With all the media focus on the Leveson-inspired Royal Charter for press regulation, the upcoming budget and the Cyprus levy, the most shocking piece of emergency legislation will be debated today. That legislation is the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill (Amendments, etc.) (Motion). None of the major papers has a headline on it.
What does this exciting sounding document propose to do?
On Thursday (14.03.13) the Court of Appeal awarded damages of between £530 and £570 to jobseekers who had been illegally forced to work for organisations such as Poundland for no pay. Note that the ‘Workfare’ scheme itself was not breaking the rules; instead, the three senior judges ruled that Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions had been given insufficient legal information about what they were required to do, and their rights. It had essentially tricked highly qualified people such as Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson into working for free, in jobs that would not enhance their employment prospects.
The DWP immediately tabled today’s bill, with the full force of government, such that it can receive multiple ‘readings’ today, allowing the government to pass it. This is ‘rushing through’ with all the bunting.
This bill will effectively reverse the court of appeal’s decision in order to “protect the national economy” from the claims of other 225,000 participants in Workfare and similar schemes (including the flagship Work Programme), whose cases could cost the government over £130 million.
The legality and morality of the work programmes are not the issue here. Neither is the potential cost to the taxpayer. The issue is that the Coalition government intends to quietly rush through a law-change that works ‘retroactively’, i.e. ‘working backwards’. They committed a crime, and are now, after the act, making that act legal. Only Owen Jones and the unions are taking notice.
The precedent is a terrifying threat to civil liberty, and because the UK has no codified constitution, it’s entirely within parliament’s prerogative. If government can simply rule on actions ‘ex post facto’ (after the event) then nothing is sacred. You could be walking your dog in Doncaster, completely legally, on Monday, and on Tuesday find that your perambulation was illegal and carries a life sentence. True, criminal cases would be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, but thanks to Parliamentary Sovereignty, the government can ignore such trifles. The entire concept of ‘Rule of Law’ is undermined as soon as the government starts to cover its back like this.
If the government becomes accustomed to this new power, a number of injustices could follow. Theresa May might change the UK’s extradition laws to allow the Home Office to pack Abu Hamza off on a flight to Jordan, despite UK courts’ fear that he will be tortured or evidence derived from torture will be used against him. Cameron could change laws and storm Ecuador’s embassy for Julian Assange. Even Oliver Cromwell, a famed despot and regicide not best known for his love of the rule of law, baulked when his Protectorate Parliament used retroactive legislation to torture a blasphemer. The Allied forces refused to use ex post facto laws in the Nuremberg Trials, even though this meant prominent Nazis escaped lightly.
If the government passes the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill (Amendments, etc.) (Motion), a key tenet of Britain’s legal tradition will have been undermined.