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In-work conditionality is a novel aspect of Universal Credit, requiring those who are currently in work, but earn below a threshold of National Living Wage rate of 35 hours, to make an effort to increase their earnings. There are exceptions for some individuals, but once Universal Credit is fully rolled out, up to a million people will be required, for the first time, to regularly interact with Jobcentres to meet the requirements of their ‘Claimant Commitment’, even though they are in work.

Currently, these interactions are described as ‘light-touch’ and usually involve monthly telephone contact with a Jobcentre Work Coach. However, the Government is also trialling stricter schemes, including compulsory fortnightly appointments at Jobcentres.

The policy has a noble purpose of reducing in-work poverty by encouraging people to secure more hours, get a promotion, or find a new job that will allow them to be more self-sufficient. But there are problems.

There has been very limited research on the effectiveness of in-work conditionality. DWP’s own trials have suggested that active intervention by Work Coaches for those in work has a positive effect, increasing weekly earnings by up to £5.25, but the difference was not statistically significant. Other research has found no positive impact of in-work conditionality on people’s progression, but also had a small sample size.

More consideration should also be given to the precarious nature of many low-paying jobs. With almost two million people being agency workers or having zero-hours contracts, many people will find it extremely challenging to secure additional work when their hours are already unpredictable from week-to-week. Even switching jobs might leave them in the same situation, as precarious employment has become prevalent in some sectors. Simply punishing these people will not change the structural difficulties that they face in the labour market.

Furthermore, there are many individual barriers for people to work more hours, most notably caring responsibilities. Work Coaches are supposed to account for this by personalising conditionality requirements. However, there is significant concern that currently, Work Coaches lack the necessary resources, training and knowledge to provide this.

Public perception is also important to consider. Polling in 2017 has found that the public has mixed feelings on sanctions for in-work claimants, depending on the behaviour in question. Sanctioning for failing to take an offer of a better paid job was seen as acceptable by 54% of respondents, but sanctioning for not actively looking for a new job was only seen as acceptable by 36%, with 45% opposing.

These problems create potential for another major backlash against Universal Credit. Hence, it is good that the Government is continuing to trial different systems of in-work conditionality to find a system that can truly help some low-earning workers, rather than punish them.

Anvar Sarygulov is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.