Glasgow researchers launch Scottish findings of welfare conditionality project

Published: 13 September 2018

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have called for greater social security powers to be devolved to Scotland.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have called for greater social security powers to be devolved to Scotland.

In Scotland, newly devolved social security legislation is based on the principles of "dignity, fairness and respect", with employment services being needs based and voluntary without sanctions.

However, the findings of a new report launched today (13th September 2018) show that, with many social security powers still reserved to Westminster, it means an ineffective UK system of conditionality and sanctions is “causing profound suffering to people in Scotland”. 

Sharon Wright

Welfare conditionality is about linking welfare rights to 'responsible' behaviour. A principle of conditionality holds that access to certain basic, publicly provided, welfare benefits and services should be dependent on an individual first agreeing to meet particular obligations or patterns of behaviour. It has been a key element of welfare state reform in many countries since the mid-1990s.

Proponents argue this helps people transition off benefits and into paid work, but critics refute this and contend that it exacerbates social exclusion, and that experiencing benefit sanctions can push disadvantaged people’s finances into disarray.

The report is part of a UK-wide five year ‘Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change’ qualitative research project involving the University of Glasgow, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Scottish ‘WelCond’ report was led by Dr Sharon Wright of the University of Glasgow, and also co-authored or fed into by other academics and researchers from the University of Glasgow, University of York, University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Herriot-Watt University and University of Salford.

It draws upon three waves of repeat interviews with Universal Credit recipients, jobseekers, disabled people, migrants, lone parents, homeless people, offenders and those subject to anti-social behaviour interventions and Family Intervention Projects in Scotland. ‌

Dr Wright said: “These are exciting times for Scotland, where devolved social security is based on dignity, fairness and respect. Dr Sharon Wright profile picture 300 x 331

“Scottish employment services are needs-based and voluntary, provided without sanctions.

“However, many social security powers remain reserved to Westminster. Our research shows that the ineffective UK system of conditionality and sanctions causes profound suffering throughout Scotland.

“Disabled people, those who have long-term health conditions, lone parents, job seekers and, under Universal Credit, low-paid workers, are all badly affected by sanctions. We are asking the Scottish Government to lobby Westminster for greater social security powers to end the punitive sanction regime in Scotland.”

Key findings from the research include:

  • Disabled people tended to be positive about the prospect of a devolved social security system in Scotland, although overall there was a lack of awareness of newly devolved Scottish powers among research participants
  • Research participants were keen to work and made self-directed efforts to improve their situation
  • The threat or experience of benefit sanctions did not improve job outcomes amongst research participants, and instead were counterproductive, leading to negative outcomes (e.g. anxiety, depression, poverty, debt and worsening health) and created new barriers to work (e.g. reduced self-esteem and reduced income for job-search)
  • Support for benefit claimants mainly consisted of mandatory self-help activities e.g. online job hunting, which few participants found useful. Responsive, holistic or in-depth support tended to be lacking. 

This research adds to the evidence-base already created by other briefings from the Welfare Conditionality project that highlight the ineffectiveness of punitive conditionality within the welfare system. Its key policy recommendations include:

  • That the Scottish Parliament lobby the UK Government to transfer greater powers to Scotland, in order to promote the extension of the principles of dignity, fairness and respect within Scottish social security and employment services.
  • To reform the currently reserved parts of the conditionality system under Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance, to ensure that Jobcentre Plus users are treated with empathy and compassion, and that sanctions are reduced in length/severity and removed completely for vulnerable people. 
  • That the Scottish Government and UK Department of Work and Pensions continue to collaborate to establish new cooperative Scotland-wide practice agreements to bridge the gap between the reserved and devolved social security and employment service systems. 

For more info on the project visit - 

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. 

The ESRC is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK's future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.

First published: 13 September 2018