Category Archives: conditionality

Dadlessness or factlessness?

Chris Goulden from JRF has written previously about ‘the relentless rise of in-work poverty’ and it’s a phrase we use a lot when presenting to people about some of the issues to be addressed when tackling poverty.

Another issue which has seen an interesting increase since the turn of the century, and especially of late, is the percentage of couples with children who are living in poverty. Table 4.6ts on page 125 of the latest HBAI release (clicking on the table below helps to view it better) shows that the % of ‘coupled’ families accounted for 71% of all families with children living in poverty with lone parents accounting for just 29% of families with children living in poverty. In 1999/2000 the percentage of coupled families living in poverty was 57% and stayed around the figure for the next five years or so, rising steadily since then, with big increases seen in each of the last two HBAI releases. On the other hand, the percentage of  children living in poverty with lone parents has dropped from a high of around 43% in 1999/2000 to a current level of around 29%, again with sharp movements (downwards this time) in each of the last two releases.


Now, I don’t want to engage in any ‘spontaenous sociology’ here so I’m not going to make any grand claims about why this is. I’m not denying that Britain has a relatively high level of relationship breakdown when compared with some other countries, as this report shows. Nor am I suggesting that couples living together suffer some kind of financial ‘penalty’ which needs to be addressed and I’m also aware that relationship status, like poverty, is dynamic and not a static classification. I just think it’s interesting and worthy of more attention, especially in light of narratives about ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘family breakdown’ and ‘dadlessness’ that we hear so often when ‘root causes’ of poverty are discussed.

For example, Samatha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice argued in The Times last week that ‘Strong families should lead the war on poverty’ and she noted that:

Almost a decade of research at the Centre for Social Justice has confirmed beyond doubt that family breakdown lies at the heart of today’s poverty and  inequality. Most people working in schools, hospitals and other frontline  jobs don’t need to crunch the numbers, however. (my emphasis)

It would appear that the CSJ themselves felt no need to ‘crunch the numbers’ as she puts it – or indeed look at them. In short, the figures suggest that factors beyond the ‘strength’ of the family might be worth concentrating on a little bit more. Christian Guy, the Director of CSJ recently admitted that they had ‘missed in-work poverty’, for example.

Eleanor Rathbone, in 1913, suggested that “it is hard for a woman to be an efficient housewife and parent while she is living under conditions of extreme poverty … The astonishing thing to us is not that so many women fail to grapple with the problem successfully but that any succeed”. We could perhaps paraphrase this to reflect a similar view of families – it shouldn’t surprise us if some families do split up under the weight of poverty, but what is more surprising is the very high number who stick together through these times.

This view, supported by some evidence, might help to develop a more positive narrative around the role of families, parenting and poverty.

Best wishes,




“In search of the scrounger” Plus ca change…


A couple of days ago I got the book ‘In search of the scrounger’ by Alan Deacon out of the library and thought I would share a few of the paragraphs from the Introduction and Conclusions chapters. The book covers the inter-ward period and, more specificially, the 1920’s. Despite the near 100 year difference, the concerns of politicians and administrators in relation to social security sound all too familiar to current discussions around Jobcentre Plus targets, sanctions, tightened  conditionality and, of course, ‘scroungers’. All emphases are mine


“Throughout the 1920s discussion of unemployment insurance in Britain became increasingly dominated by the question of abuse. In particular, there developed a bitter controversy over the administration of a series of regulations which were collectively known as the genuinely seeking work test … Between March 1921 and March 1930 nearly three million claims for benefit were refused because the claimant had failed to meet this condition. By 1927, one claim in ten was being disallowed on the grounds that the claimant was not genuinely seeking work, and in some areas the proportion was over one third. At no time in these years did any prominent politician or government official seriously suggest that the work they were supposed to be genuinely seeking actually existed.” (p1)

” … the focus of attention must primarily be upon those who were directly responsible for the formulation of policy in this area: the Ministers and senior officials of the relevant government departments. It was they who demanded that the unemployed repeatedly demonstrate their willingness to work in a period of mass unemployment, and it is their perceptions which have to be understood and their decisions which have to be explained. Those explanations, of course, must be sought in terms of their wider economic and political aims, and the role which they perceived that the test could play in the realisation of those objectives.” (p1)

“Any assessment of the seeking work test must begin by acknowledging that its abolition in March 1930 did enable some claimants to draw benefit even though they were not looking for work at the time of their claim. It is argued, however, that such abuse was largely confined to married women and that even amongst this group the extent of the practice was considerably exaggerated by contemporaries. Certainly, there was no need to impose the test on all groups of claimants, and the campaign to ‘tighten-up’ the administration between 1925 and 1929 was totally unnecessary. The question remains, however, whether that campaign was the result of folly, malice, or both.” (p87)

“In short, the test was a sledgehammer to crack a relatiely small – and often exaggerated – nut. The use of this sledgehammer, moreover, had profound consequences for the administration of benefit, and affords a classic illustration of the impact of departmental pressure upon the ways in which local officers utilise their discretionary powers.” (p88)

“In the case of the test, the Ministry of Labour left its officers in no doubt as to what was expected of them. Their task was to detect and penalise malingering, and the accomplishment of this purpose was to override all other considerations. Olive Stevenson has recently observed that the “very existence” of powers to restrict the supplementary benefits paid to unemployed men or separated wives “tends to arouse suspicion in the minds of officers or to suggest to them that higher authority wants them to be suspicious”. In the 1920s that suspicion was deliberately fostered, and by the end of the decade the staffs of the Echanges were obsessed with the aspectre of abuse.” (pp88-89)

“(A report by John Hilton) found the interviewing officers convinced of their ability to spot a scounger – ‘a groundless and dnagerous faith’ – and often neglecting their duty to help claimants secure work. This, he believed, was a direct result of the pressures put upon them from above.” (p89)

“The seeking work test was as pernicious as it was unnecessary. It led to hundreds of thousands of unemployed men and women being arbitrarily deprived of benefits which they desperately needed, and forced many more to make repeated journeys in search of jobs they knew did not exist.” (p89)

“If the seeking work test was not prompted by malice, it was ‘tightened-up’ with a callous disregard of the hardships and injustices which resulted.” (p91)

church poverty

We have previously blogged about the increase in ‘in-work conditionality’ here and the role of the DWP in arousing suspicion of benefit fraud with their ‘Benefit thieves’ campaign here

Best wishes,


Universal Credit – computer says no?


There has been some uncertainty surrounding the development of the IT system to support Universal Credit last week and over the weekend. The Guardian reported that the system was ‘in meltdown’ and Computer Weekly reported that Stephen Timm, Labour MP for East Ham was adamant that ‘IT contractors have been told to stop work’ on the project, although this has been denied, in part, by Mark Hoban, Minister for Work and Pensions.

Another blog suggested that Hilary Reynolds had been replaced as ‘Universal Credit Programme Director’ after only 3 months in the job and following her revelation ‘that the technology for Universal Credit will not be ready in April, and that the roll-out from October will be much slower than previously expected’. Her letter to local authority chief executives from 3 December 2012 can be found here and a recent Guardian article suggested that local authorities should ‘prepare for the unexpected’.

All of this should be suprising given that DWP spokespeople and David Cameron have both suggested in recent times that ‘Universal Credit is on time and on budget’ in recent months. Perhaps this is the biggest welfare myth of our time….

***Update 13/03/2013 – Paul Spicker posted another interesting piece of news about the Universal Credit pilot on his blog and identified an interesting solution that the government may have come up with***

Understanding welfare differently

Last week, Paul Spicker gave a presentation at Newcastle University Business School, offering an alternative view of the role of welfare and the ‘need’ for some of the reforms that are currently taking place. I’m not going to try and summarize Paul’s presentation, mainly because I wouldn’t do it justice but suffice to say that he showed, using DWP data, that the suggestion that welfare somehow trapped people or led to long term ‘benefit dependency’ was unsupported by any evidence.

Paul began his presentation by highlighting that his work was very unfashionable and that people had largely stopped working on the issue of ‘social security’. One of the things I’d like to highlight here, is just why Paul’s work and those of others like him (Declan Gaffney, for example) is so important and I’ll try and do this by offering up a couple of other useful resources which help to counter the dominant narrative about the unaffordability of our benefits system and the abuse of it by individuals and families who receive benefits. Firstly, Paul’s blog deserves a plug and you can sign up for it here.

Before I do this, however, an example of the ‘dominant narrative’ was waiting for me when I returned to work in the afternoon – the Centre for Social Justice had sent an email newsletter which opened with the following statement:

Universal Credit – designed by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) – will rejuvenate Britain’s ruptured welfare system and give millions of people the tools to escape poverty

Paul pointed out during his presentation that Universal Credit actually manages to include almost every single recent failure in the benefits system, including: requirements to work for those who can’t; medical reassessment; penalties not linked to knowledge; and complex assessments with multiple dimensions. So this would suggest that UC might not do everything that the CSJ are proposing it will.

John Veit-Wilson who also attended the session forwarded me a couple of articles in the Scotsman following Iain Duncan Smith’s visit to Glasgow to speak at a conference. One noted that:

Iain Duncan Smith … is a decent man, or so people say, who is on a crusade to reform the benefits system. Unfortunately, he is also presiding over the biggest assault on the poorest people in living memory and causing untold misery to families the length and breadth of the country. While the Work and Pensions Secretary and his aides talk about scroungers and cheats, huge cuts to the living standards of people already on the edge are being masqueraded as reform

The other link was to the letters page of the Scotsman and it included a letter from Adrian Sinfield which included the following comment:

The coalition government needs to tackle the regressive unfairness of the overall tax system where the poorest fifth contributes more of its income than the richest fifth – 38.2 per cent as opposed to 33.6 per cent, according to the government’s own 

This linked to one of John’s comments at the event about the need to remember that there are two welfare states – one for the rich and one for the poor. Kevin Farnsworth from the University of Sheffield has also identified a third form of welfare – corporate welfare and he estimates that British corporations save more in tax breaks and loopholes than they actually pay in tax. Kevin notes that

Just as social welfare protects citizens from the cradle to the grave, corporate welfare protects and benefits corporations throughout their life course. And
yet, in most countries, corporate welfare is hidden and underresearched.

Finally, a couple of pieces of further reading, if anyone is interested:

  • False Economy, the campaigning group launched a briefing note highlighting ‘5 things you need to know about welfare cuts and the economy’, which is, in my opinion, a very useful resource.
  • One thing Paul didn’t touch on in his presentation was the level at which benefits are set and there have been three very interesting blogs on this recently – one by Chris Goulden from JRF looking at the heardening of attitdues towards ‘benefits scroungers’, one by Ben Baumberg on the Inequalities blog looking at whether or not people overestimate the level of benefits and one by Donald Hirsch, also on the JRF site, on the proposals to uprate benefits in line with earnings rather than prices – a situation he refers to as ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’
  • And, the evening before Paul’s event, I read an article by Jay Wiggan called ‘Telling stories of 21st century welfare: The UK Coalition government and the neo-liberal discourse of worklessness and dependency’ which explores the language used in the both the Green and White papers linked to the current welfare reforms. Very interesting reading indeed…..

Best wishes,


Freedom’s just another word……

I have recently had cause to re-acquaint myself with the Government’s Child Poverty Strategy and was struck by often the word ‘freedom’ is used. It appears 9 times in total, all in relation to reforms which will ‘strip away’ or ‘lift the burden of’ bureaucracy. The full list of appearances is below:

radical reform of the skills system based on the Coalition principles of fairness, responsibility and freedom.

They (Work Programme providers) will have the freedom to design and implement innovative services which focus on individuals’ needs.

…giving local authorities the freedom to make better use of social housing through control of their own income, expenditure and planning process.

 The White Paper sets out how the Academy programme raises standards, particularly in disadvantaged areas, by giving power and freedom back to head teachers and teachers.

 We want teachers to have greater freedom to use their professionalism and expertise in order to help all children progress

 the transparency agenda will reinforce these new freedoms, allowing communities to influence and challenge their local services

The new Work Programme will give providers the freedom to tailor help to individuals and in return will pay according to results

The Government is currently reviewing these and other statutory duties to make sure they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom and discretion they need to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable people

Our reforms will strip away bureaucracy and give local partners the freedom to focus on the needs of communities whilst being held accountable for achieving positive outcomes for families

In contrast, other words and phrases that one might expect to feature regularly in a child poverty strategy do not appear nearly as often:

 the word ‘rights‘ only appears in the main text of the document four times, and only once in relation to children’s rights.

‘in-work poverty’ only appears twice in the main text, despite over half of the children in poverty living in a household where an adult works.

‘adequate’ and ‘minimum’ do not appear at all in the main body of the text

‘standard of living’ appears twice – in the context of severe poverty: ‘Evidence suggests that there are those with seemingly very low incomes who still have a reasonable standard of living’

So freedom from state bureaucracy obviously plays an important role in the ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty and the ‘old approach’ is characterised as being over-generous with benefits, leading to ‘entrenched benefit dependency’.  However, this focus on freedom for service providers reminded me of a chapter I read in the David Harvey book ‘A brief history of neo-liberalism’ a little while ago. He argues, with the help of Karl Polanyi, that:

Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be essentials of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery

He goes on to say that:

the idea of freedom … degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise, which means ‘the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property’

At a time when non-participation in the labour market brings increased attention from the state through a variety of ‘capability assessments’, ‘work experience’ style programmes and the potential extension of conditionality to those in work, it is, perhaps, a surprising contrast to look at the extent of the freedom from state intervention being proposed for service providers.

Any thoughts?


***Update*** Adrian Sinfield contacted me today (18/05/2012) to provide me with a quote from an older Conservative MP, Harold Macmillan, who declared in 1938, in The Middle Way, that:

‘Freedom and poverty cannot live together. It is only in so far as poverty is abolished that freedom is increased’ (1938, pp 371-2).

Quite a contrast from the ‘new’ approach.

Many thanks Adrian,


The end of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor?

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian ran an editorial noting that attempts to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were ‘almost as old as the modern British state.’

And yet, with the introduction of Universal Credit ending the difference between in and out of work benefits and the potential extension of conditionality within the benefits system to those that are in-work, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor may be coming to an end. So far, the focus of the welfare reform bill has been on changes to disability benefits and also on the issue of benefit ‘caps’ of different types. The potential to compel people working part-time to find extra work with their employers or find a new job(s) has, to my knowledge, received little media coverage, with the exception of this article in The Guardian by Jonathan Rutherford. This post draws heavily on that article and the links within it.

The Coalition Government’s Child Poverty Strategy states that ‘The Universal Credit will support those who do the right thing, who take a full time job, to have an income which lifts them out of poverty’ and a Universal Credit Policy Briefing Note states:

Under Universal Credit, we will remove the separation between in work and out of work benefits, and we believe we should also extend conditionality so as to encourage or push Universal Credit claimants who are earning over £70 a week to work more and reduce their dependency on benefits


Our intention in extending conditionality is to continue this historic trend to increase activation within the benefits system. Setting the threshold higher up the income spectrum will enable us to encourage or push claimants, including some of those working a few hours a week, to work more and reduce their dependency on benefits. This will enable us to apply full work-related conditionality, where we consider that appropriate.

(my emphases)

The earnings threshold will be set at 35hrs x National Minimum Wage (currently equivalent to £212.80 per week). Anyone earning over this threshold will ‘fall into the no conditionality group’. Anyone earning below this threshold could be subject to conditionality which could require them to seek full time work within 90 minutes travel time from their home. The population will, in theory, be split between those that earn enough to warrant no intervention from the state and those that earn too little and require state help to ‘do the right thing’ and find full-time work. The ‘poor’, whether in work or not, will be ‘managed’ using the same tool, with ‘conditionality focused on those not earning as much as we might expect them to’.

This policy proposal appears to be built on the belief that those who are working part-time are doing so because they are lazy and in Lord Freud’s words ‘are clearly capable of working or earning more’. However, when the latest employment figures suggest that 1.3 million people are currently working part time because they cannot find full time work (the highest since figures began in 1992), and JRF suggest that ‘in the first half of 2011, some 6 million people were underemployed’, a fairly coherent argument could be made that perhaps ‘laziness’ is not the main problem within the current system.

To the best of my knowledge, these proposals are not fully worked up at present and one of the briefing notes suggest that the DWP ‘will in due course provide further details of the regime we will implement under this framework’. Lord Freud has stated that;

It is worth stressing that although we will be able to impose conditionality on those in work, we will not be obliged to do so. Clearly, that is important. Although we believe conditionality can play a key role in getting in-work claimants to progress, we do not yet have a final view as to how or when this is best done…. However, I am clear that the Bill needs to provide us with the powers to apply conditionality to in-work claimants

So, it’s not altogether clear what may or may not happen in relation to this, so we’ll have to wait and see. There is also no guarantee that any such move to extend conditionality to working people will prove as popular with the general public as reforms aimed at unemployed people appear to be, which is something Jonathan Rutherford highlighted in his article.

The picture at the top of the post formed part of the Conservative campaign leading up to the last General Election. It is maybe worth considering how popular the slogan would be if it read ‘Let’s cut benefits for those who refuse to work longer (or harder)’. It is also perhaps worth considering if certain sections of the media’s coverage of benefit recipients will, in time, move from the ‘scroungers’ to the ‘skivers’….

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