Academics at Heriot-Watt have voiced support for a major rebalance of the welfare system.
A team of researchers from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE), made the call after contributing to a five-year study that examined the effectiveness and ethicality of the behavioural obligations placed on those who use the welfare system.
The WelCond Project, led by the University of York and involving the universities of Heriot-Watt, Glasgow, Sheffield, Salford and Sheffield Hallam, analysed the effectiveness, impact and ethics of welfare conditionality between 2013 and 2018.
The study adds to a growing evidence base showing that while many of the principles underpinning conditional welfare are defensible, current practice is deeply problematic.
Researchers interviewed 481 service users in England and Scotland alongside policy stakeholders and focus groups drawing from nine policy areas, including Universal Credit, disabled people, migrants, lone parents, offenders and homeless people.
They found little evidence that welfare conditionality enhanced people's motivation to prepare for or enter paid work with some pushed into destitution, survival crime and ill health. Instead, benefit sanctions were found to routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial and health effects. The study also showed mandatory training and support was often too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work.
Professor Sarah Johnsen from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Eqaulities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, said: “The study adds to a growing evidence base showing that while many of the principles underpinning conditional welfare are defensible, current practice is deeply problematic.
“A major rebalance of the system is needed because the balance between sanctions and support is at present far too heavily weighted toward the former.
“The current preoccupation with sanctions-based compliance needs to be reduced and much more emphasis be placed on the provision of meaningful personalised support that will genuinely enhance a recipient's prospects of moving into work or discontinuing antisocial or problematic behaviours.”
Welfare Conditionality links eligibility for welfare benefits and services to responsibilities or particular patterns of behaviour, under threat of sanction for non-compliance. It has been a key element of welfare state reform in many countries since the mid-1990s.
Supporters say the use of sanctions and assistance is an effective way of weaning people off benefits and into paid work, or addressing anti-social behaviour. However, critics argue the approach is largely ineffective in promoting paid employment and personal responsibility, and is likely to exacerbate social exclusion among disadvantaged populations.
WelCond Director Professor Peter Dwyer, from the University of York's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: “Our review reveals that in the majority of cases welfare conditionality doesn't work as intended and we have evidence it has increased 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 promote 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.”
Other key recommendations arising from the study include:
• Reduce the severity of sanctions.
• Job search support and employment and skills training need to be significantly improved.
• The wider application of welfare conditionality within the benefit system for disabled people, homeless people and other vulnerable people, such as those with drug or alcohol dependency, should be paused pending a fuller review of its impacts on these groups.
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