The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of a “culture of secrecy” after failing to release data on sanctions imposed on benefits claimants.
A University of Glasgow study examining whether benefit sanctions are linked to ill health, including mental illness and suicide, has been halted after the department insisted that the researchers resubmit their application for access to the data, according to the Guardian.
“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,” Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, told the newspaper.
Sanctions are imposed when out-of-work benefit claimants fail to meet certain conditions, such as failing to attend jobcentre meetings or even refusing a job, and aim to ensure these claimants are actively looking for work.
Claimants can be docked hundreds or sometimes thousands of pounds from their benefit payments.
The study plans to compare anonymised DWP data and NHS health records to track health changes in sanctioned individuals. The researchers intended to record instances where benefit recipients had been prescribed antidepressants or treated for a worsening of underlying conditions such as asthma, or had taken their own life.
Ministers told MPs in 2019 they were actively supporting the research but it was halted when DWP insisted on new security protocols for the data release. When these were finally completed last autumn, ministers insisted researchers reapply for the data.
Prof Nick Bailey, who is heading the Glasgow sanctions study, said the research would have been published by early 2020 if DWP had shared the data as originally agreed in 2018.
The delay means “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”, he said.
Benefit sanctions have soared in recent months, from around 4,000 in June to almost 50,000 in November, having reduced during the pandemic, DWP data showed.
However, DWP has now removed from GOV.UK all data from July onwards due to issues with its new data platform.
Sanction numbers could go up even further as new rules announced in January mean claimants face penalties after just four weeks if they cannot prove they are making reasonable efforts to find and secure a job in any sector or if they turn down a job offer.
Previously, benefit claimants had three months to find a job in their preferred sector before facing the prospect of sanctions.
DWP has said benefit sanctions get people back into work more quickly but a 2020 study by the University of Glasgow’s Evan Williams – using local authority data due to the department not releasing its own data – found that sanctions lead to increases in self-reported anxiety and depression
The Public Accounts Committee has in the past called for sanctions to be replaced with warnings, raising concerns that sanctions can cause a decline in mental health, people falling into arrears with bill payments and an increased risk of homelessness.
Ministers have refused to publish the DWP’s own internal evaluation of sanctions effectiveness, promised to MPs in 2019, while research commissioned in 2018 assessing the impact of benefit policies on food bank use is yet to be published.
Meanwhile, the Work and Pensions Select Committee said earlier this year it would use its parliamentary powers to release a report that the DWP commissioned on disabled people’s experiences of the benefits system, but has repeatedly refused to publish.
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.”