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Effects of welfare sanctions and conditional support “profoundly negative” say researchers

Posted on 11 May 2016

Reform of the welfare and benefits systems - and in particular the emphasis on trying to change behaviour through sanctions - has had a “profoundly negative effect” on the people that receive them, according to a collaborative study led by the University of York.

Those subject to sanctions reported feelings of widespread anxiety and disempowerment, the report concluded.

The report also revealed that sanctions had a severely detrimental financial, material, emotional and health impact, with people reporting debts, reliance on charities and food banks and arrears on utilities and rent.

There were some limited examples of good practice and of mandatory support helping people to improve their work or personal situations. A minority of practitioners and service users did acknowledge some positive outcomes.

The findings have been detailed in the Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change Project.

The findings are the ‘first wave’ from the ongoing study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Researchers interviewed 480 welfare service users in 2014-2015, of whom more than a third had experienced sanctions. Policy stakeholders and practitioners were also interviewed in what is believed to be the largest current study of its kind. The research will continue until 2018.

The research team from six UK universities also heard negative reports from most service user interviewees about the support they received from Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme.

And across nine different groups of service users, there was little early evidence of ‘welfare conditionality’ bringing about positive changes in people’s behaviour.

These first wave findings bring into question the ability of welfare sanctions and support to bring about positive changes in people’s behaviour, the report’s authors say.

Project Director, Professor Peter Dwyer from the University of York’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: “The common thread linking stories of successful transitions into work, or the cessation of problematic behaviour, was not so much the threat or experience of sanction, but the availability of appropriate individual support. Our study will continue to examine this issue over the next two years.

“We are not placing figures on how many people experienced negative or positive effects, as this is a qualitative study. But our research findings strongly reflect what participants told us of their experiences.”

Examples of negative and positive experiences include:

  • So, I can't afford to eat at the moment… So, he [my son] has that, like he'll eat my food, I don't care. He even says, 'Why aren't you eating?' 'I ate earlier.' (Lone parent, female, England)
  • I got a sanction for not going to an interview. I got sanctioned for a month… It made me shoplift to tell you the truth. I couldn't survive with no money. (Homeless man, England)
  • My daughter could not attend school for two weeks. I didn’t have any money for that; you have to give her some money every day for some lunch and for a bus. (Migrant, male, Scotland)
  • When I used to feel really low, I used to hit the bottle. Now… I'll just ring [support worker] up and he'll say, 'Right do you want to come to speak to someone?' Which is great… I've never felt more confident. I've got a job interview… through these guys... fingers crossed, I'll be off benefits and back on proper money. Yes, that's all I want. (Offender, male, England)

Further information:

  • Further information is available on the project website The findings will be launched at an event on Thursday 12 May in central London, and posted on the project website from 11am.
  • The project is studying nine service areas or user groups in England and Scotland: jobseekers, Universal Credit recipients, disabled people, offenders, lone parents, migrants, social tenants, homeless people, and those subject to anti-social behaviour interventions. Detailed findings on each of these areas will also be posted on the project website.
  • Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change is a major five-year programme of research funded under the Economic and Social Research Council’s Centres and Large Grants Scheme. The 480 welfare service users are being interviewed twice more during the project.
  • The team comprises researchers from the universities of: Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Salford, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, and York.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

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