Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey has rejected calls to extend the ban on benefit sanctions after concerns were raised that lifting the temporary suspension too soon could have a severe impact on vulnerable claimants.
The UK government announced in March that benefit conditionality rules and face-to-face jobcentre meetings would be suspended for three months due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic and concerns about spreading the virus.
But during a parliamentary questions session to the Work and Pensions Secretary on Monday, Thérèse Coffey rejected a call from Labour to extend the ban and confirmed that jobcentre’s would begin reopening this week.
It means that face-to-face meetings will commence soon and the threat of having benefit payments cut will once again become very real for all benefit claimants.
Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds MP, argued that it would be “untenable” to reintroduce sanctions at a time of rising unemployment and falling job vacancies.
“It is important to recognise that the Universal Credit they have been processing in this crisis is a significantly different product to usual – in particular all sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended,” he said.
“That suspension, Mr Speaker, is due to end tomorrow. And at a time when unemployment has risen sharply, when vacancies have dropped, when people are shielding and the schools haven’t yet gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they don’t look for jobs is surely untenable.”
Official figures show that the claimant count – the number of people of claiming welfare benefits – has increased by around 2.8 million since the start of the lockdown.
Experts fear that this number will rise further after the Government’s furlough scheme ends later this year.
Responding to Mr. Reynold’s question, Coffey said: “It’s important that as the job centres fully reopen this week, that we do reinstate the need for having a claimant commitment and it’s an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there may be.
“But I know that I can trust the work coaches, my job centre managers who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now, Mr Speaker, who have never had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years and they will need careful support.”
Speaking after the question session, Mr Reynold’s said: “It is incomprehensible that the Government is bringing back conditionality and sanctions.
“At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, vacancies have dropped, people are still shielding and the schools aren’t back, threatening to reduce people’s financial support is untenable.
“What’s more, Job Centre Plus is still lacking guidance on how premises might even open safely. With the unemployment crisis looming, it is alarming that there is no thought being given on how to offer proper support to those seeking work at this time.
“We need a proper plan from the Government to get Britain back to work – sanctions aren’t the answer.”