Leading article: Not slavery, work experience

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The Independent Online

There are any number of justifiable criticisms that can be made of the Government's welfare-to-work programme. But, as the High Court rules yesterday, the accusation that it amounts to slave labour is not one of them.

The two claimants – a geology graduate required to undertake a spell of work experience at Poundland and an HGV driver whose refusal to agree to unpaid work was putting his benefits at risk – sought redress through the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition of slavery and forced labour. But Mr Justice Foskett put the matter in perspective, pointing out their experiences were "a very long way from the kind of colonial exploitation of labour that led to the formulation of Article 4."

The judgment is a welcome one, not least because there is every reason to support human rights laws and the attempt to use them in this instance only plays into the hands of their detractors.

Not that the Work Programme is free from all censure. Despite rejecting the "slavery" claim, the judge did agree that the Department for Work and Pensions had not been sufficiently clear on the rules of the schemes. The Government claims it has now amended the letters it sends out, but yesterday's ruling is a well-deserved rap on the knuckles and clears the way for many more complaints to come.

There are also still unanswered questions about how far the big businesses taking on welfare-to-workers are inappropriately benefiting from government-subsidised labour. Such concerns can be dealt with easily enough, through careful design and monitoring, but there is much ground to be made up in proving that necessary safeguards are in place.

For all the caveats, however, it remains wholly reasonable to ask people who have been unemployed for some time to participate in schemes to help them into work. And the mantra about being made to work for free is simply not true: such workers are, after all, being paid benefits. It can only be hoped that Mr Justice Foskett's verdict will shift the debate away from hysteria about slavery and back to the real problem: getting people working again.