Benefit Sanctions and Welfare Conditionality: Covid-19

Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons on 19th October 2020.

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Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of resuming (a) benefits sanctions and (b) welfare conditionality during increased levels of unemployment as a result of the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of resuming (a) benefits sanctions and (b) welfare conditionality during increased levels of unemployment as a result of the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Evidence suggests that active labour market policies can be even more effective during recessions. We will continue to encourage claimants to prepare and look for work where it is safe to do so. Claimants will not be subject to conditionality until they have agreed a new or updated claimant commitment. We firmly believe the best way to support claimants is through empowered work coaches who engage proactively with claimants to help them identify the options they need to build on their skills, increase their confidence and return to employment.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Non-existent jobs. Liverpool has had the second highest unemployment increase in the country since March 2020. Our claimant rate has more than doubled from 12,000 to 32,000, and we now have the highest unemployment rate in the country. There are a further 27,000 people on furlough in our closed hospitality sector who will either be let go or have to survive on 67% of their wages come November. With benefits sanctions being reintroduced and welfare conditionality being reinstated, what evidence do the Government have that this is benefiting claimants and preventing a return to the high unemployment of the ’80s?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I stress to the hon. Lady that sanctions are only used when claimants fail to meet their conditionality requirements without good reason. As I said in my previous responses, work coaches will work to ensure that any requirements set are reasonable, taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and, crucially, the situation in the local labour market, while allowing them to adhere also to public health advice. We are absolutely determined to help people back into work, giving them the power to do that, and the way we can do that locally in Liverpool is through the flexible support fund and other measures.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

In Manchester, Withington there are 3,000 more people needing to claim unemployment benefits than this time last year, and unemployment is rising and will get worse at the end of the furlough scheme, so there are not 3,000 jobs for those people to go to. Suspending sanctions and welfare conditionality was the right thing to do in the crisis, but we are still in that crisis. Does the Minister not accept that we need to be more supportive and less punitive at the moment?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I hope the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will acknowledge that, despite the reintroduction of conditionality and sanctions, we fully recognise that these are difficult times. New jobs are being created in the digital, green and logistical sectors that can be carried out safely in line with social distancing and public health rules. There is a recognition that in some sectors there will be challenges, while in others there are opportunities, but we will always make sure that jobcentres respond suitably to local alert levels and always set that conditionality in line with individuals, helping them to progress and always listening to them; if they have a good reason and cannot adhere, we will support them and take that individual approach.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

In July, the Government chose to reinstate benefit sanctions and conditionality, against the advice of experts. We are now in the covid second wave, with businesses closing, unemployment rising and vacancies halved since March, but last week the Government said that the clinically extremely vulnerable and those they live with could have their benefits cut if they refuse a job that puts them at risk from the virus. Is that really the Government’s policy? Is it not time to end the threats and re-suspend benefit sanctions, or are we no longer in this together?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but if someone cannot work and must stay at home, there are ways of getting additional support, and I would urge anybody concerned to use the benefits calculator on gov.uk. I again remind the House that work coaches will always work to ensure that requirements are reasonable, always taking into account the claimant’s circumstances and the situation in the local labour market, and continuing to adhere to public health advice. Claimants who fail to meet the conditionality requirements without good reason may be sanctioned, but as I say, the rates are extraordinarily low—in fact, they have never been lower—and we are determined to help people back into work with the right individual support, based on their individual circumstances.