Are benefit sanctions being applied consistently, as claimed by the DWP? Statistical evidence suggests not


In the UK, unemployment benefit is known as Job Seekers Allowance, or JSA.  Claimants for this benefit must demonstrate to the government’s Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) that they are actively seeking work. Failure to demonstrate an active job search may result in withdrawal of JSA by way of penalty. The penalty, which may last for three years, is known as a sanction. The ostensible purpose of a sanction is to penalise a claimant who is not actively seeking work.

Are sanctions being applied unlawfully?

In the last two years, the frequency with which sanctions have been used has increased noticeably. Some commentators suggest the increasing use of sanctions has not been justified. Anecdotal evidence of sanctions being applied for trivial reasons, or without sufficient or just cause, support the case that they are being misused. Further, there is now speculation that DWP is working to targets and that sanctions are being applied to meet these targets. In short, the sanctions, it is suggested, are being used to meet purposes separate from those set out in legislation and approved by Parliament. If true, this would mean, of course, that sanctions are being applied unlawfully by DWP. An independent review of DWP’s use of sanctions, we have been told, is now to take place to investigate these matters.

Some preliminary thoughts

In advance of the review, I have undertaken a quick statistical analysis using sanctions data compiled by DWP for the 18 months April 2011 to October 2012. My analysis is limited to discovering whether sanctions are being applied consistently from region to region in England. The regions I selected for the study are the six Metropolitan Counties together with Inner and Outer London. Hence eight regions form the sample in my study. My conclusion, although based on imperfect data, is that a rough but statistically significant north-south gradient exists, with a lower frequency of sanctions in the northern regions.


The variation in sanctions frequency between region is not consistent with the hypothesis that claimant behaviour is independent of region. So what is causing this variation? If sanctions targets were being set at regional level without the centre’s knowledge, then we might expect to find statistically significant variation in the regional sanctions frequencies. This is indeed what this brief study finds – the regional variation uncovered by this study is statistically significant at the 0.05% level. So the results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis of sanctions policies and targets being determined regionally, at least in some of the regions.


It is hoped that the promised government review will use a quantitative approach and will have access to better data than did this study. A quantitative and well resourced  study, perhaps using a similar approach as used by this short study, may produce more definitive conclusions.


1.  Sanctions data  for period 1/4/11 to 21/10/12 sourced from DWP Information, Governance & Security Directorate, via @AnitaBellows12 to whom a hat-tip is hereby given

2. Claimant Count  for January 2013 sourced from ONS website


A Chi Squared test was used to test for independence between region and sanction count. The 6 Metropolitan Counties were selected for the sample on the ground of speed and homogeneity. Inner and Outer London were added in to make the number of regions up to 8.

The” actual” sanctions count for the month of January 2013 was derived from from the sanctions count  for the 18 months April 2011 to October 2012 compiled by DWP. No sanctions figures could be found for January 2013. To arrive at a sanctions count for January 2013 the 18 month sanctions count was divided by 18 for each region.  There is no pretence that the resulting January sanction figure is precise, but the conclusion is unlikely to be different because of this. The purpose of this study is merely to discover, even if tentatively, whether there is a regional effect on sanction frequencies. The data, even though imperfect, are adequate for this limited purpose.

The actual claimant count came from the January 2013 ONS release. This  month was chosen because the claimant count was supplied in a way geographically consistent with the sanction count (ie the figures for both series were analysed into the same regional definitions). The claimant count was used to calculate the expected sanctions count for a region.

The calculated test statistic came out at 78. The probability of obtaining a test statistic of this magnitude with 7 degrees of  freedom under the hypothesis of independence between region and sanctions frequency is virtually zero.

Sanctions 3


  1. Interesting, and thanks for providing this.

    It would be good to map this against whistleblower leaks as to actual policies, references to league tables mentioned at work, employees getting easter eggs if they sanction lots of people…

  2. Pingback: Public Accounts Committee Tell Iain Duncan Smith Sanctions Unfair on Vulnerable Clients | Grannie's Last Mix

  3. People implementing these measures should be prosecuted after this regime has lost it’s tenure in much the same way that certain governments have suffered sanctions. If morally, these measures are considered wrong , punishment should be metered out. It is a crime against the most disadvantaged in your society. I would not compare it with the Nazi regime but the principle is the same. ‘I was only doing my job’ would and does excuse this inhuman behaviour.

  4. The ‘independent review’ of sanctions is being conducted by Matthew Oakley of Policy Exchange. Not only is Policy Exchange little more than an extension of the Conservative Party, staffed by people with only a partial and extremely partisan understanding of unemployment and associated welfare benefits, but Matthew Oakley is an outspoken supporter of sanctions. I think there is little prospect of the inquiry looking seriously at their misuse, indeed, I fully expect Mr Oakley to suggest ways they can be extended, in line with PE policy and publications.

    Thank you for you work anyway. The obscene misuse of sanctions, leaving families impoverished and reliant on charity, remains a largely ignored but shameful aspect of modern political developments.

    • Matthew Oakley’s role is very limited. As you rightly say, he will not be evaluating sanctions as a policy – he will simply be ascertaining whether sanctioned claimants are being supplied with correct and complete information, as required by law.

      In contrast, the DWP Select Committee currently has an ongoing inquiry into JC Plus, and the explicit terms of reference of the inquiry include looking into the variability of the application of sanctions across regions. I have submitted a fuller report to this inquiry and the matter of sanctions variability has yet to be considered by the select committee.

      My study shows that sanctions are not being applied consistently from region to region. In other words, claimants appear to be experiencing a post code lottery – that is for the same “offence” a sanction is administered in one region whereas in another region no sanction is administered. This is what I have directed the select committee’s attention to.

      This inconsistency in the way sanctions are being applied may suggest that is something is wrong in the way the sanctions regime is currently being operated, including the unlawful (but not illegal) use of sanctions (ie sanctions are being applied for reasons not provided for by the legislation).

      • Thanks for the clarification.

        In regard to the unlawful use of sanctions, some of the recently adopted rules (reasons) for sanctions seem to me to be subjective enough to cover a very wide area. Add in the changes to the appeal process for claimants and the latter are now facing an extremely punitive and unaccountable regime at the DWP.

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