'Stop punishing Universal Credit applicants'

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PEOPLE in receipt of Universal Credit must be positively encouraged to improve their employability rather than being punished for minor infractions, says a new report from the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC).

The Universal Credit rollout has been criticised by people who've had their benefits reduced or stopped. This process - known as sanctioning - has plunged many into financial crisis.

In their advisory role, the SSAC suggests [pdf] that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should try applying non-financial sanctions.

These would "send an important message to the claimant but without directly impacting necessarily upon dependent members of the family".

It remains to be seen what form non-financial sanctions could take. In the meantime, the SSAC have recommended testing the effectiveness of the existing sanctions regime.

Pressure to comply

More on Universal Credit
Our guide to the benefit - here
How delays are costing everyone - here
DWP say Universal Credit 'is working' - here

Sanctions occur when people fail to meet certain work related requirements, such as applying for jobs, attending skills assessments, updating their CV or preparing a business plan.

Taken together, these requirements form the claimant commitment - a document setting out what Universal Credit applicants have to do to prepare for work or find work.

Those who fail to honour their claimant commitment can have their benefits reduced for a certain period, or stopped altogether.

The SSAC note that while unemployment benefits in the UK have never been unconditional, the importance of the concept of conditionality has grown over the years and penalties for non-compliance have increased in severity.

A heavy toll

An MPs' enquiry into sanctions found that more than one million jobseekers had their unemployment benefits stopped in 2014, often for trivial breaches of benefit conditions or as a result of administrative error.

Anne Begg, the chair of the Commons Select Committee, said that while benefit conditionality was necessary, "it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this".

Moving forward

The SSAC report stresses the need for a "pause in the ratcheting up process of the sanctions regime".

During this time, the committee propose experimenting with a more "incentives based approach to motivating people and encouraging behaviour".

Quite how this will be achieved remains unclear, though there are murmurings from other organisations.

Credits for those in work

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggest that Credit applicants who are already in work should be provided with career advice and guidance, as well as skills development support - both inside and outside their place of employment.

At the moment, people in low paid jobs, or who are not working many hours, can find themselves with a work search requirement that involves them taking action to get better paid work or work more hours. Failure to do so can result in the dreaded sanctions.

CIPD has advised against setting mandatory targets on job search activities for in-work Universal Credit claimants.

They suggest instead that those in work should only be required to attend quarterly reviews with a dedicated adviser.

Balancing act

Who will win out is anyone's guess, though it's likely to require something of a balancing act on the Government's part.

The bureaucratic nature of the typical Jobcentre is a far cry from what will be needed to, for example, "encourage" people to work longer hours.

The SSAC estimates that by the time Universal Credit is fully rolled out, there will need to be around 26,000 specially trained members of staff to help administer it.

These "work coaches" will need exceptional interpersonal and counselling skills, particularly as they'll need insight into conditions and situations which may not be immediately apparent - for example, identifying people with latent mental health issues.