DWP is targeting Universal Credit claimants in yet another benefits crackdown

A jobcentre queue the Universal Credit and DWP logos - representing benefits claimants childcare
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is cracking down even further on non-working people reliant on benefits. The department has increased its use of sanctions, it is trialling a new scheme under Universal Credit to force claimants back to work, and is now planning to coerce doctors into not signing people’s sick notes.

DWP: more forced work programmes on Universal Credit

As the Canary previously reported, there’s been an increase in the number of economically inactive people since the start of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. These are people who are not working and not looking for work. Many of these people are chronically ill and/or disabled. However, since then the DWP has started making plans to force some of these people into work. Now it’s also beginning to target people who are claiming benefits but looking for work. For example, as the Times reported, the DWP is trialling a new scheme under Universal Credit. It’s for benefit claimants who have been out of work for three months or more. The Times noted that:

Ministers are piloting plans for universal credit claimants to attend a two-week programme of daily face-to-face appointments at local jobcentres to help them prepare to return to work.

Those who repeatedly refuse to attend could lose their entire standard allowance, worth £334.91 a month, for as long as three months.

The DWP forcing claimants to do work-related schemes – and then sanctioning them if they don’t – has happened before. The department was doing this in the previous decade with schemes like Mandatory Work Activity. In 2012, it was forced to stop sanctioning people who refused to cooperate in the government’s work-experience scheme after outcry from charities.

Increased sanctions again

Byline Times reported on Monday 20 February that the DWP had been sanctioning more older people on Universal Credit. It noted that:

35,608 sanctions were imposed on Universal Credit claimants aged 50 and over between January and October 2022 – 28,061 on claimants in their 50s and 7,547 on those in their 60s.

Read on...

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What Byline Times failed to mention was that this fits with new DWP policy. As the Canary previously reported, the department is now specifically focused on forcing over-50s back into work. Again, this ties into the number of economically inactive people – as a lot of this group are in that age bracket.

However, the most concerning move from the DWP is its plans to stop GPs issuing sick notes for claimants.

The beginning of the end of sick notes?

The Telegraph reported that chancellor Jeremy Hunt is set to announce DWP-related measures in his Spring Budget. These reportedly include:

a new approach to how GPs decide whether people are too sick to work.

Doctors would be encouraged to focus on recommending ways people with long-term illnesses can continue to work with support rather than using sick notes to authorise them to drop out of the labour market entirely.

The DWP is using the reasoning that work is good for people’s mental health. So, GPs would tell sick people claiming things like Universal Credit to keep working. The Telegraph backed this up with a comment from a think tank boss endorsing this. However, as the Canary has previously written, many professionals have debunked the claim that work equals good mental and/or physical health as nonsense. It partly originates from a DWP policy document – not actual research.

However, the DWP attempting to invade primary care settings and coerce GPs to do its dirty work for it is not new. In 2017, the department made changes which meant sick notes were no longer enough evidence for people to claim benefits. Then, in 2018 it also attempted to stop GPs signing people off sick. The DWP sent letters to claimants’ GPs after it decided they were fit for work, which stated:

In the course of any further consultations with [your patient] we hope you will also encourage [them] in [their] efforts to return to, or start, work.

Moreover, this new drive over sick notes will come after the DWP is already planning further co-working with the NHS. It wants to get mental health professionals to encourage people on disability benefits to go and see DWP work coaches as part of their treatment.

Universal Credit: the digital workhouse

Of course, all of these DWP actions are entirely predictable. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the then-Labour government specifically targeted sick and disabled people via the DWP. As the Canary previously wrote:

The Labour government’s thinking was that because of the recession, it should “increase the pace” of welfare reform, because sick and disabled people “should not fall out of touch with the world of work”. But, as the Guardian noted in 2008, some people might have considered the move a “cynical cost-cutting exercise”.

So, fast-forward to 2023 and another economic crisis means another DWP crackdown on claimants. It is all too easy for governments to target people reliant on benefits: years of the ‘scrounger‘ narrative, driven by politicians and the media, have already sold this to the public.

However, this strategy is barely grounded in reliable evidence. For example, experts have previously shown that sanctions do not result in people getting jobs. Moreover, as author Kit Yates pointed out on Twitter, a lot of people are off sick with long Covid. When people are too unwell to work, how is not giving them a sick note going to change that?

A UN special rapporteur previously called Universal Credit a “digital workhouse”.  Now, with another drive by the DWP to force everyone possible into some sort of work – and leave the rest utterly precarious – that assertion will only get stronger.

Featured image via the Guardian – YouTube, Paisley Scotland – Flickr, resized under licence CC BY 2.0, and Wikimedia 

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