Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 21st March 2013.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:25 pm, 21st March 2013

My Lords, this Bill will ensure that, following the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Wilson and Reilly versus the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Government will not have to repay previous benefit sanctions to claimants who have failed to participate in mandatory back to work programmes. It will also enable the Government to impose benefit sanctions where a sanction decision has been put on hold because of the Wilson and Reilly case.

I shall briefly set out the details of the Court of Appeal's judgment, but let us first be clear on what this case was not about. The court did not cast any doubt on the policy intention behind any of the schemes. In the words of Sir Stanley Burnton, one of the judges, the case was,

"not about the social, economic, political or other merits of the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme", and the court noted that the use of mandation was appropriate in such schemes.

The policy intention of our schemes has been clear to all from the outset. I have said that the Court of Appeal judgment was not about the social or other merits of the employment, skills and enterprise scheme, but the judges were not silent on the broad principle underlying mandatory employment schemes. Lord Justice Pill said:

"A policy of imposing requirements on persons receiving a substantial weekly sum, potentially payable for life, is readily understandable. Equally, the means sought to achieve that end are understandable; claimants should be required to participate in arrangements which may improve their prospects of obtaining remunerative employment".

Again, I say that the case was not about the policy intent of the schemes, which has been clear from their inception.

So what was the judgment about? The judgment centred on the Jobseeker's Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011, which for brevity's sake I will from now on refer to as the ESE regulations. These regulations provide for most of the mandatory back to work schemes, including the Work Programme.

First, the court rejected the claimants' argument that the ESE regulations were contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights-specifically, Article 4.2 on forced labour. Secondly, it rejected the claimants' argument that the ESE regulations could not be enforced in the absence of a formal published policy.

However, the court found against DWP on two grounds. It found that the ESE regulations did not describe the programmes that they underpinned in enough detail. It also upheld the High Court's ruling that letters sent to claimants when they were mandated to an ESE scheme were insufficiently detailed to comply with Regulation 4 of the ESE regulations. We have since laid new regulations and issued revised letters so that we can continue to mandate claimants to our schemes and ensure their continued proper functioning in accordance with the principle of imposing requirements on jobseekers in return for paying them benefit.

Your Lordships will not be shocked to learn that the department fundamentally disagrees with the court's verdict in respect of the two latter grounds, which is why it has applied for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court the Court of Appeal's judgment in respect of those two grounds. The arguments that we will make before the Supreme Court, if we are granted permission-