As a PACEY Together for Twos Outreach Worker, one of my roles is working with families, helping them to access affordable childcare and to support them in getting back to work.
I was concerned to see that the Work and Pensions secretary, Therese Coffey indicated that “claimant conditionality” has returned from the 1 July 2020 in line with job centres reopening their doors. Claimant conditionality is a set of rules that require people to agree to carry out job search activities as a condition of claiming benefits. Part of the conditionality is that people’s benefit payments can be “sanctioned” i.e. cut if the claimant is seen to not be fulfilling their job seeking commitment.
The concern that I and many others have is not only is there a lack of work opportunities around at the moment because of the COVID-19 situation, but there is also a lack of childcare places resulting from some settings not reopening following coronavirus. In addition to this many children have not been in school and still have not returned to school and won’t do until September 2020.
All of these issues mean that it is increasingly hard for parents to find work, have the time to look for work and to make suitable childcare arrangements for their children.
In view of this we approached the Department for Work and Pensions for a response to the return of benefit sanctions. Their response was;
If people can look for work, we want them to be available for work and engage with the support that is offered. This support is carefully tailored to their personal circumstances. The Secretary of State explained in parliament that we are reinstating claimant commitments that are tailored to individual circumstances.
It is part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there might be. Claimant commitments will reflect our “new normal”, acknowledging the reality of a person’s local jobs market and personal circumstances. We don’t want to sanction anyone. These are difficult and uncertain times for many people and we do want to do everything we can to help them find work or increase hours where that is possible for them. No sanction will be used until the claimant has an up-to-date claimant commitment in place. After that, a sanction will only be used where a claimant has not provided good reason for meeting the agreed requirements in the claimant’s commitment. Claimants who are shielding, have childcare responsibilities because of Covid restrictions et cetera will have their claimant commitment tailored to reflect their circumstances and will not be asked to do anything unreasonable.
I sincerely hope that it does transpire that people’s individual circumstances are taken into account before any benefit sanctions are applied. We are all aware that this is the most difficult time for families with most children being out of school until September, some children out of childcare settings and some grandparents who may normally look after children are shielding.
Work opportunities are lacking and this is particularly apparent in sectors where jobseekers are often signposted to such as hospitality and childcare, with significantly more out of work people looking to fill these few opportunities.
Even before the pandemic hit, I worked with many families who were already suffering real financial hardship, some relying on Food Banks and school holiday free meal clubs to get through the week. To add benefit sanctions now for the most vulnerable of families is unthinkable.
As we work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Job Centre Plus (JCP) work coaches, we will continue to monitor people’s real experiences of the expectations of looking for work in this climate.