Government under fire for massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions from Commons Select Committee


Benefits sanctions are financial penalties that are given to people who are deemed to have not met the conditions for claiming benefits. The social security system has always been based on people meeting certain conditions – this has  been true for all working-age benefit claimants, with sanctions applicable to those who fail to observe those conditions. This has been the case since its inception.

However, the Coalition changed the conditions and increased the application, duration and severity of sanctions that apply to those claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and extended the application of sanctions to those in the Work Related Activity Group of those claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Since 2012, benefit payments can be suspended for a minimum of four weeks and for up to three years where a person “fails to take sufficient steps to search for work”, to “prepare themselves for the labour market” or where they turn down an offer of employment or leave a job voluntarily.

It emerged during an ongoing inquiry instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee that Research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows that more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

The research finding confirms what many of us already knew.

Professor Stuckler, who has analysed data from 375 local authorities, said: “The data clearly show that many people are not leaving Job Seekers Allowance for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”

The Work and Pensions Committee decided to conduct a further in depth inquiry into benefit sanctions policy, following the findings of the research. This inquiry will consider aspects of sanctions policy which were outside the remit of the Oakley Review. (You can see the terms of reference for the inquiry, and submissions are invited, all details of which are here – Committee launch inquiry into benefit sanctions.)

Labour MP, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers, as well as the sick and disabled.

The reason the Government is doing this is that it gets them off the JSA claimant figures, so it looks like there are fewer people unemployed.”

The Government claims that sanctioned claimants who leave the benefit system are going into work – they also claim that their punitive sanctions regime “works”. But the Oxford study found this is untrue in a “majority” of cases.

Debbie Abrahams asked the Tory Minister Iain Duncan Smith how many people were excluded from unemployment figures after being sanctioned but not going into work.

In the angry exchange, during the Work and Pensions Committee questions session yesterday, Mr Duncan Smith said that Ms Abrahams’ claims were “ludicrous”.

Mrs Abraham said: “Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.

They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”

Mr Duncan Smith responded: “Well I don’t agree with any of that. I actually believe the sanctions regime as applied is fair, we always get the odd case of …”

The MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth cut in and said : “People have died after being sanctioned, Minister.”

“No, I don’t agree with that,” Mr Duncan Smith answered. But he has yet to provide any evidence that supports his view.

Many of us have been calling for an inquiry following the death of  former soldier David Clapson. He died starving after being sanctioned for missing a single Job Centre meeting. David had type one diabetes, which is an autoimmune illness. He was unable to afford to maintain an electricity supply to keep his fridge running, where he safely stored his life-saving insulin. Sadly David is not an isolated case, and this government have been presented with many other cases of extreme hardship and suffering because of sanctions, which they simply deny.

Of course a DWP spokesman dismissed the study, saying: “It looks to be partially based on unreliable data.”

I don’t see how that could be the case. The data presented in the study explictly relates to people vanishing from the DWP’s records after claiming Job Seekers Allowance, who are not in work, so the comment from the DWP isn’t even a coherent, rational response.

We do know that the real problem is not people that people aren’t trying hard enough to work, or failing to try,  but rather, it is the Tories ideological obsession with austerity policies that contract the economy and fail to provide the job opportunities that people are desperately looking for. And the fact that the government are lying to hide the consequences of their damaging and extremely cruel policies.Those policies are ultimately about removing support from people that need it, as part of a broader ideological aim of dismantling welfare provision.

Since the government does not track or follow up the destination of all those leaving the benefit system, as discussed, the off-flow figures will inevitably include many having their claim ended for reasons other than securing employment, including sanctions, awaiting mandatory review, appeal, death, hospitalisation, imprisonment, on a government “training scheme” (see  and the Telegraph – those on workfare are counted as employed by the Labour Force Survey.)

And it’s clear that sanctions, which are a crudely applied politicised form of punitive behaviourist pseudo-psychology, are being used to prop up an insidious ideological drive to remove people’s basic lifeline support at a time when they need it.  Sanctions are the removal of money that the state previously deemed necessary for meeting basic needs, and as such, cannot possibly be justified when all they may ever achieve is to force people to focus on basic survival rather than on gaining employment.


Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the excellent pictures.


A letter of complaint to Andrew Dilnot regarding Coalition lies about employment statistics

Punishing Poverty: A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants

Rising ESA sanctions: punishing the vulnerable for being vulnerable

36 thoughts on “Government under fire for massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions from Commons Select Committee

  1. When considering what the real unemployment figures might be, as opposed to what Smith wishes us to believe they are, volumes of anecdotal evidence suggest we should also be taking into account all those on phony ‘self-employment’ they’ve been encouraged on to by Smith’s Job Centre or Work Programme henchmen on the basis they’ll be left alone and not hassled and can claim working tax credits to live on. There’s also the hundreds of thousands stuck in the WCA assessment phase to consider as they don’t count as being on sickness benefits till they’ve been assessed as such (after their WCA) but they don’t show on the unemployment figures either. More on that here Smith’s claimed figures could easily be a million or so shy of the real total.


  2. Can I pick you up on a matter of fact Kitty. You say “The social security system has always been based on people meeting certain conditions – this has been true for all working-age benefit claimants, with sanctions applicable to those who fail to observe those conditions”.

    Can I say that at NO time during the 20th Century did I ever hear or see the word “sanctions” used.

    The suggestion that “sanctioning” as has always been part of the benefits system is untrue. The practice began around the turn of this century by removing benefits for short periods (usually 1 week) from people who (repeatedly?) failed to turn up for job interviews arranged through the jobcentre. Then, it affected very few people. Fifteen years later it appears to be the main purpose of jobcentres.

    Before that (certainly after 1970) “sanctions” were unheard of. Obviously there were always “conditions” to receiving benefits, but they were about establishing entitlement. People who met the conditions were entitled to benefits, and got them. People who did not meet the conditions were not entitled, and had their claims refused. (Possibly being re-directed to claim a more appropriate benefit.) Nobody had their benefits suspended for a set period of time as a punitive measure.


    1. We have always had sanctions, but they have seldom been used until recently, and of course the government legislated to extend their use last year.

      It’s because they were hardly ever used that they were ‘unheard of’. Until now.


  3. Benefit claimant ‘stitching-up’ needs to recognized as a criminally indictable offense, writes Samuel Miller

    It was written prior to the Work and Pensions Committee announcing a second evidence session into benefit sanctions. A independent public inquiry is needed because the DWP cannot be trusted to impartially investigate itself; moreover, the Work and Pensions Committee is prohibited from investigating individual cases.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s