Stuck in a benefits trap

A new report says that Universal Credit conditionality is not working for employers or jobseekers and needs reform. Workingmums spoke to one single mum about her experiences.

Woman with empty wallet


For Caroline Rice the support she received from her local Jobcentre when she was looking for work was neither empathetic nor helpful. What’s more she describes the ongoing experience of claiming Universal Credit to boost her low wages as a classroom assistant as unnecessarily degrading. “You constantly live under the threat of being sanctioned, for instance, if you miss an email because you are working,” says Caroline, a single parent who lives in Northern Ireland.

Caroline lost her job in childcare at the start of the pandemic and was moved from tax credits to Universal Credit around the same time. She worked for a while as a registered childminder, but that job didn’t last either. At the end of 2021 she spent two and a half months looking for a job and says she received virtually no support from her Jobcentre to find a job apart from some help with doing her cv. “I had been self employed for a while and hadn’t been in the world of employment. I asked for help, but they just sent me a link to jobs advertised online. That was it. There was no support to find suitable jobs in my area. It felt as if they didn’t care what kind of work I had as long as I got a job,” says Caroline, who has a hearing problem and suffers from fibromyalgia.

Asked if the sanctions regime has provided an incentive to find more work, she says that what she needs is support and empathy, not threats. As it stands, she can’t see any chance of getting off benefits for some years to come no matter how much she would like to.

A system that is not working

Her experience is not unusual. A report by the think tank IPPR, published today, says the conditionality approach – the threat that financial support will be reduced or stopped if requirements aren’t met – isn’t working for employers as it leads to people applying for jobs they are entirely unsuitable for, wasting time and resources. It isn’t working for jobseekers either, says the report, as it fails to recognise that many people want to work or increase their earnings, but face barriers to doing so, like limited access to childcare, low confidence, high travel costs or living with a health condition. 

IPPR is calling on the Government to create a new public employment service which should include professionalising the role of Jobcentre work coaches to ensure they offer tailored advice and support, exempting people with health conditions and single parents from sanctions, working with employers to train people for a net zero economy and devolving decision on employment support to take account of local needs. 

Henry Parkes, IPPR principal research fellow and co-author of the report, said:  “At a time when our whole economy is being held back by workforce challenges it’s more urgent than ever to ensure everyone can access genuine help finding the jobs that work for them and their wider circumstances. 

“Rethinking the system of employment support, so that work coaches can focus on finding solutions that work for both employees and employers, should be the first step towards a new universal service that works better for everyone – and for the UK economy.”

Encouraging debt

Caroline has really struggled since going on Universal Credit. She had to wait for her payments to come through and borrowed money to tide her over, meaning she accrued debt that she has only just paid off now. She was also overpaid tax credits and faced regular clawbacks, which made it impossible to budget as she only knows about four days before her UC payment what it will be each month.  “The Government is encouraging debt,” she says, adding that at one point she had to use food banks and seek discretionary support.  On top of that is the way people on benefits – many of whom are, like her, working – are treated. To get the discretionary support she had to answer a plethora of questions, including about what food she had in her cupboard. “You have to justify yourself and basically beg. It’s like they are telling you that you can’t budget,” she says. 

Caroline would like to work longer hours and get more pay, but her current job does not offer more hours and, being in the public sector, there is not much likelihood of an above inflation pay rise. Moreover, she has childcare responsibilities and doesn’t want to take a second job and leave her daughter, aged 12, home alone for hours after school or in the holidays. She says finding someone to mind her at her age and in the rural area where she lives would be difficult.  She feels stuck.

Melanie Wilkes, associate director for work and the welfare state at IPPR, said:  “Employment support services provide support in name only, but they simply aren’t working. They are failing both businesses and jobseekers. The Jobcentres’ approach of relying on sanctions to push people into jobs reinforces insecure, poor quality work and is simply a waste of everyone’s time. We need a new universal public employment service to help people get into, and progress in. meaningful employment.” 

Comments [1]

  • Antoneta Benjamin says:

    As usual women are the most hit. I thought the UK was a democratic society but it has proved to be sexist, racist and inhumane. No human rights are respected here and mothers don’t live; they just exist.

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