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Your employer offers you extra hours but the jobcentre demands you go to an appointment. Welcome to the cruel Alice in Wonderland world of in-work conditionality

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For years, the government has drawn an ideological battle line between “hardworking people” – strivers – and those on benefits. But those scroungers you once heard so much about? Most of them are actually in work. And now, under controversial changes to the welfare system, those already in employment are finding themselves subject to the same stringent sanctions as out-of-work claimants.

It’s a move many believe is counterproductive, punishes the working poor – and is politically toxic.

In-work conditionality means that those earning less than 35 hours a week at the “national living wage” will be expected to attend jobcentre meetings to prove they are seeking more hours, better paid work or additional jobs, in order to receive tax credit-style top-ups. Outside Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre – a pilot area for this little known element of Universal Credit (UC) – the claimants feel like canaries down the mineshaft.

“You see more people going into the jobcentre these days wearing work uniforms than normal clothes,” observes Charlotte Hughes, who has led Tameside Against The Cuts protests outside here every Thursday for over two years. “People who would have previously had no contact with the jobcentre are now at its beck and call.”

“Three members of staff were called into the jobcentre on the same day – the company had to shut.”

People like Natalie – not her real name. Having had their job search activity strictly monitored and cowed by the fear of sanctions, many claimants worry they’re “under surveillance” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and want their identities protected – or they’ve dropped out of the system altogether in favour of the relative sanctuary of the black economy.

Aged 23, she struggled to reconcile the inflexible demands of the jobcentre with her day-to-day job. She worked 30 hours per week for a small business, and was then forced to spend an additional five hours per week looking for other work.

“The company doesn’t allow employees to keep their phones on, yet I had to because failure to answer a call from your job coach gets you a sanction,” she says. “It created tensions because I was constantly being called into the jobcentre. Three members of staff were called into the jobcentre on the same day – the company had to shut for the day because they didn’t have any staff. He [her employer] got rid of us because he couldn’t cope with the disruption anymore. I’ve got a cash-in-hand job now.”

It’s an inherent conflict that Peter Dwyer – leading a five-year study into welfare conditionality – has encountered often. “It’s counter-productive because searching for work effectively becomes your job, and the demands can get in the way of claimants actually working,” says the professor of social policy at York University. “What claimants are doing is fulfilling the requirements of the job-search activity rather than pursuing more realistic and meaningful opportunities for work.” One participant in the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project reported: “Some people have been told not to do voluntary work… learning skills and confidence.”

Hughes says she’s seen people – especially single mothers working part time – reduced to tears by in-work conditionality. “They’re saying fulfilling the jobcentre’s requirements is like having a second job.”

In theory, in-work conditionality helps you secure more hours, yet workers must take time off work to attend jobcentre appointments. In effect, you can be sanctioned for not doing enough to prove you’re trying to get extra work – because you’re already doing extra work. On paper, it’s beyond Catch 22. Even if Monty Python directed Kafka’s The Trial and filmed it on the other side of Alice’s looking glass, it wouldn’t be as surreal.

“We had an example of somebody who said: ‘I can’t attend the jobcentre meeting because I’m in work.’ And the job coach replied: ‘You have to come in or you’ll get sanctioned,’” says Dwyer. “It’s undermining people’s ability to work. On one hand, the labour market demands flexible workers – zero hours contracts, etc – and on the other we’ve got an inflexibility in relation to Jobcentre Plus. They’re pulling in different directions.”

In-work conditionality ignores the reality of the modern economy and its reliance on zero-hours contracts. These make it difficult to predict actual working hours – and therefore the number of hours that need to be made up in job search activity. An in-work UC claimant could have full-time work one week and no work the next.

“We saw one bloke try to commit suicide,” says Hughes. “He was on a zero hours contract so wasn’t viewed as full-time employed. When he went to his job coach appointment, they said he was an hour short [of job search activity] and stopped his money. It led to a domino effect where he lost his home – and nearly his life.”

“You’re being told to continually search for work when you’re not sure how many hours you’re going to do each week,” says Dwyer. “There’s a mismatch between the requirements of UC and the reality of the contracts available at the bottom end of the paid labour market.”

How will the scheme work when, in reality, many contracts forbid taking on second jobs? “I don’t think these kind of issues were really considered,” responds Dwyer.

“I’m trying to build a stable life – and they’re doing everything in their power to make it unstable.”

He adds: “How attractive is somebody on UC to an employer? That person has to constantly search for work, and has three or four jobs on the go, all to meet the demands of UC.”

Out of the one million in-work claimants who will be subject to some form of conditionality will be an estimated 200,000 lone parents, as child tax credits are part of UC. Emma, 27, from Tameside, is already feeling its impact. She works 18 hours a week, meaning she has to job search for an additional 17 hours on top of this – all while raising her seven-year-old daughter. It’s a juggling act she describes as “horrible”.

“It’s like you have to run around in circles to get your money,” she says, exacerbated and emotional. “I’m exhausted as it is. I said to my adviser: ‘Just stop my money and then we’ll see how I cope living off 18 hours per week wages.’ Because I feel that’s what they want to do.

“They’re putting unnecessary pressure on people who are vulnerable anyway. You walk into the jobcentre now and see women crying.”

Kicked out of school in year nine, Emma admits her life has been tumultuous. “But I’m trying to build a stable life – and they’re doing everything in their power to make it unstable.”

In her first week she was sanctioned and had her benefits stopped for four weeks. “It was for filling in my job search on a piece of paper because the computer wouldn’t log me in.” She received no warning. “You go to the cash machine thinking ‘I’ve got money, I can pay off my debts’ only to find it’s not there. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and, when they stopped my money, it made me depressed and I had to go back on my medication. They make me feel like I’m not a good mum. They make me feel like I can’t look after my child. I feel scared now to walk into the jobcentre.”

Key to in-work conditionality is the support element, yet the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents over 80,000 people in the DWP, warns that jobcentres, facing looming staff cuts, will have neither the space nor the requisite expertise to provide meaningful one-on-one career coaching to an estimated 25 per cent increase in the number of claimants expected through their doors. Already, says Dwyer, the help is “increasingly distant” – either at the end of a telephone line or online. That’s challenging when one fifth of households have no internet access and some claimants can’t afford to fritter away their pay-as-you-go credit on a helpline that isn’t free.

It’s something Emma knows only too well. “It’s stressful because they send you to lots of different websites – each with different emails and passwords. If you phone, you’re stuck in a queue for 20 minutes. So you don’t. All you can think of isn’t ‘This will help my career’ – it’s ‘I can’t afford the phone bill.’”

The inbuilt delay of UC means claimants have to wait at least 42 days before receiving any money. And even though she’s doing more, she’s receiving less cash. She says she is “losing £50 per week” compared with when she was on tax credits, and is awaiting a reply from her MP as to where the money has gone. Hers is not an isolated case. The Resolution Foundation found that 1.2 million people will be worse off by £41 a week under UC.

“One of the consequences of the government’s decision to push ahead with cuts to UC, while reversing planned cuts to tax credits, is that the new benefit system is now less generous than the last,” explains David Finch, senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation. “This has created a postcode lottery in which some low-income working families living in areas where UC is being rolled out will receive less support than families with identical circumstances in other parts of the UK.”

Emma says friends have sought cash-in-hand jobs, unfettered by the jobcentre, or their parents are subsidising them – or worse. “A lot of people on UC have just fucked it off. They’re not claiming benefits anymore, but it’s not because they’ve got a job – which the government want you to think. It’s because they’ve been bullied off benefits, sunk into depression and now their families are scraping by to help them. A few of them are living in tents in town [Manchester]. I think it’s deliberate to make their figures look good.”

The reason this could potentially be a political tinder box is that it will affect workers in what are traditionally viewed as virtuous sectors – such as the NHS or teaching assistants. Even DWP employees themselves won’t be immune, meaning those job coaches who dole out sanctions could face sanctions themselves. “I’m hoping people will start getting angry,” says Hughes.

“It’s going to affect people who used to call those on benefits ‘scroungers’. Now they’ll become the thing they despised.”

“Politically it could be a step too far,” says Dwyer. “It’s a difficult one to sell, because it’s no longer ‘look at those workshy people reliant on benefits who can’t be bothered to work’. It’s ‘Look at those people who are working and aren’t earning enough.’”

It’s little wonder that one claimant – a lifelong worker in his fifties claiming UC as a wage top-up – told Dwyer’s team: “The first moment I walked into the jobcentre I felt criminalised. It was as if I’m signing up to prison or something. I’ve always worked and so I think I should have been treated a little bit differently rather than just being stuck up as another unemployed person.”

A DWP spokesman told Big Issue North: “Universal Credit is a vital reform that is already transforming lives, with claimants moving into work quicker than under the old system. Our priority is for a Britain that works for everyone, so it is right that, for the first time ever, we are supporting claimants who are in low-paid work to increase their earnings and progress in their careers.”

But Emma is not convinced. She warns that, five years on, we haven’t learned the lessons of the riots that engulfed the country in 2011. “People are having breakdowns and wanting to smash up the jobcentre because of the way they’re making us feel. How are you supposed to be civil in a system that’s made you feel neglected?

“When everybody gets put on this, there’s going to be war.”

Illustration: Mark Wheeler

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