When Iain Duncan Smith launched his vision of the welfare state, at the heart, was a fundamental commitment to tackle the benefit trap. He grasp the nettle and explained in clear terms how our confusing and complicated benefit system traps people – making people financial worse off if they returned to work. One of his key objectives was to get rid of the “16 hour rule” (if you work for under 16 hours a week while on benefits then for many claimants you can only keep £5 of your earnings and then every other £1 you earn is deducted from your benefit). Most people who try to work for under 16 hours a week are worse off – IDS took this on board and launched his plan (Universal Credit) for a new system that would enable people to get back into work as soon as possible even if this was only for a few hours a week – giving people a real chance to start working again without being financial worse off.
It is going to be years before the current benefit trap is destroyed by the Universal Credit reforms but just as IDS and his team start dismantling the current trap, it appears that a new and just as effective, barrier to taking up part-time work opportunities could be built and this has just as many teeth and is just as nasty…..
Next month the new Work Programme will be launched. People who are unemployed will be automatically be referred to the programme and will be offering training and support to find work. If people refuse to comply with the plan that their Work Programme provider has developed they will be subject to a range of sanctions including benefit being suspended. Activities include training courses, work placements and a range of other types of support to help people overcome barriers to employment. As anyone has tried to combine “complying” with the benefit rules and trying to work part-time or volunteering will tell you – the attitude of your employment advisor is key to whether you can make a success of part-time work, while also increasing your skills or accessing other types of support. Sometimes trying to “complying” with your welfare to work advisor means trying to be in two places at once – attending a compulsory course and going to work.
Over the last few months I have been meeting with providers of employment support to talk about the how part-time jobs in communities provides a real stepping stone back into employment – the providers have been incredible supportive and recognise how valuable such jobs could be to the people they work with…However, they have all highlighted a tension within the Work Programme – the definition of getting someone into work i.e. “getting a job” is a job of 16 hours or more a week. The provider only gets paid for all their work if someone gets a job of at least 16 hours…. anything less isn’t counted as a “job-outcome’ for DWP – so the pressure is on the providers and people receiving benefits to make it to over 16 hours employment….
DWP have been very clear that it is up to Work Programme providers to decide the best way to get people into work. So, the real power over whether people can take up job opportunities of less then 16 hours now shifts to the Work Programme providers. Will they be able to ensure we don’t build a new barrier to work or will we see the building of a new trap that means you risk benefit sanctions and a whole lot of hassle if you take a job of less then 16 hours while on the Work Programme ?