The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is trying to rush a ‘retroactive’ law through parliament so the government can avoid paying £130m in benefit rebates to the quarter of a million jobseekers who were penalised for refusing to work unpaid as part of the controversial work programme. Politicians claim the move will “protect the national economy” — but lawyers have called it “repugnant” and say it “smacks of desperation”.

The law has been hastily drafted by panicking politicians who have suddenly realised the implications of last month’s court of appeal judgment that the programme was unlawful, as jobseekers were not given enough information about what was involved in it. They appear to have become alarmed by news that the blunder could cost them millions, as average payouts have been estimated at between £530 and £570 per claimant. The government claims the new legislation to overturn the court’s findings is needed to “protect the national economy”. A DWP spokesperson added that:

“This legislation will protect taxpayers and make sure we won’t be paying back money to people who didn’t do enough to find work.”

But legal experts and campaigners have blasted the move, calling the new legislation “repugnant” and “unbelievably disgusting”. They claim that politicians are now trying to duck out of their obligations to jobseekers by changing the law, after they’ve broken it. Tessa Gregory from Public Interest Lawyers, who represented Poundland intern Cait Reilly, said:

“The emergency bill is a repugnant attempt by the secretary of state for work and pensions to avoid his legal obligation to repay the thousands of jobseekers who… have been unlawfully and unfairly stripped of their subsistence benefits.

“The use of retrospective legislation, which is being fast-tracked through parliament, smacks of desperation. It undermines the rule of law and means that Iain Duncan Smith is once again seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny of his actions.

“It is time for his department to admit that maladministration and injustice costs. In light of the bill we are considering what further legal action we can take on behalf of our clients.”

The union Unite called for MPs to strongly oppose the bill and “stand up for the rights of jobseekers”. The union’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, said:

“This is a cynical move by the Tory-led government to avoid giving rightful compensation to jobseekers who have fallen foul of the incompetence of the Department of Work and Pensions. When will they learn that rushed law is bad law?

“The courts have told Iain Duncan Smith that his approach is unlawful. And the public accounts committee has decried the woeful success rate of his schemes. Given this, the government ought to be going back to the drawing board.”

A spokesperson for Boycott Workfare, a grassroots organisation that has campaigned to stop forced unpaid work schemes, said the move was disgusting. They added that they were shocked that Labour was supporting the move.

“This is almost unbelievably disgusting. They [the DWP] broke the law, now they want to retroactively change the law so that they didn’t break the law in order to keep £130m out of the pockets of some of the poorest people in the country.

“The high court found workfare unlawful precisely because people had no way of knowing the rules that applied. It shows an incredible level of arrogance and disregard for the poorest to now attempt to backdate laws to challenge this ruling.”

Shockingly, a vote was taken yesterday and the new ‘retroactive’ legislation appears to have been passed. The Green Party and the SNP were against it, and Labour abstained from voting. It is now going through to the House of Lords.


Should jobseekers who had their benefits docked for refused to work unpaid be entitled to compensation? Are you concerned that this ‘retroactive’ law sets a dangerous precedent that politicians can just change the law, when the courts rule against them?

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