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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Cost of living crisis: DWP urged to end ‘punitive sanctions regime’ that’s pushing people into hardship

IPPR analysis of DWP data shows sanctions on benefit claimants have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels

As cost of living hits people relying on social security hardest, think tank urges benefits rethink to ensure a more ‘humane’ system

With social security payments now lagging far behind inflation, researchers at IPPR warn that the cost of living crisis will push many vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship and destitution, without a serious boost to benefit payments and an end to inappropriate conditions and excessively punitive sanctions that limit payments.

After a pandemic induced drop-off, new IPPR analysis of the latest DWP figures show that sanctions on benefit claimants are almost back to pre-pandemic levels (chart in notes), despite the cost of living crisis now increasing the risk of people falling into destitution. In November 2021, when the latest data is available, 46,000 claimants were sanctioned, but the number of people being sanctioned has likely risen since then.

In a new report, IPPR warns that people on Universal Credit are not being treated as individuals, with their own circumstances and needs - leading to impossible conditions being imposed on claimants to receive their benefits. These inappropriate conditions set claimants up to fail and lead to sanctions, according to researchers.

The think tank warns that this means many people mistakenly find themselves ‘at the sharp end of an often-punitive system’ and that for those vulnerable people with complex needs, this can be potentially lethal.

IPPR says that ‘punitive sanctions’ remain a core part of the Job Centre regime, despite limited evidence on their effectiveness and extensive evidence of the hardship they can cause - particularly for those with complex needs.

Interviews with those adversely affected revealed that many claimants felt pressured by the power-dynamic to agree to unsuitable conditions without raising concerns, and that open-plan Job Centres made them reluctant to raise important personal information. Others reported being put ‘on edge’ by the presence of security guards.

One Universal Credit claimant told researchers:

“I feel like I was in that situation where I haven’t got a penny to my name, I would have agreed to anything. If I challenge it they are gonna question it and it could delay everything.”

IPPR argues that the entire Universal Credit system needs to be reformed to increase levels of support and to achieve a higher basic minimum standard of living. In response to the Chancellor’s ‘shockingly inadequate’ Spring Statement, IPPR called for a policy combining an increase in Universal Credit and legacy benefits of 8.1 per cent and a rise in child benefit by £10 per child per week.

To ensure the benefits system works better overall and to ensure claimants, particularly those with complex needs, do not face inappropriate conditions or punitive sanctions, IPPR’s report calls for:

  • A humane approach - Claimants should be given a ‘second chance’ and not sanctioned immediately if they don’t appear meet the conditions of their benefits. They should get an opportunity to explain the situation, clear up any confusion and discuss potential changes to conditions. 
  • Improved information – Claimants should have all the information they need about their claim and the conditions relating to it. They should automatically be informed of and offered the opportunity to change how and when their benefits are paid and given the chance to ask for an advance to avoid the five-week wait before receiving benefit payments.
  • Greater sensitivity – Claimants should be given the option to discuss their personal circumstances in a private room or over the phone or video call.
  • Better conversations – Job Centre work coaches should be better trained to spot warning signs of someone with complex needs. For example, researchers found that claimants who said they had ‘no housing costs’ on their applications were not being systematically asked why this was – meaning many who required homelessness support were not being offered it and were being expected to do entirely inappropriate job searches.
  • Preventing serious harm – Decision-makers should have the power to cancel a sanction if there is a risk of harm for the claimant. A range of public servants, from doctors to social workers, should also have the ability to raise ‘complex-needs flags’ with DWP so they are fully aware of the challenges people face and ensure they are not set up to fail.

Henry Parkes, IPPR senior economist, said:

“As the cost of living crisis deepens, the UK government must do more to support people living on low incomes – whatever their circumstances. It absolutely shouldn’t be making people’s lives any harder by imposing inappropriate conditions and punitive sanctions on them in a time of need.

“Alongside desperately needed action to increase the value of Universal Credit to keep up with the rising cost of living, we also need urgent action to ensure our social security system offers genuine security where people fall back on it. This should include urgent reform of the punitive sanctions regime, and a wholesale review of how the system can treat every claimant with dignity and respect.”

Julian Dalley, a support worker with lived experience of homelessness and rough sleeping, said:  

“Too often universal credit treats you like you must be lying and like what you have said isn’t true. The staff have no idea what it’s like to be on the street or moving from one friend's sofa to the next. People who hit rock bottom need time and support to get themselves sorted out, but instead of support, DWP staff often feel like they are judging you, that you have failed and need to be taught a lesson.”

Alex Bax, CEO of Pathway, a homeless healthcare charity, said:

“Our specialist teams working in hospitals with homeless patients hear too many stories of sanctions, exclusions or inappropriate barriers being enforced by the benefits system. It often seems that the system withdraws support from people precisely when they need it most, when someone’s circumstances suddenly fall apart, when a relationship has broken down or when bad luck strikes.

"The benefits system defaults to assume wrong-doing and deceit. For people who’ve been made homeless, perhaps in the context of a mental illness or battling an addiction, Universal Credit is too often another source of stress and difficulty, rather than a basic building block of their recovery.”

ENDS

CONTACT

David Wastell, Director of News and Communications: 07921 403651 [email protected]

Robin Harvey, Senior Digital and Media Officer: 07779 204798 [email protected]

Case study available on request

NOTES TO EDITORS

  1. The IPPR paper, No-one left behind: Supporting people with complex needs on Universal Credit by Henry Parkes, will be published at 0001 on Tuesday 5 April. It will be available for download at: http://www.ippr.org/research/publications/no-one-left-behind
  2. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request
  3. Figure 2.3: Universal credit sanction rates fell dramatically through the pandemic but are now beginning to rise again

  1. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence. www.ippr.org