Talking Politics

Even though it doesn’t work, Boris punishes benefit claimants

By Jenny Jones

Yesterday’s ruling by the court of appeal put a spanner in the government's workfare schemes, but it didn't wreck the whole machine. The government, and the mayor of London - as partner to a new £12 million workfare scheme in London - have brushed off all the past criticism. I hope this might make them change their mind, but unfortunately it doesn't block their plans.

The court backed the government's right to establish workfare schemes with benefit sanctions. But it ruled that there was, in effect, a mismatch between the regulations and the schemes they were supposed to apply to, and that participants, including Cait Reilly, had been given bad advice as a result.

Anti-workfare campaigners have been blogging and tweeting about endless examples of people being misled about the risk of benefit sanctions for years. Now it turns out the whole system was at fault.

This spanner has suddenly made most workfare schemes unlawful and may open the door to thousands of people who were sanctioned getting their money back. The lawyers and campaigners are hopeful. But so far as the government is concerned, it simply has to redraft the regulations and its workfare schemes can carry on into the future merrily forcing people to take up unpaid work for companies and charities.

This indifference to flaws in the programme isn't new.

Take the mayor of London's scheme. He has ploughed £12.3 million of scarce funding into a workfare scheme for 18-24 year olds who haven’t held down a job, forcing them to take up work experience from the day they claim jobseekers alowance.

He has dropped his own safeguards to monitor the programme and the providers, safeguards that could have ensured that young people aren't messed around. He ignored the findings of three separate pieces of research commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions, and a report by the Social Security Advisory Committee, also suggesting that benefit sanctions don't work and can even backfire. He rejected my last-ditch suggestion that he make the pilot a randomised control trial, an approach that would at least give robust evidence as to whether the sanctions, and other key elements of his policy, actually work.

When I questioned the mayor about his pilot, I gave him anecdotes of people who had been messed around: The young woman with a first class degree running around with a mop clearing up spilled jam, alcohol and urine. The man with 13 years experience managing clubs fixing furniture in a British Heart Foundation shop. Perfectly decent work, but not valuable work experience helping them to get back into paid employment. As Cait Reilly argued, if she was going to be asked to work for a multi-million pound company, she should at least be paid for it. The mayor was unmoved by my examples.

Last month the London Assembly supported my call for the mayor to bring his safeguards back, and to drop the benefit sanctions. He hasn't yet given us his response.

The court of appeal hasn't necessarily stopped the workfare machine. But I hope the spanner in the works will bring more people round to the increasingly common view that workfare is unjust and ineffective. For the 6,000 young Londoners forced onto his pilot, a change of mind from their Mayor can't come soon enough.

Jenny Jones is a Green party member of the London Assembly, and is a member of the Economy Committee.

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