Jonathan Ashworth spoke of his own parents' experience of unemployment in the 1980s, saying it was "crushing" and "demoralising".
Benefits sanctions will continue under a Labour government despite the party’s package of employment reforms announced today.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth confirmed that there would be “conditionality” —whereby people have to behave a certain way to access benefits — in any welfare system overseen by the party.
Ashworth made the commitment as he announced a raft of reforms designed to make the welfare system less punitive and to incentivise people into work.
He said that “too often” the current welfare system “disincentivises” work, by making employment-seeking “too much of a risk”.
Under the current system people are obliged to repeat “arduous, lengthy and stressful” assessments to go back on the sickness benefits they initially received if a job doesn’t work out.
Ashworth said Labour would change this by allowing people to go back to receiving financial help if their job fell through after a year.
He told an event at the Centre for Social Justice: “For people who can’t work, they deserve security with inclusion, not fear or threats. A Labour government will always guarantee that.
“But when we know there are hundreds of thousands of people currently out of work and economically inactive who may want to participate in employment with the right support, then we owe it to them and their families to give them a fair chance to participate in decent employment.
“Let’s take away that fear and distrust which prevent so many from engaging with employment support and attempting a move into work.”
Ashworth made the comments as employment levels remain lower than before the Covid pandemic.
Approximately 2.5 million people are out of the workforce because of long-term sickness.
He said it was “frankly a scandal” that just one in 10 disabled or older people who were out of work were receiving support to get back into the jobs market.
And he accused the government of “writing people off” at a “huge” social and economic cost.
However, he said he wanted to be “clear” that sanctions would still apply to those who chose not to “engage sufficiently” in trying to find work.
“I want to be clear, there will be a conditionality regime within the benefit system,” he said.
″[William] Beveridge was clear, in his white paper 80 years ago, that people who did not engage sufficiently with trying to find work, that would lead to consequences.
“It should not be surprising that there will be conditionality, there will be rights and responsibilities running through the heart of social security.”
As well as reforming work capability assessments, the shadow health secretary repeated his pledge to reform job centres to give local areas more of a say over the services they provide, as first reported by HuffPost UK.
He also vowed to overhaul programmes offered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which he said did not offer “bang for our buck”.
“These various programmes, as a recent analysis found, amount to a massive £20 billion across 49 different employment and skills related schemes administered by 9 different government departments and agencies,” he said.
“I simply don’t accept we are getting bang for our buck.
“Instead we have a bewildering spaghetti junction of a fragmented system of different nationally imposed schemes with duplication and confusion failing to achieve the promises ministers make.”
Ashworth also rowed back on Labour’s pledge to scrap Universal Credit, saying the party would instead seek to “fundamentally reform” the policy, which unified the previous six benefits into a unified system.
In response, a Conservative party spokesperson said: “These are yet more cynical announcements from Labour, a party that has never left office with unemployment lower than it was when they were elected.
“Once again, Labour have broken more of Starmer’s promises – this time on Universal Credit and work capability assessments. It just goes to show that you can’t trust Labour’s word.
“In contrast, the Conservative government has delivered historic lows in unemployment, are ensuring low-paid workers keep more of their own money and are giving more people the opportunity to get into work.”
A spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) said: “PCS has long-standing opposition to sanctions.
“The punishments and threats of punishment that are fundamental to the conditionality regime in Jobcentres have proven not to work. This tough guy approach undermines the ability of PCS members working in Jobcentres to engage effectively with claimants. A supportive regime with fully funded services is far more likely to succeed in getting claimants into work.”