When Universal Credit is fully introduced (stop laughing) Jobcentres will have the powers to dictate how many hours a claimant should be working to remain eligible for what are now called Tax Credits and Housing Benefit. Those without children, who do not have a health condition, will be required to spend up to 35 hours a week either working or taking part in work related activity such as looking for additional work or even attending workfare. Failure to comply will result in a sanction.
The implications are chilling. Under the new rules part-time workers will have to attend a job interview with just 48 hours notice or their benefits will be stopped. This is likely to mean someone required to take time off their existing employment – at short notice – to attend a job interview somewhere else. If they go to work instead of the interview they could face a sanction. As anyone who has ever had a real job will know, this will place claimants in an impossible position forcing to them to make the choice between risking being sacked or sanctioned. And unfortunately their boss will probably find out they are looking for a new job whatever they do because part of their work related activity may include being mandated to set up an online profile to “draw attention to their availability” for alternative employment.
Claimants should not face a sanction if they can demonstrate a ‘good reason’ (pdf) for not carrying out work related activity such as attending an interview. But no-one is likely to tell them this. Anyone who thinks that these new rules will not lead to people being sanctioned for going to work has not seen the ever growing lists of sanctions handed out to claimants for petty, inappropriate and sometimes even bizarre reasons. Not being able to carry out work related activity because your boss makes it impossible is not even mentioned in the decision maker’s guidance, the rule book for the faceless back office Jobcentre staff who impose sanctions.
Ministers had said that people would not face a sanction if it means giving up a part-time job to attend a temporary position with longer hours. But even the guidance on this is vague. Decision makers are advised that someone should not be forced to leave their job to take up a fortnight’s full time temporary work but beyond this it is left to them to take a “common sense approach”.
It is astonishing, and horrifying that Iain Duncan Smith’s obsession with benefit sanctions could now actually cost people their jobs. It is what will happen to those who are sanctioned however that reveals the breath-taking cruelty behind this policy.
Somebody working 16 hours a week on minimum wage and paying £90 a week in rent (around the average Housing Benefit award) will receive £104 a week in wages and £111 under Universal Credit, a total of £215. If they are sanctioned they will lose the equivalent of a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment, currently £72.40, for each week the sanction remains in place. Depending on where they live they will almost certainly have to pay some Council Tax from that sum, around here that would be £8 a week for someone living in the cheapest band. After paying this, and their rent, the claimant will be left with just £44.60 a week to pay for food, clothes, bills and fares to work. This sum will be enough to disqualify them from claiming Hardship Payments or any other form of additional help.
It is difficult to imagine how someone could maintain the level of health and hygeine necessary to hold down a job on such a paltry income, unless they stop paying their rent. Homelessness or unemployment will be the stark choice facing sanctioned working claimants – although if they leave their job they will be sanctioned again, or possibly disallowed any benefit completely. Even if they are able to increase their hours it will barely make a difference. For every pound they earn they will lose 65p of what little benefit they have left whilst their Council Tax liability may also rise as they earn more. Working another four hours a week would still not give them an income above £50 a week according to the turn2us benefit calculator. There will be no escape. People who are working will be condemned to desperate poverty and the longest sanctions can last for three years.
All of the main political parties support the principles behind Universal Credit, even if they are sceptical about whether the IT necessary for the system is genuinely achievable. Few of them seem to have looked into the details of what they are supporting – and what will happen to people who are self-employed is even worse (watch this space). These rules are aimed at people with jobs, not the unemployed. The DWP is out of control under Iain Duncan Smith and the suffering that is yet to come unless someone puts the brakes on will dwarf anything we have seen so far.
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