IDS' emergency jobseeker law sparks civil liberties outrage

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Iain Duncan Smith is accused of riding roughshod over civil liberties
Iain Duncan Smith is accused of riding roughshod over civil liberties

An emergency law being rushed through parliament by Iain Duncan Smith today has raised serious concerns about its effect on Britain's civil liberties and legal traditions.

The under-reported jobseekers (back to work schemes) bill is an urgent attempt by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to stop it having to pay out £130 million to people forced to take part in its 'workfare' scheme.

The scheme forced jobseekers to work for free in order to keep claiming benefit, but the court of appeal recently found Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson should have been given more information about the programme and awarded damages of between £530 and £570.

In response, the government is quickly trying to pass a bill, with multiple readings today, reversing the court's decision so it does not have to pay out similar sums to the other 225,000 participants of the scheme.


Legal experts are outraged that the bill applies retrospectively, breaking a key standard of British law.

"Retroactive legislation sets a very dangerous precedent for rule of law because it means the government can change its mind on whether an act was legal or illegal after the fact," Jonathan Lindsell, research fellow at think tank Civitas, told politics.co.uk.

"The court of appeals ruled the work fare was illegal and this bill is attempting to undo that.

"The timing is just a case of trying to get it through quickly before more cases arise and before anyone notices."

Retrospective legislation is frowned on in legal circles because it prevents members of the public knowing whether their actions are legal when they do them. If the government can make certain acts illegal after they have taken place, the individual involved had no opportunity to know they were breaking the law.

Human rights groups and civil liberties campaigners associate retrospective legislation as a typical component of oppressive regimes and regressive constitutional arrangements.

If the rule was applied to criminal cases, it would contradict the European Convention on Human Rights.

A DWP spokesperson said: "The court of appeal made clear we can require people to take part in some of our schemes to help them back to work, and to remove their benefit if they don't.

"This legislation will protect taxpayers and make sure we won't be paying back money to people who didn't do enough to find work."

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