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Support not sanctions needed to help people back into work

Published date
With unemployment on the rise, we need a stronger social safety net, not more punishment for jobseekers.

Millions of claimants are set to experience the harshness of benefits sanctions unless the government reconsiders plans to end a suspension of the punitive regime.

The jobs market has shrunk dramatically in recent months and with the winding-up of the job retention scheme, the challenges of finding work will be enormous.

The threat of sanctions places additional stress and anxiety on job seekers, when what they really need is support in getting a job.

Changes introduced in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act tightened the sanctions regime, and resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of sanctions.

The current benefit sanctions regime is callous. There are structural and personal barriers to gaining employment. The mind-set that unemployed people are to blame for their situation has led to the imbalance between conditionality and effective support.

The damage caused by sanctions

There are many reasons why the TUC is troubled by the current system. We have been clear that it has to end – as we set out in the welfare charter endorsed by Congress in 2016.

Financial hardship resulting from sanctions has been devastating to claimants. There is a strong link between increased benefit sanctions and higher foodbank use.

Mental and physical health has suffered as a result of sanctions. There are also serious effects on the wider family, particularly children, because of the loss of income.

Sanctions are often vastly disproportionate. People have had their benefits stopped for reasons as minor as being minutes late to a meeting, or missing an appointment because they were in hospital. This can lead to claimants receiving no income for months at a time.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee heard repeatedly that when a claimant’s commitment was not tailored to their personal circumstances, it resulted in unrealistic and/or unachievable conditionality. In such circumstances, claimants were sanctioned because they simply were not able, rather than not willing, to comply.

Harsher sanctions are counterproductive

Harsher conditionality and sanctions have been justified to motivate people to engage with job centre support and in taking active steps to move closer to work. However, the evidence of the effectiveness of the policy is rather limited.

The Welfare Conditionality Project, a major study on sanctions found:

  • Intensified welfare conditionality encouraged counterproductive behaviour that hindered effective attempts to secure employment.
  • Respondents commonly regarded Jobcentres and Work Programme providers as being primarily focused on ensuring compliance with benefit claim conditions rather than helping people into work.
  • Pressure to achieve more demanding job application/work search requirements and avoid punitive sanctions, led to people applying for jobs they had no realistic chance of getting.

We need to rebuild our social safety net

The government must rethink its plans. Covid-19 has hit the economy hard. The employment impact has yet to fully feed through to official figures, but experimental statistics from HMRC show that UK employees on payroll fell by 600,000 between March and May.  

Job losses are likely to be high. The government’s Office for Budget Responsibility predicts an unemployment rate somewhere between 10 to 14 per cent. This would be the highest unemployment rate since the interwar period.

Given the threat we face the focus should be on job creation and personalised job support. It is not the time to reimpose counterproductive sanctions. Instead, we need a real job guarantee scheme, and a renewed attempt to rebuild our social safety net.

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