Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has been clobbered with a string of legal battles over his benefits reforms. Now he is facing a battle from unemployed Jews over jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
It has been an ongoing saga since the JC revealed that some jobcentres uphold a policy that Jews who will not work on Shabbat are not trying hard enough to get a job. Jews are then denied JSA and left with little money to live on. Fifteen cases have so far come to light, but there are likely to be many more.
The latest case, reported on this page, reveals that the Department for Work and Pensions appeal system is, to say the least, flawed.
The root of the problem is the law which says benefits claimants must “have reasonable prospects of gaining employment” if they restrict their hours of work for religious reasons. MPs and lawyers say this rule is open to abuse by jobcentres which automatically deny JSA to those who refuse to work on Shabbat, without considering whether they, nonetheless, “have reasonable prospects” of getting of job. It amounts to discrimination. Tens of thousands of Shabbat-observant Jews have jobs in every business sector — Shabbat is clearly no barrier to employment.
The Department for Work and Pensions argues that it simply follows the rules — if you do not work on Saturdays, like everyone else, it can harm your chances of securing a job.
The problem for the DWP is that, since the summer, three tribunal judges have separately ruled against it and in favour of Jews who have brought appeals — confirming that jobcentres are misapplying the law.
For the law to change, a case needs to be brought to the High Court, rather than the tribunals.
But there is a much simpler and less costly solution for Mr Duncan Smith, who has nominated Esther McVey, the minister of state for employment, to take his place in a meeting with Jewish MP Ivan Lewis over the JSA problem next week.
Welfare ministers have the power to issue guidance to all jobcentres clarifying the law in specific cases. This is routine, and clarifications are displayed publicly on the DWP’s website.
Last month, the department amended JSA rules so that people who are unwell are not be penalised for not being available for work.
So next Thursday Ms McVey could resolve the issue by giving out guidance that Shabbat observers must be paid JSA, just the same as everyone else.