New polling reveals scale of public support for suspending benefit sanctions during the pandemic

19 November 2020

New online research for Rethink Mental Illness shows a majority of 6 in 10 UK adults (59%) support their call for the government to suspend sanctions on claimants of Universal Credit for the next six months. Only 13% of UK adults opposed the move.

The YouGov polling revealed that more than twice as many UK adults who voted Conservative in 2019 (49%) support a pause to sanctions compared to those who oppose it (22%).

As the country faces a difficult winter, Rethink Mental Illness is highlighting the injustice that people supported by the social security system live in fear of losing their benefits while the nation continues to reel from the impact of the pandemic.

The charity, supported by 18 leading organisations, including Mind, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Benefits Consortium, is calling on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to bring back the emergency pause on benefit sanctions and conditionality for six months to support social security system claimants through the challenging months ahead by providing the reassurance and clarity they need.

The call follows the news last week that the Department for Work and Pensions extended benefit sanctions as England entered a new lockdown, meaning sick or disabled people are at risk of lost or capped benefits if they miss a benefits assessment on the telephone.

Sanctions were reintroduced at the start of July after a three-month pause at the outbreak of the pandemic, despite rising levels of unemployment and an increasing number of people reporting a deterioration in their mental health.

The 19 organisations are calling on ministers to:

  • Bring back the emergency pause on benefit sanctions and employment-related conditionality for 6 months. We need to give people supported by benefits the clarity they urgently need. 
  • Improve employment support for people living with mental illness. 
  • Use the pause to set out how they will end sanctions for disabled people for good.   

Mark Winstanley, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness, said:

“The government acted quickly to do the right thing and suspend sanctions at the outset of the pandemic, and there’s no appetite from any political quarter to punish people who will struggle to find work in the current climate of cuts and uncertainty.

“A pause in sanctions would be a welcome move to provide greater clarity and reassurance to people supported by benefits.

“If there is to be a silver lining in the challenges we face at the moment, it could be the opportunity to pause and develop plans which could create a more compassionate social security system, ending sanctions for disabled people such as those living with mental illness”.

Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Glasgow, said:

“There is a lot of evidence of the damage that sanctions cause, particularly to vulnerable claimants, and not just to people who are actually sanctioned. While the numbers of sanctions have fallen, the environment for claimants remains very threatening, from the start of their claim.

“With the pandemic continuing to undermine many people’s mental health, the government should pause the whole system and embark on a redesign around the reality, which is that the overwhelming majority of claimants genuinely want to work and their primary need is for employment support.”

Kelly, age 20, who has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and claims Universal Credit, said:

“The thought that I could be sanctioned for one missed call terrifies me. I missed a call from the DWP about a week ago and it made me feel anxious for the entire day. It’s really hard to find work because of the pandemic and I’ve found the process to claim Universal Credit more confusing, difficult and scarier than it needs to be. It has a massive impact on my mental health at a time when I’m already struggling.”