Benefit sanctions, disabled people, and evidence ignored

By Bernadette Meaden
November 9, 2018

Following the Brexit Secretary’s revelation that he is just getting to grips with the implications of Britain being an island, we probably should not be disappointed or surprised by anything from the current government. Yet it is still depressing to see Alok Sharma, Minister of State for Employment, defending discredited policies using outdated evidence.

Following its inquiry into benefit sanctions, the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee said, "No evidence the Committee received was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive."

In a letter to the Chair of the Committee Frank Field MP, Mr Sharma addressed the Committee's suggestion that people who are ill or disabled should be exempted from conditionality and benefit sanctions.

He begins by stating that, “Where it has been determined that a claimant has a serious health condition or disability which prevents them working or preparing for work, they will not be required to undertake any work-related requirements and their Claimant Commitment will reflect this. As such, they will not be subject to sanctions for these purposes… In ESA, this is called the Support Group”

So far, so good. That is correct. People in the ESA Support Group have such a serious health condition or disability they are not expected to seek work or engage in work-related activity.

However, the Minister then goes on, “Evidence shows that when provision or support is voluntary the take up is extremely low. For example, the ESA Support Group has no mandatory conditionality and less than one per cent move off the benefit and into work every month.  As such we believe that to impose a blanket ban which exempts all disabled people from any form of conditionality would be doing this group a great disservice”.

The Minister has just said that the reason people are in the Support Group is because they are too ill or disabled to even seek or prepare for work. They may be terminally ill. So why does he find it a problem that only one per cent per month move into work? Given the extent of the problems people in this group face, and given the harsh, demanding nature of the modern labour market, it is remarkable that anybody from this group finds suitable employment. And it is certainly insulting and patronising to suggest that benefit sanctions, or the fear of a sanction, is what is needed to get them into work. That suggests that people are making a lifestyle choice to be seriously ill or disabled, and need the threat of destitution to make them pull their socks up.

And then to add further insult, it is dressed up as fake concern – we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t motivate you by threat of destitution.

But remember, we shouldn’t even be arguing this point – the people Mr. Sharma refers to have been found, by his own department, to be too ill or disabled to even seek or prepare for work. If by some stroke of extreme good fortune they make an unexpected recovery, or find paid employment that surmounts their numerous barriers, then that is to be celebrated. But that will never be made more likely by a benefit sanction.

The letter reveals other problems with the evidence Mr. Sharma uses.  He writes, “There is a strong evidence base showing that work is generally good for physical and mental health and well-being, and that worklessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health and well-being.” He even cites the paper which contains this ‘strong evidence base’, a paper which the DWP has heavily relied upon to justify many of its policies, and which was commissioned and published by the DWP itself. 

But take a look at that paper, and we can see that it is far less supportive of Mr. Sharma’s arguments than he would like us to believe. For instance, in the section, ‘Work for sick and disabled people’ it says, “Firstly,work is generally good for your health and well-being, provided [their emphasis] you have ‘a good job’. Good jobs are obviously better than bad jobs, but bad jobs might be either less beneficial or even harmful.”

It also says, “the relationship between work(lessness) and health must take account of the social context. As a simple example, the impact of work and unemployment varies across age and allowance must be made for the different socio-economic context of school-leavers and of older workers who may be approaching retirement… It is all very well to say that work is good for your health, but that depends on being able to get a job.”

So the paper Mr Sharma quotes in support of benefit sanctions to ‘incentivise’ people into getting a job is actually far more nuanced than he suggests. And remember, this paper is from 2006. Since then we’ve had welfare reform, which has introduced harsher benefit sanctions, and the labour market has changed considerably.

Significantly, Mr Sharma does not quote much more recent research, (University of Manchester, 2017) which says “researchers found evidence that formerly unemployed adults who moved into poor quality jobs had elevated risks for a range of health problems, compared to adults who remained unemployed.” And these were healthy adults, so the impact on an ill or disabled person of being pressured into an unsuitable job would, one imagine, be much worse.

There is also newly published evidence, which either Mr Sharma has not read or has ignored, that sanctions actually make it far less likely that a person who has a disability or chronic illness will find work. The University of Essex, working in partnership with Inclusion London, published a report on disabled people’s experience of the ESA Work Related Activity Group. 

Dr Danny Taggart, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Essex, said “Based on these findings, the psychological model of behaviour change that underpins conditionality and sanctioning is fundamentally flawed. The use of incentives to encourage people to engage in work related activity is empirically untested and draws on research with populations who are not faced with the complex needs of disabled people. The perverse and punitive incentives outlined in this study rendered participants so anxious that they were paradoxically less able to focus on engagement in vocational activity.”

Later in his letter, Mr Sharma responds to a question about evidence he had quoted to the Committee that said benefit sanctions made JSA and ESA claimants more likely to look for work. He is asked “how far this research was based on the sanctions regime introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012?” Mr. Sharma replies that the research covered a two year period from April 2011, so, “As the new sanctions regime was introduced in October 2012, the research relates predominantly to the old regime.”

Throughout the welfare reform period the DWP has gained a reputation for being, at best, careless in its use of statistics and evidence (there is a good explanation here by Declan Gaffney and Jonathan Portes). It is depressing to find that, despite there now being plenty of up to date, high quality research available on policies like benefit sanctions, a Minister would choose to use outdated and less relevant evidence to back up an ideologically-based position, particularly when the policies concerned can have serious, even fatal consequences for the people affected by them.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden




Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.