Repeated changes to Universal Credit over the last year have put hundreds of thousands more low-paid part-time workers at risk of being sanctioned. UNITE estimate that if the latest planned changes go through then a million low paid workers will be in danger of having their Universal Credit sanctioned . ECAP has been contacted by Universal Credit claimants in part-time jobs who are being told that they now have to attend the jobcentre every week – whereas before they had no work search requirement.
The UK government is attacking part-time workers by raising the “Administrative Earnings Threshold” (AET) – this means that claimants have to earn much more before they are placed within the ‘Light Touch’ group of UC claimants and become exempt from having to show they are seeking more paid employment (which UC claimants in the ‘Intensive Work Search’ group are forced to do).
The government is trying to force part-time workers to work more low-paid hours and fill low-paid job vacancies – more exploitation! We need to resist!
In September 2022 the AET for an individual claimant was raised from the equivalent of an individual claimant earning the minimum wage working approximately 9 hours per week to the claimant having to work 12 hours per week (for claimants in a couple the increase was from approximately 14 to 19 hrs per week) This resulted in an estimated 114,000 claimants being moved from the ‘Light Touch’ group to the ‘Intensive Work Search’ group – and thus put at risk of sanctions. In January 2023, there was another increase whereby single claimants had to earn at least the equivalent of 15 hours per week at the minimum wage to be exempt from work search (24 hours for couples).
And the government plans to make the situation even worse! The Government wants to raise the AET to £812 per month for individual claimants and £1,309 for couples. This is equivalent to an individual working 18 hours per week at the minimum wage or the claimants in a couple working a total of 29 hours per week at minimum wage. This latest attack on low paid workers would put another 110,000 claimants at risk of sanctions. Contrary to some media reports that the AET was being raised from September 2023, as at 2.11.2023 the Child Poverty Action Group confirmed that Universal Credit Regulation 99 (6) still set the AET at the equivalent of 15 hours per week at the minimum wage for single claimants – that is £677 per month – and 24 hours for couples – £1,083 per month. However the government had announced its intention to make the change in Autumn 2023, so the rise could come very soon.
And the attack doesn’t stop there! Another planned change is to remove the couples rate of AET altogether, meaning that individuals in a couple will each separately need to reach the individual threshold of the AET to be placed in the Light Touch regime. In other words they will need to work even more hours to escape harassment and sanction threats.
Next, the government aims to extend the sanction threat to virtually all part-time workers on Universal Credit. Work and Pension Minter Guy Opperman has announced that the voluntary “In Work Progression offer” for those in the Light Touch Group is to become mandatory in 2024, exposing increased numbers of low-paid part-time workers to the possibility of being sanctioned, and eroding the Light Touch’ category itself.
Women, the young, the disabled under attack
This UK Government attack on part time workers particularly hits women, disabled people, and young people as a recent UNITE briefing paper details. The DWP’s own Equality Impact Assessment admits that: ‘UC claimants who have declared a health condition and/or disability that doesn’t affect their ability to work or those awaiting a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) are affected by the change in AET’ and ‘Raising the AET will therefore result in more claimants who are awaiting for WCA being in the Intensive Work Search regime.’ The DWP also say that: ‘if claimants with a health condition or disability fail to comply with work-related requirements without good reason, they will be liable for a sanction’.
The DWP itself states “we have identified the adverse impact that young people and those not entitled to the adult National Living Wage will have to work significantly more hours to reach the AET. Despite having identified this potential adverse impact, we consider it acceptable to move forward with the policy on the basis that the work coach support is designed to help – not penalise – claimants…..”
As UNITE explain, women will be especially impacted negatively by these changes. The removal of the couples AET is more likely to affect parents of young children and women are more likely to be the lead carer. Currently women make up 62% of what the Government classify as Non-working/Low Earning Partners. In essence, mums of young children will be forced out to work for a boss or forced to work more hours.
The raising of the Administrative Earnings Threshold has gone along with the government threatening “a ramping-up of sanctions for claimants who do not look for or take up employment.” and the chancellor’s statement at the Tory Party Conference that the government will freeze civil service staffing levels and make it harder for claimants to access benefits (see this PCS union report)
Daily attendance attack
Another assault on claimants has been mounted via a new DWP pilot operating in 60 Jobcentres Britain-wide including 11 Glasgow jobcentres, which forces ‘thousands of Universal Credit claimants to compulsorily attend jobcentres 10 times over a 2-week period’. The DWP has announced that this pilot is to be extended to more jobcentres from October 2023. This has been condemned by the DWP workers union the PCS who describe how after a week of daily attendance centred on “Employability Skills”, “claimants will then be required to attend two weeks of daily intensive activity in the Jobcentre, focused on work search activity. This two-week intensive support will be provided at week 13 and repeated at week 26 in the customer journey. This will mean that it will be compulsory for thousands of Universal Credit claimants to attend a Jobcentre 20 times over a four-week period. PCS believe that this could increase the risk of poverty and make it more difficult for people to claim benefits. If the claimants, who have been claiming Universal Credit for 26 weeks, fail to attend they could be sanctioned and risk losing their benefits, plunging often very vulnerable people deeper into poverty.“
More harassment and sanction threats for parents
Parents/ carers of young children aged one and two are being forced to attend more appointments with work coaches while the maximum number of hours that universal credit claimants with children aged three to 12 are expected to work or look for work increased to 30 hours per week from 25 October 2023 (previously claimants with children aged three to four were expected to engage in work-related activity for up to 16 hours per week, and claimants with children aged five to 12 for up to 25 hours per week). This attack hits 700,000 ‘lead carers of children’ (see also “DWP starts new Universal Credit work crackdown on 700,000 families”) As if caring for children wasn’t already a full-time job!
The DWP stated that the changes do not apply to self-employed claimants, that commitments will be tailored to parents’ personal circumstances, including the availability of childcare. and that claimants who are affected will agree new claimant commitments at their next scheduled meeting with their work coach. If you are in this position, stand up for yourself and insist the Jobcentre do take your situation into account. And don’t forget that you can take someone with you to all DWP appointments to help you put your case.
Oppose all conditionality and sanctions
This is all part of a wider attack on all working-class people. Making the social security system more precarious undermines all workers’ wages and conditions.
ECAP opposes all conditionality (putting conditions on social security) and all sanctions on principle. Everyone should have the right to what they need to live well. Universal Credit is already a punitive system paid at poverty levels – these attacks make it even worse and we need to resist them as part of the struggle to reclaim the world’s resources for the world’s people.
ECAP supports claimants to resist being forced to attend the jobcentre weekly – or even more frequently. There is nothing in benefits law or benefits regulations which mandates any particular frequency of attendance – plus you can argue for a phone appointment rather than attending in person. Remember you have the right to be accompanied to all benefits appointments – Don’t face them alone!
This CPAG article from October 2022 sets out the context to the changes. And things have got much worse since then!
References to the minimum wage are to the official UK Government minimum wage for those 23 and over, called by the Government the National Living Wage. This is currently £10.42 per hour.