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With Jobcentres beginning to reopen this month, concerns have been raised about the reintroduction of conditionality and sanctions after their three-month suspension between March and June. While Jobcentres will play an important role in the months to come as we chart a path to economic recovery, it is vital to recognise that all is not normal, and this is no ordinary recession. The virus will continue to cast a shadow over all aspects of our lives for months to come, with 44% of businesses expecting to lay off at least some of their furloughed staff, so the policy of Jobcentres must reflect this new reality.

Thankfully, the inherent design of Universal Credit allows for a significant degree of flexibility. When someone starts to claim Universal Credit, they sign a ‘claimant commitment’, which sets out the requirements and actions that an individual must perform to continue to receive their award. The claimant commitment is supposed to be personalised to fit an individual’s capability and personal circumstances, though all claimants are also placed into specific conditionality groups, which determines the intensity of requirements. Our previous research found that while claimants widely recognised the need for conditionality, some were concerned that their personal circumstances were not taken into account.

As we continue to navigate our way out of the current health and economic crisis, it is this aspect of personalisation that must be focused upon by the Department for Work and Pensions. Circumstances of individuals, and of local areas, can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to find jobs at this time, and work coaches must give them consideration. This will be most notable for those with small children, who can still run into issues securing childcare formally or informally. Similarly, individuals with health conditions which put them at a significantly greater risk of a severe COVID-19 case should be given discretion about job applications.

As for sanctioning, the evidence of their effectiveness and impact in more usual circumstances is mixed. While there tends to be a positive short-term effect through speeding up entering employment, sanctioning is also associated with financial hardship for claimants, who are also often members of vulnerable groups. Right now, in a labour market where the number of new vacancies has contracted by a record 58% between March and May, and where 44% of businesses are planning to make at least some their furloughed workers redundant, the positive effect of sanctioning is likely to be greatly reduced. Hence, their application should be greatly restricted until the labour market starts to recover, or until the Government implements other active labour market policies, such as training.

Much work has been done in getting COVID-19 under control and the recent relaxation of measures should help to reanimate the economy. But the Government must continue to recognise that we are a very long way from business as usual, and policies of the Department for Work and Pensions must reflect that. Not only do the number of work coaches need to increase significantly as unemployment rises, with the Government rightly committing to doubling number of work coaches this month, they must also be given clear guidance from the Government to widely exercise the personalisation and discretion available in the Universal Credit system. Otherwise, there is a significant risk of financial and mental harm to claimants in already difficult circumstances.

Anvar Sarygulov is a Senior Researcher at Bright Blue