I am particularly interested in the interaction between increasing conditionality and increasing discretion within the social security system. One aspect of this is the discretionary powers of Jobcentre work coaches who administer the ‘personalised conditionality’ within the new Universal Credit (UC). I wanted to explore the perspectives of claimants, and among the people who talked to me were two women with health conditions who had also experienced benefit sanctions. Their stories illuminate the emerging tension between discretionary conditionality and support for vulnerable people.
Jackie (not her real name), aged 54, had been a carer for her children and then her mother. She was now looking for work, but her barriers included the precarious local job market and her inability to travel by bus because of an anxiety condition. She had been sanctioned three times for minor reasons and for six months had been living on a monthly hardship allowance of £190 (£44pw), with significant negative physical and emotional effects:
I’ve tried to take my own life three times… the last time… was about two weeks ago… they wanted to keep me in hospital over the weekend but I signed myself out… Believe it or not I used to weigh 10 stone, I’m just under 7 ½ now… It’s the stress of an eviction order…. all this not getting any money, it is terrible.
[My boyfriend] had a go at me the other night because I wouldn’t eat. I would not eat. You get that used to not eating, it doesn’t bother you.
Sanctions, as David Webster argues, are ‘designed to reduce people… to complete destitution’. Jackie’s experience of destitution had a detrimental influence on her ability to work, echoing the findings of the Welfare Conditionality research project that conditionality can be ‘counter-productive’.
Within two weeks of her hospitalisation, Jackie’s work coach had shown neither the compassion to allow a period of recuperation, nor a competent understanding of mental illness:
He went ‘no it doesn’t matter if you’re on the sick, you still look for work… I still want you to go in the library, do all your job search every day, and I’m going to send you on an IT course in two weeks’.
The work coach had not exercised the discretion to suspend or reduce work-search requirements as granted by the UC regulations. The power of the work coach over Jackie’s very means of survival illustrates the ‘micro-problem of discretion’ (Adler and Asquith, 1981): ‘Tthe attitude on my work coach was disgusting… he’s got it in for me… ever since I’ve been sanctioned, it’s him”. How can this relationship, now characterised by mutual distrust, also offer hope of personalised employment support?
Welfare rights experts have highlighted that the provisions for ‘safeguarding’ people with mental health problems are much more limited within UC, as definitions of vulnerability in regulations and guidance have been replaced by vaguer concepts such as ‘complex needs’ which allow for wide interpretation.
Karen, a 48 year old single parent, was sanctioned for missing a job interview when her son was late collecting her grandson from her care. Not informed of hardship payments, Karen had spent weeks not eating properly: ‘I couldn’t physically take the food out of the cupboard for myself, knowing my daughter needed it.’ Describing the shock and the resulting eviction notice for £1,800 rent arrears, she said:
I wasn’t prepared for it… and that’s when it was really, really getting to me. And I could feel myself going down and down into a bog, and I can’t get out. I had to go to the doctors and literally cry for help. They put me on anti-depressants, they sent me to Mind for counselling.
Karen also had osteoarthritis and knee-cartilage damage but, under the lowered threshold for ‘work capability’, had been assessed as ‘fit for work’. The work coach had not used discretion to modify the conditionality within her UC claimant commitment to take account of her impairments, so she had to look for 25 hours a week of retail or care work:
You’ve got to abide by their rules… no matter which way you turn, they have actually got you… Yeah, I’m able to work… if I grit my teeth and work through the pain, but at the same time… it’s not good for me. It’s not good for my knee, because it does hurt.
A key design feature of UC is the online scrutiny of claimants’ recorded work-search, and Karen had been told she was ‘not doing enough’. This digital hyper-surveillance works in combination with fear and intruded into her home:
Four emails came through… so I checked my phone, and I had to go straight onto my Universal Credit [online account], accept them, ‘cos if you don’t accept them straight away, you get sanctioned.
Luckily, I had a word with my work coach, and she’s been absolutely brilliant… If there’s any kind of appointments that arise… I’ve got to put in my journal I’ve got an appointment with my daughter at half ten, how long it went… including travel.
Although Karen spoke positively about her work coach, we can see the expectation that claimants account for every hour of their day. This facilitates the bureaucratic monitoring of whether they have ‘done enough’, a contractual approach which could distract decision-makers from considering people’s wider personal and social circumstances.
These new combinations of localisation and discretion have been described by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee as a ‘radical departure’. Future research must forefront the experiences of people with health problems and disabilities under UC, to assess whether it truly is capable of providing social security.