Govt attacks on the rural working poor

For those in work on Universal Credit things just got a whole lot worse…

Reading time: 6 min

A new campaign aims to support Unite members and their families on Universal Credit (UC) by raising awareness of changes that are coming their way.

Andy Mitchell and Brett Sparkes are leading the “Social security is a trade union issue” campaign, and taking their message to branches, committee meetings and training courses to highlight the changes that could impact over 100,000 Unite members across the country – many in rural areas.

Andy, Chair of Unite’s Somerset and North Devon Branch, said, “This all started after I saw changes to the Universal Credit Act made in the last three budgets that nobody seemed to care about. Changes that will affect a significant number of working people on Universal Credit (UC).

“These are around conditionality, sanctions and how the Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET) works. I realise this isn’t exactly sexy – but it’s very important as so many people will be affected.”

Andy explained, “Although technically working claimants have been subject to conditionality and sanctions since UC started, in reality most have been treated with a light touch. However the government extended in-work conditionality in two areas. These largely unnoticed changes will impact over a million working claimants when fully rolled out.”

The AET acts as a dividing line, with those below the line treated as unemployed and subject to an intensive work search regime. This involves regular meetings with work coaches and actively looking to increase their earnings, either through increased hours or additional work.

A failure to attend meetings could result in sanctions.

AET is based around the Adult Living Wage and, when introduced in 2013, was set at 9 hours, however in recent years it has risen dramatically. In September 2022 it increased from 9 hours to 12 hours, rising to 15 hours in January 2023. It is now proposed that from April 2024 it will increase again to 18 hours.

It is also calculated over an average month – so could have a disproportionate impact on workers on seasonally or zero hours contracts.

Andy immediately realised the problems this would cause for thousands of working people and raised the issue with Steve Preddy – Unite South West regional secretary and Brett Sparkes, regional community officer. Brett was given time to support Andy and pull together a presentation to take to meetings and soon the South West dynamic duo were hard at work raising awareness about the changes.

Andy has already started delivering presentations across the region as well as running a Fringe Meeting at the TUC disabled workers conference in Bournemouth.

Andy and Brett have been successful in having an Emergency Motion – “social security is a trade union issue” – proposed by the South West regional committee and passed at July’s Policy Conference.

The motion laid out the issues facing working people due to UC changes, called on the EC to implement, amongst other things, the creation of “training plans for reps so they can support members in receipt of social security” and “design and produce suitable information materials”.

It also called for a “campaign for the removal of conditionality and sanctions for everyone on social security” and to “ensure that all reps are aware of support services such as Citizens’ Advice”.

Though changes will impact on any workers claiming UC Andy highlighted some particular concerns for rural workers or those in workplaces like food processing and other factories.

Andy said, “With the changes to the AET more workers on part-time hours will have to visit a Work Coach. These are often based in a Job Centre, but with increasing cuts to Job Centre Plus, and the closure of centres, claimants are travelling further and further to get an appointment.”

As anyone living and working in the countryside knows, rural public transport has been decimated over recent years. So getting to an appointment will be increasingly difficult and more time consuming.

In fact this year alone the DWP announced the closure of 20 job centres in February, another 19 in May and a further 36 in late June, and bus routes have decreased from over 17,000 in 2010/11 to under 9,000 by 2022/23, with the government’s national strategy for buses, Bus Back Better, described as “failing” by the Campaign for Better Transport.

Workers falling foul of the new threshold will have to visit their appointed Work Coach no matter how difficult it is to access a Job Centre, or when the appointment might be. This raises the very real concern that workers will have to ask an employer for time off work for appointments, or be sanctioned. Something that could result in a fine of £85 and payments being stopped for 12 weeks. A situation Andy feels many employers are not fully aware of either.

This will lead to an increase in stress among workers on low incomes and part-time hours and just add to poor mental health issues already reported among claimants on UC, a concern mental health charities have been raising for some time.

Andy summed up saying that he hopes that the campaign will raise awareness of the changes to Universal amongst reps so they can fully support any members who are impacted as a result.

He added, “I’d really like to thank Brett and the whole of the Unite South West team for all the support they have shown. Brett and I are really working together as a team on this campaign and we’ve seen how important it is by the reaction from reps when they find out about the changes.”

By Keith Hatch