If welfare was ever a 'contract' the government has completely broken it

“You do your bit, and we’ll do ours” said David Cameron when he and Iain Duncan Smith introduced Universal Credit. But if the state fails to do its bit, what can people do?

Ruth Patrick
27 March 2018
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Image: Richard McKeever/Flickr, Creative Commons.

As many as 70,000 disability benefit claimants have been underpaid benefits to which they were entitled, we learned last week, with a small number underpaid by as much as £20,000. These underpayments occurred during the rollout of Employment and Support Allowance, as part of the Coalition Government’s programme of welfare reform. Despite being aware of these systematic errors since 2014, the Department for Work and Pensions are only now starting to make redress to affected claimants. Full repayment will not be made until April 2019.

As Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work of Pensions Committee MP, pointed out, there is a stark disjunct between the speed at which the department will sanction claimants or seek the return of any benefit overpayment, and their own slowness to act in this case. This hints at the imbalance at the root of Britain’s welfare contract between citizens and the state.

From Blair to Cameron… and beyond…

In recent years, in defending round after round of benefits cut and an ever-escalating role for welfare conditionality, politicians have repeatedly drawn on welfare contractualism. Under welfare contractualism, they have promoted their new policies as ‘fair’ measures designed to uphold both people’s rights – and their responsibilities. Tony Blair’s New Labour government promised to reform the welfare state “...on the basis of a new contract between citizen and state”, creating “...rights and responsibilities on all sides”. And David Cameron’s Conservatives pledged that “everyone who is able to work will be expected to prepare to return to work, and in return we will offer them the support they need to do so”.

Today, the welfare contract has been codified with the rollout of Claimant Commitments; personalised agreements which, under Universal Credit, all claimants must first sign if they are to receive financial support from the state. Back in 2012, David Cameron heralded their introduction:

“Now you have to sign a contract that says: you do your bit and we’ll do ours. It requires you to have a real CV and it makes clear: you have to seek work and take work – or you will lose your benefit.”

Successive waves of welfare reform have been justified with an emphasis on the supposed need for benefit changes to ensure that all those who can be are on a journey from ‘welfare’ and into ‘work’. This logic, which so often pits the ‘deserving’ against the ‘undeserving’, the ‘strivers’ against skivers, works with and reaffirms supposedly static divisions between problematised ‘welfare dependants’ and valorised ‘hard working families’.

The appeal of the idea of a welfare contract lies in its recourse to an understanding of justice as reciprocity; and the perceived logic (and fairness) of carefully balancing rights and responsibilities. It speaks to fans of a ‘something for something’ culture, and to those concerned about benefit claimants – in George Osborne’s words – “sleeping off a life on benefits” rather than doing all they can to join the ranks of ‘hard working citizens’.

Is the government ‘doing their bit’?

The contract may in fact be a mirage, but it underpins state-led efforts to cajole, encourage but – ultimately – compel – citizens to do the right thing (and if not face the consequences). Here, the primary responsibility of the dutiful citizen is narrowly defined as to engage in paid work. Against this framing, the welfare contract demands citizens do all they can to secure paid employment and – in return – promises state support to help them make the transition from welfare-to-work. At the same time, the contemporary welfare contract pledges to support all those who are simply too ‘vulnerable’ to work, although this promise does not bear close scrutiny when held up against the significant rise in food banks, destitution and child poverty in the UK.

While welfare contractualism suffuses contemporary political discussions of welfare, more attention needs to be given to questioning how far the posited contract is a lopsided and unequal one, and one that is underpinned by high levels of tacit coercion. The state can indeed demand the fulfilment of an individual’s responsibilities, with robust and harsh sanctions at its disposal for non-compliance, but there is often little an individual can do where it feels that the state is not keeping its side of the bargain. Compare the three year sanction an individual can receive where they three times fail to comply with demands made of them by the state, with the bureaucratic and slow benefits appeals system.

Processes for challenging benefit decisions with which a claimant does not agree are opaque and limited, while the 2013 removal of Legal Aid support to fund benefit cases further undermines citizens’ capacity to claim their rights under any so-called welfare contract. Government figures show a 99.5% reduction in the number of people receiving help from the state with benefit cases, with just 440 claimants supported in 2016-17, down from 83,000 in 2012-13.  

Recently, the Government won the latest round of its cynical court battle to prevent first tier tribunals from finding benefit regulations in breach of human rights. This potentially closes down a key avenue for challenging benefit decisions, and could instead require claimants to appeal to a higher court meaning greater bureaucracy, higher costs and – thus perhaps – fewer challenges of benefit decisions. The government’s willingness to fight against the applicability of human rights legislation to their benefits system illuminates the extent to which any meaningful welfare contract broke long ago.

The flaws in the welfare contract are also evident in the sizeable gap that exists between the state’s promise of high-quality and personalised work-related support and what is in fact offered through welfare-to-work programmes (which themselves are part of contracted-out, marketised provision). In research with individuals directly affected by welfare reform, what came through very strongly was the clash between the promise that the state would do all it can to help claimants secure paid employment, and experiences of poor-quality, ineffective and heavily conditional programmes. What this research also demonstrated is the ways in which a rhetoric and rationale of contractualism is concealing lived experiences of welfare reform as exclusionary, stigmatising and punitive.

The dominant framing implies that by imposing a tough welfare contract, and backing this up with welfare conditionality and the threat of benefit sanctions, claimants can be supported to find employment and then become included within the citizenry as part of hard working Britain. Thus, conditionality is positioned as a tool of inclusion. What this framing completely neglects is the ways in which welfare conditionality operates to ‘other’ and demarcate claimants as potentially undeserving, and as individuals who require these punitive measures if they are to behave responsibly. This inevitably ratchets up the stigma faced by claimants, while the punitive framing and direct effects of conditionality and sanctions operate to further exclude affected citizens.

In particular, sanctions all too often have perverse consequences where they move people further away rather than closer to the paid labour market. Not only do sanctions carry with them a significant financial penalty (and resultant hardship if not destitution), they are wrapped up in a punitive language (of offences, transgressions and penalties) that further demarcates and excludes affected claimants. The incusionary promise of conditionality belies its exclusionary outcomes.

What counts as “doing your bit”?

Sadly, politicians too often rely on a very narrow (and exclusionary) account of citizenship that neglects the other forms of socially valuable contribution – such as care work, parenting and volunteering – that should feature within a more progressive and inclusive conceptualisation. While politicians repeatedly promise that the ‘most vulnerable’ will always be protected, this ignores the ways in which they are then treated as second class citizens, who – at best – can make claims on the state’s charity but who cannot be regarded as active and engaged citizens. Individuals in receipt of out-of-work benefits may not be in paid employment but they are often engaged and active as volunteers, service users and carers, forms of citizenship engagement that ought to be more explicitly recognised and valued by the state.

The idea of a welfare contract may have easy, popular appeal but its current operation in the UK context is exclusionary and deliberately misleading. It creates a simplistic depiction of claimants rights and responsibilities, and conceals the ways in which welfare reform is operating to undermine and reduce the social rights of citizenship. A rhetoric of citizenship inclusion masks processes of citizenship exclusion, and obscures the very real barriers that so often prevent claimants from seeking to assert their rights.

If citizenship’s inclusionary and emancipatory potential is to be reclaimed, we’d need to start by ripping up this putative welfare contract and beginning afresh. Only then could citizens effectively assert their rights and challenge failures of the state to uphold them, as occurred in the underpayment of millions of pounds of disability benefits to which claimants were entitled.

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