Benefit sanctions – ineffective and immoral

jobcentreplusFood banks and job clubs, run by churches and community organisations around the country are reporting increased numbers of destitute people asking for emergency help, who come to them with the story “I’ve been sanctioned”. Greg Smith, a long-standing supporter of Church Action on Poverty, explores just what that means.

It is government policy, introduced by the previous Labour administration, and toughened up by the Coalition, that benefit claimants who do not fulfil the terms of their job seeker’s agreement will have their benefits withdrawn. The aim quite crudely is to discipline the unemployed to ‘get on their bike’ to look for work, and to take any job that may be on offer, however inconvenient and however lowly-paid. “Those who will not look for work shall not eat” seems to be the motto.

Nearly half a million people have been affected.. Some 580,000 sanctions were handed down to over 400,000 claimants between October 2012 and June 2013, according to recent DWP figures.

In simple terms this policy is immoral.

It slashes a huge hole in the welfare safety net and causes huge destitution and distress, while doing nothing that makes a significant impact on unemployment or worklessness. It strengthens the prejudices of the ‘strivers’, frequently described in politicians’ rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’, against those labelled ‘scroungers’ – thus throwing us all into an individualistic law-of-the-jungle struggle, rather than strengthening the bonds of community. While bankers, and top executives in public, voluntary and private sectors, including those who operate in the ‘unemployment industry’, are offered incentives for good performance, and golden farewell handshakes when they fail, the poorest are offered few incentives and lots of penalties. This is not social justice as the biblical prophets demanded, or social insurance as envisaged by Temple, Beveridge and the other founders of the welfare state.

The sanctions regime is also ineffective.

Where there are few jobs available, as in the North West of England, taking money away from people is hardly going to help them find jobs. With the government’s ‘Work Programme’ in a state of failure and chaos, with perverse incentives that encourage providers to cherry-pick the easy cases to help, and accusations of corruption, many of the unemployed despair of getting help and meaningful training. For most people who are sanctioned, it does nothing to help them acquire skills that would help them compete in the labour market, against the pool of graduates and migrant workers who are skilled, enthusiastic, flexible and willing to take on work below their educational and skills level. Learning to write CVs (which are frequently very thin), to do job searches on the internet, and having to apply online for dozens of inconvenient, unsuitable jobs for which they are poorly qualified, and which they may be physically or mentally incapable of holding down, is hardly a profitable use of time. Such work is barely more productive than watching daytime TV, and might even be better replaced by the offer of work on a programme of public works paid at the minimum wage, as applied in numerous previous recessions. Yet failure to comply can mean an end to even the minimum income produced by benefits. Destitution, which follows, merely helps the poorest to learn how to survive by ducking and diving, by applying to charity, by falling into the clutches of payday lenders and loan sharks, by begging and sometimes stealing. Increasingly we come across people who find the whole process of claiming out-of-work benefits so demeaning and stressful that they just can’t be bothered to apply, and conveniently disappear from the official register of the unemployed.

Sanctions may not even be cost-effective.

If they produce stress and distress and increased petty crime, the tab has to be picked up by other budgets from the public purse. Sanctions reduce health and well-being for the claimants and their families, resulting in extra demand on the NHS. Police and the courts are likely to become more busy, with all the associated costs.

Sanctions are also applied in a harsh and arbitrary way.

Even the the language used by government is punitive and tends to criminalise people who simply are not coping. Official guidance from the DWP speaks of sanctions being applied for first, second and third ‘offences’. An ‘offence’ can simply be missing an appointment at the Job Centre, perhaps because a bus was late, or cancelled, perhaps because a child was sick and off school. These offences are not tried publicly in a court of law, but determined administratively by a low-level officer at the Job Centre. Even where there is a successful appeal against the sanction, it can take months to recover the payment. Despite denials, rumours persist that there is a league table encouraging competition between offices for the highest rate of sanctions imposed.

Sanctions are imposed for the flimsiest of reasons.

In our local church job club, we have heard of people who have lost benefits because they failed to apply for an HGV driver job when they didn’t even have a driving licence, for failing to apply for enough jobs when they had spend the whole week walking round all the local nurseries and child care centres with a CV but had no way of proving it, and for not applying for a job on a two-hours-per-day contract over 10 miles away which would have paid less than benefit levels, and barely covered transport costs. There is an enlightening list of other silly but tragic sanctions at the Stupid Sanctions website.

Why should Christians and the church be concerned? Firstly, of course, because it is a question of justice and mercy that is causing great hardship in our land. But beyond that, it is placing impossible and unjustified demands on the church and charitable sector. Indeed it is an opportunity to rise to the challenge and become more generous, and churches and communities have responded magnificently through food banks, soup kitchens, job clubs and money and debt counselling centres. However, it is unfair of the government to shift the burden of support to charities. It is another example of the ‘freerider’ problem that government so actively seeks to drive out of the welfare system.

As long as the state expects the churches to become the safety net for the failure of economic and employment policy, it is they and not the unemployed who deserve the name of ‘scrounger’.

Greg Smith is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation.

Walking the BreadlineThe increased use of sanctions is causing mass destitution – see our report Walking the Breadline for more information and how you can take action.

36 thoughts on “Benefit sanctions – ineffective and immoral

  1. Thanks for spending the time to write such a great article Greg.
    I had a young pal at Oxfam who suffered from depression but still managed 20 hours a week volunteering. He was a gentle fellow. Still lived at home. Had never done much in his life. Never harmed anyone but contributed as much as he possibly could. They stopped his benefits. He committed suicide the next week.
    One of our volunteers at Beautiful Planet Cafe has learning difficulties, she only managed to add up 50p and 50p at the second attempt. They’ve stopped her benefits for not applying for a low-level accounting job. Criminal.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: Church cahrity says Benefit sanctions are ineffective and immoral | Benefit tales

  3. Immoral yes.. ineffective no. They are having the intended effect of reducing unemployment figures by around 100,000 per month. Those sanctions are not included on the unemployment figures. The much publicised slight reduction in unemployment figures is down almost entirely to harsher benefit sanctions, yet the media does not challenge this.

  4. Disgrace peoples benefits being stopped through not having access to internet for jobsearch NOT EVERYONE has internet !The library only have few comps and most times your lucky to get on with school children doing their lessons on them while visiting with their teachers

  5. This doesn’t actually describe just how bad the sanctions culture is. A recent whistleblower who formerly worked at a job centre has said that the majority of sanctions are given out wrongly. One guy was sanctioned for not going to the job centre the day his wife died. I was sanctioned whilst on appeal to ATOS for not attending a work related interview, despite the fact they knew I had agoraphobia. Fortunately my support worker was able to prove that I’d received no letter as my post is redirected to him. This was mid August and I’m still waiting for a refund on the money that was stopped, despite them having told me that I’ll get it and continually said to my supporter worker that it will come each week – it’s still not arrived. If I’d not had anyone to help me, I would still be on £30 a week under the sanction, which in their letter is described as ‘what the government considers you need to live on’. Seeing as the benefits agency themselves have said that a person needs £50 a week for food, they clearly hope to starve us. It also meant the local council had to foot the bill as I’m unable to go to a Food Bank and had to be given vouchers for Tesco. As we only have a Tesco Metro in the area, this meant the vouchers didn’t go very far. It was a miracle that my support worker got those. I have no family to fall back on under such circumstances and the failure to refund me over such a long period has meant me getting charges on my bills.

  6. Pingback: Thatcher disdained sanctions. Why do her heirs love them so much? | Vox Political

  7. Thank you so much Church Action On Poverty!

    These words of common sense and morality expose the profiteers and apologists of misery and destruction.

  8. In using sanctions to try and eliminate the very few real scroungers, the government seems to have created a much vaster problem amongst the truly needy members of our society, and It is on a greater scale of despair than the one endured during the 1980’s.

    During that time of vast unemployment our biggest export was workers seeking employment on the European continent, but there were those for whom employment abroad was not an option.

    Many workers stayed in the UK, especially in the north, but prospects were grim. Whole communities had to come to terms with `living on the dole’, and many spent the rest of their `working’ lives on benefit. This became their `inheritance’ to their offspring. Children learn from their parents how to survive, and life on benefits was what many of them learned. There are those who will have broken free from this restraint, but others will not have done so for various reasons.

    The `serious offenders’ to my mind are those who have learned to work the benefit system, and have no intention of coming off of it. They include those with jobs on the side, the genuinely idle, and all the girlies who get themselves pregnant in order to get themselves and their boyfriends a flat, and are then happy to lean on benefits, and society, (for ever after) in bringing up their children.

    However, there are many more genuine people who would love a job, or training, or meaningful work of any kind, but are stuck in the many areas of low employment. Theirs’ is the real pain.

    The issue of who to give benefit to is not to simply sanction anyone who does not fulfil an artificial, pre-determined criteria, but to asign enough people to listen to, and sensibly work with individuals and their circumstances. This would not only employ more people, but would help to resolve the situation on a more humane basis.

    The idea of sanctions has been devised by someone totally remote from the problem, who has a cushy job,and is trying to keep that cushy job by writing-off inconvenient people. Each time his statistics look good on paper, the government will open another bottle of champaigne to celebrate. Meanwhile, another person is looking for cardboard boxes and a doorway to live in.

    We are not statistics, we are all slightly inconvenient people, and we need someone to listen.

    Regards, Jacquie

    • There are no scroungers. That is government rhetoric you are repeating. Those who get benefits have paid for them out of their taxes and national insurance stamp. What we need is people like you to stop using the term ‘scrounger.’ It does not help those who are struggling and being treated unfairly. It serves no purpose.

  9. I’ve just been given a 13 week sanction for not doing MWA. Don’t know what i’m going to do for money now
    I would love a paid job, but all I get is different courses from the job centre to go on, which is the same thing each time
    I don’t know of any food banks near me or any help I can get so I don’t know what will happen. I have no gas in, i’m on the £5 emergency electric and have a bit of food like soup and bread left.
    I really feel at my wits end and this can’t go on, I’ve not got the energy to play the job centre’s little games

  10. Sons college course ended 1st sept this year. He claimed jobseekers whilst looking for work. Its 17th Dec today and 2nd sanction today. He was 5 minutes late. Also form…was full and well earnt ie he had done a lot of steps, and applied for 6 jobs over the 2 weeks…..but….they were not correct. 5 websites must be searched 3 times a week each. 2 months since sept without a penny to himself or to give me. We are family of 5 husband support group esa on liver treatment interferon triple therapy for a year. Sons first sanction cost us….IMPORTANT…housing benefit adult non dependant deduction. £73 as not effectivly jobseeking. So sad right now.pps he swore in the end. Told her what he thought. They turned him from positive to suicidal.

  11. Thank you to everybody who has shared their stories here. It doesn’t make easy reading.

    We are working on this issue through our food poverty campaign and some of our grassroots programmes, and I will try to post some useful links and resources here for anybody experiencing sanctions.

    It would help our work if we could quote some of these stories as examples of the impact of sanctions. If you’re willing to be quoted in this way, please drop me a line at

  12. Follow up to my story of being sanctioned, appealing a nd getting the money refunded four months later after much hassling and lies. I got a letter today saying that my money was being lowered due to not having attended a work interview in July. This was the original sanction. Seem to have entered some bizarre Kafkaesque bureaucratic loop. Wouldn’t be surprised if even though this is clearly an error, my money is docked next Friday!

  13. Pingback: On poverty and food banks, the Coalition reveals its true colours | Jane Young

  14. Stacey above says she has a 13 week sanction. I have now learnt that this is the length of a second sanction. It looks like my son will get this. As I said he was 5 mins late but ended up swearing. We haven’t had a letter yet and he has had no money. Apparently one can get a nil income housing benefit form. This would hopefully stop rent arrears spiraling.

    Has anyone taken note of the sliding scale of what a working non dependant must pay off their parents rent?! On a wage of around £180 my son will be expected to pay £38 towards rent plus council tax plus give me board. After travel costs, when he finds work he won’t have much left and all this is designed apparently to keep kids at home.

    Anyway that is the future this is now. They’re saying youth unemployment is at its lowest but actually they are all sanctioned and hungry. It was on the news ….what I was saying …..a third are actuallyseverly depressed.

    Also I have learnt tesco, homebase,salvation army, councils are being paid to accept free employees who work to keep their benefits. How ridiculous and cruel. There’s no wonder there’s no jobs! Its called workfare. I have a lot of repenting to do since this began and have sinned a lot in thoughts and speech.What about families where parents are on jobseekers and sanctioned. I’ve got to sell some things to survive. Others will no doubt steal.

  15. has a long list of companies and even charities who are taking advantage of those of us who are being forced to work for our pittance. Is it really true that the Salvation Army is on the one hand involved in stopping people’s benefits on the one hand whilst handing out food parcels with the other??
    If the government chose to share the paid work out we could all have paid work and not have to rely on hand-outs.

  16. Yes it is on the website you just gave. Not only using workfare but trying to defend themselves. Lots of other charities have opted out after realising what the government/jobcentre are up to.

    My son and IS are supposed to be travelling 10 miles to jobcentre to see a family worker tommorrow. She works with the jobcentre not for.

    Cannot afford busfare…will cost £10. Don’t know if they can make things worse but not only cannot afford to go. Cannot even face it. The sight of DWP letters etc drains the life out of me. I am actually afraid of them now. Too weak to deal with them. Cannot trust the. They are starving people, breaking families up. Over 10.000 deaths since these welfare reforms, and ultimately they have been bringing back the workhouse all year. What else is this akin to? So yes I’m terrified and with good reason.

    Meanwhile the media and papers are turning the working, ad middle classes against the unemployed with programmes like We all pay your benefits. They should wake up too. Apparently anyone is only a couple of wages from being destitute. How can anyone be so decieved to think they will never have to rely on benefit at some point.

    • I bet everyone on benefits dreads those brown envelopes. It’s not just the sanctions, the threat of sanctions is terrifying. The media barrage is depressing.
      I would like to know as to where you got the figure for 10,000 deaths. The magnitude doesn’t surprise me at all.
      Hope your meeting went well.

      • Hi Bret. If you google 10.000 deaths since welfare reforms…….you will see. Today the government are announcing more cuts. Landlords are kicking tenants on housing benefit out. The cap is £500 but landlords are asking £750. Who can afford £750 rent. ……….thanks but didn’t go to the meeting. I pulled the phone out of the socket …son will do his own jobseeking. I’m not having any part of their untrained targets. Id rather be poor and support him while he finds his way through this. I can’t let them twist his brain. I don’t want him to think this is all there is. A fight for £56 a week. …if sanctioned 13 weeks why am I going to spend £10 traveling to see them. No way. I’m going to spend it on heating. There’s going to be homeless, begging children on the streets. A 6 yr old went begging at a food bank. Why did they pull all the mills down….??? Why open the borders???

      • Actually it is almost 11,000 deaths in the year 2011 t0 2012. After that, the DWP stopped recording the deaths. Gee, I wonder why?

      • It is 10,700 deaths, and that was for the year 2011 to 2012. The DWP stopped recording the deaths after that. The numbers are far higher than that. Around 40,00 I read somewhere.

  17. Pingback: Ignorance as an ideological weapon. | Social Action

  18. I have been studying on a goverment funded courses for 10 months …now studying childcare level two …..had to pay for travel , books, pens, ectra…my chilturned five …I had to go on jsa …so I filled out a form ssaying iv been studying …3months after reciving jsa I have now been sanctioned for studying ….I have now been sanctioned for 2 an a half months …….my mp has writen to DWP ….whom havnt responed…..My mp MR JIM FITZPATRICK is now not responding to any of my emails ….I have been told if I proved in writing i havnt attended collage, since being sanctioned I would recive my benifits …still havntbheard nothingbeg sept my accounts on hold ….I appealed over two months ago….and have had to stop studying and gaining a qaulification …..which I would of qualified for now and be getting a job in a school…now im being put on a single parents programe …where I have to go on a course .and be given a work placement to help me get back to work…… egsacly what they just took me of 10 months Iin… devistated and depressed ….I feel I have been treated like a crinmal an being pushed around for attended a goverment course.

    • I am similar position. oadby and council want to pay more council tax. e.s.a stop my benefit for 1 month. all umemployed need to set up support group in every city. plan how to go forward aganist benefit sanctioned. Sanctioned should applied to everyone. everyone bank account should checked and how their spend their wages. I want to work but not getting the jobs. people in work should lives on 71.00 like we do. support will help everyone who is live in poverty. We have to help each other.

      thank you reading my e-mail kalpna Hickin

      Date: Wed, 29 Jan 2014 10:39:00 +0000 To:

      • No one has the right to check how an individual spends their wages. What a bloody cheek! How you spend your benefits or wages is your business, no one else’s .
        I agree with supporting one another and that those who are fortunate to work, should learn how those on basic benefits live and maybe try it themselves. Although many people working are poor too, as they are on minimum wage, and they are struggling too.

  19. The Sanctions are pushing the country into poverty in a big way. I’m currently unemployed but busting my backside trying to find the jobs that just are not there.. They are filling our country up on immigration and then sanctioning us when we cant find jobs…
    I lost my job as a construction worker because it was cheaper for my employer to take on 2 polish guys who have no regard or knowledge for health and safety, so i was paid off….
    I was Sanctioned for 6 months in total 4 weeks, then 4 weeks again straight away another 4 weeks, then slapped me with 3 month sanction all straight after each other.
    All because i had to return to Glasgow to attend court and be a witness against a polish man who raped/gang raped and abused me. He got 16 years in prison after a 2 week long trial( was over the papers and everything), and in those two weeks trial i missed 1 job center signing and 2 work program appointments due to the trial, (that they were fully aware of, even had court letters and numbers to speak to legal representatives, prosecutor fiscal everybody but the judge himself) so they saw fit to sanction me 4 times for 6 months in total,. My sanctions only just finished in October last year, yet even now, i only receive £25 per week as i am currently having over £100 taken from every payment because i am now paying back rent and council tax arrears that happened due to my unfair sanctions. £25 a week, thats less than i was getting on hardship allowance on sanction, and im still expected to starve and use this money to find work, ooh and did i mention i am a single parent with 3 kids, whos on the verge of doing something illegal just to put food in our mouths…. The state of my counrty brings me to tears, the state it has left my family in has me on the brink of doing something really desperate and probably illegal…..

  20. Bloody Cameron should be shot. pity someone didn’t assassinate the bastard before these criminal measures were implemented not only sanctioning but the dam bedroom tax i am paying £12 wk for spare bedroom and £17 month( council tax )care of magie soding thatcher. When thatcher brought the poll tax in i was married n paying rates around £80 a year i did some calculating based on when i bought the marital house was married 11 yrs on old rates system so used that to work out how long it would have taken to get to the poll tax rates she brought in.Get this 72 bloody yrs brought in in one foul swoop. so peoples wages were trailing behind. and as i predicted this would mean thousands would struggle years later as inflation bit. if it was left alone wages on sliding scale would have kept up and folk could make ends meet. All they did was rename it the council tax and kept the cost extortionately high and they’ve pushed and pushed with more ludicrous charges taxes etc until the great British worker has been brought to his knees. Its disgusting What we need badly is a new fairer government structure. to sort this country out. I was incensed to read that that piece of filth Abu bloody hamsa,s familly live in a 1.75 million £ mansion and receive benefits of around £650 a wk. They should be bloody sanctioned not the English folk born here trying to find work But a succession of bloody idiotic governments have sold us down the river ie bringing the hole world here through open flood gates and taking most of the jobs as someone has said getting sanctioned for not finding a job because the immigrants have taken most of them. Cameron n clegg should be sanctioned for buggering up the country. lastly all the familly of Hamsa and quetada etc should be booted out of the country and stop being a burden on the tax payer that would save few million instead of Cameron cutting benefits and imposing the bloody stupid bedroom tax etc. I am very angry at all this sodding rubbish. imposed on us.

      • Excuse me, Kalpna kickin, if Stephen wants to swear at the immoral, vile and evil government, he can. You have no right to tell him what he can and cannot say. Obviously you are an immigrant or migrant, if so, how about you sod off back to your own country. The job centre does not help you back to work or help you. What rubbish. And dingbat, there is no fucking work. What work is he to look for? The Tory bastard government has let in too many migrants and immigrants, and they drive down wages and take the jobs, as employers take them over the British people.

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