Changes have come into force (from Monday 26 September 2022) that place an estimated 114,000 more Universal Credit claimants at greater risk of sanctioning.

The changes increase the Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET) for Universal Credit (UC) from the equivalent of nine working hours a week at the national living wage to 12 hours.

Claimants earning above the AET are placed in a lighter touch regime, while those earning below the threshold – of which there will now be more – have greater requirements placed on them. If these requirements are not met, they could be sanctioned. 

The Government has now also announced in the mini-budget on Friday 23 September, that it intends to implement a further increase to the AET to the equivalent of 15 hours at national living wage from January 2023.  Government is estimating that this will impact a further 120,000 Universal Credit claimants.

The announcement has come despite the notable shortage of evidence that sanctions work, and in light of Public Law Project research published this year which shows how difficult it is for people to challenge and appeal sanctions that are issued unlawfully or incorrectly.

Caroline Selman, Research Fellow in the welfare system, said:

“It is worrying that the Government expects that using the threat of sanctioning will lead to more employment as there is little evidence to support that expectation. There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence to show how much harm they cause – exacerbated in a cost of living crisis.

“Sanctions are not only harmful, but the high number that are overturned on appeal suggests many are handed out incorrectly and unlawfully. Yet, when people try to challenge an incorrect sanction they find an unclear system, lacking in clear timelines and full of hidden language, that feels quick to assume they are ‘guilty’.  

“A review of the entire sanctions regime and a shift from a punitive system to one based on support and respect, is urgently required. However, while the Government continues to support the current approach, people caught up in that system should – at absolute minimum – feel they are being treated fairly and with respect.” 

Are sanctions effective? 

Previous research by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) between 2015 and 2018 looking at in-work conditionality found little evidence to suggest sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, are effective ways of supporting people in low-paid work to increase their earnings.

It specifically found that: 

  • There was no difference between claimants who said they had been sanctioned and those who had not in terms of changes to hours worked and earnings  
  • There was no evidence that the threat of sanctions helped motivate participants to progress in work 
  • There was however evidence that it could damage the relationship between Work Coach and participant. 

Are sanctions proportionate? 

Despite often being issued for relatively minor issues (in 21/22, 98.9% of UC Sanctions were for missing an interview with a DWP Work Coach), sanctions in most cases lead to claimants having 100% of their standard allowance taken away for a period of time.