THE UK Government has faced fresh calls to overhaul Universal Credit, following new research indicating that sanctions on benefit claimants have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Analysis of the latest DWP figures by the IPPR think tank found that in November 2021, 46,000 claimants were sanctioned – a dramatic rise after a pandemic-induced drop-off.

IPPR senior economist Henry Parkes commented: “As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, the UK Government must do more to support people living on low incomes – whatever their circumstances. It absolutely shouldn’t be making people’s lives any harder by imposing inappropriate conditions and punitive sanctions on them in a time of need.”

IPPR’s new report advocates giving claimants a “second chance” instead of being sanctioned, improving claimants’ access to information, greater sensitivity to claimants’ circumstances, empowering decision-makers to cancel sanctions if there is risk of causing harm, and better training for job coaches so they can spot warning signs of those with complex needs – for example, determining whether claimants with ‘no housing costs’ are actually homeless.

IPPR’s findings provoked renewed condemnation of Universal Credit from Scottish politics and anti-poverty campaigners.

Speaking to the National, Scotland’s social security minister Ben Macpherson said: “We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to urgently review its punitive sanctions policy and the various other failings of the Universal Credit system such as the five week wait, two child limit and benefit cap.

"Dignity, fairness and respect are at the heart of Scotland's social security principles and I believe that people respond much better to support and encouragement than they do to threat and fear.

“That is why the Scottish Government has chosen to make participation in our fully devolved Fair Start Scotland employability support service entirely voluntary. People can take part without the threat of a UK benefit sanction, meaning claimants cannot be sanctioned for non-attendance, failure to engage or if they leave the programme early.”

Scottish Green social security spokesperson Maggie Chapman added: "The UK Government's entire approach to social security, particularly it's cruel sanctions regime, is inhumane. The IPPR is right to point out that the system sets people up to fail.

"I am pleased that thanks to the Scottish Greens there are no sanctions in the devolved social security system.

"Just last week the Scottish Government doubled the Scottish Child Payment, while the UK Government has slashed Universal Credit by more than £1,000 per year. And, with Greens in government, we have also mitigated the UK’s cruel and unjust benefit cap imposed on families which limits the support people in need can get. 

"This shows distinctly differing priorities and I'm confident that with independence we could do so much more for those most in need."

Speaking for Scottish Labour, Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray added: “The DWP have wasted no time returning to business as usual.

“The culture of cruelty the Tories have embedded in social security and their cut to Universal Credit will make this cost-of-living crisis all the more painful. They have given up any pretence of caring about the most vulnerable.”

Neil Cowan, policy and campaigns manager for the Poverty Alliance, told the National: "This important IPPR research underlines what people across the country have been telling us for years; that the sanctions regime is unjust, cruel and fails even against its own misguided aims.

“The UK social security urgently needs redesigned to protect people from - rather than pull them into - the grip of poverty.”

Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also commented: “At a bare minimum, the government must increase benefits in line with inflation as soon as possible, to protect those most at risk of hardship. But this must go hand in hand with reform to the way the system is designed and administered.”

Responding, a UK Government spokesperson told the National: “People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason to meet the conditions which they agreed to, and the latest data shows the sanctions rate remains below pre-pandemic levels.

“With a record number of jobs available, it’s right that people who can work are encouraged to take up available roles.”