Janne Heederik is a volunteer with the Greater Manchester Law Centre. She is pursuing a PhD in anthropology, researching welfare reform in Greater Manchester. As a volunteer, she hopes to contribute more to the Manchester community and use her research skills outside of academia as well.
The Greater Manchester Law Centre provides free, professional and face-to-face legal advice and representation on social welfare and housing law. One of GMLC’s core aims is to challenge the unjust policy underpinning these systems and to bring problems and criticisms to the fore. Below, Janne assesses the discriminatory impact of welfare conditionality.
The principle of welfare conditionality is based on the idea that in order to receive benefits, claimants have to meet certain obligations, behave in a certain way, and follow specific rules
Recent welfare reforms have introduced a tougher sanctions and conditionality regime for benefit claimants, with an increased focus on increasing incentives to enter the labour market and for claimants to ‘work their way out of poverty’. The principle of welfare conditionality is based on the idea that in order to receive benefits, claimants have to meet certain obligations, behave in a certain way, and follow specific rules. If claimants fail to comply, they are threatened with sanctions, meaning that their benefits could be cut off for a certain period of time. The logic behind the system is that it would motivate people to behave responsibly (Bently, 2018).
The new system has been criticised for its ineffectiveness, negative personal, financial, health, and behavioural consequences, and its lack of meaningful support. However, one aspect of such critiques that is often overlooked, are the cumulative effects reforms have on women. While the policies of conditionality and sanctions are gender neutral, their outcomes are most definitely not (Dwyer 2018).
Welfare conditionality requires people to meet certain criteria in order for them to receive benefits. If they do not or cannot meet these criteria, they are at risk of being sanctioned: having their benefits stopped. Previously exempt groups, such as lone parents and disabled people, are now also subject to conditionality.
People who stay out of paid employment do not fit the framework of conditionality and therefore often end up being more vulnerable
Conditionality has been built around a mind-set of ‘working your way out of poverty’, meaning that it strongly focuses on getting people (back) into paid employment. It dictates that benefit claimants have to seek paid work. This implies that people who stay out of paid employment do not fit the framework of conditionality and therefore often end up being more vulnerable than others. In particular, women will be among the first in line to feel the effects of the new welfare governance, as they compromise the highest proportion of both low-earners (low-paid and part time) and lone parents, and are also more likely to be an unpaid carer (Cain 2015; Welfare Reforms: the impact on women 2015) .
The UK government’s own impact assessment into conditionality and sanctions stated that “whilst the policy is gender neutral, the majority (73%) of partners who will be affected by the introduction of personalised conditionality are female. A potentially significant number of these claimants will having caring responsibilities” In that same report, the government promises to take into account these caring responsibilities when looking at any requirements imposed on the claimants (Conditionality, sanctions and hardship 2011, p. 5)
Emphasising the importance of paid employment and the responsibility of every individual to engage in it, can undermine the productive value of unpaid care work and the work lone parents – primarily women – do
Thus, from the start of the implementation of conditionality and sanctions, the government was aware of the skewed effect it would have on women. However, the promise to take into account personal circumstances remains unfulfilled for many. Jobcentres are primarily focused on providing the unemployed with advice, job searches, and training. Emphasising the importance of paid employment and the responsibility of every individual to engage in it, can undermine the productive value of unpaid care work and the work lone parents – primarily women – do. In reality, carers’ unpaid contributions of care and support are now worth £132 billion a year (Yeandle 2016).
What is experienced by benefit claimants is feelings of shame and feeling compelled to apologise for claiming benefits they are entitled to. Within jobcentres, over-emphasising the importance of paid work can create room for possible judgement of full-time carers as being ‘unwilling to work’, ‘choosing the easy option’, or ‘making use of the system’. The system is experienced as punitive and sanctions often result in increased debt, poverty, and reliance on charity and informal support networks, rather than a ‘push’ to find secure, paid work (Chimes, Jordan, and Lynch 2017; Dwyer 2018; Yeandle 2016).
However, the consequences of conditionality are not purely one of narrative. Currently, single mothers have to take part in work-focussed interview when their youngest child is one year old and women with children from the age of three can be required to undertake mandatory work activity, or face sanctions. With insufficient access to affordable childcare and severe cuts in investment in public transport, this means that women will not all be able to meet the requirements and will thus be subject to sanction. A study on welfare conditionality also found that sanctions do not result in a lasting change in employment status. Many respondents of the study only managed to secure sporadic, low-paid, and insecure employment. Especially for single mothers, this means increased insecurity and a bigger risk of falling into poverty (Dwyer 2018; Engender 2015)
A recent study on sanctions among single parents found that single parents are still particularly at risk of being unfairly sanctioned since the new rules were introduced in October 2012. The vast majority of single parents are women. The study found that 62% of formal challenges to single parent sanctions have been successful, compared to 53% of challenges to other sanctions. This suggests that parents are often unreasonably sanctioned, more so than other claimants (Rabindrakumar 2017).
Another option is that women end up taking jobs that do not actually enable them to earn a decent income for themselves and their children, as their circumstances are no longer taken into consideration with respect to their ability to work once a child turns three (Reis 2018).
Thus, even when the DWP tries to accommodate towards single parents, full-time carers, or other groups, it is still not a priority and the government continues to fail to take into account the structural barriers that these groups face. These include the unavailability of flexible jobs to accommodate caring commitment, the lack of affordable childcare, and more personalised support through job centres. Until these issues are properly addressed, women remain in increased vulnerable positions under the regime of conditionality and sanctions.
Bently, Oscar. 2018. York research finds welfare conditionality ‘ineffective’. Nouse.
Cain, Ruth. 2015. “Work at All Costs? The Gendered Impact of Universal Credit on Lone-Parent and Low-Paid Families.” London School of Economics: 8–11.
Chimes, Jo, Sian Jordan, and Dee Lynch. 2017. A Human Rights-Based Response to the Impacts of Welfare Conditionality.
Conditionality, Sanctions and Hardship. 2011.
Dwyer, Peter. 2018. Final Findings : Overview.
Engender. 2015. 50 A Widening Gap: Women and Welfare Reform.
Rabindrakumar, Sumi. 2017. On the Rise: Single Parent Sanctions in Number.
Reis, Sara. 2018. The Female Face of Poverty: Examining the Cause and Consequences of Economic Deprivation for Women.
“Welfare Reforms: The Impact on Women.” 2015. Rape Crisis Scotland: 8–11.
Yeandle, Sue. 2016. “Caring for Our Carers: An International Perspective on Policy Developments in the UK.” The Progressive Policy Think Tank: 1–7.