Dr Janis Bright is impact and communications officer for the ESRC-funded Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behaviour change research project.
Professor Peter Dwyer is professor of social policy at the University of York and principal investigator for the Welfare Conditionality project.
Here they discuss some of the findings from the project to date, including the effects of sanctions on welfare recipients.
People who are out of work and are deemed not to have complied with the benefit rules are at risk of being sanctioned – having their benefit stopped. So much we probably all know. But behind that fact lie a myriad of experiences and consequences. And that’s before we get on to the complexities of government policy and practice on welfare.
Our project’s work is seeking to disentangle some of those complexities and ask fundamental questions about what’s become known as ‘welfare conditionality’.
So, what is welfare conditionality?
First things first: what we mean by that last phrase is when someone’s continued access to welfare depends on them doing or not doing certain things. They are expected to behave in certain ways that the state requires. And the state tries to get them to comply through a system of carrots – support – and sticks, in the form of sanctions or other conditions.
Our research is asking whether the carrots and sticks actually work in the way government intends, and whether they are justified.
At the heart of our study are the experiences of people receiving welfare of various kinds. We include people receiving social security benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit. But we’re also looking at other groups such as tenants in social housing, where conditionality can take the form of fixed term tenancies. In all, we’re studying conditionality for nine different groups of welfare service users, also including disabled people, migrants and lone parents. We’re interviewing 480 people in England and Scotland, plus practitioners and policymakers, in what we think is the largest study of its kind.
The effects of welfare sanctions
The findings from the first wave of our research make stark reading. People widely reported hardship, anxiety and feelings of injustice from sanctions. Many people felt support was lacking and some believed they were sanctioned wrongly. A few turned to stealing after being left with no money. Children were affected too. A migrant parent in Scotland told us:
‘My daughter could not attend school for two weeks. I didn’t have any money for that; you have to give her some money every day for some lunch and for the bus.’
Our researchers found that people sometimes did not know that their money had been stopped, or why. A Universal Credit recipient said:
‘I rung them and explained I’d been on work trial and they were ‘All right’ and then I got a letter through the door saying I’d been sanctioned… But what was it for?’
Many welfare service users in our study did support the idea of conditionality in principle. But they objected to people being left without money for basics like food, or being treated unfairly. They wanted more flexibility for people with disabilities, lone parents, and others with particular difficulties in searching for or taking up work. People on Universal Credit who were already in work did not think it was fair to require them to put in long hours searching for more, under threat of sanction.
A small minority in our study did have good experiences of support from Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme. A woman with a disability said:
‘She was lovely, very nice. She told me all about the training options … she understood exactly what I wanted.’
One man who had been in a family intervention project told us:
‘They work so hard. They want to bring families together and try to understand each other.’
Our interviewees said they wanted to improve their circumstances and move toward the world of work. Many wanted support to achieve that. So far we are finding that the provision of appropriate support – not sanctions – does seem to make the difference. Here is an offender’s experience.
‘When I used to feel really low, I used to hit the bottle. Now … I’ll just ring [support worker] up … I’ve never felt more confident. Now I’ve got my head screwed back on. I’ve got a job interview through these guys.’
What next for the research project?
We are interviewing our group of welfare service users three times over a two-year period, and finding out what has changed in their lives over that time. We’re also talking to people who will have a stake in future policy about our findings to date. By the end of our project in 2018 we hope to have important evidence to answer those two questions on whether welfare conditionality is effective and whether it is justified.
Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, support and behaviour change is a five-year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It involves six universities: Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Salford, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and York.