When you apply for certain benefits, you will have agreed to a number of conditions, such as spending a set number of hours looking for work or attending a series of meetings.

If you do not uphold these conditions, you might receive a benefit sanction and your benefits could either be reduced or stopped entirely.

In the Spring Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt outlined that sanctions were going to start being applied “more rigourously to those who fail to meet strict work-search requirements or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer”. There is no clear guidance on what this means in reality, so it’s important to understand what might trigger a benefit sanction.

While it may feel scary to think about your benefits being withdrawn, there are a number of things you can do to make sure you keep up with your conditions so that you don’t receive a sanction, as well as some other sources of assistance if you do receive one.

Here we explain what a sanction is, what causes them and what you can do if you get one.

What is a benefit sanction?

A benefit sanction can reduce or stop your benefit payments if you don’t follow certain rules or perform certain activities that you agreed to when you started receiving your benefits.

The main benefits that sanctions can be applied to are Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. For each of these types of benefits, you will have signed a ‘claimant commitment’ which outlines the activities you will have committed to, which usually include things like attending certain meetings or searching for work for a set amount of time each week. If you don’t stick to these, you could face benefit sanctions.

When you receive a benefit sanction, you are sent a letter by the benefits office that provides your payments telling you why you are receiving the sanction, how much your benefits will be reduced by and for how long. There will also be details on the letter explaining how to appeal against the decision if you don’t agree with it.

How much will a benefit sanction be and how long will it last?

If you’ve had a sanction applied to your benefits claim, the money you receive as a benefit payment will either reduce or stop entirely for a period of time. The specific amount of time and how much your benefit might be reduced by will depend on which benefit you receive, the level of sanction that has been applied, your age and whether you’re single or in a couple.

Universal Credit sanctions

Everyone who claims Universal Credit (UC) has different circumstances, so there isn’t one specific reason that you might receive a sanction, but if you don’t carry out the duties that you signed up to in your claimant commitment, you could be sanctioned.

The sanction can reduce the UC payment you receive by up to 100% for a single claimant or up to 50% for each member of a couple. So, if you are 25 and over, your UC sanction could cost you:

  • £11 per day if you are single for as long as your sanction lasts
  • £8.70 per day if you are in a couple and only one of you has been sanctioned.

Only the Standard Allowance portion of your UC payment should be reduced, so if you receive any of the additional elements for housing or children, these shouldn’t be affected by the sanction.

The length of time the sanction runs for will depend on what level of sanction is applied to your benefit:

1) High level UC sanctions

The sort of things that might trigger a high level sanction on your UC are if you don’t apply for a job, reject a job offer or if you leave your job without a good reason. They will usually last for 91 days, but if you’ve already had a high level sanction in the past year, it could last for 182 days.

2) Medium level UC sanctions

You might get a medium level UC sanction if you haven’t done enough to look for work or are unavailable for work. This level of sanction usually lasts for 28 days, but if you’ve already had a medium level sanction in the last year, it might last for 91 days.

3) Low level UC sanctions

This level of UC sanction covers the rest of the failures to meet your claimant commitment, including:

  • Not attending a work interview
  • Not signing on when you are supposed to
  • Not providing the evidence that you need to or that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has asked for
  • Not attending a course that you have been recommended to go to as part of your work preparation.

Low level sanctions will usually be for a fixed period of time, usually seven days plus the time it takes you to correct the failure.

Job Seekers Allowance sanctions

If a sanction is applied to your Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) payments, it will apply to the full amount of your personal allowance for as long as the sanction lasts. So if you are single, you won’t receive your JSA payment and if you are in a couple, are claiming jointly and one of you receives a sanction, that half of the payment will stop for the duration of the sanction.

How long your JSA sanction lasts will depend on what level of sanction you receive. There are three different levels:

1) Higher level JSA sanction

If you leave a job of your own accord, lose your job because of misconduct or fail to take up a job or carry out work activities without a good reason, you might get a higher level JSA sanction. This sanction will last for 13 weeks for the first failure and 26 weeks for a second failure.

2) Intermediate level JSA sanction

This level of sanction will usually happen after your JSA has been disallowed. This effectively means that when you last tried to claim JSA, the Department for Work and Pensions found that you weren’t available for work or that you weren’t actively seeking work and so your claim wasn’t granted (disallowed). After being disallowed, when your next claim is approved, an intermediate level sanction will be applied to your next payment. This sanction will last for four weeks for a first failure and 13 weeks for any further failures within 52 weeks of the last failure.

3) Lower level JSA sanction

If as part of your JSA claim you are asked to do something that will improve your chances of finding work, such as training or interviews, and you don’t do it, you might has a lower level JSA sanction applied to your benefits. Lower level JSA sanctions will usually last for four weeks for a first failure and 13 weeks for any further failures within 52 weeks of the last failure.

Employment and Support Allowance sanctions

If you are in the work-related activity group for your Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and you don’t carry out the work-related activities that you are meant to, an open-ended sanction may be applied to your benefit, which can affect 100% of your ESA payment.

This essentially means that the sanction will carry on for as long as it takes you to correct the issue that caused the sanction in the first place, such as attending an interview or a training course. Once you have corrected the issue, an extra fixed-period sanction will be added. This part of the sanction will last for one week for a first failure, two weeks for a second failure, and four weeks for a further failure within 52 weeks.

How to appeal against a benefit sanction

If you’ve been told that your benefits are going to have a sanction applied to them and you don’t agree with this, you will need to raise your concerns through what’s known as a ‘mandatory reconsideration’. You can do this by contacting the benefits office that issues your benefit by letter, over the phone or by filling out this form and submitting it to them. You will need to provide evidence as to why you think the sanction is incorrect, so it’s worthwhile gathering anything you think could support your argument.

Reasons that you might want to raise a mandatory reconsideration include:

  • You carried out the activity that the DWP says you didn’t
  • You have a good reason for not having carried out the activity, such as illness, disability, or personal crises
  • The sanction is for a clause that wasn’t in your claimant commitment, or you think the clause should not have been included in your commitment in the first place

Once you submit your mandatory reconsideration, it will be processed and deliberated on, and you will be notified of the decision. If you are unhappy with the outcome, you will then be able to appeal to a tribunal, which you can do through this online form or by printing off this form and posting it.

If you need any help with your appeal, you can contact your local Citizens Advice who can advise you on your particular situation.

How to avoid getting a benefit sanction

Although it may seem obvious, the best way to avoid getting a benefit sanction is to comply with all of the clauses of your claimant commitment.

So if there’s anything you aren’t sure about in your commitment, make sure you ask your work coach or Jobcentre advisor to explain it or let them know if there’s anything you can’t do.

It can be useful to keep a calendar for all dates for meetings, appointments and interviews that you have to go to so that you can keep track of everything. It also means that if you can’t attend one of these you can give as much notice as possible, or reschedule to another time.

It’s also a good idea to keep a record of anything else you are doing to comply with your benefit requirements. This could include tracking the time that you spend looking for work, making note of any jobs you have applied for and anything else related to your job search.

Steps to help you manage during a benefit sanction

Having your benefits reduced or stopped might have a big impact on your finances, but there may be steps you can take to help make things more manageable.

Draw up a budget

The very first thing you should do is to work out how much your income will drop as a result of the sanction, and then make a list of all your outgoings to see whether you have enough to cover the basics. If not, it’s worth prioritising your outgoings and considering whether there is anywhere you can cut back.

There are some key payments that are essentials such as food, energy, rent or mortgage payments and your council tax, but if you are concerned that you won’t be able to keep up with anything, it’s worth contacting your energy provider, landlord or whoever you owe money to let them know your situation and decide on an alternate payment plan. Find out more about budgeting and ways you might be able to reduce your outgoings in our articles Budgeting if your income has reduced and How to save money – 18 money saving tips.

Applying for a hardship payment

Hardship payments are essentially a reduced version of JSA, ESA and UC that you might be able to get if you have been sanctioned. The specific amount you might be eligible for will vary depending on your needs and the benefit you originally received, but generally, if you were receiving for ESA and UC you might be eligible to get up to around 60% of your original payment. For ESA and JSA you probably won’t need to pay back the hardship payment, but you might need to for UC.

To apply for a hardship payment you will need to contact the benefits office that provides your benefits, and you will need to explain why you think you need the hardship payment. You will need to provide supporting evidence to support your application, such as any steps you’ve taken to reduce your non-essential costs, and details of which living costs you’re struggling to meet.

Making use of local food banks

If you are struggling to afford food because your benefits have been sanctioned, you might be able to get help from your local food bank. Some food banks also provide fuel tokens which you can use to heat or power your home.

If you are in a financial crisis and think you need to use a food bank you will need to either visit your local Citizens Advice or call them on 0808 2082138 for free who will be able to talk to you about your situation and if you are eligible will issue you with food bank vouchers so you can get an emergency food parcel.

You can find where your local food bank is on the Trussell Trust website.

Applying for a local welfare scheme

Each local authority is given a pot of money to use for local welfare schemes, so if you are facing financial difficulties, it could be worthwhile contacting your local authority to see if there is any help available. Where you go for help depends on where you live:

  • England – find your local council here
  • Northern Ireland – You can find extra financial support in Northern Ireland here
  • Wales – The Discretionary Assistance Fund may be able to provide you with the support you need. You can find out more about this here
  • Scotland – You might be able to get support through the Scottish Welfare Fund. You can find out more here.

Don’t suffer in silence

Financial difficulties can take a big toll on your mental health, and it’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you’re struggling. You are not alone, and if you don’t feel comfortable confiding in friends or family, there are many services available to support you.

Citizens Advice can help you find a way forward. You can speak to an adviser through its national phone service Adviceline on 0800 144 8848 if you’re in England, 0800 702 2020 if you’re in Wales, 0800 028 1456 if you’re in Scotland and 0808 223 1133 if you’re in Northern Ireland.

The following services also provide free guidance on money issues:

Find out more in our guide Are money worries affecting your mental health?