Benefit sanctions lead to spiral of decline and destitution


Benefit sanctions can lead to a spiral of decline and potentially destitution, often getting in the way of people getting back to work. That is the stark conclusion of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee in a report published today.

Coming just a week after its report on food banks, which saw the Committee warn of the developing Dickensian welfare approach, this report comments on the “climate of fear around JobCentres, rather than one that encourages people to engage with them and find their way back to work”.

Evidence presented to the Committee showed that the loss of income that sanctions can lead to is now twice the maximum that can be imposed in fines by the courts, with 79 people in Scotland in receipt of the maximum 3 year sanction. Additionally, four in ten decisions to apply a sanction are overturned.

Committee Convener Michael McMahon MSP said:

“When Neil Couling from the DWP came to Committee and said people welcomed the jolt of being sanctioned, the Committee was shocked. Our evidence says quite the opposite; being sanctioned leaves people with not enough money to make ends meet, certainly not enough to go out job hunting.

“The system is so broken that many people do not know why they have been sanctioned, which totally undermines the DWP assertion that sanctions ‘teach’ people a lesson. How many of us could manage if we did not get paid one week, without any notice or often explanation? This demonstrates once again the enormous gulf between reality and DWP thinking.”

Within the report, the Committee asserts that sanctions must only be used as a last resort for those who have consistently and deliberately refused to engage with job seeking requirements without good reason. This builds on the evidence received by the Committee that people are often unaware of having been sanctioned, or what actions caused the sanctions. The report puts forward constructive ideas for how the system could be changed and advocates a sea change in the culture of the policy from punitive to supportive.

Mr McMahon continued:

“There has to be a change of approach when it comes to sanctions. It is not acceptable to punish people and push them into a cycle of decline for things often beyond their control. Many claimants don’t have the IT skills or access to computers that is demanded of them. We’ve evidence of sanctions being made when someone did half an hour more of unpaid training than they were allowed to.

“It cannot be acceptable to remove people’s money for such trivial matters or indeed punish people for trying to improve their job opportunities. People have to be supported by the system, not pressed down further. A review is long overdue and urgently needed before more people are pushed beyond the point of no return.”

The Committee calls for a review of the current operation of the sanctions regime and specifically that:

  • People should receive a written warning at the first breach before it is escalated to a sanction, to act as a deterrent and not a punishment.
  • The initial letter and explanations of the process to claimants must be improved so that claimants are clear about the requirements on them and the consequences of not meeting them.
  • People should have at least 10 working days’ notice prior to a sanction being applied and be told of the reason for the sanction.
  • Sanctions should be applied appropriately and consistently and with greater levels of discretion and support.
  • The consistent triggering of a stop in housing benefit as a result of a sanction should not happen and can lead to a significant debt developing from even a minor sanction.

Deputy Convener Jamie Hepburn MSP said:

“It is shameful that we are in a position where 9,000 lone parents have been sanctioned in Scotland and had their benefits reduced. That is 9,000 families where the state has made putting food on the table even more challenging than normal. We should be helping people back into work, supporting them to pursue opportunities, not punishing them for failing to tick the right box in a form and forcing them into destitution. All too often this triggers a downward spiral few can break out of.

“There are case studies both internationally and within the UK of how things can be done differently. We would urge the DWP to look to these for ways of helping the system become one of tough love, not tough luck.”


Alex Johnstone MSP dissented from the report.

Conditionality and sanctions have been part of the Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) since its introduction in 1996 and for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) since October 2008. A revised sanctions regime for JSA came into effect from 22 October 2012, and a revised sanctions regime for ESA came into effect from 3 December 2012. Sanctions also exist in a number of other benefits, but these are not covered in this report.

The new sanction rules are supposed to make the consequences of non-compliance with conditions clearer and impose more proportionate sanctions for claimants who repeatedly fail to meet their responsibilities. The rules, which are broadly aligned with the system that will be in place with Universal Credit (UC) introduced, comprise:

  • 3 categories of sanction – ‘higher’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘lower’ – depending on  the nature of the offence;
  • Different levels of sanction for first, second and third offences
  • Changes to the date a sanction starts - Sanctions will be applied more quickly – specifically by the next payment date.

The sanctions process for JSA operates as follows. Individuals claiming JSA are provided with a Jobseekers Agreement which specifies the conditionality of their JSA payments, including activities that must be carried out. From 28th October 2013, new claimants for JSA must complete a Claimant Commitment which replaces the Jobseekers Agreement. Claimants can be directed to undertake a range of specific activities and they have a duty to demonstrate that they have complied by providing evidence and information and by attending interviews with their JobCentre Plus (JCP) personal adviser.

A JobCentre Plus adviser can raise a sanction referral. This referral acts as a statement that, in the opinion of a personal adviser, a claimant may not be fulfilling the conditionality requirements and therefore may not be entitled to a payment of JSA. The referral is passed to a decision maker who will decide if a sanction is to be imposed. Once the claim has gone forward to a decision maker, a claimant may have their benefit suspended pending a decision being made. A decision to apply a sanction is called an adverse decision.  A sanction will not be applied if the claimant can show that they had good reason for the action that led to a sanction being considered. For example, a good reason could be if the claimant left their job because they were a victim of bullying or harassment at work.

In general, JSA sanctions can last for a fixed period of 4, 13, or 26 weeks, or 3 years, depending on the level of sanction applied. It also depends on whether it is the first, second or third time that a sanction has been applied. There are special rules about when JobCentre Plus can sanction 16 and 17 year olds.  Under the new regime:

  • Higher level sanctions (for example, for leaving a job voluntarily or failing to take part in the Mandatory Work Activity scheme, failing to take on a suitable employment opportunity) will lead to claimants losing all of their JSA for a fixed period of 13 weeks for a first failure (within 52 weeks – but not within 2 weeks - of their last failure).
  • Intermediate level sanctions of 4 weeks for a first failure, rising to 13 weeks for a second or subsequent failures (within 52 weeks – but not within 2 weeks - of previous entitlement ceasing) may be applied following a period of disallowance for not actively seeking employment or not being available for work.
  • Lower level sanctions (for example, for failing to attend an adviser interview or failure to comply with a Jobseeker Direction) will lead to claimants losing all of their JSA for a fixed period of 4 weeks for the first failure, followed by 13 weeks for subsequent failures (within 52 weeks – but not within 2 weeks - of their last failure).
  • ESA claimants in the Work Related Activity Group who fail to comply with the conditions for receiving benefit receive an open ended sanction, followed by a fixed period sanction when they re-comply. The fixed period sanction will be one week for a first failure, two weeks for a second failure and four weeks for a third and subsequent failures in a 52 week period. Claimants who are sanctioned will lose all of their personal allowance, but their work related activity component will not be affected.

A system of hardship payments exists. In order to receive payments the claimant is required to prove they are at risk of hardship.  In practice, hardship payments are made if claimants can demonstrate that they cannot buy essential items, including food, clothing, heating and accommodation and so are at risk of severe suffering or privation. Vulnerable groups which include anyone with responsibility for children can access hardship immediately; non-vulnerable groups cannot do so for the first 14 days of a sanction.

Follow the work of the Committee at @sp_welfareref

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