Benefit sanctions are starting to increase again. But to what extent? Will we see the same old problems, or will new ones emerge? And why is this important? Research Fellow Caroline Selman digs deeper.

At the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Government suspended benefit sanctions between 30 March and 30 June 2020. Unsurprisingly, this saw sanctions fall to an historic low both during the suspension period and also in the months following their reinstatement as DWP took a phased approach to their return. Figures for the period to April 2021 were still relatively low.

Earlier this month the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) published the latest benefit sanctions quarterly statistics showing a sharp rise in sanctions in July 2021 (the latest date for which figures are available), with 16,000 decisions to impose a sanction recorded for that month. According to recent analysis by Dr David Webster, the figures do suggest we are returning to levels similar to those seen prior to the pandemic – albeit still significantly below the levels seen between 2010 and 2015.    

Why does this matter? Benefit sanctions have been found to be disastrous for mental health, put people into debt and there is little evidence that they work.

As sanctions start to increase again, it is important there is a renewed focus on how they are being applied in practice

According to the last publicly available data – published by the DWP in 2018 – only a small proportion of Universal Credit sanctions are challenged and yet there is a high success rate when they are. This indicates that many wrongful Universal Credit sanctions may be being allowed to stand. Given the very serious implications of being sanctioned – the loss of 100% of your standard allowance for a period of time – it is vital that claimants can access effective legal remedies if poor decisions are made. Understanding how people access remedies is critical to developing policy initiatives that aim to improve the fairness of the system.

That is why are really pleased to have received funding recently from the Lloyds Bank Foundation to carry out research looking at the barriers to challenging unfair and unlawful sanctioning decisions. 

Meanwhile, PLP is continuing another strand of our benefit sanctions work, which is to help prevent sanctions in the first place. Our work in this area to date has included developing a website and series of accessible leaflets, to support claimants to negotiate claimant commitments that correctly and fairly reflect their personal circumstances. The risk of sanctioning is much mitigated by ensuring commitments are reasonable and realistic.

As sanctions start to increase again, it is important that there is a renewed focus on how they are being applied in practice and that claimants have effective access to appropriate and timely remedies in the event sanctions are imposed incorrectly, unfairly or in a discriminatory manner.   

But we need your help! 

As part of our research we are keen to speak to benefit claimants who have been sanctioned by DWP as well as advisors or other individuals who have experience of providing advice or other support to sanctioned claimants. 

If you are interested in taking part, or would like to find out more about the research, follow this link.