York research finds welfare conditionality ‘ineffective’

Professor Peter Dwyer claims welfare conditionality is counter-productive and damaging [Image: J J Ellison]

A University of York lead study has found welfare conditionality to be largely ineffective and has instead led to pushing some claimants into poverty and survival crime. The ESRC-funded Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Sup-port, and Behaviour Change project, led by Professor Peter Dwyer of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, also found that there is little evidence conditionality enhance the motivation of claimants to enter paid work, with sanctions causing “profoundly negative” personal, financial, and health outcomes, while mandatory training is of poor quality and is too generic.

Welfare conditionality is a system that links obligations or the particular patterns of behaviour of claimants to their eligibility for welfare benefits and services, with claimants threatened with sanctions to their benefits if they fail to comply. Conditionality has been a major element of the welfare state in various countries since the mid-1990s, with an aim to ‘correct’ the ‘problematic’ or anti-social behaviour of welfare recipients and lead them into work, according to sup-porters.

The five-year study analysed the effectiveness, impact, and ethics of welfare conditionality, and involved the Universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Salford, Sheffield Hallam, and Heriot-Watt. The report’s findings are based on repeated interviews in England and Scotland by 339 participants, and were drawn from nine areas of policy, namely job-seekers, Universal Credit (UC) recipients, disabled people, migrants, single parents, offenders, social tenants, homeless people, and those subject to anti-social behaviour (ASB) interventions and Family Intervention Projects (FIPs).

The welfare conditionality report includes a quote from a homeless woman who said that she became more depressed and had suicidal thoughts after being sanctioned, saying “I’d rather starve than deal with this”, while other evidence taken from other interviews suggests that sanctions are often given out for small misdemeanours such as being a few minutes late to a Jobcentre Plus appointment. The report found that sanctions were “clearly inappropriately” applied even if a claimant did their best to avoid them. The study’s authors claim it is a “comprehensive re-view” of the application of welfare conditionality.

Professor Dwyer commented that “our review reveals that in the majority of cases, welfare conditionality doesn’t work as intended and we have evidence it has in-creased poverty and pushed some people into survival crime. What also became apparent was people were focusing on meeting the conditions of their benefit claim and that became their job – it is totally counter-productive. You are just making people do things to meet the conditions of the claim rather than getting them into work.

“Successive governments have used welfare conditionality and the ‘carrot and stick’ it implies to pro-mote positive behaviour change. Our review has shown it is out of kilter, with the idea of sanctioning people to the fore. It is more stick, very little carrot and much of the support is ineffective.”

Nouse spoke to Professor Dwyer in November, who outlined how teething problems in the implementation of Universal Credit have caused major complications, and how claimants are made to sign a ‘claimant commitment’ which matches them to a job coach who sets targets. Dwyer called the benefit fundamentally flawed.

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