It now emerges that Labour did a secret deal with the DWP that the latter would set up an independent inquiry into the use of sanctions against job-seekers in return for Labour supporting emergency legislation – the Jobseekers (Back-to-Work Schemes) Bill which passed all its stages in the Commons last Tuesday – which established the government’s right to re-impose mandatory work activity (forcing someone to work for no pay on pain of otherwise having their benefits withdrawn) which had been struck down in the High Court a few weeks earlier. If this is true, it is a despicable deal: Labour should never have supported the re-imposition of such legislation whatever the quid pro quo. Worse still, Labour has already sold the pass in exchange for a nebulous offer which remains entirely within the gift of the government. It’s the government which will decide the terms of reference, choose the chair and members for the inquiry, decide the timescale, and decide whether or not to accept any of the recommendations, assuming we ever get to that stage.
Just what the government is now getting away with is revealed by a leaked email which shows that jobcentres have been set targets and league tables to enforce a stricter benefit regime on claimants, despite Ministers giving assurances to parliament on Tuesday that no such targets were being set. The email indicated that staff would be disciplined if they failed to force enough claimants on to a tougher benefit regime. Specifically it is made clear in this fiat from the DWP that there should be about 25 referrals a week for tougher sanctions when the average referral rate in some job centres at present is in the range of 4-6.
This is part of a much wider attack on employment rights across the baord. Despite the proposals for no-fault unfair dismissals from the Wonga boss Adrian Beacroft being initially rejected because of the hug public outcry against them, they are now being quietly re-introduced by the government in the form of measures which make it harder for workers to get work-place justice at employment tribunals, extend the qualifying period to gain employment rights to 2 years, and cut the consultation period on redundancies from 90 to 45 days. At the same time the Tory Right is demanding the repatriation of powers from the EU in order to end protection for agency and temporary workersas well as the scrapping of the Working Time Directive.
Just as the government’s austerity measures are not primarily about cutting the deficit but rather about shrinking the public sector and the State, so the attack on employment rights isn’t about a more efficient economy but rather about crushing the trade unions. If Labour doesn’t now take a stand and fight back hard, it will lose its core support and have no right to call itself a party of social justice.