Sanctions against claimants have reached record levels and it is very clear that they are being imposed for the tiniest deviation from agreements or even for no good reason whatsoever. They are now affecting not just JSA claimants but also ESA claimants – particularly those forced onto the work programme.
Below we’ve given our top tips for avoiding sanctions and some of the most outrageous examples of unfair sanctions that we have come across.
We also explain how to sue the DWP or work programme provider if they make an activity mandatory and it is unreasonable because of your health condition or disability
But we’d very much like to hear from you about your experience of sanctions, or threats of sanctions, and also any advice you can give fellow claimants on how to avoid or challenge unfair sanctions.
What is a sanction?
A sanction is a term used by the DWP. It means that your benefit can be reduced by a fixed amount or to nil.
A sanction lasts for a fixed period depending on which level it is. The level will depend on what it is alleged you have done.
A sanction decision can be disputed, but very often you will be without payment whilst you do so.
For more about sanctions see here if you are in receipt of ESA.
Top tips for avoiding sanctions
Don’t assume that your personal adviser has any knowledge at all about your health conditions or disabilities, if you have any. Instead, give full details in writing of the effect your health has on your everyday activities and your ability to move towards employment.
Ensure that your jobseeker’s agreement or claimant commitment is as realistic as possible and takes into account any specific health or disability-related limitations you have. Be as confident as you can be in negotiating the agreement – take a friend or relative for support if possible. Make an official complaint if your adviser won’t reach an agreement with you.
Try to get to every appointment early. People are unfairly sanctioned just for being a few minutes late.
Always ask for everything in writing, where possible. It’s much harder for the DWP or private sector provider to blame you for their mistakes if you have evidence that, for example, an appointment time was changed.
If something is agreed over the telephone, write or email confirming it. When you write confirming what has been agreed ask for an immediate response if your understanding is not correct.
Keep every bit of paper, text and email you receive. You might need them as evidence.
Record every telephone call if you can. It’s not illegal and you don’t have to inform the DWP or private sector provider that you are doing it.
If you’re given an unreasonable instruction, use the jobcentre plus complaints procedure immediately. Most people don’t complain, possibly because they think it will make things worse. But all the evidence is that Jobcentre Plus staff have targets to meet and they are looking for easy victims, not people who will cause them problems.
If you’re unfairly threatened with a sanction, or actually sanctioned, immediately complain in writing to your MP’s office. Send a copy to jobcentre plus and the private sector provider so that they know that your MP’s office is now involved. Complaints where an MP is known to be involved are taken much more seriously.
If you are unfairly sanctioned then challenge the decision via the mandatory reconsideration and appeal process. There is a very high success rate for appeals against sanctions, around 50% are successful and it’s likely that many more are resolved in the claimant’s favour before they ever get to a tribunal hearing.
If you don’t do something in your agreement which was mandatory, always explain in writing if you had good cause for not doing it. The decision maker has to take your explanation into account when deciding whether to impose a sanction. However, personal advisers are instructed that they should never ask if you have good cause, but only take details if you volunteer the information without being prompted. Good cause for not carrying out a mandatory activity could include, for example: a medical appointment; caring responsibilities; transport problems; unreasonably high travelling or childcare costs if you did as required.
How to sue the DWP or private sector provider
If an activity is made mandatory even though you will struggle with it because of sickness or disability, or if a reasonable adjustment is refused, get advice about suing immediately – don’t delay. There is still legal aid available for discrimination cases. Examples of discrimination could include:
• being forced to travel long distances by public transport to attend group activities with strangers, even though you have a mental health condition that makes travelling alone and interacting with strangers extremely distressing for you;
• being forced to attend appointments in the late afternoon even though you suffer from severe fatigue and your condition is at its worst at that time of time of day;
• being kept waiting for long periods of time, even though your condition makes this difficult or painful for you;
• being obliged to provide information over the telephone even though you have great difficulty in concentrating because of your health condition and would rather be able to give information in writing;
• being expected to discuss your health condition in an open-plan office where you can be overheard by other people, no matter how distressing you find this.
It’s vital that you get advice as early as possible, because it takes time to work through the legal aid system. So don’t wait until you’ve been sanctioned. As soon as you are told that something is mandatory and you think that this amounts to discrimination seek advice – the act of threatening you with a sanction can be discrimination, whether the sanction is applied or not. According to insiders in the legal profession, actions like this are virtually always settled by the DWP and the only ones that don’t succeed are those that are out of time because advice is sought too late.
Use the Civil Legal Advice gateway to find out if you are eligible for legal aid and to get help with bringing a claim.
Examples of unfair sanctions
Just in case you think we are being over cautious, below are some examples of sanctions being utterly unfairly applied. Many thanks to Birmingham Against the Cuts for compiling most of them.
You’ve been unemployed for seven months and are forced onto a workfare scheme but can’t afford to travel to the shop. You offer to work in a different branch you can walk to but are refused and get sanctioned for not attending your workfare placement. (Source: Caroline Lucas MP)
You attend a family funeral and miss your jobcentre appointment so you get sanctioned. (Source: Derek Twigg MP)
You retire on the grounds of ill health and claim ESA. You go to your assessment and during the assessment you have a heart attack, so the nurse says they have to stop the assessment. You get sanctioned for withdrawing from your assessment. (Source: Debbie Abrahams MP)
You have a training appointment at the same time as your jobcentre appointment, you tell the jobcentre you won’t be coming but they say you have to, and to get a letter from your new training organisation. Your training organisation says they don’t provide letters. (Source: Russell Brown MP)
It’s Christmas Day. You don’t do any jobsearch, because it’s Christmas Day. So you get sanctioned. For not looking to see if anyone has advertised a new job on Christmas Day. (Source: Poverty Alliance)
You’ve got no money to travel to look for work so you get sanctioned . (Source: CAB)
You apply for more jobs than required by your jobseeker’s agreement, but forgot to put down that you checked the local paper (which you’ve been specifically instructed to do via a jobseeker’s direction) so you get sanctioned. (Source: Steve Rose on twitter)
You’re on a workfare placement, and your jobcentre appointment comes round. The jobcentre tells you to sign on then go to your placement which you do. The workfare placement reports you for being late and you get sanctioned for 3 months. (Source: DefiniteMaybe post on Mumsnet forums)
You get given the wrong forms, get sanctioned for not doing the right forms. (Source: Adventures in Workfare blog )
You’re sick and miss an appointment, but you’ve already missed one so you get sanctioned. (Source: @thinktyler on twitter)
You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the advisor your watch which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month. (Source: Clydebank Post)
You get an interview but it’s on the day of your nan’s funeral. You have 3 interviews the day before, and you try to rearrange the interview, but the company reports you to the jobcentre and you get sanctioned for failing to accept a job. (Source: @TSAAPG on twitter – part 1 . part 2)
Tell us your experience of being sanctioned or avoiding a sanction.