Remove the universal credit rules blocking people from education

14 Jan 2022, 7:00

‘Conditionality’ rules are forcing people to give up their training courses, writes Peter Aldous

Like all MPs, I am regularly contacted by constituents struggling to access the training they need to secure fulfilling and meaningful work. I also speak to employers about the severe skills shortages they face in key areas across the local economy. This is replicated nationally and finding a solution is central to levelling up.

Resolving this issue is complicated and something that governments of all stripes have tried to answer.

There is one area where further education colleges play a key role ̶ supporting unemployed people to train and retrain.

Modest changes to the way the current welfare system operates provide the opportunity to make access to this support from colleges much easier and fairer. I and many other MPs support these changes.

For many, the key obstacle they face is the rigid and complex rules around studying and claiming universal credit at the same time. As those who work in colleges know all too well, recipients of universal credit considered able to work face strict requirements, known as ‘conditionality’.

Typically, they must spend up to 35 hours per week looking for work, provide evidence of their work search to their Jobcentre Plus work coach and be available to meet with them and attend interviews.

Claimants must also be prepared to give up their training course if they are offered suitable work.

This leaves many in a Catch-22 situation, where they may secure employment in the short term, but are prevented from developing skills that would allow them to get into higher quality, more stable and better-paid employment.

Claimants are left in a Catch-22 situation

The high employment rate in the 2010s should not disguise the fact that some people have moved from job to job with little chance to train or retrain for more meaningful and sustainable employment with prospects for progression.

Most claimants have a certain number of hours they can study per week and are typically limited to 12 weeks of full-time education and training (with 16 weeks for skills bootcamps), which restricts the options available. Extension to the amount of study time is at the discretion of work coaches, leaving scope for inconsistency and unfairness.

Claimants can be required to take part in Department for Work and Pensions’ courses that take them out of college courses. Otherwise, they risk sacrificing payments.

I welcome the steps the government has taken to address the disjointed education and welfare policies in recent years, including skills bootcamps. But unfortunately these are too temporary, creating instability and complexity in the system. This is challenging for people, some of whom already have educational disadvantages, and for colleges to navigate.

At the meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on further education and lifelong learning last summer, we heard about the important role that colleges play in supporting unemployed people into work through working with the local Jobcentre Plus (as captured in the Association of Colleges’ Let Them Learn report).

To empower colleges to do even more, the report called for the government to reform universal credit rules, removing existing barriers. I wrote to the-then skills minister Gillian Keegan, alongside a cross-party group of parliamentarians, encouraging her to take action.

The Skills Bill currently progressing through parliament is a unique opportunity for the government to commit to reviewing conditionality rules.

A review would enable a better understanding of the barriers to training that claimants are facing. It could show where flexibilities are needed in pursuit of a benefits system that encourages, not prohibits, education and training.

I intend to bring forward an amendment to the bill that would bring about this review with support from MPs across the House. While it may not make it on to the face of the bill, I’m confident that a constructive dialogue with government has been established and positive steps forward can be made.

The cost of taking no action will ultimately be fewer people in stable and meaningful employment, slower economic growth and bigger tax burdens.

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