Sanctions: People around the UK share their stories

Sanctioning doesn’t work, says new research. Here, those affected share their stories.
Time and again, contributors to this project have talked about the fear, or impact, of benefit sanctions.

For people already in financial difficulties, a sanction means the removal of their lifeline, and they can become swept into poverty.

Richard in Sheffield said he was already struggling, but it was a sanction that caused him to need the food bank for the first time. Margaret, a food bank volunteer near Sunderland, said sanctions were tipping more and more people into food poverty. In North Shields, sanctions were one of the most-discussed issues when we visited.

What effect do sanctions have on those who face them? And how does it feel to be sanctioned, or to know that you could be sanctioned at the drop of a hat? The team from the ESRC funded Welfare conditionality: sanctions, support and behaviour change project sought to find out. Researchers conducted 1,082 repeat interviews with respondents who they interviewed up to three times over a two year period as part of a study into welfare conditionality. The findings were published in May, ahead of a conference this week.

Here are some of the responses from interviewees, in their own words:

  1. “I rang them up to say that I couldn’t come in because I was working full time. So they said that was all right. Then I got a letter saying I’d missed my interview and they’ve taken me off Universal Credit. So I thought, you know what, just stuff you. I can’t be bothered with them anymore. Mostly I’ve struggled because I just can’t be doing with them. Just going in there for them to look down at you… Basically, I’m living off 20 hours for the past couple of months and I’m paying full rent.” (A Universal Credit recipient)
  2. [At first interview] I got sanctioned by the Jobcentre because I didn’t have a note from the hospital stating that I was in hospital after trying to take my life. They’re supposed to help people get work, but they don’t… [At third interview] Gave me the kick up the arse I needed to get a job… it made me more determined in finding a job working my arse off and being a better person than what the Jobcentre made me out to be.” (A Universal Credit recipient)
  3. [The sanction] took me further down the depression route so much I got to, as I call them, naughty thoughts, suicidal thoughts… Each time I tried to understand what they wanted from me and they weren’t telling me clearly enough, and each time someone told me different. It was just like, ‘This is too stressful; I’d rather starve than deal with this’…” (A homeless woman)
  4. “Security guards wouldn’t let me upstairs because I was 15 minutes early. So, I went downstairs…[then] they let me go upstairs and nobody come and took my signing-on card. So, I was sat there for 20 minutes. Now, by the time somebody come and got my card, I was then 15 minutes late and the woman she said, ‘You’re late’, I said, ‘Well, no, I’m not, I was downstairs 15 minutes early, the guys wouldn’t let me up and when I come upstairs, nobody took my card.’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t believe you.’ I said, ‘Well, come and ask the security guards.’ She said, ‘No, I’m sanctioning you’.”
  5. One disabled man said: “There’s nothing fair about a system that makes a decision without considering the views of the person who knows you best, which is your doctor.”
  6. “I had an appointment with them, I phoned them saying that I’ve got a problem… my brother who died in [location] and I’m there it’s the burial ceremony, you understand?… They said, ‘No don’t worry, if you come back, just call us back’, and then ten days, I phoned them back… They say, no, they have to send it to the decision board to see and then they send me a letter after saying that I have to be sanctioned… that wasn’t human.”
  7. “They had an appointment for me at 3 o’clock and it was for an hour. I said ‘I can’t fulfil it; I’ve got a child’. ‘Oh, well, if you don’t come you won’t have your benefit’.” 
  8. “It just smashes your self-worth. You’ve got to lend money, you’ve got to beg to borrow… you don’t know when you’re going to get money to pay it back.” 
  9. “Telling people, ‘I’m going to sanction you because you haven’t done your job search properly, go away’. It’s not like, ‘I’m sanctioning you because you haven’t done your job search properly. This is how you’re meant to do it. This is what I want you to do. Do you need any support in place?’”

    Many people commented on the job search demands, saying they were pushed to make unrealistic applications or were sent on unhelpful courses

  10. My job was solely to prove [to the work coach] that I had applied for so many jobs, and that was it… whatever jobs were available. Whether they were suitable for me, whether I was suitable for them, whatever, it didn’t matter.”
  11. “All they cared about was, ‘Make sure you’ve got x amount of applications that you’ve applied for, that you can prove you’ve applied for, and that you’ve put it on Universal Jobmatch.”
  12. “They’re doing nothing to help me at all apart from sending me on stupid courses which are absolutely a waste of time but it ticks their box. Yes, this man has been unemployed for the last six months, you’ll say, ‘We’ll send him on this course’. It comes back, nothing happening, send him another course.”
  13. “What I had to try and do is, I was applying for jobs that I was interested in but I was also applying for jobs that I knew I wasn’t going to get but just to keep them happy. As long as they could see I was looking for work, they were happy with that.”

The responses were not all negative. Other respondents said they had been helped and praised individual work coaches or staff.

One respondent said: “[Of the Jobcentre adviser] After I’d lost everything I had to then sign on again. My adviser this time was absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t praise him up enough… I explained my situation. I said ‘look I’m a drug addict and I’m doing my best to get clean. I’m in recovery’ and he was just really supportive. He wasn’t on my case. He was encouraging; brilliant… He hasn’t just let me get away with it. He’s been ‘What about this training course? Go for that…’ He could have sanctioned me on numerous occasions.”

And another said: “Being signed up with that [Work Programme provider] was a blessing in disguise… Initially, I just thought, oh, Jobcentre’s just trying to get rid of me… I felt listened to, I felt assisted… in my journey to get a job, and yet the sanctions were a total opposite, so definitely the support was much appreciated, was more useful… It got me the job.”

But the researchers’ overall findings were that:

  • There was little evidence welfare conditionality enhanced people’s motivation to prepare for or enter paid work
  • Some people were pushed into destitution, survival crime and ill health
  • Benefit sanctions routinely triggered profoundly negative personal, financial and health outcomes
  • The mandatory training and support is often too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work

They had repeat interviews between 2014 and 2017 with people in Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester & Salford, Warrington, Sheffield, Peterborough, Bristol, Bath and London, and spoke to people in different circumstances, including Universal Credit recipients, social tenants, people involved with family intervention programmes, homeless people, jobseekers, lone parents, people with disabilities, migrants, and ex-offenders.

The researchers looked at the conditions placed on people receiving welfare payments, and the impact those conditions had on a range of issues including their likelihood of having a job, their motivation and their well-being.

Project lead Professor Peter Dwyer, from the University of York, said: “Our research reveals that in the majority of cases welfare conditionality doesn’t work as intended and we have evidence it has increased poverty and pushed some people into survival crime.

“What also became apparent was people were focusing on meeting the conditions of their benefit claim and that became their job – it is totally counter-productive.

“You are just making people do things to meet the conditions of the claim rather than getting them into work.”

“Successive governments have used welfare conditionality and the ‘carrot and stick ’ it implies to promote positive behaviour change.

“Our review has shown it is out of kilter, with the idea of sanctioning people to the fore. It is more stick, very little carrot and much of the support is ineffective.”

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