Sanctions, support and behaviour change: understanding the role and impact of welfare conditionality

Lead Research Organisation: University of Salford
Department Name: Nursing, Midwifery, Soc Work & Sciences


In the UK the use of conditional welfare arrangements that combine elements of sanction and support which aim to 'correct' the 'problematic' behaviour of certain welfare recipients are now an established part of welfare, housing, criminal justice and immigration systems. A strong mainstream political consensus exists in favour of conditionality, whereby many welfare entitlements are increasingly dependent on citizens first agreeing to meet particular compulsory duties or patterns of approved behaviour. Conditionality is currently embedded in a broad range of policy arenas (including unemployment benefit systems, family intervention projects, street homelessness interventions, social housing, and asylum legislation) and its use is being extended to cover previously exempt groups e.g. lone parents and disability benefit recipients. However, assumptions about the benefits and usefulness of conditionality in changing the behaviour of social welfare recipients remain largely untested.
This project has two key aims. First, to advance understanding about the role of conditionality in promoting and sustaining behaviour change among a diversity of welfare recipients over time. Second, to consider the circumstances in which the use of conditionality may, or may not, be ethically justified. We aim to address gaps in existing knowledge by establishing an original and comprehensive evidence base on the efficacy and ethicality of conditionality across a range of social policy fields and diverse groups of welfare service users.
We will use a range of methods to achieve these aims. Initially, we will review relevant literature, statistical data sources and policy documents. To help inform and critically interrogate our approach, we have secured the involvement of leading international scholars who will participate in a series of expert panel seminars convened in the early stages of the study. We will also conduct 'consultation workshops' with welfare recipients and practitioners to feed into research design (these workshops will be held again towards the end of the study to reflect on emerging findings). Following on from this we will undertake fieldwork with three sets of respondents:
1. semi-structured interviews with 40 'elite' policymakers;
2. 24 focus groups (with 6-10 respondents) with frontline welfare practitioners who implement policy; and
3. repeat qualitative longitudinal interviews with a diverse sample of 400 welfare recipients who are subject to conditionality. Each person will be interviewed three times giving a total of 1200 interviews.
The elite interviews will explore the reasons why policymakers introduce conditional welfare policies and their understandings of how they might promote behavioural change. The focus groups will consider both what frontline practitioners think should happen (ethically) and what they think would/does happen (in practice) when conditionality is implemented. The three rounds of repeat qualitative longitudinal interviews with welfare recipients will provide a meaningful way to examine the transitions, adaptations and coping strategies of individuals subject to conditionality, how these may change over time, and why there may be diverse outcomes for different people.
Fieldwork will take place in a variety of locations in England and Scotland, including the cities of London, Manchester, Salford, Sheffield, Glasgow and Edinburgh. This will allow for a comparative analysis of the interplay between shared social security law and the different policy and legal frameworks on housing, homelessness and criminal justice that exist in England and Scotland. All interviews will be audio recorded and transcribed (with permission). The new data generated will then be analysed to explore commonalities and differences between the perspectives of policymakers, frontline workers and welfare recipients. Findings will be disseminated to policymaker, practitioner, academic and welfare service user audiences.

Planned Impact

The issue of conditionality, and how it can be combined most appropriately with support, is central to current welfare debates, but existing evidence on the effectiveness and ethicality of conditional interventions is very weak. This study will generate the first comprehensive and independent evidence base on the long-term impacts of welfare conditionality (and allied forms of support) on the behaviour and well-being of a range of recipients. Outputs will become primary reference points for an array of stakeholders, informing the development of public services, policy and practice, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of policy interventions and the quality of life of some of society's most marginalised people.

Who will benefit?
The study will have clear benefits for policy makers working across a spectrum of fields (including social welfare, housing, criminal justice, health, migration, and social services) at national and local levels in the UK. It is also likely to be of great interest to policy-makers internationally (especially elsewhere in the English-speaking world) given the resonance of concerns about (intensifying) welfare conditionality in other developed economies.

The findings will be invaluable to public and third sector service providers, as well as to campaigning bodies at local, national and international scales. They will, for example, provide an evidence base of great value to local authorities, non-governmental organisations, charities and community groups supporting a broad spectrum of vulnerable groups. Perhaps most importantly, the research will benefit people in receipt of welfare benefits and services, most notably homeless people, social housing tenants, individuals/families subject to ASBOs/family intervention projects, migrants, lone parents, unemployed people, disabled people and offenders. Many will have had traumatic backgrounds and face multiple forms of disadvantage, which may be compounded by inappropriate or unethical applications of sanctions or other forms of conditionality. Conversely, they may benefit from well-designed and evidenced interventions which combine supportive and conditional elements.

How will they benefit?
Policy makers, service providers and advocacy groups will benefit via the development of a robust evidence base on the actual impacts (positive and negative, intended and unintended) of conditional welfare interventions on different groups. The research will enhance understanding of the likely outcomes of particular combinations of sanctions and support, and modes of delivery, as well as the ethicality of these in given circumstances. It will highlight the continuities and discontinuities in how conditionality is conceived and applied, and its impacts, across different welfare fields. Policy makers, practitioners and advocacy groups will thus be in a much better position to devise and promote effective, and ethically sound, policy and service interventions. The research is particularly timely in the current era of austerity when the need to ensure that publicly-resourced interventions are effective and represent good value for money is of crucial importance.

Welfare recipients will benefit in the long term from the development of policies and services that are proven to be effective at promoting and sustaining positive behaviour change. The research will enable better design and implementation of interventions targeted at specific groups so as to maximise positive outcomes and mitigate potential harm or unintended consequences. The array of potential outcomes for recipients is extensive, but might include, for example: increased engagement with supportive interventions where individuals had previously been 'service resistant'; improved skills, confidence and motivation to (re)engage in work; reduction or cessation in involvement with activities that are harmful to themselves or others (e.g. substance misuse, anti-social behaviour and/or criminal recidivism).


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ES/K002163/1 01/03/2013 30/06/2013 £2,051,964
ES/K002163/2 Transfer ES/K002163/1 01/07/2013 31/03/2019 £2,070,075