Tom Boland & Ray Griffin from Waterford Institute of Technology reflect on the difficulties of achieving policy change
Stasis is not the same as inertia; it is the state where opposing forces cancel each other out, like a car skidding on ice; the wheels spin but the car doesn’t move.
The Irish Parliament passed a motion on 7 February which called for the reform of welfare conditionality, particularly around sanctions and specifically called for the suspension of Jobpath – an outsourced activation scheme. Jobpath is run by Turas Nua and Seetec – Irish versions of Working Lives and G4S, which represented an intensification of welfare conditionality in Ireland – which we have described previously on this blog.
However, this motion is non-binding, and in the current political stasis, it will not be enforced by ministerial action or new legislation. In the context of Brexit, to maintain stability, a confidence and supply arrangement keeps a minority centre-right coalition in power. Polls suggest that an election would not deliver a significantly different government.
Thus, the best hopes for this motion is that the privatised contracts will not be renewed and that future welfare policy making will respond constructively by decreasing conditionality and sanctions.
Such stasis is frustrating, yet perhaps to be expected. Across the OECD a growing body of research, both statistical and qualitative, is questioning the efficacy of conditionality. Stasis may not mean stable consensus, but a crisis of ideas: What is the new direction for welfare policy after conditionality?
The long haul
Our research started in 2012, responding to unemployment highs of 15% and the emergence of conditional welfare systems in Ireland. We carried out interviews, focus groups, ethnographies, media and policy document analyses, and published books, reports and media articles. It was fruitful work academically, but we often wondered how much impact we were making on policy.
Earlier this year we were invited to the Joint Committee on Employment and Social Protection, to give evidence on the impact JobPath – following in the footsteps of other Irish academics, particularly Mary Murphy (Maynooth University), Michelle Millar (University College Galway), Michelle O’Sullivan (University of Limerick) and others.
Our evidence to the committee centred on our qualitative interviews with jobseekers who were subject to conditionality and sanctions. We described welfare conditionality as “a system that actively and capriciously patronises, cajoles, threatens, manipulates and, at times, bullies them.” To illustrate this we detailed four particular stories; a pregnant woman who was sanctioned after being ordered to work at a call-centre which she had no transport to reach; an aspiring architect who was directed to seek secretarial work with the firms where she hoped to gain a professional post, a woman who was sanctioned and forced to rely on private charity and went into debt, and a member of the travelling community who had his name changed on his CV to conceal his ethnicity.
Each of these are typical cases in our data; it is interesting to note that only the last one provoked a strong media response thereafter, as it involved racism, and was covered immediately in national newspapers. Undergoing a sanction is generally the most damaging consequence of welfare conditionality, but public opinion reacts less strongly to it, perhaps indicating a widespread misunderstanding of sanctions, or, possibly, implicit support for them.
Our qualitative evidence to the JCEASP was also buttressed by reference to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General – the state’s accountant. These figures demonstrated that while JobPath activation was somewhat effective in prompting individuals to take up work (at twice the normal rate), this employment was not sustained, and within a year, the scheme made no difference. From this, we argued that activation forces individuals to take up any job, but leads to a low-pay/no-pay cycle, without building human capital, feeding into precarious work.
Translating into policy…
Before the Dáil debate on the motion against JobPath, we were invited to address an all-party Oireachtas briefing. Here we outlined our data briefly again, and criticised activation on three fronts: firstly – it doesn’t really create jobs, it only intensifies jobseeking. Secondly – it is a waste of money; €180 million was spent on privatised providers to date, who are now super-annuated because unemployment has dropped below 5%. Thirdly – activation causes negative impacts for Jobseekers, both financially and in terms of health.
In the ensuing debate, politicians frequently emphasised the first two reasons; the inefficacy of JobPath as an expensive deadweight. The inhumanity of activation and sanctions also resonated, with some contributors reiterating our cases, and others mentioning cases from within their own constituencies. Many criticised the privatisation or out-sourcing of these services, objecting to businesses making a profit from the power they wielded over Irish citizens. Unsurprisingly, the minister defended the programme based on the fact that it cost less than originally estimated and internal surveys indicated high satisfaction, and then dismissed our qualitative research as too small a sample despite our research replicating international findings. Happily, the motion was carried two days later, although as detailed above, it was non-binding.
While we were pleased to see our research contribute to a major shift in the politics of welfare which will hopefully eventually contribute to changes in policy, there is much which is lost in translation. Specifically, our research on welfare activation tended to become translated into a critique of privatisation, which really narrows or even mutes the issues around conditionality and sanctions. In about a dozen newspapers in the following week, our research was reduced to the quote “actively and capriciously patronises, cajoles, threatens, manipulates and, at times, bullies them”.
For the emerging Welfare Conditionality International group, there are lessons to be learned – obviously about the difficulty of changing the direction of welfare policy amid the current stasis. Perhaps rigorous data and penetrating critique are not sufficient in themselves, and it becomes necessary for academics to suggest new directions and solutions as the inadequacy of conditionality and sanctions becomes increasingly apparent.