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Sanctions

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Disability Rights UK Factsheet F70

1. What are sanctions?

There are a number of circumstances in which a sanction may be applied to your benefit. When your benefit is sanctioned, it is not paid or is paid at a reduced rate for a fixed period of time. Sanctions are used most often to enforce the work-related conditions that can be applied to benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA) and universal credit. It is these sanctions that we will look at in this factsheet.

2. JSA sanctions

Sanctions can be applied if you fail to meet the work-related conditions relating to JSA. These failures are called ‘sanctionable failures’. There are three different types of sanction: lower, intermediate and higher.

In each case, your JSA will normally be stopped for a fixed period of time. This can last from four weeks to up to three years. In the case of intermediate level sanctions, your JSA claim may also be disallowed.

If you are claiming JSA jointly with your partner, and only one of you has failed to meet a condition, your JSA will be reduced to the rate normally paid to a single person.

If your JSA is sanctioned, you may be able to apply for reduced rate ‘hardship payments’ (see 7 below).

If you are claiming JSA under the universal credit system, the sanctions regime will reflect that of universal credit instead (see 4 below). In each case, payment of JSA will normally cease for the sanction period.

Lower-level sanctions

A lower-level sanction can be applied if you fail to meet a condition relating to a training scheme or employment programme. For instance, you may be sanctioned if you:

  • do not take part in an interview with a work coach when asked to do so;
  • do not take up a place on a training scheme or employment programme when one is offered to you; or
  • lose a place on a training scheme or employment programme through misconduct.

How long the sanction is applied will depend on whether you have had any other lower-level sanctions applied within the last year. If this is the first sanction, the sanction will last for four weeks. If you have already had a 4-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for 13 weeks. Any further lower-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for 13 weeks.

Intermediate-level sanctions

An intermediate-level sanction can be applied if you fail to be available for work or actively seeking work (see our Factsheet F46 – Jobseeker’s Allowance).

When an intermediate-level sanction is applied, your JSA will be disallowed (or paid at a single person’s rate if you are claiming JSA jointly with your partner). If you then reclaim JSA, a fixed-period sanction will apply to the new claim.

How long the fixed-period sanction is applied will depend on whether you have had any other intermediate-level sanctions applied within the last year. If this is the first sanction, the sanction will last for four weeks. If you have already had a 4-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for 13 weeks. Any further intermediate-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for 13 weeks.

Higher-level sanctions

A higher-level sanction can be applied if you fail to meet an employment-related condition. For instance, you may be sanctioned if you:

  • lose your job through misconduct;
  • leave your job voluntarily; or
  • refuse to apply for a job that is offered to you.

How long the sanction is applied will depend on whether you have had any other higher-level sanctions applied within the last year. If this is the first such sanction, the sanction will last for 13 weeks. If you have already had a 13-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for 26 weeks. If you have already had a 26-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for three years. Any further higher-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for three years.

3. ESA sanctions

Sanctions (also called ‘reductions’) can be applied to your employment and support allowance (ESA) if you fail to meet a ‘compliance condition’ for the benefit. These are, that you fail to:

  • take part in a work-focused interview;
  • do work-related activity agreed with your work coach (normally listed in an ‘action plan’); or
  • agree to do either of the above at a later date.

In each case, your ESA will be reduced by £73.10 for a period of time. This period comes in two parts: one open ended, one fixed.

The open-ended period will apply until you do meet the compliance condition in question (eg you take part in a work-focused interview). This will be followed by the fixed-period, the length of which will depend on whether you have had any other sanctions applied within the last year.

If this is the first sanction, the fixed-period will last for one week. If you have already had a one-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for two weeks. If you have already had a two-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction will last for four weeks.   

If you are claiming ESA under the universal credit system, the sanctions regime will reflect that of universal credit instead (see 4 below). In each case, payment of ESA will normally cease for the sanction period.

If your ESA is sanctioned, you may be able to apply for reduced rate ‘hardship payments’ (see 7 below).

Safeguards

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) internal guidance advises that their staff will seek to visit you before applying a sanction if you have a mental health condition, learning disability or condition affecting communication or cognition (such as a stroke, autistic spectrum disorder or drug or alcohol addiction). A home visit should take place each time you fail to meet a compliance condition. At least two attempts must be made to visit you at home. If it fails in its attempts to visit you, the DWP should notify a third-party agency (such as your social worker) before applying a sanction. A decision to apply a sanction should be revised if the safeguards have not been followed.

4. Universal credit sanctions

Sanctions can be applied if you fail to meet the ‘work-related requirements’ that apply in your case (see our Factsheet F55 – Universal Credit). These failures are called ‘sanctionable failures’. There are four different types of sanction: lowest, low, medium and higher.

In each case, your universal credit can be reduced over varying lengths of time: the ‘sanction period’.

If your universal credit is sanctioned, you may be able to apply for ‘hardship payments’ (see 7 below).

Lowest-level sanctions

A lowest-level sanction can be applied if you do not take part in a work-focused interview, where none of the other work-related requirements apply to you. The sanction period will last until the day before you do take part in an interview.

Low-level sanctions

A low-level sanction can be applied if you fail to:

  • take part in a work-focused interview;
  • take action to improve your chances of getting work* – this could include taking part in training or an employment programme;
  • take a specified action to search for work* as directed by your work coach, such as making a job application;
  • provide evidence to confirm that you have done any of the above; or
  • report any change of circumstances relevant to any of the above.

* or more work or better paid work if you are already working part time

The sanction period comes in two parts: one open ended, one fixed.

The open-ended period will apply until the day before you do meet the requirement in question (eg you take part in a work-focused interview). This will be followed by the fixed period, the length of which will depend on your age and whether you have had any other low-level sanctions applied within the last year.

If you are aged 18 or over and this is the first sanction, the fixed period will last for one week. If you have already had a one-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the fixed period will last for two weeks. Any further low-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for two weeks.  

If you are aged under 18, a fixed period sanction of one week will only apply if this is the second (or subsequent) sanctionable failure within the last year (but not within the last two weeks).

Medium-level sanctions

A medium-level sanction can be applied if you fail to be available for work or search for work, as required, without good reason (see our Factsheet F55 – Universal Credit).

The length of the sanction period will depend on your age and whether you have had any other medium-level sanctions applied within the last year.

If you are aged 18 or over and this is the first sanction, the sanction period will last for four weeks. If you have already had a 4-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction period will last for 13 weeks. Any further medium-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for 13 weeks. 

If you are aged under 18 and this is the first sanction, the sanction period will last for one week. If you have already had a one-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction period will last for two weeks. Any further medium-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for two weeks. 

Higher-level sanctions

A higher-level sanction can be applied if you:

  • lose your job through misconduct;
  • leave your job voluntarily;
  • fail to apply for a job that is offered to you; or
  • fail to take part in a work placement.

The length of the sanction period will depend on your age and whether you have had any other higher-level sanctions applied within the last year.

If you are aged 18 or over and this is the first sanction, the sanction period will last for 13 weeks. If you have already had a 13-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction period will last for 26 weeks. If you have already had a 26-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction period will last for three years. Any further higher-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for three years. 

If you are aged under 18 and this is the first sanction, the sanction period will last for two weeks. If you have already had a 2-week sanction applied within the last year (but not within the last two weeks), the sanction period will last for four weeks. Any further higher-level sanction within a year of the previous one will also last for four weeks.   

Where the sanctionable failure took place before you claimed universal credit, the sanction period may be reduced to take account of any time in which you did not claim universal credit (see our Disability Rights Handbook for details).

5. Avoiding sanctions

There are a number of ways of avoiding or reducing the risk of a benefit sanction.

ESA

If you are claiming ESA, you can avoid a sanction as long as you are placed in the ‘support group’ when the ‘work capability assessment’ is applied to you. This is because claimants in the support group are not expected to meet work-related conditions to continue receiving the benefit in full.

If you are not placed in the support group, you can ask for the decision to be reconsidered and then appeal if this is unsuccessful.

If your health condition deteriorates or you develop a new condition, you can ask to be reconsidered for the support group.

For details of how the work capability assessment is applied, see Factsheet F71 - work capability assessment

JSA

If you are claiming JSA, you can reduce the risk of a sanction by ensuring that the DWP is aware of any problems you face in being available for work. For instance, you can restrict your availability in any way (eg the pay, hours, travel time or type of work that you are willing to accept) provided the restrictions are reasonable given your physical or mental condition. It is not relevant whether the restrictions affect your job prospects, providing you do not also put non-disability-related restrictions on your availability. If you do, you will have to show you have reasonable job prospects given all the restrictions.

If you refuse a job offer where the conditions of the job are beyond your agreed restrictions, you would not usually be sanctioned.

Full details of the restrictions that you can place on your availability for work can be found in the Disability Rights Handbook.

Universal credit

If you are claiming universal credit, you can avoid a sanction as long as none of the work-related requirements apply to you. This will be the case if you are found to have a ‘limited capability for work-related activity’ at a ‘work capability assessment’.

If you are found not to have a limited capability for work-related activity, you can ask for the decision to be reconsidered and then appeal if this is unsuccessful.

For details of how the work capability assessment is applied, see Factsheet F71 - work capability assessment

If all the work-related requirements apply to you, you can reduce the risk of a sanction by ensuring that the DWP is aware of any problems you face in being available for and searching for work. For instance, you can restrict the number of hours you are expected to work (and to look for work) provided the restriction is reasonable given your physical or mental condition. If your condition has a substantial effect on your ability to carry out work of a particular nature or in a particular place, you cannot be expected to search for such work or in such a place.

Keep in touch

If you are not able to attend any interviews or appointments that have been arranged by the DWP or by training or work providers, get in touch (by phone or e-mail) with whoever has arranged the interview or appointment as soon as possible, giving your reasons. If you phone, confirm this in writing and keep a copy of your letter.

If you are sent on a training course or employment programme and find that it is not suitable for you, talk to the provider first, to see if they can alter the course or programme so that it is more suitable. If you are not able to continue on the course or programme due to your condition, try to get a letter from your GP or practice nurse, confirming that this is the case.  

Good reason and good cause

Before you can be sanctioned, you should receive notification from the DWP that you have committed some sanctionable failure (eg that you have failed to attend a work-focused interview).

In the case of JSA or universal credit, a sanction will not be applied if you can show that there was a ‘good reason’ for the way that you acted or failed to act (this will not apply, however, if you lose your job through misconduct). In the case of ESA, you will need to show ‘good cause’. Neither term is defined in law. What matters in either case is whether or not it was ‘reasonable’ for you to act in the way that you did.  

For JSA and ESA, you have five working days after you have received your failure notification to show either good reason or good cause for your failure. 

6. Challenging the sanction decision

If a sanction is applied to your benefit, you can challenge the decision, first by asking for a ‘mandatory reconsideration’ and, if this is unsuccessful, by lodging an appeal.

Mandatory reconsiderations

You should be informed in writing of the decision. You will have one calendar month from the date of the decision to ask for a mandatory reconsideration. You can telephone the DWP (use the number on the decision letter) to ask for a mandatory reconsideration. You should also put your request in writing to the DWP. Keep a copy of this letter.

When you ask for a mandatory reconsideration, keep your explanation simple. If your JSA has been sanctioned because you did not turn up for a work-focused interview, state why you did not turn up for the interview and why you were not able to provide a good reason for the failure within five days. For instance:

“I did not turn up for the work-focused interview because I did not receive a notice that I had to turn up for it; I did not provide you with good reason for not attending the interview within five days because the first time I was aware that there was a problem was three weeks later (on the 21st June) when I looked at my bank account and saw that my JSA had been reduced.”  

If the failure was due to your condition (eg you did not turn up to an interview because you were unwell) try to obtain medical evidence (eg a letter from your GP) to back up your case.

If you have been sanctioned because the DWP did not consider that you were actively seeking work (eg they did not believe that you had applied for enough jobs in any given week) any evidence or argument should focus on this. For instance, you may not have had time to apply for any jobs because you were doing research into self-employment opportunities and possible funding support for them.    

Do not wait until you have obtained the evidence before asking for the mandatory reconsideration. Ask for the reconsideration first, and let the DWP know that you will forward the evidence to them as soon as you have obtained it.

Appeals

Once the decision has been reconsidered, a ‘mandatory reconsideration notice’ will be sent to you, informing you whether or not the sanction has been removed. If the reconsideration does not result in the removal of the sanction, you have a further calendar month from the date of the mandatory reconsideration notice in which to appeal.

Do not be put off by a negative reconsideration decision. Currently few people are taking sanction decisions to appeal. But tribunals are independent of the DWP and there is a good chance that a tribunal will reverse the DWP decision, particularly if you attend the hearing.

To appeal, use form SSCS1. This can be downloaded from: www.gov.uk/social-security-child-support-tribunal/appeal-tribunal. In Northern Ireland, use form NOA1(SS), which can be downloaded from www.nidirect.gov.uk/publications/appeals-form-noa1ss.

For more information about challenging decisions, see Factsheet F36 - appeals and mandatory reconsiderations

7. Hardship payments

If a sanction is applied to your benefit, and you are having difficulty managing, you may be able to apply for ‘hardship payments’. Hardship payments are reduced rates of income-based JSA, income-related ESA or universal credit. Payment is not automatic; you must make an application and must be able to show that unless the hardship payment is made, you (or your family) will suffer hardship.

What is hardship?

For JSA and ESA, in deciding whether or not you will be in hardship if no payment is made, the DWP should consider:

  • what resources you have available to you (including other benefits, but not child benefit or child tax credit);
  • whether there is a substantial risk that you will have much reduced amounts of (or would lose altogether) essential items such as food, clothing, heating or accommodation; and
  • the length of time that any such risk will apply.

For universal credit, you (and your partner if you are claiming jointly) can only be considered in hardship if you:

  • cannot meet your (or your family’s) immediate and most basic and essential needs of accommodation, heating, food and hygiene only because of the sanction;
  • have made every effort to access alternative sources of support (such as contacting a local support group) to help meet those needs; and
  • have made every effort to stop spending money on anything that does not relate to those needs.

Claiming hardship payments

You should apply for hardship payments as soon as you can, even if you are wanting to challenge the decision to apply a sanction. In the case of JSA, hardship payments will not be made for the first two weeks unless you or your partner are considered to be ‘vulnerable’. There are several circumstances where you (or your partner) will be considered vulnerable, including if you are:

  • responsible for a child;
  • pregnant;
  • getting disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP); or
  • a carer looking after someone who gets attendance allowance, DLA middle or highest rate care component or PIP daily living component.

8. Where can I get more help or information?

This factsheet is a basic overview of benefit sanctions. You can find out more detailed information in our Disability Rights Handbook. This and all our other publications are available from our shop at https://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/shop

You can also place orders by contacting Disability Rights UK.

You can get help and information at your local advice centre, such as Citizens Advice. You can get more information about where to get personal advice from our Factsheet F15 - Getting advice. All our factsheets are free to download on our website at disabilityrightsuk.org.

Ian Greaves
24 July 2017

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