Sunday, 19 May 2013

Workfare placements must be made public, tribunal rules

New setback as DWP is ordered to publish names of businesses and charities hosting unemployed people on work schemes

The Department for Work and Pensions has lost a major court battle to keep the locations of thousands of workfare placements secret. At the end of a freedom of information challenge that has lasted 15 months, Judge David Marks QC ruled that the DWP must publish the names of businesses and charities hosting hundreds of thousands of unemployed people who, in some cases, must undertake weeks of unpaid work as a condition of receiving benefits. 

The ruling – which follows a high-profile DWP defeat when appeal court judges ruled that workers had been unlawfully made to work unpaid for organisations including Poundland – applies to all three of the department's main employment programmes: mandatory work activity (MWA); the work experience scheme; and the flagship Work Programme. 

Fighting against a disclosure order from the information commissioner, the DWP told tribunal judges that it should be exempt from three original FOIs filed by the public because of the damage to commercial interests. Charities, they argued, would lose donations and customers because they would be subject to extremely adverse publicity if their involvement with the programmes was revealed.

During the appeal hearing on 3 May, the tribunal heard that one of those firms, Ingeus, would stand to lose £1m in revenue while another, Seetec, said it would have to sack 53 people if the whereabouts of the workfare placements were disclosed. Ingeus UK – whose current chief executive, Dean James, is a former senior DWP civil servant and who runs substantial parts of the Work Programme and MWA – also said it would have to sack staff. 

Charities still in the MWA scheme include the Salvation Army and YMCA.

In its decision, the tribunal said that "the public interest balance militates strongly in favour of disclosure" and that big commercial organisations "can be expected to have a thick skin should their names be disclosed".

Responding to the ruling Joanna Long, of Boycott Workfare, urged organisations to leave the schemes before the list was made public: "Workfare has meant less paid work for people across the UK, and exploitation for those forced to work for nothing. 

When the list of those using workfare is revealed, thousands of people will be reconsidering where they spend their money or make donations; hundreds will plan demonstrations. "Companies and charities using workfare need to urgently reconsider whether they want to risk further involvement in these failing schemes."

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