How unemployment sanctions are driving down the claimant count

Hundreds of thousands of sanction decisions last year have resulted in unemployed people being knocked off the claimant count.

There were almost 320,000 decisions to stop a person’s Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) benefit for “not actively seeking employment” in 2013.

And in the first six months of 2014 a further 125,000 sanctions have been applied, according to the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The DWP says the claimant count “includes all cases of claimants who are serving sanctions, provided the claimant continues to keep their claim live during the sanction period.”

However, this is not true for anyone sanctioned for “not actively seeking employment,” as their claims are ended by the DWP.

Dr David Webster, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow said:

“The most common reason for JSA sanctions is ‘not actively seeking work’, which does not mean what it says but that the claimant has not done exactly what they were told by their Jobcentre adviser, often for reasons beyond their control.”

The claimant commitment

To be considered “actively seeking employment” people must prove they are doing everything in the new claimant commitment.

Claimants have been told to apply for any jobs, including jobs they are not qualified for and would have no chance of getting in order to meet their claimant commitment.

Evidence submitted to the recent Oakley review into sanctions included many examples of people being unfairly sanctioned for this reason.

Examples include:

  • A single mother whose benefits (including her housing benefit) were stopped after it was decided she was “not actively seeking work.” She was under a training programme with a major retailer at the time.
  • An unemployed man in Scotland was sanctioned for “not actively seeking work” while he was at the bedside of his three month old son who was seriously ill in hospital following kidney failure.

Dr Webster said:

“The impact of the massive increase in this type of sanction under the Coalition has been multiplied by the huge increase in the length of penalty.

“Up to October 2012 the penalty was disentitlement, which lasted only until the claimant recomplied, which could be within a few days. Now there is always a 4-week loss of benefit for a first offence, and 13 weeks for a second.”

A version of this article was first published on

The relentless rise of JSA benefit sanctions


Sanction referrals 2003 – 2013. Data compiled from DWP Stat-Xplore website


There has been a dramatic rise in the number of sanctions against unemployed people over the past decade.

The figures, from data compiled from the DWP’s (Department of Work and Pensions) Stat-Xplore website show over 900,000 sanctions were issued in 2013, more than double the number applied in 2009 and almost four times the figure for 2004.

The decision to cut off a claimant’s benefits is called an ‘adverse’ decision by the DWP.

Each case is referred to a ‘decision maker‘ who decides whether a sanction should be applied or not.

‘Non-adverse’ decisions, where a person’s case was referred but it was decided not to apply a sanction, rose sharply in 2009 – 2010, by just over 200,000.

These cases have hovered around the half a million mark since 2010.

‘Reserved’ referrals, where the decision maker says a sanction should be applied, but where there is no current claim, have almost doubled from 53,026 in 2004 to 99,964 in 2012. There was a small drop in the number of these cases in 2013 to 95,087.

Cancelled sanction referrals have rocketed

‘Cancelled’ referrals have rocketed. In 2013 there were more than twelve times the number in 2004.

Most of this rise has occurred during the past few years. The number of cancelled referrals in 2013 is almost five times that in 2010.

The DWP define a ‘cancelled’ referral as one which:

“results in no sanction decision being made. This can occur in specific circumstances for example, the sanction referral has been made in error, the claimant stops claiming before they actually committed the sanctionable failure, or information requested by the Decision Maker was not made available within a specific time period.”

The DWP were asked to explain the increase in ‘cancelled’ decisions over the past few years but did not give a reason.

Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, has done extensive research into sanctions. He said there has been no significant increase in cancellations of referrals by DWP’s own staff, but instead could be related to outsourcing practices.

“The rise in cancelled sanction referrals is almost entirely due to sanctions initiated by contractors, in the Work Programme and some other programmes such as Mandatory Work Activity and Work Experience.”

Dr Webster believes there are two reasons for the rise in cancelled referrals from contractors: mistakes made in paperwork submitted to the DWP; and that the DWP do not allow contractors to use their judgement when referring people for a sanction.

“Contractors are obliged to refer a claimant for sanction if they fail to meet any requirement at all, such as missing a single interview, even if the contractor well knows that there is a good reason.”

This means that even if a person on the Work Programme has informed the relevant people they have a hospital appointment or a funeral and won’t be able to make an appointment, they will still be referred for a sanction.

A DWP spokesman said:

“Sanctions are only used as a last resort in a small percentage of cases and our built-in safeguards allow for sanctions to be cancelled where necessary.

“In these cases claimants will not lose out on their benefit payment”.

A version of this article was originally posted on

What are benefit sanctions? Explainer

In October 2012 the government made the rules stricter for people out of work and claiming benefits. Since the new rules came into effect more people than ever before have been sanctioned.

What does it mean if someone is ‘sanctioned’?

Being sanctioned means your money is stopped.

People out of work and looking for a job claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. This provides £72.40 a week to live on. 16 to 24 year olds receive less: £57.35 a week.

A sanction is when an unemployed person is deemed to have broken their ‘jobseekers agreement‘. Since April this has been called the Claimant Commitment.

If they are deemed to have broken that commitment their Jobseeker’s Allowance is stopped for a certain period of time.

However, many people have been sanctioned for frivolous reasons. And a significant proportion of those sanctioned have successfully appealed against sanctions. The Guardian reported earlier this year that:

In recent months 58% of those who wanted to overturn DWP sanction decisions in independent tribunals have been successful. Before 2010, the success rate of appeals was 20% or less.

How long can you be sanctioned for?

A sanction lasts for a minimum of four weeks. That means at least a month with no money whatsoever. If you are sanctioned twice in the same year it will be for a minimum of thirteen weeks – so three months with no money at all.

At the other end of the spectrum the longest amount of time a person can lose their money for is three years.

This useful chart gives an overview of the sanctions regime.

jobseekers allowance sanctions

Why does this happen?

When someone starts claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance they sign an agreement. This document is either called a Jobseeker’s Agreement or a Claimant Commitment.

If the job centre decides you have broken one of the rules or not stuck to everything you signed up for they are likely to sanction you.

Here are some things a person can be sanctioned for:

  • Failing to apply for or accept a job that is offered
  • Failing to attend a compulsory training or employment scheme
  • Not applying for the required number of jobs
  • Not following a direction from a Jobcentre Plus adviser
  • Failing to attend, or arriving late for an appointment at the Jobcentre
  • Leaving a job voluntarily

A version of this post was originally published at

The invisible unemployed: “half of unemployed do not claim benefits” – so who are they?

Originally posted at

This chart from a report by Inclusion tells a story. Actually, it poses a lot of questions.

At the last count just under half of all unemployed people in the UK were not claiming benefits. That’s almost one million people and it’s going up all the time.

But where are these people? How are they surviving? And why are they not receiving any support?
As the chart above shows the number has been rising since the new sanctions regime started in 2012. Are sanctions to blame for the rising number of unemployed people missing from the claimant count?
These are questions I will be attempting to answer in the coming weeks and months.

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Prisoners’ rights to benefits are suspended upon their criminal conviction. However, it is up to the Department of Justice or the prisoner to inform DSDNI of the conviction. Continue reading Prisoners overpaid £2m in benefits in Northern Ireland

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spare bedroom
Image by Sophie Drake

In January 2014, Iain Duncan Smith, Government Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, set out plans for the future of welfare in the UK.

In his policy speech ‘Simplifying the welfare system and making sure work pays’ he said: “Our welfare reforms are about ensuring it is no longer more worthwhile to be on benefits than in work.”

But difficulties with illness, finding suitable work and trying to manage family finances mean it is far from simple for many hard-pressed families.

Breaking the rules

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Twitter: @bsmhft

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