MSPs to debate UofG research on 'intimidating and disempowering' sanctions

Leading research on social security co-produced at the University of Glasgow is to be debated in the Scottish Parliament today (Wednesday 2 November) – highlighting what it found to be “universally negative” views of the conditionality regime and the “intimidating, dehumanising and disempowering” experiences of many welfare service users.

In a debate to be led by Glasgow Kelvin MSP Sandra White, MSPs will discuss Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change, a five-year study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow and partner universities.

The first wave findings of the research found profoundly negative experience of conditionality amongst welfare service users and contains first-hand accounts of widespread feelings of anxiety and disempowerment.  The research also calls into question the assumption that the existing sanctions regime leads to behaviour-change – finding that the common thread linking successful transitions into work was the availability of appropriate support, rather than punitive sanctions.

Welcoming the debate, research project co-investigator Dr Sharon Wright of the University of Glasgow said: “Our research highlighted a sanctions regime that was failing by even its own standards and fatally undermines the argument that conditionality leads to positive behaviour change – with many people not even knowing why they have been sanctioned in the first place, it’s highly unlikely to lead to a positive outcome.  

“Instead, we see people being pushed away from available support – often with grave consequences for themselves and their families.  While conducting the research, we heard often deeply distressing testimonies from those impacted by sanctions – with people often turning to crime to survive.

“What this evidence shows us is that the common thread linking successful transitions into work is not punitive sanctions, but the availability of appropriate support – and this is a key message that I hope today’s debate will help be heard by politicians at both Scottish and UK level.”

Professor Ken Gibb, Director of Policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow said: “Researchers at the University of Glasgow have for many years been undertaking excellent work on the impacts of welfare reform, none more so than Dr Wright. Policy Scotland co-ordinates a network of academics and practitioners allowing them to debate new evidence in this vital area of policy, be it welfare reform’s impact on work, disability, housing or, of course, conditionality.

“I am delighted to see that the outstanding research conducted by the University of Glasgow and colleagues is continuing to lead the policy debate on social security and I commend the Scottish Parliament for being so responsive to the academic research on this vitally important issue.”

Welfare Conditionality project Director, Professor Peter Dwyer from the University of York, added: "We are delighted that MSPs are debating our first wave findings. This research is raising fundamental questions about the nature of sanctions and support in the welfare system in both Scotland and England, and how service users are affected."

A full copy of the first-wave findings is available on request from

Quotes from some of the service users impacted by sanctions can be found below:

  • “I’d go into shops and steal whatever just to make do basically. And I used to rig my meter when I had my house. ” (WSU, female, Scotland).
  • My daughter could not attend school for two weeks. I didn’t have any money for that; you have to give her some money every day for some lunch and for a bus. ” (WSU, migrant, male, Scotland)
  • “[My gas and electric] fell into that much arrears… I was without heating for ages… I pawned everything I had… You’re literally going, ‘Do I eat or do I have light?’ ” (WSU, lone parent, female, Scotland)

One recipient of Universal Credit described her experience as “… demeaning, condescending, it is painful, it is damaging, it actually makes your disabilities worse… And it is completely unproductive. It doesn’t get people work. Nothing in what they’ve done to me has assisted me in getting back in to the employment market. So these people are paid to torture me basically, for money I don’t get. ” (WSU, disabled woman, Scotland)

First published: 2 November 2016