Earlier on this week, the Department for Work and Pensions suffered defeat in the Court of Appeal in relation to the legality of its back to work schemes. There was much jubilation from campaigners, who have been protesting vigorously about the mandatory nature of requiring claimants to undertake work activities, or face having their benefit payments removed. Lord Justice Pill found that regulations creating these schemes had failed to properly prescribe their descriptions in law. It's a technical point of law essentially.
In his judgement, passed with the agreement of two colleagues, LJ Pill said, "Simply to give a scheme a name cannot, in context, be treated as a prescribed description of a scheme in which claimants may be required to participate". Other arguments had been advanced by solicitors taking the case for the affected claimants, including one raising the possibility that their human rights had been breached under Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Basically, this prohibits slavery and forced labour being imposed on European citizens.
On this argument, LJ Pill was pretty unequivocal - his response to this point was, "Given arrangements properly made under the Act, article 4 would not be engaged." In a subsequent statement, made in consideration of other European caselaw, he added that "Provided the arrangements made serve the statutory purpose stated in section 17A, they need not infringe article 4." Pretty straightforward in his judgement one would imagine? That was certainly the reading of our rightsnet team when they examined the judgement in full and posted a news story on this issue.
Yet, curiously, Twitter was febrile in response to the ruling, with high volumes of dramatic statements along the lines of "court of appeal outlaws #workfare as slavery". This may have originally arisen because the Press Association used similar wording when the story was first breaking. Yet this was palpably not a conclusion within the written decision. Many media commentators were unsure what the judgement actually meant, and Lasa was contacted to clarify the decision by national broadcasters. Eventually, as the real reasons for the government defeat became clear, the initial storm did quieten down (and indeed, the government introduced new regulations almost immediately).
For me, this illustrates one of the downsides, or dangers, of placing an over-reliance on the social media network as a reliable source for news and information. A golden rule for journalists is that all facts should be confirmed by two trusted sources. On Twitter, there were literally thousands of sources, apparently certain in the veracity of the ruling being on human rights grounds of slavery and forced labour. The one thing that they did have in common was that they were wrong. I understand the anger felt by campaign supporters against benefit claimants being threatened with sanctions for failing to participate in schemes, but it is also crucial that we properly understand why important legal decisions are being taken.
Whilst social media can provide free and easy ways for us to communicate, to share experience, and to think about new ways to interact, I think we also need to be sensible and cautious sometimes. The recent case related to Lord McAlpine reinforces this view, albeit in a much graver context perhaps. In much the same way as people are advised to refrain from sending emails in anger, instead taking a deep breath and coming back to the message in a calm state of mind, I think we need to be realistic about what those 140 characters are really telling us about a story. The truth may be far more complex than that which first appears.
Posted by Terry Stokes on 15/02/2013