Tough new welfare rules will strip unemployed claimants of benefits for up to three years if they refuse to work, it was announced today.

Unemployed people who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for appropriate jobs or fail to turn up for mandatory community work will lose their £65-a-week Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

The measure, included in the Welfare Reform White Paper being published today by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, is intended to be in place before 2013 in an effort to cut the bill for JSA, which is claimed by 1.5 million people (see the Benefits Check-Up guide).

The allowance will be removed for three months on a first offence, six months the second time and three years on the third breach of the new rules. Job Centre advisers are expected to have the power to strip errant jobseekers of JSA and there will be no right of appeal, officials add.

Prime Minister David Cameron says the changes will create "clear responsibilities and clear incentives for those on benefit to take steps towards getting back to work wherever it's feasible for them to do so".

Job advisers already have the power to remove JSA for up to 26 weeks from people who fail to take up offers of employment, but the sanction is rarely applied.

Only where compelling reasons are provided for failing to take up work will exceptions be granted.

Those losing income from JSA will be able to apply for a hardship allowance, worth 60-70% of the benefit (around £39-£44 a week), but this is not expected to be available in many cases.

Cameron says: "We're doing more than any other Government to help people get back to work. That's our part of the deal. Now those on benefit need to do their bit.

"If people are asked to do community work, they'll be expected to turn up.

"If people are asked to apply for a job by an employment adviser, they'll be expected to put themselves forward.

"If people can work and they are offered work, they'll be expected to take it.

"This is the deal. Break that deal and they'll lose their unemployment benefit. Break it three times and they'll lose it for three years.

"The message is clear. If you can work, then a life of benefits will no longer be an option."

Community placements

Today's announcement follows the unveiling by Duncan Smith last week of new mandatory community work placements, in which claimants will be required to do 30 hours a week of work such as litter-picking or cleaning graffiti for four weeks.

That initiative sparked howls of protest, with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams warning it could drive vulnerable people into a "downward spiral of despair".

The new sanctions are likely to trigger further concern from unions and charities.

Today's White Paper will also include provisions to simplify the complex system of out-of-work benefits into a single universal credit, which Cameron says wlll ensure that work pays for everyone.

"It simply has to pay to work," he adds.

"You can't have a situation where if someone gets out of bed and does a hard day's work, they end up worse off.

"That's not fair. And it sends entirely the wrong message, both to those on benefits and to the hard-working majority who are being asked to support them.

"Right from the outset, I've said we're going to get to grips with the indefensible anomalies in the current benefits system and create a much simpler, fairer approach."

Timetable

Talking about the timetable for the changes, Duncan Smith says: "The point as to why I am taking four years or so to do this is because I want to be absolutely certain that at each stage we get this right, that it is working before we move on to the next stage.

"People will, I hope, recognise we don't want to rush into this, we want to do this properly, because this is a big change, perhaps the biggest change to welfare that there's been arguably since Bevan put it in for out of work people.

"Therefore it will stand the test of time and bring it into the 21st century. We want to get it right."

Addressing the concerns of the disabled, he adds: "We've talked to disabled charities and we are not in the business of punishing people who can't take work. Those who are disabled and not expected to work will face no penalties at all."

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says he supports moves to simplify the benefits system, but concerns remained about job availability.

He says: "If the Conservative government gets this change right, then we in the Labour Party will support them, because there's common ground. If we can have a simpler benefits system that removes disincentives for people to get into work, we will support them.

"That was a big part of the work we were trying to take forward ourselves when we were in Government."

Further reading/Key links

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