Benefits sanctions don’t help people get into work – we found housing providers who show that proper support does

Good job. Shutterstock.

There’s mounting evidence to show that punitive benefits sanctions – which reduce or cut a person’s benefits when they don’t meet certain requirements – are less effective at getting claimants into work than giving them personal support.

The United Nations has issued a damning report on poverty in the UK, compiled by Professor Philip Alston, who compared government welfare policies to the creation of Victorian workhouses. The government itself has also announced that it will remove the “counter-productive” three-year benefit sanction, which is applied when someone has made three or more “serious” breaches of work-related requirements – such as failing to apply for, accept or undertake work.

Now, our new research adds to the growing evidence in favour of providing support, over sanctions. We evaluated the support offered by the staff of social housing providers for tenants who were looking for jobs, and found that it had a significant positive impact, not just for those receiving it, but also for the housing associations themselves.

Tailored to fit

Social housing providers in the UK have a long history of delivering support to their residents, beyond housing, that includes helping people get into work. And as growing numbers of people are expected to be increasing their efforts to find work – particularly with the roll out of Universal Credit – such support can make a real difference to people’s lives.

For our research, commissioned by Give Us A Chance (a consortium of social landlords), we used focus groups to gather views from 31 housing association staff, 16 representatives from Jobcentre Plus, community and voluntary sector organisations and 26 tenants who were receiving support to find work.

Previous research has shown that housing associations make a significant investment in employment-related support: recent estimates suggest £70m a year is spent across the sector.

A friendly face. Shutterstock.

The extent and nature of this support is varied, but our respondents commonly described it as being personalised and flexible. In many instances, the support involved housing association staff working intensively with individual tenants to understand their needs and capabilities, and then tailoring support to suit that individual. As one tenant stated:

He sat down with me and actually spoke to me as a person and actually asked me what I would want to do or what I’d like to do or what help I could do with … he was able to put it all together to point me in a direction which no one else has been able to do.

Housing association staff were also considered to be much more agile and responsive, compared with government services. One participant told us how they started training for a food and hygiene certification within a week of meeting with housing association staff. The participant said:

I could be on at a Jobcentre for near enough six months before I got anything from them, and with the [housing association, it’s] straightaway.

Both housing staff and representatives from other local organisations agreed that housing associations played an important role in supporting tenants to find work. They rejected a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and instead were able to offer tenants a choice about which services they used.

Tenants could voluntarily take up a range of different support, including help with job searching, and CV and application writing. They were also offered financial support to cover the costs of appropriate clothing and transport, which enabled them to attend job interviews.

It was also argued by wider stakeholders from the voluntary and community sector that housing associations were well placed to offer valuable support, due to their existing and enduring relationships with their tenants.

They have those relationships with the customers because they’re in their houses. They are seen as someone they know.

Support, not sanctions

Tenants who took up the employment support offered by their housing providers sometimes described it as “life changing”. One participant said it had made them “feel human”. Those who were in work strongly believed that they could not have got there without the help of their housing provider. As one participant stated:

Without these things that are being run, you know, I don’t think I’d have ever got back into work because there’s … nothing there from the Jobcentre.

Tenants stressed how important it was that housing association staff are willing to dedicate time to build relationships and sustain support in the long term. Although participants varied in terms of their distance from the labour market, capabilities and their barriers to work, all had voluntarily taken up the offer of employment support from their housing association.

This adds to the growing evidence that mandatory activity – under threat of sanction – is ineffective, and there’s a clear need (and demand) for appropriate, personalised support in its place. It also shows that housing providers can offer tenants so much more than shelter – their ongoing support can help people materially improve their lives.