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Universal Credit should support workers, not punish them for not earning enough

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Punishing Universal Credit claimants who don't meet 'in-work conditionality’ requirements risks pushing more people into poverty.
  • The government plans to extend the conditions that Universal Credit claimants have to meet to people who are already in work.
  • If claimants don't meet these 'in-work conditions' they risk sanctions and losing access to vital support.
  • The TUC supports genuine progress in the workplace, but we think social security should support people, not punish them.

Universal Credit (UC) is one of the biggest reforms to the social security system for decades.

The government’s flagship benefits scheme has already been plagued by problems that are pushing more people into poverty.

Now the government is planning to extend the conditions that UC claimants have to meet to people who are already in work.

Under these plans, these workers will have to look for more (or better paid) work until they reach a certain income. And those who don’t meet these conditions could lose access to vital support.

This is known as ‘benefit conditionality’ and is part of the government’s new approach to in-work progression for those claiming Universal Credit (UC).

This punitive approach to in-work progression is extremely concerning. We fully support and encourage genuine progress in the workplace, but social security should support people, not punish them.

A better way would be to improve access to learning and skills at work – and to give trade unions a bigger role in developing these support systems.

Above all UC must be stopped and scrapped before it does any more damage.

No evidence that sanctions work

In April this year, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee launched an inquiry into Universal Credit and in-work progression .

This follows the results of earlier inquiry expressing concerns about the idea, and the caution urged by the head of the National Audit Office over the testing and implementation of the new policy.

Internal analysis from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) indicates that around 1 million UC claimants will be subjected to the new in-work conditionality requirements.

In 2017, £8 million was allocated to the DWP to trial pilots over the next four years. And while in-work conditionality has not yet been introduced in the areas where UC has been rolled out, it is planned for the future.

The TUC has made a submission to the latest inquiry explaining why this is not the right way forward.

There is no evidence that subjecting people to sanctions and punishments has any impact on pay or helping people progress in work. That’s because the barriers to increasing hours and wages are often structural – and therefore outside of workers’ control.

So the government’s punitive approach is simply increasing stress and anxiety for claimants – and will push more into poverty.

Barriers to better pay

The UC sanctions regime doesn’t take into account the obstacles that many claimants face in making progress at work.

People in insecure work often have little control over what days they work or their daily working hours. Claimants may struggle to attend interviews with a work coach, and employers can’t always offer them additional hours.

Then there are the childcare and other caring responsibilities they have to fit in with their working hours.

The pilots so far on in-work progression and conditionality don’t show us that it’s been effective at increasing hours or hourly pay. And the complex monthly assessment system makes it really hard to work out whether the corresponding benefit payment you receive leaves you better off or not.

The system also assumes that employers will engage with workers to help them progress at work, but there’s no evidence to suggest this will happen.

And let’s not forget the damage that nine years of austerity cuts have done to staffing levels at Job Centres – capacity to provide adequate time for a personalised service will be a key issue.

A better way

The TUC believes that improving access to learning and skills is a much better way of supporting in-work progression than making people take the first available job that meets UC’s ‘conditionality’ requirements.

And all the evidence shows that investment in learning and skills development benefits both the individual and the business they are employed with.

We're also worried that UC claimants will be less likely to benefit from in-work training opportunities in the future because low-wage workers face the most barriers on this front.

Role of unions

Trade unions also play a vital role in supporting adults to take up learning and training.

This is particularly true of union learning representatives, whose work to help disadvantage groups access learning and skills has been recognised by the OECD.

That’s why our submission to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry argued that unions must be engaged in the learning agenda.

Because unions know better than anyone how to help support workers to learn and grow in the job.

So instead of punishing the people who can least afford it, the government should dismantle the unfair UC sanctions regime and give unions a key role in designing an in-work progression scheme that actually works for workers.

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