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Comparative studies, Research, Social security and welfare benefits

Benefit sanctions: Is the UK an outlier?

UKAJI Blog madler

by Michael Adler

This blog post is based on a paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Socio-Legal Studies Association, held at the University of Lancaster from 5th to 7th April 2015. The author is Emeritus Professor of Socio-Legal Studies in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. In the paper, he highlights the enormous growth in the severity, the scope and the incidence of benefit sanctions in the UK since the turn of the century, and asks whether, in terms of conditionality and sanctions, the UK is in line with the major European countries or whether it is an outlier. He wishes to thank Professor Lars Inge Terum, Oslo and Akershus University College, for his input to the paper.

In an article that will be published in the summer,[1] I drew attention to the spectacular increase in the scope, severity and incidence of benefit sanctions in the UK in the last ten years. ‘Scope’ refers to the circumstances in which the penalty can be applied; ‘severity’ refers to the harshness of the penalty; and ‘incidence’ refers to the number of people who receive the penalty.


In the past, benefit sanctions were passive and were mainly applied for ex-ante offences, e.g. leaving work voluntarily, losing one’s job as a result of ‘misconduct’ or not being available for work. Now they are also active and are mainly applied for ex-post offences, e.g. not for ‘actively seeking work’, failure to participate in a training or employment scheme, or missing an appointment. They used to be applied only to those in the labour market, i.e. to the ‘unemployed’. Now they are also applied to those outside the labour market, e.g. to single parents and long-term disabled people. In the past, they were applied only to applicants for insurance benefits. Now they can now be applied to anyone in receipt of out-of-work benefits.


Benefit sanctions applied for 1-6 weeks (until 1986), for 1-13 weeks (1986- 1988) and for 1-26 weeks (since 1988) but, since 2015, they apply for periods of 4 weeks (for a first offence) to 156 weeks, for repeat offences, i.e. for periods of up to 3 years. Formerly, sanctioned claimants had a right to claim assistance benefits immediately. Now they can apply for discretionary ‘hardship payments’ only after two weeks.


Sanctions and disqualifications for unemployed in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) increased from 300,000 in 2001 to over 1,000,000 in 2013 ‒ an increase of almost 250 percent. During this period, disabled persons who are in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and single parents in receipt of Income Support (IS), who are not required to register for work, can also be subjected to benefit sanctions. By 2012, more people were subjected to benefit sanctions than were fined in the criminal courts. This can be seen from Figure 1 below, which also shows that the number of benefit sanctions has fallen since 2014 when unemployment and JSA caseload started to decline.

Figure 1: The Incidence of Court Fines and Benefit Sanctions 2000-2014Screenshot 2016-04-11 10.11.37

Note: The data on court fines refer to England and Wales only, while the data on benefit sanctions refer to Great Britain since there is a separate social security system in Northern Ireland.

From the above, it should be clear that benefit sanctions in the UK are now:

  • very much wider in scope (in that they are applied to more misdemeanours);
  • very much greater in severity (in that they apply for longer periods);
  • very extensive in their incidence (in spite of the welcome decline since 2013, they still apply to many more people than was the case ten years ago).

In my paper, I compared benefit sanctions with parking penalties and court fines and concluded, inter alia, that they were disproportionate and that they cause enormous hardship. In addition, recent evidence suggests that they are very ineffective. Using data compiled by Jobcentre Plus staff, a recent study[1] found that, for each 100 adverse sanction decisions, about 7.4 claimants moved into employment whereas 35.9 claimants moved into ‘unknown destinations’. It is reasonable to assume that they ‘dropped out’. The question addressed in this paper is whether the UK is an outlier or whether the sanctions regime in the UK is much like those in other European countries.

Our answer to this question draws on a recent OECD report.[2] This report is based on a study of conditionality and sanctions in unemployment benefit schemes in forty countries in 2014. Six indicators of the strictness of conditionality and five indicators of scope and severity of sanctions were compiled by country experts. Each indicator uses a 1-5 scale, where 1 is the lowest score and 5 is the highest score on each variable. Data are based on legislation or guidelines for the highest tier of unemployment benefit, even where more unemployed persons are in receipt of a lower-tier benefit. However, it should be acknowledged that there is no information on implementation and, in the case of sanctions, this is quite a serious limitation since the seriousness of the sanctions depends on how the rules are implemented. The report does not include any data on the incidence of sanctions, and it appears to be the case that comparative data on incidence are not collected, either by OECD or by anyone else.

The focus in this paper is on six countries − France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK – since the research on which the paper is based will be included in a chapter of a book on ‘austerity and social rights’ in these six countries that I and my Norwegian colleague[3] are writing. In the analysis below, we use nine of the eleven indicators.[4]

Conditionality entails sanctions, and it is hard to envisage the former without the latter. The data set out in Tables 1-3 below make it possible to explore the relationship between them.

Table 1: The Strictness of Conditionality in Six Countries

  France Germany Italy Spain Sweden UK
Availability requirements            
during ALMP 4 5 4 1 5  
occupational mobility 3 4 4 2 4  
geographical mobility 1.5 3 3 2 3  
Job search/monitoring requirements            
Job search monitoring 4 3 1 1 4 5
Documentation of activity 3 4 1 2 4 3.5
Mean score 3.1 3.8 2.6 1.6 4.0 3.9

The strictness of conditionality scores range from a low of 1.6 in Spain to a high of 4.0 in Sweden.

Table 2: The Strictness of Sanctions in Six Countries

  France Germany Italy Spain Sweden UK
for refusing job offers            
first refusal 1 1 4 3 1 3
repeated refusal 3 2.5 4 4.5 3 4.5
for refusing to participate in ALMPs            
first refusal 1 1 4 2 1 1
repeated refusal 3 2.5 4 4.5 3 3
mean score 2.0 1.8 4.0 3.5 2.0 3.1

The strictness of sanctions scores range from a low of 1.8 in Germany to a high of 4.0 in Italy.

Table 3: The Relationship between the Strictness of Conditionality and the Strictness of Sanctions in Six Countries

  France Germany Italy Spain Sweden UK
Conditionality 3.1 3.8 2.6 1.6 4.0 3.5
Sanctions 2.0 1.8 4.0 4.5 3.0 3.0
Conditionality 3 4 2 1 6 5
Sanctions 2 1 6 5 2 4

Spain and Italy are least strict in terms of conditionality and most strict in terms of sanctions. On the other hand, Germany and Sweden are very strict in terms of conditionality sanctions but least strict in terms of sanctions. This implies that the relationship between conditionality and sanctions is not a straightforward one.

The UK is pretty strict in terms of both conditionality and sanctions. In fact, among the forty countries in Langenbucher’s study, only Slovenia, Luxemburg, Portugal, Croatia, Estonia and Malta (all of them very small countries) are stricter than the UK.[5] All the large European countries are less strict in terms of both conditionality and sanctions than the UK. In addition, the UK was the only country to increase the severity of conditionality and sanctions in the period since 2011. Compared to all the major European countries, it is clear that the UK is an outlier.

The impact of sanctions is based partly on the rules themselves and partly on how they are implemented, about which, as I have explained, there is no information. But it is also based on the structure of unemployment protection. All countries have unemployment insurance (UI) schemes and most have unemployment assistance (UA) schemes, Some countries also have social assistance (SA) schemes run by local authorities. These can be seen to constitute a hierarchy with UI schemes on the top, in that they are most generous and least stigmatised, and SA schemes on the bottom, in that they are least generous and most stigmatised. UA schemes come in the middle.

The impact of sanctions depends on whether people who are sanctioned from a higher-tier scheme can claim support, albeit probably at a lower level, from a lower-tier (safety net) scheme. The structure of unemployment protection in the six countries is set out in Table 4 below.

Table 4: The structure of unemployment protection[6]

  France Germany Italy Spain Sweden UK
1st tier unemployment insurance unemployment benefit I unemployment benefit unemployment insurance earnings-related contribution-based JSA & income-based JSA
2nd tier unemployment assistance unemployment benefit II   unemployment assistance flat-rate basic allowance (not means-tested)
3rd tier social assistance administered by municipalities   [introduced in 1998, abolished in 2004]   administered by municipalities residual hardship fund administered by DWP
  3-tier 2-tier 1-tier 2 tier 3-tier 1-tier plus

Other things being equal, it would seem that the same level of sanctions in UI would have most impact in Italy, which has a one-tier system of unemployment protection, followed by the UK and Germany, and least impact in France (which has a three-tier system). Unfortunately, this only strengthens the conclusion that, in terms of the strictness of conditionality, the UK is an outlier and raises the question of why the UK needs to be so punitive when comparator countries, like France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, are clearly less so.


[1]        Loopstra, R., Reeves, A., McKee, M. and Suckler, D. (2015) ‘Do punitive approaches to unemployment benefit recipients increase welfare exit and unemployment: A cross-area analysis of UK sanctioning reforms’, Sociology Working Paper 2015-01, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, available at http://www.sociology.ox.ac.uk/working-papers/do-punitive-approaches-to-unemployment-benefit-recipients-increase-welfare-exit-and-employment-a-cross-area-analysis-of-uk-sanctioning-reforms.html.

[2]        Langenbucher, K. (2015) ‘How demanding are eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits − quantitative indicators for OECD and EU countries’, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Papers, No. 166.

[3]        Lars Inge Terum, Oslo and Akershus University College.

[4]        ‘Other valid reasons for refusing employment’ and ‘Sanctions for voluntary unemployment’ were omitted from the analyses in this paper.

[5]        Based on the full set of 11 indicators of the strictness of conditionality and sanctions. See Langenbucher (2015), Figure 5.

[6]        Information taken from Clasen, J. and Clegg, D. (eds.) (2011) Regulating the Risk of Unemployment, Oxford: OUP.

[1]        Adler, M. (2016) ‘A New Leviathan: Benefit Sanctions in the 21st Century’, Journal of Law and Society, 43(2), 195-227.


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