The Domino Effect: How benefit sanctions could impact on claimants’ mental health


At Hylton Potts, we’re well aware of the stresses that benefit sanctions can place on families. In most cases, those who apply for benefits in the first place are doing so due to some form of hardship. It could be that they’ve been made redundant and need assistant paying bills and affording food. Or perhaps they suddenly find themselves suffering from an illness that prevents them from working.

Whatever the case, we’ve always provided no-nonsense advice for people, striving to achieve the best possible outcome for all our clients. However, as we’re sure other legal consultants throughout the UK have, we’ve seen first-hand how devastating benefit sanctions can be.

Every day, thousands of people are left distressed and emotionally fraught on receiving letters about everything from benefit fraud investigation, to not turning up to a job centre appointment that they had formerly rearranged. Such factors can lead to a benefit sanction, leaving our clients with no money to support themselves or even feed their children.

Now, in a recent article by the Independent, it seems that the extent of the emotional damage being done is worse still. In an open letter to the media outlet, doctors from Britain’s leading mental health organisations have claimed an urgent review of the system is needed, to find out just how deep an impact these sanctions have.

Benefit sanctions linked to rising mental health issues?

Signed by the British Psychological Society, the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Psychoanalytic Council, and the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, it’s an impressive list of experts and public bodies that lend their support to the proposed overhaul of the current benefit sanctions system.

The letter states bluntly: “We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.”

The current system means that claimants must meet certain conditions to receive benefits, such as turning up for appointments and applying for enough jobs. Payments will be stopped if a claimant fails to meet any of the requirements, but all too often, this is done so unjustly, or with immediate effect even if the claimant wishes to appeal a decision.

Shockingly, the various bodies provide evidence within the letter, which link these sanctions to “destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems”. It also adds: “We call on the Government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime, and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

The recent letter to the government suggests a total overhaul of the benefits system, wanting to move towards “making employment more attractive”. Aside from this, the bodies involved also state that job centre staff must be given mental health awareness training.

What’s been the reaction?

Unsurprisingly given how controversial the system has become, the letter was widely met with support. Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams, told the press: “Like the British Psychological Society and evidence from many other sources, I believe that the Tories punitive sanctions regime is irresponsible, ineffective, and in the worst cases, has been linked to premature deaths. That’s why I have committed Labour to scrapping the Tories punitive sanctions regime as part of our plan to transform the social security system.”

Similarly, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat Leader, commented that the sanctions system is “fundamentally flawed and needs to be restarted entirely”. Meanwhile, Jonathan Bartley, Co-leader of the Green Party, stated that the Government must listen to the warnings from the psychological bodies, adding that the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) should scrap the system entirely.

So, how did the DWP respond to the letter? A spokesman from the department told the media: “Sanctions are an important part of our benefits system, and are only used in a very small percentage of cases as a last resort, when people don’t fulfil their commitments to find work. We have made improvements to the sanctions system, particularly to help those who are vulnerable or have a mental health condition, and the number of sanctions has halved over the last year.”

For many, the open letter contains nothing new or shocking – in fact, for the last couple of years, MPs have stated that benefit sanctions urgently need reviewing. In 2015 for example, a cross-party MP report claimed that the sanctions regime desperately needed to address widespread concerns that it’s “unfair, excessively punitive, and does little to help people get into work”.

The inquiry undertaken to produce the MPs’ report discovered that sanctions were being imposed inappropriately, hearing evidence that sanctions were used for “trivial infringements”. Claimants often didn’t understand why they had been given them, and struggled to cope without income.

The committee’s Chair, Dame Anne Begg, commented: “No claimant should have their benefit payment reduced to zero where they are at risk of severe financial hardship to the extent of not being able to feed themselves or their families, or pay their rent.”

What kind of thing warrants a benefit sanction?

Benefit sanctions may have good intentions, but in practice, they can lead to some ludicrous scenarios for claimants who are struggling to get by. Over the years, there have been some laughable circumstances that have led to claimants being sanctioned, including:

  • An individual who couldn’t attend their job centre appointment after getting a job interview. They rescheduled the appointment, attended this, but still received a letter stating that they would be sanctioned, as a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.
  • Someone who had signed-on, been to interviews and applied for work, but on recommendation of the job centre, made a minor change to their CV. They weren’t told they needed to formally give the updated CV to the job centre, and was sanctioned for four weeks as a result.
  • An individual who had worked for 20 years and missed a job centre appointment out of confusion about the process – they were sanctioned for three weeks.
  • When on employment benefits, you must apply for three jobs per week. However, one individual had applied for three jobs one week and three jobs the following Sunday and Monday. However, as the job centre week starts on a Tuesday, this was recognised as six jobs in one week and none the following week. They were sanctioned for 13 weeks as a result.
  • A man missed his job centre appointments for two weeks because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, and was subsequently sanctioned.

While these examples many seem unreasonable and extraordinary, they happen all too often, either by human error, miscommunication or a glitch in the recording system. However, it’s real people that suffer as a consequence, and this shouldn’t be forgotten.

If this has happened to you, or you’ve received a letter stating that you’re being investigated for benefit fraud, but you have no understanding of why, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. We have decades of experience in this field, and our committed team is here to help you around the clock. You can call us on 020 7381 8111, or email us at law@hylton-potts.com.

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