Benefits sanctions

Our last edition contained an editorial on benefits sanctions. We are pleased to see that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a new report that reveals the depth of the problem. We are of course less pleased that the problem is so deep. We make no apology for repeating in full the report’s summary of its findings:

  • Sanctions are now used much more frequently within the welfare benefits system. The severity of sanctions has also increased and conditionality is now applied to previously exempt groups (e.g. lone parents, disabled people).
  • Benefit sanctions are having a strongly disproportionate effect on young people under 25, and there is also evidence of severe impacts on homeless people and other vulnerable groups.
  • International evidence indicates that benefit sanctions (especially severe sanctions) substantially raise exits from benefits, and may also increase short-term job entry; but the longer-term outcomes for earnings, job quality and employment retention appear unfavourable.
  • Little evidence is available on the impact of welfare conditionality in other spheres, such as social housing.
  • There is qualitative evidence to suggest that, with appropriate support, interventions including elements of conditionality or enforcement may deter some individuals from anti-social behaviour and street-based lifestyles.
  • The ‘theories of behaviour change’ underpinning conditionality have been questioned by commentators from both the Right and the Left, particularly with respect to the assumed ‘rationality’ of welfare recipients’ responses to financial sanctions and incentives.
  • There are also concerns that welfare conditionality leads to a range of unintended effects, including: distancing people from support; causing hardship and even destitution; displacing rather than resolving issues such as street homelessness and anti-social behaviour; and negative impacts on ‘third parties’, particularly children. [note]Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Welfare Sanctions and Conditionality in the UK[/note]

The authors offer a discussion of the ‘reciprocity’ argument for conditionality and sanctions, but do not offer a solution to the problem that, in the context of a benefits system that offers little incentive to increase earned income, conditionality and therefore sanctions are likely to be required to move people without employment into employment. In our view, only a benefits system that both offers no employment disincentives will solve the problem, because only such a system will dispense with conditionality and therefore with the need for sanctions.