The Great Sanctions Debate: evidence and perspectives

Trends in the use of benefit sanctions – and their impacts on the individuals who receive them – have been subject to widespread media coverage and debate recently. ‘Hungry Britain?’ – an episode of Panorama aired on BBC 1 on 3rd March (and available here) – raised the question of whether increasing numbers of food banks in the UK[1] are the result of imprudent decisions, poor budgeting skills and misplaced priorities on the part of individuals or the result of welfare reform, in particular the increasing use and stringency of out-of-work benefit sanctions.

Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow featured on the programme, describing his work monitoring trends in the application of benefit sanctions (under Job Seekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance) over time. He has been a vocal critic of the increased use of sanctions over recent years and you can read more about his perspective by downloading his most recent briefing on DWP data here[2]:

Webster, D (2014). The DWP’s JSA/ESA Sanctions Statistics Release, 19 February 2014

Earlier this year Webster also submitted three lots of evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee in their consideration of the role of Job Centre Plus in the reformed welfare system. You can download his submissions here (Evidence 12 Sep 2013, Supplementary Evidence 8 Aug 2013, Further Supplementary Evidence 20 Nov 2013) or alternatively, all submissions of evidence here. The Work and Pensions Committee report drawing on this evidence concluded that Job Centre Plus “needs to do more to balance increasingly strict benefit conditionality rules with effective, in-depth employment support for those claimants who need it” (p3) and suggested that “many claimants have been referred for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would suggest that discretion should have been applied by Jobcentre staff” (p26). You can read the report in full here.

Webster has also written a response to the consultation initiated under the independent review of Job Seeker’s Allowance Sanctions by Matthew Oakley. You can download it here. You can read other responses to the consultation on the Child Poverty Action Group website here.

This month also saw the release of a Policy Exchange report ‘Smarter Sanctions’, which describes sanctions as an “integral part of a system which needs to enforce compliance with schemes to help claimants back to work, and to ensure fairness in the system by removing benefits from those who do not make reasonable attempts to find employment” (p8). It does, nevertheless, view the current system as insufficiently responsive – too lenient on ‘repeat offenders’ and too stringent in cases where non-compliance with conditions may be a ‘genuine mistake’. Policy Exchange thus propose reforms to make the system more efficient, more responsive and fairer.

These debates are central to the research questions we will explore in this 5 year research programme ‘Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behaviour change’, which aims to explore the effectiveness and ‘ethicality’ of welfare conditionality across a range of social policy areas. How effective are conditional welfare arrangements at securing positive behaviour change, for instance, in getting people back into sustainable employment? And what are the circumstances in which conditionality may, or may not, be ethically justified? You can read more about welfare conditionality here and more about our programme of research here.

Beth Watts, March 2014

UPDATE: On 25th March, David Webster released a reply to the Policy Exchange ‘Smarter Sanctions’ report:

Webster, D. (2014) Not so smart! Comments on the Policy Exchange report ‘Smarter Sanctions: Sorting out the system’ by Guy Miscampbell, published 3 March 2014.

UPDATE: On 5th June, David Webster released a further briefing on the statistics released by the DWP on 14th May 2014:

Webster, D. (2014) The DWP’s JSA/ESA Sanctions Statistics Release, 14 May 2014



[1] Two recent reports detail this rise. This DEFRA report covers the UK, with a Scottish Government report focusing on the provision of food aid in Scotland.

[2] DWP has now withdrawn the data relating to Tribunal appeals and this affects p.2 and Figures 4, 5 and 6 of Webster’s briefing. DWP has set no date for the release of amended data.

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