Now, many more cowardly commentators might fall into the trap of not using an argument based on human rights legislation on the basis that it is commonly held in the UK that 'uman rights are the root cause of crime, social breakdown, childhood obesity and Ordinarydecentbritons not being able to call wogs wogs any more, and what is the world coming to?  Well, bollocks to that, here's a little something for IDS to chew on with his morning cornflakes:

European Convention on Human Rights

Article 4

  1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

  2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

  3. For the purpose of this article the term forced or compulsory labour' shall not include:

    • (a) any work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention imposed according to the provisions of Article 5 of this Convention or during conditional release from such detention;

    • (b) any service of a military character or, in case of conscientious objectors in countries where they are recognized, service exacted instead of compulsory military service;

    • (c) any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community;

    • (d) any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations.

Now, what this means is that the government can't actually force people into unpaid work without tripping all the anti-fascist alarms Churchill and his merry band of liberty-loving British legal experts built into the ECHR in their attempt to inoculate Europe against totalitarianism.  However, being the ECHR and thus (as any Sun journalist should know, but doesn't mention) it has holes in you can drive a bus through.  Specifically Section 3(d) effectively gives the State a free serfdom pass if they can prove that the work they're forcing the unemployed to do forms part of 'normal civic obligations', in this case presumbly the hoops you have to jump through to receive benefits.

Unfortunately for IDS and co. there is a bit of a precedent for this in the form (inevitably) of a New Labour attempt to force asylum seekers to work for their benefits in 2004.  This ran straight into Article 4 and Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights gave the idea both barrels:

14. The obligation to perform community work as a condition of entitlement to hard case support is likely to amount to "forced or compulsory labour" unless it is within the scope of any of the excluded forms of labour in Article 4(3) ECHR. The Government asserts that requiring the performance of such work by failed asylum seekers is compatible with Article 4 ECHR because what is required of them "would not go beyond what we would regard as the individual's normal civic duty";[12] in other words, the Government argues that the obligation to do community work is within the scope of Article 4(3)(d) ECHR.

15. We are not persuaded that requiring failed asylum seekers to perform community service as a condition of receiving support to avoid destitution can be said to form part of "normal civic obligations". An obligation to perform community service as a condition of receiving emergency social assistance is not a "normal civic obligation" in the UK. On the contrary, it appears to us to be without precedent or even analogy.

It is very telling for the principled side of the Coalition that the new policy at Work and Pensions appears to be 'New Labour asylum policy applied to everyone', complete with blatant attempts to rewrite history.  It's also increasingly obvious why the Tories' freak-wing hate the HRA with such a passion - it's the same reason they hate unions, strikes, left wing publications, worker organisation, protests and anything else that gets in the way of being gratuitiously nasty to the weak.  One of the better side effects of Coalition is that Ken Clarke, who gets a lot of respect from me for sticking to his guns and a lot of abuse from frothing right wing Tories for virtually everything else does have a lot of allies on the side of the humans in this battle.  A key point to watch for is the first time one a Coalition policy ends up in front of a bloody-minded judge on blatant HRA breaking grounds.