Social Justice

DWP benefit sanctions have gotten tougher amid cost of living crisis, data shows

Benefit sanctions have become harsher amid the cost of living crisis according to newly released government data

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Benefits sanctions are getting harsher, data shows. Image: Grusho Anna/Shutterstock

Benefit sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have become harsher amid the cost of living crisis, according to newly released government data – with the average penalty lasting a week longer in 2023 than in 2019.

According to data on the ‘duration’ of sanctions published last week, the average – or mean – length of a universal credit sanction rose from 38 days in 2019 to 45 days between January and November 2023, the most recent figures available.

The sanctions duration data is measured by the month in which the sanction ended. Just under 6% of sanctions that ended in 2019 lasted more than six months – but that rose to 10% of sanctions that ended in 2023.

Benefit sanctions occur when claimants’ core benefit payments are suspended as a penalty for not following conditions imposed by their job centre – usually for missing or being late to a job centre meeting.

Sanctions are decided by the DWP and have been the target of widespread criticism since 2010 because of their capacity to drive people into destitution on what can be flimsy or unfair grounds.

“Not only have the numbers of sanctions more than doubled since the pandemic; they have also become a lot harsher,” said Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow, one of Britain’s leading experts on the benefit sanctions regime.

The DWP says that the threat of sanctions encourages benefit claimants to look for work, pointing to a claimant survey from 2015. However, the government’s own research published last year found that sanctions do not increase the likelihood of claimants leaving benefits for any kind of paid work, and reduce the rate of claimants leaving benefits for high paid work.

They have also been strongly linked to increased demand for food banks. “Independent food banks all too often supporting claimants impacted by harsher and more frequent sanctions,” said Sabine Goodwin, director of the Independent Food Aid Network.

“People and food banks are already being pushed past breaking point by a broken social security system and prohibitive living costs. Abandoning the household support fund and cost of living payments is going to make matters worse. On top of all this, the DWP has just made things even harder for people facing sanctions by banning Jobcentres from referring claimants to referral-only food banks.

“The government needs to immediately remove sanctions and other punitive elements from the equation and start to rebuild a safety net that is fit for purpose.”  

Universal credit payments are made up the core ‘standard allowance’ and then different ‘elements’ on top of that, such as the housing element and disability element, depending on an individual claimant’s circumstances. Benefit sanctions cut the standard allowance by up to 100%, but don’t affect the other elements.

Dr Webster said that until February 2020, the most typical – or median – duration of a universal credit sanction was 36 days, but since August 2021 it has averaged 45.75 days, an increase of 27%

“It is due to the DWP’s focus on open-ended sanctions, which continue until the claimant demonstrates ‘compliance’ with the Jobcentre’s requirements,” he told Big Issue. “It seems likely that it has become harder for claimants to demonstrate compliance because Jobcentre staff are overworked.

“Each month there are now more than 20,000 claimants completing a sanction after five to 13 weeks, with 4,000 completing sanctions after 14 to 26 weeks and another 4,000 after 27 weeks or more. About half of completed sanctions have lasted between five and 13 weeks, and about 10% have lasted each of 14 to 26 weeks, and 27 weeks or more.

“It needs to be borne in mind that these figures do not show the true impact of a sanction for the approximately half of claimants who need to claim a hardship payment [to help cope with the loss of income from the sanction]. They have to spend months more repaying the hardship payment, which means in effect that they are still being sanctioned.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “People are only ever sanctioned if they fail to meet the conditions they agree to without good reason and almost 95% of sanctions in the last quarter were due to claimants not attending a mandatory work-focused interview. These types of sanctions can be quickly concluded by the claimant attending a replacement interview.

“Our sanctions are designed to help people on their journey into work and almost three-quarters of claimants agree that the potential for sanctions meant they were more likely to engage with their work search.

“Safeguards are in place when claimants demonstrate they cannot meet their essential needs as a result of a sanction, and we continue to help the most vulnerable with £3,700 per household in cost-of-living support.”

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