Peter Dwyer, Dealing with Welfare Conditionality

Peter Dwyer (ed.), Dealing with Welfare Conditionality: Implementation and effects, Policy Press, 2019, vii + 187 pp, 1 4473 4182 6, hbk, £75

If anyone wants to know how conditionality is working out in the UK’s benefits system, then this is the book to go to. All of the chapters are based on mainly ESRC-funded research by PhD students who have recently completed theses or are about to do so. Every chapter is thoroughly referenced, and the original research reported in them is based on interviews with individuals who suffer from current benefits policy and with practitioners who relate to them.

The editor’s introductory chapter introduces us to a four-stage definition of conditionality: to receive a service or benefit, a claimant must be in a defined category (for instance, unemployed); they must satisfy entitlement criteria (for instance, inadequate income); they must fulfil behavioural requirements in order to continue to receive the benefit or service (for instance, they must provide evidence of seeking employment); and they must satisfy front-line street level bureaucrats’ requirements (for instance, personal requirements set by job coaches). Perhaps we should add a fifth stage: the claimant must have sufficient health, intelligence, and computer skills, to enable them to manage the benefits system, and must not have been so demotivated by the system that they no longer have the capacity to engage with it. Dwyer charts the global transition from a citizenship entitlement basis for receipt of benefits and services to an approach conditional on a claimant fulfilling behavioural requirements, and although he offers arguments both for and against this transition, it is not difficult to work out where his sympathies lie:

Opponents of welfare conditionality view its use as ethically unjustifiable, because it disproportionately punishes poor people, is socially divisive, and, by primarily focusing on the responsibility to undertake paid work undermines other valid forms of social contribution, such as informal care. They also argue that it is largely ineffective in promoting paid employment or personal responsibility, and that it exacerbates social exclusion among disadvantaged populations. (p. 4)

Following the editor’s introductory chapter, chapter 2 finds that the conditionality and discretions embedded in Universal Credit prevent many of the most vulnerable from accessing the provision designed to assist them, and can contribute to their social exclusion. Chapter 3 studies women caught up in both the justice and social security systems, and finds that the conditionalities related to the latter are experienced as additional punishment, and as an additional barrier preventing positive behavioural change. Chapter 4 explores the combination of conditionalities experienced by individuals caught up in both the immigration and social security systems, and finds that life on the street can be experienced as a greater freedom and dignity than submission to a highly conditional benefits system. On a similar theme, chapter 5 is based on interviews with third sector service providers, and finds that because homeless people can find it hard to fulfil the conditionalities of the benefits system, third sector support workers have to spend time assisting clients to navigate the benefits system, which prevents them from providing the support required, for instance, with finding accommodation, and with training and job search. The author also finds that a more conditional approach has started to displace the traditionally unconditional approach of third sector organisations, and that some of them are willingly facilitating the benefits system’s conditionalities. The chapter makes the valid point that any organisation having to spend time helping homeless claimants to navigate the social security system is an indictment of that system. This point could legitimately be extended to suggest that any assistance required by anyone to navigate a benefits system is an indictment of that system.

Chapter 6 finds that Roma migrants, having moved to the UK to escape discrimination in their own countries and to seek employment, face difficulties accessing both formal employment and conditional social security benefits, and so find themselves in informal employment, reinforcing their marginalisation. Finally, chapter 7 studies the effects of the Troubled Families Programme, and discovers that existing individual and social disadvantage can prevent sustained behavioural change, but that small positive changes can occur, particularly if they are not compelled. Families in difficulties need support, not coercion.

At the end of his introductory chapter, Dwyer emphasises the way in which increasing behavioural conditionality has spread across social policy sectors: social housing, social security, criminal justice, and so on; and in his afterword he holds neoliberal ideology responsible for the increasing conditionality. He concludes:

The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from discussions in the preceding chapters of this book is that welfare conditionality is really about blaming and punishing poor people for their marginalisation, while simultaneously justifying their exclusion from ever-reducing support, offered via collectivised, publicly financed welfare rights. The behaviour change agenda is a smokescreen that obscures this much harsher reality. (p. 177)

This is the right conclusion to draw from the wealth of evidence contained in the book’s chapters. It is not the book’s task to propose policy change, but the policy implication is clear. It is going to be difficult to reverse the trend towards increasingly conditional benefits. The task must therefore be to remove as many people as possible from the benefits to which conditionalities are attached, and to provide new layers of benefits and services that will be experienced as positive support. In the social security field, a new layer of unconditional benefits is the obvious way to do that.