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Social Justice

Universal credit claimants will be forced to apply for more jobs or lose their benefits

People claiming universal credit will have just four weeks to find a job in their field or face having their payments cut, ministers announced.

People on universal credit could see their payments cut just four weeks after signing up under a new strict government policy.

The government can currently sanction people who have not found a job in their field within three months of making a claim for universal credit.

But under new rules starting this week, people could lose their benefits after one month – a week before most claimants even receive their first payment.

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Their income could be at risk if the government thinks they are not making reasonable efforts to find a job – in any sector, not just in their area of expertise – or if they turn down a job offer.

“This announcement has more to do with trying to save the prime minister’s job than supporting people into work,” said Alison McGovern, Labour’s shadow employment minister.

“It’s just tinkering at the edges – long-term unemployment is 60 per cent higher than before the pandemic.

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“People should be supported into good jobs that match their skills, which would give them a better chance to secure work long-term.”

The ‘Way to Work’ initiative is targeted at unemployed people the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deems fit for work and at those in work but earning a small amount. Around 40 per cent of people on universal credit are already employed.

Announcing the scheme, the government said it would help 500,000 people into work by the end of June and promised extra support at job centres. But critics warned the move would do little to help claimants into long-term employment, with previous research showing benefit sanctions push people deeper into poverty and increase reliance on food banks.

“Helping people get any job now means they can get a better job and progress into a career,” said work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, who said work was the best way to get people out of poverty.

“Taking a forceful approach will not help everyone – especially disabled people – get into and remain in high quality and appropriate work,” said Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society and policy co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium.

“Instead, it risks creating huge amounts of anxiety and stress and could force people to do unsuitable, poorly paid and insecure jobs. The prime minister must understand that to help disabled people find work it has to be free from fear and threats.”

Wendy Chamberlain, work and pensions spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said: “This callous move could see skilled workers forced to accept insecure, short-term employment for fear of having the rug pulled out from under them, and create a cycle of unemployment.

“What is worse, these harsh sanctions could be applied within weeks of applying for universal credit – before people’s first payment even arrives.

“We are in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with energy bills soaring and reliance on food banks rising.

“If the government can write off billions in Covid fraud, they can afford to genuinely support those looking for work instead of sanctioning them.”

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Institute for Employment Studies director Tony Wilson said the idea that “getting new claimants to search harder will make any difference at all – let alone get millions into work – is complete nonsense” because so few people have been claiming universal credit for fewer than three months. Around three-quarters of the half a million claimants have been on universal credit for at least a year, and most do not fit into the searching-for-work category the Way to Work policy is aimed at.

Coffey added: “Way to Work is a step change in our offer to claimants and employers, making sure our jobcentre network and excellent work coaches can deliver opportunities, jobs and prosperity to all areas of the country.

“As we emerge from Covid, we are going to tackle supply challenges and support the continued economic recovery by getting people into work. Our new approach will help claimants get quickly back into the world of work while helping ensure employers get the people they and the economy needs.”

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