Workfare: what happens when the government doesn’t want to release information?

You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.

Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.

It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.

That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.

As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.

The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.

In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.

Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.

We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.

In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.

In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.

Image: Andrew Writer (CC-by/2.0)


  1. Workfare has not ended, it is embedded into Section 16 (3)(e) of Welfare Reform Act 2012 for Universal Credit

    Mandatory workfare placements are also a part of the Work Programme (WP) scheme. WP referrals end 2017, but conscripts will be on the scheme till 2019.

    The Gov’s ‘Youth Obligation’ from April 2017 proposes to limit benefits to 6 months and thereafter, mandatory workfare is planned

    The DWP’s latest tactic on workfare related foi requests, concerning 6 month Community Work Placements (CWP), is to just ignore them It would appear that the DWP is ignoring at least 9 foi requests on CWP workfare

    Organisations like & consider #workfare to be any mandatory and ‘voluntary’ work (for benefits) organised through the Jobcentre.

    More background on the future of workfare in England

  2. No worries ‘Myfanwy’, acts as an excellent way to clarify and cross check. Appreciate comments on “value of persistence”.

    Would be good to add comments about this request, as it is a direct follow on from the one you talk about. In this new workfare related foi request, the DWP tactic is to just ignore the request and request for internal review. This DWP non reaction only seems to be resevered for workfare foi’s, some of which are on and also seemingly getting no response.