A groundbreaking study, conducted over five years, has left the reputation and operating practices of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in tatters. Specifically, the report’s authors heap criticism on one part of the department’s operations: the benefit sanctions regime. But a standout point from the report was that the DWP should [pdf, p12] “cease” applying sanctions to disabled people.
The DWP sanctions regime: under the spotlight
The Welfare Conditionality project (2013-2018) was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. ‘Conditionality’ is the idea that people who receive benefits should have to meet certain requirements, such as applying for jobs, or lose their payments. A ‘sanction’, in this context, means the withdrawal of benefits, normally for a fixed period. The report says it:
presents analysis on the effectiveness, impacts and ethics of welfare conditionality, and the sanctions and mandatory support that underpin this approach.
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It studied 481 people who in some way were subject to the DWP’s conditionality and sanctions regime. The researchers, from six universities, also worked with 52 “policy stakeholders” and 27 “focus groups” conducted with practitioners.
Overall, the report concluded [pdf, p12] that:
As a minimum, welfare conditionality within the social security system needs to be rebalanced. The current preoccupation with sanctions backed compliance needs to be urgently reconsidered with more emphasis and resources focused on the provision of personalised employment support.
There is a need for a widespread review of the benefit sanctions system to reduce the severity of sanctions, introduce clear and adequate warnings, improve communication with recipients, and to ensure that sanctions are not applied to vulnerable people…
The study broke its findings down into nine specific areas. Some of them are detailed below.
The report found [pdf, p3] that “welfare conditionality did very little to move disabled people closer to the labour market”. It said the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was seen [pdf, p5] as “uncaring” and “insensitive”, leading to “inappropriate outcomes” for disabled people. The report noted [pdf, p6] sanctions generally triggered “profoundly negative outcomes”, exacerbating physical and mental ill health. The report said [pdf, p8] compulsory work training (‘workfare’) was of “poor quality” and “limited use”.
But the report also found [pdf, p10] a worrying trend. It noted that disabled respondents were generally in favour of welfare conditionality. One individual noted:
If you’re asking for something you’ve got to do something back in return. That’s just normal life – you don’t get owt for nowt.
It’s worrying that some disabled people are now viewing the welfare state as something that gives out only when people have paid in, which was never the intention for those unable to work due to illness or impairments.
The report concluded [pdf, p11] that:
welfare conditionality is largely ineffective in moving disabled people closer to, or into, paid work; with benefit sanctions in particular likely to push disabled people further away from the paid labour market… it is time to fundamentally revisit the role of compulsion in working aged incapacity benefits.
It said [pdf, p12] that welfare conditionality:
within the UK incapacity benefits system should cease.
The report’s conclusions about the effect of conditionality on homeless people and rough sleepers were mixed. While it noted [pdf, p7] that “enforcement” does sometimes change a person’s problematic behaviour, often it can:
displace the issue, cause those affected to disengage from support, and/or strengthen their resolve to continue participating in street culture.
But the report was again critical of sanctions specifically, saying [pdf, p7] they:
do little to enhance homeless people’s motivation to (re)enter the workforce. Support providers and homeless people alike generally agree… current implementation practices are extremely problematic and difficult to justify ethically. Sanctions cause considerable financial and psychological distress and push some extremely vulnerable people out of the social security safety net altogether.
The report studied [pdf, p4] 141 people who claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance at some point during the research period. Much like its conclusions about conditionality and disabled people, the report found [pdf, p3] that the “threat of sanction” wasn’t necessary to try and get people back into work.
It concluded [pdf, p7] that there was:
a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of welfare conditionality in facilitating behaviour change and improvement outcomes in terms of returning to paid employment. Conditionality, especially through the focus placed on sanctions, instilled fear into participants due to the severe material hardship arising from non-compliance.
Once again, the report found [pdf, p1] sanctions had “little tangible influence” on getting lone parents into employment. It noted [pdf, p1] the system was “heavily weighted” towards sanctions, not support, and that the former caused [pdf, p5] “extreme psychological distress” and “extreme anxiety” even if the sanction never happened.
[My adviser] said, ‘You agreed… this and you agreed that’, but to be honest with you, when your benefits change… you’re naive to what’s expected of you… I just kept saying, ‘So what is it you want me to do? Because I’m trying my hardest to achieve where I want to go’. ‘Well, you signed, you signed, you signed’, and you really don’t know what you’re signing for…
The report concluded [pdf, p7] that the 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.
The report was highly critical of Universal Credit and the conditionality related to it. It spoke to 144 people [pdf, p4] claiming the benefit.
It found [pdf, p3] that employment outcomes due to Universal Credit conditionality were generally “neutral”. The report said [pdf, p5] “tangible support” to help find work was “largely absent” from Universal Credit. It noted [pdf, p5] that when claimants met with DWP employees:
the primary focus was on ensuring compliance with the requirements of the Claimant Commitment and disciplining recipients through the threat or use [of] benefit sanctions.
The report said [pdf, p6] that sanctions under Universal Credit:
worsened people’s situations, resulting in financial hardship, debt, alcohol abuse, feelings of shame, and deteriorating mental health… [they] created unnecessary barriers to moving into paid work.
But in an opposite finding to that of disabled people, Universal Credit claimants generally thought the use of conditionality/sanctions for low-paid workers claiming the benefit was “profoundly unfair”.
The report concluded [pdf, p10] that:
welfare conditionality was neither effective nor ethical. The current sanctions regime is unfit for purpose… The application and threat of sanctions impacted negatively on in-work and out-of-work… recipients and did more harm than good…
Disabled People Against Cuts
Co-founder of campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) Linda Burnip gave her reaction to the report. She told The Canary:
While this is a very important piece of research, it is only confirming what anyone with a working brain has always known – punishing people by imposing starvation and degradation on them is not going to help anyone into work either short or long term.
Sanctions have always been a particularly cruel tool of a political party with no heart or soul and the proportion of disabled people sanctioned has risen steadily over the years while the barriers they face getting and keeping jobs have increased.
Burnip is right. While this research is welcome, it’s only telling us what groups like DPAC have been saying for years: that sanctions and welfare reforms are ideologically driven, to marginalise people onto the fringes of society.
As researcher Kitty Jones wrote in 2015:
Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual… [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… competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it… whilst at the same time, justifying… changing citizens’ behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.
Sanctions are the thin end of a political wedge; one where anyone who isn’t seen as economically productive to society is either forced to work or should be marginalised for their failure to comply. While the report is correct that the sanctions regime needs overhauling, the entire political and societal approach to the welfare state is in need of systemic reform.
This article was updated at 5.15pm on Wednesday 23 May to reflect that the previous phone number given for the Equality Advisory and Support Service was incorrect. The Canary apologises for any inconvenience and distress caused by this.
– If you think the DWP has discriminated against you, contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service on 0808 800 0082.
Featured image via The Canary and UK government – Wikimedia
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