The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has made another change to Universal Credit. Some people have already branded the move “callous”. Behind the headlines, the DWP’s new rule is a complex issue. The move also shows a continuation of a DWP approach that’s often failed to support claimants. And it’s part of the Tories’ wider, dystopian agenda that’s been brewing for years.
Universal Credit: the three-month rule
BBC News reported that the DWP is changing the rules for Universal Credit. It noted that:
Jobseekers on Universal Credit will have to look for jobs outside their chosen field more quickly or face sanctions under new government plans.
Currently, Universal Credit rules state that:
A claimant who has previously carried out work
1. of a particular nature or
2. paid at a particular level
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must have their work search requirement and work availability requirement limited to work of that nature or level of pay
This was for a period of three months. For example, take a teacher who lost their job and then claimed Universal Credit. The DWP would in principle have to let them look for another teaching job for three months. After this, the teacher would have to look for any kind of work. But the DWP had discretion over this. The three-month rule was allowed if a DWP advisor thought that:
the claimant has reasonable prospects of getting paid work with those limitation(s)
We don’t know how often DWP advisors ignored the three-month rule. And now, the government is changing it anyway.
DWP: toughening the rules
As BBC News reported:
people will have to look outside their sectors after just four weeks, rather than three months.
If they fail to make “reasonable efforts” to get a job, or turn down employment, they could see their benefit payment reduced.
Ministers want 500,000 jobseekers in work by the end of June.
As part of the jobs push – called “Way to Work” – claimants will have to widen their job search outside their previous occupation or sector.
So the DWP would now only let that same teacher search for a teaching job for a month. After that, they’d have to look at a much broader selection of work.
Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey said that Way to Work was a “step change”. She noted that:
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.
Coffey also said that the idea was that:
Helping people get any job now, means they can get a better job and progress into a career.
For claimants, all of this will be under a DWP threat of sanctions if they “do not engage” with Way to Work. And people have already been criticising the policy.
The Lib Dems’ Wendy Chamberlain called Way to Work a “callous move”. Labour’s Alison McGovern said it was “tinkering at the edges”. The policy also ignores the fact that in-work poverty is at a record high of 17.4%. But it was think tank the Resolution Foundation’s Hannah Slaughter who got to the heart of the issue. She told BBC News:
those claiming Universal Credit are already flowing off the benefit and into work quickly. This package is therefore poorly targeted at the actual problem our labour market now faces – which is people not looking for work at all.
And the DWP’s own data backs this up.
It shows that as of December 2021, just over 179,000 people who were “searching for work” had been on Universal Credit less than three months. So the new rule would mostly hit these people. But there were over 1.5 million claimants who had been “searching for work” for three months and over – Way to Work won’t affect any of them.
The largest group was of those who had been searching for work for between one and two years – nearly 670,000 people. Then, between September-November 2021, around one million people who were searching for work left Universal Credit. In other words, the number of people leaving Universal Credit was far greater than those who were on it for less than three months.
But the policy will affect new claimants. It could force people out of industries for which they’ve trained for years. And for some people, the process could have career-ending consequences.
As a parliamentary briefing noted, the pandemic hit the creative industries hard. One estimate in July 2021 put the job losses at 110,000. In the music industry alone, there was a 35% drop in employment from 2019 to 2020. 69,000 jobs were lost in 2020. Employers furloughed 55% of creative industry jobs. And more than 80,000 claims were made to the Self Employment Support Scheme (SEIS).
We don’t know how many people from the industry claim Universal Credit. But the creative arts union Equity found that in October 2021, 65% of its members relied on Universal Credit. This would equate to around 30,000 people. Now, any people from the creative arts who claim social security will have just four weeks to get a job in the industry. Otherwise, the DWP will force them to do anything. People in the creative arts ‘gigging’ in other fields between work is not knew. But the DWP forcing them to, in return for social security entitlements, could potentially be career-ending. This is because the DWP may force them to keep these jobs or face sanctions.
Moreover, the DWP has already been a nightmare for some people in the creative arts who are self-employed.
‘Pushing creatives to the edge’
MIRI is very aware of the effect that the pandemic, coupled with the DWP, has had on creatives. She told The Canary:
Self employed people who’ve lost work due to the pandemic are being asked to attend appointments to prove that they are gainfully self employed. Universal Credit no longer takes into account that we’re still in a pandemic. For creatives like me, that has meant a loss of performance income for two years as well as other work cancellations. The job coaches are just there to tick boxes.
Between December 2021 and January 2022 I lost around £600 of income due to cancellations. Part of my work includes co running music sessions in mental health units. Due to an outbreak in the wards I haven’t been able to do that; I probably won’t be able to until the end of February.
It’s important that music organisations are aware of what creatives are being put through by the system. They obviously didn’t know what would happen when advising people to on to Universal Credit at the start of the pandemic. Creatives need a voice from those organisations because this treatment isn’t ok.
We’re already in a mental health crisis. Now, the DWP’s treatment of creatives I’ve spoken to is pushing them to the edge mentally, emotionally and physically. There’s enough stresses with national insurance, energy and food prices going up without adding to the pressure.
Punitive and regressive
The thinking behind the DWP’s latest move is nothing new. Forcing people to accept any work under the threat of sanctions was pioneered by the Labour governments of 1997-2010. Meanwhile, while in opposition, the Tories were already planning Universal Credit. As I wrote in 2018:
Central to this was ‘dynamic modelling’, the idea of creating a system that changed people’s behaviour to get them into work… Essentially, this meant cutting people’s money so they had no choice but to get a job. Or, in the case of in-work benefits like tax credits, cutting them as people started earning more.
This thinking was based on behavioural economics. And when the Tories came to power in 2010, they put it into practice. Behavioural science (basing policy on how you think people will react to it) was central to how the DWP worked. It was also heavily used during the government’s pandemic response. On both counts, it failed. DWP sanctions failed to get people into long-term work. And behavioural science’s failed approach to the pandemic may have cost countless lives.
Business as usual at the DWP
For Coffey to call Way to Work a “step change” is somewhat disingenuous. Yes, it represents a shift in what the DWP expects claimants to do. But the overall approach is the same as it’s always been. The department is acting out wider plans for the Tories. As I previously wrote, Universal Credit sums up their mindset:
It sanctions low paid workers who aren’t doing enough to get more work; penalises lone parents; cuts free school meals; reduces support for disabled people with severe impairments. And, by design, it encourages people’s reliance on charity – note the rise of food banks.
Now, the pandemic has given the Tories an opportunity to entrench all of this. Their latest DWP policy shift will further resign claimants to insecure, poverty-causing work. I previously called Universal Credit and the Tories’ wider agendas “dystopian”. That’s only becoming truer with time.
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