In January, nearly 75,000 people were subjected to a sanction. Then, in March, the month after the scheme was introduced, this number reached almost 93,000.
Anna Stevenson, a senior benefits specialist at charity Turn2Us said that sanctions are a “disproportionate” penalty for what is often an offence of missing one meeting.
“All of people’s living money is cut off, it leaves them in absolute desperation,” she said. “It is a really frightening, terrifying experience and it causes enormous poverty and suffering.”
Stevenson said she had been contacted by someone she supports who was told they would be sanctioned and could lose their benefits because they missed a meeting. The person was in hospital.
“She was an inpatient in hospital, her health is really bad, and she was threatened with a sanction for not leaping out of a hospital bed and coming to a meeting,” Stevenson said.
As a measure, she said sanctions are also “counterproductive”, as being cut off from financial support can lead to someone not being able to secure work.
“To get a job, you need to have data on your phone, you need to be able to travel to come into interviews. You need to be able to wear appropriate clothing, you need to show up not looking hungry,” she said.
“All of which are undermined if you have absolutely no money to live on.”
Matt Downie, chief executive of charity Crisis, agrees. He told the Big Issue the leap is “worrying”, particularly as people without a settled home may be struggling to find and then keep work.
“In most cases, this will only serve to push people closer to the brink of homelessness or further trap those already experiencing it,” he said. “The people we support constantly tell us about the issues they face accessing the internet or washing facilities to keep their clothes clean. If you’re being forced to move from one sofa to the next, it can be impossible to receive important mail.
“Sanctioning people’s incomes when they’re already struggling, and in the midst of cost of living crisis, is not only cruel but it’s counterproductive in our efforts to tackle homelessness.”
Earlier this year, think tank IPPR urged the government to end “excessively punitive sanctions” on universal credit claimants and take a more “humane” approach which considers each individual and their complex situations and needs.
Otherwise, IPPR’s report said, people risk being forced to endure impossible conditions to receive their benefits, setting them up for failure and ultimately, sanctions.
“As the cost of living crisis deepens, the UK government must do more to support people living on low incomes – whatever their circumstances,” said IPPR’s senior economist Henry Parkes at the time. “It absolutely shouldn’t be making people’s lives any harder by imposing inappropriate conditions and punitive sanctions on them in a time of need.”
While people are able to appeal against sanctions when they receive them, recent research from national access to justice charity Public Law Project indicates that many choose not to, as the system is “quick to assume guilt”.
Caroline Selman, a research fellow at the charity, said “the system for challenging benefit sanctions does not work”.
She said: “At the heart of the system is a presumption of guilt. Barriers to the mandatory reconsideration process for benefit sanctions include its complexity, lack of awareness of the system or how to navigate it, and a lack of trust that the process will be fair.”
Stevenson said challenging the system can cause a lot of stress for claimants.
“There’s multiple stages in the process and multiple, fairly short deadlines. So if you’re not in a good place, whether that’s your physical health and mental health, whether you’ve just got a lot else going on, it can feel really insurmountable,” she said.
Both Selman and Stevenson want to see an end to sanctions in their entirety.
“Sanctions do not work,” Selman said. “They leave people with insufficient funds to live on. That can have a direct and detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical health. Very often, they are applied unlawfully.
“Government needs to take urgent action to improve access to justice for sanctioned claimants and to move from a punitive, ineffectual system to one based on support and respect.”
The new data on sanctions comes as The Mirror revealed that single universal credit claimants who had their benefits stopped during the “qualifying period” in spring “will not be entitled to a cost of living payment”.
This means that there are potentially thousands of claimants who won’t have received the £326 payment when it was sent out to people receiving means-tested state benefits back in July.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth called the revelation a “disgrace”.
As energy bills look set to rise to more than £3,500 this October, and then potentially surpass £4,200 in January, it is the most financially vulnerable who will suffer the most.
Some people will even end up spending more on their energy bills than what they receive in universal credit payments, as single claimants are entitled to around £4,018 a year.
Earlier this week, the Big Issue spoke to Kerry Wilks, a widowed mother of three who claims universal credit, who said that she is doing everything possible to curb the cost of living crisis. This includes keeping her boiler turned off and using her washing machine less.
“I’m using nearly £30 a week on electricity now. That’s with the lights out, and drying mine and my kids’ clothes outside in the warm weather,” she said. “I dread to think what it’s going to be like in the dark nights and in the horrible weather. It’s a really scary time.
“I cannot physically cut back anymore. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. It’s really scary for the likes of me and millions of others.”