DWP must review welfare conditionality, policy unit set up by Downing Street says

The Behavioural Insights Team says using the threat of sanctions may be counterproductive 

Jon Stone
Political Correspondent
Friday 21 October 2016 11:46 BST
Meetings at Jobcentres were singled out as possibly counterproductive
Meetings at Jobcentres were singled out as possibly counterproductive (Getty)

The Government should review its practice of forcing benefit claimants to jump through hoops like attending Jobcentre meetings in order to claim benefits, a policy unit set up by Downing Street has recommended.

The Behavioral Insights Team, set up by David Cameron in 2010, said piling unemployed people with responsibilities on pain of sanction might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

The so-called Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

“There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment,” the policy unit said in a report released on Thursday.

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

The report, headlined “Poverty and decision-making”, tries to apply the latest findings from behavioral science to improve government services.

It says that far from anxiety-inducing forms and meetings the welfare system should instead be taking steps such as providing annual summaries of benefit entitlements to people.

The researchers called on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that self-set and enforced goals might be a better way of helping people into work.

Former DWP secretary Iain Duncan Smith was a proponent of sanctions (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

While the report suggests conditionality may have encouraged some people to take jobs, it says that pressure to take any job even when it was not a good fit may actually damage a claimant's earning potential and career path in the long run.

Dr Kizzy Gandy, a led researcher at the policy unit, said “simply tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked.

“Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she said.

“We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.

“We find that in many cases, simple tweaks to service design can yield disproportionate gains in improving decision-making.”

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy. I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.”

Welfare conditionality and sanctions were a favoured approach of former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, and also of the last Labour government. Meetings with so-called 'work coaches' form a major part of the Government's beleagured new Universal Credit welfare system.

There are some signs the Government may have backed away from the most controversial aspects of the policy in recent months.

Before his resignation Mr Duncan Smith introduce a “warning period” for sanctions, partially following the recommendations of a parliamentary committee that said the system was not working and putting vulnerable people at risk of destitution and harm.

Last week the new Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green announced the he would scrap reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – affecting around 100,000 people.

Large swathes of the welfare system do still however rely on conditionality and testing and any push to unpick the approach will take a long time, however.

Clarification: Though a press release issued by the Behavioural Insights Team called for the DWP to "Remove some of the mandatory requirements for accessing benefits", the report it referred to only suggested that these should be reviewed. This article has been updated to reflect the report's content.

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