The Government has denied accusations of “slave labour” after a jobless graduate from Birmingham asked the High Court to rule her human rights were breached when she was forced to work for free in Poundland on a work experience scheme.
Cait Reilly, 23, of Kings Heath, said as she arrived at court on Tuesday: “Forcing people to work for free does nothing to tackle the causes of long-term unemployment.”
Unemployed 40-year-old Midlander Jamieson Wilson is also challenging the legality of another Government work scheme that pays no wages.
Both cases seek the quashing of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) regulations under which the schemes were set up and declarations that there have been violations of article four of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
As the challenges got under way, the DWP put out a statement saying: “We will be contesting these cases vigorously. These schemes are not slave labour. They play an important part in giving jobseekers the skills and experience they need to find work.
Nathalie Lieven QC, appearing for Miss Reilly, told London’s High Court that the geology graduate’s stint at the Kings Heath branch of Poundland involved carrying out very basic tasks such as sweeping and shelf stacking five hours a day for two weeks “without training, supervision or remuneration”.
Ms Lieven submitted to Mr Justice Foskett: “Such work did not contribute to (Miss Reilly’s) search for work to any extent.”
The QC described Poundland as a successful private company with a net turnover of more than £500 million and reported increasing profits.
Its code of conduct required it to conform to International Labour Organisation standards including workers receiving a minimum wage.
Miss Lieven said Miss Reilly graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2010 and first claimed jobseeker's allowance in August that year soon after graduation.
She hoped to work in museums and was now undertaking voluntary work at a local museum.
No-one had questioned her level of effort in seeking employment and she had been happy to look for paid work in the retail sector.
In October 2011 her Jobcentre Plus adviser told her that if she accepted a place on a "sector-based work academy" scheme she would undergo a week's training followed by a job interview, but she was not told what her rights and obligations were.
There was no interview.
Ms Lieven said Jamieson Wilson, the second applicant for judicial review, had been unemployed since 2008.
He was told last November he would be required to undertake up to six months of unpaid work cleaning furniture in the DWP's community action programme (CAP), and further periods of required work could follow.
Ms Lieven said Mr Wilson had recently been subjected to sanctions after refusing to take part in the scheme and now apparently faced the loss of jobseeker's allowance for six months.
Ms Lieven argued the regulations underpinning the schemes did not comply with the 1995 Jobseekers Act as they failed to give details of each of the schemes and the circumstances in which individuals could be required to take part.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith had also failed in his duty to publish a policy for each scheme.
Regulation four required individuals to be given specific notice of certain details, including what was required of them by a scheme and the consequences of not participating.
In Miss Reilly's case the secretary of state had admitted Regulation four was not complied with, but denied that meant he had acted unlawfully, said Ms Lieven.
She accused the minister of erring by seeming to "sub-delegate to private sector providers" how schemes were run, including whether those who refused unpaid work should lose their statutory entitlement to benefits.
"That is blatantly unlawful," she told the court.
Ms Lieven said it was clear on the facts of Miss Reilly's case that, although participation in her work scheme was said not to be compulsory initially, she had not been given the option of not working unpaid for a private company.
Miss Reilly had undoubtedly undertaken the work under "menace of penalty", in breach of her human rights.
The work she was required to do did not contribute to the public interest in any way as Poundland was a successful private company that held itself out as being "Europe's biggest single price discount retailer," argued Ms Lieven.
Mr Wilson's human rights case was simply that the CAP scheme was not compatible with Article 4.
Paul Nicholls QC, appearing for the DWP, argued that both legal challenges were "wrong in law".
He said the purpose of various work schemes was to assist the unemployed to better equip themselves for work, and thousands of people in different situations had benefited.
A total of 7,390 had participated in the sector-based work academy scheme up to February this year and around 4,000 had been involved in the CAP between August and November last year.
He argued both today's legal challenges should not be allowed to succeed because of the delay in bringing them to court.
The hearing continues on Wednesday.
►Below: ITVCentral interview with Cait Reilly and her solicitor Jim Duffy