One of the most striking developments in policy design in the UK is the rise of conditionality. It most prominently affects those who are out of work and seeking assistance from the welfare system, but it features across a range of other policy areas including housing and health.
Commentators might, quite rightly, rail against IDS and his insensitive disciplinary regime of seemingly indiscriminate sanctions, but he has only taken a system that was initiated by the Blairites in the 1990s and distilled it into something purer. He has made the conditions placed on receipt of assistance more stringent and the sanctions for transgression harsher. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that in some cases the system is now ludicrously harsh and vulnerable people are being set up to fail.
But conditionality doesn’t represent a distinctive evil incubated in the dark heart of fanatical rightwingers. And it is by no means a particularly British approach. Indeed, creeping – or galloping – conditionality can be observed in many industrialised countries since cuddly Bill Clinton introduced it into the American system to prove Democrats could be tough too. It is an issue that has preoccupied many social policy scholars for a decade or more. But it rarely gets examined intelligently in broader popular debates. It’s a done deal. Anyone against harsher conditionality is shouted down as “soft” on welfare and combatting “dependency”. So they can be safely ignored.
At the most fundamental level, conditionality represents a recasting of the relationship between the citizen and the state. While academics might debate whether state assistance has ever been entirely unconditional, it is clear that whereas once upon a time certain types of assistance were available as a right of citizenship, they are increasingly only offered upon fulfilment of certain conditions. Most typically these conditions relate to exhibiting particular behaviours – intensive job search as a condition of receiving JSA, desisting from anti-social behaviour as a condition of maintaining a social tenancy, etc.
Politicians are inclined to refer to this as a move from a “something for nothing” to a “something for something” culture. On the face of it that no doubt strikes most people as sensible and desirable. But, as is so often the case in policy, you have to get beyond the slogans and look at the detail and the practice on the ground. And when you do so it opens up some important questions about what the approach is trying to achieve. [Read more…]