In-work progression in Universal Credit will only succeed if barriers to work broken down
Published: 23 May 2016
Success or failure of in-work progression in Universal Credit depends on breaking down structural barriers to work like lack of affordable, quality childcare and part-time, flexible jobs says Julia Waltham, Head of Campaigns & Policy
Universal credit, the cornerstone of this government’s welfare reforms, is a new benefit which will replace six existing benefits and tax credits over the next few years. “In-work progression” (also called “in-work conditionality”) is central to the new benefit. Under this approach, payments to claimants who are in work but on low earnings are conditional on them taking certain steps to increase their pay or hours.
The Work & Pensions Select Committee ran an inquiry into this area of government policy and last week published its report. Working Families gave written and oral evidence to the committee, making the point that parents usually know what hours will work best for them and their families. In our experience providing legal advice to working parents, structural barriers to working more hours – childcare and lack of part-time and flexible jobs – are the reason behind the number of hours parents work. When change is imposed on parents – employers insisting on more hours, for example, we know that parents often can’t comply because of barriers like the local availability of affordable, quality childcare.
The committee’s report is broadly supportive of the scheme but does, as we did, warn of significant risks around its practical implementation. In line with our view, it states that “employed people self-evidently do not lack the motivation to work, and there is strong evidence that their barriers to earning tend to be more structural or due to personal circumstances, rather than motivational” – very much in line with our view.
The committee went on to voice concerns about how sanctions would work when imposed on claimants clearly motivated to work and likely to have a good reason for working the number of hours they do, if they fail to increase their hours. The University of York published the first-wave findings of their research into welfare conditionality just after the committee’s report came out. It highlights the negative effect of sanctions more broadly, in particular the widespread anxiety and disempowerment felt by those subject to them.
We were pleased that, in line with the strong argument we made, the report made the vital role of work coaches in the new scheme a central them. They have a very important and sensitive role. They must understand the structural barriers to increasing hours many parents face, such as access to childcare, and the need for them to be sensitive to each individual situation, working with parents and supporting them on a personalised basis.
The committee highlighted that work coaches are responsible for a caseload of around 100 unemployed claimants, and conduct 10 to 20 claimant interviews per day. We are very concerned that the additional resource required to provide personalised in-work support, at a time when the DWP is subject to budget cuts, will not be available – which the committee also raised in its report.
Disappointingly, the committee didn’t fully explore issues around the availability of good quality, affordable childcare – not least for the parents of disabled children, who we know are even more acutely affected by it. And although it recommends work coaches engage with the local labour market, we don’t think they fully considered the implications of the acute shortage of quality, part-time or otherwise flexible vacancies, as we would have liked them to. In our view, childcare availability and affordability and the availability of part-time and flexible jobs, are crucial to the success or failure of the scheme.
It remains to be seen how the government will respond to the committee’s recommendations (they are obliged to respond 60 days after the committee publishes its report, so we should see something before Parliament breaks for the summer).
And of course the DWP’s in-work progression pilot will be evaluated in 2018. The good news is the government’s stated evaluation objectives are to identify the most effective method and level of support for claimants and understand how employers can best support progression – as well as the extent to which claimants have increased their earnings.
In the meantime, we’ll continue raising issues around childcare and part-time and flexible jobs in relation to in-work progression in Universal Credit, as well as advising often confused and uncertain parents that contact us about Universal Credit through our legal advice line.
If you need more information about Universal Credit – what it is, who can claim it, which benefits it is replacing and how it will be claimed and paid, visit our advice pages here.