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Benefit sanctions harming claimants, lawyers warn

22 July 2022

As benefit sanctions exceed pre-COVID highs, interviews carried out by the Public Law Project (PLP) with benefit claimants, advisers, and support workers reveal that people who try to question their sanctions face a complex, punitive and unaccountable system.

Sanctions can be applied to universal credit, 'new style' employment and support allowance and 'new style' jobseeker's allowance.

They can be applied if someone is said to not meet the 'work-related requirements' that apply in their case. A sanction means that someone will lose 100% of their standard allowance for a period of time.

However, the system for challenging benefit sanctions “poses significant harm to the health, finances, and well-being of claimants” according to the PLP.

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

While the latest DWP statistics outline that only 0.3% of sanction decisions were appealed, their success rate was 81%.  This means, says the PLP, that claimants were not challenging decisions even when they had a good chance of success.

PLP 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 appeals being  overturned.

Caroline Selman, Researcher at the Public Law Project said: “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.”

She added: “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.”

For more information see the PLP report Benefit Sanctions: A Presumption of Guilt available from publiclawproject.org.uk.

See also our benefit sanctions factsheet.