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make “reasonable efforts” to secure a job or turn down any offer, they will have part of their universal credit payment withdrawn under a tightening of the existing Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy.
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.
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. The move is part of an initiative to get 500,000 people into work by June and fill 1.2m job vacancies nationally.
The Way to Work campaign was flagged up as evidence as an attempt to distract from Johnson's political woes. 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.
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.
“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 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.