New ministers: change universal credit rules so people can skill up

24 Sep 2022, 6:00

People on universal credit say work coaches don’t engage properly and rules stop them from accessing training, write Trinley Walker and Olivia Gable

Throughout the pandemic, the government placed a strong emphasis on the role of training and re-skilling through programmes.

It has done this through Restart and JETS (Job Entry Targeted Support), which formed part of its Plan for Jobs.

But the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education can be misaligned in practice.

For example, universal credit is underpinned by a “work first” approach.

Re-entry into the labour market is prioritised for out-of-work claimants, with individuals required to demonstrate the steps they have taken to find employment each week.

Should they not fulfil their requirements, they risk being sanctioned (losing financial support).

Although different types of conditionality dictate how much time claimants must spend on job search activity, a significant proportion have to show 35 hours of activity.

This leaves little opportunity for training and education.

But what if people claiming universal credit hold ambitions that reach beyond the immediate and available jobs they can get with their current experience and qualifications?

What if they want to boost their opportunities to access better-quality work?

Conditionality rules makes it hard for claimants to take up training opportunities.

The government’s skills bootcamps are a case in point.

Many of its courses are highly intensive, run over a 16-week period and sometimes requiring full day participation, while others require evening and weekend learning time.  

For many people getting universal credit, this would leave no time to meet the requirements to search and apply for jobs set out by their work coach, and so could risk a break in financial support.

This means people with a universal credit claim generally cannot access full-time training.

The government is now running a pilot scheme called Train and Progress which allows a small number of claimants to access up to 12 weeks of training without having to meet work search requirements.

In our recent research, we conducted interviews on this issue.

While most of the interviewees were engaged in training in some way, these efforts could be disrupted by their conditionality requirements.

Some interviewees were required to conduct job activity for 35 hours a week, limiting their ability to undertake training.  

One person we spoke to had to use classroom time to search for jobs, putting her at risk of missing out on the learning experience.

One claimant had to use classroom time to search for jobs

Interviewees also reported variable experiences with their work coaches.

While some interviewees benefitted from relationships with work coaches who were responsive to their needs, too often, this wasn’t the case.

Typically, people found their engagement with work coaches to be transactional. It was conducted through brief meetings in which their underlying needs were not addressed.

Some interviewees had to research training opportunities themselves as their work coaches were not well informed about the local area.

Our research also found that childcare responsibilities present a further barrier to training.

There could be significant strain where parents were attempting to balance training courses with conditionality requirements and part-time work. 

We are calling for:

  1. People on a course while receiving universal credit to have a one-year pause on conditionality so they can study full-time or part-time without risking their benefit entitlement.
  2. The DWP to create opportunities for people on universal credit to discuss training access with their work coach at any point in their claim. This should trigger a training-focused meeting and potentially signpost to the National Careers Service.
  3. The DfE to ensure work coaches have up-to-date knowledge of local skills ecosystems, labour market demand and training opportunities, including government skills initiatives, by establishing a specialised group of career developers.
  4. Better alignment between DWP and DfE programmes to facilitate training for people on universal credit.

With the cost-of-living crisis set to deepen further, it is vital that people on low incomes who want to build new skills are offered tailored advice and support. This will allow them to access training that might help them move in to more secure forms of employment.

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