The number of people who have had their benefits sanctioned in Scotland has doubled over the last three years, an investigation by The Ferret has found.
Despite the growing cost of living crisis, exclusive analysis of Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) data from April 2019 to May 2022 showed that benefits sanctions have risen rapidly since pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Rates of sanctions – where benefits are reduced by up to half if people claiming benefits are judged not to have met DWP rules – had risen to pre-pandemic rates by May 2022 in Scotland, the figures revealed.
But the greater numbers claiming benefits meant the number of people who had faced sanctions by the UK Government increased from 3,218 people in May 2019 to 7,525 in May 2022. They included people already in work, and women with children.
Campaigners and Scottish politicians said it was now time for the “unspeakably cruel” and “draconian” policy to end.
The DWP said it had already reduced the maximum amount that can be deducted from universal credit twice in recent years. Sanctions were only given to those who had failed to meet pre-agreed conditions, they claimed, with hardship payments available.
However, last week the UK Government also announced that rules on universal credit will be tightened further. It said an estimated 120,000 more people on universal credit will be asked to take steps to seek more work, or face having their benefits reduced. Those working part-time and claiming benefits may have to prove they are taking steps in increase income.
Benefit sanctions were first introduced by the UK Government under 2012 welfare reforms, and fell dramatically – to almost zero in some Scottish local authority areas – during the pandemic.
But despite skyrocketing costs of food and fuel, sanctions in Scotland had returned to almost the same rate as they were pre-pandemic by May 2022, with 1.8 per cent of all Scottish claimants sanctioned in May 2019 and 1.7 per cent sanctioned three years later.
The rate increased most dramatically for those claiming universal credit on the condition that they were seeking work.
One in 12 men (8.3 per cent) claiming benefits while looking for work were sanctioned in May 2022 – twice the rate for May 2019. The rate for women was 3.3 per cent, again double that of the pre-pandemic rate.
Sanctions are often given due to a perceived “breach” of conditions agreed with a job coach.
Job seekers are expected to spend 35 hours a week looking for work, complete work diaries and evidence job applications. Sometimes people are told they cannot take up training courses, or take up volunteering opportunities, if they are judged not to count towards the 35 hours.
Research also shows fear of sanctions and stress related to conditionality has a detrimental impact on mental health. Charity Crisis has found that sanctions increase homelessness, making it harder to look for work.
Our analysis of the data also found a postcode lottery in how sanctions are applied. Sanction rates – the rate of which benefits are reduced or stopped – have varied from 0.1 to 2.7 per cent of all benefit claimants over the last three years, depending on which Jobcentre claimants attend.
For example, Paisley Jobcentre saw about 9,000 benefit claimants last year and sanctioned just 24 of them. However Falkirk Jobcentre, which saw 7,500 claimants sanctioned 115 – nearly five times as many. Edinburgh Waverley Market saw about 7,000 claimants and sanctioned 164 of them – nearly seven times as many.
We also found variations in local authorities. In Dundee, for example, the sanction rate for May 2022 was 2.2 per cent for that month while in Inverclyde it was only 0.7 per cent.
Glasgow-based research has found Jobcentre staff don’t all believe sanctions help move claimants towards work. Those staff would seek alternatives wherever possible, which experts said might be one reason behind the postcode lottery findings.
UK inflation reached a 40-year high in April 2022 and has continued to rise. According to the Office of National Statistics, higher fuel and food costs saw its Consumer Prices Index – which measures the change in cost of basket of goods and services – rise by 9 per cent from April 2021 to April 2022.
The UK Government argues help is available including a cost of living payment, with almost one in four families eligible. An “energy price guarantee” was announced this month, which means the average energy bill will be no more than £2,500 a year from 1 October for the next two years.
But grassroots charities, community groups and food banks said people already struggling to survive were being put in dangerous situations by benefit sanctions.
The St Gregory’s Food Bank in Wynford, north west of Glasgow – staffed entirely by volunteers – helps dozens of people who have been sanctioned every week as well as refugees, low paid workers and pensioners.
By 11am on Monday, 19 September – the day of the Queen’s funeral – more than 20 people had queued for emergency bags of food containing cans of beans, pasta or rice, eggs, cheese, fruit, bread and other essentials.
The previous Monday the charity handed out a record 76 bags in a two-hour period. On average it has been handing out 175 emergency food parcels every week in 2022, up from an average of 125 per week in 2021.
Eileen Low, who volunteers to coordinate the food bank, said one issue was the lack of access to good benefits advice.
“We’ve asked agencies to come down and advise people but instead they ask us to send people to them,” she said. “And we find what happens is they come straight back to us. Yet we don’t get any central government money to keep us going.
“I’m sick of people saying that we were living through unprecedented times during the pandemic. Are these not extraordinary times? When it comes to sanctions, we only hear one side of the story – I understand that. But surely there needs to be more flexibility.
“We do what we can but we just can’t keep up with the demand. We are a sticking plaster.”
Frank – who asked only to be identified by his first name – came to this food bank last week after his benefits were sanctioned. He receives about £250 a month in Universal Credit, due to rent arrears. It is topped up with Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – extra money paid if you have an illness, disability or mental health condition.
The Jobcentre claims he should have attended a meeting on 25 August. Frank claims he did not attend as he was not told about it and did not get notifications.
He already struggles to pay the bills but the sanction plunged him into crisis. “I had nothing to pay the electricity,” he said. “I went to the food bank and I got enough for myself and some cat food. But it didn’t last me so I ended up having to go to a few different food banks just to get by.”
Three years ago Frank, who has had long-standing problems with alcohol, was in recovery, and had a job as a care worker.
But after the death of his friend’s mother – his “second ma”, who looked after him as a teenager – he started drinking again. He says he wants to get access to a detox centre. But the additional stress of sanctions is making it even harder to get his drinking under control.
“I’ll put £36 in the [electricity] metre and it just goes,” he said. “Sometimes it just gets too much and I can’t cope. I end up just going into town, getting a sleeping bag from the church and staying there because I can’t face dealing with it.”
His PIP was later re-instated, having been removed in error, giving him some breathing space.
“That’s a relief but getting sanctioned had a big impact,” he added. “I wish I hadn’t had to go through that, and I’m still waiting for my universal credit to go through next month.”
Neil Cowan of the Poverty Alliance agreed that sanctions were causing “untold harm, creating stress, anxiety, and mental health problems, and pushing households into complete destitution”.
He added: “They have no place in a civilised society. They should be scrapped now.”
Joseph Rowntree Foundation associate director for Scotland, Chris Birt, said it was “worrying and disappointing” to see sanctions rise to pre-pandemic levels.
“There is clearly a need for greater support for millions of people in Scotland as living standards are squeezed rather than a need for punitive sanctions,” he added. “A quarter of low-income households are unable to keep their home warm and put food on the table – about 275,000 households across Scotland.
“What’s even worse is that the sanctions can appear arbitrary based on the great variability of who is sanctioned and why. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the UK Government to justify the impact of these measures.”
Kirsty Blackman MP, SNP Westminster’s spokesperson for work and pensions, said the UK Government must reverse its sanction policies now.
She added: "With a return to their draconian sanctions regime, the Tories are making a horrible situation even worse for households struggling to get through this deepening, Tory-made cost of living crisis.
“Enforcing these measures – which take no account of the personal challenges faced by people and cause unnecessary stress and harm – on already hard-hit households is unspeakably cruel and lays bare the disregard for vulnerable people and families across the country.”
Glasgow Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, claimed it was “abhorrent, yet not entirely unsurprising, that the UK Government and the DWP are compounding this agony for jobseekers in Scotland”.
After making a claim in May 2020, he tweeted about the “disorienting experience” of finding himself unemployed “for the first time since the age of 14” and in the midst of a pandemic lockdown and his struggles navigating the benefit system.
He told The Ferret: “The government should be extending the windfall tax and letting their billionaire cronies foot the bill for their incompetence – not the most vulnerable.”
A DWP 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.
“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.”
This story was co-published with the Sunday National.
Cover image thanks to iStock/K Neville