Benefit sanctions are set to resume from Wednesday after the Tory welfare chief refused to extend a blanket ban on them beyond June 30.
Therese Coffey said it was “important” for claimants to commit to look for work and attend appointments as Jobcentres start to reopen from July 1.
She insisted work coaches will prioritise “support”. And a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) source insisted sanctions were not their “focus”.
But Ms Coffey’s statement was branded “heartless”, as MPs warned it will heap “stress and suffering” on families while unemployment soars.
Sanctions, which dock people’s benefits if they don’t follow government rules, were formally halted for three months from March 30 for anyone failing to look for work or attend an interview.
At the time the government said the blanket ban would “initially be for three months” but “will be reviewed and may be extended… if required.”
Labour today demanded an “immediate extension” to stop people having their benefits docked amid soaring benefit claims, rising unemployment, and people having to shield or care for children at home.
But responding in the House of Commons, the Work and Pensions Secretary refused the plea.
She said: “Well actually it’s important that as the Jobcentres fully reopen this week, that we do reinstate the need for having a claimant commitment.
“It’s an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there may be.
“But I know I can trust the work coaches, my Jobcentre managers who are empowered to act proactively where people, there will be some people right now who’ve never had to look for a job in the last 20 to 30 years.
“They will need careful support tailored to ensure they can start to look for the jobs that are available, and that I hope will become very soon available.”
Ms Coffey had been questioned by Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds.
He had asked: “All sanctions and conditionality have been temporarily suspended.
“That suspension is due to end tomorrow.
“And at a time when unemployment has risen sharply, when vacancies have dropped, when people are shielding and the schools haven’t gone back, threatening people with reducing their financial support if they don’t look for jobs is surely untenable.
“Will the Secretary of State announce an immediate extension?”
People can have their Universal Credit stopped in a sanction if they break a “claimant commitment” – which for many means looking for work.
Guidance on the government website says: “Preparing for and getting a job must be your full time focus.
“If you do not do this without a good reason, you will have a cut to your Universal Credit, known as a sanction.”
A DWP source insisted “our focus is not on sanctions and we don’t want to sanction anyone”. They added claimant commitments will reflect the “new normal” and the “reality of the local job market”.
But Labour MP Grahame Morris blasted Ms Coffey’s announcement, saying the DWP’s own estimates suggest 31,000 extra staff are needed.
He said ministers are reintroducing sanctions “when the department have nowhere near the required number of staff. Surely this action will help stress and suffering on claimants and staff alike?”
DWP minister Mims Davies replied the number of work coaches would double and stressed there would be “an individual focus on our claimants”.
But acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said it was a “terrible decision”. He added: “With unemployment rising, the economy flatlining and millions left with no support, families face unbelievable challenges.
“The government must suspend benefit sanctions until the coronavirus crisis has passed.”
Fellow Lib Dem leadership candidate Layla Moran said: “This is an utterly heartless decision.
“At a time when millions of families are struggling to pay the bills, the government wants to reintroduce harsh benefit sanctions that they know will hit the most vulnerable.”
The sanctions suspension was announced on March 25 after people were told to stay at home and pubs and shops began closing due to coronavirus.
At the time, Ms Coffey confirmed DWP staff had stopped checking if people are “looking for and being available for work”. That meant “no sanctions should be applied for that reason for the next three months”.
The blanket ban was later confirmed in legislation for three months from June 30.
The suspension of sanctions in March happened partly because Jobcentres were shut due to coronavirus.
However, today Ms Coffey told MPs: “We are now working with local managers to start fully reopening job centres in July to help get Britain back into work.”
More than 3million people have applied for Universal Credit since March, roughly doubling the number of people on the six-in-one benefit.
It is understood Jobcentres will reopen in a staggered way in England from Wednesday 1 July, while those in Wales and Scotland are reopening as lockdown guidance allows it.
Face-to-face appointments under Universal Credit are expected to resume under a “blended” model, allowing social distancing in Jobcentres while phone and digital contact continues.
Separately, face-to-face assessments for all sickness and disability benefits were also suspended for three months from March.
Benefit officials have used phone and paper-based assessments instead.
It was unclear today if that situation would continue or for how long – but DWP minister Justin Tomlinson said the current system “continues”.