What Sanctions Are Telling Us About Tory Economic Policy

By Kam Sandhu @KamBass

There has been a stream of recent rulings against welfare policy as the intentions and failures of the DWP and government become impossible to hide. 

A closer look at the intentions and growth in sanctions for benefit claimants demonstrates indifference to claimants, a commitment to silencing appeals and challenges, and policy that is not guided by economic or societal benefits. 

1) Unprecedented increases

The increase in the number of sanctions since the Conservative government came to power has been unprecedented. 

Since 2009, sanctions have more than doubled with one in five jobseekers affected in 2013-2014. 

Ex-Minister of employment Esther McVey claimed the use of sanctions was to act as a deterrent and incentivise work. However, in 2014, figures revealed five times as many people were sanctioned as found work – revealing the punitive use of sanctions far outweighed the effectiveness or availability of work for the claimants it was prescribing to ‘deter’. In the same year, figures showed less than 3% of those enrolled on the government’s flagship work programme for two years, found meaningful work. 

Vox political also reported yesterday that sanctions are being used even more severely on those with mental illness, where sanctions have seen an increase of nearly 700% since 2012. 

Graph VIA VOX POLITICAL: Benefit Sanctions Against People with Mental Health Problems Up Nearly 700 Percent Due To Tories


We spoke to Mind’s Campaigns and Policy Officer Andy Kempster in September 2015, who said their local centres, which work with people who can be “quite unwell and have been out of work for a year, two years, and they’re helping to get 20-30% back into work, so that’s two times, three times better than the Work Programme.”

Mind also called for everyone with a mental health problem on the work programme to be taken off. Kempster added, “If you have a mental health problem…the threat of losing your benefits if you don’t comply is highly likely to make you far more unwell, not more motivated. This flawed, punitive approach is backfiring, making thousands more unwell and pushing them further away from work.”

If someone’s meant to be doing well and they’re doing worse then there’s something wrong.”

Indeed, the welfare system has been putting more people at risk of ill health through disturbing categorisation which has seen a third of those with degenerative diseases, such as MS or Parkinsons, classified as fit to work or to soon return, putting them under the similar conditionality as other temporary claimants.

Steve Ford, Chief Exec of charity Parkinson’s UK, said at the time; “These latest figures are an utter disgrace and serve to underline just how little the Government cares for those with progressive conditions like Parkinson’s. To set up a system which tells people who’ve had to give up work because of a debilitating, progressive condition that they’ll recover, is humiliating and nothing short of a farce.”

Even the DWP Select Committee has said sanctions were  ‘purely punitive and not aimed at helping people find work.’

2) Silly and Fatal Sanctions

The thin justifications for these sanctions soon became clear as sites likesillysanctions.tumblr  arose early on, featuring examples such as;

  • You get a job interview. It’s at the same time as your job centre appointment, so you reschedule the job centre. You attend your rearranged appointment and then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.
  • You get a job that starts in two weeks time. You don’t look for work while you are waiting for the job to start. You’re sanctioned.

Similar instances have not gone unheard in Parliament itself, with MPs such as Mhari Black amongst others describing the situations told to her by her own constituents. Still their voices were kept at bay with the new penchant for poverty porn and the tropes of viewing benefit claimants as freeloaders, or as suspicious.

In January of 2014, Conservative MP Phillip Davies (apparent ‘flatmate’ of Esther McVey) took an opportunity in Parliament to lament the characterisations of those seen in Channel 4’s Benefit Street. Rosswyn Jones of the Mirror reported;

“All the while, on real-life Benefits Street, a mile or so from Davies’s West Yorkshire constituency, a man lay dead.

“He died alone in a freezing cold flat, wearing several layers of clothes and two dressing gowns – waiting for benefits that had been stopped for months by the DWP.

“Paul, 51, worked hard and paid taxes until a year ago, when he became depressed due to family problems. He also began getting help for alcoholism. He was assessed and awarded Employment and Support Allowance.

“But in October, he failed to attend a Work Capability Assessment….This was a sick man who couldn’t put the heating on or eat properly, too proud to ask for help from his friends.

 Paul had disputed the need to attend the assessment. ATOS Miracles, a campaigning website where Paul had been posting his experiences, said the DWP had found he had good cause not to attend, and Paul received backpay for this claim on the afternoon that he died. But he was too unwell at this point.

 3)  Evidence of targets

Government has repeatedly denied the use of targets amidst such increases in sanctions. However, some staff have since spoken out, also giving light to a culture of fear and pressure for staff themselves, as explained by an advisor we interviewed in 2014;

“We are constantly told by managers ‘there are no targets, only expectations.’ However, the expectations are based on the highest performing local offices or Districts….. Some staff are getting scared that they aren’t doing enough and they will be marked in the ‘must improve’ category. Enough warnings and you could be out of a job. So Iain Duncan Smith will tell you that there are no targets and if any manager is still using the term target they will get a reprimand. However, I have seen the District tables which clearly show the direction an office is travelling in with regards to sanctions and referrals. Offices which are lower than the highest performing office will be told they must aim towards similar numbers or else.”


And this following evidence submitted to a review by an ex-advisor in Salford claimed that staff were told to ‘look at every engagement with the customer (claimant) as an opportunity’ to take sanction action; 

“Managers at both district level and in the local office created a culture which encouraged staff to view the customer (benefit claimant) as an obstacle to performance. The Jobcentre operations became wholly performance led. Sanctions of customers were encouraged by managers daily, with staff being told to look at every engagement with the customer as an opportunity to takesanction action. I was personally told by a manager to “agitate” and “Inconvenience” customers in order to get them to leave the register. The staff performance management system was used inappropriately in order to increase submissions to the Decision Maker and therefore to increase sanctions on customers. Senior HR managers condoned this behaviour by refusing to issue guidelines on appropriate time limits on performance, which encouraged managers to look at short-term targets above staff development, fairness to customers and appropriate behaviour as set out in the departments own values.”

4) Delaying appeals, charging and using bureaucracy against claimants

Sanctioning claimants means they may have no source of income whatsoever. And sanctions may be applied for three months at a time. Claimants can feel powerless as this means the onus is on the claimant to prove bad decisions, and sanctions can remain until a ruling is made. 

The many ways in which this can damage and cause distress is barely given airtime in comparison to the hours of broadcasting dedicated to poverty porn, but it can and has been fatal. 

David Clapson died with printouts of his CV metres from his body. His electricity had been cut off, meaning his fridge which stored his insulin for his diabetes was not working. The autopsy found that his stomach was empty and there was barely any food in his house. Clapson had been sanctioned by the jobcentre because they did not believe he was looking for work ‘enough.’

Clapson’s sister told The Guardian that she did not want to continue re-telling the upsetting story of what happened to her brother. But she felt she needed to speak out. This points to another element of the quiet over these situations – that many are struggling, grieving, destitute or otherwise made to feel unworthy as the small JSA amounts are taken away from them. 

But the will to maintain silence on the part of government reaches deeper and darker depths. 

The already broken work capability assessment process has seen over half of appeals overturn original decisions. Again, we can not underestimate that there may be many without the will, strength or support to pursue these appeals. 

Despite this, documents released by the Mirror last month showed the DWP was drawing up plans to charge disabled claimants for appeals, and also making changes to tribunals to reduce the number of successful appeals.

This speaks to a will to maintain sanctions and rulings whether justifiable or not, and without thought for the distressing implications for the milllions it may affect. 

And in regards to incentivising work, the DWP has extended it’s sanctions to the working poor, as part time and low paid workers claiming benefits could also be sanctioned in the new Universal Credit scheme as part of its conditionality. Experts have accused the DWP of punishing the working poor.

Further still, the scaling back of legal aid access is seeing a ‘two pronged attack’ according to Mike Goold, a Criminal Barrister who we interviewed for our film on disability and austerity, explaining that changes to the Judicial Review means that at the same time as benefits are cut, along with access to services and the NHS, ‘they are also cutting people’s ability to challenge those cuts.’ 


Sanctions have been an element of the many Tory welfare policies that pursue punitive measures despite the heavy evidence against their societal benefits and individual distress, and their ineffectiveness for the economy.

Similarly, the governments own commissioned reports into workfare found it was not conducive to greater employment. In examples from the US and Australia people fell out of the system altogether and it could act as a hindrance to finding paid work. It also repressed wages. Under different guises such as Mandatory Work Placements, it was brought in by the Tory government.

We cannot underestimate the power and the ubiquity of the rhetoric used against claimants, nor the way journalists and TV executives pat themselves on the back for following through on it, without ever including the people involved. Abigail Scott Paul of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described a media festival talk on poverty porn as ‘a bit like a middle class dinner party discussing those poor people over there.’ This rhetoric has been the slick under which these punitive measures have been ushered in.

Whilst the government has broken hundreds of promises and missed all targets with seeming impunity, the conditionality on the unemployed in a wayward economy, be they ex-soldiers, disabled, and in fact particularly the mentally unwell – this has carried brutal and humiliating consequences, and some have faced attacks on the street as a result.

We stand now in 2016, after six years under this government with double the debt and a lot of the deficit Osborne said he would eradicate by 2015, a continuing dormancy on interest rates, a new DWP Minister intent on yet  more cuts to disability benefits, a retracting jobs market and the end of the quantitative easing which has been bolstering the little growth we have seen. But sanctions remain on the rise. With Cameron banging the ‘One Nation’ drum again, it seems the government is out of ideas.

Sanctioning can mean being unable to eat, to heat your home or refrigerate your life saving insulin – the removal of any means with which to live, for months at a time – the gravity of this is rarely communicated. In prisons, your daily meals are not sacrificed, neither the roof over your head, or the maintenance of your surroundings, but this has been enforced on the unemployed for being unemployed or the underemployed in a market which the same government has borne a new era of insecure employment. The ultimate caveat being that they are playing a game they cannot win, as targets and pressures ripple throughout the system, guaranteeing sanctions above a guarantee that you will at least have money to eat that week. And this has been the government policy.



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