The UK’s most extensive study of welfare conditionality has found that welfare sanctions are “ineffective” at “supporting” people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or survival crime.
Despite dogmatic claims by Conservative ministers in recent years that rigorously enforced conditionality – including mandatory 35-hour job searches – “‘incentivised’ claimants to move off benefits into work”, the research found the positive impact was negligible.
The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study of welfare conditionality was carried out between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at six universities. It included repeat qualitative interviews over two years with 481 welfare service users in England and Scotland as well as interviews with 57 policy experts and 27 focus groups.
The five-year research programme that has been following the lives of hundreds of claimants concludes that the controversial policy of cutting benefits as a punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been “little short of disastrous.”
For those people interviewed for the study who did gain employment, the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into sustained, well-paid work.
Sanctions generally delivered poor outcomes, including debt, poverty and reliance on charities such as food banks, the study found. Often imposed for trivial and seemingly cruel reasons, they frequently triggered high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
The director of the study, Professor Peter Dwyer, based at the University of York, said “The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative.”
One research finding is that, in many cases, the threat of sanctions had the unintended effect of encouraging a “culture of counterproductive compliance and futile behaviour” among some claimants, who learned “the rules of the game” rather than becoming genuinely “engaged with work.” This of course is through necessity, as social security payments are claimed by people who need support to meet their basic survival needs: welfare (barely) covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter.
The authors of the research paper conclude: “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes.”
Many campaigners, including myself, have been pointing this out for years. It’s a fundamental truth – established by Abraham Maslow, and verified by a range of comprehensive studies, including the Minnesota semi-starvation experiment – that if people cannot meet their basic survival needs, that becomes their “cognitive priority” – their primary motivation. People caught in absolute poverty cannot then higher level psychosocial needs, until their basic survival needs are met. It takes a monstrously authoritarian government to ignore these empirical facts and to continue to punish citizens by withdrawing their fundamental means of survival.
The researchers call for a review of the use of sanctions, including an immediate moratorium on benefit sanctions for disabled people who are disproportionately affected, together with an urgent “rebalancing” of the social security system to focus less on compliance and more on helping claimants into work.
The research report says that in the “rare” cases where claimants did move off benefits into sustained work, personalised job support, not sanctions, was the key factor. With few exceptions, however, jobcentres were more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people gain employment.
“Although some examples of good practice are evident, much of the mandatory job search, training and employment support offered by Jobcentre Plus and external providers is too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work,” the report says.
It’s very worrying that the research highlighted those citizens with “chaotic lives” – who were homeless or had addictions, for example – reacted to the “inherent hassle” of the conditionality system by dropping out of the social security system altogether. In some cases, they moved into survival crime, such as drug dealing.
Low-paid workers on universal credit who were subject to so-called “in-work conditionality” – a requirement for them to work more hours or face sanctions – in some cases elected to sign off, foregoing rent support and tax credits, to avoid what they saw as constant, petty harassment from jobcentre staff.
Welfare conditionality – the notion that eligibility for benefits and services should be linked to claimants’ compliance with certain rules and behaviours – has been progressively embedded into the UK social security system since the 1990s, although the scope and severity intensified dramatically after 2012, when the Conservative-led coalition “reformed” the welfare system.
Sanctions are imposed when claimants supposedly breach stringent jobcentre rules, typically by failing to turn up for appointments on time, or at all, or for failing to apply for “enough jobs”. They are effectively fined by having their benefit payments stopped for a minimum of four weeks (about £300) and a maximum of three years. This means that money to meet their basic living requirements is cut.
At its peak in 2013, under the then secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, there were more than a million sanctions. Between 2010 and 2015, a quarter of all people on jobseeker’s allowance were sanctioned, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issuing £132m in sanctions penalties in 2015.
Sanctions fell to 350,000 in 2016 as a series of critical reports emerged questioning their effectiveness and calling for changes, including from the all-party work and pensions select committee, the DWP’s social security advisory committee and the National Audit Office.
A fresh inquiry by MPs into sanctions is under way.
Dalia Ben-Galim, the policy director at the single parents’ charity Gingerbread, said: “Rather than threatening single parents with sanctions and widening the ‘conditionality’ agenda, it would be much more valuable to enable the conditions to support employment such as affordable childcare, access to flexible work and personalised support through job centres.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our research shows that over 70% of JSA claimants say sanctions make it more likely they will comply with reasonable and agreed requirements, and it is understandable that people meet certain expectations in return for benefits.
I wonder if this was a reference to the DWP “case studies” made up of fictitious characters and testimonies, as uncovered by Welfare Weekly ?
The DWP spokesperson continued with platitudes: “We tailor requirements to individual cases and sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases when people fail to meet their agreed requirements set out in their claimant commitment.”
Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions Margaret Greenwood said: “The current sanctions system is immoral and ineffective. It is not helping people into employment and at the same time is leaving vulnerable people on the brink of destitution, without any source of income for long periods.”
The authors of the report further conclude that the DWP’s sanctions regime:
“…compromises attempts to end child poverty. At best, current practice fails to support lone parents in the way proposed; at worst, it compounds the disadvantage they already face. The ethical legitimacy of the present system is highly questionable as a consequence.”
Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individua ones of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘worklessness.’ The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality.
Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative […] ultimately the presented political aim is to ‘mend’ Britain’s supposedly ‘broken society’ and to restore a country that ‘lives within its means’… bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on ‘economic competitiveness’ in a ‘global race.’
Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter, rather than […] an inevitable feature of neoliberal […] competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise social problems, while at the same time, justifying […] changing citizens’ behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.
The government’s policies, founded on scapegoating already marginalised social groups, and creating “hostile environments” for the poorest citizens, including those with disabilities, who have been disproportionately weighed down with the burden of austerity, have caused immeasurable human suffering and untold damage to the very fabric of what was once a civilised society.
The answer to the problems generated by the politically imposed system of neoliberalism that fails the majority of citizens, according to the dogmatic government, is to apparently apply even more rigid neoliberal policies as an almost farcical sticking plaster.
The Conservative’s answer to social problems such as inequality and poverty, which own policies createand extend, is to impose ideologically formulated “behavioural change” programmes on the poorest citizens, as a prop for dismally failing neoliberalism. All authoritarians are bullies and all bullies aim to change the behaviours of others. This technocratic and authoritarian approach to policy always entails the creation of scapegoats that the government then punish.
In 2002, as party chairwoman, Theresa May told the Conservatives that they were seen as the “nasty party”. Sixteen years later and under her premiership, that description of an authoritarian and rigidly ideologically driven government has never been more apt.
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