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Courts: 'Forced Labour' Work Scheme Is Legal

(c) Sky News 2012

A Government unpaid work programme criticised as "forced labour" has been ruled lawful by the High Court.

Jobless graduate Cait Reilly's claim that a back-to-work-scheme requiring her to work for free at a Poundland discount store breached human rights laws banning slavery has been rejected by a judge.

Mr Justice Foskett, sitting at the High Court in central London, said that "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".

Monday's ruling will come as a relief to the Government, for it was likely that all its back-to-work schemes would have been potentially invalid had it lost the legal challenge.

Launched in June last year by the Department for Work and Pensions, the job scheme provides unpaid work experience and training for people who have been out of work for long periods.

The Department said it was "delighted, although not surprised, that the judge agrees our schemes are not forced labour".

"Comparing our initiatives to slave lavour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression."

Miss Reilly, 23, from Birmingham, and 40-year-old unemployed HGV driver Jamieson Wilson, from Nottingham, both claimed the unpaid schemes they were on violated article four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.

The judge said both Miss Reilly and Mr Wilson were each entitled to a declaration that there had been breaches of the 2011 jobseeker's allowance regulations in their cases.

He criticised the DWP over the lack of clarity in letters which warn claimants of a potential loss of benefits if they fail to take part in the schemes without good reason.

Mistakes had been made in notifying Ms Reilly about the requirements of the Work Academy Scheme so that she did not appreciate the scheme was not mandatory, while Mr Wilson had been given inadequate notice about the Community Action Programme (CAP).

But the judge ruled neither scheme was contrary to article four, and the errors made did not invalidate the 2011 jobseeker's allowance regulations.

A DWP spokeswoman said: "Thousands of young people across the country are taking part in our schemes and gaining the vital skills and experience needed to help them enter the world of work - it is making a real difference to people's lives.

"Those who oppose this process are actually opposed to hard work and they are harming the life chances of unemployed young people who are trying to get on."

The Department added it had revised its warning letters and would be appealing over that part of the ruling.

Law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), who represented Miss Reilly and Mr Wilson, said the issuing of flawed warning letters about sanctions meant that "tens of thousands of people stripped of their benefits must now be entitled to reimbursement by the DWP".

PIL spokeswoman Tessa Gregory said as of January 2012, more than 22,000 people had lost their benefits for failing to participate in the Work Programme alone.

"That figure must now have doubled," she said. "It is truly extraordinary that the Government has found itself in this position by failing to provide basic information to those affected."