Benefit sanctions have resumed from today after the Tory welfare chief refused to extend a blanket ban on them.
Therese Coffey said it was “important” for claimants to commit to look for work and attend appointments as Jobcentres started to reopen from July 1.
She insisted work coaches will prioritise “support”. And a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) source insisted sanctions would not be their “focus”.
But the Work and Pensions Secretary’s statement was branded “heartless” – as MPs warned it will heap “stress and suffering” on families while unemployment soars, and people remain having to shield or care for children at home.
As messages promising not to sanction people vanished overnight, the GMB union branded the reopening of jobcentres a “PR stunt” that could put people at risk.
Sanctions, which dock people’s benefits if they don’t follow government rules, were formally halted for three months from March 30 for anyone failing to look for work or attend an interview.
At the time the government said the blanket ban would “initially be for three months” and “will be reviewed and may be extended”.
But Ms Coffey refused Labour’s plea today for an “immediate extension”.
She told the Commons: “Well actually it’s important that as the Jobcentres fully reopen this week, that we do reinstate the need for having a claimant commitment.
“It’s an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there may be.
“But I know I can trust the work coaches, my Jobcentre managers who are empowered to act proactively where people, there will be some people right now who’ve never had to look for a job in the last 20 to 30 years.
“They will need careful support tailored to ensure they can start to look for the jobs that are available, and that I hope will become very soon available.”
Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “At a time when unemployment has risen sharply, when vacancies have dropped, when people are shielding and the schools haven’t gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they don’t look for jobs is surely untenable.”
Sure enough, assurances to people – including the homeless – that they wouldn’t be sanctioned vanished from the DWP’s website just after midnight on Wednesday.
Labour MP Grahame Morris blasted Ms Coffey’s announcement, saying the DWP’s own estimates suggest 31,000 extra staff are needed.
He said ministers are reintroducing sanctions “when the department have nowhere near the required number of staff. Surely this action will help stress and suffering on claimants and staff alike?”
DWP minister Mims Davies replied the number of work coaches would double and stressed there would be “an individual focus on our claimants”.
But Labour MP Bill Esterson said: “This is declaring war on many hard working families who have lost their jobs in the Covid-19 crisis. Short sighted and sadistic.”
Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said it was a “terrible decision”. Fellow Lib Dem leadership candidate Layla Moran said: “This is an utterly heartless decision.
“At a time when millions of families are struggling to pay the bills, the government wants to reintroduce harsh benefit sanctions that they know will hit the most vulnerable.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union which represents DWP staff, said: “We’ve always opposed the use of sanctions.
“It is a counter productive and cruel policy that punishes claimants when the social security system should be there to help people.
“To re-impose it on the cusp of a huge spike in unemployment because of the coronavirus lockdown is an absolute disgrace.”
Abi Gill of homelessness charity Centrepoint said: “With so many facing a lengthy period of unemployment this simply isn’t a time for talking tough.
“The fact is that sanctions were never effective in helping people find jobs.
“And they’re nothing short of cruel now those looking for work vastly outnumber an ever shrinking number of vacancies.”
Iain Porter of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation think tank said: “The economic reality has not changed.
“The social security system must not be used to force people into searching for jobs which currently don’t exist at a time when many will still be facing restrictions.”
Nadine Houghton, GMB National Officer, said: “Rushing to reopen job centres feels like a PR stunt rather than a well thought out plan.
“Security guards are amongst those occupations with the highest Covid-19 death rates… We must not allow Job Centre staff to be exposed to potentially dangerous work.”
People can have their Universal Credit stopped in a sanction if they break a “claimant commitment” – which for many means looking for work.
Guidance on the government website says: “Preparing for and getting a job must be your full time focus.
“If you do not do this without a good reason, you will have a cut to your Universal Credit, known as a sanction.”
A DWP source insisted “our focus is not on sanctions and we don’t want to sanction anyone”. They added claimant commitments will reflect the “new normal” and the “reality of the local job market”.
The sanctions suspension was announced on March 25 after people were told to stay at home and pubs and shops began closing due to coronavirus.
At the time, Ms Coffey confirmed DWP staff had stopped checking if people are “looking for and being available for work”. That meant “no sanctions should be applied for that reason for the next three months”.
The blanket ban was later confirmed in legislation for three months from June 30.
The suspension of sanctions in March happened partly because Jobcentres were shut due to coronavirus.
However, today Ms Coffey told MPs: “We are now working with local managers to start fully reopening job centres in July to help get Britain back into work.”
More than 3million people have applied for Universal Credit since March, roughly doubling the number of people on the six-in-one benefit.
It is understood Jobcentres will reopen in a staggered way in England from Wednesday 1 July, while those in Wales and Scotland are reopening as lockdown guidance allows it.
Face-to-face appointments under Universal Credit are expected to resume under a “blended” model, allowing social distancing in Jobcentres while phone and digital contact continues.
Separately, face-to-face assessments for all sickness and disability benefits were also suspended for three months from March.
Benefit officials have used phone and paper-based assessments instead.
It was unclear today if that situation would continue or for how long – but DWP minister Justin Tomlinson said the current system “continues”.
Meanwhile, Mr Tomlinson revealed he will soon announce long-awaited changes to the rules for fast-tracking terminally ill people’s benefit claims.
The minister said: “We will be making changes. It won’t be the status quo.
“Covid-19 caused a delay to the final part of the consultation with the medical professionals.
“We will be bringing forward a change shortly.”
Elsewhere, DWP minister Will Quince introduced a legal change today to end a Universal Credit loophole that left new pensioners in the lurch for two months.
People on the six-in-one benefit will be given a guaranteed one-off payment – averaging £350 a head – when they hit state pension age and have to leave UC.
Currently, some claimants see their UC payment end weeks before they hit state pension age – yet then also have to wait up to five weeks for their pension to be paid.
Mr Quince said: “An estimated 200,000 people will benefit from this measure over the next five years, receiving on average an additional £350 each.
“I am pleased to confirm that regulations are being laid today to put this measure on a statutory footing.”
Ms Coffey later said the Government needs to “rectify” aspects of the pensions triple lock if average earnings fall this year, as forecast.
Labour MP Jeff Smith (Manchester Withington) asked whether the triple lock – which sees the state pension increase each April in line with wage growth, price rises or by 2.5%, whichever is highest – will be maintained.
Responding, Ms Coffey said: “Absolutely. This Government is absolutely committed to fulfilling its manifesto commitments.
“I think it is fair to say we have some situations ahead of us but it is something I’m in discussion with.
“This is not about abandoning the triple lock in any way.
“But I can assure him that there are some consequences – of which he may not be aware – if average earnings fall during this year that we need to rectify in order to make sure that aspects of the law that is already in place cannot be set aside.”