The inclusion of stricter benefit sanctions in a new ‘Way to Work’ campaign, announced by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) last week, is raising concerns over the fairness and effectiveness of the system. And as DWP continue to withhold publication of their recent report into whether benefit sanctions actually work, why are they continuing to expand their use in the face of mounting evidence of their harm? Research Fellow Caroline Selman unpacks what we know so far. The current system of benefit sanctions has been shown to have a profoundly negative impact on the health, finances and wellbeing of those affected. There is also little evidence that they work – and a risk that they may in fact push people further away from sustainable employment. DWP have been extensively criticised for this lack of evidence and their failure to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the sanctions regime. DWP have now revealed that they have, in response to that criticism, produced a report into their effectiveness – but are refusing to publish it on the basis that they don’t think it presents a complete picture and that it “includes details of a sensitive nature whose publication would be likely to inhibit candour and be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”. In light of this continuing lack of evidence as to whether sanctions are effective at supporting people into work, set against the mounting evidence of their likely harm, it is very concerning that DWP also decided last week to announce their expanded use in relation to some UC claimants. Given the potential for serious negative consequences of sanctions – both for the individuals sanctioned, and the effectiveness of the system as a whole – it is vital that DWP publishes its report into their evaluation as a matter of urgency. What have DWP announced? On 27 January DWP announced that, as part of a drive to get half a million people into work by the end of June 2022, Universal Credit (UC) Claimants will be required to search more widely for available jobs from the fourth week of their claim (rather than after the current three months) – or risk being sanctioned if they don’t. The announcement states that the measures will be targeted predominantly at the “intensive work search group” which refers to claimants who are not working or are working on very low earnings and who are required to search for work as a condition of receiving UC. Currently claimants within this group are permitted to search for jobs in their preferred sector for the first three months of their claim. DWP has now announced that this will be cut to four weeks – after which claimants will be at risk of sanctions if DWP thinks they aren’t making reasonable efforts to find a job in any sector. But where’s the evidence? It is concerning that this announcement has come in the same week that DWP has reiterated its refusal to publish its report on whether sanctions are, as they claim, an effective way to support people into work. Extensive concerns about both the impact and effectiveness of sanctions have been raised repeatedly since the current regime was introduced in 2012. DWP’s own evidence base, cited in their recent Health & Disability Green Paper, found that “the use of sanctions did not seem to have a positive impact on motivation to progress and could damage the relationship between the work coach and participant”. The lack of evidence supporting the use of sanctions has been repeatedly highlighted and criticised by the National Audit Office in a 2016 Report, the Public Accounts Committee in a 2017 Report and the Work & Pensions Committee in a 2018 Report into benefit sanctions. DWP finally, in response to that 2018 report, committed to publishing an evaluation into the effectiveness of sanctions with an estimated reporting date of Spring 2019. It was therefore extremely disappointing when in November 2021 DWP announced in response to a Parliamentary Question that, having produced that report, DWP did not plan to publish it as they were “unable to assess the deterrent effect and therefore this research doesn’t represent a comprehensive picture of sanctions”. As reported in the Guardian last week, Professor David Webster has now received a response to a Freedom of Information Act request refusing to share this report. By deterrent effect, we understand DWP to be referring to the question of whether the threat of sanctions can encourage compliance without having to actually impose them. DWP’s lack of evidence for this was highlighted by the NAO back in 2016 – it is therefore unclear as to why DWP is now once again pointing to this as a gap in the evidence base. In any event, it is vital they publish the information they do have to allow proper informed consideration of the measures that, as evidenced last week, they are continuing to rely on and extend. What does this mean for sanction rates? The extent to which the current announcement will impact on the numbers and rates of sanctioning in practice remains to be seen. Prior to the pandemic, failure to be available for work was the second most common reason given for people being sanctioned, accounting for 8% of sanction decisions – however this was significantly outstripped by failure to attend or participate in a Work-Focussed Interview which was given as the reason for 89% of sanctions. During the pandemic itself, sanctions fell to an historic low – however as this blog from PLP in November sets out, the most recent quarterly publication of benefit sanction statistics suggested that they were on the rise again. As highlighted by Dr David Webster in his November briefing this increase was almost entirely due to sanctions relating to missed interviews – suggesting that there had been no particular move by DWP at that point to resume sanctions for other reasons at a significant scale. Last week’s announcement suggests that has now changed – however we will need to wait until May 2023 (when DWP is due to publish benefit sanctions statistics for the relevant quarter) to understand how the current measure has impacted on the numbers. However focussing solely on the numbers and rates of sanctioning may be missing the broader point. Just as DWP is keen to emphasise their claim that sanctions have a beneficial deterrent effect– one of the key concerns about their use is the broader harmful effect they may have on people’s engagement with employment support, regardless of whether they are sanctioned themselves. DWP appeared to acknowledge this in its recent Health and Disability Green Paper , reflecting that one of the key barriers to trust and engagement with DWP support was fear of sanctioning. It is concerns like these that make it all the more pressing that DWP publishes the report of its evaluation as a matter of urgency. The Public Law Project runs a Welfare Rights Hub offering support to advice organisations, charities and law centres on public law aspects of welfare rights, including taking on cases directly. If you are an adviser and these issues have affected your clients, please contact us at WelfareHub@publiclawproject.org.uk We are currently researching barriers to challenging unfair and unlawful sanctioning decisions – if you are interested in taking part, or would like to find our more, contact our researcher Caroline Selman or follow this link.