Navigating the absurdity of Irish welfare

February 6, 2020     Leave a Comment

Dr Philip Finn from Maynooth University comments on his research with jobseekers in County Kildare

‘All changed, changed utterly’. Perhaps not, but there is little doubt that in the ensuing years since the financial crash and expiation via austerity exercised upon the most vulnerable, the Irish social security system has undergone a meaningful qualitative change.  Once considered an activation laggard due to light implementation of welfare conditionality and sanctions, there has been a refashioning of the system to undo a supposed embedded passivity. 

There has been institutional reform aplenty with the creation of Intreo; a one-stop shop combining provision of income protection and public employment services alongside referrals to other services.  More significant is the marketisation of employment services for the first-time through the JobPath programme operated according to geographical location by two contractors, Seetec and Turas Nua, on a payment-by-results model. Alongside the already existing non-profit Local Employment Services, these recent changes produce a labyrinthine welfare architecture increasingly difficult for claimants to understand and navigate.

Permeating these changes is an intensification of behavioural conditionality underpinned by sanctions for those on Jobseeker payments, as well as its expansion to the previously exempt group of lone parents.  Indeed, the government strategy Pathways to Work  cultivates a governing rationality of ‘active job-seeking’ emphasising ‘rights and responsibilities’ (PTW 2012, 2014, 2016). The obligated commitment to job-searching and/or improvement of one’s employability (PTW 2012:10) for working age payments and others considered ‘economically inactive’ becomes a means of reducing welfare dependency (PTW 2016:14).  Such technocratic language is shadowed by a political rhetoric which, although light in comparison to our UK neighbours, still emphasises the remedial benefits of compelling work-activity under threat of sanction.  It is a country to be run, as our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reminds us, for the benefit of ‘those who get up early in the morning’ (Bardon 2017). 

Accompanying this rationality are new techniques of conditionality attempting to direct the conduct of claimants.  Jobseekers must contractualise their welfare relationship via the Record of Mutual Commitments and develop a Personal Progression Plan with their caseworker before being subject to interventions including mandatory referral to recruitment agencies, training courses or other public and private employment services; obligated attendance at employment affairs; provision of job-search evidence and regular monitoring through meetings, phone-calls and/or text messages.  The threat of sanction in itself serves as a technique of conditionality as claimants face a €44 reduction of standard payment (€203) or suspension of payment for up to nine weeks for non-compliance. 

My interviews with 42 jobseekers in County Kildare in the east of Ireland highlights how this intensification of conditionality and sanctions serves to shape how claimants experience and interact with the system.  In contrast to the oft perceived generosity of Irish welfare payments, claimant experience is marked by struggle necessitating inventive strategies of budgeting, borrowing and utilising family and friends’ support to ‘get by’ on a weekly basis: 

We have no heating, you might have noticed … it was a choice between paying rent, making sure there was food on the table (Sinead)

Payments were rarely enough to live on, in and of themselves, meaning that life was continually about cutting back, stretching resources and making tough decisions. Unsurprisingly then, ‘getting off’ welfare was the most pressing concern for the majority of claimants. Most had strong work histories but were frustrated in their job-seeking; their own strategies for ‘getting off’ welfare coalesced around returning to education in pursuit of a better future.  This turn toward education and training was usually performed on their own initiative with little guidance from public or private employment services.   

The idea of a ‘proper job’ was central to the medium to long-term strategies of claimants who feared that being compelled into low pay work would intensify insecurity via a potential loss of other welfare supports such as medical cards and housing assistance:

… there’s no houses, tell the social welfare to leave me the fuck alone ‘til there is a house, what am I gonna do? [mock excitement] OH YEAH I GOT A JOB YEAH! But I’m fucking homeless … (Peter)

Caught within a trap between the security of benefits that were never enough and a fear of insecure low paid work, a significant number of claimants were involved in a ‘dramaturgical performance’ (de Certeau 1984) of the ‘good jobseeker’.  It meant feigned compliance with conditionality, such as provision of false job-search evidence, and superficial engagement with caseworkers as necessary tactics to protect their needs and interests:

… I do apply for things randomly, I applied for a job as a beauty consultant … an eyebrow threader … I’ve no idea what that is … but you have to because then the boxes are ticked … (Nick)

For a small minority this was a deliberate refusal of formal work which they perceived as uninteresting, lacking autonomy and of little worth to them.  This refusal afforded them opportunities to spend time with their children, to be active in their local community providing skilled labour to neighbours, volunteering, and political activism.  The majority of those doing the ‘dramaturgical performance’ (de Certeau 1984) of the ‘good jobseeker’ did so however to protect an income that while never enough to be comfortable was central to their weekly survival tactics. 

While much of the literature from other jurisdictions identifies the punitive nature of conditionality what emerges in Ireland is a system marked by indifference rather than penalty.   ‘Ticking boxes’ and ‘pencil pushers’ were common references as claimants articulated engagement in an overly bureaucratic system which offered little in the way of helpful job-seeking advice or advice regarding training or education.  Evidence regarding sanctions also suggests indifference.  While sanctions have certainly increased annually since the introduction of PTW there is evidence to indicate that it is primarily the threat of sanctions which is being used as a mechanism for engagement (no matter how superficially).  Only two participants in my research were sanctioned but all were acutely aware of the penalty for non-engagement.  Similarly, there is a discrepancy between the 95,880 claimants identified as not engaging in JobPath up to 2019 and the resulting 12,000 applied sanctions.  Thousands of claimants are also being obligated under this threat of sanctions to complete the JobPath progamme twice. There is then an absurdity in this eternal recurrence of the welfare pathway where the frustrated agency of claimants is wasted navigating an indifferent system.

Disabled people’s experiences of the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group

July 22, 2019     Leave a Comment

Danny Taggart, Ellen Clifford, Jaimini Mehta and Ewen Speed report on their research which points to fundamental issues with the welfare system

In 2015, a collaborative research project was initiated between academics at the University of Essex and Inclusion London, a disabled people’s user-led organisation (DPULO). The research investigated how disabled people in the ESA WRAG experienced the welfare system as claimants, with particular attention to their experiences of processes of conditionality and sanctioning. Our study was designed, supervised, analysed and disseminated jointly by a disabled activist and policy director at the DPULO and a trainee clinical psychologist working with a clinical psychology academic supervisor. It was a qualitative study and 15 ESA WRAG claimants were interviewed. Read More

A ‘kinder’ welfare policy for New Zealand?

March 27, 2019     Leave a Comment

Dr Claire Gray from Canterbury University, New Zealand,  spent a month as a visiting fellow at our University of York base. Here she reflects on her research and the New Zealand welfare system

The Early Career Research Fellowship has given me the opportunity to contextualise welfare provision in New Zealand within international debates on the theory and practice of welfare conditionality. There are many similarities between welfare provision in New Zealand and other anglophone nations. In this post I outline some recent policy that has established welfare conditionality in New Zealand, while also explaining my own theoretical approach to welfare research.

Welfare conditionality began to emerge as a feature of social security in New Zealand from the 1980s onwards. It was under the Fifth National Government (2008-2017), however, that conditionality became a significant aspect of New Zealand’s welfare system. Shortly after coming to power, then Prime Minister John Key heralded his Government’s planned welfare policy changes with the statement that these would “give [beneficiaries] a kick in the pants when they are not taking responsibility for themselves, their family, and other taxpayers”. This was followed by the passing of the Social Security (New Work Tests, Incentives and Obligations) Amendment Act (2010) imposing a number of conditions upon the receipt of welfare. Read More

Why benefit sanctions are both ineffective and harmful

September 17, 2018     Leave a Comment

Drawing on the first major independent study of benefit sanctions, support, and behaviour change, Sharon Wright, Sarah Johnsen, and Lisa Scullion write that not only do sanctions not help move people into work, they also have a detrimental effect on their lives. This is because sanctions push recipients further into poverty and cause significant distress in the process, with potentially life-changing negative results. This post first appeared on the LSE Politics & Policy Blog

Introduction of the UK’s harshest ever social security sanctions regime in 2012 reinforced a dramatic upturn in sanctions. In 2012-2013 alone, ‘more people received a benefit sanction than a fine in the criminal courts’. While this ‘great sanctions drive’ is a defining feature of Conservative-led social reform, the ‘big stick’ version of welfare conditionality was not tested before its application. Here we present evidence that sanctions are harmful and ineffective in moving benefit recipients into sustainable employment. Read More

In-work conditionality is based on weak evidence – but will the policy sink or swim?

September 12, 2018     Leave a Comment

The public seem to be unaware of the poor evidence underpinning in-work conditionality, write Jo Abbas and this project’s Katy Jones. But research suggests that this policy is unfair and ineffective, and so once Universal Credit is rolled out, it could face resistance both from claimants and the wider public. This article first appeared in LSE Politics and Policy blog.

The government’s flagship benefit, Universal Credit (UC), sees the introduction of ‘in-work conditionality’ to working social security claimants on a low income. As a result, claimants could face penalties – such as benefit sanctions – if they do not comply with mandatory work-related requirements, including searching for and applying for additional work to meet an earnings threshold. Read More

Welfare conditionality book published

June 7, 2018     Leave a Comment

The first book from the Welfare Conditionality project has now been published. Welfare Conditionality by project team members Dr Beth Watts and Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick charts the rise of behavioural conditionality in welfare systems across the globe, its appeal to politicians of right and left, and its application to a growing range of social problems. Crucially it explores why, in the context of widespread use of conditional approaches as well as apparently strong public support, both the efficacy and the ethics of welfare conditionality remain so controversial. As such, Welfare Conditionality is essential reading for students, researchers, and commentators in social and public policy, as well as those designing and implementing welfare policies.

The book will be officially launched at the evening drinks reception at the Welfare Conditionality: Principles, Practices and Perspectives conference on 26 June, 6.30pm, York Castle Museum. Entry to the reception is free to conference delegates – there is still time to book your place before the closing date on 11 June. Click here to book your place.

The fear factor – Bedroom Tax and benefit cuts

May 15, 2018     Leave a Comment

Jeanette Smith (not her real name) lives in the south of England. In this second of a two-part blog post she discusses how housing issues interact with other benefit conditions to create a ‘perfect storm’

In my last blog post I wrote about ESA and my fears of the consequences of a move to Universal Credit – including my rent payments. I have now been put in the ESA Support Group which gives me some respite and time to concentrate on my health. How long this will last before the cycle starts again I don’t know. I feel that I am at the mercy of a very impersonal and inhumane system that takes no account of the impact of its policies and procedures on the mental and physical health of individuals who are already at their lowest ebb and very vulnerable. Read More

Welfare conditionality and Armed Forces Service Leavers: some first wave findings

April 19, 2018     Leave a Comment

Katy Jones and Lisa Scullion give some early findings from this exciting new project

The Welfare Conditionality project has demonstrated the varied experiences of different groups in an increasingly conditional welfare system. In this blogpost we share some interim findings from a new, linked project:  Sanctions, Support and Service Leavers, in which we explore the experiences of former Service personnel in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit (UC), as they attempt to navigate the transition from military to civilian life. Read More

Bedroom tax, benefit cuts and sanctions – the fear factor and the cumulative effects

April 13, 2018     Leave a Comment

Jeanette Smith (not her real name) lives in the south of England. In this first of a two-part guest blog post she discusses the pincer effect of different conditions in the benefit system – and the mental and physical burden on benefit recipients

I am currently in receipt of ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and I am due to have a home visit by a ‘Healthcare Professional’ to assess my claim. I requested this due to the fact that I do not feel able to travel to the Assessment Centre in another town. This process took over a month, as they said they had not received the letter from my doctor. I had to keep making new appointments to allow time for this. Read More

Universal Credit and the legacy of JSA sanctions

March 19, 2018     Leave a Comment

Researcher Evan Williams shows how the rise of sanctioning in UK social security has transferred to the new system

Much of the recent media, think tank and parliamentary debate surrounding the controversial rollout of Universal Credit (UC) has focused on the harmful six week wait for UC claimants to receive support. One core feature of UC that has been largely overlooked in this discussion, however, is the disciplinary role of sanctions and the various adverse impacts that they have on individuals. This short piece provides some context to the current UC sanctions regime by focusing on sanctioning policy for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants – one of the six existing means-tested benefits that UC replaces – under the previous Coalition Government (2010-2015). Read More

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