Welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions: a system ‘of conscious cruelty’?

In 1966, Ken Loach’s seminal film Cathy Come Home brought the problem of homelessness to the public consciousness, dislodging stereotyped assumptions about homeless people.  In 2016 he did the same for benefit claimants, another vilified group, with his film  I Daniel Blake.


In 2012 the Coalition Government introduced the harshest regime of benefit sanctions in the history of the British benefits system. The policy was justified on the basis that no-one should get ‘something for nothing’, and is premised on unfounded, stereotyped notions of benefit claimants as willingly welfare dependent, inhabiting a ‘culture of worklessness’ that leaves them unwilling and unmotivated to seek work.

Loach has described the current system as ‘one of conscious cruelty…bear[ing] down on those least able to bear it’, Based on our research for the homelessness charity Crisis, I am inclined to agree with him.

We were expecting some stark findings but the results still surprised us. Drawing on a survey of more than 1,000 single homeless people, along with 42 in-depth interviews with homeless people who had been sanctioned, the report we produced (see https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/20567/crisis_homeless_people_experience_of_welfare_conditionality_and_benefit_sanctions_dec2015.pdf) showed categorically that homeless people were more likely to be sanctioned. Our survey respondents were more than three times as likely to be sanctioned as the total claimant population (39 per cent compared to around 11 per cent of all claimants in the same time period).

Our research also highlights the consequences of sanctioning: 21 per cent reported becoming homeless as a result of their sanction, nearly eight out of 10 had gone hungry or skipped meals as a result of being sanctioned, three quarters reported negative impacts on their mental health and 60 per cent had found it harder to look for work. Many were relying heavily on overstretched food banks and charities to survive.

Virtually everyone we interviewed had done all they could to meet their conditions. Most also had just the kind of attitude and disposition to work that the Government seeks to foster. Not, then, people ‘willfully refusing’ to comply, who are unmotivated to seek work and need the threat of sanction to incentivise them.

But they were sanctioned nevertheless.  Not because of ‘behavioural failings’ but because of systemic problems or inappropriate requirements that far exceeded respondents’ capabilities.  They were hampered by a system that places unrealistic demands upon them, that fails to recognise and account for their circumstances and vulnerabilities, and that practices little discretion or flexibility.

Take the case of Adam who was sanctioned for failing to do the requisite job searching. He was actively seeking work but was doing so by delivering CVs in person. Adam is not IT proficient, but his claimant commitment specified he must job search online only.

Or Ja, who was sanctioned twice for failing to attend appointments for which he had received no notification.

Or Maggie, who was sanctioned for missing an appointment. She had just moved following an arson attack on her previous home that left her homeless. She informed the Job Centre, but the letter was sent to her previous address.

The contrast between the founding principles of the welfare state and the contemporary fact of a welfare system that withdraws crucial protection from significant numbers of the poorest people at a time of crisis is a very stark one. My concern is that this punitive approach to welfare will transform the nature of poverty in the 21st century, pushing people out of state support and into destitution. And this was certainly the reality for many of the homeless people who participated in our research.

Dr Kesia Reeve is a Principal Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University

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