On Conditionality

Here’s a post in Britain in 2017 in which ‘Sanctioned’ claimants are described as, “so hungry and physically emaciated that they were quickly discounted as unemployable by prospective employers”.

Researcher Ruth Patrick examines the flawed assumptions behind policies intended to incentivise benefit recipients to take up paid work – and calls for a rethink. Ruth is the author of ‘For whose benefit? the everyday realities of welfare reform’ (Policy Press).

In a brief radio appearance recently [listen from 14.54, Ed], I was involved in a discussion about the role of welfare conditionality in today’s welfare state. One of the participants defended conditionality’s role, citing what he described as a wealth of evidence that suggests that conditionality does work in supporting transitions from ‘welfare’ into ‘work’. I responded emphasising the punitive edge that conditionality brings to encounters at the Job Centre or in employment ‘support’ provision, and how this can harm relationships between claimants and their advisers. But that was all I had time to say.

Leaving the radio studio, my head swarmed with all the things I wished I’d added. All the reasons why welfare conditionality – as currently operating in the UK – is simply not working and instead so often causing significant hardship and even destitution. Based on my own research with single parents, disabled people and young jobseekers directly affected by welfare reform and welfare conditionality’s expansion, here are just five of the many more things I could (*should*) have said.

  1. While welfare conditionality has always had a role in Britain’s benefit system, it is hard to overstate the intensification and extension of its application over the past 35 years. Today, we have what WelCond researchers Sharon Wright and Peter Dwyer call ‘ubiquitous conditionality’, with work-related conditionality entrenching ever further into social security delivery and receipt.  This sees groups targeted with conditionality who arguably should not be, for example single parents with young children, those already in work (but judged not to be working, or earning, enough) as well as disabled people with some limited capability to work. This policy approach stresses the importance of paid employment, and crowds out other kinds of contribution such as parenting, care work and volunteering.
  2. The evidence on conditionality’s effectiveness is anything but conclusive. As the emergent findings from the Welfare Conditionality project conclude, there is little evidence that conditionality in general – and sanctions in particular – support or enable transitions into work.
  3. Linked to this, intensive and extensive work-related conditionality is based on a set of flimsy assumptions, assumptions that are not supported by the available research and evidence base. These include the idea that people on benefits need the threat of sanctions to ‘incentivise’ transitions into work (when in fact claimants most often want to engage in paid employment, where it is a realistic option) and the assumption that the ‘problem’ of unemployment lies at the individual rather than the structural level. The corrective lens is then incorrectly directed towards individual claimants, rather than looking to broader structural factors such as the nature of the paid labour market, (in)availability of appropriate child care and so on.
  4. Conditionality is often counter-productive in operating to push people further away from, rather than closer to, the paid labour market. For the participants in my study, sanctions often meant that individuals were busy looking for food rather than work, or ended up so hungry and physically emaciated that they were quickly discounted as unemployable by prospective employers. Further, the negative impact sanctions – and their threat – had on individuals’ mental health and self-confidence also affected participants’ ‘work readiness’.
  5. Too often, there is a mismatch between how conditionality is applied and understood by different agencies within the welfare state. For instance, a disabled person may be judged fit for work, and then expected to seek work as a condition of continuing to receive their benefits. However, when she presents at the Job Centre or at a compulsory employment programme, advisers may judge her too ill to comply with available support. That can lead to her being ‘parked’ and yet still part of the conditionality regime (and potentially subject to the full gamut of conditions, and potentially sanctions).

I could go on. And on. But these are just five of the many more reasons why we need to rethink conditionality’s role if we are to build a social security system that works for us all.


This is from the research group Welfare Conditionality ‘sanctions, support and behaviour change’.


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