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Conditions and sanctions don’t work, and hinder the rights of the most vulnerable


Welfare services have been focusing on monitoring compliance with conditions, as opposed to providing support to vulnerable people. Photo © Oxyman (cc-by-sa/2.0)

A UK MP found “depressingly unsurprising” the finding that punishing people in their hour of greatest need is ineffective and ethically questionable. Indeed, the results of the five-year study on Welfare Conditionality, presented to Parliament last month, should surprise none of us. The evidence has been mounting for years that a punitive approach to vulnerability does not work, writes Alexandra Barrantes.

The study (undertaken by several UK Universities) delves into both the efficacy and ethics of welfare conditionality in the case of the UK. The overall findings  show that conditions and sanctions have been mostly ineffective in helping service users improve their welfare and overcome poverty. That is, the social programmes and services’ objectives have not been efficiently achieved through the implementation of sanctions and conditions. In addition, the evidence also puts into question the ethical legitimacy of welfare conditionality in the way it is currently being implemented.

Welfare services have been mainly focused on monitoring compliance with conditions, as opposed to providing support to vulnerable people, longitudinal qualitative interviews suggest – undermining the social security system in place.  Thus, interviews with UK welfare service users bring out the way in which some support services are being undermined by a benefit system built around sanctions and depersonalised services and packages, by coercive rather than supportive welfare services. The end result is that the provision of some of these social services (employment, universal credit, and disability, among others) being provided are not focusing on providing effective personalised support to vulnerable people.

On top of this, it seems that so-called ‘street-level bureaucracy’ – often the citizen’s only direct interface with the state- is to a considerable extent undermining the provision of services, with evidence of discretion in operationalising welfare conditions and sanctions being inappropriately applied.

Inappropriate implementation focusing on monitoring compliance and imposing sanctions, providing coercive rather than supportive services, discourages user from seeking help and triggers a series of negative outcomes. In their interviews, welfare beneficiaries highlight suffering anxiety and stress-related illnesses as a result. This is caused by the less than adequate service delivery; a sense of being overwhelmed; withdrawing from social services to avoid adverse expected outcomes; not bothering to return because of failed expectations; and experiencing sanctions as punitive, among other issues. I believe these perceptions and experiences of welfare users speak to the core of the ethics of welfare delivery and raise serious questions about dignity, in particular in relation to the most vulnerable members of society. And personal dignity, as well as autonomy,  are core foundations of human rights, linked to equality and non-discrimination principles, that should be applied in public policies that address the needs of the most vulnerable.

Public policies, including welfare, need to focus not only on the outcomes of programmes (which in the case of the research findings are not necessarily being achieved efficiently), but also on the the implementation process so that we do not lose sight of how recipients are service users are treated in the interaction with programme and service delivery.

Some participants in the parliamentary session suggested that welfare sanctions in the UK appear to be driven more by questions of resource availability than by demand and supply, and, I would add, still less on the right to social security. One of the participating UK MPs stated that research like this must be leveraged to get Parliament to move away from ideology-based policies and toward evidence-based policymaking.

What about the rest of the world?

The findings shed light on the impact of welfare conditions and sanctions on beneficiaries in the UK, but having worked always in the international development front, I believe there is similar evidence of negative effects in other countries as well.

The session at Parliament brought to the fore, for me, discussions around the use of conditions in the provision of social protection in Latin America. In the case of this region, imposing conditions on cash transfer programmes is considered necessary in order to achieve the desired impact on children’s health and education. Nevertheless, based on international evidence, there has not been enough convincing evidence to support the effectiveness of imposing conditions and sanctions.

We have also stressed the negative impacts of conditions on women’s empowerment and rights enjoyment in Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) used in Latin America in a recent blog. A very recent book highlights the Unjust Conditions of a Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, bringing an interesting in-depth account of the negative impact conditions have on women in the Juntos CCT in Peru. This ethnographic work considers conditionality from the perspective of low-income mothers, and comes to the conclusion that conditions are unjust. It’s an effect Maxine Molyneux once artfully dubbed: “Mothers at the service of the state”. In addition, the study looks into blind spots in the measurement of programme CCTs impacts, the ironic nature of conditions of health centres and schools (due to the lack of quality services upon which conditions are imposed ), and raises issues around the unpaid work of walking and waiting that women have to endure.

But depressingly unsurprisingly (for me now), it is also the same in some other high-income countries, such as the United States and Australia. Issues around sanctions, conditions and deservingness of beneficiaries have been present in many of the recent policy discussions, just as in the case of the UK.

In short, when looking at both the efficiency and the ethics around sanctions and conditions in welfare programmes, there is ample evidence to suggest that there is no added benefit to imposing them on beneficiaries. They are, on many occasions, unjust and we should question their ethical legitimacy. This is especially true when they are imposed on some of the most vulnerable in society, which does not empower them or provide services that respect their dignity.

Public policies geared towards helping the most vulnerable should be based on principles of dignity, bear in mind citizen’s entitlements, and ensure that programme and service delivery stands by these principles. There should be no room for undignified and inefficient welfare delivery in modern society.

Photo © Oxyman – geograph.org.uk/p/745229 licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence