In January 2022, the secretary of state for work and pensions Thérèse Coffey announced the government’s latest strategy to tackle labour shortages wrought by the current economic crisis. Under new rules, claimants deemed capable of work are now expected to widen their job search activity to “find and secure a job in any sector” from four weeks after their initial universal credit (UC) claim.
This replaces a previous rule, which allowed claimants a “permitted period” to refuse jobs outside a previous occupation or pay-level for 13 weeks before having to widen their job search. Failure by UC claimants to provide sufficient evidence of an expanded job search and willingness to take any available work can now result in sanctions, such as a loss of UC income for up to six months. This rule change is at the heart of what Coffey calls the ‘Way to Work’ scheme. The objective is simple: get 500,000 more unemployed people into “any job” by the end of June.
It’s often the case that during recovery periods after major economic crises changes to the benefits system are swiftly pushed through, and it tends to get more punitive. During these years, it’s incumbent on ministers to use this system as a lever to get people into any available jobs, or sometimes just off benefits, as quickly as possible. If this can be done then ministers can convince the public that employment rates are improving, unemployment rates are falling, that their policies are working and, ultimately, that their government is the right choice to lead the recovery.
Ministers therefore tend to make the benefits system as onerous as possible during a recovery, so that taking work in the lowest paid, worst jobs is comparatively more attractive than claiming from the state. Despite the pernicious nature of some of these changes, it’s often easy for ministers to do this with minimal resistance. Owed in large part to their marginalised and heavily stigmatised social position, claimants are a highly atomised and relatively defenceless fraction of the working class. Lacking the material and cultural resources necessary to organise and assert their collective interests, they possess no real parliamentary representation or capability to disrupt the economic or political order (e.g. by going on strike). Consequently, throughout history, ministers have time and again opted to manage economic crises by turning the benefits system from a hostile environment into a practically unnavigable one.
A jobseeker shortage could hit those who can’t work.
In several previous periods of crisis and recovery, claimants have been targeted with stricter policies that are identical to Way to Work. The introduction of the ‘genuinely seeking work’ test throughout the 1920s saw ministers reduce high unemployment by pressuring frontline staff to disqualify the claims of anyone refusing to demonstrably search and take available work outside their normal occupation and pay. Frontline staff were expected to search for potential benefit ‘scroungers’ by gathering evidence on claimant behaviours and appearances, which often involved questioning their neighbours and local shopkeepers. In the mid-1980s, ministers similarly dealt with three million unemployed by administering a ‘stricter benefit regime’ (SBR).
The SBR featured a series of benefit cuts, mandatory work/training placements and tougher sanctions, while stripping away rights enabling claimants to refuse jobs outside their normal occupation, sector and pay. The political response to the 2008 financial crisis again saw ministers impose deep benefit cuts, mandatory unpaid work placements, tougher sanctions and more intense job-search pressure. Greater pressures were also placed on frontline staff to get more people into work, issue more sanctions, or to close benefit claims.
But while we’re already seeing some repetition of old patterns, with screws tightened on claimants to lubricate the low-wage, precarious segments of the UK job market, there are some key differences to consider.
Because of the government’s furlough scheme, unemployment levels never reached the heights of previous crises and have already returned to pre-pandemic levels. Although ministers have managed to avert an unemployment crisis, a new challenge has emerged in the shape of labour shortages across a range of key industries. As it stands, the number of vacancies continues to increase and compared to the number of jobseekers is now at an unusual rate of just one jobseeker for every vacancy – we’re in a tight labour market. This means there aren’t enough jobseekers available to strong-arm through the benefits system who are able to match the current employment demands required to “turbo charge our national recovery”.
In this context, the question we need to be asking is: how will ministers try to solve the problem of filling vacancies? One solution might be to attract more workers from overseas, as suggested by recent decisions to relax immigration rules for workers with experience in occupations facing significant shortages. Of greater concern, however, are measures addressed at those over whom the government has direct leverage: existing benefit claimants who are not typical jobseekers. Beneath the numbers making up the unemployment rate lies a sizeable and steadily increasing number receiving sickness and disability benefits. It isn’t inconceivable that current ministers would look to this group as one way of expanding the labour supply and meeting employers’ demands.
Former ministers had few qualms targeting the least job-ready claimants with harsh cuts and tougher rules in the aftermath of the previous crisis. In 2011, former work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, introduced the ‘Work Programme’ – a profit-driven employment service focused on achieving job outcomes for the ‘hardest-to-help’ claiming populations. The scheme brought those deemed to have limited capability for work receiving disability and sickness benefits under stricter work-related rules and threat of sanctions. Our research (included in 2021’s The Imposter as Social Theory: Thinking with Gatecrashers, Cheats and Charlatans) with staff who were on the frontlines of the Work Programme revealed how some managers were instructing workers to operate on the basis that most people were abusing the system and to find ways of getting people into work as quickly as possible.
Such managerial pressures encouraged some staff to push terminally ill people, and people they knew to have other complex mental and physical health problems, into jobs that caused them harm. Numerous activists and whistleblowers have also described how post-2010 changes to disability benefits, such as the replacement of disability living allowance (DLA) with personal independence payment (PIP), have been designed and implemented with the intention of stripping benefits away from those already in receipt of them and denying new claims. The new design of PIP made it considerably more difficult to start and maintain a claim than DLA, while former PIP assessors have revealed how they were faced with pressure from managers to “catch people out” and to find ways of blocking claims during assessments. These changes were often justified as necessary to ensure sufficient incentives are in place for those furthest away from the job market to enter work.
Changes to the benefits system seldom emerge from the benevolence of political elites. Particularly in years of crisis and recovery, changes are largely determined by the demands of the economy and the (often historically similar) ideas of ministers on the most effective ways to meet these demands. Consequently, although Way to Work is currently targeted at those deemed ‘fit’ and seeking work, if demands can’t be satisfied and the recovery stalls, other benefit claiming groups may suddenly look far more appealing as an untapped resource of labour power. And that’s something we need to be ready to resist.
Jim Kaufman is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sheffield.
Jamie Redman is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sheffield.