The impact of welfare reform tracking study: sweep four report

Study was to explore the impact of ongoing welfare changes on a range of working age households in Scotland.

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  • Chapter 4 considers participants' trajectories over the course of the two and a half year study as a whole, and attempts to identify the factors that have ameliorated or exacerbated their experiences.
  • The experiences of the participants in this study suggest a gap between what the benefits system would consider 'fit to work', or to undertake work related activities, and the opportunities available in the labour market.
  • Those who have moved into work have found that the net impact of can be positive, but that health and caring responsibilities may pose challenges to sustaining employment.
  • Participants' ability to deal with the benefits system, and the adequacy of the amount they receive for meeting their needs, has been highly dependent on their individual situations. Often changes to the system and the need to apply for new types of benefits have caused considerable stress to participants.
  • Transitions were more difficult to cope with for those who are socially or geographically isolated.
  • A lack of stability and security has been a feature of participants' trajectories over the course of the study.

This chapter considers participants' trajectories over the course of the study, and attempts to identify the factors that have ameliorated or exacerbated their experiences.

The long-term impacts of welfare reform

Within the 37 participants for whom longitudinal data is available, three groups can be distinguished. [8] The first group (containing 13 participants) is comprised of those who are the most seriously ill or disabled, who considered that their conditions made it unlikely or impossible that they would ever work in the future. The second group (10 participants) comprises those with less severe or intermittent conditions, who felt that they could potentially work (either now or in the future), but who faced considerable barriers to sustained labour market attachment due to their health. The final group (12 participants) are those whose caring responsibilities inhibited or obviated their participation in the labour market.

Far from the labour market

This group are those with the most serious health conditions, who are the furthest from the labour market. Most were previously on Incapacity Benefit ( IB), and have been reassessed for ESA. This group experienced the least turbulence over the course of the study. However, that is not to say their experiences have been without problems.

Only in one case did a participant fail to receive any ESA, even after appeal, because they were deemed unable to prove that their pain and fatigue, which severely limited their day-to-day activities, existed. This highlights the potential difficulties with the WCA for those that consider themselves to suffer from an 'invisible' condition.

Some had managed to move from IB to ESA successfully on the first attempt, and in some cases without the need for a face-to-face assessment. However, none had done this without considerable help in preparing their applications, for example from organisations that specialise in helping those with their particular condition.

Others had initially failed to be awarded ESA, or had been placed in the WRAG, but had been placed in the Support Group after an appeal, in most cases by the time the sweep 1 interviews took place. Some had waited a considerable length of time for their appeal, only to have the decision reversed very quickly and easily once their case was finally dealt with.

By the time of the first interview, most of this group were already on ESA, and they have largely experienced little change since then, particularly as ESA reassessments were suspended for much of this time. Most were also still waiting to be reassessed for PIP by the time of the final interview. This group is the least able to generate income from employment, and is therefore most dependent on continued receipt of income replacement benefits. Any loss of entitlement could be particularly catastrophic for them.

Case study: From an ESA appeal to getting by OK

At the first interview, the participant had recently been placed in the ESA WRAG, but was awaiting an appeal that they hoped would put them in the Support Group. Although the person conducting their assessment had stated that they were unlikely to be able to work, the DWP decision maker had ultimately placed them in the WRAG. They were obliged to attend interviews at the Jobcentre, which caused them considerable distress. However, by the time of the sweep 2 interview, they had successfully appealed the decision, and had been placed in the Support Group. Although retaining some residual fear of reassessment, the participant's situation was largely stable after this point, and they felt that the amount they received was enough to meet their needs. They stressed the importance of the help they had received from an advocacy organisation in successfully appealing the decision, and also in claiming the backdated monies they were owed.

Closer to the labour market but with barriers

A second group of participants are those with health conditions that limit their ability to work, but who could work, or would like to. However, their needs and capabilities fluctuate in a way that the benefits system struggles to deal with.

This group have had a more turbulent experience. Their benefit income was far from secure, and there was considerable trepidation about what would happen at the next round of reassessments. Some had failed to qualify for ESA; others had been awarded it on appeal. Perhaps the most challenging experiences were those who moved between JSA and ESA and back again, because they struggled to show that they were ill enough for ESA or well enough for JSA.

Case study: Caught between ESA and JSA

The participant was assessed for ESA but it was not awarded, and an appeal was unsuccessful, so they were placed on JSA. When they attended their first meeting at the Jobcentre, their advisor said they were too ill to seek work. They reapplied for ESA and were eventually awarded it. At this point in time, the participant felt that they were not capable of work, as their mental health condition had a serious impact on their day to day functioning. However, once they were back on ESA, their mental health improved, to the point that they felt well enough to embark on a college course (at this point their ESA was stopped and they received a student bursary). By the final interview, they were still in college, and their partner, who had also suffered from mental health issues, had also improved and had moved into part-time work. Reflecting on the previous two years, the participant felt that the family had moved in a very positive direction. They stressed the central role of a third sector organisation that supports parents, both with their mental health issues and helping them move towards work.

Most of the participants in this group aspired to work, and some did so over the course of the study. However, the extent to which they were able to contemplate work depended on their health status, and even if they felt able to work in theory, their ability to do so in practice was hampered by a lack of employment opportunities that they could reconcile with their health issues. This was particularly problematic for those whose condition varied (most of the participants in this group), who had a fear of being unable to sustain work, or being an unreliable employee. None felt that the support available for them to move into work took account of the gap between their abilities on the one hand, and the opportunities available in the labour market and the expectations of employers on the other.

Care responsibilities as a barrier to labour market engagement

A third group can be distinguished, of those who are themselves able to work, but for whom this is balanced against caring responsibilities, for a child or disabled person.

Previous reports in this study have documented how lone parents have been particularly affected by intensified requirements to seek work, which have resulted in negative experiences with the Jobcentre, and feeling pushed to seek work whether they feel this is the best thing for their children or not (Graham et al. 2015; Graham et al. 2014; Lister et al., 2014). Most of the lone parent participants did manage to move into work, although this was not without some associated stress and guilt. Even in work, freezes to WTC and cuts to the assistance available for childcare have made it difficult for low income families to make ends meet.

Case study: From depression to anxiety

At the first interview, the participant, a lone parent, was receiving JSA and desperately seeking work; they felt depressed about not being in work, and found the job seeking requirements on JSA stressful and sometimes unreasonable. By sweep 2, they had moved into work, although the position was for more hours than they had wanted to work, and was a temporary role. Their job was eventually made permanent, and issues around working hours eased as their child got older. Moving into work had made the family slightly better off, and the participant was delighted to be in work and felt less depressed. However, the challenges of juggling work and domestic responsibilities made them anxious, and they worried that their anxiety was making their child anxious as well. They felt that they struggled to cope sometimes:

"My self-esteem is a lot better, but sometimes I do still feel quite worthless. I'm trying to make an effort but it's an uphill struggle sometimes, and it's tiring."

Participants who are full-time carers have borne much of the stress of the impact of welfare reform on the people they care for. They have assumed the practical and emotional burden of benefit changes on behalf of those who are unable to cope with these things themselves, often at the expense of their own health, other relationships, and labour market and other ambitions. Thus, although there have been no changes to Carer's Allowance, they have been affected by changes such as the reassessment of IB claimants, and await the move to PIP with possibly as much trepidation as DLA recipients. One thing that is notable from their experiences over the study is the way in which they may have been affected several times over, either by a number of different changes, or because they care for more than one person.

Case study: It never stops

At the first interview the participant, who cares full-time for their partner, had recently gone through some difficulty in obtaining a DHP to mitigate their bedroom tax liability. Over the course of the study their partner was reassessed for moving from IB to ESA. By the final interview the participant was still awaiting news about their partner's reassessment for PIP, which was a source of stress for them. The participant was struggling to make ends meet due to the high costs imposed by their partner's condition, and the prospect of losing entitlement in the transition to PIP was frightening. The participant's own health deteriorated during this time, and they were temporarily hospitalised:

"It's been a constant battle with no stability whatsoever; it's just lurching from one crisis to another… And with the health issues on top of that and PIP looming, they've continually moved the goalposts which is no help at all; it's just made it worse."

Barriers and enablers to managing change

Looking across these trajectories, it is perhaps possible to distinguish some factors associated with how successfully participants managed change. This section considers what made it harder for participants to cope, or helped them to do so.

Individual needs

The impact of welfare reform depends very much on the context of an individual's life. For example, a person's ability to navigate the benefits system depends on their health at that point in time. Health is the primary focus and determinant of well-being, and can pose an absolute barrier to tackling the complexity of the benefits system.

The financial impact of change, and the ability to manage financially on benefit income, was also highly dependent on the presence or absence of other costs in their lives. In some cases, participants found they had enough income to meet their needs comfortably. In other cases, participants found this income fell short due to additional costs: these included transport to medical appointments, housing costs, childcare costs, the expenses associated with children attending school, debt repayments, and household emergencies.

Some felt that the system should do better at recognising individual needs. This was particularly true of those with mental health conditions, many of whom felt that the benefits system did not take into account the way their condition affected their life. This sentiment was also felt particularly strongly among those who had lost entitlement to free school meals because their income was too high or their child became too old. They stressed that there may still be a need for these things among people who do not quite fit the criteria.

"These things, the limits of that could be a bit more negotiable, because everybody's an individual. I'm missing out on these things that are beneficial to me, by £20, which is nothing if you look at that over a year. So these things, I think they're a bit die hard, I realise there have to be rules, but there has got to be some kind of give and take somewhere."


A key factor in managing change is loneliness and isolation. The experiences of those with partners, good networks, and access to transport were generally easier than those who were isolated socially and/or geographically. It is difficult to understate the importance of practical and moral support in navigating the benefits system.

"I would be massively panicking and be even more stuffed if I didn't have [third sector organisation]."

"Massively important. If it wasn't for [third sector organisation] I don't know if I'd be here today."

The presence of support and advice for those applying for benefits was considered crucial by most participants. One participant argued that there should be a requirement upon those administering benefits to fund independent advice for everyone who requires it. Several flagged the issue of better advertising of entitlements, and the need for a centralised, 'one-stop-shop' to check entitlements.

A lack of financial security

For those on tight budgets, there was support for being able to alter particular aspects of UC, such as being able to increase the payment frequency, split the payment between adults in the household, and pay rent directly to landlords. One participant commented that getting weekly tax credits alongside their monthly salary really helped them to budget. Others felt that a single monthly payment of all benefit income to one person was not necessarily beneficial:

"I'd probably end up in rent arrears, so it is a bit scary… the DWP say oh we just want to give people responsibility, but when you're struggling and you get your rent money in your account, people are going to spend that, the temptation is there to spend it."

"Two years ago I wouldn't have seen a lot of that money, and we'd have been in an even worse pickle. And I think that's something they've not considered that there can be situations where for reasons of mental health or choice or whatever, it is not safe, particularly when there's kids, to give all the money in a single payment to one person, who may just choose to go out and spend it. And I think they need to consider that."

Several participants mentioned that they wanted to see more social housing. They were keen to move, as this would be of considerable help financially, perhaps even obviating the need for benefits altogether, but they had been unable to get a social housing property.

"It's just the fear factor, that everyone seems to have, the stress of that certainly doesn't help people medically, it's a huge concern."

"Consistency. Not having the fear that it could be taken away, not consistently worrying about that."

"It's exhausting. You cannot relax for a minute. Every decision has to be weighed up, is it more important to buy toothpaste or toilet roll this week, which one can I do without? There's no downtime… And I think that's something they don't allow for; you don't actually have the breathing space to change things, because your thought processes are taken up with simple survival… And then when you add mental health issues into that, it becomes incredibly difficult."

In essence, what participants were looking for was some element of stability and consistency; to not be constantly subject to assessments and reassessment, and to not constantly feel that their income is about to be taken from them. There was also a strong feeling that the system lacked compassion, made assumptions about the negative motives of claimants and denied them the benefit of the doubt. Participants simply wanted to be treated humanely, by a system that makes some allowance for the battles people are facing; whether this is living with a health condition or disability, or trying to meet a family's needs on a very low income.


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