As the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No. 2) Bill (“the Bill”) reaches the Committee stage, the record level of sanctions should raise concerns for politicians and prompt them to rethink the scope of the cost of living payments 2023/24. A week after the Bill was introduced, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released new statistics on Universal Credit (“UC”) sanctions. These revealed the highest ever percentage of people on UC being sanctioned (6.86% in October 2022 compared to pre-pandemic peak of 3.10% three years earlier). The failure to include sanctioned claimants in the scope of automatic payment leaves them at a financial disadvantage How are these two events linked? The Bill provides for cost of living payments to help vulnerable households with soaring costs of living in the 2023/24 financial year. The eligibility for payments depends on entitlement to at least 1p of Universal Credit within a specified month. But claimants sanctioned for the entirety of that month receive a “nil award” (entitlement reduced to zero) and in consequence, miss out on the cost of living payments. Last year, around 6,600 people did not receive the payment due to a nil award. This article argues that the failure to include sanctioned claimants in the scope of automatic payment leaves them at an amplified financial disadvantage, despite persistent calls for changing the policy and no convincing reasons to refuse to do so. Leaving the most vulnerable without life-line support A UC sanction means a suspension of benefit payments for a failure to meet a work-related requirement, for example, attending an interview. Usually, sanctioned claimants lose 100% of their standard allowance, which often means the main source of income is entirely cut off. Sanctions are, therefore, not just a “slap on the wrist” for the claimants, but often push them into destitution, cause debt spirals and exacerbate mental health problems. We explore this in our 2022 report, ‘Benefits sanctions: a presumption of guilt’. Depriving sanctioned Universal Credit recipients of the Cost of Living Payment effectively leads to a double punishment The government itself describes the support within the Bill as vital in helping those who need it most to mitigate the pressures of the cost of living crisis. However, in the pool of UC claimants which the government views as vulnerable, those serving a sanction may be in the worst financial situation of all. Depriving sanctioned UC recipients of the Cost of Living Payment effectively leads to a double punishment for whatever (usually minor) misstep was the basis for the sanction, for example, missing an appointment with their work coach. First, the person’s UC entitlement is suspended, and then they are excluded from support. In the criminal context, being punished twice for the same thing would constitute a breach of human rights. Lack of valid reasons for the exclusion When asked about groups missing out on cost of living payments, the Government characterised sanctions as capable of being “resolved quickly by claimants rebooking and attending their second appointment”, which is a misleading interpretation of the DWP’s own policy. The length of sanctions depends on the conditionality group the claimant is placed in. Most claimants are in the “all work-related requirements” or ‘work preparation’ category, which means that the low-level sanction is a minimum of seven days from the time the claimant complies with the requirement (rising to 14 and 28 days with subsequent breaches). For medium and high-level sanctions, the minimum fixed period for a first failure is 28 and 91 days respectively. Although the most recent average sanctions’ length has not been published by the Government, data from 2021 shows the average UC sanction lasted 29 days. It might be time-consuming to rebook the appointment and process the attendance. The work coach needs to fill in the form notifying the UC decision-maker about compliance and only then the sanction might be lifted. This bureaucratic process might prevent the claimant from escaping sanctioning on time to receive the payment. Claimants indicated there was “no point” in disagreeing with the system they viewed as inherently skewed against them The Government has also undertaken to award the cost of living payment retrospectively for those who successfully appeal the sanction. However, as PLP research found, this process is overwhelming and confusing. The latest government data (2018) show that if the decision reached the First-Tier Tribunal, the success rate was strikingly high (81%). The number of such cases was, however, minuscule (0.3% of all decisions, compared with 16% reaching the “mandatory reconsideration” stage). Claimants indicated they refrained from challenging the sanction out of the fear of retaliation, whilst some felt there was “no point” in disagreeing with the system they viewed as inherently skewed against them. This suggests that even if incorrectly applied sanctions lead to the lack of payment, this will not necessarily be appealed. Delays in addressing the issue One of the reasons DWP cites for not including sanctioned claimants within the scope of the automatic payment is the lack of sophistication of their IT, as the “payment in a qualifying month […] triggers the payment on the system.”. It is paradoxical that a measure designed to ensure that people can afford food and heating excludes those who need it the most That could have been a legitimate reason a year ago, when the Government was under considerable pressure to develop the scheme quickly. However, months since the concerns about people missing out on payments were raised (for example in this article), the “computer says no” argument seems incongruous. Conclusion It is paradoxical that a measure designed to ensure that people can afford food and heating excludes those who need it the most. It is disappointing that while the government managed to develop a rigorous and elaborate conditionality regime, it claims to be unable to make a payment to sanctioned claimants. Committee work on the Bill is an opportunity to thoroughly scrutinise the current shape of the Bill and consider how it can better protect the most vulnerable members of our society.