A Commons debate this month was told that universal credit sanctions are “back with a vengeance”, as the number of claimants hit has risen by two and a half times.
In the benefits sanctions debate on 13 December, MPs learned that in the last quarter, the number of UC sanctions was 250% higher than in the three months before the pandemic.
This is a massive increase even allowing for the increased number of UC claimants. It amounts to 2.5% of claimants being sanctioned each month compared to 1.4% before the pandemic.
The number of UC claimants who were serving a sanction in August was 115,274, after a peak of 117,999 in July. That is more than three times the pre-pandemic peak of 36,771 in October 2019.
In June 2022, £34 million was taken from claimants by way of sanctions, in July £34.9 million and in August, over £36 million.
Clearly sanctions are saving the DWP a significant amount of cash.
According to Labour MP Beth Winter “The latest sanctions were worth, on average, £262 a month. That is nearly a third of the average UC payment. This is a full-frontal attack on universal credit recipients that must end.”
As SNP MP Chris Stephens said, “Sanctions appear to be back with a vengeance”.
Answering for the government, minister for employment, Guy Opperman repeatedly ducked the question why the number of sanctions had increased so rapidly unless the DWP had changed its policy on applying them.
All Opperman would say was that:
“The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the rise in the number of sanctions. Some 98.2% of sanctions are for missing a meeting with a work coach.”
However, Opperman offered no explanation as to why twice as many claimants were now apparently choosing to miss appointments.
MPs raised the issue that claimants could be sanctioned for refusing to take a zero hours contract even if they already had a secure job, but for fewer hours.
Other claimants have been sanctioned because an appointment was created by a job coach on their journal at a time when the claimant had no data on their phone and no money to buy any. By the time they could get afford additional data and saw the appointment, they had already missed it and been sanctioned.
SNP MP for Glasgow North East Anne McLaughlin said she is telling her constituents “If you have your benefits sanctioned, do not take it lying down. Contact me and I will fight this for you, because this is wrong and nobody should have to live on less than the minimum income”
Another SNP MP, Chris Stephens said that:
“There are concerns that jobcentres have been told by senior managers and Ministers to “up their game” when it comes to sanctions . . . There is inter-office competition, whereby different offices’ statistics are compared, pushing for higher sanction and deferral rates . . . There are also real effects on disabled claimants who are thrown into a group of those most likely to get a sanction, and the relative rate of sanctions for claimants with disabilities—all of that really needs to be explored further.”