Work and Pensions CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Urban Studies, University of Glasgow


This submission presents key findings to date from a critical examination of unemployment benefit sanctions and disallowances based primarily on statistical analysis. It shows that the severity of the regime has increased drastically under the Coalition Government and is increasing further. One fifth of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) JSA claimants have been sanctioned/disallowed, 4.2% per month of all claimants and 8% per month of those aged 18–24. Disallowances for “voluntary leaving” and “losing a job through misconduct” were previously a major component but have almost disappeared in the recession, with disallowances for (not) “actively seeking work” showing a very big increase, and big increases also for non-participation in training (including the Work Programme) and non-compliance with a Jobseeker’s Direction. Severity is greater at times when it is least productive. A gap has been emerging in the treatment of white and minority ethnic groups, and disabled people are over-represented among repeat sanctions/disallowances. The reasons for these differences should be investigated. Although sanctions increase job search and exit from benefits, they cannot be justified when all their effects are considered. These include worse matches of people to jobs, lower productivity, wastefully large numbers of job applications, damage to health, families and relationships, homelessness, destitution as reflected in the rise of Food Banks, increased crime, diversion of Jobcentre Plus (JCP) resources from their proper role, and creation of a climate of fear and hostility which undermines the whole system. Sanctions, which are financial penalties intended to affect behaviour, should be abolished. Entitlement conditions have to be retained, but should be accompanied by a proper safety net for those disallowed, and an approach to influencing claimants, where justified, which is properly based on behavioural psychology, as pioneered by the Prime Minister’s “nudge unit”.


1. This submission addresses the second of the issues identified by the Committee:

“JCP’s role in relation to the rights and responsibilities of benefit claimants, including: the effectiveness of benefit conditionality, particularly job-seeking conditionality and the mandatory ‘work-focused interview’; and the level and appropriateness of JCP’s use of benefit sanctions, including differences of approach between JCP Districts.”

2. I have been researching unemployment for 20 years and my PhD by published work is available at I am currently carrying out a critical examination of unemployment benefit sanctions and disallowances in Great Britain, based primarily on a statistical analysis going back as far as records will allow. The work is not complete, but I am keen for the Committee to have the benefit of key findings to date.

Disallowances and Sanctions

3. Much current discussion is losing sight of the distinction between “disallowances” and “sanctions”. For instance, the Opposition spokesman Liam Byrne stated on 19 March (col. 834) that “the general legal power of the Department for Work and Pension (DWP) to issue sanctions…is a broad sui generis power that has been in place since 1911”. This is a misconception.

4. Although few JSA claimants (11.9%) currently have a contribution-based entitlement, the system remains an insurance scheme. As for any such scheme, various conditions have applied to unemployment benefit since its introduction in 1911; these were strictly defined in the original Act and in no way constituted a “general legal power” (Tillyard 1949). Disallowance because a condition is not met is different from a “sanction”. In relation to unemployment benefits, “sanctions” on any scale date only from the 1980s and stem from the belief that unemployed people should be “activated”.1 “Sanctions” are penalties intended to make claimants do particular things, such as apply for specified numbers of jobs per week. They are about “changing behaviour”, not entitlement.

5. Loss of this distinction confuses the issues and is unnecessarily stigmatising to unemployed people. For instance, to give up a job is not any kind of offence. We do not have serfdom in the UK. However, there is a potential “moral hazard” if unemployment benefit can be claimed immediately. Therefore, a disallowance to unemployment benefit has always applied to “voluntary leaving”, of up to six weeks from 1911 to 1986, and now 13 weeks on the first occasion. Yet we find the Explanatory Memorandum to the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Sanctions) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 talking of “categories of sanctionable failure” and “three categories of sanction……..The first situation is when claimants fail to comply with the most important jobseeking requirements, these (include)…..without good reason—voluntarily leaving employment”. Similar confusions are contained in the new Regulations themselves.

The Level of JSA Sanctions and Disallowances

6. There is a common misconception that sanctions and disallowances affect only a small minority of claimants.2 In fact one fifth (19%) of all JSA claimants over the five years April 2008 to March 2012 were subject to sanctions or disallowances. That is 1,483,760 people.3 Referrals are around double the number of adverse decisions, so something approaching three million people will have been threatened. There were 778,000 sanctions or disallowances in the year to October 2012. Under the Coalition Government, the monthly rate of sanctions has been 4.2% of all JSA claimants. For JSA claimants aged 18–24 the rate is 8% per month; this is one in 200 of the entire 18–24 population age group each month.

7. Figure 1 shows total referrals and adverse decisions from April 2000 to October 2012, while Figure 2 plots adverse decisions against the claimant unemployment rate.4 All the charts in this submission show figures as a percentage of JSA claimants since in order to see the severity of the regime it is necessary to take out the effect of changing volumes of unemployment.

8. The low point was 2005; thereafter there was a rise when John Hutton MP was DWP Secretary of State, and then some fluctuations before a further rise under the Coalition Government. Some recent fluctuations have been due to the handover in summer 2011 to private contractors of responsibility for initiating Work Programme sanctions, and to the “stockpiling” of some sanctions following the Reilly-Wilson judgment in August 2012; otherwise, the Coalition Government figures would be higher.

9. The above figures do not include any sanctions under the new, more severe, Regulations applying from 22 October 2012. The DWP promised to publish figures for 22 October 2012 to 31 January 2013 on 15 May 2013. This publication did not take place, because of “significant doubts around the quality of the statistics”.5 However, the DWP “score card” (The Guardian, 28 March) implied a big further rise in sanctions/disallowances in December and January, to over 7% per month. This is shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Reasons for Sanction/Disallowance

10. Figure 3 shows the main reasons for sanction/disallowance in 2004 and in the year to October 2012. Failure to attend an advisory interview is the most frequently occurring reason, though its relative importance has fallen a little. By contrast there has been a huge fall in the numbers of people disentitled for leaving a job voluntarily or losing it through misconduct. Figure 4 shows that this is due to the current recession. People hold on to a job more carefully when it is harder to get another; the same phenomenon was observed in previous decades.6 Since voluntary leaving/misconduct accounted for over a quarter of all sanctions/disallowances in 2004, the increases in the other categories have been correspondingly greater.

11. Figure 5 shows that “Actively seeking work” accounts for much the biggest share of the increase in sanctions/disentitlements since 2004. This entitlement condition relates to the definition of unemployment: to be unemployed you must be looking for work. It was introduced in May 1919 and its administration produced major controversy in the later 1920s, leading to its abolition in March 1930 following a Labour Party backbench revolt.7 It was reintroduced in 1989 but had little impact until the introduction of JSA in 1996. It then died away until John Hutton, under whom the proportion of referrals resulting in disentitlement rose from around 60% to around 80% (Figure 6). Under the Coalition Government it has had a spectacular further increase.8

12. Also seeing a big rise since 2004 are sanctions for non-participation in training and employment programmes (other than S.17A Back to Work schemes but including the Work Programme) (Figure 7). Sanctions for refusing a Jobseeker’s Direction have tripled in the latest year, from a low base.

13. Passing of the retrospective Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act in March 2013 will have rapidly increased the number of s.17A sanctions, but these do not yet show in the figures.

Variation of Sanctions/Disallowances in Relation to Unemployment Over Time and by Geography

14. It is clear that any effect of sanctions/disallowances on the level of unemployment over time is very minor (Figure 2). The big changes in unemployment are due to macro-economic factors. It is also striking that sanctions/disallowances have increased so much when unemployment is high. Rational policy would dictate the opposite. There is no point putting more pressure on claimants when there are fewer jobs. Unemployment was 2.52 million in January–March 2013, while the ONS vacancy survey estimated an average 0.503m unfilled vacancies February–April 2013.9 Moreover, there are now twice as many JSA claimants as there were in 2004. The extra claimants (barring the additional 140,000 lone parents and some transferred from Incapacity Benefit (IB) / Employment Support Allowance (ESA), who have their own issues) are people who would not normally be out of work and by no stretch of the imagination should need sanctioning.

15. The Guardian on 18 April 2011 published an analysis showing that areas with higher unemployment tend to have higher rates of fixed length sanctions. Further analysis of my own contained in a supplementary submission to the Committee dated 8 August 2013 confirms that claimants in areas of higher unemployment are more likely to be penalised for non-attendance or lateness at interviews, and for non-participation in training or employment schemes. By contrast, penalties for voluntary leaving, misconduct, “neglect to avail” of an opportunity and refusal of a job are less frequent in areas of high unemployment. Figure 8 shows the relationship for advisory interviews across regions.10

Ethnic and Disability Monitoring

16. Peters and Joyce (2006) using data for 2004 reported that there was no difference in treatment of different ethnic groups. However, a considerable gap has been emerging since 2005 in the treatment of white and minority ethnic claimants (Figures 9 to 11).11 This is not necessarily due to discrimination. It could be due to an emerging difference in the occurrence of some characteristic which is positively correlated with sanction/disallowance. It is not due to the changing age or sex composition of the different ethnic groups. These have been such as to imply fewer sanctions/disallowances for the minorities. DWP should be asked to explain the emerging difference and to state whether it can be justified.

17. Potential discrimination against the disabled cannot currently be monitored and DWP should be requested to add the necessary data to the Tabtool. But there is a higher proportion of disabled people among those subject to repeat sanctions (Figure 12). This is of particular concern because of the new three-year sanctions for repeated non-compliance.

Reconsiderations and Appeals

18. The appeals system does not appear effective. In April 2000 to April 2012 inclusive, only 17% of those subject to sanction/disallowance asked for reconsideration, of whom 53% were successful. Only 2% appealed to a tribunal, of whom 17% were successful. Given claimants’ high success rate at reconsideration, it appears that not nearly enough ask for this. Peters and Joyce (2006) found that claimants saw the process as long and futile, feared a lack of support, or could not afford phone calls/stamps/fares. Tribunals play scarcely any role, and with the removal of legal aid from April 2013 are likely to play even less.

Can Sanctions be Justified?

19. There is plenty of evidence that sanctions increase job search and exit from unemployment benefit (eg Abbring et al, 200512). However a policy has to be justified in terms of its overall effects.

20. Much of the belief in the use of sanctions to support “activation” arises from “supply-side” economic theories of the labour market which have been shown to be ill-informed and mistaken (Turok and Webster 1998, Webster 2000, 2005).

21. So far as I can establish, none of the economists who have shown that sanctions increase unemployment exit have examined whether this actually raises aggregate employment, or whether their findings apply both in and out of recessions. The Rayner Review (DE/DHSS 1981, para. 4.65 (1)), writing in the depths of an earlier recession, commented “a job filled by one unemployed person will usually result in there being one fewer job for another unemployed person”. This is equally true now. Moreover, forced matches between applicant and job will be worse, reducing economic efficiency. Petrongolo (2009) and Arni et al (2012), both found that sanctions push people into worse jobs, with lasting ill-effects. This fits with Chetty’s (2008) finding that people with resources take longer to find a job, indicating that choosiness pays off. If it pays off for the individual, so it will for the economy—and Acemoglu & Shimer (1999, 2000) accordingly find that unemployment insurance increases output and productivity.

22. Additional job search and applications have costs, for both claimants and employers. Patacchini and Zenou (2006) found that left to themselves, people search more when labour demand and incomes are higher. This makes sense, as the returns to search will then be greater. In current conditions, sanctions induce greater than optimal job search, for both claimants and employers. Far too many applications are being made. Employers are receiving 45 applications for each low-skilled job, but only half of the applicants are suitable.13

23. Sanctions have many other damaging effects. They damage health, and family and friends suffer hardship and damaged relationships (Peters and Joyce 2006, Vincent 1998, Saunders et al, 2001, Dorsett et al, 2011); they contribute to homelessness.14 Their financial impact is very variable, depending on the claimant’s family circumstances and other resources. However, they account for a quarter of users of Food Banks in Scotland.15 Not surprisingly therefore, Machin and Marie (2006) showed (for the UK) that sanctions increase crime.16

24. Much evidence has reached the media recently of increasing numbers of unfair sanctions/disallowances and of pressure on Jobcentre staff to increase them against their better judgment.17 Even when the regime was at its mildest in 2004, two-fifths of those with a sanction/disallowance thought it unfair, while 23% thought it could not have been avoided and another 21% were unsure how it could have been (Peters and Joyce 2006).18 Nor is this new; Bryson and Jacobs (1992) quoted many examples of claimants unfairly or dishonestly sanctioned/disallowed.19 Such sanctioning activity involves a big diversion of Jobcentre staff effort away from their primary tasks of nurturing the labour force and improving the efficiency of the labour market. The resulting climate of fear and hostility undermines support work; makes claimants reluctant to complain about malpractice by officials, contractors or employers; and undermines the usefulness and acceptability of national insurance for everyone.20

Sanctions should be Abolished

25. The evidence strongly suggests that sanctions (as opposed to disallowances) should be abolished, with a return to the regime of insurance conditions originally envisaged in 1911, supplemented by a proper safety net for those who do not meet them. In so far as it is desirable to attempt to influence claimants’ behaviour—and given the record of frequently wrong-headed pressure such attempts need to be carefully justified—then this should be done through a scientific approach.

26. It appears that as the desire within government to “activate” unemployed people grew, no one actually considered what might be the best way to do it; by a simple process of inertia, the loss of benefits logically entailed by the quite different issue of entitlement was uncritically transferred across to sanctions. In this connection the Prime Minister’s “nudge” unit21 is to be congratulated on persuading the DWP to co-operate in experiments in two areas, Essex and the North East, to use behavioural psychology in a constructive way to develop claimants’ confidence.22 The claimants in the Essex trial were about 17.5% more likely to be off benefits after 13 weeks. It is most regrettable that the Opposition spokesman, Liam Byrne, dismissed both these trials, the latter as “mumbo-jumbo”. On the contrary, use of behavioural psychology to inform attempts to influence behaviour is extremely valuable and should have been done long before.

27. Supporting this approach, Lalive et al (2005), found that warnings without sanctions, and simple monitoring of job search, were effective in influencing exit from unemployment. McVicar (2010) found the same for monitoring. Ironically, one of the ministers promoting the current intensification of sanctions, Lord Freud (Minister for Welfare Reform), has himself previously supported this view (2007, p.95): “Perhaps a formal process which kicks off with a written warning, followed by a formal interview, would have more impact than any actual financial repercussions”.


Adverse decision = A decision on a referral which is adverse to the claimant and results in a sanction or disallowance being imposed

BtW = “Back to Work” scheme

FTA = “Failure to attend”

MWA = Mandatory Work Activity

NOMIS = The National Online Manpower Information System,

NTA = “Neglect to avail” of an opportunity of employment or training

Referral = Referral of a JSA claim by DWP staff to a Decision Maker to decide whether a sanction or disallowance should be imposed

Note on the Statistics

Data on sanctions and disallowances in the Figures are either from the DWP web Tabtool (April 2000 onwards) or from the volumes of Adjudication Officers’ Decisions previously published by the Employment Service or its predecessors. My work on the latter source is not yet complete as it has been very difficult to assemble a complete series.

In both sets of statistics, nothing is recorded on a referral until there is a decision. The Tabtool initially attributes each referral to the month of the initial decision. However, it also shows the latest status of each referral. So for instance if an initial adverse decision is changed to a non-adverse decision upon reconsideration or upon appeal to a Tribunal, the Tabtool will show it as a non-adverse decision. It will also change the month to which the referral is attributed, from the month to the initial decision to the month of the reconsideration or of the Tribunal decision. Figures from the earlier sources also attribute each referral to the month of the initial decision, but they do not show any subsequent revision. The Adjudication Officer series does give revisions, but not in such a way that they can be attributed to any particular previous decision.

The “year to October 2012” is actually a little less than a year because figures for October run only to the 21st of the month. This gives a slight downward bias to the sanctions/disallowance figures.

Data on numbers of and characteristics of JSA claimants are either from the DWP Tabtool or from NOMIS. Population data are from NOMIS. The claimant unemployment rate shown in Figures 2 and 8 is the number of JSA claimants as a percentage of the resident working age population (this yields quite low figures). Other unemployment rates use the official International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition; these are sometimes shown divided or multiplied by 10 simply in order to fit them conveniently to the chart.


Abbring, Jaap H, van den Berg Gerard J and van Ours Jan C (2005). “The Effect of Unemployment Insurance Sanctions on the Transition Rate from Unemployment to Employment”, Economic Journal, 115 (July), 602–630

Acemoglu, Daron and Shimer, Robert (1999). “Efficient Unemployment Insurance”, Journal of Political Economy 107 (5), 893–928

Acemoglu, Daron and Shimer, Robert (2000). “Productivity gains from unemployment Insurance”, European Economic Review 44, 1195–1224

Arni, Patrick, Lalivea, Rafael and Van Ours, Jan (2012). “How effective are unemployment benefit sanctions? Looking Beyond Unemployment Exit”, Journal of Applied Econometrics,DOI: 10.1002/jae.2289

Bryson, Alex and Jacobs, John (1992). Policing the Workshy: Benefit controls, the labour market and the unemployed, Aldershot, Avebury

Chetty, Raj (2008). “Moral Hazard versus Liquidity and Optimal Unemployment Insurance”, Journal of Political Economy, 116 (2), 173–234

Citizens Advice Scotland (2012a). The Social Fund: A briefing from Citizens Advice Scotland, June,

Citizens Advice Scotland (2012b). Voices from the frontline...The rising demand for food parcels, September,

Citizens Advice Scotland (2012c). Voices from the Frontline: Sanctions, October,

Citizens Advice Scotland (2013). Voices from the frontline...The impact of welfare changes on Scotland’s CAB, January,

Couling, Neil (2013). Conditionality and Sanctions, Report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Department for Work and Pensions, May, available at

Deacon, Alan (1976). In Search of the Scrounger: The administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain 1920–1931, Occasional Papers on Social Administration No.60, London, Social Administration Research Trust

Department of Employment/Department of Health and Social Security (1981). Payment of benefits to unemployed people, March

Dorsett, Richard, Rolfe, Heather and George, Anitha (2011). The Jobseeker’s Allowance Skills Conditionality Pilot, DWP Research Report 768

Fenn, Paul (1980). “Sources of Disqualification for Unemployment Benefit, 1960–76”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. XVIII, July, 240–53

Freud, David (2007). Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work. An independent report to the Department for Work and Pensions, Corporate Document Services

Lalive, Rafael, van Ours, Jan C and Zweimüller, Josef (2005). “The Effect of Benefit Sanctions on the Duration of Unemployment”, Journal of the European Economic Association 3 (6), 1386–1417

Machin, Stephen and Marie, Olivier (2006). “Crime and benefit sanctions”, Portuguese Economic Journal 5, 149–165

Manning, Alan (2009). “You can’t always get what you want: The impact of the UK Jobseeker’s Allowance”, Labour Economics, 16 (3), 239–250

McVicar Duncan (2010). “Does Job Search Monitoring Intensity affect Unemployment? Evidence from Northern Ireland”, Economica, 77, 296–313

Patacchini, Eleonora and Zenou, Yves (2006). “Search activities, cost of living and local labor markets”, Regional Science and Urban Economics, 36, 227–248

Peters, Mark and Joyce, Lucy (2006). A review of the JSA sanctions regime: Summary findings, DWP Research Report No. 313

Petrongolo, Barbara (2009). “The long-term effects of job search requirements: Evidence from the UK JSA reform”, Journal of Public Economics, 93 (11–12), 1234–1253

Saunders, Tanya, Stone, Vanessa and Candy, Sara (2001). The impact of the 26 week sanctioning regime, Employment Service, April

Tillyard, Frank (1949). Unemployment Insurance in Great Britain 1911–48, Leigh-on-Sea, Thames Bank Publishing Co.

Turok, Ivan and Webster, David (1998). “The New Deal: Jeopardised by the Geography of Unemployment?”, Local Economy, Vol.12 Issue 4, February, 309–328

Vincent, Jill (1998). Jobseeker’s Allowance Evaluation: Qualitative Research on Disallowed and Sanctioned Claimants, Department for Education and Employment Research Report No.86, November

Webster, David (2000). “The Geographical Concentration of Labour Market Disadvantage”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 16(1), Spring, 114–28

Webster, David (2005). “Long-Term Unemployment, the Invention of ‘Hysteresis’ and the Misdiagnosis of Structural Unemployment in the UK”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol.29 No.6, November, 975–95

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22 May 2013
Revised and corrected 8 August 2013

Supplementary written evidence Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Urban Studies, University of Glasgow



The evidence previously submitted on 22 May 2013 contained an error (now corrected) relating to the variation in the rate of total sanctions/disallowances across areas in relation to unemployment. This supplementary evidence reports a more thorough analysis of geographical variations in sanctions/disallowances. It shows that different types of sanction/disallowance relate differently to the local unemployment rate. Those related to leaving a job voluntarily or through misconduct, or to neglect to avail or refusal of a job opportunity, occur more often in areas where jobs are plentiful. Claimants are more often penalised for non-attendance at interviews, or for non-participation in training or employment schemes, in areas where jobs are scarce, although practice in relation to interviews appears to vary widely between local offices. The analysis also shows that there is a lot of variability between Jobcentre Plus offices in the overall rate of referrals for sanction/disallowance. This variability does not appear to have increased following the abolition of referral benchmarks in April 2011. However, the average rate of referrals has increased, suggesting, when taken together with other evidence reported in the media, general pressure on staff to increase sanctions/disallowances. Further useful analysis at Jobcentre level would require publication of data by individual reason. The finding that disqualifications for voluntary leaving/misconduct vary inversely with the rate of unemployment across areas as well as over time appears to be new, and casts doubt on the rationale for these disqualifications and particularly for their severity.

1. Para. 15 and Figure 8 of the Evidence on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) Sanctions and Disallowances which I submitted on 22 May 20131 addressed the question of geographical variations in the incidence of sanctions and disallowances. Further work on this topic revealed an error in what was stated there. Although this has now been corrected, the further work has produced some significant findings and the purpose of this supplementary evidence is to report these. In doing so it provides some further information on the issue identified by the Committee of “differences of approach between JCP Districts”.

Starting Point: The Guardian’s Analysis of Fixed Length Sanctions

2. The starting point for my previous discussion was an analysis by the Guardian (18 April 2011) of the incidence of fixed length sanctions in relation to local unemployment across local authority areas. It concluded that “the regions with high sanction referral rates tend to be more deprived areas”. It attached a spreadsheet.23 From the data provided I calculated that the correlation across local authority areas between the local unemployment rate and fixed length sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants was 0.35 for referrals and 0.33 for adverse decisions. These are modest correlations but statistically significant.

3. However, these correlations are too low. The Guardian compared cumulative fixed length sanctions for each local authority over the whole period April 2000 to October 2010 inclusive, with the DWP’s count of the number of JSA claimants at August 2010 and ONS’s model-based estimate of ILO unemployment for the year to September 2010 (which was missing for 12 authorities). This is not comparing like with like, and in addition the DWP count is defective (see Appendix). I have recalculated the correlations using means for the whole period April 2000 to October 2010 for both JSA claimants (on the superior ONS count) and the unemployment rate.24 This produces higher correlations of 0.42 for both referrals and fixed length sanctions, thus confirming the Guardian’s result but making it rather stronger.

Geographical Variations in Sanctions/Disallowances by Reason:
A Fuller Analysis for the Period April 2000 to October 2012

4. I have now carried out an analysis of the relationship between sanctions/disallowances and the local unemployment rate across local authorities and regions, for each of the main categories of sanction/disallowance individually. Like the Guardian, I have only been able to do this on the basis of cumulative figures for the whole period from April 2000 to the latest month recorded, currently October 2012. This is due to limitations of the DWP’s Tabtool. Correlations for local authorities and regions of the monthly rates of sanctions/disallowances as a proportion of JSA claimants (ONS count) with the local mean working age resident-based unemployment rate are shown in Table 1.

The total for all types of sanction/disallowance

5. The correlation across regions between the total of all types of sanction and disallowance and the local unemployment rate is rather low, at 0.21, and is not statistically significant. Across local authorities it is effectively non-existent. For referrals, both correlations are actually negative, with that for local authorities being statistically significant.

6. However, closer examination shows that different types of sanction/disallowance relate differently to the local level of unemployment.

Varied length sanctions

7. The most striking feature of Table 1 is that for varied length sanctions, referrals and actual sanctions are quite strongly correlated negatively with the local unemployment rate (-0.50 to -0.76), at both local authority and regional level. In other words the higher is local unemployment, the lower is the proportion of claimants subjected to varied length sanctions. The main sanctions of this type are for giving up a job voluntarily without what officials consider a good reason, or losing it through misconduct; and for “neglect to avail of an opportunity”, ie doing something to undermine an opportunity of employment (such as turning up for interview inappropriately dressed), or refusing an offer of a job. These types of sanction are also each individually correlated negatively with the local unemployment rate, at both the local authority and the regional level (-0.28 to -0.87), and almost all the correlations are statistically significant. It was noted in the main evidence (22 May, para.10) that time series data show that disqualifications for “voluntary leaving” and “misconduct” fall during periods when it is more difficult to get another job. The negative correlation coefficients here indicate that this applies across areas as well as over time, in other words people are more careful to hold on to a job in areas where it is difficult to get another. In the case of “neglect to avail” and refusal of a job, there are likely to be two factors operating: in high unemployment areas, officials will have fewer vacancies to offer claimants, and claimants will also be less likely to turn down or spoil an opportunity.

Sanctions for non-attendance at advisory interviews

8. The penalty for non-attendance (which includes unpunctuality) at advisory interviews changed in April 2010 from disentitlement to a fixed length sanction. It makes sense therefore to make a separate analysis for this type of “offence” by combining the data for these penalties for the whole period April 2000 to October 2012, ignoring the distinction between disentitlement and sanction.

9. The resulting correlations with local unemployment of penalties for non-attendance at advisory interviews are quite different at regional and local authority level. For both referrals for sanction and actual sanctions, there are strong positive correlations at regional level (+0.58 and +0.64 respectively), with the latter statistically significant, but no correlation at local authority level. This suggests that claimants are generally treated more harshly in areas of high unemployment, either by being required to attend more interviews or by being more readily sanctioned for non-attendance or unpunctuality, but that there are substantial differences of practice between individual Jobcentre Plus offices.

Fixed length sanctions related to training and employment programmes

10. Fixed length sanctions other than those for not attending an advisory interview are incurred as a result of different kinds of non-participation in training and employment programmes (latterly including the Work Programme). These training and employment programme referrals and sanctions are correlated positively with the local unemployment rate at both the local authority and the regional level (+0.42 to +0.58), with the local authority level correlations both statistically significant. In other words, in respect of this type of sanction, the regime bears more harshly on claimants in areas of high unemployment. This is what the Guardian’s analysis found, although the effect is stronger than in the Guardian’s analysis, probably due mainly to removal of the confounding factor of the penalties for non-attendance at interview from April 2010.

11. One explanation for the harsher treatment of claimants in high unemployment areas in relation to this type of sanction would be if claimants are sent on training or employment programmes only after they have been unemployed for a significant time. Areas with a higher level of unemployment also have a higher proportion of long-term unemployed (Webster 2005). However, this explanation does not fit. Table 2 shows that, of claimants with a known duration, a majority given this type of sanction in 2000 to 2012 were unemployed for three months or less, and rates of sanction for long- and short-term unemployed claimants were similar. There must therefore be some other explanation.


12. Table 1 shows that disentitlements for not actively seeking work are not related to the local unemployment rate. The remaining types of entitlement decisions (ie excluding “actively seeking work” and non-attendance at interviews prior to April 2010) have only a slight relationship with the local unemployment rate.

Variations in Referrals for Sanction or Disallowance by Jobcentre Plus Office

13. On 15 May 2013 the DWP for the first time published the number of sanctions and disallowances for individual Jobcentre Plus offices.25 This publication gave figures for every month from April 2000 to 21 October 2012. In principle this information could throw some further light on variations in practice between areas.

14. To analyse these data, it was first necessary to obtain figures for the caseload of JSA claimants at each office, which the DWP did not publish. I therefore put in a Freedom of Information request for the Jobcentre caseload figures (2013–2296, 21 June 2013).26 Within the FoI cost limit, the DWP was able to supply figures only for the period 1 March 2008 to 21 October 2012.

15. It has not been possible to match up all of the offices for this period between the two sets of data, and the DWP also stated a number of provisos to the caseload figures. These points are explained further in the Appendix. Because of these limitations to the data, the results given here are for quarters, not months, and individual Jobcentres are not shown.

16. The results show that there is a wide range of variation between Jobcentres in the rate of referrals. Looking at the whole period from 3rd quarter 2010 (the first complete quarter under the Coalition) to 3rd quarter 2012 inclusive, out of 715 Jobcentres included in the analysis, there were 69 with an average rate of 12.0% or more of the stock of claimants per month, and 32 with 6.0% or fewer. The range of variation in actual sanctions/disallowances was narrower, with 72 Jobcentres having a rate of 6.0% per month or more and 62 with 3.0% or fewer.

17. Neil Couling, DWP’s Work Services Director, stated in May 2013 (Couling 2013, paras. 2.1, 4.2) that internal “benchmarks” or targets for sanctions (presumably referrals) were introduced in 1996 and abolished in April 2011, in favour of building a “freedom and flexibility approach”. It might be expected that the range of variability between Jobcentres would increase following the abolition of benchmarks. However, Table 3 and Figure 1 suggests that this has not occurred. The standard deviation, which is affected by the absolute level of referrals, has continued to rise and fall in line with the average, but in the latest quarter remained below the level of the 2nd quarter 2008, when the average was lower. The coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by the mean), which is a more appropriate measure in the present context, rose slightly in 2011 Q2 and 2011 Q3 but since then has fallen back clearly below the level of 2008 Q2 to 2010 Q1. Neither standard deviation nor coefficient of variation will be much affected by the limitations of the data. Neil Couling (par. 3.5) also said that “Looking at the data from London and the Homes Counties and across the UK it would appear that the response to the removal of sanctions benchmarks in 2011 was a marked reduction in sanctioning activity”. The decline in the two quarters following April 2011 was only in relation to the exceptionally high levels of the previous three quarters, and in any case total sanctions and disallowances have since risen again, to their highest level since the current statistical series began in 2000. It appears from this and from other evidence reported in the media that while there may be no numerical “targets”, there is pressure on staff to refer more claimants for sanction/disallowance.

18. Because different types of sanction/disallowance relate differently to differing labour market conditions, as discussed above, little more can usefully be said about variations between local offices unless or until the DWP releases local office data disaggregated by reason for sanction/disallowance.


19. The new analysis presented here shows that different types of sanction/disallowance relate differently to the local unemployment rate. Those related to leaving a job voluntarily or through misconduct, or to neglect to avail or refusal of a job opportunity, occur more often in areas where jobs are plentiful. By contrast, claimants are more often penalised for non-attendance or lateness at interviews, or for non-participation in training or employment schemes, in areas where jobs are scarce, although practice in relation to interviews appears to vary widely between local offices.

20. The analysis also shows that there is a lot of variability between Jobcentre Plus offices in the overall rate of referrals for sanction/disallowance. However, variability does not appear to have increased following the abolition of referral benchmarks in April 2011; instead, the average rate of referrals has increased and, taken together with other evidence reported in the media, this suggests general pressure on staff to increase sanction/disallowance referrals. Because of the different behaviour of different types of sanction/disallowance in relation to differing labour market conditions, figures for total sanctions and disallowances are of only limited usefulness and further analysis must await publication of data by individual reason.

21. The finding that disqualifications for voluntary leaving/misconduct vary inversely with the rate of unemployment across areas as well as over time appears to be new. It casts doubt on the rationale for these disqualifications and particularly for their severity. It is not clear why the State thinks it has an interest in discouraging the free movement of labour. This does not sit well with the prevailing rhetoric of the “flexible labour market”. Winston Churchill, responsible as President of the Board of Trade for the relevant part of the original 1911 Act, did not want these disqualifications but was persuaded otherwise by his permanent under-secretary (Gilbert 1966, pp.270–73). For 75 years the disqualification was fixed at six weeks. This was raised to up to 13 weeks in 1986 and then (in 1988) to up to 26 weeks, and is now 13 weeks. The relevant Ministers in the 1980s said they were concerned by an upward trend in these severances (Brown 1990, pp.189–91). However, they do not seem to have realised that this was simply a reversion to normal turnover after a big fall during the massive recession of the early Thatcher years. There is no evidence of any serious subsequent policy analysis of the issue, either in the DWP or elsewhere.


Brown, Joan C (1990). Victims or Villains? Social Security Benefits in Unemployment, York, Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust

Couling, Neil (2013). Conditionality and Sanctions, Report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Department for Work and Pensions, May, available at

Gilbert, Bentley B (1966). The Evolution of National Insurance in Great Britain: The Origins of the Welfare State, Michael Joseph (repr. Aldershot, Gregg Revivals 1993)

Webster, David (2005). “Long-Term Unemployment, the Invention of ‘Hysteresis’ and the Misdiagnosis of Structural Unemployment in the UK”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol.29 No.6, November, 975–95



The DWP spreadsheet published on 15 May 2013 gives the total number of sanctions/disallowances for each Jobcentre Plus office for each month from April 2000 to 21 October 2012. Over this period there have been many openings and closures of offices, so that the total number of offices listed is around twice the actual number of 740 Jobcentres at March 2013. The DWP spreadsheet of 21 June 2013 giving the number of claimants at each office covers the period only from March 2008 to 21 October 2013. This reduces the problem of matching Jobcentres between the two sets of data. However, a complete match has still not been possible. There are a number of dubious cases, usually where a Jobcentre’s caseload was apparently being run down in the months prior to closure or being built up after opening. In addition to those shown as “dormant” by DWP, the following offices have been omitted from the analysis: Leicester Eldon St, Derby Becket St, Nottingham Watercourt, Camberwell, Deptford, Feltham, Whitstable, Grimsby Crown House, Cockermouth, Millom, Aberdeen Chapel St, Dundee Gellatly St, Shawlands, Blackpool Tyldesley Rd, Walthamstow Forest Rd. In addition, the allocation of sanctions/disallowances and caseload between individual Jobcentres in a given town sometimes appears not to match. In these cases the data for the Jobcentres within the town or city have been combined. Figures for offices in the following towns have been added together: Lincoln, Mansfield, Luton and Dunstable, Harrow, Halifax, Milton Keynes, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Newport.

In relation to the spreadsheet of 21 June 2013 giving the number of claimants at each office from March 2008 to 21 October 2012, the DWP has stated a number of provisos:

The figures have not been quality assured to National Statistics or Official Statistics publication standard.

They have been created by matching data derived from the Jobseeker’s Allowance Payment System (JSAPS) and the Labour Market System (LMS). These systems are used to administer the claim process and are subject to user imputation errors. Therefore matching between these two data sources can result in incorrect or nonmatches. They should therefore be treated with caution. My understanding is that it is imputation errors which have caused small numbers of claimants (usually 10, but sometimes 20 or more) to appear at offices which were otherwise dormant. I have ignored these. The presence of these errors implies that the figures generally are not correct to the nearest 10, but have a somewhat wider margin of error. This however is still presumably quite small.

The number of sanctions and disallowance referrals in each month is taken from the date on which the decision was made. For a number of reasons the claimant may no longer be claiming JSA at this point therefore a direct comparison may not be valid. The ONS claimant count measures “live” claimants on the second Thursday of the month, whereas DWP JSA statistics measures “live” claimants on the last day of the month. To ensure that any timing issues are negligible, the analysis here relates to quarters rather than individual months.

DWP JSA statistics only include computer processed claims. This is in contrast to the ONS claimant count, which includes claims which are processed clerically. The DWP JSA statistics allow at least nine weeks for late processed claims to be input onto the DWP computer systems, whereas the ONS claimant count statistics only allow approximately three weeks. At Great Britain level over the period March 2008 to October 2012, the NOMIS (ONS) claimant total is about 2% greater than the DWP total. This difference would not matter very much if every Jobcentre had the same proportion of total claims processed by computer. But this does not seem likely, nor does it appear to be the case. I established from NOMIS, who publish the ONS claimant figures online, that the last time they made changes to their Jobcentre boundaries was in May 2008. I then made a comparison between the DWP FoI caseload figures and the NOMIS claimant figures for individual Jobcentres in March–May 2008. It was not possible to match up all the Jobcentres. However, it is likely that the great majority of them had the same boundaries during these three months. The comparison shows that the ratio of the DWP to the NOMIS figure varied quite widely between offices. The median ratio was 0.94 or 0.95 and the interquartile range was 0.06 or 0.07. In other words there were a lot of Jobcentres where the undercount of claimants was 6% or 7% greater than in a lot of other Jobcentres, and some where the difference was even bigger. This problem presumably also affects the DWP’s own internal management information.

Table 1


Guardian analysis, †
Local authorities cumulative
Apr 2000–Oct 2010

Local authorities cumulative
Apr 2000–Oct 2012

Regions cumulative
Apr 2000–Oct 2012












All varied length sanctions





All fixed length sanctions







All entitlement decisions





Voluntary leaving/Misconduct





Neglect to avail of opportunity/Refusal of employment





Failure to attend advisory interview §





Fixed length sanctions related to training & employment schemes





(Not) Actively seeking work





Entitlement decisions excluding Actively Seeking Work & FTA interview





Guardian analysis altered by the present author as described in the text

§ Apr 2000–Mar 2010: Entitlement decision; Apr 2010–Oct 2012: Fixed length sanction

Unemployment rate is claimant unemployed as a percentage of residents aged 16–64, average for Apr 2000–Oct 2012, supplied by NOMIS

* significant at 0.05 level ** significant at 0.01 level *** significant at 0.001 level n = 379 (LAs), 11 (Regions)

Table 2


Percentage of total sanctions

Sanctions per month as a percentage of claimants




Up to 2 weeks



Up to one month/four weeks



One to three months



Three to six months



Six months to one year



Over one year






Sources: Sanctions—DWP Tabtool; claimants by duration—NOMIS. DWP uses the category “up to one month” while NOMIS has “up to 4 weeks”. This difference has been ignored.

Table 3



Mean (GB)

Standard deviation

Coefficient of variation

2008 Q2












2009 Q1
















2010 Q1
















2011 Q1
















2012 Q1












Sources: Sanctions & disallowances—DWP spreadsheet, 15 May 2013; claimants—DWP spreadsheet–20132296, 21 June 2013

Figure 1

Source: As Table 3.


1 There were some small-scale uses of what would now be called “sanctions”, ie financial penalties aimed at making claimants do a particular thing, from 1930, although they were called “disqualifications”. The term “sanction” was not used until much later.

2 For instance, the Minister of State said on 19 March (col. 828) that “While the vast majority of jobseekers live up to their part of the contract, there are a small minority (emphasis added) who are reluctant to do everything they can reasonably be expected to do to get back into work.”

3 DWP FoI Response 2012-4383, 21 December 2012

4 The claimant unemployment rate is used in this chart simply because it fits better. The claimant rate, while much lower than the true ILO unemployment rate, is very highly correlated with it.


6 The percentage of male claimants refused UB because of voluntary leaving or misconduct fell from 6.1 in November 1974 to 0.3 in February 1982 (Department of Health & Social Security, Unemployment Benefit Summary Statistics, November 1983, p.3). Fenn (1980, p.251) concluded from his study of unemployment benefit disqualifications covering Great Britain in 1960 to 1976 that “employees appear to quit more often in periods of high demand for labour”. Also, the Ministry of Labour’s Annual Reports showed the number of disqualifications by Courts of Referees for voluntary leaving or misconduct more than doubling during the recovery from the Great Depression from a low of 99,053 in 1932 to 203,298 in 1938.

7 Deacon (1976)

8 Although “Actively seeking work” is an entitlement condition, it has in effect been turned into a sanction issue because claimants are made to make and document arbitrarily large numbers of job applications. To be unemployed on the ILO definition it is necessary only to have taken an action to look for work in the last 4 weeks.

9 DWP Press Release, 15 May 2013

10 At the time of writing the Guardian spreadsheet was still available at

11 The DWP Tabtool gives ethnic group and disability status for those sanctioned/disallowed, but not for all JSA claimants. This information can be obtained for ethnic group from May 2005 onwards from NOMIS, but not for disability.

12 Observers do not appear to have noticed that the Netherlands sanctions regime described by Abbring et al (2005), was much milder than the UK regime, even before the changes of October 2012. Yet it was apparently “effective” in the terms defined by those authors.

13 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development-Success Factors, Labour Market Outlook, Spring 2013, p.2. Bryson & Jacobs (1992) commented as follows (p.158): “It is sometimes regarded as self-evident that claimants’ requirement to seek out vacancies benefits employers in filling vacancies. This view was not supported by employers…..There was some irritation expressed at the number of jobcentre applications received from unsuitable candidates, one or two saying that they felt like they were running their own jobcentre” and (p.199) “there were concerns that benefit penalties compounded employers’ difficulties in weeding out unsuitable candidates”. I have not found any more recent research on this point.

14 Citizens Advice Bureau, Conditionality and sanctions in the Welfare Reform Bill, n.d., pp. 2–3 (on web, accessed 22/5/2013)

15 Citizens Advice Bureau survey, reported in the Glasgow Herald, 25 March 2013. See also Citizens Advice Scotland (2012b)

16 See also the case history in Saunders et al (2001, p.38)

17 This evidence has appeared particularly in the Guardian (search Google on “Guardian sanctions”) but also for instance in the Glasgow Herald, Stephen Naysmith, “Scots jobless ‘targeted with benefit penalties’”, 29 March 2013, and very widely on the web in postings which are too numerous to list. See also Citizens Advice Scotland (2012a), p.3, (2012c) passim and (2013) p.6. I have also had many personal accounts given to me, usually at reliable second hand.

18 Vincent (1998) found that “nearly all” those sanctioned or disallowed thought it unfair.

19 Bryson & Jacobs (1992), particularly pp. 81-87, 91, 104, 110-12.

20 Neil Couling, the DWP’s Work Services Director, has recently drawn attention to the hostility created by sanctions (Couling 2013, para. 3.14): “One unintended consequence of the publicity about these issues (ie sanctions ‘league tables’ etc) has been to raise some additional health and safety questions in jobcentres. The applications of sanctions and conditionality already generates a significant number of incidents and there is a strong likelihood that this media attention and comment in Parliament will serve to exacerbate these risks”.

21 The “nudge unit” is officially known as the Behavioural Insights Team, overseen by the Cabinet Office.

22; For Essex see Daniel Boffey, “Writing exercises help jobseekers find work, claims government’s nudge unit”, Observer, 29 December 2012,; Oliver Wright, “Job seekers get a nudge in planning to find work”, Independent, 8 March 2013,; Hannah Kuchler, “Jobcentres try ‘nudging’ the workless”, Financial Times, 20 March 2013, For the North East see “‘Mumbo-jumbo’ personality tests for jobseekers criticised by Labour”, BBC News, 30 April 2013,

23 At the time of writing the Guardian spreadsheet was still available at

24 The mean number of JSA claimants and the unemployment rate were both provided by NOMIS, the latter using as denominator the number of residents aged 16-64. It is not possible to obtain an average for the ONS model-based ILO unemployment rate for local authorities over any lengthy period of years because figures are unavailable for many local authorities for many years. An awkward feature of the Guardian’s analysis is that the composition of fixed length sanctions was not the same throughout the period April 2000 to October 2010. Prior to April 2010, failure to attend an interview (the most common type of sanction) attracted disentitlement. Only from April 2010 were these “failure to attend” cases included within fixed length sanctions. It has not been possible to alter this feature of the Guardian’s analysis because the data for April 2000 to October 2010 can no longer be retrieved from the DWP Tabtool.

25 Available at

26 Available at

1 Ev w90

Prepared 27th January 2014