Carrots, sticks, and individual support in the welfare system: Welfare conditionality in the UK

Conditional arrangements designed to ‘correct’ the ‘problematic’ behaviour of welfare recipients have become commonplace in the UK, Australia and other countries for many years. What’s missing from current debates about welfare conditionality, and how can this problem be thought about differently? Professor Peter Dwyer from the University of York, and head of the Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions Support and Behaviour Change project, offers his views in this email interview for Power to Persuade.

Could you briefly describe the concept of ‘welfare conditionality’ as it currently represented in (UK) policy debates?

Very few welfare rights are of course totally unconditional. Routinely, access to collective welfare provisions are governed by different principles and criteria that define eligibility to many benefits and services and these principles are subject to fierce debate. A principle of welfare conditionality holds that eligibility to certain basic, publicly-provided welfare entitlements should be dependent on an individual first agreeing to meet particular compulsory duties or patterns of behaviour.

In the period following WWII, social democratic theorists were influential in setting out an extensive entitlement-based vision of social citizenship that emphasised the fundamental importance of largely unconditional social rights. This is no longer the case today, and a qualitative shift has occurred both within and beyond the UK. The old rights-based vision of social citizenship, with its consequent envisioning of citizens largely unconditional entitlement to welfare, has been successfully challenged by commentators on both the political left and right. A new highly conditional form of social citizenship focuses on individual, rather than collective, responsibility and emphasizes an unequivocal link between welfare rights and responsibilities has emerged.

Across the mainstream political parties a consensus about the appropriateness of welfare conditionality is evident. The use of conditional welfare arrangements that combine elements of sanction and support which aim to ‘correct’ the ‘problematic’ behaviour of certain recipients of welfare is now well established. Welfare conditionality is currently embedded in a broad range of policy arenas including: unemployment and disability benefit systems, family intervention projects, street homelessness projects, social housing and aspects of migration and criminal justice policy. Successive New Labour, Conservative/Liberal Coalition governments and latterly the Conservative administration extended the reach of welfare conditionality to include lone parent and disabled people the majority of whom now have to engage in compulsory work search or training activities or benefit sanctions. In October 2012 an enhanced sanctions regime was introduced in the UK for all those who do not meet their personalised work preparation or job search requirements as specified by their advisor. Sanctions range from a loss of benefit for four weeks for an initial low level transgression (e.g. non-attendance at a specified interview with an adviser), to up to three years loss of entitlement for a repeat third, high level offence such as failure to apply for a job.

Welfare conditionality has recently been further extended to include low paid workers. Under Universal Credit rules (which replaces six means tested benefits and is currently being rolled out in the UK), those engaged in low paid or part time work and in receipt of in work benefits/wage supplements have to search for further work and attend interviews with advisers as instructed or face benefit sanctions.

What are the key ideas and assumptions that underpin the concept of welfare conditionality?

 Proponents of welfare conditionality make a number of important assumptions, many of which are contentious and subject much heated debate. First, that policies which seek to promote unconditional entitlement to public welfare benefits and services are likely to promote idleness and unemployment and entrench welfare dependency among a section of the wider population. In short, largely unconditional social rights create and reproduce a welfare dependant ‘underclass’ who choose to rely on welfare rather than work for a living. Second, that welfare conditionality can be used instrumentally to tackle this perceived problem. In other words, if you make receipt of welfare benefits or services conditional on certain forms of approved conduct or behaviour, people will ‘see the light’ and stop behaving irresponsibly, engage with paid employment, etc. Welfare conditionality can help people ‘do the right thing’ in two ways, by offering them mandatory training and support (‘carrots’) or by taking away their rights to benefit and services if they don’t (‘sticks’).  

Opponents of welfare conditionality point to a number of problems with these assumptions. First, the implied causes and solutions to the problems that welfare conditionality is meant to solve. Take unemployment and wider inactivity in relation to the paid labour market. Welfare conditionality focuses in on individual behaviour and locates inactivity firmly at the door of the individual concerned. The assumption is those who don’t work and who rely on benefits are unemployed because they are lazy and can’t be bothered to work—'freeloaders' looking to rely on the rest of us. Such thinking fails to recognise wider structural causes of unemployment such as a lack of available work (downturns and recessions do happen) and also the differential capabilities of individuals. Disabled people, for example, may not be able to work because of their impairments and/or discrimination and a reluctance on the part of employers to hire them. The solutions to unemployment are not always behavioural and located at the individual level. An impaired person may want to work but may be prevented from doing so by wider disabling environments and practices.

Second, there is the rationality mistake. People do not, or cannot always respond rationally to the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ that are applied to trigger changes in their behaviour because of other things that might be going on in their lives at a the time. An example here might be someone with drug or alcohol problems who whose primary concern is responding to their addiction. Finally, it is worth nothing that assumptions about the effectiveness of welfare conditionality in changing the behaviour of social welfare recipients are regularly asserted but remain largely unproven. Where is the evidence?

In your view, what is left out of current debates about welfare conditionality (in the UK)? Where are the ‘silences’ in this debate?

The whole debate about the wider ethicality of welfare conditionality appears to have been lost for the time being. It is now almost assumed that simply stating that welfare rights come with attendant responsibilities—and consequently, if you don’t keep your part of the bargain then you lose your rights—is enough. The fact that welfare conditionality is now being applied to the working poor under Universal Credit may perhaps reignite a debate about the ethical nature or otherwise of welfare conditionality more widely. This is because it may be seen as punishing hard working poor people.

The gulf between the rhetoric of welfare conditionality and the evidence of effectiveness of sanctions needs to be addressed.


In your view, how could this issue be thought about differently to achieve better social outcomes, particularly for those who are in receipt of government support and welfare?

UK debate and policy at present is unbalanced with too much emphasis on sanction. The pendulum needs to swing back towards the support element that welfare conditionality is also supposed to imply. First wave findings from the Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions Support and Behaviour Change project (to be launched on May 12 2016) suggest successful transitions into work, or the cessation of problematic behaviour, emerge not so much from the threat or experience of sanction, but the availability of appropriate individual support. There also is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of irresponsibility and engage with complex realities of people’s lives. Many of those who are subject to welfare conditionality and the sanctions that ensue are often dealing with poverty and a range of other complex needs. Sanctions can sometimes simply make matters worse for the individuals concerned, their families and wider society.