Jobcentres should encourage thousands of early retirees to rejoin the workforce by helping them to find flexible or part-time opportunities, Labour has said.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said that the centres needed to offer more options to people seeking work who do not want to claim benefits.
He also unveiled plans to encourage people on disability and sickness benefits to enter the workforce by assuring them that they would still be able to return to the same package of benefits if a job did not work out.
This is Labour’s response to the economic inactivity puzzle which is the subject of close discussion at the top of government. About 630,000 people have left the workforce since 2019, with employment figures still not back to pre-pandemic levels. This has been attributed in part to a substantial increase in professional workers over the age of 50 taking early retirement.
Speaking to media before a speech at the Centre for Social Justice think tank tomorrow, Ashworth said: “The Jobcentre system only offers help to people who are signing on for universal credit. So if you’re an over-50 who’s left the labour market but you’ve got some savings, you’ve got a bit of pension, the Jobcentre won’t help you because you’re not signing on for universal credit. You don’t need it — but you want something.
“Why can’t somebody go to the Jobcentre and say, ‘Look, these are my circumstances, I’m also caring for my mum or my partner who has had a stroke sadly, so I do need to look after him or her as well. But I would work if the right option is out there’? We should be providing that level of service.”
The Conservatives are drawing up plans to tempt thousands of older workers back into the office with a “midlife MoT”.
Ashworth called for benefits reform to make it easier for those with long-term health conditions to work. At present people with health conditions who take a job but find it does not pan out must undergo a new work capability assessment before finding out what benefits they can receive.
The risk of having to go through the “awful rigmarole” of a new assessment is preventing those with long-term conditions from seeking work, Ashworth said, because “people feel they’ve got [a benefits package] and they don’t want to lose it”.
He added: “It causes a lot of stress, it’s arduous, a lot of people find it a particularly awful process to go through . . . but because it causes so much distress, once people have been through it, and therefore got their health-related or disability-related benefit, they’re reluctant to move or even try moving into work.”
Instead, Ashworth said, claimants should be assured that if their new job does not work out within a year they can return to the benefits they were on before. “A lot of these people are out of work with fluctuating health conditions, particularly if it’s related to mental health,” he said. “This is not like 50 years ago, when people had an accident in a heavy industrial workplace, the nature of illness and sickness has changed. It’s increasingly that the burden of ill health is related to mental health conditions, which means conditions tend to fluctuate quite a lot.”
Ashworth said that Labour would change the access to work scheme, under which people with physical or mental health conditions can receive grants for practical support at work, so that they can obtain indicative awards. Knowing what support is available would make them more confident in applying for jobs while awaiting a formal assessment.
Ashworth added that Labour would decentralise some employment support services so that local authorities can adapt them to their needs.
“Different economies have different needs,” he said. “This is very broad brush but in the post-industrial areas or our coastal towns you tend to have high levels of sickness and low levels of vacancies. In the city areas you tend to have high levels of economic activity and high levels of vacancies. And in the southeast you tend to have low unemployment but reasonable vacancies . . . We need to meet the local needs of local areas.”
Ashworth, who is the longest-serving MP in the shadow cabinet, appeared to back away from Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge to abolish universal credit, which was introduced over the past decade to combine previously separate benefits.
Asked if he stood by Starmer’s statement in 2021 that Labour would scrap the system and “replace it with something better”, Ashworth said: “We’re going to reform universal credit . . . it’s a computer system. We’re not going to go back to the six different benefits that I think it brought together but we are going to reform it.”