Universal credit claimants face tough sanctions in UK job crackdown

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Universal credit claimants face tough sanctions in UK job crackdown
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Unemployed workers will be forced to take up a job in any sector or face swift financial sanctions under a crackdown designed to fill hundreds of thousands of vacancies in sectors from social care to construction, ministers have announced.

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Claimants will be given just four weeks – down from three months – to find a job within their preferred sector. After that point, if they fail to make “reasonable efforts” to secure a job or turn down any offer, they will have part of their universal credit payment withdrawn under a tightening of existing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy.

Related: Covid variants have led to worse global unemployment, says ILO

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The move, which is part of an initiative to get 500,000 people into work by June and fill 1.2m job vacancies nationally, comes as Boris Johnson seeks to reassert control over the political agenda amid the “partygate” crisis.

The Way to Work campaign was flagged up by an embattled Johnson at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday as evidence that the government was focused on the Covid recovery – leading to opposition claims that it was an attempt to distract from his political woes.

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Labour’s Alison McGovern, the shadow employment minister, said: “This announcement has more to do with trying to save the prime minister’s job than supporting people into work. It’s just tinkering at the edges – long-term unemployment is 60% higher than before the pandemic.”

Cracking down on the unemployed has long been regarded as popular with many voters, although welfare experts said that any rise in levels of benefit sanctions could backfire as low-income families struggle with the cost of living crisis.

Currently work-ready unemployment benefit claimants have three months to find a job in their preferred sector – typically their area of expertise – before sanctions are threatened. The new rules mean sanctions could be imposed four weeks after they make their initial claim for universal credit – in theory, even before they receive their first benefit payment.

The move is the most eye-catching part of a newly launched employment campaign. This also promises more tailored support from, and face-to-face time with, job coaches to help claimants find work.

“Helping people get any job now means they can get a better job and progress into a career,” the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, said. “Way to Work is a step-change in our offer to claimants and employers, making sure our jobcentre network and excellent work coaches can deliver opportunities, jobs and prosperity to all areas of the country.

Related: Young people from poorer homes twice as likely to quit job since pandemic

“As we emerge from Covid, we are going to tackle supply challenges and support the continued economic recovery by getting people into work. Our new approach will help claimants get back into the world of work quickly, while helping ensure that employers get the people they and the economy need.”

However, welfare experts said the tightening of benefit sanctions would be counterproductive and could force people into worse jobs and damage careers. They said ministers were out of touch with the realities of life on a low income and ignored the evidence about how best to get people into secure, decently paid work.

“Pushing people to apply for any job regardless of its suitability, underpinned by the very real threat of benefit sanctions, is corrosive to relationships between claimants and advisers, and risks pushing people into insecure and unsuitable employment,” said Ruth Patrick, a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York.

“This is not a way to work, it is a way to policy failure. The government is right that people need and deserve good jobs, but these will not be delivered by compelling people to seek any work, and against a context of continuing in-work poverty.”

The UK’s foremost academic expert on benefit sanctions, David Webster, said that governments often tightened punishments for jobseekers when they were worried about apparently slow uptake of jobs after a recession. But there was no serious evidence that sanctions had ever got more people into work.

Related: The Guardian view on benefit levels: the only way is up | Editorial

“It is simply wasteful to force people quickly into roles that can lead to bad job matches, and push people into worse jobs, often with lasting ill-effects for their career and earning prospects. You can’t force square pegs into round holes,” the University of Glasgow research fellow said.

The government’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, found no evidence that benefit sanctions work, and concluded that they were as likely to force people to stop claiming benefits without getting a job as they were to get them into employment.

The last big sanctions drive occurred between 2010 and 2016 when, at its height, 1 million people a year were sanctioned, leading to widespread poverty and hardship. This was subsequently eased, and sanctions were temporarily suspended under the first lockdown, but in recent months sanctions levels have crept up again.

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