The next stage of welfare reform: work more hours or lose your benefits

Ministers consider plans to force workers to increase their hours or change jobs in return for receiving Universal Credit payments.

Rarely a day now passes without ministers looking to impose new conditions on welfare claimants. The latest proposal under consideration, as today's Guardian reports, is for low-paid workers to be forced to work more hours or face losing their benefits.

Ahead of the national launch of Universal Credit in October, a DWP document notes that "the current Jobseekers Allowance caseload will be joined by current claimants of tax credits/housing benefit who are working less than could reasonably be expected." It adds: "The Welfare Reform Act enables us to place a wide range of mandatory requirements on this group (e.g. work search, work availability and work preparation requirements). Any requirement must be intended to help them find work, more work or better paid work." 

Universal Credit claimants will be divided into six groups (see below): working enough (individual and household), working could do more, not working, too sick to work right now, too committed to work right now and too sick to work. It is the second of these groups that the proposals are concerned with. The DWP suggests that claimants could be required to move job if and where "other avenues (additional job, more work with same employer) have proved unsuccessful". 

Responding to the department's "call for ideas", a new Policy Exchange report recommends that all new in-work claimants should be required to attend an initial interview at a JobCentre "where a conditionality regime should be set up to ensure the individual is doing all they can to increase their hours and earnings". It adds that claimants should then be forced to attend a quarterly meeting "to be reminded of their responsibility to try to increase their earnings", with sanctions applied for failing to attend. 

Ministers will no doubt argue that the plans are aimed at assisting the 1.4m people who are working part-time because they could not find a full-time job. The Policy Exchange report found that only 30 per cent of part-time workers who expressed a desire for full-time work were actively looking for it. Ministers will merely help push claimants in the right direction. But given the routine abuse of existing benefit sanctions by job centres, the danger is that this will become an underhand means of reducing the welfare bill.

And, rather like the suggestion that the minimum wage could be frozen or cut, the proposals sit uneasily with some of ministers' recent rhetoric. At last week's Resolution Foundation event on low pay, the skills minister Matthew Hancock (George Osborne's former chief of staff) argued that people were wrong to suggest that "working longer hours is the best way to boost earnings, and that getting people to work longer hours will help solve our economic problems." He observed: "Now I love my job, and work a humungous number of hours. And while many people in this room might do the same, let me let you into a secret: we’re unusual.

"Working more hours may be a necessary thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. It means less time to see the family; less time in the garden. Less free time. I’m in favour of more freedom. If the cardinal sin of modern economics is assuming that markets are always rational, then the second great failing is forgetting who we’re in it for."

If ministers are to avoid alienating the very "strivers" they purport to support, they should heed Hancock's words. 

The Department for Work and Pensions suggested that claimants could be required to seek "more work or better paid work" in return for receiving in-work benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.