'Cut sanctions, not incomes'

Unite takes campaign against Universal Credit sanctions to Parliament

Reading time: 3 min

Unite leaders and activists took the fight to ‘Cut Sanctions, Not Incomes’ into the heart of the UK Parliament last week (February 27).

The event was hosted by John McDonnell MP and attended by Baroness Ruth Lister and MPs representing constituencies right across England and Wales.

Opening up the debate, Unite South West regional officer Brett Sparkes (pictured above) explained that changes to Universal Credit were going to have a huge impact on Unite members who were on low pay and having to claim the benefit to top up their wages. 

The changes mean that people will have to earn more money by working more hours. If they don’t, then they may be sanctioned, which means their Universal Credit payments will be stopped for a period of time. This is called ‘in-work conditionality.’

Brett said, “The extension of in-work conditionality is going to be extremely detrimental to our members who are in work. Many of our members claiming Universal Credit are facing significant challenges to working more hours such as disability, health conditions or the lack of affordable or available childcare in their area. These changes haven’t been thought through.”

Unite research showed that there are now a high number of workers claiming Universal Credit in the finance and legal industries, education, civil air transport and hospitality. The research also revealed a shocking statistic – that 90 per cent of those claiming were women.

Dr Katy Jones, who joined the panel, highlighted the “mismatch between rigid expectations to work a full-time 35-hour week and the reality of the work that is often available”.

Much of the work in the sectors researched, offered part-time or zero hours contracts with a high expectation of staff flexibility central to business models and little scope for a pay rise.

Katy also flagged employers concerns about the conflict between the demands of the work coach and the needs of their business.

She said, “Whereas some employers appeared relaxed and even positive about Jobcentres contacting them to discuss in-work progression opportunities for workers on Universal Credit, others did not welcome this new development – they were concerned that this policy could be too intrusive, interfering in the management of their businesses.”

This was confirmed by small business owner, Chris Smallwood, who runs a removals company in Manchester and contributed to Unite’s film:

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Chris noted, “The idea of releasing individuals to attend work progression interviews with work coaches is counterproductive to both the employer and the employee because it’s actually taking the employee out of work to an attempt to attend an in-work interview.”

Unite activist Andy Mitchell expressed a concern that in-work conditionality has created a second status of worker with few employment rights and was trapping them on low pay and in insecure work.

He said, “Around 40% of Universal Credit claimants are in work. If we want to save money on the social security bill, why don’t we develop an effective economy where we have high skilled, high paid jobs instead of hounding people who are the least powerful in our society.”

MPs present expressed their support for the campaign and were asked by the meeting to hold the Government to account and ask to see the equality impact assessment for the changes to Universal Credit.

We will continue to update you as the campaign progresses; meanwhile you can take the following actions to support the campaign.

By Nancy Platts

Photo by Mark Thomas

Film by Morag Livingstone