Cruel sanctions are turning the safety net into a trap

A sanction now lasts a minimum of four weeks and can be as long as three years


You tell the Jobcentre you cannot attend your appointment because you had a job interview. You are sanctioned and lose your benefits for a month.

You are rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack and miss your Jobcentre appointment. You are sanctioned for nine weeks.

These two real cases are just the tip of the iceberg for stupid, cruel and pointless sanctions. You can read about many more at Stupid Sanctions.

It’s not just claimants saying that sanctions have become cruel and arbitrary, it’s Jobcentre and Work Programme staff too. Many advisers say they are given targets for sanction referrals and feel bullied by managers into sanctioning jobseekers who are doing their best to find work.

The benefit sanctioning culture has changed following new rules introduced by Iain Duncan Smith. It has led to a surge in the use of financial sanctions for both jobseekers and working-aged disabled people.


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Source: analysis of DWP data by Dr David Webster, University of Glasgow

The punishments are not only being used more, they are much harsher too. A sanction now lasts a minimum of four weeks and can be as long as three years. Food banks say that sanctions are one of the most common reasons for people seeking their help.

MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee published a scathing report this week on the impact of the new sanctions system. They looked at evidence that claimants are being set up to fail, and even that sanctions have been a factor in dozens of deaths and suicides. Their recommendations include a comprehensive independent review of the current cruel and failing system, and a new independent body to investigate deaths of sanctioned claimants.

The safety net should not be a trap. It should catch people when they fall on hard times and lift them up again. It should not get them tangled up in unfathomable rules and punishments. But sadly the reality has become more like something out of Kafka than a supportive and effective service.

I recently spoke to a Work Programme adviser who wanted trade union advice on becoming a whistleblower. She said she used to enjoy her job. She found helping people move forward in life incredibly rewarding work. Now she feels dejected, prevented from doing her job properly. She wants to speak out about the pressure her bosses have put on her to treat claimants – some of them very vulnerable people – in ways she feels are completely unethical. She feels forced into setting them up to fail and unable to leave room for human understanding.

A year after my graduation, the Jobcentre enrolled me on a work programme for the long-term unemployed. I’ve since worked as a benefits assessor, a social security adviser to MPs, and a campaigner for a welfare rights charity. I’ve experienced the benefits system from all angles. And it’s taught me that the current use of sanctions is not only cruel, but utterly at odds with the kind of support I’ve seen succeed best in helping people into decent, sustained jobs.

What works is building a trusting relationship between a jobseeker and their adviser: a relationship where a claimant can talk openly about their hopes and fears, good days and bad days, aspirations and limitations. The depression and despondency that often comes with long-term unemployment, and which can affect motivation, is not an attitude problem to be punished but a genuine need that must be addressed with patient, positive support and encouragement.

Get this wrong, and you actually push people further from work. You stifle and suffocate the motivation and autonomy that Jobcentres and the Work Programme should be nurturing. Claimants end up finding that taking the initiative, pursuing aspirations and showing enterprising spirit just gets them into trouble. But jumping through hoops gives them a quiet life.

If you believe that Jobcentres should have a culture of help, not harassment, please support our petition for the incoming secretary of State for Work and Pensions after the election. It backs the Work and Pensions committee’s call for urgent review and reform of the cruel and failing benefit sanctions system.

Tim Nichols is the manager of the TUC’s Saving Our Safety Net campaign

4 Responses to “Cruel sanctions are turning the safety net into a trap”

  1. robertcp

    I signed and tweeted the petition. The sanctions are just uncivilised.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    “What works is building a trusting relationship between a jobseeker and their adviser”

    Right – That’s only remotely possible when the advisers are not involved *in any way* in punitive functions. Until then, the sensible advice is to tell them what they want to hear.

    Please consider supporting doing away with 100% of the issue by supporting a Basic Income.

  3. Keith M

    Shame on those DWP workers who take a delight in sanctioning their own class.

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    […] Many social security claimants have faced sanctions over minor mistakes which have pushed them into poverty. […]

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