The Jobseekers Bill is difficult for Labour – but I think we’ve made the right call

21st March, 2013 10:58 am

People are very angry about the Jobseekers Bill currently before Parliament. Labour MP’s are furious. Labour councillors and activists are angry. And they are right to be. This Bill is an emergency fix to almighty incompetence at Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP. Our decision not to support the Bill in the Commons, but to abstain was very, very difficult. But there are three big arguments I think people need to think about.

First, say many, is this Bill not retrospective legalisation of workfare? No. It categorically isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read the Bill. Here’s the link. This Bill restores to the department of work and pensions its legal power to sanction anyone who gets Jobseeker’s Allowance if they did not take steps to find work. It’s a power that government has had since 1911.

Now, you might believe that governments should not have that power. If you do, then you should disagree with me and the Bill and most of the Labour party. Because Labour has supported this legal power for years and years. The reason the Jobseekers Bill has been confused with the famous Poundland case is that the Court of Appeal in ruling for Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson, decided to go much, much wider than the individual cases and strike down the 2011 regulations which activate the department’s legal power (in the 1995 Jobseekers’ Act) to issue any sanctions whatsoever.

Now as it happens, the Future Jobs Fund, which was so successful, had the same sanctions. So did the New Deal. So, arguing against DWP’s possession of a sanctioning power is to argue against a policy that we found worked in practice – and is core to our current policy. Today, our key policy for getting people back to work – the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee – says that people should have the choice of a six month paid job, with training and job search, and real wages at the National Minimum Wage – and that if people don’t take up the offer of a job without good cause, they should have their Jobseekers’ Allowance stopped. It’s pretty hard to say DWP shouldn’t have a sanction power that was well and truly incorporated into policies that worked when we were in government.

The second big argument is 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 is the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensioners

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