The Department for Work and Pensions has refused to publish its own research into the effectiveness of sanctions, reports Chaminda Jayanetti

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Job centres across Britain imposed benefit sanctions on more than 35,000 Universal Credit claimants over the age of 50 in the first 10 months of 2022 – including more than 7,500 people in their 60s, Byline Times can reveal.

Hundreds of sanctions – where benefits are cut or stopped for weeks or months at a time – were even imposed on claimants aged 65, despite them being within touching distance of their state pension age of 66.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has overseen a surge in benefit sanctions over the past 18 months, after they were suspended during the height of the pandemic. The ‘sanctions rate’ – the proportion of claimants who are sanctioned – is higher now than before the Coronavirus crisis struck.

Most sanctions are imposed on younger working-age people – more than 450,000 sanctions were issued between January and October 2022, with the bulk meted out to claimants aged under 40.

But separate analysis shows that the sanctions rate has risen fastest for older claimants since the pandemic.

Amid growing fears among ministers about labour shortages and older people leaving the workforce, the Government has ramped up the conditions it imposes on claimants, forcing more of them to look for jobs outside their previous fields of work and increasing the number of claimants who must attend regular job centre meetings, all under the threat of being sanctioned.

“I think the drive that [the DWP] have got is about their concerns about labour supply,” said Dr David Webster, honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow and an expert on benefit sanctions. “And they’re desperately casting about for things they can do to push people back into jobs. They’ve not been able to think of anything very good.

“I think that if job centres were unilaterally deciding not to sanction the over-50s, say, I think they would get pulled up by DWP HQ pretty smartly, and told, ‘look, there’s no exemption for people over 50. Get on with it.’”

On the Frontline ofthe Battle for Benefits

Chaminda Jayanetti

Statistics compiled by Byline Times using Freedom of Information requests and published DWP data shows that 35,608 sanctions were imposed on Universal Credit claimants aged 50 and over between January and October 2022 – 28,061 on claimants in their 50s and 7,547 on those in their 60s.

These figures include 670 sanctions imposed on claimants aged 65 and over between January and July (a breakdown for this specific age group is not available for August to October).

Analysis last year by researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank found that the sanctions rate for claimants over 55 rose disproportionately quickly between April 2019 and April 2022, nearly trebling in that time. The sanctions rate grew less quickly for younger claimants, although the sanction rate itself is much higher for those age groups than for older claimants.

“The rules have been tightened up so that the range of jobs you have to be willing to apply for gets widened up after a shorter period, which might mean people being pushed to apply for jobs in sectors they’ve had no previous experience in – you can see how this might be more challenging for those more towards the end of their working life,” said Henry Parkes, an economist at the IPPR.

“What’s going on with the sanction rate across the piece is a bit of a mystery and something the department really should get a grip on and be able to offer an explanation for.

“One candidate explanation is that, as conditionality etc. has returned after the pandemic, it’s been a bit of a shock to the system – with people previously not having to search for work suddenly being asked to engage with work search, the Universal Credit IT platform etc – which could be more challenging for older workers.”

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Dr Webster said it must be “demoralising for a lot of people who must feel that they’ve got very little chance of getting a job and yet they’re pushed into making applications and so on that they then think are just going to be a waste of time”. 

“There’s got to be some cut-off age,” he added. “And [the DWP] are just doing the simplest thing – which is saying, if you’re subject to conditionality, you’re subject to conditionality. Basically they’re saying if you’re working age, then you’re subject to conditionality.”

A recent review of 94 studies across multiple countries found that benefit sanctions have an impact on getting people into work – but the jobs people end up in as a result tend to be of poor quality and lacking long-term stability, with increased transitions into unemployment.

The DWP has refused to publish its own research into the effectiveness of sanctions, while pulling out of an academic study into the impact of sanctions on people’s health.

A spokesperson said it is the department’s “priority is to help people find and move into work” and that the “latest figures show the majority of sanctions were applied due to claimants failing to attend mandatory appointments”.

“People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions they agree, and emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants,” they added. “Sanctions can often quickly be resolved by re-engaging with the Jobcentre and attending the next appointment.”

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