No value in empty gestures: a retrospective analysis of Labour’s response to the the retrospective Sanctions Bill

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A few months ago, two young workers at Poundland appealed to the courts against being forced to work for no wages, or else forfeit all their benefits. A court ruling deemed the regulations governing Job Seekers Allowance related sanctions imposed on claimants Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson unlawful, and therefore opened up opportunities to claimants having repayment of lost benefits. There were around 230,000 people – other previously sanctioned jobseekers, which means a total of  around £130 million may have reclaimed.

The Tories quickly wrote an Emergency Bill to retrospectively make those same regulations lawful. This was a shocking and tyrannical move that certainly contravenes human rights, and needs to be challenged under EU Human Rights legislation, and hopefully this will come to pass when Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson take their case further, to the Supreme Court.

However many people have criticised the Labour Party for its decision of abstaining from the vote on the Emergency Bill. It’s worth noting here that such a move is not the same thing as “supporting” the Tories regarding the Emergency Bill – as the Guardian misreported. Had the Labour Party supported the move by Ian Duncan Smith, they would have voted for the Bill. However, they did not.

Crucially, this two-clause Bill outlined that the same rules would apply as before, as if the case made by the two Poundland workers had never been brought forward.

This is of course objectionable on several grounds. It was retrospective in application, which as always been a cardinal principle of English law should be avoided. It set an appalling precedent that when the courts had struck down a law or regulation as having failed in due process, it could simply be overturned by Government without any proper regard being given to the court’s reasoning or argument for reform.

However, “A leaked email shows staff being warned by managers that they will be disciplined unless they increase the number of claimants referred to a tougher benefit regime.” The Guardian 

That’s something which has been persistently denied by Tory Ministers – but it is something which the Labour Party’s initiated review of sanctions will now strive to get to the bottom of. Well done Labour.

“This is why we took difficult decisions on the Jobseekers’ Bill to secure an independent review of sanctions. We knew there were sanctions targets and now we’ve secured an independent report to Parliament to put right a regime in Job Centres that’s running out of control.” Liam Byrne. 

Many Labour MPs – including front benchers – were aware of the whistle-blowing case before the vote, which was one of the main factors in the decision to abstain from voting.

Labour’s decision to abstain from voting on the Emergency Bill resulted in an unprecedented rage and knee-jerk responses from so many on the Left, and the situation was not helped by the fact that the media did not publish Labour’s press releases on the matter, the crass misrepresentation of Labour’s position on the Bill was considerable and widespread, with claims made that Labour “supported” the Government’s move.

The Government must have been laughing heartily at that one. Yet the situation was a difficult and complex one for the Labour Party, and I maintain that they made the best possible decision they could from where they were situated: between a rock and a very hard place. Well done Labour.

The Emergency bill reinstated the Department of Work and Pension’s power of sanction. Labour supports fair and proportionate sanctions in the context of a guaranteed six-month minimum-waged job. Labour’s position on sanctions is fundamentally different from the one currently held by the Coalition, and crucially, does not incorporate targets to remove benefits from vulnerable people for no good reason.

It was a no-win choice for Labour, with the Liberal Democrats and Tories combined in their vote, there was no way of making an impact or  stopping the Bill by voting anyway. The abstention came with negotiated and hard won concessions, and that was the best possible outcome that labour could secure. It’s important that we understand the complexities of the situation that arose in order to see this.

Ian Duncan Smith had let it be known that if the £130 million were to be repaid, Job Seekers Allowance would be reduced. The losses of the 230,000 already sanctioned were therefore pitched against potential losses for millions of other jobseekers.

That is an appalling prospect, and it was not a threat from Iain Duncan Smith that was widely publicised. It ought to be. It shows clearly that the Opposition are facing the same oppressive authoritarianism as we are.

The important concessions maintain and uphold the right of appeal for jobseekers, and will ensure an essential review of sanctioning practice happens. The review will serve as a guarantor to the Government having its abuses of the sanction system exposed. It wouldn’t have been highlighted otherwise, since review is the best opportunity for a party in opposition to challenge effectively, and demonstrate gross unfairness, and misapplication and administration regarding policies. Especially when the Government doing the maladministration is an authoritarian one. Well done Labour.

Whether or not this will reduce the angry and hysterical knee-jerk responses that many in the party feel and have articulated towards both Byrne and the Labour leadership remains to be seen, but the importance attached to the review of sanctions, and the other secured concessions certainly makes sense to me.

A vote would have been an empty and meaningless gesture, which, perhaps, may have appeased the Narxists, but with no presented opportunity to improve the lot of jobseekers. For me, looking after the interests of the most vulnerable citizens is paramount. Labour did the right thing here.

At least the review and the maintaining of the right to challenge sanctions have been a significant gain from a very difficult situation. Well done Labour, for prioritising content over style, for ensuring that your response was based on an in-depth analysis, and not on the quick and easy option of a populist, superficial ideal – an empty, meaningless gesture of voting, whilst knowing you would gain nothing. Well done Labour. For prioritising and supporting the rights of vulnerable jobseekers. Quite properly so.

Statement from Liam Byrne, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensioners.

“Most people are against the very idea of a retrospective Bill, especially a Bill pushed through Parliament so fast. I agree. It’s a terrible idea to rush ahead on this. Retrospective legislation does happen from time to time. But the government is moving too fast. It’s taken four weeks to bring forward a Bill that the government wants to push through Parliament in days.

So that’s why we are voting for a motion in the Lords deploring the speed with which the government acted – and its why we’ve argued so hard to maximise the time we have to improve the Bill. But we should be clear about something. If the DWP loses its Supreme Court case in a few weeks time, it might find itself liable for £130 million. Where would that money come from? The Employment Minister Mark Hoban told the House yesterday that it could only come from further benefit cuts.

And here’s the choice I faced in the Commons. Do I do everything to foul up the timetable of the bill, safe in the knowledge that because we lack a majority, the Tories and Lib Dems would ultimately win any vote they liked, whenever they liked? At best this might have delayed the Bill a week or two. Or, do I let the Bill go through before Easter in return for two critical concessions which Labour MP’s actually can actually use in practice to help people over the next two years?

I think we made the right call.

To be honest, I was surprised that Iain Duncan Smith accepted the concessions I demanded. Had I wanted to grandstand I could have forced votes that delayed the timetable a bit. This would have been the small “p” politics of parliamentary legislation. It would certainly have been easier for whips to convince colleagues who were concerned. But even now, after all the fury, I think the most honest way was to gain a guaranteed concession and bank it. Labour are in opposition. We don’t normally get any concessions at all. But now we’ve got two vital changes.

First, we had to make sure that people hit by sanctions have an iron-clad right of appeal against a sanction decision. That’s the right we’ve now ensured is written onto the face of the Bill; it’s the right to appeal on ‘good cause’ (for example, refusing to take a pointless course which is inappropriate) within a 13 month timetable.

There’s something else at stake here. I actually think it’s impossible for anyone to stand in Parliament and say that not one single sanction issued by DWP since 2011 is unfair. We’re not psychic. How could we know? The key thing the DWP got wrong was their notification letters which were too short. Instead of saying:

“If you fail to take part in the [name of employment programme] without a good reason under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks. You could also lose your National Insurance credits.”

They should have said:

“Under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, your Jobseeker’s Allowance could stop for up to 26 weeks if you fail, without good reason, to take part in [name of employment programme]. This would include failing to complete any activity that your Provider has required you to do.

  • Two weeks, for a first failure
  • Four weeks, if you have previously received a two-week sanction, whether in relation to your participation in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, within the last 12 months; or
  • 26 weeks if you have previously received a four-week or 26-week sanction, whether in relation to your participation in the Work Programme or any other scheme set up under the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, within the last 12 months.

This was the lack of detail that provoked the Court of Appeal striking down the government’s sanctioning power. I don’t think we know whether every single sanction decision issued since 2011 is wrong. That’s why we need to ensure people hit by sanctions have the right of appeal – to protect the innocent – and that’s what we got guaranteed on the face of the bill.

Second, there’s something else. I’ve heard too many stories – not least from my own constituents – about people being wrongly sanctioned. And that’s why I insisted – and won – an independent review of the sanctions regime with an urgent report to Parliament. We need to use this to ruthlessly expose bad behaviour. It is actually one of the practical things we can do to make a difference over the next year.

The final argument about Labour’s stance on the Bill, is for many, the most emotive; it’s the wide anger about the very existence of ‘mandatory work activity.’ Labour’s view is that work experience can help get young people into work – but – and this is the crucial ‘but’, we strongly feel that young people should be given a real choice of a real job with a real wage. That means a tax on bankers’ bonuses to create a fund which we would spend offering over 100,000 young people a six month job, with training and job search paid at the national minimum wage. And that’s what we will vote for in the House of Lords over the next few days.

Not one Tory spoke on this Bill in the Commons. We’re different. Labour MP after Labour MP spoke in the Commons. We care about this – and we’re right to debate it with passion and vigour   When we stop being angry about this kind of issue will be the day that we lose our soul. But, let’s be under no illusion. Only by standing shoulder to shoulder will we ultimately push this terrible government into Opposition. We are Labour because we care and debate questions like this so passionately. We reject the politics of divide and rule. And we’ve learned the hard way that unity is strength.”

Liam Byrne.

“The Labour Party used the emergency legislation to ensure that all bad sanctioning decisions can be appealed and even more importantly, that the whole sanctioning regime is reviewed. We forced the Government to implement an independent inquiry into the sanctions regime as part of the Jobseekers Bill and voting against the Bill would have prevented this.

Labour is now gathering evidence to submit to that inquiry. If you have evidence of sanctions being handed out inappropriately I would be grateful to have them, so I can include them in Labour’s submission to the independent review.”

Jon Trickett, MP

Well done Labour.

Further reading:

Leaked jobcentre newsletter urges staff to improve on sanctions targets

Hodge demands explanation for DWP denial of jobcentre sanctions targets

Liam Byrne writes to IDS over sanctions whistleblower

 

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 Many thanks to Robert Livingstone, once again, for his brilliant art work

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