Abolish ‘Purely Punitive’ Benefit Sanctions Regime

It's time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand the abolition of the Tory benefit sanctions regime.


Iain Duncan Smith has recently announced that the harsh and punitive benefit sanctions regime will be made ‘less aggressive’, in response to criticism from a parliamentary select committee. But does that go far enough?

The Work and Pensions Secretary said that people subjected to sanctions would from now on be given a “yellow card” or warning before the sanction is imposed.

People would be given a 14 day grace period to provide evidence of why a sanction should not be applied. The onus is on the person claiming benefits to provide evidence and account of any “non-compliance” with the strict codes of “conditionality”, which is a now fundamental part of eligibility for social security.

However, widely criticised decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time.

A man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment, and so failed to complete the assessment.

The Work and Pensions Committee in March called for an independent inquiry into the way the sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. In the Committee report, MPs warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.

In August the DWP was caught out making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants,” saying that sanctions had actually “helped” them. A freedom of Information request (FOI) from Welfare Weekly exposed the fact that neither the comments on DWP leaflets nor the people used for the photographs were genuine. The DWP admitted that both “quotes” and people were for “illustrative purposes only”.

The Department of Work and Pensions is under fire again, this time for applying punitive benefit sanctions without any prior warning to tens of thousands of people over the past five years, according to the leading academic David Webster.

In almost 300,000 cases, claimants have been hit with sanctions without being officially notified. The shocking figure includes an estimated 28,000 cases in Scotland. Campaigners warn that claimants are being left without any money and plunged into “crisis”.

The figure has been calculated based on data released by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) by Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow in urban studies at Glasgow University.

Under the Conservative Welfare “Reform” Act, sanctions are now used much more readily within the social security system. The severity of sanctions has also increased and conditionality is now controversially applied to previously exempt groups, such as lone parents and disabled people.


Related: Mentally Ill More Likely To Have Benefits Stopped Than Supported Into Work, Says Charity


The DWP’s own analysis found that in 2014, there were 47,239 sanction decisions – a total of 6.9% of all cases – where claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) had not been notified in writing.

The DWP letters – which outline the sanction decision and the right to ask for a review and lodge an appeal – had not been sent out due to an “administration error.” The first that many people knew of the sanction was when they found they had not been paid into their bank account.

Webster has calculated that applying the percentage over the past five years shows there were around 279,000 cases where claimants had their benefit stopped without being officially notified.

The theories of “behaviour change” originating from the Cabinet’s “Nudge Unit” and advocated and extended by the Conservatives to prop up a small state ideology, underpin conditionality and sanctioning.

The efficacy of sanctions has been questioned by commentators from both the Right and the Left (including myself), with respect to the assumed responses of welfare recipients to financial sanctions and incentives, but also because of the profoundly unethical dimensions presented by state action that involves removing lifeline support that was calculated to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter.

There are further concerns that welfare conditionality leads to a range of unintended effects, including: distancing people from support; causing hardship and destitution; displacing rather than resolving issues such as street homelessness and anti-social behaviour; and negative impacts on third parties, particularly children.

Webster has said previously that research, and “a torrent of evidence from Britain’s voluntary sector, shows a wide range of adverse effects. Sanctions undermine physical and mental health, cause hardship for family and friends, damage relationships, create homelessness and drive people to Food Banks and payday lenders, and to crime. They also often make it harder to look for work.

“Taking these negatives into account, they cannot be justified. Benefit sanctions are an ‘amateurish, secret penal system’ which is actually more severe than the mainstream judicial system, but lacks its safeguards. It is time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand their abolition.”

The DWP has admitted the letters should have been sent out and is now writing to all those who did not receive the notification. However the correspondence will not include an apology for the error.

The DWP say that they have now changed procedures so that letters to notify of sanctions will now be triggered automatically instead of having to be sent out manually.

Webster said the figures published by the DWP were an “important admission” of the problem.

He said: “It is a very large number and it explains why so many of these cases are being thrown up in the various voluntary sector reports on sanctions.

“This is one of the commonest stories that people tell – that the first they knew about a sanction is when they went to the cash machine and there was no money.”

He added: “You can do an estimate of the number in Scotland and there would be around 28,000 occasions a sanction has been imposed without the claimant being notified.”

However, Duncan Smith has said that the “yellow card” approach would be introduced on a trial basis, which is a relatively small commitment, next year.

In a letter to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, he said: “During this time, [two weeks] claimants will have another opportunity to provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance.”

“We will then review this information before deciding whether a sanction remains appropriate. We expect that this will strike the right balance between enforcing the claimant commitment and fairness.”

Figures published in 2014 revealed that nearly half of benefit sanctions are overturned on appeal, highlighting the serious flaws in the current system.

David Webster’s written and oral evidence to the recent House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Benefit Sanctions, Beyond the Oakley Review, is available on the Parliament.uk website. His other papers on sanctions are available via Child Poverty Action Group.


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4 Comments

  1. Been working on it for the past few years as best I can. Written many letters/emails to MP’s and asking questions and suggesting changes that whilst keeping sanctions, they are reformed to not be as bad. Always come back with a rambling letter about the ‘long term economic plan’ or some other such drivel that in no way related to any of the questions or ideas I raised.

    This is the idea I had, I would appreciate comments/thoughts on the change that while not abolishing sanctions would make them much less of an impact.

    1) The need to recognise first and foremost that the award of money is one that ‘the law says you need to live on’. The wording of this is quite clear. Not the money you want, demand or request, the money you NEED. IE without it you quite literally have nothing.

    2) Only someone legally trained, qualified and competent should be able to remove such an award. A ‘decision maker’ whilst having training to interpret the law is not I would say qualified in this regards. So as a result;-

    3) Take the decision from them and hand it to tribunals, where a proper decision can be made. Evidence for applying a sanction can be presented as well as the evidence against so it can be properly considered and ruled upon, but then also apply any that are required in a much different way.

    4) Consider them more a ‘fine’ for not sticking to a ‘contract’ -such as the jobseeker’s agreement –

    5) This could then be applied like this, all figures given are examples only and are based on a single claimant over 25:

    6) Example is a four week sanction. Currently you lose the income of £73 for those four weeks. Instead calculate £73 x 4 = £292. So they instead of complete loss, which helps nobody and is completely punitive it could be applied this as a reduction in benefit of £3.50 a week until the £292 is ‘paid’.

    7) A maximum 3 such reductions running at once for multiple ‘offenders’ so nobody is too short on income to support themselves. There should be set an absolute minimum, below which when adding all sanctions and direct payments from benefit nobody should fall. I would suggest that should be around the £60 mark, a struggle but not as much as they currently face. Any other direct payments or sanctions queued for as others finish.

    8) They could even offer ‘rewards’ to stop these reductions as well. If they get a job whilst sanction and therefore sign off the sanction cannot be collected whilst they are working, so instead it is suspended. If the job lasts longer than 6 months sanctions are removed altogether. Although this time limit for removal should be based on the level of sanction. A three year high level sanction for instance taking longer than three years to be wiped completely.

    9) Rent and Council tax should also be maintained always although this is in some cases currently lost it shouldn’t be.

  2. And now, joy of joys, they are introducing ‘In Work Sanctions’.
    Isn’t it strange that in IDS’s world the well off need tax cuts and state subsidies to encourage their entrepreneurial spirit and the poor need a good kicking to get them off their fat lazy arses.

  3. Stopping or reducing means tested benefits is fraud, fraud in the inducement and conspiracy to commit fraud.

  4. “removing lifeline support that was calculated to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter.”

    No, it *was* calculated to provide that. But it was then unlinked from inflation.