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Researchers - benefits sanctions have ‘profoundly negative consequences’

Friday 17 June 2016

University of Salford researchers working on a national study say the system of sanctions and support integral to much UK welfare have left some resorting to crime and using food banks.

The Salford academics are partners in the ongoing Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change research project, a collaboration of six English and Scottish Universities that is led by the University of York. The team has interviewed 480 welfare service users from 10locations across England and Scotland, as well as civil servants, MPs and third sector organisations.

The team at the University of Salford are presenting the first wave of findings at an event attended by policy makers and practitioners at Salford’s MediaCityUK campus on Friday June 17.

As part of the study, Dr Lisa Scullion,Reader in Social Policy, and Research Fellow Katy Jones have interviewed 33 people from across Greater Manchester who have conditions attached to their benefits.

These detailed interviews with the claimants included asking them about how sanctions have affected their lives, whether they felt they had been supported, and whether or not they felt that attaching conditions to benefits was ethical.

Dr Scullion said those interviewed in Greater Manchester reflected the picture they were seeing nationally in the research. She said: “We’ve interviewed people who have been sanctioned and the impacts have been profoundly negative.

“Some of them have told us they’ve had to go to food banks, and we’ve spoken to people who have said that they’ve had to resort to crime in order to survive. It has affected people’s mental health,and it has an impact on their children”.

Dr Scullion went on to raise concerns about that the current balance in the system appeared to be tipped towards sanctions rather than support, saying: “A lot of people we have spoken to broadly support the principle of conditionality.

“However, they have raised concerns about how appropriate it is to apply sanctions, sometimes in cases where they have been five minutes late for an interview – so there are some big questions about the proportionality of the system.

“There is also a huge variation in the level of support people have received, which often comes down to which job centre they attend, and even which adviser they are allocated. Often the support people receive is actually coming from third sector organisations”

One participant who was claiming Universal Credit had mixed up their appointment cards and arrived at the Job Centre at the wrong time: “It was a genuine mistake but I'd still gone in that day, it's not as though I hadn't turned up or anything. So I rang up straightaway, I explained my situation and like I say it was generally just daft, but it was a mistake,an innocent but stupid mistake, we all make mistakes but I still did turn up and I got a sanction for a week.”

Dr Scullion stated that the research was alsoshowing that conditionality could be counter-productive, saying: “Ourinterviews suggest that the conditions attached don’t necessarily move peoplecloser to the labour market. People are sometimes applying for jobs that theyknow they won’t get just to comply with the conditions that have been set.”

This issue was highlighted by one research participant who was currently claiming Universal Credit who stated: “A company wanted an HGV driver right I had to apply for that but I don't drive. Now where's the logic there do you know what I mean?...I applied for everything that was there just to prove to them that I'm applying for it. You're never going to get the job.”

The first wave findings will be discussed atthe MediaCity event by a panel including Professor Peter Dwyer, University ofYork, Principal Investigator on the collaborative project, Rebecca Long-Bailey,MP for Salford and Eccles, Cllr Sean Anstee, leader of Trafford Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority lead for skills and employment, and Malcolm Gardner of the Welfare Reform Club campaign group.

Professor Dwyer said: “The common thread linking stories of successful transitions into work, or the cessation of problematic behaviour, was not so much the threat or experience of sanction, but the availability of appropriate individual support. Our study will continue to examine this issue over the next two years.”

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Conrad Astley

0161 295 6363