Welfare Conditionality: reflections from the data launch

Last week, LGiU Scotland published a briefing on the five-year ESRC-supported project on welfare conditionality examining the research, the findings and the recommendations in some detail. Also last week, LGiU Scotland’s Hannah Muirhead attended the launch of the final findings in Glasgow, and reflects here on the presentations and discussions from the event.

Drs Sharon Wright and Alasdair Stewart of the University of Glasgow presented the findings of the study. The first of these was that, among claimants, there is lack of knowledge about and awareness of the vast and increasing differences that now exist between the Scottish and UK welfare systems and how each system applies to people claiming social security in Scotland.

The rights-based system in Scotland, underpinned by the key principle of claimant dignity, and the top-down, sanctions-based system from Westminster were described as being “out of alignment and rubbing against each other” and the discussion that followed highlighted the importance of bridging the gap between devolved and reserved social security services in Scotland.

Given that benefits under Scotland’s new social security powers will only account for around 15 per cent of total benefits expenditure in Scotland, it was considered crucial to raise awareness of the fact that two systems exist and how different they are, so that claimants are not blindsided by harsher UK policy when they are expecting something more Scotland-esque.

For the rest of the findings – those regarding the impacts of welfare conditionality – there was an overwhelming agreement in the room that this research isn’t telling us anything new, but that this type of robust academic research into implications and impacts is hugely important.

Four key findings of the study were:

  • People actually want to work and don’t need cajoled or sanctioned into trying to get a job
  • Conditionality results in counterproductive compliance – such as people applying for jobs they are unable to do just to make up the numbers and avoid sanctions
  • Even those who aren’t sanctioned themselves suffer anxiety, depression and other ill effects from living in fear of potential sanctions
  • Threat or experience of sanctions did not improve job outcomes for claimants

Recommendations were made to trial approaches across Scotland that would provide adequate benefit income without conditionality.

After the findings were discussed, we heard responses from David Wallace of Social Security Scotland, Marion Davis of One Parent Families Scotland and Bill Scott from Inclusion Scotland who each welcomed the study and supported its findings, illustrating their support with some pretty harrowing examples from their respective careers where conditionality in the welfare system has failed people.

We heard that, the more contact a person has with institutions in the process the more likely they are to get sanctioned – leading people to disengage with the system. We also heard that disabled people are 50 per cent more likely to get sanctioned than those without disabilities.

Towards the end of the event, there was a Q&A session with the panel, in which there were fewer questions and more comments and stories about the negative experiences with conditionality. I don’t think I’ve ever been at an event or data launch where there has been such consensus in the room. And that consensus was that welfare conditionality is absolutely responsible for sending vulnerable people into total destitution, the bottom line of which is that some people do not survive it.

These findings, while not surprising to the people present at the launch – most of whom worked closely with benefit claimants and the welfare process – will be important in providing a wider section of policymakers, councillors and the public with robust analysis of the impacts of welfare conditionality, and why it’s important for Scotland to do as much as it can to move towards its own, fairer system for the people living there.

The full report can be found here.

Photo Credit: Walimai.photo via Compfight cc

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