Challenging the Sanctions Inquiry

Job centres have become "sanctions" centres

Job centres have become “sanctions” centres

Last year David Clapson died because benefit sanctions left him unable to pay for electricity to refrigerate his insulin. His story meant hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition opposing the current sanctions regime. The petition had an impact and an inquiry into sanctions was announced.

Championed by Debbie Abrahams MP, who has previously stated, “I support the principle of a sanctions regime. If somebody consistently fails to turn up for work experience or a Work programme scheme, sanctions should be applied”, the inquiry looks set to stay within a framework which assumes some sanctions are necessary or even beneficial. Though it’s clear the inquiry won’t come to the conclusion it should – that all sanctions should be abolished – we think it’s important that our voices are heard.

On January 7th, the government held the first of its three evidence hearing sessions for the inquiry. It was important because some views that the DWP doesn’t agree with, some very good arguments against the sanction system itself, went on record, as well as some of the usual toxic workfare rhetoric.

Boycott Workfare has also submitted evidence to the sanctions inquiry. In contrast to the narrative that the DWP, the media or workfare industry representatives use to justify sanctions, we think another story needs to be heard. Our story of sanctions is that they are part of a shift from a supportive welfare state to a punitive workfare state. We highlight how many sanctions are not only petty and unfair, but how they also cause harm to mental and physical health and deliberately threaten and impose poverty and destitution.

As sanctions are a fundamental part of workfare – putting the ‘force’ in ‘forced labour’ – our main recommendation is that they should be abolished. Sanctions work on a much wider scale than the inquiry is claiming; the fear of being referred to mandatory work schemes and being exposed to harsher sanctions means that even supposedly ‘voluntary’ schemes like Work Experience are in fact just another layer of threat and punishment.

In the evidence hearing two weeks ago, there were some of the familiar justifications trotted out for sanctions. The inquiry is also a response to the report written by Matthew Oakley, formerly of the workfare-loving think-tank Policy Exchange, who was invited to give evidence as an ‘independent reviewer’. Oakley claimed that sanctions were a necessary part of conditionality, a sentiment echoed by the Tory MP, Graham Evans, who said that sanctions were needed so that people understand their ‘responsibilities’.

Another member of the first panel, Kirsty McHugh of the workfare industry body ERSA, slipped in the familiar idea that those being sanctioned live “chaotic lives”. The important aim for conditionality was, she said, about “getting people’s mindset in the right place”, echoing the ‘change-your-attitude’ approach of psychological coercion in workfare.

It was during the second panel of evidence-givers, however, that the sanctions system took a beating. Dr David Webster asked, “Why do you have to have a system which is based on the fundamental assumption that people have to be compelled to do things that they don’t want to? “Over the last twenty years”, he continued, “we have seen this shift towards running what is in effect a parallel penal system.” This system runs in secret: decisions are made in secret by officials; the claimant is not legally represented; the punishment is applied before they get a hearing; and if the claimant does get a hearing it is long after the sanction has been applied. All this, he suggested, should be “totally unacceptable in a democratic society.”

Others on the panel backed up the idea that the system is punitive. Chris Mould of the foodbank network The Trussell Trust said they had seen “frequent examples of punitive and disproportionate [sanction] decisions” and that sanctions were one of the main reasons for food bank referrals. Peter Dwyer, of York University, said that sanctions were being applied in an automated fashion, for being two minutes late for an appointment, for example. He had the impression, he said, that ‘support’ in the system had become secondary, and that sanctions were being used as a deterrent against people claiming benefits.

Webster has estimated that since the new sanctions regime started in October 2012, £275 million has been withheld because of sanctions of JSA claimants. More evidence will be heard in two further sessions, one this Wednesday and one later this month. Most people won’t be as critical of sanctions as David Webster. Nevertheless, this inquiry presents an opportunity for us to shout about how sanctions are unacceptable and punitive and that we won’t tolerate them any longer. Below are a few ideas of things you can do to take action and challenge the sanctions regime.

Take action

1. Sign the petition for an end to all benefit sanctions and share it!
2. The Sanctions Inquiry will hear vast evidence of the damage that sanctions cause, but the committee has said from the outset that in its view sanctions “can be a useful tool for encouraging engagement with employment support”. Sadly, this is the prevailing framework used even by people or organisations who also highlight the horrific impact of sanctions.

This means we have a lot of work to do to bring people back to the basic human reality that there is no fair way to threaten and impose poverty and destitution.

Please use the Sanctions Inquiry as an opportunity to influence those who help sustain workfare and sanctions or could do more to challenge them – perhaps your MP, your church, a charity you support, or your union.

  • Tell them your experience of sanctions and/or why you oppose them.
  • Ask them in what circumstances they think it could ever be right to punish people with hunger and destitution.
  • Invite them to read Boycott Workfare’s submission to the Inquiry to learn more.
  • Encourage them to publicly state their opposition to all sanctions and to work to bring them to an end.

Let us know how you get on!


Comments (9)

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Sanctions that last months on end, hit the human fraility of death by starvation which takes about a month.

Of course the old and the young, and adults carrying any extra weight might succumb earlier from hunger.

Kids suffer permanent harm from hunger caused bone problem of Ricketts.

And sanctioned heavily pregnant women threaten the life of unborn babes and mothers together.

The government refused the EU money that would have gone direct to foodbanks.

Foodbanks in the UK are not the daily free cafes provided in Europe, that grant a free hot cooked meal and hot drink, without conditionality of food vouchers like in UK, to the working poor, poor pensioners and the unemployed. Food provided free 7 days a week.

The state does not subsidise Fareshare, the supplier to UK foodbanks, so they gain only 5,000 tonnes of surplus food, instead of the 400,000 tonnes of still edible food now going to the subsidised energy from waste companies or to landfill.

The energy from waste industry, instead, could collect rotten food waste direct from homes, separated out in bins they provide, and gain millions of tonnes of non-edible food waste ech year. That is where the state subsidy should be.

Doctors are saying again and again, through The Lancet, that there has been a huge rise in malnutrition NHS hospital admissions.

The unemployed are by no means the bulk of people going to UK foodbanks.

The majority of the poor needing foodbanks are the working poor and low income self employed.

There are 2.6 million pensioners only on the state pension, who have their own 'foodbanks' of the over 60s charitable lunch clubs. The state pension alone is far, far below the breadline even at present rate of £113.10 per week.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies calls £500 a month as 4 per cent lowest income, and this is the average works pension for low waged people. When people now denied state pension payout for half a decade or more of life, when this is payable even can keep job.

Joining the starving will be new claimant pensioners from 2016, where half of them might get NIL STATE PENSION FOR LIFE or as low as £55 per week state pension.
See more detail on my
Why This is Important section
below my petition at:

Benefit Sanctions Will Cause A Deterioration In Health And That’s OK Says DWP Rule Book | the void

[…] Boycott Workfare point out today, sometimes that deterioration in health can be fatal.  And all for the crime of missing a meeting with the […]

Lord Stapleton

Make sure you listen to File on 4 about Benefit Sanctions, broadcasted 20.01.2015. Apparently 100 sanctions are currently being made daily:


@ Pension60

Quite funny you've mentioned Fairshare! I'm currently carrying-out my (forced/volunteer) 6 months Community Work Programme at the local Fairshare depot.

In my experience most of the food at Fairshare goes to the support type organisations; and rarely to any of the local food-banks.

ps; you do realise that; supermarkets only give (close to sell-by date) food because it's a cheaper option then landfill?

Wendy grey

My latest sanction is for a year even though i have proven by mandatory reconsideration that Avanta were full of kryptonite and i got my money repaid in full. The bully at avanta who after speaking to me for five mins put me on a "confidence building course". Last thing in the world i needed i have ooodles of it. It is not my fault my legs are longer, my butt is smaller and i have a personality and i dont look like the back end of a bus!!!!!! Unlike some. To her this is a game and i aint playing. Im getting £12 a week for a year for me and two kids so i have stopped going cos wot else can they do?????? If i go there she may find out just how mentally disturbed i can be!!!!!!!!!

Boycott Workfare Week of Action 25 April – 2 May: No workfare! No sanctions! Whoever wins we will resist! | the void

[…] fines imposed by the courts. People are being left with nothing for up to three years. There is now overwhelming evidence of the harm being caused by sanctions. Sanctions are damaging the health of claimants and leading […]

Stephen Bunting

We must get sanctioning STOPPED ... and don't expect support from the post-Blairite Labour Party!

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[…] involved in workfare means being responsible for sanctions – benefit stoppages which leave people with nothing to live on. Sanctions are driving food […]

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[…] the committee ignored our evidence about the wider consequences of sanctions.  The report barely acknowledged the fact that sanctions […]