Are the Universal Credit changes more about punishment than helping employers?

The change in Universal Credit – giving people just four weeks to find a job in their sector – ignores the barriers some people face and seems to punish rather than understand what might work better.

Woman holding a bill and calculator, looking worried


Earlier this week the Department for Work and Pensions announced a Universal Credit reform. Instead of claimants being given three months to find a job that they want and feel qualified for – they will get just four weeks. After that they will have to apply for any job or risk benefits cuts.

The aim is to get people off benefits more quickly and fill the growing vacancies across the workforce. The problem is that experts say it won’t help employers having applications from people who are just going through the motions in order not to lose benefits or who take a job only to drop out soon after. Moreover, there has been no equivalent announcement on skills training for those on benefits to help them get jobs for which they are not currently qualified.

The Institute for Employment Studies says the change will make very little difference to employers and indeed could mean they are less likely to rely on JobCentres Plus for applicants.

What is more, it seems to bear very little relation to the supposed policy of turning the country into a high wage, high skilled one and the whole ‘levelling up’ agenda. The emphasis appears to be more on punishment of benefits claimants and on politics than on helping employers or individuals.

Many of those who have dropped out of work during the pandemic are older workers, particularly women. Often they have dropped out due to health or caring issues and are finding it difficult to get back. Our sister site has spoken to many older workers who are in this position and feel a combination of ageism and negative attitudes to career gaps is making it more difficult for them to get back to work.

All of them desperately want to get back to work. We spoke to one woman who is a theatre director who has spent months looking for work. Her JobCentre Plus suggested she apply for a job as a technician, climbing telephone poles. She says: “I am fit, but at 60 I don’t fancy climbing up poles. Yet the plays I have directed have had brilliant reviews and I have helped thousands of young people. That is my vocation. My heart is in working with young people in a dramatic environment doing shows.”

She has looked at related jobs and realises that a key problem is the impact of the pandemic on the arts. The arts are still recovering and it is a very difficult decision to step away from a profession you love when the problems may be fairly short term. If she got a job outside her profession, would she stay? The argument is that any job is better than unemployment, given the longer you are out of work the harder it is to get back. Yet four weeks is a very short time.

We surely need a more comprehensive approach to getting people back to work based on an understanding of all the various barriers they might face, from health and caring issues to concerns about safety travelling to night jobs and childcare problems. It is only by actually listening to people and understanding what they need to work and providing jobs that pay enough when things like childcare are taken into account to make it worthwhile, that progress will be made.

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