Forcing people to take a job – any job – is wildly counterproductive

The HMS Boris is sinking, but not without a struggle. The disintegrating vessel, its hull peppered with gaping holes courtesy of its captain and crew, is floundering and blaring an ear-splitting distress signal.

The government has mounted an attack on the BBC, scrapped all plan B Covid restrictions to appease lockdown-sceptic backbenchers and tried to get the Royal Navy to sort out the Home Office’s failed asylum policy. All in a pitiful attempt to divert attention from the lies, the parties, the birthday cake and the fact that Britain’s highest political office is currently occupied by a man under police investigation.

The latest distraction technique is the Way to Work initiative, which is little more than another way to give people on universal credit (UC) a kicking. UC claimants will be forced to take a job, any job, or face financial sanctions. If you need universal credit and you can’t find a role in your chosen sector within four weeks, you’ll lose part of your meagre benefits allowance. This is a third of the previous time period of three months.

No matter that it can take five weeks for your first universal credit payment to materialise and that the new plans could leave people with sanction fines before they even see a penny. No matter that forcing people into taking the first job that comes along isn’t necessarily beneficial for their long term employment prospects. No matter that in-work poverty is a real and growing problem – and 40 per cent of people claiming universal credit already have jobs.

None of that matters to this government, desperate to do something – anything – to claw back a scrap of control over the political agenda. And what better way to do this than by heaping more indignity onto benefit claimants, people who have been scapegoated and abused by Tory and coalition governments for the last decade.

Already stripped of the £20-per-week pandemic uplift and likely to be devastated by the gathering storm of the worst cost of living crisis in 30 years, the last thing that people on universal credit need is this latest government assault.

Forcing people to take the first job that comes along after four weeks is unlikely to do much for their career prospects in the long run. It might bring unemployment numbers down, but it will see people funnelled into insecure and low-paid work, which doesn’t necessarily add to their CV and could be detrimental to their overall health and wellbeing.

As anyone who’s sought work within the last century will know, it’s not always easy, and the job that’s right for you can take a while to become available. People on universal credit aren’t waiting for jobs like “glass blower by royal appointment” or “professional caviar taster” to come up. They want decent roles that match their skills and experience, where they will receive fair remuneration for their labour.

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Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, says: “Helping people get any job now means they can get a better job and progress into a career.” I’m not sure how long it’s been since Ms Coffey looked for work (hopefully the next general election will provide an opportunity) but being forced into a random available job doesn’t come with any guarantee of getting a better role and progressing your career. If you’re an engineer and you’re pressed to take a role as an office cleaner, it’s not going to do much for your career in engineering. If anything, the government’s plan will waste valuable skills and expertise, and will leave people feeling devalued, disrespected and lacking in agency. It might also take up time someone could be using to apply for jobs in their chosen field.

Yes, the country is facing shortages in sectors such as social care and construction, but forcing people to take jobs they don’t have the skills for or interest in seems wildly counterproductive. With social care, an overhaul of how the sector is run in this country is long overdue, with more training, more professional development and more appropriate (read: higher) wages needed for those on the front lines, caring for the elderly and disabled.

Remember, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that there is no evidence that benefit sanctions actually work – they are as likely to force people to stop claiming benefits without getting a job as they are to get them into employment. The Way to Work initiative is just another example of people on benefits being used as a political punching bag.


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