I didn’t respond immediately to the Government announcement of new rules for unemployed people, because I can’t actually make sense of those rules. All I’ve found to go on is a press release, which tells me that unemployed people will be expected to find work in any job, regardless of skills, after four weeks. More specifically, the press release says this:
those who are capable of work will be expected to search more widely for available jobs from the fourth week of their claim, rather than from three months as is currently the case. … Under existing rules claimants have 3 months to find a job in their preferred sector before facing the prospect of sanctions. New rules will mean that sanctions could begin 4 weeks after their initial UC claim, if they’re not making reasonable efforts to find and secure a job in any sector or turn down a job offer.
The way the system is supposed to work is this. People make a claim for Universal Credit when they become unemployed. They are then invited to a meeting with a work coach who gets them to sign a claimant commitment. They do not receive benefit before five weeks. So it seems that
- the claimant commitment will be established and signed at a point where the obligations allow them to specify what their expertise and competence makes reasonable.
- After four weeks, the claimant commitment will have to be torn up and replaced with other obligations.
- The renegotiation is going to happen before claimants are actually paid anything.
I may have this completely muddled – I can’t tell from the details that have been made available – but if this is right, what I’d expect to happen is this. Some work coaches will jump the gun – if they don’t, it would double their workload. People with skills will not bother claiming at all, because the extreme economic prejudice of taking any job will outweigh the potential benefit. Others will be sanctioned because they don’t turn up to a second meeting with the work coach. Employers will be flooded with inappropriate applications.
Stepping back from the details, there’s much more wrong with this policy. The first misconception is that sanctions encourage people to get into work. There’s no evidence to back that up. The main use of sanctions in practice is to ensure compliance with the benefit rules – the vast majority of sanctions are given for not coming to meetings – and it’s not clear that they even do that. Second, there is the myth that unemployed people won’t work otherwise. Before the government started messing about, about 90% of unemployed people were back to work in a year. That figure has fallen to about 80%, I suspect largely because of the forced transfer of many people from Incapacity Benefit or ESA – those who are too sick to work. And the third is the ridiculously misconceived position that Universal Credit is mainly a benefit intended to get people into work. It isn’t. It covers people on low wages, and as the transfer is proceeding there are increasing numbers of people without jobs who are chronically sick or caring for young children – people who would previously have been receiving Incapacity Benefit/ESA or Income Support. The numbers of long-term unemployed people are relatively small, but policies have been driven by the myth that dealing with them is the main purpose of the benefits system. No wonder it’s a mess.