‘Scrap the punitive policy’: SNP MP bids to end sanctions for welfare claimants who refuse zero-hours contracts

Chris Stephens MP introduces a new bill in the House of Commons today that could end one of Universal Credit’s most controversial policies

  • SNP MP Chris Stephens challenges UK Government to support new bill
  • The potential legislation has been welcomed by the STUC and the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network
  • The bill’s presentation in parliament follows the refusal of several Tory leadership candidates to commit to a radical overhaul of Universal Credit
  • In December 2018, Work and Pensions Secretary defended sanctioning claimants for refusing zero-hour jobs, saying: “People should go into work”

SANCTIONS for Universal Credit claimants who refuse zero-hour contracts could come to an end if a bill presented in the House of Commons today by SNP MP Chris Stephens is passed.

Under the legacy system, benefits claimants were not sanctioned for refusing to work zero-hours contracts, but this changed with the introduction of Universal Credit.

The flagship Tory welfare reform – which amalgamated a range of existing benefits into a single payment – has been controversial since it was first proposed, and has been dogged by reports of punitive sanctions, delayed payments and confusing bureaucracy.

While some of the candidates in the current Tory leadership race have indicated they may amend the current system, none have committed to a radical overhaul, or to pausing Universal Credit’s rollout.

READ MORE: Analysis: The DWP's Universal Credit propaganda tells you everything you need to know about this government

Stephens, MP for Glasgow South West, has argued that sanctioning claimants on this basis risks pushing them into exploitative and insecure work situations, from which they have little hope of escape. 

In December 2018, under questioning from Stephens during a Westminster committee hearing, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd defended the sanctioning of those who refuse zero-hour contracts, saying: “People should go into work. The principle of sanctions is that there is a conditionality.”

Asked if she felt people should take work even if that employment is insecure, Rudd replied: “Well, yeah.”

“Chris Stephen’s bill has exposed the hypocrisy of a government that condemns unfair zero-hour contracts one day, and the next is sanctioning Universal Credit claimants who refuse to take them up.” STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham

Commenting ahead of presenting his bill, Stephens said: “The UK Government must support my bill and scrap the punitive policy of sanctioning people for refusing a job that would place them in a precarious and exploitative situation – allowing this to become policy under Universal Credit was a reckless move by this callous Tory government.

“Zero-hours contracts can be used to exploit workers which fundamentally goes against the DWP’s stated intention of making Universal Credit mirror the world of work.

“Mandating that claimants take up or stay in a job with fluctuating hours, and therefore pay, is the height of irresponsibility.

“It is time this Tory government took a leaf out of Scotland’s social security book and treated all social security claimants with dignity and respect.”

READ MORE: Holyrood confronts damage done to mental health by Universal Credit

Speaking to CommonSpace, Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) deputy general secretary Dave Moxham commented: “Low-waged workers are caught in a double bind. On the one hand they are at the mercy of a benefits system pushing them to take up zero-hours contracts that provide no security or stable income. And they are at the mercy of bosses who allocate shifts on a whim, leading them back into the social security system.

“Chris Stephen’s bill has exposed the hypocrisy of a government that condemns unfair zero-hour contracts one day, and the next is sanctioning Universal Credit claimants who refuse to take them up.

“Workers have had enough and, through campaigns like Better Than Zero, they are turning the tide to demand the right to refuse work that leaves them with zero dignity.”

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Speaking on behalf of the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network, Sarah Glynn also told CommonSpace: “Zero-hour contracts, as we all know, are appalling, and one of the very deliberate results of Universal Credit is to try and control the working population by giving people little choice. The way that they’ve cracked down on the unemployed is part of disciplining labour and the working class generally, and one way it’s doing that is pushing people into zero-hour contracts, so I think it [Stephen’s bill] is a very well-targeted piece of suggested reform.”

While Glynn favours the full-scale reversal of the “absolute disaster” of Universal Credit and the banning of zero-hour contracts, she adds: “I don’t think we should ever resist small reforms; I think each little win can help us win something more. Every little win and concession that we can get not only benefits the people immediately affected, but gives you a stepping stone to achieve something more.”

Picture courtesy of Andrew_Writer

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