Employment Minster acts to end benefit row

Employment minister Esther McVey is backing new regulations to stop discrimination against unemployed Jews who refuse to work on Shabbat.

Ms McVey and Jobcentre national director Neil Couling have told the Jewish employment charity JCom that rules would be “tweaked” to end the practice of denying job seekers allowance (JSA) to observant Jews.

The Department for Work and Pensions confirmed that there had been 50 cases of people from different religions being denied unemployment benefit at two Manchester job centres, where staff said that claimants’ religious observance interfered with their ability to work

At least 15 cases involved Jews, five of whom had won tribunal cases against the DWP. In one case, DWP bureaucrats had failed for six months to tell a Jewish woman that her appeal had been successful and that she could claim thousands of pounds in denied benefits.

Mr Couling confirmed that not being available for work on a Saturday due to religious commitments should not prevent claimants receiving JSA.

Manchester job centre staff were due to receive “training” in dealing with the issue from this week. No disciplinary action is expected against staff at the Cheetham Hill and Prestwich job centres where people were denied benefit.

It is unclear what guidance would be issued, although it is hoped written clarification specifically mentioning the rights of Shabbat observers to JSA would be published on the DWP’s website. The guidance forms part of official regulations called The Decision Makers’ Guide, which job centres must follow.

The meeting between the minister and JCom had been arranged by Bury MP Ivan Lewis. He said “The DWP made it very clear that legislation and guidance leading to observant Jews being penalised was wrong. They are willing to put that right, and that’s a very important step.”

“But we will judge it on the facts and if Jewish claimants are still discriminated against, I will be the first to go back to the minister and say this is not what was promised,” he warned.

JCom director, Norman Younger, who led a campaign over the issue, said the “positive attitude” of Ms McVey and Mr Couling had given JCom the confidence to encourage unemployed Jews to seek support from job centres, “something we couldn’t do in the past."

Last updated: 12:50pm, November 28 2013