Lying to select committees: the penalty

On Monday 19th March, Chris Grayling was asked by the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Anne Begg. [Update: Anne Begg was in hospital, apparently the Chair on this occasion was Harriet Baldwin.] if a person who is in the Work Programme could be forced to work against their will as a matter of policy. The question was phrased as “another possible area for confusion”:

Say you are in the Work Programme and are in one of the black boxes; is it possible that some of those black boxes contain mandatory work experience and that is where some of the media confusion is coming from?

In answer, Chris Grayling told an unblushing lie.

There is no evidence to suggest that has happened, and indeed all of our Work Programme providers said to us, “What would be the point of forcing somebody to go and work for one of our commercial partners, because if we did we would lose the opportunity to send other people in the future?” What we have done since the Work Experience row is sat down with our Work Programme providers and agreed with them that they will pursue exactly the same strategy as us nationally for the Work Experience scheme. They have the power to mandate but they will only mandate to community benefit projects. All participation in Work Experience with commercial organisations will be done on a voluntary basis in the Work Programme as well as through Jobcentre Plus. So we have exactly the same rules applied across the board and we are making sure all the guidance is in line with that.

Cait Reilly was made to work for Poundland, not a community benefit project. This was not done on a voluntary basis. She isn’t the only one: she’s just the only one who stood up and said that it wasn’t right for the government to make her do minimum-wage work for a big company, at the taxpayer’s expense, and especially not when she had already arranged voluntary work for a community benefit project at her local museum.

“What would be the point of forcing somebody to go and work for one of our commercial partners, because if we did we would lose the opportunity to send other people in the future?”

The rule about not making people work for Tescos unpaid, if it really exists, only existed since 17th February 2012 – just a month before Grayling gave evidence to a select committee that Eurasia had always been at war with Eastasia – er, that the rule Tesco and other workfare providers objected to and DWP had perforce to change, had never existed.

We don’t actually know what’s happening in JobCentrePlus and DWP any more, because DWP are claiming they don’t have to answer FOI requests about the Work Programme, as this is not in their commercial interests. (What “commercial interests” do the DWP have in workfare? Again, not something they’ll answer via FOI.)

But as Johnny Void notes:

Up until recently the DWP’s Work Programme Provider Guidance stated:

“Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.”

When this paragraph was pointed out, after Grayling had lied in the Telegraph that no-one was mandated to work for a big company, it promptly disappeared from the the guidance notes. Perhaps this is what Grayling meant when he said that guidance had been updated to bring it into line with the new rules that up until last Monday hadn’t even been announced.

So what are the penalties for lying to Parliament?

Imprisonment or a substantial fine could theoretically be imposed as a punishment by parliament on anyone who told lies in evidence to a select committee. Misleading MPs is deemed to amount to a “contempt of the house” in the same way that refusing to answer a summons to appear before a committee is reported to the Commons. The offender would be summoned to the bar of the house.

No one has been fined by Parliament since 1666: no one has been imprisoned by Parliament since the 19th century: and no one has been summoned to the bar of the House for reprimand since 1957 “when the Sunday Express editor John Junor was criticised after offending MPs by publishing an editorial accusing them of abusing their petrol allowances.”

What is far more likely than Chris Grayling being forced to resign or fined or imprisoned for lying to a Select Committee is that he will be given an opportunity to correct the record. The transcript from which Chris Grayling’s lie is taken reminds us:

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

A few small word-changes in Chris Grayling’s evidence and it can transmute from jawdropping unblushing lies with clear intent to deceive Parliament and public, to, well, glossy fibbing, putting the best angle on things, did I forget to put the blame on poorly-paid Job Centre staff misunderstanding their instructions? Pretty sure that’ll happen.

Or else the lie will be let stand, Anne Begg will take no action, and we will know that neither Labour nor Conservatives consider it any of the public business how the DWP force unemployed people into workfare.

Update: It may not be so easy to correct the record.

From a report made by the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on 14 March 2011:

1. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has laid this instrument under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, the Social Security Act 1998 and the Jobseekers Act 1995 (as modified by the Welfare Reform Act 2009) along with an Explanatory Memorandum (EM). A report by the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), a statutory consultee has been published with the instrument (“the Act Paper”).[1] The Committee also sought further evidence from the DWP. Their response is printed in Appendix 1.

2. The instrument sets up the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme. This is defined in Regulation 2 as “a scheme within section 17A (schemes for assisting persons to obtain employment: “work for your benefit” schemes etc.) of the Act … that is designed to provide work or work-related activity for up to 30 hours per week over a period of four consecutive weeks with a view to assisting claimants to improve their prospects of obtaining employment”. These Regulations also provide for Jobcentre Plus personal advisers to have discretion to require that a Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant participates in the Scheme and sets sanctions for those who fail to participate without good cause. Claimants will still be required to be actively seeking work during their time on the Scheme which is one of the conditions of receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).

The report is damning: questions about the Work Experience Programme are raised that Chris Grayling was later to complain must be from the “Socialist Worker Party” (query: how many SWP members sit on House of Lords committees?) but the key quote that proves Chris Grayling lied to a select committee last Monday is:

The [Social Security Advisory Committee]’s letter to the Secretary of State included in the Act Paper states explicitly the concerns of consultees that the scheme appears to be a punishment rather than a way to help people improve their skills and help them back into work (paragraphs 4.4 & 5.2). This view is underpinned by the very strict sanction régime – failure to participate fully in the 4-week scheme without good cause results in a 3-month benefit sanction. Failure to participate following a second referral to a scheme would result in loss or reduction of JSA for 6 months. Unusually, the claimant cannot avert the penalty by re-engaging with the scheme, and the first sanction is more severe than for other circumstances where the length of an initial penalty for failing to meet particular requirements is more normally 2 weeks’ loss of benefit.

Let’s recap. Chris Grayling claimed to the Parliamentary Select Committee that “There is no evidence to suggest that has happened” with regard to the use oif statutory powers which were queried by the House of Lords last year: that we know have been used, repeatedly to get people to do workfare placements for commercial companies like Tesco and Poundland: that we have fair reason to suspect continue to be used, because DWP claims they cannot reveal placements due to their “commercial interests”. While official JobCentre language is to speak of benefits claimants as “customers”, the official twitterfeed of the Department of Work and Pensions regards the businesses receiving workfare placements as their customers. Is the DWP now being run for the benefit of the businesses who are being supplied with cheap labour – also a concern of the Lords committee that scrutinised the statutory instrument?

When will Anne Begg call Chris Grayling back to appear before the Select Committee and clarify his answers of 19th March – which certainly look like a deliberate attempt to mislead Parliament?

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Filed under Benefits, Economics, Poverty

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