A staggering six out of ten employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants hit with a sanction are vulnerable people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty, according DWP figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The proportion has rocketed from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to a massive 58% in 2013. The statistics prove that sanctions are now overwhelmingly aimed at the most vulnerable individuals by a government department which relies on a policy of institutional discrimination to cut benefits costs. {jcomments on}

Sanctions of £71.70 a week are handed out when ESA claimants in the work-related activity group are forced onto the work programme and then fail to meet mandatory conditions imposed on them by private sector companies.

However, for a claimant to get into the work-related activity group on mental health grounds, they need to score a minimum of 15 points for problems with issues such as:

  • planning new activities,
  • changes in routine,
  • going to new places,
  • talking to new people,
  • avoiding behaving aggressively or inappropriately when stressed.

So, almost by definition, many will struggle to cope with regular and punctual attendance at training courses and work-experience placements with strangers in unfamiliar places. Even if they manage to attend they may not succeed in participating to the satisfaction of those running the courses or placements.

A MIND spokesperson told Benefits and Work:

“Based on what we hear from people we represent, these sanctions are often the result of people not being able to engage in a mandated activity because of their mental health problems; people being asked by the DWP to engage in activities that they are not well enough to undertake; and a lack of understanding at the DWP about mental health problems meaning that it is not picked up when someone had 'good cause' to miss an appointment or activity.

“Most people with mental health problems want to work, and given the right support many could. We do not believe that an effective system of support for this group of people involves continually mandating them to undertake activities under the threat of being left with no money.”

Sanctions, particularly in relation to Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), have saved the government huge amounts of money and allowed them to claim that the number of people in receipt of benefits is falling because the economy is recovering.

The statistics above relate to ESA – where ‘only’ around 20,000 claimants a year are currently sanctioned - there are no similar ones for JSA where the numbers are much higher. But many people getting JSA are claimants with mental health conditions who scored just below the 15 point threshold – often because they were wrongly assessed by health professionals with no experience of mental health issues. And it seems exceedingly unlikely that decision making in relation to JSA sanctions is any less harsh than that for ESA.

The DWP, however, have fought hard to prevent any evidence about who is being sanctioned leaking out.

One member of the work and pensions select committee, Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, has been leading the calls for an inquiry into the issue of sanctions. She told Benefits and Work:

"As a member of the work and pensions select committee I've been very concerned about the growing evidence of inappropriate sanctioning and demanded that a second independent inquiry into the issue is established.

"When I made my demands face-to-face with Esther McVey at a Committee session back in November she agreed to set up an independent investigation into the ‘appropriateness of sanctions’ and her offer was welcomed by the Committee in their following report. But, in a deliberate snub to the Committee, the Government have now said they won't set one up.

“My question is this. If sanctions are currently being applied correctly, an independent review will testify to that, so just what are Ministers trying to hide?

“It’s just another example of how Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey are using smoke and mirrors to avoid any criticism about the mess and misery they are creating in the social security system.

“No-one is arguing with the fact that anyone who is on work related benefits should do all they can to find appropriate employment. But there is a growing body of evidence that the way the government is implementing sanctions means vulnerable people are being targeted disproportionately and suffering terribly as a result.

“The last thing Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey want is for that uncomfortable truth to be uncovered by a focussed and independent investigation.”

We asked the DWP Press Office to explain the dramatic rise in the proportion of vulnerable claimants who are subject to ESA sanctions.

After six days of claiming that they were “still looking into your query” and a very ill-tempered phone conversation due to our insistence that we wanted a reply in writing rather than the press office calling us at their convenience to ‘explain’ the issue, we finally got this response:

“It’s only right that people should do everything they can to move off benefits and into work if they are able. Sanctions are only used as a last resort and we have robust procedures in place to protect vulnerable people, with a number of safeguards built into the system.

“Everyone has the right to appeal a sanction decision if they disagree with it.”

So, no denial that the figures were correct and no explanation for this exponential rise in the targeting of claimants with mental health conditions, in spite of the ‘robust procedures’ in place.

Instead, just the same empty reassurances backed by no evidence whatsoever.

So, we’re asking Benefits and Work readers not to let them get away with it this time. The work and pensions committee and the public accounts committee have both expressed concern about sanctioning of benefits claimants.

If your MP is on one of those committees please draw their attention to this article or explain the issue yourself using Write To Them. A list of the committee members is given below, but please don’t contact them if they aren’t your MP – spamming MPs is not going to help at all.

However, even if your MP is not on one of this committees you can still contact them and ask them to ask a DWP minister why they are refusing to hold an inquiry into whether sanctions are being applied fairly in the face of strong evidence that the DWP is pursuing a policy of institutional discrimination.

You can download a copy of the freedom of information response from here.


You can use Write To them to contact your constituency MP.

WORK AND PENSIONS COMMITTEE MEMBERS (excluding Debbie Abrahams, who we've already contacted)

Dame Anne Begg Aberdeen South

Graham Evans Weaver Vale

Sheila Gilmore Edinburgh East

Glenda Jackson Hampstead and Kilburn

Kwasi Kwarteng Spelthorne

Nigel Mills Amber Valley

Anne Marie Morris Newton Abbot

Teresa Pearce Erith and Thamesmead

Mr Mike Thornton Eastleigh

Dame Angela Watkinson Hornchurch and Upminster


Margaret Hodge Barking

Mr Richard Bacon South Norfolk

Stephen Barclay North East Cambridgeshire

Guto Bebb Aberconwy

Jackie Doyle-Price Thurrock

Chris Heaton-Harris Daventry

Meg Hillier Hackney South and Shoreditch

Mr Stewart Jackson Peterborough

Mrs Anne McGuire Stirling

Austin Mitchell Great Grimsby

Nicky Morgan Loughborough

Nick Smith Blaenau Gwent

Ian Swales Redcar

Justin Tomlinson North Swindon


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