THE TORY government been attacked over plans to extend controversial benefit sanctions to claimants with jobs, with critics warning introducing the "shockingly harsh" penalties risks plunging workers into poverty.
A number of pilot schemes are currently being carried out in the UK – including in Inverness – to assess a new scheme which the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) says is aimed at helping workers on low earnings take on more hours and increase their income.
Benefits can be stopped if claimants fail to meet requirements outlined by the DWP – such as missing Jobcentre appointments or failing to show evidence of looking for more work for a certain number of hours a week, on top of their usual job.
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The in-work regime, which is expected to eventually apply to around one million people, is being trialled as part of Universal Credit, the new type of benefit which is being rolled out across the country.
The DWP says its aim is “redefining the contract between claimants and the welfare state” and helping work to pay. The radical scheme - one of the first of its kind in the world - means for the first time those in part-time employment will have to meet certain conditions or risk losing support from the state.
But in a series of submissions to the House of Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which is carrying out an inquiry into the "in-work progression" scheme, charities, researchers and campaigners have warned the use of harsh punitive measures risks plunging workers into financial difficulties.
The Sunday Herald can reveal researchers have uncovered worrying examples of in-work claimants being sanctioned include a man who was 'fined' £70 after missing a JobCentre appointment because he had been called into work by his employer.
Another case involved a woman who was struggling with debt after being given multiple sanctions as she tried to juggle Jobcentre appointments with working part-time and caring responsibilities. She ended up being threatened with eviction from her home.
Dr Sharon Wright, senior lecturer in public policy in urban studies at Glasgow University, is lead researcher of a team at six universities across the UK which is carrying out a five-year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council into welfare conditionality.
She said the sanctions system being implemented was “quite shockingly harsh” and pointed to examples of cases of in-work claimants being penalised uncovered during their research.
She said: “We had one interviewee who had an appointment at the Jobcentre, but got called into work. He phoned up the JobCentre to rearrange his appointment, they told him it couldn’t be rearranged and then he was sanctioned because he didn’t go.
“So he was actually working and they took £70 off him because he wasn’t there. The idea behind the system is that it is meant to encourage people to work, but it is actually penalising people who are in work, so it is counter-productive – that is partly because of the rigidity of the system.”
Wright pointed out it was also now common for workers to have variable hours, or zero hour contracts that were unpredictable – yet people were being issued with “inflexible” appointments by the JobCentre.
“We interviewed another woman who had been given multiple sanctions – in her case she had caring responsibilities which were unpredictable and she had work that had variable hours,” she said.
“She ended up missing appointments because she was either caring or working and because the sanctions ramp up, she ended up in arrears with her rent and having bailiffs coming to the door and being threatened with eviction.
“That is someone who from her point of view is trying to do all the right things – she is trying to meet her family obligations by doing informal care, she is trying to meet work obligations by going out to work and yet she is finding this rigid system is not taking that into account.”
Wright acknowledged one beneficial aspect of the new system was that workers on lower hours would now be entitled to claim support, which they could not do under the new system - but questioned whether enough was in place to help support claimants to find more hours or better paid jobs.
“There is no system to help people gain confidence or train them or improve their situation in terms of pay or in terms of career progression,” she said. “What is means is heavy pressure on relatively powerless workers – who are part-time workers or low paid workers – to find more work.”
John Dickie, director of Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, said parents on low incomes would usually take on extra hours whenever they could.
He said: "All the evidence is that given the opportunity and when parents can juggle childcare they take on extra hours, they want to increase their hours at work.
"But there are real structural barriers in terms of the nature of the kinds of jobs that people are in - which mean limited opportunities to increase hours and increase earnings in work - as well as real issues that families face still both with the costs and availability of childcare."
Dickie said there was plenty of evidence of the "devastating" impact sanctions could have on out-of-work benefit claimants, including reducing their chances of getting back into work by removing vital financial support and forcing families to turn to food banks.
He added: "The evidence would suggest [sanctions for in-work claimants] would be completely counter-productive, and there is a very real risk that families – including families with children – will be pushed into even greater financial hardship than they already are."
Other submissions to the Work and Pension Select Committee inquiry include a response from Oxfam, which said financial sanctions should not be included as it was "too blunt an instrument" for dealing with hugely differing circumstances.
Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against sanctions, said extending sanctions to those who are in work will "punish people on the receiving end of the UK's low-pay, no-pay precarious labour market".
Rob Gowans, policy officer at Citizens Advice Scotland, also raised concerns around the use of sanctions, saying many out-of-work benefit claimants had experienced problems as a result of the impact of sanctions.
He said: “We are concerned that introducing this for people who are in work, or in part-time work, won’t really help them find a job and just push them further into hardship.
“We would like to see a full independent fundamental review of the current sanctions regime to see what effect it has and whether it is fulfilling its purpose."
A response submitted by University of Glasgow’s Medical Research Council/Chief Scientist Office Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, also noted that details of the trials being carried out by the DWP "remain scarce".
Dr Marcia Gibson, research associate at the Unit, said it was standard practice to publish protocols for trials ahead of them taking place.
She said: “If this is not done there is a risk of cherry picking - you are supposed to specify in advance which groups you are going to be interested in and which analyses you are going to run.
“Otherwise you could run many analyses after the fact and pick the findings which suited your particular take.
“If any researcher only publishes the trial findings after the fact and don’t publish their methodology in full, there is no way of knowing if they stuck to their plans or how they recruited people, for example – all kinds of really important aspects of trial design that can influence the findings need to be known in advance.”
The DWP did not respond to questions from the Sunday Herald asking how long the pilots would last or if the evaluation of the scheme would be made public.
In a statement, it said workers taking on more hours is being made possible by more generous childcare support under Universal Credit and that certain groups, such as the long-term disabled or recent victims of domestic violence, were being excluded from the trial.
The DWP also said it would support 'hardworking families' but benefit claimants working part-time who could work more have a “responsibility to themselves and the state to take on more hours.”
A spokesman for the DWP said: “We make no apology for helping people to progress in their jobs and earn more money.
“This is something the benefits system has never done before, and this kind of criticism completely misses the point of Universal Credit.”