Conditional sense

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Making state provision conditional upon the individual taking responsibility is both right and practicable

‘If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?’ sang Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.

In some countries a divorce is not granted unless the ex-couple have been to divorce education classes and agreed a parenting plan setting out the time the children will spend with each parent and the associated arrangements.

To qualify for parole, lifers and fixed-term prisoners have to convince the Parole Board they are not at risk, once out. They must take courses based on cognitive behavioural therapy to tackle offending behaviour.

These are examples of ‘conditionality’. In this model of social change, anything from the state is tied to something being done by the recipient. You will get this if you do that. If you don’t do that, you won’t get this benefit. If you do this, designed to change your behaviour, you will avoid a penalty.

Governments of various politics have made welfare conditionality the norm in many countries. In December last year, John Hutton called for a ‘new contract of rights and responsibilities for the next decade’, a feature of British politics over the last 10 years, in order to address what he sees as a ‘can work – won’t work culture’ among some claimants. Hutton termed it a ‘something for something approach: offering increased support in return for an increased obligation for people to do what they can to engage in [appropriate support programmes]’.

The tying of benefits to some action by the individual in receipt has proved a dilemma for some liberal consciences. Benefits should be benefits. It is illiberal to force people to register for work, attend an interview, train, and actively seek a job.

But each of us spends much of our lives negotiating the conditions attached to our existence. There is nothing new about conditionality in the relationship between the citizen and the government. Usually it is about boundaries of behaviour and sanctions for control: if you go over 70mph then you will be fined and docked three points. Sometimes it is about criteria for acceptance; what is required in order to become a citizen; to build a house or to have a place at university.

Indeed, government goes further in its requirements of the citizen. Attendance at school for 11 years of a child’s life for around 40 weeks a year, for five days a week, for six hours a day is mandatory. So far as I am aware, every liberal-minded person supports this mass detention and denial of freedom for educative purposes in the name of the public and individual good.

So why all the fuss about welfare conditionality? The obvious answer goes back to its introduction when welfare was deliberately and explicitly universal and free at the point of delivery: the health service, unemployment benefits and pensions. The needs of individuals were clear and overwhelming. The issue was provision, not judging neediness nor the continuing motivation of the recipients. This was an age when the majority were disadvantaged. Means tests were opposed.

But times move on. The history of welfare benefits has been a diversification of role: benefits to those who need them most; benefits as a right; and now benefits as a lifestyle even. Where benefits alleviate hardship, few would argue with this role and with its value. But alleviation should be an intermediary objective. A lifetime of hardship (and its alleviation) is in neither the individual nor society’s interest. A complete solution incorporates elimination of the hardship (and of the benefit). Too often, welfare objectives focus on the immediate need to the exclusion of the longer-term cure, prevention or solution.

Unconditional benefits have produced poor results: in the life and work motivation of the individual; in the resentment of those footing the bill; and in legitimising and enabling social exclusion: providing those in the ‘sinks’ are not starving they can be left with no obligation on the rest of society to help them into the mainstream. Elsewhere, the absence of conditional responses to drug, drink, physical and sexual abuse and the reliance on the punishment ‘solution’ and on the criminal justice system for nearly all of the 20th century has maintained the cycles of abuse and condemned many to a lifetime of its consequences.

The issue then is not: conditionality, to be or not to be? Nor: can conditionality and a liberal conscience co-exist? They can and do, but not if the conscience has been sterilised with a wrapper of political correctness. The issue is making conditionality work.

The evidence that some of it works is strong, although in the UK long-term longitudinal studies are rare. Parenting orders have been available nationally since June 2000, following a pilot. The conviction rates of children fell from 89 per cent in the year prior to the programme to 61.5 per cent in the year after. The average offences per child fell from 4.4 to 2.1. People even got to like the classes. Of the 46 per cent of parents who were unhappy about being made to attend, only six per cent were dissatisfied by the end.

Here’s one individual story I heard. Carol’s son had been in trouble with the police for years. She couldn’t think of a way to stop him, and his behaviour was beginning to affect her younger children. Then a court ordered her to attend a compulsory parenting course at Relate, Peterborough.

‘It felt like a punishment to me. I was brought up in care and resented being told what to do. The first time I went was a bit nervy. But I tell you, I love these people – every one of them. Even the counsellor was fantastic. She was down to earth, not like “You’re a bad mother”. I learned how to speak to people, how to get people to listen to me. With children, you know how you say “You little…” Well, they’re not going to listen to that, they will just shut off, but if you start with “I”, they can’t help but listen. The skills we learnt should be on the school curriculum. Then we’d know! Why should I be so desperate to learn this? My son (now 15) was doing car crime, driving whilst disqualified. I had the police at my door almost every night for four years. Now he hasn’t been in trouble for four months, touch wood.’

Drug treatment and testing orders were introduced in England in October 2000 after pilots showed them to be more successful than probation orders or imprisonment. For every one pound spent on drug prevention three pounds is saved on criminal justice costs. The evaluation team found the average weekly spend on drugs fell from £400 in the month before the arrest to £25 in the first few weeks of the order.

The criminal justice system has long had forms of conditionality: conditional discharge, probation and parole. What about more positive conditionality: the period inside could be used to acquire and demonstrate the work skills needed for a permanent job (for which demand exists: Gridco does this now) and, preferably, to go further and acquire the emotional awareness and relationship skills to provide, at least, some family and community stability. Or parents and children get a supportive and effective divorce process in this country, based on an adult upfront discussion of the consequences of individuals’ actions.

As the new chair of Demos I am determined to have this vital if fraught discussion. I look forward to hosting a free-ranging session with policymakers and practitioners on conditionality. A thinktank should provoke, even unsettle, in pursuit of long-term solutions. There is no point generating more fudges or fixes. Perhaps thinktanks should be conditional on that?

Ed Straw is chair of Demos

01 Dec 2007 for Progress Magazine

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