Case study

Conditions, Welfare and Responsibility

We are leading an international network of researchers focusing on welfare conditionality within social security systems across the world.

The issue

Welfare conditionality is about linking welfare rights to ‘responsible’ behaviour. A principle of conditionality holds that access to certain basic, publicly provided welfare benefits and services should be dependent on an individual agreeing to meet particular obligations or patterns of behaviour.

In the UK, the use of conditional welfare arrangements that combine elements of sanction and support have been extended and intensified in recent decades and it is now an established feature across many diverse fields of welfare policy.

Generally with these kinds of sanctions and support, governments aim to get people to change their behaviour. We’re looking into all the effects of sanctions and support on people’s lives.

We want to know:

  • how effective is conditionality in changing the behaviour of those receiving welfare benefits and services and;
  • are there any particular circumstances in which the use of conditionality may, or may not be, justifiable.

The research

Our five-year Welfare Conditionality Project aimed to develop an informed understanding of the ethicality and the effectiveness of welfare conditionality in promoting and sustaining behaviour change among a diversity of welfare recipients over time.

Three linked elements of qualitative fieldwork underpinned the research and generated extensive original data for analysis. These were 54 semi-structured interviews with policy stakeholders; 27 focus groups with frontline welfare practitioners; and a repeat, qualitative longitudinal panel study in which 481 people who experience sanctions and support in their everyday lives participated.

Our key findings highlighted:

  • The ineffectiveness of welfare conditionality in facilitating people’s movement off social security benefits and entry into, or progression within, the paid labour market over time.
  • The profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes triggered by benefit sanctions.
  • Deficiencies in much of the mandatory support available and the pivotal role of appropriate and personalised support in triggering and sustaining movements into paid work and the cessation of problematic and anti-social behaviour.

The outcome

This ESRC funded project has achieved demonstrable impact with a range of policy makers and practitioners operating at international, national and regional levels.

Our empirically grounded analysis and insights on the efficacy, ethics and impacts of welfare conditionality have informed debate and influenced welfare policy and practice in and beyond the UK.

Evidence from our project has been cited and taken up by parliamentarians and policy makers in the UK Parliament and the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales and the Isle of Man.

Successes have included the use of our findings by governments and all-party committees to inform specific policies and recommendations.

Additionally, the project has achieved secondary impact by influencing major reports and actions by organisations working to ameliorate negative effects in the welfare system.

The research … is detailed, comprehensive and moving … my officials [have] had a productive meeting ... that has helped to shape our [Government] thinking.

Jamie Hepburn
Scottish Parliament Employability Minister
Featured researcher

Peter Dwyer

Professor of Social Policy

Professor Dwyer was the lead on this major five year ESRC funded project.

His research encompasses a critical engagement with social citizenship in relation to welfare rights and responsibilities and social inclusion/exclusion.

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