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Labour would cut benefit penalties in bid to get people back into work

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary - Hollie Adams/Getty Images Europe
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary - Hollie Adams/Getty Images Europe

Labour would slash benefits sanctions to encourage more people back to work and tackle Britain’s record levels of economic inactivity.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said the current system treats jobseekers “as criminals” and “doesn’t work”.

He described repeat assessments as “punitive” and “humiliating” and warned against “threatening and hassling” the unemployed.

Labour is also considering extending free retraining to the over-50s to tackle the growing problem of older people leaving the workforce.

Mr Ashworth said he would not completely abolish sanctions because “sadly one or two people do abuse the system”.

“You’re going to have to have a degree of conditionality because you have got to protect the taxpayer,” he told the Work Foundation think tank.

“But it’s about culture and emphasis. Job centres have become tightly controlled, following rigid national rules, bureaucratic.

“It feels like they treat people as criminals rather than people who want to self improve and build a career.

“Job centres should help people build a career, build a life, not a kind of push into a low paid job regardless of what it means for you as an individual.

“The job centre should be a place people want to go to and engage with, not a place of fear as it’s become for too many people.”

Labour would devolve skills cash to local authorities which are better able to deliver it where it is needed, he said.

He warned taxpayers were not “getting bang for our buck” from the £20 billion budget and the idea that Whitehall could run the entire system was “frankly for the birds”.

Mr Ashworth also revealed that Labour is exploring plans to introduce free retraining for over-50s, though he admitted doing so would be “expensive”.

Over 50s quit workforce

More than 700,000 have quit the workforce entirely since the start of the pandemic, adding to Britain’s growing labour shortage.

Economic inactivity has hit a record 22 per cent of the working age population in England, Scotland and Wales, and is 27.4 per cent for those over 50.

“A graduate can leave university and get an apprenticeship for free. Someone in their 50s who wants to do training to get a new job has to take out a loan,” Mr Ashworth said.

“Surely there’s a better way we can provide work support for people in their 50s to retrain.”

He also suggested that a sharp rise in the number of people off work sick with neck and back pain could be down to working from home.

Mr Ashworth said there was a “debate” raging about whether it was “the consequence of more and more people working from home working on laptops in poor conditions”.