6 September 2023 – Universal Credit and Sanctions

Summary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universal Credit 6 September 2023 

APPG for Universal Credit Co-Chairs: Debbie Abrahams MP and Nigel Mills MP 

Speakers:   Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Glasgow, Dr Kate Harrison, Senior Policy Researcher, Citizens Advice, Alexandra Jones, Policy Manager, Gingerbread, Nikki Bond, Interim Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.

Topic: Universal Credit and Sanctions


Introductory remarks by Debbie Abrahams MP

David Webster, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow

  • Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s a great pleasure to do this.
  • We are currently getting over half a million sanctions imposed every year on about 400,000 individual claimants. So that’s that means over 40,000 per month. That means that a substantial proportion of all the people who claim universal credit, at any time, will get sanctioned. There was a figure that the National Audit Office put out in 2016 that of all the people who claimed universal credit over a five year period, a quarter had been sanctioned.
  • The number of claimants serving a sanction according to the most recent figures was 117,000, which is one in 13 of unemployed people.
  • The average length for a sanction being served is three months. Three months is a very long time. The reason why this is so long is because of rules about being sanctioned until you comply. You have to demonstrate compliance before you get your benefit resumed and because of administrative errors, that tends to prolong sanctions.
  • The average amount of money lost through the sanction is about £660, which is a large sum for people who are claiming universal credit. We don’t have any serious information on the reasons for sanctions at the moment. We don’t know how the appeal system is working, although we think from older data that less than 5% of universal credit sanctions get overturned through appeal.
  • There was a surge in sanctions in the period between 2010 and 2015. The current level isn’t nearly as high as that, but it is higher than what it was most of the time during the last Labour government and even in the period immediately before the pandemic. That’s in terms of total numbers of sanctions.
  • I’ve tried to produce some figures on the proportion of claimants who are sanctioned. So, this is a little bit speculative. This runs from October 1996, the beginning of job seekers allowance, up to this year. You can see that at the moment with universal credit sanctions, on people who are in the searching for work category that’s unemployed, the proportion under sanction is very similar to what it was under most of the last Labour government.
  • The recent picture is one of considerable policy shifts. The sanctions were declining quite sharply before COVID. It’s not clear why that was, whether it was due to initiative by officials or by ministers.
  • The officials were working under a succession of ministers who had quite a high turnover, and also the ministers tended to be one nation ministers as well. So, it may be that they both wanted to reduce sanctions and they may also have bee impressed by the National Audit Office study.
  • The change attitude was reflected in the sanctions assurance framework, which came out in February 2021. This was one that said before imposing a sanction, the officials should consider the claimants circumstances and also have a case conference meeting with the manager of the job centre.
  • The other sign of a change attitude was the plan that Amber Rudd had for an independent review of sanctions, which was scrapped by Therese Coffey when she came into office.
  • The number of sanctions is now returned to a higher level in any period except that coalition drive in 2010 to 15 and also we’re currently seeing a renewed tightening of requirements.
  • It’s not just the numbers of sanctions that count, it’s the severity, and in all sorts of ways the universal credit regime is much more severe than the previous job seekers allowance regime and certainly then the previous unemployment benefit regime that we had up to 1986.
  • The maximum length of the sanction is now six months. It was only six weeks until 1986. Sanctions are served consecutively not concurrently, even if people move into a sick status or similar, they still must serve out their sanction. Previously, up to 1989, there was just a simple reduction at 40%, or in cases of families with children, 20% reduction. You automatically got the reduced rate of benefit. And half of section claimants must go through this process of applying for hardship payment.
  • Under the original job seekers allowance, you would just have to take two steps to look for work in any week. Now you have to spend 35 hours per week. There’s major increased requirements on parents, particularly the lone parent obligation introduced between 2008 and 2012. Conditionality has now been introduced for sick and disabled people from 2008.
  • Originally unemployment benefit just had insurance style conditions and the word sanctions wasn’t used. The word used was disqualification or disentitlement. There was a recognition that benefits were substantially claimants’ own money because the insurance scheme had three contributors, namely the worker, the employer and the state. They all had a stake and were all involved in decision making which was independent of ministers until 1999.
  • There has been an increased belief in so called active labour market policy, which is promoted by supply side theories of unemployment. In other words, the theory that unemployment is due to the behaviour of unemployed people. Rather than changes in the demand for labour. These theories have become very much more popular, since the 1990s.
  • The merging of unemployment insurance, which is an entitlement and unemployment assistance in the 1995 act, has also reduced the status of claimants very considerably.
  • As John Hills pointed out in his well known book, it’s the same people at different times. What’s happened is that sanctions have evolved into a penal system, but without the safeguards that we find in a real penal system. Universal credit is really the fullest expression of these ideas.
  • It’s important to consider what the effects of sanctions are. Most studies show that they do lead people to move faster into jobs, but that the jobs are worse. The study that DWP did recently indicated that sanctions meant people had slower moves also into worse jobs.
  • Tom Waters of the Institute of Fiscal Studies has argued that that DWP finding is spurious, but I’ve had a debate with Tom. I accept his argument may be correct, but it does in fact depend on accepting other unpleasant truths about the sanction system that disadvantaged claimants are more likely to be sanctioned and all that sanctions are not effective in promoting job search.
  • There’s a specific very important finding in January this year from Institute of Fiscal Studies that the lone parent obligation was simply not worth it, because the jobs that lone parents were pushed into were part time, low level and didn’t offer career advancement.
  • We’ve also got negative findings about the in work progression, which is restarting this month. The DWP’s own evaluation, published five years ago, showed very mediocre results. It did show that people got increased hours and earnings as a result of the attention they were paid in in work progression, but it wasn’t very much money.
  • I’d like to just make these wider points that the previous Labor government did have two very good programs which received very, very favourable evaluations and were both on a voluntary basis. One was the New Deal for lone parents, because that offered genuine career development, and the Future Jobs Fund, which was aimed at young people, disadvantaged young people, splendid evaluation results.
  • Sickness and disability are a much bigger issue than unemployment, but have received less attention, although the present government is clearly paying more attention to it now.
  • Also, although it’s not a fashionable theory, there still is a lack of labour demand in some areas. The latest Beatty & Fothergill study suggests that there’s still about 800,000 hidden unemployed as of two years ago.
  • The other thing is the imperviousness of the regime to criticism and suggestions. There’s been loads of criticisms and suggestions, but there’s been next to no reform of the Universal Credit sanctions regime of 2012. And my final point, beating people into the ground is not the way to develop a productive Labor force.

Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • Thank you so much, Dave. That really was very, very thought provoking, and certainly puts us up to date where we are. We’re going to move swiftly on and save the up the Q&A to the end. So Dr Kate Harrison is a Senior Policy Researcher for Citizens Advice.

Dr Kate Harrison, Senior Policy Researcher for Citizens Advice

  • Yes, so we’ve done research that was published in the Sanctions File, so I’ll just talk you through that. Just for a bit of context, we use DWP data, but also at Citizen’s Advice we’ve access to those domestic data from our advisors, when people come in to see us and ask for help, then we are able to record what they talk to us about and that means that we have both qualitative and quantitative data.
  • So, this report looks at sanctions in Universal Credit specifically. So, as David was saying, Universal credit, since the pandemic, sanctions have been increasing, and this graph shows our data of the advice that we have been giving. So, the number of people that we help with sanctions is growing considerably over the years. This is the proportion of the graph.
  • There’s a number of people that we help with sanctions as a proportion, as we help with any universal credit issue. The reason for that being that when we have a change in policy we have an increasing the number of people that we help in Universal Credit in general, and if you’re on a particular service, growing, and so this gives a useful perspective, because even though the number of people that we have been helping on Universal Credit has been rising, sanctions have actually been rising as a faster issue for us.
  • So, you can see that four years ago, the number of people that we helped with sanctions issues was 2.5 times lower than it is now. So, this is clearly a growing issue.
  • What we found is that young people are more likely to be sanctioned than other people, and seven times as many UC payments aged 16 to 24 being sanctioned, compared to over 50. But if you look at specific initiative regimes, this gap actually grows rather than shrinks.
  • 15% of people in this age group of age 20 to 24 were sanctioned compared to just 2.3% of over 50s.
  • So, looking at gender, this graph shows that people in the different conditionality regimes. People on the left in searching for work group, unsurprisingly, most likely to be sanctioned, but massively disproportionately men in that group that have been sanctioned, even across all three groups.
  • In other data, we can see that within the searching for work group, men account for 77% of all sanctions within that group, but they only account for 58% of the claims. We see the same in our own data. So, particularly, single men with no children, they make 22% of the people that have sanctions. So, much more likely to be sanctioned than we would expect.
  • We did some polling in May this year and found that 9% of white people could be sanctioned in the last 6 months compared to 17% of racial minorities. So, almost twice as likely to be sanctioned, which is striking.
  • Disabled people, we are data is a bit hard to measure in this respect, but it looks like disabled people are disproportionately like into the come to us for help with sanctions. It may be 10% more people come to us than we would expect.
  • So, on the next side, we know that this is quantitative data, but it’s also important to understand as well that these are real people. What we are hearing from the people that we help is that work coaches aren’t often understanding when they have personal difficulties. For example, people are often sanctioned when they miss a work coach meeting, due to being unwell, caring responsibilities or if they have internet issues.
  • We find that some people are still at risk of sanctions when they call their work coach in advance to explain that they cannot attend due to the issues they have been experiencing. We also find work coaches are expected to inform clients when they’re going to be sanctioned and give them an opportunity to give reasons as to why they have not met their conditions. But a lot of the people that come to us say that they haven’t given that opportunity, they’ve unexpectedly been sanctioned.
  • Sanctions often cause or worse the financial hardship. Many people are left with little to no income and are forced to turn to foodbanks and charities to access essential items as well as food. In our poll 94% of people who had sanctions in the last six months, told us they must come back, borrow money, and go without essentials.
  • Among debt clients, so a lot of people come to help with debt, and we go to through their budgets and see what their incomings and outgoings are. Median income for people who have sanctions is £132 lower than it is for people on UC in general. This loss of income can cause mental, physical health to deteriorate, and when a face with lack of food, heating or electricity, it causes anxiety.
  • Karolina, not a real name, came to us for help with sanctions. She was with her two daughters in the southeast and she doesn’t work but she receives Universal Credit. Now, one of her children was hospitalized with COVID-19 early last year, and so she couldn’t attend her appointment with her work approach because she needed to go to the hospital. Karolina let her work coach know two days in advance that she wasn’t able to attend but was told that this wasn’t an acceptable reason for missing the appointment. As a result, she was sanctioned and her Universal Credit was stopped for two weeks. When she came to see us, our advisors explained her how to challenge the decision and supported her in doing so. In the meantime, she was worried about paying her up front bills and covering costs for school uniform for her daughters. She also needed food bank referral and a household support fund referral to help cover the costs of food.
  • We need to understand who is being sanctioned and, in particular, racial differences and disability differences, as they are particularly important. And technically, we also need to ensure that, as I mentioned, those people that are sanctioned are given an adequate opportunity to give evidence as to why they have not met their conditions. We will be asking DWP to ensure that this happens. We want to move away from these sanctions that so often penalise people from low income. We’ll be working on this in the next research, we’ll be trying to focus on how we can achieve that.

Alexandra Jones, Policy Manager, Gingerbread

  • Single parents are disproportionately likely to be on Universal Credit. By the end of the rollout, an estimated 90% of single parents will be receiving some form of universal credit. That figure currently sits at around 76%. Although, concerningly, we are having quite a lot of people come to us and tell us that they’re not really understanding the manage migration process. And we have spoken to several people that have actually declined to move over to universal credits. So that is something that we are concerned about in addition to this.
  • We run a help line as well as a webchat and support group. 69% of all our calls are about universal credit and a significant proportion of the remaining calls are related to some sort of money matters. I think what is interesting for both our helpline staff and policy team is that even when people contact us for other issues, such as childcare, child maintenance, when you get talking to them, there is always something pertaining to universal credit that comes up further on in the conversation. Oftentimes, there was a kind of resignation to the fact that they’re in the situation they’re in, rather than trying to sort out a particular thing.
  • We are getting increasingly more calls about sanctions, both in terms of the single parents that have been sanctioned, but also how their fear of sanctions is shaping their interactions with their work coach or shaping their work search and the way that they live and that they’re not necessarily making the decisions that they want to be making.
  • As David mentioned, there are also conditionality changes that will come into play early next year, with the need to anticipate a lot more single parents, not only coming to contact with world coached, but potentially, as a result, being sanctioned.
  • A report in January showed that, of the single-parent employment challenges, all benefit recipients were experiencing a more negative relationship with work coaches, but this was particularly acute for single parents.
  • There were some examples of good practice, but generally they felt that their individual circumstances weren’t being considered, and it resulted in them being referred for work which was not appropriate for that in that situation. It could also result in them being sanctioned.
  • I think David’s point about their needing to be a conversation before someone’s sanctioned, only really works if you’ve got a rather positive relationship. Single parents’ lives, like many people’s lives, do tend to be complicated, and that’s not always something you can get across in that ten-minute appointment.
  • There are massive issues with availability of a childcare. So, in certain areas, or for single parents that have children with additional needs, for example, there isn’t the child care there.
  • In Wales, people are going to be required to meet the new administrative earnings threshold, but there’s not an expansion of three child carers to accompany that.
  • The Property Strategy Commission published that report with a series of recommendations, and there was a point around conditionality, and that was a 22% of those that are currently working the full amount of hours are still in poverty.
  • In the latest survey, 33% of single parents describe themselves as disabled. That’s compared to 15% of all coupled parents. Within that, 48% of people describe themselves as having a mental health condition, such as depression, or anxiety. If they don’t have a work capability assessment where they have been deemed unfit to work, then they are still required to attend appointments and meet the conditionality and therefore sanctions regime.
  • 44% of children of single parents are in poverty and 1 in 5 single parents rely on credit for all household items. ONS published some that 28% of single parents told them that they had ran out of food and could not afford to restock the essentials.
  • We’ve had a caller recently, who’s really concerned about the administrative earning threshold increasing. She earns below 617 pounds a month, but is also doing some vocational training alongside her employment. She works in early years, and she needs this training to be able to progress and earn more. Her search has been requiring her to attend a lot more appointments with the job centre and she’s had clashes with work deadlines and has been threatened with sanctions. So, now her work is suffering as a result.

Nikki Bond, Interim Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.

  • Of the 2.7 million people on universal credit who are required to engage with a work coach to search, more than 680,000 of those are also experiencing a mental health problem. When we think about the cognitive and psychological effects mental health problems, such as the depleting energy levels, difficulties with social communication, these can really impact the person’s ability to plan and prepare for work or increase their hours.
  • Lots of our work is informed by our research community, which is a brief of 5,000 people who have lived experience of mental health problems.
  • People with mental health problems have told us how hard it is to advocate for yourself to articulate your needs and to get that reflected in your claimant commitment.
  • Over half of the people that we surveyed in a recent research community survey told us that they found it difficult to renegotiate or amend their claim commitment once they’re made.
  • People surveyed said that they felt that the work commitment agreement was something done to them, rather than as a collaborative effort.
  • People told us about the lack of understanding from work coaches, regarding how the mental health limits their ability to make reasonable adjustments, which in turn can increase the risk of sanctions.
  • In our survey, all of the mental health members told us, who were currently engaging with the work coach or have done so in the last two years, how employment support often is inadequate and is ‘one size fits all’. There is a culture of disbelief of what claimants are saying, and how work coaches don’t adjust their approach to someone’s mental health.
  • In late 2017, we introduced training around mental health, how to better work coaches around training about mental health and identifying how to support them. This is reportedly being rolled out to 74% of work coaches.  
  • People told us that work coaches don’t understand the fluctuating nature of mental health. They don’t understand the persistent and episodic nature of it, and they don’t understand the limitations that we associate with it.
  • We did a piece of work, about 18 months ago now, looking at the universal credit and how people, liaise with the universal credit system in general, and how we know that that’s a gateway to managing your income for example, but experiencing mental health issues makes that hard to do.
  • People with mental health problems can struggle to navigate universal credit journal. Symptoms of mental health problems, such as medical problems or difficulties processing complex information, can make it a challenge to complete a regular task involved in managing their income.
  • 1.3 million claimants who report experiencing significant mental distress from requirements like having to carry out work searches, responding to messages, attending appointments. Faced with these challenges, people with mental health problems, often rely on third parties for people on universal credit with mental health problems, over half, 57%, said that they need help from family and friends to manage their account.
  • Only a quarter of respondents found it easy to understand which changes in circumstances they needed to report. Two thirds of respondents found it difficult to understand how to easily calculate their payments.
  • Somebody spoke to us and said ‘I said to my work coaches, I wasn’t able to meet the commitment of 30 hours a week, that had been automatically given to me, even though when we met, I was clear about it, actually being debilitating. He said he understood and assumed that, and I see that he meant it wouldn’t be for me, but it wasn’t being changed for me now and I was confused whether I would be sanctioned.’ I think that speaks to the fear that the threat of sanctions is just so suddenly.
  • 6 out of 10 respondents found it difficult to challenge sanctions or deductions, but they can have devastating mental health consequences.
  • The announcement yesterday looks as if they are going to disproportionately impact those with mental health problems. A suggestion that removing the points that the award is for the political support allowance for people who have social communication difficulties previously, like prevent them from kind of working in a physical workplace.
  • Whilst we would absolutely in support of supporting people to get jobs that work for them, for lots of people is working from home, will open up lots of opportunities for previously that may be closed to them, but if we constantly do it with the stick of sanctions in the background, it had the unintended consequence of driving that fear and exacerbating mental health problems.

Comments, Question and Answer

How’s the extension of in-work conditionality being communicated to claimants, employers and trade unions?

Alexandra Jones

  • One of the things that DWP have told us is that actually the increase in frequency of meetings isn’t being communicated in advance to claimants, they’re being told at their next meeting. DWP told us that means that they don’t need to worry, but the idea is that people are worrying. So claimants who are currently engaging with work coaches don’t have to do anything. There’s not been a huge amount of comms about this. Additionally, one of the things that DWP have told us that we would really like some clarity on is that single parents and parents more generally, individual circumstances will be taken into account when they’re coming to you to change the conditionality. That includes things like availability of childcare, journey time, people are dropping their children at school and there’s no school transport available. However, when I asked about guidelines for this and if there was something formal, they don’t have anything to provide us with. So again, it’s at the discretion of work coaches. Some people are being told that not much is going to change for them because of the individual circumstances, and because there is not some solid guidance on that, and they’re really concerned. We’ve also been told in a lot with some other organizations that we have a role to play in this comms but given that there are certain things that we don’t understand, that is a bit concerning. So we would need more clarity from the DWP staff.

Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • Perhaps there is a list of questions that you could come up with to put to DWP in terms of what you’re unclear about and what you’re hearing that you are unclear about. I think that might be very helpful. Ken Butler, do you want to come in there?

Ken Butler, Disability Rights UK.

  • I agree with the other speakers that yes, this consultation is really worrying in terms of what it’s likely to do isn’t to increase disabled people’s employment rate, but more likely to increase its number of disabled people being sanctioned. It’s very worrying that it appears there aren’t any clear statistics on the number of disabled people that are subject to sanction.
  • The DWP issued some stats this year, which said that 96% of sanctions for universal credit were due to failure to attend or participate in a mandatory job centre interview. Now, I can see we’ve had one at least one example already about a mother whose child was in hospital with COVID and was told, that’s not a good enough reason not to come to your job centre into you. What does failure to participate mean? Attendance I can see you probably haven’t attended for a very good reason, but I’m not sure what participate means and whether that’s there’s any kind of stats or explanation for that. Thank you.

David Webster:

  • Yes, well, I simply don’t believe that the DWP statistics are believable. We’re getting a lot of emphasis on the claimant commitment and people being required to do this and that and more work search, and yet we’re told that hardly anybody is being sanctioned for not doing it. Instead, they’re just being sanctioned for not attending interviews. The other consideration is for the DWP statistics to be correct, there would have had to be a massive change in claimant behaviour in the past few years where claimants would have switched from often not doing what they were told to in their claimant commitment, to not turning up for interviews. And frankly, that sort of change in mass behaviour doesn’t occur. So I think the statistics are wrong and misleading and I think that the nature of the error is being concealed by the fact that there aren’t any statistics either on the appeal system, because you would expect that it’s the appeal system which would bring out the fact that failures leading to sanction are not being correctly classified, because if you go to a tribunal, the DWP has to say what they’re sanctioning you for and the judge will take it will take a look at that. But we don’t know what’s happening in the appeal system at all. So I think this is I think this is quite a scandal actually that we have so little information about how the system is working and what we do have appears to be wrong.

Andrew says, the top-down nature of support is a problem. It is often handed down as a dictate from above and there needs to be a reset where this is a trusting relationship between claimant and coach. Also, with claimant commitments, why is it that there is no section on what the DWP will do to support the claimant. It is so all on the sided, who would like to comment on that?

Nikki Bond

  • In the case of people with mental health problems, we want to see claimant commitments and with all disabilities, you want to see work coached having a sufficient understanding of that disability in order to be able to adapt to claimant commitment accordingly and therefore people are then set up to succeed to meet their requirements. But as it is, if the work claimant commitment is being handed down to top down approach, where it isn’t a collaborative endeavour, and there was very little reflection of somebodies capabilities or abilities or because of their needs in there, we really are setting people up to fail. There’s lots of emphasis that’s going on at the moment around up skill work which is they’re going to train special centres. We were at a point where we got 74% of work which is trained around the needs of people with mental health problems, but our research doesn’t look as if that’s getting through to peoples experience today.

Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • Can I just also mention that the New Economic Foundation. There are discussions about to be launched specifically on conditionality and the relationship with the work coach and how this needs to be transformed.
  • Written question: Earlier this year, IPPR published some research on sanctions which highlighted sanctions rates, the likelihood of being sanctioned can be quite different in different parts of the country. For example, somebody in the Northeast is over 30% more likely to be sanctioned than someone in the Southwest. Do any of our speakers have any thoughts on what is driving this?
  • This is anecdotally, but for example, so you speak about the Northeast, North East has a high poverty rate to start off with so there is some correlations between sanctioning the poverty. They’re also more likely to build up a long-term health condition, linked back to de-industrialized areas too. Another factor is that essentially, training for work coaches starts from the Southeast outwards, so the further we get out from the Southeast, the more variable work coaches are. So they would be what I would suggest that are the main drivers of that.

Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • Even within certain areas. So my constituency, Margaret Manchester, there were certain job centres that were more likely to sanction than others. It’s very, very interesting in terms of the culture within those particular JCPs. That’s a very good question as something that we should be mindful about as well.

Are you aware the spring budget included increased conditionality for 700,000 lead carers for children? A recent FOI revealed that 340,000 of them are working, 90% of them are women, and 27% of them are disabled.

Debbie Abrahams MP:

  • I have been aware of that. That figure is probably going to get worse.  Do feel free to deliver that yourself if you want to, David. Do you want to say what you’ve written in the chat there?

David Webster:

  • The trouble is that the studies, including that IPPR study, the studies that say that they’ve found that there are significant area differences have all just taken a snapshot at a point in time. Now, if you just take a month’s figures or say a quarter’s figures, you are bound to find statistical variations between job centres and between regions and so on. The important question is, are there consistent differences which can’t be explained by some of the obvious things? So, for instance, areas that have low unemployment also tend to have shorter spells of employment, because it makes sense. If it’s easier to get a job, you’re both less likely to be unemployed and you’re going to find another job quicker. So, the fact is that the longer you’re unemployed, the more you are exposed to the risk of sanctions, so the more likely you are to be sanctioned. So, there are differences of that kind. But, well, as I say, I myself and also a separate Glasgow University team, an entirely separate Glasgow University team, they looked at this question as well, and they were unable to find consistent differences. Another quite interesting point is, you know that the DWP study wanted to investigate the so-called deterrent effect of sanctions on people who weren’t sanctioned. Now, they thought that they were going to do that by exploiting the fact that there would be area differences between job centres, which claimants would know about, and so that they expected to find that in areas that had harsh sanctioning rates, claimants would be more compliant with the requirements on them than in areas which didn’t do so many sanctions. However, they had to abandon this study when it turned out that they couldn’t find these area differences either. So, I think the evidence is pretty conclusive that DWP keeps its foot on the accelerator and the break for sanctions very, very tightly, and everybody, all these job centres across the country, they move up and down in lockstep on sanctions, as they are told to do by headquarters.

Thanks from Debbie Abrahams to speakers.