The government has refused to extend the suspension on benefit sanctions beyond June, despite warnings that lifting the ban now threatens to place millions of people in an “untenable situation”.
In March the government announced that the requirement for people receiving universal credit to prove that they are looking for work – which would currently apply to more than 2 million people on the benefit – would be paused for three months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Charities told The Independent last week that people who were shielding or suffered from underlying health conditions would face an “uphill struggle” to find suitable work – and may potentially accept jobs that place their health at risk in order to avoid benefit sanctions.
There were also mounting concerns that ongoing disruption to schools and childcare options mean people may need to care for their children during the time they could otherwise spend working or applying for jobs, which could result in them being sanctioned.
However, the work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, confirmed on Monday that there would be no extension to the temporary ban, saying it was “essential” that benefit claimants consider what vacancies there might be.
During a sitting in the House of Commons, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds asked Ms Coffey: “At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, when vacancies have dropped, when people are shielding and when schools haven’t gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they don’t look for jobs is surely untenable, so will the secretary of state announce an immediate extension?”
To which Ms Coffey responded: “It’s important that as the job centres fully reopen this week, we do reinstate the need for having the claimant commitment. It’s an essential part of the contract to help people start to consider what vacancies there might be.
She added: “I know I can trust the work coaches and job centre managers, who are in power to act proactively with people. There will be some people who have never had to look for a job the last 20 to 30 years, and they will need careful support tailored to make sure they can start to look for the jobs that are available and that I hope will become very soon available.”
Responding to her remarks afterwards, Mr Reynolds said it was “incomprehensible” that the government was bringing back conditionality and sanctions at a time when unemployment has risen sharply, vacancies have dropped, people are still shielding and the schools aren’t back.
He added: “What’s more, Job Centre Plus is still lacking guidance on how premises might even open safely. With the unemployment crisis looming, it is alarming that there is no thought being given on how to offer proper support to those seeking work at this time. We need a proper plan from the government to get Britain back to work – sanctions aren’t the answer.”
Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the move to axe sanction relief was “a terrible decision”, tweeting: “With unemployment rising, the economy flat-lining and millions left with no support, families face unbelievable challenges. The government must suspend benefit sanctions until the coronavirus crisis has passed.”
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, told The Independent last week that it was “way too soon” to end the suspension of conditionality and sanctions for people claiming universal credit.
“The assumption that people need to be pushed into job search through the threat of reducing their already low income is ridiculous when what they really need is support,” she added.
Brian Dow, deputy chief executive at Rethink Mental Illness, echoed her concerns, saying the prospect of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reintroducing work-related conditionality threatened to place “millions of people in an untenable situation”.
He added: “Given the sharp rise in unemployment and substantial fall in job vacancies, reinstating it would only exacerbate the anxiety and stress of those who have been supported by universal credit during the pandemic, including those managing long term health conditions or a severe mental illness.”