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What are Universal Credit sanctions?

Find out what to do if you've been sanctioned while on Universal Credit, why sanctions occur, and how to make an appeal if you think you've been underpaid.

In this article
Coronavirus (Covid-19) benefits update What are Universal Credit sanctions? How are Universal Credit claimant commitments decided? The five types of Universal Credit claimant commitments
What happens if you break your Universal Credit claimant commitments? How to check if you’ve been given the right sanction How to appeal a Universal Credit sanction

Coronavirus (Covid-19) benefits update

Existing and new benefits claimants might be affected by changes put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep on top of the latest news and advice related to the Covid-19 pandemic with Which?

What are Universal Credit sanctions?

A Universal Credit sanction is when you receive a cut in your benefits after failing to meet your ‘claimant commitment’ without a good reason. 

A sanction can last up to three years if you do this several times.

We explain how your Universal Credit claimant commitments are decided, and what to do if you think you’ve been unfairly sanctioned or aren’t receiving enough in Universal Credit payments.

To find out more about how Universal Credit works and who qualifies, read our guide: what is Universal Credit?


How are Universal Credit claimant commitments decided?

After you’ve made your initial Universal Credit claim, you’ll usually need to make an appointment at your local job centre within seven days of making your claim. You can do this by calling the Universal Credit service centre on 0800 328 5644. 

If your circumstances mean you don’t have to do this, then you’ll be contacted through your online account to find out what you need to do next.

Meeting your work coach

At the job centre, your interview will be with your ‘work coach’. The first interview help you understand how Universal Credit works, explain what will happen next and will help you make a plan to get ready for work and eventually find a job.

You’ll also sign your claimant commitment. You’ll agree this with your work coach, and it will set out the ways you’ll prepare for work, look for work or increase your earnings if you’re already working.

This is also a chance for you to explain if you need any support with budgeting or an advance payment while you wait for your first Universal Credit payment.

You can bring a friend or relative with you to the interview if you’d like some extra support, although you should mention this at the time of booking the appointment.

Things to remember for your first work coach interview

You’ll need to bring some documents to prove your identity. These can include:

  • UK passport
  • EEA passport
  • UK photo driving licence
  • National identity card
  • Residence permit or card
  • Immigration status document
  • Registration or naturalisation certificate.

You’ll also need to bring things to prove your income, savings, housing situation and other things mentioned in your Universal Credit claim, such as:

  • a rent statement or tenancy agreement
  • payslips 
  • bank statements
  • proof of savings
  • if you have children, you’ll need their birth certificates, proof of childcare costs and child benefit reference numbers.

If you have a CV, you should take that along as well so you can talk about your skills, qualifications and past job experience. 

Also have a think about how much you want to earn, how many hours you can work each week and where you can work. If you can’t work full-time, make sure you explain the reasons why to your work coach.

You’ll need to tell your work coach about any factors that could affect your ability to work or look for work. Examples of these include:

  • any children you’re responsible for. If you’re claiming as a couple, you’ll need to nominate a main carer –single parents will automatically be the main carer
  • if you have a disability or health condition
  • if you care for anyone with a disability
  • if you find it difficult to read or write
  • if you’re homeless
  • any treatment you’re undergoing for drug or alcohol problems
  • if you have to do jury service
  • if you’ve been a victim of domestic abuse in the last six months
  • if you have a partner or child who has died in the last six months.

The five types of Universal Credit claimant commitments

When you sign up to claim Universal Credit, you will be placed in a group based on your circumstances and work capability, with different expectations and responsibilities. 

There are five different groups.

1. No work-related requirements

People in this group don’t have to look for work.

You'll be placed in this group if are already earning above the earnings threshold, which is 35 hours a week at the National Minimum Wage (but the threshold could be lowered if you have caring responsibilities).

You’ll also be placed in this group if:

  • you have limited capability for work-related activity.
  • you receive the carers element of Universal Credit, or you’re providing care for a severely disabled person for at least 35 hours a week.
  • you’re responsible for a child younger than one.
  • you have reached Pension Credit age, but you’re part of a Universal Credit claim because your partner hasn’t.
  • you are pregnant, with 11 weeks or less until you’re due to give birth.
  • you’ve adopted a child in the last year.
  • you’re a young person in full-time non-advanced education, with no parental support.

2. Work-focused interview requirement only

People in this group must attend work-focused interviews to discuss plans and opportunities for returning to work in the future.

You don’t have to apply for or take up a job, and you don’t need to engage in work-preparation activities.

You'll be placed in this group if you're responsible for children who are aged under one, or aged under 16 if you're a foster carer, or aged under 18 if the child has extra care needs. 

3. Work preparation requirement

Those who are assessed as having limited capability for work will be placed in this group.

You won’t need to apply for or take up work as a condition of your Universal Credit claim.

You will be expected to eventually move into work, or additional work, or better paid work. Actions you’ll be encouraged to take in order to get ready for work will include going on training courses, working on a CV or taking part in the Work Programme. 

4. All work-related requirements

If you’re in this group, you’ll be expected to look for full-time work of at least 35 hours a week.

But if you have physical or mental health problems, or caring responsibilities, this can be reduced.

5. In-work conditionality

If you’re already in work, you may be expected to meet further requirements.

If you earn less than what someone earning the minimum wage would earn over the number of hours you're expected to work, you may be expected to carry out some activities at the job center to increase your salary, either by increasing the number of hours you work, finding additional work or finding a job with a higher salary.

But there are some caveats.

  • If you're single and earn less than your earnings threshold, but more than £345 per month, you will be subject to all work-related requirements, except for looking for work. You’ll have to be ready to take on more work, go to work-focused interviews and any other things your job coach suggests.
  • If you're single and earning less than £345 per month, you’ll be subject to all work-related requirements. There’ll be a certain amount of time you’ll be expected to spend on looking for and preparing for work, but this varies depending on how much you work and if you have any caring responsibilities. 
  • If you’re claiming as a couple and earning less than your joint earnings threshold but more than £552 per month, you’ll be subject to all work-related requirements other than ‘looking for work’. You’ll have to show that you’re ready to take up more work, go to work-focused interviews and do the things suggested by your work coach.
  • If you’re in a couple but earning less than £552 per month, you’ll be subject to all work-related requirements.

The group you’ve been placed into could change if you experience a change in circumstances. 

What happens if you break your Universal Credit claimant commitments?

By signing your claimant commitment, you’ve agreed to meet the requirements in it to earn your Universal Credit payments. 

If you fail these responsibilities, and don’t have a good reason why, you’ll receive a ‘sanction’, which is a cut in the benefit you receive.

There are different levels of sanctions, depending on what you failed to do, and how many times you failed to do it. At most, a sanction could last for up to three years. 

If, for example, you're asked to attend a work search review but don’t turn up – and you don’t have a good reason – you’ll receive a sanction until you arrange and attend another meeting.

If you claim as a couple and one of you doesn’t meet their responsibilities, your joint claim may be stopped.

If you’re struggling with money while under a sanction, you can apply for a hardship payment.

This is an emergency payout for things such as bills and food, but only certain people are eligible and it’s usually given as a loan, so you’ll have to pay it back once your sanction ends.

How to check if you’ve been given the right sanction

Even if you agree that you should have been sanctioned, it’s worth checking that you’ve been given the right level of sanction, and for the right amount of time. 

Details about your sanction will be on your sanction notification. This will either be a letter sent to you, or posted on your Universal Credit online account. You should be told:

  • the reason for receiving a sanction
  • the level of sanction you’ve been given
  • how long the sanction will last
  • how much money will be taken away from your Universal Credit payment
  • the date the sanction decision was made.

Check whether you’ve been given the right level of sanction for your work conditionality group:

  • You can’t get sanctioned if you’re in the ‘No work-related requirements group’.
  • You’ll only get the lowest level sanction if you’re in the ‘Work-focused interview only group’ or the 'Work preparation only group’.
  • Those in the ‘All work-related requirements group’ could get a sanction at any level

Also check whether you’ve been sanctioned the right amount of time: lowest level sanctions only last until you carry out the task or responsibility that you failed to do, whereas higher level sanctions have set periods, with a maximum of 1,095 days.

If you think you’ve been incorrectly sanctioned, we’ve outlined the process for trying to get the decision changed.

How to appeal a Universal Credit sanction

If you think you’ve been wrongly given a sanction, you may be able to ask the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to change their decision.

You can usually only appeal if your argument falls into one of the following six categories:


You did the activity that DWP says you didn’t do. 


You’ll have to provide evidence to show that you did, in fact, do the activity. This could be a copy of a job application, or a letter to confirm that you attended some agreed training.


You had a good reason for not doing the activity.


The DWP can use its own judgement as to what is a good reason, but things such as sickness, personal crises, domestic violence, childcare responsibilities or learning difficulties may all qualify, depending on the circumstances.


You’ve been sanctioned for something that isn’t in your claimant commitment. 


If your work coach did not include a certain activity in your claimant commitment, you can argue that you shouldn’t have to do it. You will need to provide your claimant commitment as evidence.


Your original claimant commitment was inappropriate.


If you feel you could never have carried out your claimant commitment, you can argue this - but you’ll have to explain why you had previously accepted and signed the agreement at your first work coach interview.


There were special circumstances for not taking a job, stopping work or losing pay.


You can usually be given a sanction for refusing to take a job, stopping work or losing pay, apart from if the following apply:

  • the vacancy was only offered to you because of a strike
  • you stopped work or lost pay due to a strike
  • you work in the armed forces or reserve forces
  • you were working extra hours during a trial period
  • your pay was reduced before you started claiming Universal Credit
  • you’ve been made redundant, laid off or told to take reduced hours
  • if, despite the changes, your earnings are still so high you don’t have to meet the work search requirement or the work availability requirement.


You’re in the ‘all work-related requirements group’ but certain circumstances mean you shouldn’t have been sanctioned.


Some of these circumstances include:

  • having to go to court as a witness or defendant
  • being sent to prison
  • being temporarily out of the country
  • suffering a bereavement and/or having to arrange a funeral
  • getting alcohol or drug treatment
  • being protected by the police or another organisation
  • doing government-approved public duty – eg if you’re a member of local authority
  • being unfit for work for a short period due to an illness or injury
  • needing time to prepare for work
  • having to provide childcare
  • dealing with an emergency at home
  • being a victim of domestic violence
  • having a child who's affected by a death or violence.

You may have to provide evidence to show that the events or circumstances listed have taken place.

The sanction appeals process

If you think your argument fits into one of the six reasons above, you may be able to get the DWP to change its decision. 


Step 1. Ask the DWP to rethink its decision. This is called a ‘mandatory consideration’. The contact details will be on the letter sent to you about your sanction. You’ll need to explain why you think the sanction is wrong, using one of the six arguments above, and include any evidence – such as bank statements or official letters – that help support your argument.

Step 2. The DWP will rethink its decision and will send you a letter to explain why it’s come to that decision. The letter will tell you how you can appeal to a tribunal if you still think the decision is wrong. You have one month from the date on the letter to apply to a tribunal.

Step 3. You’ll need to fill out an SSCS1 form to ask for an appeal. This can be done online, or you can print out the form, fill it in by hand and post it. You’ll need to fill in your name and contact details, your National Insurance number, and specific reasons why you’re appealing. You’ll also need to refer to any evidence you’d previously supplied to the DWP. This will be sent on to the HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) department.

Step 4. You’ll hear back from HMCTS within 28 days. It will check the form you’ve submitted and ask the DWP for its response to your appeal. You’ll be sent a copy of the DWP’s response. If your appeal is denied, you’ll be sent details of what happens next and details of when and where the court hearing will be. 

Step 5. You should try to attend the court hearing if you can. You can claim expenses back to cover the cost of travelling to the hearing, or to cover pay you might miss out on by attending. You can take a solicitor, someone from a local advice agency such as Citizens Advice, or a family or friend if you want some extra support. You’ll have a chance to argue your case, and the judge might have additional questions for you to answer. You don’t have to attend the hearing, but your appeal will be less likely to succeed if you do miss it.

Step 6. You’ll usually get a decision on the same day as the hearing - if the judge needs longer to decide then you’ll receive the decision through the post. If you don’t agree with the decision, you’ll have to apply to tribunal again - this is called the upper tribunal, and you’ll be sent details of how to apply with the decision letter.