The government’s new ‘Back to Work’ plan ignores the harm caused by the increase of conditionality on benefits claimants.

In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor recognised the current cost of living pressures by uprating benefits in line with inflation, unfreezing the local housing allowance, and raising the minimum wage. But there is also bad news.

The focus on sanctions in the Back to Work plan, also announced in the statement, reinforces a persistent and dangerous narrative: that benefit claimants shy away from work despite opportunities to enter employment. While properly designed measures aimed at supporting people back into work are welcome, the apparent emphasis on “strengthening the use of benefit sanctions” as an “incentive” for compliance is the latest iteration in the gradual ramping up of conditionality – the principle that requirements must be imposed on individuals in receipt of support and that if they do not meet them, their benefits will be withdrawn.

The Back to Work plan sits alongside controversial changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process which will place some people with health conditions at higher risk of sanctions, on top of losing the additional health element up to £390 a month.  Targeting people with disabilities is the latest example of the Government’s misconception that to remove barriers people face, they need to be put under more pressure. In sticking to such misconception, it is stepping back from the positive change it wants to achieve. 

Pain without gain 

Sanctions are usually applied for missing or being late to a work-coach appointment and normally result in 100% of the Universal Credit standard allowance being cut. In May 2023, 6.29% of Universal Credit Claimants were subject to a sanction compared with 2.51% in March 2020.  For some, this means a sudden withdrawal of their only source of income. This has devastating impacts on the health, finances and well-being of those affected, contributing to benefits-related deaths and leading to evictions and destitution. 

In addition to these harms, sanctions do not actually achieve the purpose for which they are intended – getting people back into work. The main justification for the policy is the deterrent effect on people who are expected to look for work. The assumption is that people who do find jobs do so out of the fear of sanctions. And yet, the evidence to support this assumption – an assumption on which so much of our benefit system is based – is lacking. The DWP’s own findings, kept secret until the Information Commissioner ordered its publication, in fact show the opposite: sanctions ‘decrease the rate of exit into higher paid work’. Similarly, a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research identified punitive conditionality as one of the core flaws of our job market; using threat as an incentive, they force out individual ambitions and motivation essential to finding long term employment.

Among an abundance of research exposing sanctions as disproportionate, harmful and ineffective, there is mounting evidence that they do not work. Yet, since the 2022 mini budget, welfare conditionality seems to return time and time again. 

Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET) 

The number of people exposed to the risk of sanctions has previously been increased by raising the earnings threshold at which claimants are exempt from work-related requirements (conditionality). It was raised from the equivalent of 9 to 12 hours a week at a minimum wage in September 2022, and again from 12 to 15 hours in January 2023. The spring budget forecasted a further increase to 18 hours a week, bringing 110,000 more claimants into the Intensive Work Search regime in which they can be sanctioned.

These changes were worrying as many people do not have the option of working full time. This is often overlooked by the job centres: a report from Citizens’ Advice found that “claimants’ commitments” (which set out what they must do to keep claiming benefits, such as attending meetings and interviews) often do not take into account people’s caring responsibilities or the need to manage long-term health conditions. PLP’s research confirms these concerns. We recently interviewed a person who was sanctioned for not attending a work coach interview because he was at work. For many, the conditions attached to claiming benefits whilst working part-time work can actually frustrate a path to better paid and secure full-time employment by placing an obligation to take unsuitable jobs out of fear of receiving a sanction. 

Changes to Work Capability Assessment (WCA) 

On the same day as the Autumn Statement, the DWP also published the response to the Work Capability Assessment consultation which underpins the Chancellor’s promise of “supporting the long-term sick and disabled into work”. The WCA has a double significance. Firstly, it determines if people are eligible for the additional health element of UC. Second, it is used to set out what conditions claimants must meet.   Under the Government’s current proposals, some individuals who would previously have been judged as unable to work, will now be expected to undertake work-related activities or face losing their entitlement. 

The DWP response to the consultation plays down the complexity of health conditions that render people unable to work, and does not grasp the reality of the current job market. It also failed to engage with the specific problem of punitive conditionality, which it euphemistically refers to as “tailored support”. Quite often, psychosocial or fluctuating illnesses prevent people from working from home, but the DWP response glosses over this fact. Against the backdrop of overworked jobcentres and shockingly high numbers of appeals that are successful in overturning sanctions (81%), the risk of wrongly sanctioning someone with mental health problems will increase and can have disastrous consequences. Additionally, the proposal is based on the assumption that there is a wide pool of jobs available that are appropriate for disabled people working from home, but the evidence to support this assumption is largely superficial: it merely notes the increased popularity of remote working, without necessarily analysing how adequate these jobs would be for those who would move to another conditionality groups as a result of the changes.   

One of the changes to WCA is limiting the number of people who are not required to look for work where forcing them to do so would bring “substantial risk” to their mental health. The rationale is that the “substantial risk” category was designed so support could be provided only in “exceptional circumstances”. This change risks exposing people with mental health problems to extreme stress, eventually exacerbating their conditions if they do not fit within the rigid list of specific conditions which grant exemptions. PLP’s recent report found that there were insufficient safeguards against sanctions being applied when there is a risk of serious harm to the claimants. This could be a rising trend if more vulnerable people are subject to this punitive measure. 

The response to the WCA consultation states that supporting people into work “can be good for their health, wellbeing, and financial security”.  This, however, could be achieved through investment in a voluntary, specialist career advice services and incentivising employers to provide flexible and accessible jobs.  Although the Chancellor labelled his package as “decisions for the long term”, for many people with disabilities, it will force the anxious search for unsustainable, short-term jobs, and have a contrary effect on “health, wellbeing and security”.  

Taking people off benefits entirely 

A final measure from the Autumn Statement is to close the claims of people who have been on an open-ended sanction for over six months and who are solely eligible for the Universal Credit standard allowance.  Currently, sanctions for what DWP class as a low-level failure (for example, missing a meeting), can be imposed indefinitely until a “compliance condition” is met (for example attending a rescheduled meeting). In PLP’s experience, this can lead to very lengthy sanctions if the compliance condition is not met. As a result, some of what DWP classes as the most minor failings can lead to some of the lengthiest sanctions.

This is particularly concerning if the reason the condition has not been met is due to an underlying issue that has not been addressed. Rather than doing further work to understand why that disengagement might be, the government is instead now proposing to close claims altogether after six months. One of the consequences is that claimants will also lose access to prescriptions, dental care and legal aid. Sanctions are already an extremely severe measure (more onerous in monetary terms than some of the most serious criminal fines), yet the current measure ramps this up  further for people who struggle to maintain engagement. It seems heavily disproportionate.  


An article in the Daily Mail from January this year lamented the shocking rise of ‘something for nothing’ Britain: a COVID-inflicted reluctance to work enabled by lavish lifestyles funded by the state. But that is not what people on benefits experience. They have been at the sharp end of a soaring cost-of-living crisis which has put an unprecedented demand on food banks, rendered levels of benefits unduly inadequate, and trapped many in a spiral of poverty. Yet, the “something for nothing” myth became a central theme in the public debate, further demonising those in receipt of state support and blaming them for their own hardship. This revival of the “scroungers and skivers” narrative crystalised in the gradual rise of conditionality, culminating in today’s Autumn Statement. 

Getting people “Back to Work” is sabotaged, rather than strengthened, by the punitive sanctions regime, which further undermines the trust in the system and often makes those impacted destitute. Although the Government is taking the right steps in acknowledging the need for publicly funded treatments and individual support, it takes a big step back by reinforcing the ancient and harmful “carrot and the stick” stereotype. We need to rethink our welfare system based on respect and trust, rather than fear. 

Read PLP’s previous research on sanctions: ‘A Presumption of Guilt’