Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Letter to the Information Commissioner

The following is an open letter to the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham about the government's refusal to release the names of organisations involved in the DWP's mandatory unpaid "Workfare" schemes:

Dear Christopher Graham,


I am writing to you in regards to the standoff between the Information Commissioner's Office and the government, over the publication of the details of companies involved in unpaid work placement (Workfare) schemes. Several months ago it was reported in the Guardian newspaper that the government is refusing to publish the information on the grounds that "disclosure would have been likely to have led to the collapse of the MWA scheme".
I would like to explain why I believe that it is of utmost importance that the names of organisations involved in all of the unpaid "work-for-your-benefits" schemes are made public. But before I explain why I believe it is of such importance that this information is released into the public domain I would like to take a moment to explain some of the reasons for my opposition to unpaid labour schemes.
  • Unlawfulness: Recently the Appeals Court ruled that most of the mandatory "work-for-your-benefits" schemes are unlawful (because they were not first approved by parliament). Simply redrawing the legislation under "emergency measures" in no way addresses the Appeal Court ruling that these schemes should be approved by parliament.
  • Unfairness: I believe that all workers should be paid in accordance with the National Minimum Wage and consider these schemes to be an outright attack on the hard-won labour rights of the British public.
  • Job destroyers: I believe that these schemes actually create a perverse incentive for companies to sack (and cease recruiting) paid employees in order to take advantage of free labour. This article provides a clear example of a company using free "workfare" labour to cover the Christmas rush, rather than employing paid temporary staff or providing overtime to existing staff (causing great resentment against the the poor individuals forced onto these schemes).
  • Economic illiteracy: I believe that these schemes are economically illiterate because the principal driver of the consumer spending element of economic demand comes through the payment of wages. If tens, or hundreds of thousands of workers are made to work for subsistence benefits rather than actual salaries, the economic consequence is an inevitable lowering of consumer spending. Lowered consumer spending effects the retail sector more than any other. Retail outlets within a capitalist economy underpaying (or not paying) their workers is a classic example of a short-term false economy, as the retail sector is the most likely sector to suffer as a result of lowered consumer spending.
  • Ineffectiveness: The DWP's own research demonstrates that these schemes do not actually help the unemployed. The conclusion that these schemes simply don't work is backed up by my own statistical research. The NIESR director Jonathan Portes described these schemes as "a complete policy disaster".
  • Lack of incentive: Another complaint is that forcing unemployed people to work for no additional recompense could actually act as a strong disincentive to find work. If such schemes ensured that individuals earn at least the National Minimum Wage for their labour, these individuals would perhaps conclude that working is financially beneficial, however if they receive no additional recompense, they are likely to conclude that they are being exploited and perhaps that "working is a mug's game".
Now that I've got my objections to these unpaid labour schemes out of the way, I'll return to the specific purpose of this letter.
I believe that the government's stated reason for blocking the release of this information (that the public would boycott and picket involved organisations) actually makes the strongest case for the release of the information.

Simply keeping the information behind a veil of secrecy does not magically make the labour rights protesters go away, it just makes effective campaigning significantly more difficult. To give you an example: I am responsible for the creation of a list of companies that are allegedly involved in these mandatory unpaid "Workfare" schemes. This list contains numerous contact details and social media links which facilitate direct protest by allowing the users of the list to easily inform "workfare" beneficiary companies that they intend to boycott the store until they cease involvement in mandatory or unpaid labour schemes.
Finding the information on which companies are involved in "workfare" was extremely difficult as I had to rely on personal testimonies and the tiny amount of information that has seeped through the veil of secrecy into the public domain.

Thousands of people are using my list every day to send protest emails to the listed companies, however I am extremely concerned that I may have inadvertently listed companies that are involved in other related "work-for-your-benefits" schemes or companies that are not even involved. If there was a clear source of publicly available verified information on which companies are involved in each of the DWP's "work-for-your-benefits" schemes, social activists such as myself could effectively target companies that are involved, with no danger of catching innocent companies in the crossfire, or of making confused claims about which companies are involved in which schemes.

In my view the censoring of information in order to deliberately disrupt the inevitable public protests against your own policies is a heinous abuse of authority and runs completely contrary to the concept of open accountable governance that the Coalition were keen to emphasise with statements such as: 
"The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.
(Coalition Agreement p20, 2010)
I'm sure you would agree with me that the government's refusal to comply with your ruling that they must release this information  makes an absolute mockery of the quoted statement of intent. Not only is their refusal to publish this information an affront to the principle of public accountability and an outrageous abuse of authority, but in light of the above statement it is also yet another example of politicians willfully undermining public faith in the integrity of our political leaders.

I believe that as information commissioner you should press the case that the details of all DWP unpaid "work-for-your-benefits" schemes must be released into the public domain. I am willing and able to support you in this objective in any way that I can.

I would appreciate it if you would contact me and let me know what your plan of action is in regards to this matter.

Yours sincerely

Thomas G. Clark (journalist and social activist)


_____________________________________________________________________ 
Reply from the ICO:

As you may be aware the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued three decision notices (FS50438037, FS50438502 and FS50441818) following information requests made to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for details relating to the department’s Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) programme. In each case we have ruled that information relating to the programme should be disclosed.

While we thank you for this interest in this matter, we do not require any further evidence for the appeal hearing. The Information Commissioner will be defending his decision notices.  

You may wish to contact the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) to see whether you can be considered as an additional party. However they are unlikely to consider repeated requests quoting the same source. The Tribunal would therefore only consider additional evidence relating to the issues to be determined in the appeal. Contact details for the tribunal can be found on their website.

The appeal hearing has been set for 3rd May 2013 and details on the outcome of the case will be published on the Tribunal website once a decision has been made. This will normally be four to six weeks after the original hearing date.

We hope this information proves useful and would like to thank you for your offer of support in this matter.

_____________________________________________________________________
What you can do to help
If you agree with the contents of this letter and support the request I have made to the Information Commissioner there are two main things you can do to help.
  • You can send a copy of this letter to your local MP (who has a statutory obligation to respond to your comments). You can use the Parliamentary database here to quickly find their email address or other contact details.  
  • You can ensure that as many people as possible see this letter and understand the case for open and accountable governance by sharing it on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
Thank you to everyone that contributes their valuable time to doing these things to help the fight for open and accountable governance.

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