Getting people back into work: ethics, efficacy and trust

29 April 2020

Government ministers have a choice about how they use the welfare system to help people who have lost their jobs or businesses get back to work. That choice includes questions of ethics, efficacy and trust.

The working-age welfare system has always existed as a set of rights and responsibilities. Since the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the introduction of Universal Credit, the responsibilities side was dialled right up. DWP gets to set a set of tasks and expectations for each household claiming and is the arbiter of if they have been met. If people fail to meet their ‘responsibilities’ — if they fail to take a job that is offered to them, or fail to spend up to 35 hours a week searching for work — then households have their benefits reduced in the form of sanctions. This does not just apply to people out of work, but people on low incomes too.

It’s crude, but Universal Credit is basically Task Rabbit for government. The question for ministers is how they use this system in a world where:

  • There are significantly more claimants, many of whom may be new to the welfare system and may have different expectations now they find themselves reliant on it
  • There are substantially fewer jobs, and many of those that are may carry a risk of exposure to COVID-19

Some of the ethics of this are hopefully obvious — when is it acceptable to force people into essentially taking a job that may carry a health risk? What assurances should DWP have about the social distancing practices of an employer and the exact location of the work, before applying sanctions against a household?1

The efficacy question comes from the fact that (at best!), the jury is out on sanctions and their effect on people’s long-term prospects. (How they will work in the context we find ourselves today, we can only guess). Ministers need to decide what their offer will be to the public. If they want to get people into work, potentially in totally different professions, they will need to give DWP staff other tools than the sanctions hammer.

On trust, ministers need to understand that people’s trust in the government’s response will not come from the simple employment figures. The way the process makes them feel and the sense that it feels like a fair deal will become an issue of long-term trust.

  1. Job adverts are going to need to change to include this information