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Only the beginning

Sanctions set to increase under Universal Credit
Hajera Blagg, Friday, June 19th, 2015

“Conditionality” in the benefits system – the idea that claimants must meet certain conditions in order to receive their benefits, or face the consequences—has been taken to absurd levels by the previous coalition government, as their deadly sanctions regime has so far shown.

And according to a recent report, it’s about to get much worse.

The New Policy Institute has warned that the rollout of Universal Credit – a welfare reform brought in by the previous government that will roll six benefits into one – could substantially increase benefits sanctions.

Last year, more than half a million people – 686,000—had their benefits stopped, with many claimants reporting abusive treatment from job centre staff and sanctions being meted out for the most trivial reasons, including being minutes late for an appointment because the queue was so long.

Even though the sanctions regime has demonstrably failed – after all, a high proportion of sanctions appeals are in the end won by claimants – the present Tory government has vowed to strengthen conditionality under Universal Credit.

Sanctioned for working

Sanctions will now be under the domain of both out-of-work and in-work benefits. This will leave some claimants in the chilling, Kafkaesque position of, as blogger Johnny Void has noted, facing an in-work sanction for actually going to work.

For those receiving UC, working families who are earning below a certain level (usually 35 hours at the national minimum wage) will be bound by conditionality and so at risk of being sanctioned.

As Void noted:

“Under the new rules part-time workers will have to attend a job interview with just 48 hours’ notice or their benefits will be stopped. This is likely to mean someone required to take time off their existing employment – at short notice – to attend a job interview somewhere else. If they go to work instead of the interview they could face a sanction. As anyone who has ever had a real job will know, this will place claimants in an impossible position forcing to them to make the choice between risking being sacked or sanctioned.”

Under Universal Credit, several benefit payments will be paid out in one sum.

Void shows how an in-work sanction under UC might work in practice. If a claimant working 16 hours a week on the minimum wage earns £104 a week, he would get roughly £111 per week in Universal Credit for a total of £215. If he’s sanctioned – after paying rent and council tax on the cheapest band – he’s left with little more than £40 a week for food, clothing, bills and fares to work.

“It is difficult to imagine how someone could maintain the level of health and hygiene necessary to hold down a job on such a paltry income, unless they stop paying their rent,” Void argues. “Homelessness or unemployment will be the stark choice facing sanctioned working claimants – although if they leave their job they will be sanctioned again, or possibly disallowed any benefit completely.”

Labour market myth

The Resolution Foundation’s recent report on Universal Credit and how it might be improved acknowledged the government’s desire to make the benefits system less complex , but argued that its design is founded on a fundamental myth about the labour market.

“At root, UC is a policy shaped by the view that the towering problem facing the UK today is mass worklessness,” noted Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation. “Yet worklessness among non-disabled couples with children has plummeted over the last fifteen years. As things stand UC will end up being a missed opportunity to make in-roads into one of the real social-ills of our time: in-work poverty and the low pay trap.”

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner railed against sanctions, which he argued are ideologically motivated.

“We’ve already had years of a failed sanctions regime – we know that sanctions don’t work and they often cut off the only lifeline people have before falling into an abyss that in some cases has been fatal,” he said. “That this government has chosen to ramp up a failed and inhumane policy makes it abundantly clear that their motivations are driven only by a sinister ideology that demonises victims of a recession they’ve created in the first place.”

“Being sanctioned for actually going to work – the implications of this situation beggars belief,” Turner added. “This emboldened Tory government has no interest in making work pay. They’re only interested in making ordinary, hardworking people suffer by destroying the social safety net and public services in order to line the pockets of ultra-rich corporations through tax breaks and backdoor subsidies.

This assault on the 99 per cent to cynically empower the 1 per cent he said can only be combatted through mobilised action.

“It’s the most brazen theft of citizens’ money we’ve ever seen – and it’ll only stop once we’ve mobilised a citizens’ movement that stands in solidarity. Tomorrow’s People’s Assembly march in the first step in doing just that.”

Join us tomorrow (June 20) at the People’s Assembly march, which is set to be attended by more than a hundred thousand people. More details can be found here.


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