- Groups representing Work Programme providers say benefits shouldn’t be docked for claimants in work
- Government’s flagship Universal Credit scheme is trialling sanctions of claimants who already have jobs
- Evidence to parliamentary inquiry warns of impact of sanctions on people’s ability to work
By Chaminda Jayanetti
Two organisations that represent firms delivering controversial welfare-to-work schemes for the government have told a parliamentary inquiry that sanctions should not be applied to benefit claimants who already have jobs.
The government is currently trialling a scheme in which Universal Credit payments to people in low-paid work depend on them taking certain measures to increase their pay or hours, in the hope they then move off benefits.
These claimants can have their benefit payments sanctioned if Job Centre staff are unsatisfied with their efforts.
The Work and Pensions select committee, a House of Commons body that scrutinises the benefit system, is currently looking into the trial programme – called “in-work progression” – including its use of sanctions.
Widespread sanctioning of unemployed benefit claimants is a major cause of the explosion in food bank usage since 2010, making it one of the most controversial aspect of the welfare system.
And in written evidence submitted to the select committee, two groups that represent the companies and charities that deliver the government’s welfare-to-work schemes have come out against sanctions for in-work claimants.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said in its evidence to the committee that measures to encourage low-paid Universal Credit claimants to increase their incomes and move off benefits should be entirely voluntary, with no sanctions used anywhere in the system.
In its evidence, the AELP stated: “We do not believe that a sanction regime would work. There is a fundamental point that if the objective is to build an individual’s income, then sanctioning them (ie reducing their income) for not participating in what is a voluntary programme is pointless.”
The AELP called for a programme based on training in the workplace, which it says is already regulated and has a low drop-out rate, concluding: “We do not therefore support the notion of sanctioning against the model we have suggested.”
The Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) was more equivocal than the AELP, but said in its evidence that the use of sanctions should be pushed to the margins of the new system: “ERSA is concerned about the potential of sanctioning individuals in work who are deemed to be failing to ‘progress’ in work.
“It believes that conditionality should be limited to requiring individuals to engage with the service [at] the outset and that individuals already working at capacity, perhaps because of health conditions or disabilities, should be exempt from conditionality requirements.”
The ERSA is a controversial organisation, due to its role in promoting the government’s Work Programme, in which unemployed people are forced to take part in various activities, including unpaid work – called “workfare” – in order to receive their benefit payments.
The Work Programme is delivered by the private companies and charities that make up ERSA’s membership. The scheme has been dogged by accusations of corruption and ineffectiveness, and controversy over their close relationship to benefit sanctions for the unemployed. The ERSA has been the target of numerous protests as a result.
Early last year the ERSA criticised the heavy use of sanctions against unemployed people in evidence to a previous select committee hearing, and in its evidence to the current inquiry into in-work progression, it said: “The individuals involved will already [be] engaged with the world of work and thus the barrier to progression is less likely to be motivational and more likely to be connected to skills, infrastructure issues, such as lack of childcare or transport, job availability and confidence.
“The effect of a sanction might conversely make it more difficult for an individual to engage in their current job, potentially by making transport unaffordable or leading to other hardship which affects their ability to work.”
The ERSA statement added that conditionality “should always respect that individual’s current employment, with work responsibilities always prioritised ahead of appointments with an in-work service.”
The Department for Work and Pensions claims that sanctions will only be used as a last resort for in-work claimants – “where a claimant has failed to meet a reasonable requirement with no good reason” – but in documents released last year under the Freedom of Information Act, the DWP additionally said that “no in-work claimants will be subjected to stronger conditionality than that found in the out-of-work regime”.
The list of sanctions frivolously meted out by Job Centre staff to out-of-work claimants is both long and infamous – with people sanctioned because they missed a meeting due to being in hospital, attending a funeral, or accompanying their wife in labour, among others.
The DWP insists that conditionality is a necessary part of the in-work progression trial, in order to establish whether they encourage low-paid people to increase their incomes. Under the trial, some claimants will be subject to the full sanctions regime, while others will receive a light touch approach, with the DWP comparing the results.
“Catalogue of corruption”
Boycott Workfare, which has campaigned for years against the Work Programme, workfare and Job Centre sanctions, stated its complete opposition to conditionality in its response to the select committee: ” The harmful effects of sanctions have been well-documented… Extending conditionality (which will include sanctions) to those who are in work extends these harms to a wider population and will function to punish people on the receiving end of the UK’s low-pay no-pay precarious labour market.”
While criticising the use of sanctions, both the AELP and the ERSA support in-work progression in principle, and both recommended that it be delivered by private companies and charities rather than by Job Centres themselves.
These companies and charities would, in all likelihood, be members of one or both organisations.
Boycott Workfare, in its statement to the select committee, was scathing about such providers: “The record of organisations involved with compulsory work schemes is dire on all accounts. It is a catalogue of corruption, violation of work and safety standards, and abuse. This isn’t a case of a few bad apples, but an institution that is rotten [to] its core.
“Certainly, people in low-paid employment should have access to further education and training. We hear constantly from unemployed people who have endeavoured to go on courses or receive training that would give them better chances of finding a job. Their biggest obstacle? Compulsory DWP schemes and workfare.
“And now you want to subject low-paid workers to this farce.”