Jeremy Hunt has ratcheted up the requirements that people receiving Universal Credit must meet or lose their benefits – the day after the Department for Work and Pensions was ordered to publish research on the effectiveness of benefit sanctions.
In today’s Spring Budget, the chancellor said benefit sanctions will be applied “more rigorously” if people do not meet work-search requirements or choose not to take up a “reasonable” job offer.
And he said he would raise the administrative earnings threshold – under which benefit recipients are subject to an “intensive work search regime” – from 15 to 18 hours a week. People can lose some of their benefits for failing to follow the regime, which includes weekly or fortnightly meetings with a job coach and a requirement to spend up to 35 hours job hunting a week.
The increase comes just six months after Hunt’s predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced he would increase the threshold from nine to 15 hours.
Ministers and DWP maintain that sanctions are an effective way to encourage more low-earners to take up jobs or work more hours. However, DWP has refused to publish research it commissioned in 2019 into whether this is the case.
Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office told DWP to publish the research, which the department has refused to release under Freedom of Information legislation.
Ruling on an appeal over DWP’s rejection of an FoI request for the paper, the ICO said information commissioner John Edwards “considers that there is a particularly strong public interest in scrutiny and understanding of the information available to those deciding whether to continue with a controversial policy such as sanctioning benefits”.
Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee has previously warned that DWP’s repeated failures to release research “could undermine the trust [of] the public, parliament and the department”.
Last summer, the committee wrote to then-work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey over her department’s failure to release several reports – including the one on sanctions – “despite expectations or previous commitments to do so”.
In her response, Coffey said it “no longer plan[ned] to publish the report”.
“The notion of a sanction acts not only through its imposition on a claimant but importantly also through its effect as a deterrent,” she said.
“Due to the way the report was commissioned, we were unable to assess the deterrent effect and therefore this research does not present a comprehensive picture of sanctions.”
Under the ICO’s ruling, DWP must disclose the report by 10 April. If it does not, the information commissioner may write to the High Court about the matter, which may be dealt with as a contempt of court.
Announcing the reforms in the Spring Budget, Hunt said there are two million people in the UK who are not working, or are on low earnings, receiving Universal Credit – “more than enough to fill every single vacancy in the economy”.
“Independence is always better than dependence, which is why we believe those who can work, should,” he said.
“So sanctions will be applied more rigorously to those who fail to meet strict work-search requirements or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer.”
Currently, anyone working more than 15 hours a week while on Universal Credit is subject to the so-called “light-touch regime” that requires them to have work-search interviews with a jobcentre when they begin receiving benefits and again after eight weeks.
Hunt also announced the introduction of “returnerships”: a new kind of apprenticeship targeted at the over-50s who are not working but below retirement age to return to work.
These will "bring together our existing skills programmes to make them more appealing for older workers, focussing on flexibility and previous experience to reduce training length", he said.