An intern who says she was forced to work for free at Poundland as part of a government scheme has won her appeal, leaving the coalition’s back-to-work schemes in tatters.

Cait Reilly, 24, from Birmingham, had argued that being made to work in the discount shop for nothing while she looked for a permanent job was illegal. Judges agreed the regulations behind most of the back-to-work schemes were unlawful and quashed them. Cait’s solicitors said the ruling meant anyone docked jobseekers’ allowance for not complying with the schemes could demand the money back.

The 24-year-old geology graduate – who studied at Birmingham University – was forced to leave her voluntary post at a museum to work unpaid at Poundland in Kings Heath, Birmingham in November 2011 under a scheme known as the “sector-based work academy”. She was told she would lose jobseekers’ allowance if she refused and spent two weeks stacking shelves and cleaning floors.

The judges decided that the secretary of state for work and pensions had acted unlawfully by not giving the unemployed enough information about the penalties they faced and their rights to appeal against being made to work unpaid for, in some cases, hundreds of hours. Following the court ruling, Cait – who was accused by the employment secretary of being a ‘job snob’told reporters:

“I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working. I hope the Government will now take this opportunity to rethink its strategy and do something which actually builds on young unemployed people’s skills and tackles the causes of long-term unemployment.

“I agree we need to get people back to work but the best way of doing that is by helping them, not punishing them. The Government ought to understand that if they created schemes which actually helped people get back into work then they wouldn’t need to force people to attend.”

The court ruling means tens of thousands of unemployed people who have been sanctioned under schemes such as Work Experience and the Work Programme are entitled to a rebate, although the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it would not be paying out money until all legal avenues had been exhausted. But Public Interest Lawyers, who represented both claimants, said the decision was a “huge setback” for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Solicitor Tessa Gregory, said:

“Today’s judgment sends Iain Duncan Smith back to the drawing board to make fresh regulations which are fair and comply with the court’s ruling.

“Until that time, nobody can be lawfully forced to participate in schemes affected such as the Work Programme and the Community Action Programme.

“All of those who have been stripped of their benefits have a right to claim the money back that has been unlawfully taken away from them.”

She claimed the case had shown that the DWP was “going behind Parliament’s back” and failing to seek proper approval for mandatory work schemes. But employment minister Mark Hoban pointed out that judges had agreed requiring people to join the schemes was legal and said it would appeal the decision relating to regulations. He said:

“This ruling ensures we can continue with these important schemes. We are however disappointed and surprised at the court’s decision on our regulations.

“There needed to be flexibility so we could give people the right support to meet their needs and get them into a job.

“We do not agree with the court’s judgment and are seeking permission to appeal, but new regulations will be tabled to avoid any uncertainty.

“Ultimately the judgment confirms that it is right that we expect people to take getting into work seriously if they want to claim benefits.”

Graduate Fog is thrilled at the news of Cait’s court victory. Hundreds of thousands of young jobseekers empathise with her, whether they’ve worked for low or no pay as part of a government scheme or through a privately arranged unpaid internship. Cait has become the poster girl for interns everywhere, who feel they have no voice and no rights. We congratulate her on her hard-won success – it is enormously significant in the fight for young people to be paid a fair wage for their labour.

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