Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work

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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.

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.”

wrote in 2015:

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.


The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

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19 thoughts on “Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work

  1. I am personally embroiled in this system myself and actually glad that I am old (not old enough at 63 for my pension though – but that’s another story) and towards the tail end of my life. I despair at what this country has become, and for the prospects of those who are coming up behind me. What I find most wicked is that this is all man-made and totally preventable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, this all rings very true to my own (fortunately limited) experiences of a few years ago when on ‘the system’. I was never sanctioned, but simply having to ‘comply’ with rather arbitrary ‘one-size-fits-all’ requirements and constantly ‘jump through hoops’ to keep the Job Centre satisfied, often left me drained and lowered my spirits, sapping the energy I needed to go after ‘genuine’ work in my own specialised field.

    On the one hand, it’s comforting to discover it wasn’t just me who had this problem, but on the other, I hate to think what it must be like for the many more vulnerable people under what appears to be an increasingly harsh and punitive regime.

    The worst part is that all this cruelty and institutionalised nastiness achieves nothing and objectively damages rather than mends our broken society. I only hope you can see a way forward, but it would require a major shift in political attitudes. I can see this being possible in Scotland, but at present England looks doomed to becoming a sort of neo-dickensian dystopia.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From 2015 when it was found that I have curvature of the spine I was declared disabled. In 2017 (March)they then said I was in fact not really disabled and reduced my pip money to the bottom of the scale. Now that I have been through all of the appeals the court found in my favor , meanwhile the agony stays with me

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Regarding the heading of this piece, I recall — but cannot find online reference to — Susan Scott-Parker of Employers Forum on Disability saying not long after (or maybe even a little before) 2010 General Election, that Government portraying disabled people as ‘workshy’ was not going to help disabled jobseekers.

    I am coming close to Pension Credits entitlement, and would probably not have made it so far as I have in life had I not claimed Employment & Support Allowance in 2009 that I eventually won through tribunal that put me into the Support Group. I doubt that I would have ‘made it’ to Pension Credits entitlement in the ‘Work-Related Activity Group’.

    In 1977 I left 5 years seamless salaried but unfulfilling waged employment on health grounds after years of disablist bullying. Despite my never having acquired any disability benefits in the intervening years and my consistency in attempting to upgrade my employability up to 2009, my sum total of waged employment up to early 2009 amounted to just 17 month, 11 months of which were so part-time that I still required Jobseekers Allowance top-up.

    Jobseekers’ bargaining power has plummeted over the years. At a U Westminster ‘Law & The Music Market’ module in 1994, we were taught that initial contracts for bands such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood were thrown out when later challenged, as they were made from a position in which band members were plucked from the dole queue and thus regarded as primed for exploitation — giving away ‘territorial rights’ for minimal promotional obligations placed on the employers.

    Of course, the gulf between disabled people’s access requirements and the obligations placed upon us has also widened since at least the time Alistair Darling as minister responsible called toward the end of 2000 for all Incapacity Benefit claimants to be summonsed to ‘all work interviews’ at jobcentres. As I said then in my writing politicians, IB claimants would have nothing to gain from such treatment when all the emphasis had been on ‘getting disabled people back to work’ while showing contempt for those who were already jobseekers and volunteers attempting to up their employment prospects.

    The lack of support I experienced in my last 11 months as a ‘casual labour’ [sic] domiciliary care worker were extremely under-supported. In the months when I submitted part-time earnings forms at my fortnightly signing-on sessions, JSA erroneously said that my part time earnings were above JSA levels. Institutionally, Jobseekers Allowance, Jobcentre Plus and Government treated me with contempt due to lack of publicity in mainstream media. I got cellulitis in my legs from the stress at a time when I had to do a 6-mile-round-journey walk to and from work contacts.

    Once during that period when I felt I just had to get on a bus, I was greeted by the sight of a ‘Targeting Benefit Thieves’ poster! (Yes, there was a ‘hostile environment’ even then.)

    I gave up that work in April 2006, and eventually got JSA back-money that was subsequently wiped out when I received previously unpaid holiday money from my time in ‘casual labour’. I had concluded as a reader of Community Care magazine that had I treated the vulnerable people I was assigned to help with the neglect I had been shown, I would have been severely dealt with at some kind of disciplinary hearing.

    In November 2006, Community Care magazine revealed “Earlier this month, MPs slammed Jobcentre Plus for leaving 21 million phone calls unanswered in 2004-5. Despite government claims of improvements, stories of poor service continue to mount, argues Neil Bateman.”. The article went on:

    “Since the announcement in 2005 that DWP had to lose 30,000 staff over three years, on top of other spending cuts in the department, concern has been growing in the social care and welfare rights fields about the deteriorating standards of service provided by JCP. There has been concern about the effect on vulnerable customers, particularly care leavers, those with sensory impairments and people with mental health needs who have greatest difficulty with the JCP one-size-fits-all approach to customer service….” People were being left destitute while wall-to-wall advertising favoured the ‘targeting benefit thieves’ message.

    Ironically[?] since those days and even before a change of ownership in late 2017, Community Care magazine has become much more ‘marketing oriented’ and less inclined to publish the kind of article that welfare rights expert Neil Bateman provided them previously. The abridged ‘case study’ material I’ve provided here emphasises though that the tendencies for successive governments to focus on the wrongdoings of benefit claimants has all too frequently masked their own shortcomings. (The price of freedom is constant vigilance.)

    One last thing I would say here is that had I learned much earlier what I learned through the report derived by Camden Learning Disability Services’ Head Psychologist in May 2011 from my responses to ‘Wechsler Adult Intelligences Scale’ testing, I would probably have been saved an enormous amount of vocational stress. Though my gradings for each ‘index’ are above the ‘lowest percentile’ trigger for free further diagnostic testing for dyspaxia, the services I received via that local authority facility were far better than what I ever received via Occupational Psychologists [sic] purportedly employed to improve my employment prospects. Sadly though, local authority-based disability services have probably been severely cut by ‘austerity’ when they should have been much better advertised as universal services.

    Alan Wheatley


  5. Tories hate working class people, they also hate the sick and disabled. They hate to see the sick and disabled being provided for as they should be in any civilised society. They deliberately foster divisions and hatred because that’s their mantra – divide & rule.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I suppose it was necessary for someone to lay it all out on the line, it usually takes an academic to state the glaringly obvious. This dates back to Isaac Newton who told us that if you push an object it will probable move in the direction you pushed it.

    Sanctions are designed to piss people off and they certainly do that as we see with North Korea, Russia and Iran. And in spite of all the revisionist history it cannot be denied that it was sanctions that ignited WWII. They are tools for starting wars but the ignorant UK neoliberalist dictatorship thinks they are the answer to every problem. They would dearly love to beat-up and jail rioting jobseekers just like Thatcher treated the striking miners: “During the miners’ strike, Thatcher’s secret state was the real enemy within
    The Tory leader’s eagerness to brand not only miners’ leaders but the Labour party as enemies of democracy was a measure of her extremism and determination for class revenge…All were “enemies of democracy”, she planned to tell the Tory conference, the publication of her private papers now reveals. It was only as a result of the IRA bomb attack on her Brighton hotel that she was prevailed upon to drop the line as too divisive.”

    Now we have the undemocratic dictatorial criminal Tories treating the democratic opposition leader as if he were a criminal and the anti-racists like Ken Livingstone excluded from Labour because they are accused of racism.
    “To trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes?”
    Nothing ever changes.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Here’s a quote I happened to stumble across which made me think :
    “Getting a meagre yet reliable amount from the government makes far more sense than taking a job whose hours you can’t depend on—especially when you know that should your job end, it will be a month or more before you see any new benefit money coming in.”

    What I think this implies, is that a simple basic safety-net that is largely *unconditional* should actually lead to more people working, not less. Also the concept of ‘the precariat’ may be relevent here.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you for the SCISCO link above. I shall have to read the original study they quote when time allows :
        but for now :

        “The notion that big welfare states are associated with widespread cultures of dependency, or other adverse consequences of poor short term incentives to work, receives little support.
        On the contrary, employment commitment was much higher in all the studied groups in bigger welfare states. Hence, this study’s findings support the welfare resources perspective over the welfare scepticism perspective.”

        But hey! “Never let hard facts get in the way of an inspiring ideology”. Sadly that probably goes for most political parties to some extent, although clearly the Tories are well out in front these days.

        Further on they quote this outright chilling message :

        “Suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve. Countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes, I guessed as much 😉
        Sadly the academic paper I wanted to read is locked up behind a pay-wall. Seems unnecessary in this day and age with the pdf on line. No doubt simply to exclude the hoy polloi.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Tory policies are always divisive, for example: I have never been able to understand why an employer would want to employ someone who does not want to work as the Tories suggest. On the other side of the coin there is an obvious element of forced labour:
    “Forced or compulsory labour is all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” International Labour Organization Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)… “Forced labour is the most common element of modern slavery.”

    We live in a world where we are increasingly reliant on the state. We can no longer cut some wood to keep warm because most houses don’t have fireplaces. We cannot rely on nature’s bounty for food because it’s no longer there. Is it not time that we confronted our glorious leaders with the 21st century? There’s not enough work to go around.

    I was watching someone on TV telling us that the benefit system was designed at a time when there were proportionally more people at work to pay for it. This is true BUT, the employers are still producing the same or more work with automation and governments have failed to tax them for those no longer working.
    There will come a time, not too far off, when it will be a privilege to have a job. We need a system of wealth distribution that will make the secret state weep.

    BTW: I would be interested to know if there are still any out there who don’t believe that we and government are ruled by the men behind the curtain?

    Liked by 2 people

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