Government rejects Labour’s call to extend benefit sanctions suspension

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey has refused to extend the temporary suspension on benefit sanctions, which was introduced earlier in the coronavirus pandemic and is due to end tomorrow.

During a parliamentary questions session to the Secretary of State, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds welcomed the work of the Department in helping many more people than usual during the health crisis.

But the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary warned that threatening to remove people’s benefits at this time is “untenable”, and asked the government minister to extend the ban on sanctions.

He said: “It is important to recognise that the Universal Credit they have been processing in this crisis is a significantly different product to usual – in particular all sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended.

“That suspension, Mr Speaker, is due to end tomorrow. And at a time when unemployment has risen sharply, when vacancies have dropped, when people are shielding and the schools haven’t yet gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they don’t look for jobs is surely untenable.”

Data published by the Office for National Statistics earlier this month revealed that the number of people on company payrolls had fallen by 612,000 between March and May this year.

The figures also showed that since the start of lockdown in March, the jobless claimant count in the country had increased by 125.9%, or 1.6 million, to a total of 2.8 million by the end of May.

Economists have warned that the unemployment rate could see a sharp rise when the furlough scheme ends. The programme of financial support is estimated to have protected more than eight million jobs.

Coffey replied: “It’s important that as the job centres fully reopen this week, that we do reinstate the need for having a claimant commitment and it’s an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there may be.

“But I know that I can trust the work coaches, my job centre managers who are empowered to act proactively with people. There will be some people right now, Mr Speaker, who have never had to look for a job for the last 20 to 30 years and they will need careful support.”

The government announced in March that the requirement for Universal Credit recipients to show that they are looking for work would be paused for a period of three months due to the pandemic.

Commenting after the debate, Reynolds said: “What’s more, Job Centre Plus is still lacking guidance on how premises might even open safely.

“With the unemployment crisis looming, it is alarming there is no thought being given on how to offer proper support to those seeking work at this time. We need a proper plan from the government to get Britain back to work – sanctions aren’t the answer.”

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