A groundbreaking academic study examining whether benefit sanctions are linked to claimant ill-health, including mental illness and suicide, has been halted after ministers reneged on a longstanding promise to release sanctions data.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of a “culture of secrecy” when it insisted researchers resubmit approval for the release of the data – after nearly four years of delays since ministers first agreed to share it.
The Glasgow University study seeks to examine whether the controversial practice of stopping benefit payments to claimants deemed to be in breach of benefit rules has a negative effect on their health – and creates mounting costs for the NHS.
Ministers told MPs in 2019 they were actively supporting the research, though it almost immediately ground to a halt when the DWP insisted on new security protocols for the data release. When these were finally completed last autumn, ministers insisted researchers apply for the data all over again.
The chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, Stephen Timms, accused the DWP of blocking vital research: “This emerging pattern of obstruction suggests that a culture of secrecy is entrenched in DWP. It must wake up to the harm that it is doing and commit to a new spirit of openness.”
Sanctions are financial penalties imposed on claimants the DWP says have breached benefit eligibility rules – typically by failing to attend jobcentre meetings, or meet job search targets. Those affected are docked hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of pounds from their benefit payments
The Glasgow study proposed to link anonymised DWP data and NHS health records to track changes in the health status of sanctioned individuals, identifying for example if they had been given antidepressant prescriptions, treated for a worsening of underlying conditions such as asthma, or even taken their own life.
The study could supply unprecedented detail of the potential impact of benefit sanctions on family breakdown and children’s health and schooling, as well as making visible the wider societal and NHS costs of sanctions, for example through the increased use of health services.
Ministers claim benefit sanctions incentivize jobless claimants to move into work. However, critics say the policy is unsupported by robust evidence. There is a growing body of research indicating benefit sanctions are linked to poverty, food bank use, depression and other illnesses.
Despite widespread concerns about the health consequences of sanctions, the DWP has imposed sanctions on a soaring number of people in recent months and the government recently widened the scope of its sanctions regime to include tens of thousands of newly jobless people.
Prof Nick Bailey, who is heading the Glasgow sanctions project, said that had the data been shared as originally agreed with the DWP in 2018, his research would have been in the public domain by early 2020. It is now five years since the research process for the project was supposed to have started and it has yet to get under way.
“The consequence for both policymakers and benefit claimants is we continue to operate an important policy, sanctions, which has potentially substantial consequences for those affected by it but with very little evidence of the impact of the policy, and almost none on the wider impacts, Said Bailey.
A recent Glasgow University paper analyzing international studies of sanctions reported “significant associations with increased material hardship and health problems” as well as evidence sanctions “were associated with increased child maltreatment and poorer child wellbeing”.
The DWP has repeatedly faced criticism that it is blocking or burying politically uncomfortable research. Last month MPs had to force the publication of a DWP-commissioned report showing people on low incomes reliant on disability benefits struggling to meet basic living costs.
Ministers have refused to publish the DWP’s own internal evaluation of sanctions effectiveness, also promised to MPs in 2019, while research originally commissioned back in 2018 assessing the impact of benefit policies on food bank use has also yet to see the light of day.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We agreed in principle to release the sanctions data to researchers but this required formal accreditation of the security of the facilities to be used to store the data, as well as legal approval. The UK Statistics Authority granted this accreditation in late 2021 and we are now actively considering the data request.”
Benefit sanctions were briefly suspended during the first lockdown in 2020. But numbers have risen in recent months, with the latest data showing there were 50,000 in November – up from 18,000 in July, according to David Webster, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow.