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Requiring the long-term unemployed to train: is benefit conditionality effective?

Conditionality has increasingly been part of benefit entitlement and its effects have been examined in a number of ways. While the focus of previous research has been on general conditions such as job search and acceptance of job offers, this paper examines conditionality specifically in relation to participation in training. Using data from a qualitative evaluation of a government programme, the Skills Conditionality pilot, the paper uses two hypotheses to critically assess the effectiveness of conditionality as a benefits policy: that it is successful in increasing participation in training; and that it is harmful by reducing time for job search.

Keywords: Unemployment; qualitative evaluation; conditionality; training; employability

JEL Classifications: 130; 138; Z18


Although conditionality in benefits has to some extent always existed, particularly through provisions for the withdrawal of benefits for claimants refusing a suitable lob offer (Bryson and Jacobs, 1992; Gregg, 2008), its use has been increased and intensified both in the UK and internationally (Griggs and Bennett, 2009). In 2010 the then Labour Government piloted the Skills Conditionality pilot to test the effectiveness of conditionality in training. While previous evaluations and research have focused more widely on conditionality, the evaluation allowed for analysis of effects in relation to training, which has previously not been considered separately from other forms of conditionality.

The pilot was introduced in the last weeks of the Labour government in 2010, running from April to October in selected jobcentre plus regions. It was intended to test the effects of mandating participation in training, including through random assignment and quantitative evaluation, as well as qualitative research. Limitations in the design and implementation of the pilot meant that reliable evidence could not be produced from the quantitative evaluation (1) and the findings presented in the paper are purely from the qualitative research. The focus is principally on job seekers' (2) attitudes and behaviour in relation both to training and to conditionality.

Skills conditionality: context and hypotheses

The practice of making benefits conditional on job seeker behaviour has been increasingly widened so that it is now included in many programmes for the unemployed. Advocates of conditionality believe it confers an expectation on customers in relation to active search for work, reduces dependency and increases movement into work; that it clarifies rights and responsibilities of individuals receiving state support; and is viewed as fair by job seekers (Gregg, 2008), while critics have expressed concerns that vulnerable people may suffer disproportionate financial hardship or be pushed into unsuitable and short-lived employment (Cebulla 2005; Gregg, 2008; Griggs and Bennett 2009; Griggs and Evans, 2010). There are a range of circumstances under which job seekers can be sanctioned and previous studies have made a distinction between behavioural 'misdemeanours' where a customer refuses an offer of employment or is not actively seeking work and failure to comply with procedures, for example not completing paper work or failing to attend a meeting with an adviser (Zandvliet et al., 2006; Griggs and Evans, 2010). While the pilot programme was designed under the previous Labour administration, the Coalition Government supports conditionality and the White Paper, Universal Credit: Welfare that Works includes a central proposal of a new 'claimant commitment' with sanctions for those who refuse job offers or do not engage with activity to prepare for work (DWP, 2010).

While evaluation studies of government programmes for the unemployed have considered the role of conditionality (Bryson, 2005), evidence for its effectiveness is unclear (Zandvliet et al, 2006; McVicar, 2008; Griggs and Bennett, 2009; Griggs and Evans, 2010). As McVicar (2008) notes, the effects of different activities within conditional benefit systems are rarely isolated This particularly applies to conditionality over participation in training, rather than over general requirements on job seekers to comply with the terms of their Job Seekers Agreement, (3) for example by attending regular meetings with an adviser. In this paper we examine the effectiveness of training conditionality within the benefits system through two main hypotheses: first that conditionality will be successful in increasing participation in training; second that it is harmful by leaving job seekers less time for job search activity and by not improving their skills and experience. The first hypothesis is most developed in current literature, where conditionality is argued to be effective for one or more reasons; it combats dependency and reluctance to participate where the benefits of participating in activities are not appreciated in advance (Gregg, 2008; Griggs and Bennett, 2009; DWP, 2009) and because loss of benefits acts as an incentive and is seen as fair by job seekers (Zandvliet et al., 2006; Gregg, 2008; Griggs and Bennett, 2009). The second hypothesis draws on evidence that conditionality in benefit programmes can result in hardship through the application of sanctions (Peters and Joyce, 2006; Dorsett, 2008; Griggs and Evans, 2010) and can limit the time available for job search and fail to provide the skills and experience valued by employers (Crisp and Fletcher, 2008; Rosholm and Skipper, 2009). Evidence presented by McVicar (2008) suggests that conditionality might reduce job search activities which are not monitored by the jobcentre. These two hypotheses- that conditionality is beneficial, and that it is harmful - are the key themes around which we discuss the research findings.

Research methods

As we described earlier, the qualitative research was part of a broader evaluation which included analysis of quantitative data. The qualitative research included interviews with 40 unemployed people who had been referred to the pilot and were carried out by telephone in October and November 2010 using a semi-structured topic guide. Interviews were aimed at understanding individuals' experiences of involvement in the pilot, including referral to training and mandation, the training itself, the effect of sanctions, where experienced, and the wider benefits or drawbacks of the scheme, including any harm. The evaluation also included visits to five Job Centre Plus (JCP) offices in September 2010 to look at implementation, delivery and the experiences and views of staff delivering the pilot. A total of 25 staff were interviewed and some interviews were observed. Our focus in this paper is on the experiences and perspectives of job seekers, but some responses from advisers are also included.

The 40 job seeker respondents were sampled from a DWP database of pilot participants and were from across eleven pilot areas chosen to represent a range of local labour markets. All had been unemployed for at least six months, the eligibility point for the pilot programme. Most were male (29 men and eleven women), fifteen were aged 18-24, thirteen aged 25-40, and twelve aged 41-65. Of those whose ethnicity was known, 26 were White British and two were White non-British (European) while eight were from an ethnic minority. Five customers were identified as having a disability and others told us they had health problems which affected the work they could do. Of the 34 whose qualifications were known, ten had no qualifications, and a further ten had qualifications at 'entry' level or level 1. However, fourteen had qualifications at level 2 (GCSE level) or higher, and these included four job seekers with degrees or postgraduate qualifications. The sample of job seekers was therefore not without qualifications or skills.

Data from the research interviews were analysed using a 'framework' method (4) which refers to a process in which responses are coded and themes are identified by the researcher from the accounts, explanations, views and perspectives of the research participants. This approach is a standard qualitative research method and is generally known as 'grounded theory'. (5) In keeping with the methods of research and analysis, the findings are presented qualitatively in this paper. This approach aims to convey the range of experiences, perspectives and attitudes of research participants and, where possible, to offer explanations for these. This differs from quantitative approaches which can measure the prevalence of responses and compare treatment and control groups. The emphasis of the research was in identifying the range of experiences and perspectives to be identified and for some underlying factors to be discerned.

Design of the pilot programme and the training offered

The pilot was designed to test conditionality within training for people unemployed for six months. By this time, job seekers are considered to be 'long-term' unemployed and in need of additional help to improve their employment prospects. The Skills Conditionality pilot was aimed specifically at assisting job seekers whose continuing joblessness is believed to be at least in part due to lack of skills. Therefore, job seekers identified by JSA advisers as having a 'skills need', and who were in the 'treatment group', by virtue of having an even National Insurance Number (NINO), were required to take part in the pilot (those with an odd NINO were excluded). If they refused to attend or did not complete the course, those in the 'treatment group' would be sanctioned through withdrawal of their JSA or payment at a lower rate for a period of two weeks for a first failure to comply and four weeks for subsequent infringements. Sanctioned individuals had the right to appeal, by following the usual procedures where benefits are withdrawn.

The criteria of ' skills need' was understood in various ways by Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) advisers; some interpreted it as basic skills needs, of literacy and numeracy, which were identified through a short test, while others saw it as including certification for particular sectors and CV writing skills, or 'employability'. The qualifications profile of participants, described above, suggests that, in referring customers to the pilot, advisers were not using qualifications as a filter, but saw the pilot, and the training offered, as about employability rather than deficiencies in qualifications and technical skills. Job seekers could be referred to a range of training courses within the pilot. Available provision was broad and included much of the training provision contracted by Jobcentre Plus to local training providers and colleges. These included basic skills courses (literacy and numeracy) and training with an occupational skills element. Courses with an occupational skills-based element included industry specific skills courses to obtain the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card or Security Industry Association (SIA) licence. The courses attended by pilot participants also included courses with a strong focus on 'employability'. These courses are typically a short series of workshop sessions covering one or more aspects of job application (McQuaid and Lindsay, 2005). Most commonly these were described by job seekers as job search and CV writing, with some respondents mentioning interview skills and IT skills for CVs and job applications.

Attitudes of the long-term unemployed towards training

To assess whether conditionality was effective or harmful, we first look at participants' reactions to being offered training and then to their views on conditionality in training. Respondents described a range of reactions to being offered training by their adviser. Some were positive and welcoming, others were neutral and some were against the idea. Those who said their first reaction was positive gave one of four main reasons for this: it would help them to get a job; they welcomed the activity; it might improve their confidence; or it would give them sector-based skills. Many respondents referred to their eagerness to find work, their dislike of living on benefits, in poverty, and the boredom and isolation they experienced. They were inclined to accept what help they could get to help them into work. Some accepted their advisers' assessment that their basic skills of literacy and numeracy were poor, that this presented a barrier to employment and that they would benefit from a basic skills training course. A number of respondents said they agreed with their adviser's opinion that they needed additional help to look for work, including how to complete an application form and perform well at interview. One respondent explained,

"They said it will all help. You see in my life I've had no need for CVs and all this. I am 62 nearly; I am a bit old fashioned. I needed the help so I just agreed with it" (Alfred, job seeker)

The research explored how the degree of choice over training affected job seekers' attitudes towards participation. Some respondents said they had been given a choice in the course they were sent on, or were able to choose their training provider, but most had not. The lack of choice was not regarded as a problem by those respondents who were offered training which they felt they needed. These were usually job seekers who had been offered training with occupational based skills and which led to certification such as CSCS for construction or SIA for security. However, some respondents said that they would have chosen a different course had they been able to. These included individuals who had wanted sector-based skills training but were offered basic skills or employability courses. As we describe later, one of the themes of objections to conditionality was the type of training provision to which individuals were referred, although this was not the only objection to the measure.

Interest in occupational skills training

As we described, some job seekers did accept they needed help with employability and with literacy and numeracy, but the most positive responses to the offer of training were from those who had been offered courses with an occupational skills content. One job seeker who was offered a computer course and security industry training described his reaction to the training offer:

"I thought it was brilliant, you know. I said thank you because I was really struggling to find work anyway and I could see that is the only way of getting into work to be honest at the time" (Ben, job seeker)

One respondent described himself as 'over the moon' when he was offered a place on training which included a CSCS card, since he had been trying to get this training for some time.

Some interviewees described how their initial enthusiasm for training dissipated when they realised that the occupational skills training they wanted was not on offer. They included a job seeker wanting to qualify as a fitness instructor to do youth work and another who was interested in training which included a construction certificate. These had been offered more generic, employability skills courses, focused on job search and CV writing. Some respondents described how they realised the course was principally employability and not occupational skills only when their courses started, and had in some cases left the course, resulting in sanctioning. This difference between job seeker expectations of the training on the course they attended may have resulted in misunderstanding of what training was being offered by the adviser. Changes in course availability may also have explained this gap between expectations and actual provision. Such changes result from the 'roll on, roll off' nature of courses to which JSA claimants are referred, which leads to a changing menu of courses locally. JSA advisers had observed that many job seekers are interested in occupational skills courses, particularly those which lead to certification, rather than in employability training. However, they explained that these courses were not always available locally and tended to be in a small range of occupational skills.

Escaping the boredom of inactivity

Positive responses to training were not determined solely by the type of training on offer, or even by training itself. Two other factors were of some importance: first the activity of training in itself relieved the boredom of inactivity resulting from long-term unemployment. A number of interviewees referred to the boredom and social isolation of unemployment. One respondent, a graduate, explained,

"It gets you out there doing something proactive. Learning is good; it's paid for so I saw it as positive" (Jonathan, job seeker)

A number of job seekers referred to having taken part in other training courses and job-search activities, as well as work placements and volunteering arranged by Jobcentre Plus. However, at the time of the pilot, they were not engaged in other programmes arranged by Jobcentre Plus, although a number were involved in activities they had arranged for themselves (see later).

Previous research refers to the reduction in social activity experienced by the long-term unemployed, resulting from loss of work social contact and the effects of a decline in income (Lindsay, 2009).Findings from the pilot evaluation suggest that long-term unemployed people may welcome activity such as training for the social contact as much as for any other anticipated benefits. Some job seekers said that they had lost a degree of self-confidence as a result of unemployment and felt that the social aspect of training would help to restore it. In discussing what they had gained from the training, some also referred principally to social aspects, of having something to get up and go to, the social aspect of meeting and mixing with people, learning something new and the helpfulness of the tutors. Advisers also reported that job seekers are sometimes attracted to training as an activity to relieve boredom rather than from the belief that it will address their barriers to employment.

Obligation to participate

A second factor leading to acceptance of training was the feeling of obligation to agree to whatever intervention the adviser suggests. Therefore, one job seeker explained that,

'It's just a procedure that you just go through.... Once you lose your job and signing on for a while they just put you there" (Damien, job seeker).

The respondent quoted earlier said that he also saw the training 'as an obligation' (Jonathan). Therefore, some job seekers, while uncertain about how the training would benefit them, felt they should attend. Some advisers said that that the long-term unemployed generally accept that they will have to go on training courses, as part of the jobseekers agreement, and out of general expectations that they will be active in seeking work and improving their chances of getting a job. Therefore they found some job seekers accepted training offers more from resignation than active interest. We return to the issue of obligation later in our findings on conditionality.

Reluctance to participate

Some respondents said they had not welcomed the offer of training. Of these, some said they did not object to attending training in theory, but did not want to go on the course they were offered. This group included some who had been referred to job search and CV writing courses but felt they did not need this help, because they either had these skills or had attended such courses already. Some individuals had had previous bad experiences of training which made them ill-disposed to training offered by Jobcentre Plus. One 19-year old respondent, who had previously been on a job search course which he had not found useful, described his initial response as:

'I just thought "Oh no, [training provider name] all over again". It didn't benefit me at all. The way I look at it is they take me off their books even though I'm still signing on" (Alden, job seeker).

Other respondents shared this belief that assigning job seekers to training was a means of reducing the claimant count (which in this case, it did not) and was not really about improving employment chances.

Job seekers who were opposed to training also included respondents who were already taking part in training they had organised themselves and were concerned that the mandatory training would give them less time for their own courses. Others felt they would have less time for volunteering and for job search. There is some evidence for this from previous research on outcomes for unemployed people mandated to training; a Danish study found that the test group, who took part in training, had longer duration of unemployment, a finding which was explained by the 'locking in' effect of training where participants are not able to look for work (Rosholm and Skipper, 2009). Previous research also includes evidence of loss of time for job search and for informal searching (Crisp and Fletcher, 2008; McVicar, 2008). Some of the respondents who had concerns about disruption to their own plans for finding work had raised these with their adviser but had been told they would have to attend in any case. It was in these exchanges that some job seekers had been told that they were mandated to the training. Most others said they had been told at some point during the same interview with their adviser although, as we explain later, some had not been told they were mandated at all.

We referred above to social isolation as a factor encouraging participation in training. While this was the case for some individuals, for others lack of confidence resulting from the isolation of unemployment was a barrier to attending training courses. Some respondents expressed concerns about the training environment, particularly that it would be like a 'classroom'. Some referred to previous bad experiences of training or bad memories of their school days. The prospect of using a computer, for example with job search or to write a CV was also daunting for some. The social aspect was also a worry. One respondent who was sanctioned for nonattendance explained:

'I was concerned about the amount of people that was there. I don't like big groups of people. [My adviser] just said I just got to go on one. I felt that wasn't very good because I'm not really good with big groups of people. I get all panicky and my heart pounds and everything" (Cheryl, job seeker).

Some respondents did not agree that their barriers to work could be addressed by training. These included some unemployed people who had health problems which affected the work they could do and others who believed they experienced labour market discrimination because of their age or criminal record. Two respondents who had been sent on CV writing and IT courses felt that their criminal record and addiction problems made them unattractive to employers. As one of these respondents, aged 46, who had been on incapacity benefit for 20 years and had also served time in prison remarked:

"[the course] was basically how to use a computer setting up a CV but I had nothing to put on the CV because I haven't worked, unless you count being a cleaner in prison, so I didn't find that helpful at all" (Pedro, job seeker).

Another respondent who raised his criminal record as a barrier to employment believed he should be assisted in applying to employers who will recruit ex offenders. Other job seekers also expressed the view that the Jobcentre had not responded to their particular needs and preferences and some argued that a more tailored service should be offered to JSA claimants. Advisers also reported that some job seekers said they would prefer help of a different kind to training.

Summary of attitudes towards training

Our conclusions from analysis of job seekers' responses to training were that they were generally inclined to accept training as a means of improving their skills and employment prospects, and welcomed the relief it brought from social isolation. Their dislike of living on benefits inclined them to accept all offers of help. However, there was concern about poor quality training courses, repeated 'employability' training, rather than opportunities to acquire occupational skills, and the commitment of time for limited returns. These concerns were expressed particularly by respondents with their own strategies for finding work. Conditionality, through mandation to training, added a further dimension to these perspectives and to job seeker behaviour, which enables us to examine the two hypotheses, that conditionality is successful and that it is harmful, in more depth.

Responses to conditionality

We checked first whether job seekers were aware they had been mandated to training by asking them if they were told that their benefit might be stopped if they did not go on the course or if they did not attend. Although all 40 respondents were recorded on the DWP database as in the test group, and therefore mandated, seven said they had not been told this. Of these, a number felt they were obliged to attend courses even though they had not been told this, or had got the impression that attendance was not optional. Some were too concerned about potentially losing benefits to take the risk. One of these respondents explained that, as a lone parent with two dependent children, she did not want to risk loss of benefit for noncompliance with the Jobseekers Agreement, in which the general requirements on individuals to find work are specified (see earlier). Another respondent, who was sent to a basic skills and job search course explained that:

"The sort of impression they gave, they didn't actually tell me, but they gave the impression that if I didn't go there ... you feel threatened sort of thing that they stop [your benefits], everything stops' (Samuel, job seeker).

Other than in these seven cases, respondents said they could recall being told that they would have to go on the training they were offered or risk losing benefits. Many were vague about precisely when they became aware of this requirement, but they generally recognised it as an additional requirement on them rather than one which was automatically covered by the Job Seekers Agreement.

Job seekers who accepted conditionality

Respondents expressed a wide range of responses to being mandated to the training which related both to their own circumstances and to views about conditionality more widely. In expressing their wider views on conditionality, these respondents referred to the enforcement role of conditionality and the obligations on the unemployed.

The two most common responses of job seekers who were happy with mandation was that they preferred to attend training than to be inactive, that it would help them or that it was generally acceptable to them. Therefore one respondent explained that he was happy with being required to attend a training course because

"I don't mind to be honest because, if it increases my chance of employability then I'm willing to do that. It don't really bother me too much' (Oliver, job seeker).

A number expressed the view that they welcomed the activity of training or that it was 'better than doing nothing'. Some job seekers said they were happy with being mandated because it was training that they had wanted, and two of these were then disappointed that the training did not materialise because courses were full or not available. They therefore felt the 'deal' had been broken, did not attend the training and were sanctioned.

Some respondents believed that conditionality, through mandation to training, is the right approach because it provides unemployed people with skills and can move them nearer to finding work, can combat inertia and increase motivation. This was not necessarily expressed in relation to training alone, but included other activity such as volunteering and work experience. This was an opinion held by some job seekers and also by some advisers.

Some job seekers saw conditionality in training as a means of enforcement or control and supported this approach. This view was expressed by some job seekers, and also by advisers, who believed that some unemployed people put insufficient effort into job search, or prefer to claim benefits rather than to be in employment or training. Some respondents said they knew of people in their communities who had this attitude. One view expressed by job seekers was that mandation is a way of helping to ensure that people do not work while claiming benefits. One job seeker expressed the view that the requirement was:

'Fair enough, at the end of the day there's too many people not working. If they put a little threat on that, they know that person isn't going to sit on their arse all day and watch daytime TV because they know if they don't arrive they won't get their money next week. So in a way that is a good thing' (Keeley, job seeker).

A number of job seekers were concerned not be regarded as 'work shy'. Their concerns were both to distance themselves from any group who might be considered to be avoiding work and continue living on state benefits and also to distinguish between policies which might be necessary to deal with the 'work shy' and those appropriate for most benefit claimants who are keen to find work. References to the minority of work shy claimants were made by both advisers and by job seekers themselves who were concerned to make a distinction between their own attitudes and behaviour and those of the work shy.

Obligation to take part in training was sometimes expressed as 'part of the deal' of claiming benefits and an expectation on the unemployed. An 18-year old respondent explained that his reaction to being mandated was:

"Fair enough because if I'm on the dole and I want to get a job and they're helping me to try and get one, I should go out of my way to try and do it as much as I possibly can' (Marcus).

Advisers confirmed this perspective among many job seekers who were generally seen to accept mandation because of increasing expectations on job seekers at each stage of their claim.

Where job seekers expressed the view that participation is an obligation, it was usually qualified with the requirement that the training offered should be of good quality, and that a choice of courses should be offered. This was seen as in doubt in the case of training available through the pilot and, as we describe later, some job seekers felt that the tacit agreement was therefore broken.

Job seekers who were against conditionality

A number of respondents were not happy at being told they would have to attend the training or risk losing their benefits. Some had quite specific concerns which affected their views on being mandated. These included what would happen if they were ill and could not attend. Some were not happy with being mandated because they felt that they did not need the training or would not benefit from it. Few expressed the view that they would not benefit from training as such, but felt that they would not be more employable as a result of attending the employability courses arranged by the Jobcentre. Therefore, one adviser explained that, 'Objections arise when training is found and discussed and it doesn't suit them' (Robert, JSA adviser). Advisers reported problems with the availability of training at the time of the pilot which made it difficult to meet job seekers' preferences for training. Another adviser made a similar point:

"They want a choice of training, but this isn't available. They would feel different about being mandated if they had a choice" (Imran, JSA Adviser).

More widely, those who were critical of conditionality argued that it reduces motivation, is unfair or disruptive, and can ignore other barriers to employment. On the first of these, some advisers believed that mandation without commitment from the individual meant that job seekers can be counterproductive, resulting in poor motivation to attend training and benefit from it. One adviser stated:

"Mandating makes them turn up but not necessarily take part in training and this could be a downside ... You can't measure what they do while they are there' (Robin, JSA Adviser).

Some respondents also said they felt it was the 'wrong attitude' towards unemployed people and that a relationship which included expectation and trust was preferable. As two respondents, a job seeker and an adviser, stated:

"They're always ordering you about with what to do, which is in some cases the wrong way to go about things really' (Dai, job seeker).

"We tend to belittle people, saying we know best and whatever we say you should do, you've got to do, even if they are already helping themselves. This doesn't build trust and it isn't the right way to get results from people" (Imran, JSA Adviser).

A number of respondents said they objected to being mandated and some expressed their feelings quite strongly. They included some who thought that mandation as a policy was unfair or wrong, either on the grounds of how it affected them personally or more generally. Therefore some job seekers said their response was to feel 'belittled', 'insulted', 'intimidated', 'threatened' or 'angry'. Other descriptions of the policy were that it was 'outrageous', 'disgraceful', 'silly' or 'out of order'. Some respondents said that it interfered with their own plans to find work. These plans included voluntary work and training they had arranged themselves. Some respondents felt that job centre staff had not taken into account these plans, and that mandation involved a rejection of their own strategies to find work. Therefore, some respondents felt that those who are taking steps to find work, for example through volunteering and training they have organised themselves, should not be mandated. Another view expressed by job seekers was that being mandated had made them feel like they were untrustworthy, or even 'criminal'.

Some job seekers, and also some advisers, expressed concern at the consequences of sanctioning, particularly for people with children, and it was also argued that people who have had their benefits withdrawn could turn to crime. Some research suggests that this may have some foundation, with increased crime rates recorded in areas where more people have been sanctioned (Machin and Marie, 2004).

Some respondents argued that it was not always appropriate to require an individual to take part in training when they have other barriers to employment. Training was therefore seen as sometimes of secondary importance to measures aimed at overcoming barriers to employment resulting from substance abuse or criminal record. This was argued by both advisers and job seekers and has been highlighted by a range of studies (Sanderson, 2006, p. 99).

Because of the wide circumstances and barriers to employment among job seekers, some advisers said they preferred to be able to use discretion over mandation to training, because this allowed them to make their own judgement about both the need for training and for mandation. An adviser and a job seeker stated,

'It's best to leave [mandation] with the adviser, they get to know the customer, their domestic life and the barriers they face. Mandating ignores the other barriers, like drug abuse, and childcare and makes it more difficult to build up trust and rapport' (Anthony, JSA Adviser).

"For people who don't have the skills, their adviser should help them find their own direction. They should offer specific training for them" (Sophia, job seeker).

Whether conditionality affected participation in training or resulted in harm

As we have seen, job seekers had a range of attitudes towards taking part in training and to the training they were offered. We look now at whether being mandated to the training affected their participation and at whether it resulted in any harm.

It has been argued that unemployed people will not necessarily engage in programmes designed to help them to find work unless participation is compulsory because they do not always know the benefits of doing so in advance (Gregg, 2008; Griggs and Bennett, 2009; DWP, 2009). Research on individuals with basic skills needs has indicated that some individuals are resistant to training because of barriers such as low self-esteem and social isolation but that, having participated, find they benefit more than they had expected (Metcalf et al., 2009). However, while a few individuals were reluctant to participate and said they would not have gone on the training had it been voluntary, respondents were generally inclined to take part in training. Some job seekers who had not been told they were mandated still felt they should attend training and believed that they risked losing benefits if they did not.

Many interviewees said they would have taken part in the training even had it not been a condition of receiving their benefits. This was because they were positively inclined to participate in activity which they believed might improve their employment prospects. They also felt a sense of obligation to do what their adviser suggested. Respondents had been unemployed for in excess of six months, and many had been unemployed before and therefore used to the expectations on JSA claimants. They were concerned that their benefits might be affected if they did not cooperate, regardless of mandation. There was also evidence of concern among unemployed respondents about the stigma of being unemployed and of claiming benefits, which inclined respondents to take up all offers of help. Some respondents were particularly keen not to be seen as 'work shy' and to maintain a positive self-image. These concerns have been found in previous qualitative research with unemployed people and are likely to result from the stigma of unemployment (Howe, 1990; Letkemann, 2002). Some advisers also rejected the idea that mandation is necessary to ensure cooperation with training. One described how his previous beliefs about unemployed people had changed through experience in the job:

"Before I started working here I had a pre-conceived idea about anti-establishment people claiming benefits and not wanting to work but I found I was wrong and 99 per cent are looking for work' (Mick, JSA Adviser).

Whether sanctioning was effective

Just as conditionality did not seem to be the deciding factor in participation in training, sanctioning also seemed ineffective in ensuring future compliance. The rate of sanctioning within the pilot was small at less than 3 per cent of participants. We interviewed eight job seekers who had been sanctioned for non-compliance with training. Two of the job seekers who were sanctioned had declined to attend the training, while another two had left the course before completion. The others were sanctioned for late attendance, as a result of over-sleeping, leaving home too late, forgetting to attend and being confused about dates. Poor organisational skills were therefore responsible for some of the sanctioning experienced by respondents. A number of respondents said they had been sanctioned on other occasions, usually for failing to attend a meeting with their adviser, again suggesting poor organisational skills. If these circumstances are more widely typical of job seekers who experience sanctioning, it suggests that poor organisational skills are responsible for some job seekers failing to comply with mandation. These findings repeat those of previous research which found little indication of deliberate non-attendance or non-engagement with programmes and that failure to participate in activity or to attend was usually unintentional, resulting for example from forgetfulness (Griggs and Evans, 2010). It is possible that poor motivation and low interest in training contributed to poor organisation and therefore failure to attend but we do not have this degree of detail about job seeker attitudes and behaviour and have accepted respondents' own explanations for their actions.

Respondents had mixed views about whether, in retrospect, they could have avoided loss of benefits; those who had been sanctioned for lateness felt that this was simple human error and the small number who had declined training or had left the course felt they had been right to do so. The main reason for this was that the course was either not useful or not appropriate for them. These findings are similar to those of Peters and Joyce (2006) that many sanctioned customers felt that the situation could not have been avoided. They explain:

'The qualitative findings suggest customers felt they either did not know about the sanction in advance in order to avoid it, or they felt their circumstances were such that they had little choice but to leave work or their training course' (Peters and Joyce, 2006, p. 4)

Our own conclusions were similar, in finding little evidence that sanctioning would lead to future changes in behaviour.

"Harm" resulting from conditionality

One remit of the evaluation was to investigate with all research participants any harm resulting from participation in the pilot. This was seen by the DWP potentially to include loss of time or motivation for job search and, for customers who are sanctioned, financial and other hardship, reduced motivation and other negative effects.

As explained earlier, the sanction for failure to comply with the JSA Skills Conditionality Pilot for mandated claimants is loss of JSA, or reduction of JSA in the case of a joint claim. While some respondents said the period of sanctioning was two weeks, or the period of one claim, others were not clear and it is possible that some were sanctioned for four weeks since they had been sanctioned on other occasions. However, with the exception of the two job seekers who went into employment, all had felt the effects of a reduction in their benefit payments.

One of the sanctioned job seekers, All, signed off benefits when he was sanctioned for not attending training, and Sophia was working part-time when her benefits were withdrawn. All found work road sweeping through an employment agency, thereby moving into insecure work. The other respondents were largely dependent on family and friends to meet the costs of food and living expenses while their benefit was stopped. A number described how their families had helped them out financially. Others borrowed money from their family and friends. A number of respondents spoke of the consequences of being sanctioned and losing benefit for their family and relationships:

'It caused family problems and arguments with them saying they can't afford to keep me...I didn't feel there was anyone I could talk to about it. Nothing I could actually do" (Alden, job seeker).

I had to lend off my boyfriend and my mum...My mum was really skint and my boyfriend was finding it hard as well' (Cheryl, job seeker).

Marcus, who had his benefits stopped for a period of four weeks, explained that:

"It was hard [to manage financially], very, very hard. It's quite embarrassing but sometimes my mum would have to fend for me. It was hard on my mum because she's got my little brother and sister to look after as well and that bit of money that I got went to help her as well as me. It was very stressful. They shouldn't do it completely. They should actually give you money to survive' (Marcus, job seeker).

These experiences echo the findings of previous research that loss of benefits leads to difficulties in meeting household expenses including housing costs, utility bills and food (Griggs and Evans, 2010), increases dependence on friends and family and leads to tensions in personal relationships (Dorsett, 2008). Previous research has also found sanctioned job seekers resort to borrowing money (Peters and Joyce, 2006). No respondent had appealed against being sanctioned, on the grounds that they would not be successful, and because of the procedure involved which includes the cost of the telephone call, as one respondent explained:

'I could have appealed but it was just for one week and they make it very difficult. If you try and phone them for instance, you just end up running up your phone bill and you'll be on there for ages... You have to call Glasgow and it's an expensive number...It's just not worth the stress really so I just took it on the chin" (Jonathan, job seeker).

Again, this has been found in previous research which reports that job seekers do not take up the option of appeal, partly through a perception that it would be complicated and futile (Dorsett, 2008).

"Harm" outside of sanctioning

Previous research has identified reduced time for job search as one negative consequence of conditionality (Crisp and Fletcher, 2008; Rosholm and Skipper, 2009). This was reported by a few respondents, with others explaining that the training they attended was short and therefore did not impact significantly on the time available for such activity. However, some job seekers who had organised training themselves found their arrangements disrupted by the requirement to attend training through the pilot.

While some material disadvantage was found, the harmful effects of conditionality were more subtle. As we described earlier, some job seekers felt their own plans and strategies, which included volunteering and training, were ignored or even undermined. Being required to attend repeated courses in job search and CV writing was seen as unhelpful and made some job seekers wary of taking up future offers of training. As we described earlier, some job seekers expressed their views on training and mandation quite strongly, asserting that their own plans were ignored or 'belittled'.

Other interviewees were acutely aware of the obstacles they faced in the labour market because of their age, criminal record or substance abuse, but had no clear strategy because they needed advice on how to overcome these barriers. While these individuals did not necessarily experience harm from participation in training, they believed they were no nearer to finding work and felt their needs were not fully recognised or addressed by Jobcentre plus.


While previous studies have looked generally at conditionality, few studies look at its impact and this applies particularly to conditionality in training programmes (Zandvliet et al., 2006; McVicar, 2008; Griggs and Bennett, 2009; Griggs and Evans, 2010). We have aimed to help fill this gap by assessing the effectiveness of training conditionality. We have done this using two main hypotheses, which had been built into the design of the evaluation conducted for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP): first that conditionality will be successful in increasing participation in training; second that it is harmful by leaving job seekers less time for job search activity and by not improving their skills and experience.

There was little evidence from the evaluation that either of the two features of conditionality, mandation or sanctioning, affected individuals' behaviour. The job seekers interviewed were broadly welcoming of training and accepting of conditionality and said they would have behaved in a similar way in the absence of mandation. Our findings do not endorse the view that individuals are reluctant to take part in training and require additional incentive (DWP, 2009). Rather, they recognised the potential benefits of training. At the same time, a common theme from interviews was the futility of repeated training in generic employability skills which some respondents had experienced.

Those who were against conditionality did not believe that the training offered would move them closer to finding work; they had their own strategies for finding work, which included training and volunteering; or they had other barriers to employment which they felt could not be addressed by training. Some of these individuals still attended the training, because they were concerned they would lose benefits and also wished to meet the terms of the JSA agreement, the document signed by job seekers, which is seen as a tacit deal that they would take up all offers of help. Some also took part in training despite not knowing that they were mandated. A common theme running through many interviews with job seekers and JSA advisers was acceptance of obligations on the unemployed, and at the same time a concern not to be regarded as 'work shy'. Concern to avoid the stigma of unemployment appeared to influence some responses (Howe, 1990: Letkemann, 2002). These factors were also underpinned by a strong desire among job seekers to find work (Reed, 2010).

It is for these reasons that we have concluded that conditionality in training was largely effective. Our findings suggest that it might be reasonable, as Gregg points out, to have sanctions within the system to 'underpin obligations' and as a 'backstop' for claimants who do not accept help (Gregg, 2008, p. 14). However, their universal application within programmes such as the Skills Conditionality pilot would seem unnecessary. Some advisers argued that job seekers were more committed to training where they had been motivated to take part, through encouragement and support from their adviser. Therefore, some advisers took the approach of 'selling' training to job seekers rather than using it to enforce activity. The question is then whether, even where job seekers do not benefit from mandated activity, this should be regarded as problematic, which was explored through our second hypothesis that conditionality is harmful. As well as any evidence of financial hardship resulting from sanctioning (Peters and Joyce, 2006; Dorsett, 2008; Griggs and Evans, 2010), this hypothesis draws on evidence that conditionality in benefit programmes can limit the time available for job search and fail to provide the skills and experience valued by employers (Crisp and Fletcher, 2008; McVicar, 2008; Rosholm and Skipper, 2009).

Individuals who were sanctioned undoubtedly experienced hardship, but this did not appear likely to lead to future change in behaviour, since they felt they had been right to refuse to participate or to leave training to which they had been mandated. There was evidence, as from previous studies, of pressure on families and stresses on relationships (Peters and Joyce, 2006; Dorsett, 2008; Griggs and Evans, 2010). Little harm was identified in loss of time for job search, but this was explained by the short length of courses. We have concluded that the most harmful effects of conditionality were in what respondents felt was disregard for their own strategies to find work.

While perhaps not actually being harmed, job seekers who faced obstacles to finding work other than skills needs, also lost out through conditionality. They required personalised support and intensive help rather than the application of 'one size fits all' provision. A more effective approach would be one in which individuals are helped to develop their own job seeking strategies, which might include training, work placements, volunteering and other activity. Those with the most serious barriers to work, who have benefited least from standard provision, are likely to gain most from such a change in approach. As set out above, problems with the implementation of the pilot meant that reliable evidence could not be produced from the quantitative evaluation. However, our conclusions from the qualitative evaluation were that conditionality and sanctioning were unlikely to be effective in ensuring cooperation with training. However, research evidence, while important, is far from the only factor driving whether a particular policy proposal is implemented (Nutley et al., 2002); in addition, of course, the timing of research results is often crucial in determining how influential they are in shaping policy (see the Introduction, p. R1). In fact, by the time this research was published, the government had already committed publicly to extending the policy, in the White Paper, Universal Credit: Welfare that Works (DWP, 2010). Therefore, despite these findings, publication of the report, in August 2011, coincided with the implementation of skills conditionality in England by Jobcentre Plus. From this date, all job seekers are required to attend training where a Jobcentre Plus adviser considers skills to be their main barrier to finding work, all referrals to training provision are on a mandatory basis and no adviser discretion is allowed (Jobcentre Plus and Skills Funding Agency, 2011). [The government states that, in implementing the policy, improvements have been made to avoid the problems that arose in the pilot].

doi: 10.1177/002795011221900107


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(1) Problems were principally assignment of individuals without an identified skills need to the pilot, incorrect pilot markers and low rates of allocation to training. Evidence from qualitative research in Jobcentre plus offices suggests that these problems, and lower than expected referral rates (of around half that expected), may have resulted from uncertainty about continuation of the pilot following the General Election in May 2010 and poor preparation of JSA advisers (see Dorsett, Rolfe and George, 2011).

(2) The term 'job seeker' is used throughout this paper, rather than those of 'customer' or 'claimant'.

(3) At the start of their claim, individuals are required to attend a meeting where they are required to sign a Jobseekers Agreement containing agreed job goals and job search activities.

(4) Bryman and Burgess (1993).

(5) Glaser and Strauss (1967).

Heather Rolfe, National Institute of Economic and Social Research. E-mail: The author would like to thank NIESR colleagues Richard Dorsett who led the quantitative evaluation of the Skills Conditionality pilot and Anitha George who worked on the qualitative evaluation. She would also like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their guidance. NIESR is grateful to the Department for Work and Pensions who commissioned the research on which this paper is based and to the research respondents whose experiences are presented in this paper. The author is responsible for the interpretation of data presented in the paper.
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Author:Rolfe, Heather
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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