Strict DWP Sanctions On Benefits Claimants Are Harmful And Counter-Productive, 'Nudge Unit' Warns

Government's own unit says jobseekers need more 'headspace'
Ben Birchall/PA Archive

Forcing the unemployed to regularly turn up to Job Centres is harmful and counter-productive, the Government’s own ‘behavioural’ policy unit has warned.

The Behavioural Insights Team said that welfare claimants risk being made poorer and more stressed by requiring them to meet tough conditions in order to get their benefits.

The so-called ‘Nudge Unit’ - which was set up by David Cameron and operates across Whitehall - found that strict welfare conditions, such as getting the disabled to repeatedly prove their disability, led to “anxiety and feelings of disempowerment”.

In a report published on Thursday, the unit said that welfare conditions and threat of financial sanctions were reducing the “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance and other benefits, making it harder for them to find work.

It recommends instead that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should look at giving people more freedom to make their own decisions, including allowing claimants to design their personal conditions for benefit rather than have them “imposed by Government”.

The report, titled “Poverty and Decision-making”, also suggests that form-filling should be radically reformed so that once someone’s eligibility is established for various benefits, the Government should send them a single annual statement to allow continued support.

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith
Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

Welfare ‘conditionality’ - threatening to cut benefits if claimants fail to meet strict requirements to get off welfare - was a key feature of Iain Duncan Smith’s reign at the Department of Work and Pensions, and the last Labour government.

Former DWP Secretary Duncan Smith strengthened the sanctions regime - a move which some claim has led to the growth of foodbanks - and his new Universal Credit system will rely on claimants having regular meetings with so-called ‘work coaches’.

But in its new report, the Behavioural Insights Team says that behavioural science suggests that people are more likely to make progress if they come up with decisions themselves rather than are forced to act on pain of sanctions.

“There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment,” the report said.

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

Damian Green
Damian Green
Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

New Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green recently scrapped reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

But there are many other similar conditions in the welfare system that campaigners have long criticised, as well as the tougher sanctions regime.

The report states: “Conditions that are currently attached to Jobseekers Allowance, and that are proposed for in-work benefits under Universal Credit, such as attending regular meetings with a Work Coach, may contribute to time scarcity.

“In addition, the sanctions regime - which imposes a pause or reduction in payments on claimants that do not meet entitlement conditions - may contribute to financial scarcity.

“The combination of these bandwith taxes may in theory worsen a person’s attention, self-control, and long-term planning, which could lead to or worsen poverty. “

“More research is needed to understand how the entitlements system can be designed to take scarcity into account, because the individual costs of depleting a person’s psychological resources may be greater than the financial benefits the system provides.”

Protestors outside the DWP
Protestors outside the DWP
Yui Mok/PA Archive

The report recommends that the DWP conduct pilot schemes to understand “the impact of entitlement conditionality (and associated sanctions) on fluid IQ and self-efficacy”.

“We recommend comparing outcomes from conditionality where claimants are asked to design their own conditions (perhaps from a pre-specified list), versus conditions imposed by the government.”

It adds that some schemes where people ask their friends to monitor their progress “have proven effective motivational tools and could be adapted to the welfare system”.

The report declares that for many who are “‘just managing’ are not only often short on time and money, but also short on headspace”.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who chairs the Behavioural Insights Unit’s commissioning Board, praised it last month for bringing “a fresh and empirical lens to thinking about the challenges we face”.

In its report today, the unit adds: “Given that individuals have limited bandwidth, a clear responsibility for the government is to ensure that services do not exhaust but rather optimise their ability to make good choices for themselves,” it says.

“This means taking a holistic view of poverty and decision-making across different services, not just focusing on outcomes in one narrow policy domain. It also means ensuring that both the design and framing of services minimises stigma and stereotype threat.”

Dr Kizzy Gandy, a led researcher at the policy unit, said “simple tweaks” to services could help.

“Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she said.

“We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.

“We find that in many cases, simple tweaks to service design can yield disproportionate gains in improving decision-making.”