WelCond Project Director Peter Dwyer reflects on a recent conference in Rotterdam that debated ideas about social inclusion and employment
I was recently invited by Rotterdam City Council to speak at a national event about welfare conditionality in the Netherlands and more particularly ‘Tegenprestatie’. Roughly translated into English this refers to the ‘civic contribution’ that Dutch people are required to make when in receipt of social assistance benefits. The conference entitled ‘De zin en onzin van de Rotterdamse Tegenprestatie: Vijf jaar Tegenprestatie’ (‘The sense and nonsense of the Rotterdam Consideration: reflecting on five years’) was a stimulating event that brought together a range of stakeholders, including jobseekers, activation coaches, policymakers, practitioners and academics featured for a series of lively presentations and debates.
As someone who is most familiar with the UK’s ‘work first’ approach to welfare conditionality it was interesting to hear about the similarities and differences of the Dutch system. Certainly, there is shared ground in respect of the reciprocity that exists in both systems where rights to social assistance come with contingent responsibilities, but there are also important differences in emphasis. Unlike in the UK, in Rotterdam for example, people can fulfil their civic contribution requirements through voluntary work, caring responsibilities or other useful activities. These can include language and physical training or work on personal issues around physical, mental or financial impairments. Supporters and service providers linked to Tegenprestatie emphasise the positive support available and a more ‘human investment’ approach designed to enhance wider social inclusion beyond simple inclusion in paid employment.
Another key difference between the UK approach and the Dutch one is that responsibility for delivering the programmes is devolved to the local municipal authorities. Indeed, the conference closed with the Deputy Mayors of Amsterdam (seen as more liberal) and Rotterdam (viewed as more hard-line) debating the rights and wrongs of their respective approaches to Tegenprestatie.
I think it is reasonable to argue that a systematic intensification of sanctions and work search/training requirements have been key characteristics of UK welfare conditionality in recent years. The Dutch approach to welfare conditionality, regardless of whether Rotterdam or Amsterdam is delivering it, appears to be qualitatively different from the UK experience.
That said, critics in the Netherlands, as in the UK, have also raised fears that mandatory civic contribution requirements may infringe human rights and promote what is effectively forced labour among poorer people in receipt of social assistance. As I said in my presentation, how you resolve such debates, and whether you see welfare conditionality, and by association Tegenprestatie, as a correction or a distortion of social citizenship in a socially just society depends very much on your personal position in relation to wider ethical and ideological arguments about rights to collective welfare.
Peter Dwyer is Professor of Social Policy at the University of York and Director of the Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change project