Poverty campaigners have accused the Government of a “complete lack of compassion” after it sanctioned Universal Credit claimants at record levels during the cost of living crisis – reducing their benefits or in some cases stopping them outright.
The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveal 110,000 Universal Credit claimants, including thousands of teenagers and pensioners, had their benefits sanctioned in May of this year – almost 30 times more than in May 2021 when just under 4,000 were sanctioned and four times more than before the pandemic, in May 2019, when just under 29,000 were sanctioned.
A snapshot was taken on the second Thursday of May, with 109,500 out of the 5.5 million Universal Credit claimants subject to a sanction at that point. It was the highest level – and, at 2% of claimants, the highest rate – since current records began in April 2019. Between January and May, the number of people subject to sanctions rose by 47%.
Universal Credit claimants may have a range of conditions placed on them, including the need to look for work or for a job with more hours, and to attend appointments with their work coach. They will be sanctioned if they do not meet these conditions.
The DWP told NationalWorld people are only sanctioned if they fail to meet them “without good reason”. Generally, the vast majority of sanctions are due to people failing to attend appointments, it said. Sanctions were paused at the start of the Covid pandemic and then phased back from July 2020.
NationalWorld’s analysis comes as a row about whether to increase benefits in line with inflation next year rumbles on. Liz Truss has so far refused to commit to doing so, a position widely criticised by MPs across the political spectrum, including by those in her own party.
The Poverty Alliance, whose members include food banks, homeless shelters and service providers, described the Government’s actions in sanctioning claimants as “conscious cruelty”. It added that the cost of living crisis will be making it harder for claimants to “stick to the punishing conditions placed on them” by the DWP.
It said people were having to choose between paying fuel bills or getting a bus to a Jobcentre appointment and even falling behind on their Universal Credit journaling (a record jobseekers keep of their search for work activities) because of hunger induced illness.
Who is being sanctioned the most?
Regionally, the North East, North West, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber had the greatest proportion of claimants subject to sanctions – 2.2% of claimants in May 2022. The South West had the lowest proportion of claimants sanctioned at 1.6%. At a local level Slough had the highest proportion of sanctioned claimants with 3.3%, followed by Stockton-on-Tees with 3.2%.
Men were also found to be sanctioned at a greater rate than women – more than three-quarters (76%) of sanctions were brought against men, in comparison to 24% against women.
Young people aged between 20 and 24 accounted for the largest share of sanctions – 27% were in this age group. Almost 8,000 teenagers (16 to 19 year olds) were also sanctioned, as were more than 2,000 claimants aged 60 and over.
Sanctions could increase during cost of living crisis
Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, said the sanctions system does not help people into employment, only pushing them into poverty.
“It is completely unjust to cut the incomes of people who struggle to get by on the meagre amounts they are entitled to under our weakened social security system,” Mr Kelly said.
“The first moral responsibility of government is to protect people – so to see numbers of sanctions increase at a time when people are struggling with rising costs shows a complete lack of compassion and understanding.
“The cost of living crisis will make life harder for millions of people, and that will make it harder for them to stick to the punishing conditions placed on them when they claim benefits like Universal Credit.
“The sanctions system is nothing more than conscious cruelty and it should end. It does not help people into employment, it only drives them into poverty. We need to rebuild our social security on the basis of help, understanding, respect for people’s dignity, and compassion.”
‘Sanctions can be resolved quickly’
A DWP spokesperson said it has already reduced the maximum amount that can be deducted from a Universal Credit award twice in recent years.
The spokesperson said: “People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions to which they agreed. Sanctions can often quickly be resolved by re-engaging with the Jobcentre and attending the next appointment.
“If a claimant disagrees with a decision to impose a sanction, they can ask for this to be reconsidered and subsequently can appeal to an independent tribunal. This process is set out in writing as soon as a sanction is applied and help is available via telephone, the claimant’s Universal Credit journal, and the website. We are always working to improve our systems and it is our utmost priority everyone is heard and supported to put a fair case forward.
“Hardship payments are available as a safeguard to claimants who demonstrate that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs as a result of their sanction.”