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New Universal Credit Sanctions Could Include Losing Free NHS Prescriptions And Dental Care

5 min read

Exclusive: Jeremy Hunt’s plans to toughen the rules around sanctions for Universal Credit claimants may lead to people losing their free NHS prescriptions and dental care, PoliticsHome can reveal.

In his speech to the Conservative Party conference, Hunt said the government would “look at the way the sanctions regime works”.

Press reports based on government briefings suggested that measures to be announced in next month’s Autumn Statement included closing the Universal Credit claims of those whose benefits have been sanctioned for six months, reportedly affecting 90,000 people.

Few details have so far been provided with the policy yet to be finalised, but PoliticsHome can reveal what proposals have been under discussion in Whitehall.

Benefit sanctions are imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on Universal Credit claimants who are deemed not to have taken necessary steps to look for work. This includes those who miss – or in some cases are late for – jobcentre meetings. The overwhelming majority of sanctions are now imposed for this reason.

When a claimant’s benefits are sanctioned, their main payment – the ‘standard allowance’ – is typically stopped for a week or two, and is only restarted when the claimant complies with the requirements of their benefit claim, which in these cases usually means attending the jobcentre meeting they missed.

The government’s own research has found sanctions do not increase the likelihood of claimants leaving benefits for any kind of paid work, and reduce the rate of claimants leaving benefits for high paid work. PoliticsHome understands a senior Treasury official told colleagues last week that the policy was “just about being able to look tough on sanctions”.

Hunt’s plan concerns those who do not comply with jobcentre requirements – those who ‘disengage’ long-term from the jobcentre, so that their benefits remain sanctioned for six months. Under the proposals discussed last week, these claimants would have their Universal Credit claims closed by the DWP, and they would be barred from reopening them for an as-yet undetermined period of time – a three-month period has been floated.

Under the proposals discussed last week by civil servants, the new rules would not affect any claimants who receive the disability, housing or child elements of Universal Credit. These are top-up payments that claimants receive based on their individual needs – their disability, whether they have children, and whether they need help paying rent.

The DWP has estimated that with these provisos, the new rules will affect 90,000 claimants – though given that around 120,000 Universal Credit claimants are carrying a benefit sanction at any one time, the 90,000 figure is almost certainly the number who would be affected over an extended period of time, rather than a snapshot figure.

The tightened rules will cost money to administer, but it is not clear how much money – if any – they will save, given that those affected will already have gone six months and counting without receiving the main Universal Credit payment.

“This is part of Sunak wanting to create these clear blue water differences,” said Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, an expert on benefit sanctions. “And so the return to the ‘workers and shirkers’ thing is a way of putting the Labour Party on the spot. That's basically what it's about.”

But there are numerous complications that have not yet been addressed as officials scrambled to cobble together the policy within days last week. The exemption for claimants receiving the child element of Universal Credit is partly intended to avoid headlines about children losing free school meals, eligibility for which generally requires a live benefit claim.

The return to the ‘workers and shirkers’ thing is a way of putting the Labour Party on the spot

However, there are concerns that some non-nuclear households could fall through the gap – for example, if a child is being informally cared for by a relative. This is because the eligibility threshold for free school meals is lower than that for the child element of Universal Credit.

People housed in temporary accommodation – the so-called ‘hidden homeless’ – and some people living in supported housing receive old-style Housing Benefit on top of their Universal Credit, rather than the housing element of Universal Credit. They could also potentially be affected by the new sanctions rules, if only those in receipt of the housing element are exempted.

There is also uncertainty over whether the exemption for disabled people covers those considered to have ‘limited capacity’ for work, or just those with limited capacity for ‘work related activity’. The latter is a smaller group of more severely disabled people, while the latter includes those considered able to prepare for a return to the workplace.

Another issue arises with so-called ‘passported’ benefits – entitlements that arise from having an open Universal Credit claim. These include free NHS prescriptions and dental care, with the risk that eligibility for these will end for those who fall foul of the tighter sanctions rules. This could then lead to fines if they continue to claim free NHS prescriptions.

Dr Webster told PoliticsHome the group of claimants most likely to fall foul of the new rules are young single claimants without children. “They already have a very low rate of engagement [with the jobcentre] anyway,” he said. “Partly because the whole system is such a bullying system.

“We already know that rates of claiming for ill health has shot up in this young age group. And this policy is going to feed that even more, because it's going to become the only way that people in this group can get benefits.”

The Treasury directed questions from PoliticsHome to the DWP and the Conservative Party, while the DWP directed questions from PoliticsHome to the Treasury and the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.

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