessible regulations to find out his or her position.”
Foskett J said that “inaccessible” meant having to find the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment and Enterprise) Regulations 2011 and “endeavouring to interpret them, which even a trained lawyer may find a challenge in some respects”.
Foskett J said it would open to anyone to ask their adviser about the position, but Regulation 4 made it clear that for someone to be “required” to participate in the scheme” the secretary of state must give notice in writing.
The judge concluded that he would be inclined to give both Reilly and Wilson declarations that Regulation 4 (2) had been breached in terms of the information they were given.
However, he said that if the secretary of state argued otherwise, he would consider the matter on the basis of written submissions.
Mr Justice Foskett rejected the claimants’ main arguments that the regulations should be quashed.
He said it was important that it was appreciated that they had actively been looking for work and had not “taken their objections to the overall scheme as a means of avoiding employment and seeking simply to rely on benefits”.
Foskett J said some changes to the schemes had already been made.
“Furthermore, steps may have been taken to improve the content of some of the standard letters concerning potential sanctions.
“Whilst there may be others who have experienced similar issues and have had similar problems, the evidence is that a large number of other individuals will have taken part in the scheme, some of whom would doubtless say they have benefited from it.”