The right to peaceful protest and the ability to boycott companies and institutions we object to, for now, remain inside the law. And whilst the state attempts to cover up it’s gravest secrets, we still have some right to know what those in power are actually doing via the Freedom of Information act.
But the recent actions of employment minister Chris Grayling reveal even these small freedoms are held in contempt by this toff Government.
Back in January Frank Zola made a Freedom of Information request concerning the Government’s Mandatory Work Activity (MWA) scheme. MWA is a system of punishment for unemployed people who are deemed by Jobcentre advisors to be not trying hard enough to find work. Claimants can be sent on a four week sentence of unpaid work, similar to a mid level Community Service punishment, or face being stripped of vital benefits. The DWP’s own research reveals that the scheme has been a dismal and expensive failure. Despite this, Chris Grayling this week announced plans to massively extend the scheme.
The Freedom of Information request asked the DWP for details of where people are actually being sent to undertake unpaid work. Previously information of this type had been provided by the Department and even published on the DWP website. When the workfare row blew up earlier in the year, these documents disappeared and the DWP began refusing to reveal details of MWA, or any other workfare providers. This was despite David Cameron boasting at the same time that Airbus and Centre Parcs had recently joined the Work Experience scheme. It was clear even then that the Government are only to happy to provide this type of information when it suits them.
The DWP invoked Section 43 of the Freedom of Information act saying that to reveal the information may “potentially damage the commercial interests of organisations providing work placements and inhibit or limit the ability of the Department to obtain the best services to help people make the transition into work.”
This decision appears to have been made after the DWP decided that if they told the truth about who was using workfare then people might exercise their right to peaceful protest or boycott the companies concerned. They may even say mean things on twitter about them.
Mr Zola correctly referred the DWP to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who are responsible for ensuring government departments remain within the law when rejecting FOI requests. The investigation is still ongoing however a second request, to view all correspondence between the DWP and the ICO, has recently been granted. The correspondence reveals the staggering arrogance of the DWP in this matter and proves that this attitude has come direct from the minister responsible himself, Chris Grayling.
The ICO wrote to the department confirming that they accepted the matter should be placed under investigation and asking the DWP to justify their decision. They also pointed out that the ICO does not take into account ‘speculative arguments’ about how such information might prejudice the interests of third parties (meaning the companies profiting from forced labour).
The DWP start to wriggle furiously, asking for a 10 day extension to provide the justification for their decision. A stark response comes from the ICO:
It’s almost as if the DWP simply rejected the original request out of hand without carrying out the proper procedures. Despite this the ICO grants the exception.
Eventually the DWP gets round to writing back with their justification for not providing information which they had previously declared it was in the public interest for people to know. The DWP claim that since that time they have been made aware of several ‘internet campaigns’ aimed at encouraging “people to boycott companies and organisations which have links to the Government’s work programmes”.
They also raise concerns about protests which have been held targeting companies who use workfare. It is clear that the Department is refusing to provide this information simply because they are concerned it might upset people and they may even protest about it. They seem particularly troubled by boycotts, revealing that we are not even to be trusted to make our own decisions about where we shop anymore.
Interestingly the DWP speak in dismissive terms about people using the term workfare to mean any programme which offers “job seekers the opportunity to gain valuable work experience” which they say includes Work Experience, MWA and the Government’s flagship Work Programme. This is significant because Chris Grayling has previously claimed several times, including to a Parliamentary Committee, that mandatory work does not exist on the Work Programme.
This lie was exposed by DWP documents which told providers they must mandate claimants to work experience on the Work Programme. These documents were hastily changed when the workfare story broke to cover up for Grayling’s lies.
In their submission to the Information Commissioner, the DWP claim that several companies and organisations had dropped out of the MWA scheme due to pressure from the public. These organisations include the charities Oxfam, Shelter and Marie Curie, all of whom have issued strong statements condemning unpaid work. The DWP seems to think that if it wasn’t for horrible people on the internet then these companies would have been only too happy to sacrifice their principles and make use of forced labour. This only reveals the contempt that the department has for any organisation that disagrees with their current exploitative practices.
The DWP also claims that any release of information may have a ‘detrimental’ effect on job seekers, as if forced labour should automatically be assumed to be a positive thing. Most job seekers disagree and the facts reveal MWA to be worthless in helping people to secure employment.
The DWP acknowledges that the Job Seekers themselves have a right to know exactly where they are being sent on placement which they claim: “meets the public interest in being transparent whilst mitigating the boycott activities of the campaign group which national disclosure would encourage”. How big of them.
The DWP say it is unfortunate that a minority wish to target companies unfairly by boycotting them. Here lies a glaring inconsistency in their argument. If only a small minority of people will boycott companies using workfare then such a boycott is unlikely to damage the commercial interests of the organisations involved.
The DWP also claim organisations using workfare, and even the DWP themselves, may suffer ‘reputational damage’. Note it is not the use of workfare which may cause the damage to company’s reputations, simply the public finding out about it.
The department also warn that because of various campaigning activities the objective of MWA may not be fulfilled. It appears that the Government are refusing to tell us what they are doing in case it upsets anyone and they may be forced to change their policy.
It is chilling to imagine what would happen were this attitude to be carried over to other government departments. Perhaps we will not even be told where the next war is taking place in case the great unwashed dare to find out and protest about it.
Finally the DWP sign off by moving the goalposts and requesting that if the ICO is not minded to accept their arguments under Section 43 of the act,then could they please try and invoke Section 36 (2) instead.
The DWP include in their submission a ream of evidence which they say proves just how horrible people have been to them since the workfare row broke out. This includes a transcript of a piece from the Boycott Workfare website, several urls to other websites including Radical Glasgow, Indymedia and the Right to Work Campaign and two transcripts of pieces from this very blog.
The two pieces which so upset the DWP are Shame of the Third Sector: How Charities Got it Wrong on Workfare and amusingly Chris Grayling is a Lying Bastard.
The ICO do not appear to be impressed and request that the department forward their new arguments on why exemption Section 36 (2) should apply. They note that the Information Commissioner “cannot be expected to wait until after the conclusion of his investigation before full and complete arguments be supplied by the department”.
A Section 36 (2) exemption means that the DWP believe that releasing the information may “be Prejudicial to the Effective Conduct of Public Affairs”.
Section 36 can only be used if, in the reasonable view of a “qualified person” disclosure of the requested information would have a prejudicial effect. The ICO unsurprisingly ask who this qualified person is.
Step forward Chris Grayling, a man who is barely qualified for his position and has never held a reasonable view in his life.
The next document released shows a letter dated 24th April in which the DWP write with recommendations to the Employment Minister concerning the use of the Section 36 (2) exemption. This occurs after the department has attempted to invoke the exemption, which clearly reveals they hadn’t yet sought the reasonable view of a qualified person as they are required to.
The DWP argue that:
Tesco, Arcadia Group, Sainsburys, Waterstones and Boots are just some of the companies that have very publicly distanced themselves from forced labour. Protests aimed at workfare are still taking place around the UK. This suggests that workfare is not supported by the business community and the majority of the population.
The DWP appear to think that employers and charities who have pulled out of workfare are too stupid to make their own decisions. Once again the gross inconsistency of their argument becomes apparent. If so many people are concerned about the use of workfare by organisations that they may mount a boycott and affect the commercial interests of those organisations then it is clearly in the public interest to make that information known.
The last document released is a letter from Chris Grayling to the DWP in which he accepts the recommendations and authorises an exemption based on Section 36 (2).
Once again the DWP’s position appears to be that information must not be released to the public which may cause them to organise protests or choose not to shop at certain establishments. The DWP and the minister Chris Grayling reveal they have little or no respect on the right of the public to be told information and make decisions based on what they hear. Instead they’d rather things were covered up and hidden away in case anyone objects. This is a gross distortion of the FOI legislation which is designed to promote transparent government.
It appears that this Government will only be transparent when telling us things it wants us to hear. Any information which may cause public outrage is to be covered up in the public interest.
Of course when it suits them they are only too happy to tell us who is involved in Mandatory Work Activity. A recent Press Release from the DWP contains a case study concerning someone who was sentenced to MWA at a Scope charity shop in Goole. It seems in this instance the DWP has no concerns about a minority of people affecting the commercial interests of the Goole charity shop.
The Information Commissioner will hopefully note that the Government is quite happy to hand out this information when it suits them and reject the DWP’s calls to keep workfare exploiters hidden from view. We have a right to know which companies and organisations are using workfare. We have a right to protest if we don’t like it. And we absolutely have a right not to shop at places if we have concerns about their use of forced labour.
The original FOI request can be found at: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/successful_bidders#incoming-252660
The correspondence between the DWP and the ICO is at (PDFs): www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/116559/response/288337/attach/2/R%20info%20ICO%20DWP.1.pdf
A list of providers of Mandatory Work Activity which has since been ‘disappeared’ by the DWP can still be found at: https://viewer.zoho.com/docs/ga6d2e