Karen, 64, said the sanctions policy is “inhumane”. Image: Supplied
A universal credit claimant has hit back at Thérèse Coffey’s comments on people working their way out of poverty – saying she already has two jobs and is still told to find another.
Defending the government’s controversial new ‘Way to Work’ scheme, which will force claimants to apply for any jobs going or have their benefit cut, the work and pensions secretary told Sky News: “The best way to get out of poverty is for people to be working.”
Around 40 per cent of the half a million universal credit claimants are already in work.
The comments sparked anger, with people labelling the minister out of touch and slamming the new system, which could also see claimants have their benefits cut before they have even received a first payment.
In what the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said is a push to get more people off benefits and into work, new claimants will have just four weeks from signing up to find a job in their field, or be sanctioned. First payments usually arrive after five weeks.
“It’s inhumane. It’s like something you’d hear about from another country and say ‘oh, that’s so cruel’,” Kent resident Karen Isaac told The Big Issue. “After the past two years, and the high cost of living – it’s kicking people when they’re down.”
Karen, 64, has been on universal credit for nearly four years after being involved in a car accident which forced her to quit her retail job. Despite subsequent health issues making many types of jobs difficult and very painful for her, she was still under constant pressure from the DWP to find work. Meanwhile she struggled to cover the basics with her universal credit payments, relying on credit to afford food and going without heating her home.
After months of searching, Karen is now in two paid roles – part-time work with anti-poverty charity Turn2us and doing admin for her local GP. Even this work, which can involve long periods spent sat at a computer, can leave her in pain and impact her ability to work the next day.
But, like many low-income workers, she is on minimum wage and still reliant on universal credit to make ends meet. She is still under pressure from her local job centre to find more work. And she is part of the group of claimants who would be targeted by the government’s new policy.
“I’m hardly any better off than when I wasn’t working at all,” Karen said. Speaking to The Big Issue from her home, she explained she was “freezing” because she couldn’t afford to put the heating on despite the January temperatures.
The government takes 55p of every £1 earned by those on universal credit and told her they would stop pressuring her to find more work if she found a way to earn £356 per week, or 16 hours’ worth.
“I can tell you, you know, it’s bloody hard to get a job out there,” Karen added. “How can they expect people to find work so quickly?
“It’s hard enough if you’re young and able. I know people who are heavily qualified and having trouble finding secure work. And for some of us with health conditions, it’s even harder to find something you are able to do, and which is reliable enough to get the job centre off your back.
“They could push people into jobs that are really, really awful for them. That was always my biggest fear, that they’d make me try to do something I wasn’t physically or mentally able to do.”
Karen still has to attend the job centre every two weeks for a job-search interview. It has, on at least one occasion, forced her to turn down a paid shift, because she was so concerned about being sanctioned and losing money if she did not turn up for her interview.
“For anybody going in fresh, it’s going to be a scary experience,” she said. “Especially if they’ve never experienced the benefits system before. Very scary.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the new policy would “harness the talent of jobseekers”, helping them gain “the opportunity and support to find a good job to help them get on in life”.
The DWP says Way to Work will take advantage of the 1.2 million vacancies in the UK and help 500,000 people into jobs by the end of June.
“Good jobs should offer a reliable route out of poverty, but today’s announcement won’t deliver that and completely misses the point,” said Katie Schmuecker, deputy director of policy and partnerships for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
“It will only apply to about 130,000 people, which is around one in twenty of those out of work and claiming universal credit, and only just over a quarter of the government’s stated ambition of getting half a million people back to work.
“The more significant challenge we face is ensuring that the labour market and social security system works for people who are not subject to these conditions – because they’re sick, disabled or have young children. While overall there may be job vacancies available, this doesn’t mean that they will then match up with someone’s location, skill level or flexibility requirements, and the threat of sanctions is no way to change that,” Schmecker added.
“If the government is serious about tackling poverty then it also needs to take urgent action on the rising cost of living, which has a disproportionate impact on low income families both in and out of work.”
The Learning and Work Institute has also spoken out against the plans. CEO Stephen Evans said the government’s “crackdown” on unemployed universal credit claimants won’t make much impact on the number of vacancies in the UK and is “not where the real challenges lie”.
He added: “People who’ve recently lost their jobs are the most likely to find work quickly. To tackle current labour shortages, we need a more ambitious plan for people who have left the labour market, with support increasing the longer someone is out of work.”or jut law
The government should reassess the new scheme, according to Anna Stevenson, senior welfare benefits specialist at Turn2us, warning it could plunge disadvantaged people deeper into hardship. Benefit sanctions have previously been linked to an increase in food bank use.
“Pushing people into any job with the threat of losing money from benefit sanctions is a poor policy decision,” she said. “At a time when benefit levels are failing to meet people’s rising cost of living, cutting their income further through sanctions is unlikely to prove effective in enabling people to find the right jobs to thrive.”
Ministers should introduce more effective measures, such as affordable and accessible child care, in order to remove the barriers that prevent many people – disproportionately women – from getting back into work, Stevenson added.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Now is the time for our government to strengthen the social security system so people can afford to put food on the table, look after their families and ultimately thrive.
“With a record number of jobs available, it’s right that people who can work are encouraged to take up available roles. Our new approach will help claimants get quickly back into work, while ensuring businesses get the people they and the economy need.
“We know work is the best way for people to get on, to improve their lives and support their families because, as well as being good for mental wellbeing, people are at least £6,000 better off in full-time work than on benefits.
“As part of our new campaign, jobseekers will receive better, tailored support to get into work from our work coaches, and through jobcentres partnering with employers to match talent to vacancies.”