The system for challenging benefit sanctions poses significant harm to the health, finances, and well-being of claimants according to new research by Public Law Project.

Read ‘Benefit Sanctions: A Presumption of Guilt’

As benefit sanctions exceed pre-COVID highs, interviews carried out by PLP with benefit claimants, advisers, and support workers reveal that people who try to question their sanctions face a complex, punitive and unaccountable system in which legitimate challenge feels futile. 

First-hand accounts featured in the report add to the growing picture of a system generating fear and anxiety, and fundamentally lacking in trust. 

The interviews showed that claimants experienced:

  • A system which is quick to assume guilt and where claimants are left feeling like they have an impossible task of proving otherwise
  • Convoluted and unclear procedures with no clear timeframes
  • A deep lack of trust that the DWP’s internal review procedure (mandatory reconsideration) will be fair, impartial, or effective
  • Fear and anxiety that exercising the right of challenge will result in further punitive action
  • Inconsistent awareness of their appeal rights
  • Significant barriers to accessing advice and support due to lack of capacity within the advice sector


The report recommends that the DWP improves the accessibility of the mandatory reconsideration (MR) process, by:

  • Improving the information provided to claimants, allowing greater scope for oral evidence at an earlier stage and reverting to a position where internal reviews are not an additional mandatory step before claimants can access an independent tribunal.
  • Introducing a commitment of mutual rights and responsibilities and improving access to mechanisms for holding the DWP to account, including a time limit for responding to requests for mandatory reconsideration.
  • Taking urgent steps to improve the quality of data available around: who is impacted by sanctions, the length of MR and appeal durations, and the reasons for MR and appeal overturn. This will allow the DWP to transparently monitor where things may be going wrong.

Caroline Selman, Researcher at the Public Law Project said:

“The cost-of-living crisis is in full swing and Universal Credit sanctions are at their highest since records began in 2016.

“Sanctions do not work. They leave people with insufficient funds to live on. That can have a direct and detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical health. Very often, they are applied unlawfully.

“Given the harm they cause, the DWP should urgently review their use.  However, in the meantime, people need access to quick, effective and meaningful remedies when sanctions are imposed incorrectly. Yet, as our research shows, the system for challenging benefit sanctions does not work. At the heart of the system is a presumption of guilt.

“Barriers to the mandatory reconsideration process for benefit sanctions include its complexity, lack of awareness of the system or how to navigate it, and a lack of trust that the process will be fair.

“Those who do access the mandatory reconsideration process experience a system with ‘hidden language’ and no set end date which leaves people in limbo and unclear about what is happening.

“The DWP should be preventing sanctions altogether, but sanctions cannot ever be fair or lawful if there is no adequate system of redress.

“Under its recent Way to Work campaign, the Government highlighted the role of sanctions and expanded the scope of sanction-backed measures in a way that avoided proper scrutiny.

“Given the extensive evidence of the harm sanctions can cause, we are very concerned that the DWP is continuing to expand their use.

“While the DWP continues to apply this regime, individuals affected should have access to meaningful justice when sanctions are imposed incorrectly. Properly addressing the barriers of trust and perception requires a fundamental culture change. Until that is addressed, there are practical actions the DWP can and must take.”

Read Caroline Selman on how to repair the system in this blog

Read ‘Benefit Sanctions: A Presumption of Guilt