Tougher benefit sanctions: another bout of policy amnesia?

The government’s recent ‘Back to Work’ plan is discussed and critiqued in light of the available evidence by Y-PERN Policy Fellow Dr Jamie Redman alongside fellow Sheffield Hallam University colleagues Dr Richard Crisp and Dr Elizabeth Sanderson.

On November 22 2023, following publication of the Autumn Statement, central government outlined the latest plans to improve productivity and strengthen the national economy. These plans converge around several key policy intervention areas, which include building a sustainable domestic energy programme, delivering a world-class education system, reducing public debt, removing barriers to investment, cutting taxes for both businesses and working people, and reforming the social security system to tackle rising levels of health-related economic inactivity[1].

At the crux of government’s strategy to tackle economic inactivity is their latest ‘Back to Work plan’. It comprises a programme of investment in talking therapies and personalised support backed up by a ‘stricter benefit regime’, with greater digital powers conferred to frontline staff for monitoring compliance at jobs fairs/interviews and tougher benefit sanctions, which now include potential loss of access to medical prescriptions for failures to comply with work-related obligations[2].

“Stricter benefit regimes are overwhelmingly harmful, not helpful, to those who are subjected to them”

Jamie Redman, Richard Crisp & Elizabeth Sanderson

There is good evidence that access to personalised support and talking therapies can help those out of work with health conditions to take steps back towards employment[3]. This is critical at a time when levels of economic inactivity due to ill-health are at record levels[4]. However, this works best as part of a voluntary approach where those receiving support are able to build relationships of trust with key workers, and take steps to return to work that do not undermine wellbeing or recovery from health conditions.

This kind of personalised support will be available through the Back to work Plan but, critically, is underpinned by a regime of conditionality and sanctions that is being ratcheted up to ensure compliance with job-search expectations. 

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mel Stride says that the Back to Work plan will deliver three outcomes: helping people to “stay healthy”, “move off benefits”, and “move in to work”[5]. Unfortunately, we’ve been here before – several times since the Lloyd George administration ushered in the Genuinely Seeking Work Test in 1921[6]. Previous research on similar rounds of welfare reform – including research conducted internally by DWP[7] – shows that only one of these outcomes usually occurs.

Stricter benefit regimes, including the hidden managerial methods ministers press through Jobcentre Plus to ensure frontline staff administer conditionality and sanctions, are effective at getting claimants to “move off benefits”[8].  They are far less effective at getting people to “move in to work” [9], particularly the secure, well-paid types of jobs conducive to wellbeing. They are wholly ineffective at helping people to “stay healthy”.

The opposite is usually true. Stricter benefit regimes have been found to increase poverty and destitution; exacerbate mental and physical ill health; lead some to engage in ‘survival crime’ or to disengage from support altogether[10]; and have been identified by families of the deceased as a key determinant behind a series of benefit-related deaths and suicides[11].

The message from activists, academics and even some (former) staff within the Department for Work and Pensions is one now repeated beyond exhaustion, but also one that is still ignored by central government – stricter benefit regimes are overwhelmingly harmful, not helpful, to those who are subjected to them. If government are genuinely serious about improving health and employment outcomes of the UK’s most disadvantaged groups, then they could start by acknowledging their own evidence base.


[2] HM Treasury (2023) Employment support launched for over a million people. Retrieved from:

[3] Batty, E, Crisp, R, Gilbertson, J et al. (2022) Working Well Early Help: Final Annual Report 2022. Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research: Sheffield Hallam University.

[4] HoC (2023: 34) Plans for Jobs and employment support. House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. Retrieved from:


[6] Deacon, A. (1976) In search of the scrounger. Occasional Papers on Social Administration. No.60. London: G. Bell & Sons

[7] DWP (2023) The Impact of Benefit Sanctions on Employment Outcomes. Retrieved from:

[8] Loopstra, R., Reeves, A., McKee, M. et al. (2015), Do Punitive Approaches to Unemployment Benefit Recipients Increase Welfare Exit and Employment? Oxford: Department of Sociology; see also Deacon (1976: 9)

[9] DWP (2023); Loopstra et al (2015)

[10] Welfare Conditionality (2018) Final Findings Report 2013-2018. London: ESRC; Batty E, Beatty C, Casey R, et al. (2015) Homeless People’s Experiences of Welfare Conditionality and Benefit Sanctions. London: Crisis.

[11] Deaths by Welfare project:

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