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UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has reportedly repeated unfair misrepresentations against a young woman whose court battle exposed the injustice of forcing unemployed people to work for free.
From a Christian viewpoint this appears to break the commandment against bearing false witness, but one may also wonder whether it is unlawful slander?
Cait Reilly, a geology graduate, won a case at the Appeal Court after being forced to work at Poundland for free or lose her benefits. As she has repeatedly made it clear, for instance in an article in the Guardian, she had no objection to working in a shop: indeed she already had retail experience. In fact she now has a job in a supermarket. But she did want paid work, or something that would advance her chances of this.
In fact she was already in the midst of a work experience placement that she had organised for herself, which would have increased her chances of being employed in a museum and made use of an expensive degree, as well as giving something back to the community through volunteering.
But she was forced to cut this valuable work short in order to stack and clean shelves in Poundland for two weeks, at the taxpayer's expense, so as not to lose her Job Seekers Allaowance -- even though this meant she was severely limited in seeking paid work and was gaining no useful training.
Such placements can last for far longer, in her words “longer than the community service orders handed out to many criminals.” She would have been willing to “grab a paid job in Poundland with both hands” but this was very different.
Well-run and truly voluntary work experience schemes can be valuable. But forcing people to work unpaid for large corporations is of questionable social value, especially if there is a risk that they will replace paid staff and so increase unemployment.
Reilly set out to challenge the scheme and found herself vilified by journalists hostile to welfare benefit claimants on low incomes, as well as by Mr Duncan Smith. In an interview with the Sunday Times in January 2013, he reportedly described her as a “snooty so-and-so. She seemed to say she shouldn’t stack shelves because she’s intelligent. The way she sneered — as if she was too good for it.”
But this is a gross misrepresentation of her position. To make things worse, he apparently tried to smear her again after the court judgement went against him, as well as seeming unashamed about his department breaking the law. On the Andrew Marr show, he appeared to imply that she was part of “a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff."
Such a claim is not just unpleasant but could, if a prospective employer believed it, damage someone’s job prospects, as well as causing distress and affecting their community standing.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” is one of the often-quoted Ten Commandments in Hebrew scripture, which most Jewish and Christian people think are of foundational help in living ethically. On might expect Mr Duncan Smith, a high profile Catholic, to remember this.
It might also be advisable for civil servants or government advisers to check whether UK law is being properly observed. While ministers and their media allies are used to making claims of dubious accuracy about unemployed and disabled people collectively, there are laws governing what can be written and said about specific individuals, whatever their income.
Of course it might be assumed that such questions are unimportant: someone on a low income would usually be unable to afford to take action against a millionaire. But it is bad practice for government figures to give the impression that they might be cavalier about these matters. It is also politically risky: if any ordinary person who challenges an abuse of power might have untrue claims about his or her conduct circulated to millions, how secure will people feel?
* Cait Reilly, 'Why the government was wrong to make me work in Poundland for free', Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/15/unemployed-young-peo...
* Faisal Islam, 'The Government and 'snooty so-and-sos', Channel 4: http://blogs.channel4.com/faisal-islam-on-economics/the-cabinet-and-the-...
* Shiv Malik and agencies, 'Iain Duncan Smith: shelf-stacking as important as a degree': http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/17/iain-duncan-smith-shelf-st...
* BBC News: 'IDS attacks people who 'think they're too good' for work schemes': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21490542
* Law on the web: Defamation Law: http://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/Defamation_Law
(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular commentator on social justice, religion, politics, welfare, theology and church affairs. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equality and care sector.Tweet