Two claimants on two different unpaid ‘back to work’ schemes sought a judicial review against regulations in the DWP’s Community Action Programme (CAP), which require the long-term unemployed to undertake work experience or face reduced benefits payments.
Graduate Cait Reilly, 23, from Birmingham, and 40-year-old lorry driver Jamieson Wilson, from Nottingham, both claimed their unpaid schemes violated article four of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
Yesterday’s judgement found that requiring participation in the schemes does not breach human rights and that the CAP regulations are lawful.
The Honourable Mr Justice Foskett said the regulations "are a very long way removed from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of article four".
He added: "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."
However, the judge did rule that the DWP should improve the clarity of the letters that warn claimants of a potential sanction should they fail to participate in the schemes without good reason.
Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), which represented Reilly and Wilson, said the lack of information meant the decision to strip Wilson of his benefits for six months for refusing to undertake compulsory work was unlawful.
Tessa Gregory of PIL said this part of the decision meant that many people subjected to benefit sanctions will be entitled to reimbursement by the DWP and the government’s situation in this regard was "extraordinary".
She said: "We welcome the court’s ruling on this issue but we continue to maintain that the regulations themselves are unlawful and ought to be quashed.
"We are seeking permission to appeal the court’s findings in this regard."
The DWP defended the wording of its original letters and said it would appeal against this part of the judgement, but in the meantime would revise them.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: "We are delighted, although not surprised, that the judge agrees our schemes are not forced labour.
"Comparing our initiatives to slave labour is not only ridiculous but insulting to people around the world facing real oppression.