'Personalised conditionality': observations on active proletarianisation in late modern Britain.

Author:Grover, Chris


This paper is concerned with the idea of 'personalised conditionality', part of social security policy that it has been argued seeks to ensure that what is demanded of workless working-age claimants in attempting to secure paid employment takes account of their individual situation--an approach in benefit policy that does not treat claimants according to 'the benefit that they were on or the group they are in' (Gregg, 2008: 84), but is 'tailored to the individual and meet[ing] their circumstances and needs' (2008:13). The paper focuses on this issue by examining the idea of 'personalised conditionality' in the work of its main architect, Gregg (2008), and the even more recent thoughts of the Coalition government on the need for a personalised regime of conditionality, which is reflected in the pathways through its flagship policy, the Work Programme (itself a development of the previous Labour government's Flexible New Deal). For the Coalition government, the Work Programme 'represents a step change for Welfare to Work ... creating a structure that treats people as individuals and allows providers greater freedom to tailor the right support to the individual needs of each customer' (Department for Work and Pensions, 2012).

There is a growing body of literature focusing upon work-related conditionality. The work of Griggs and Evans (2010) points to both the impact and contextual studies of it. In the case of the former, studies have examined the effects of conditionality on labour markets and participation in them (for example, Lee et al., 2004; Peck, 2007; Wu, 2008) and the effects of sanctions upon child welfare (for instance, Paxson and Waldfogel, 2003). In the case of contextual studies, research has focused on subjects that include claimant knowledge and awareness of sanctions (for example, Dorsett, 2008; Goodwin, 2008; Joyce and Whiting, 2006; Legard et al., 1998; Peters and Joyce, 2006; Smith, 1998) and administrative issues in sanctioning, including studies of the characteristics of those who are subjected to it (Cheng, 2009; Fein and Lee, 1999; Kalil et al.; 2002, Meyers et al.; 2006, Pavetti et al.; 2003, Schram et al., 2009). In addition, there is a body of literature (for example, Deacon, 2004; Dwyer, 2004; Fitzpatrick, 2005) that examines the philosophical basis for mandating claimants to do certain things in return for state-sponsored benefits and services.

This literature is important in understanding conditionality because it points to the individual and socio-economic impacts of it, as well as more abstracted issues that attempt to understand justifications of why access to social welfare benefits might be accompanied by demands made of their recipients. However, the literature is limited because although much of it is or could be related to the strategic concerns and needs of capitalism--for instance, the constitution of low-wage, casualised labour markets and workers--it is not conceptualised in such a way. In contrast, any problems with conditionality are conceptualised as being of an administrative and technical nature that with some tweaking can be rectified. Such an approach, however, is flawed, because no matter how much 'tweaking' of this kind is done, the economic imperatives, framed by the needs of capital, are never questioned. In contrast, in this paper we focus upon the most recent explication--'personalised conditionality'--of conditionality as a means of the active proletarianisation (Offe, 1984).

Active proletarianisation: a historical legacy of disciplining workless people

Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis ... It is dearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social organisation. (Marx, 1974: 166)

These observations of Marx led Novak (1988: 29) to conclude that there is 'nothing "natural" or inevitable about wage labour, although much effort has gone into making it appear as such'. In this context, we can point to a raft of social institutions, from education to religion and from trade unions to the representatives of capital, that are engaged in processes of making wage labour appear 'natural' (cf. Peck, 1996). Our focus, however, is upon a specific set of institutional processes--those related to the state's provision of social security benefits--designed to ensure that individuals sell their labour power to fund their and, if they have one, their family's, social reproduction.

The work of Offe (1984) is particularly useful in understanding such processes. Offe (1984: 92) notes:

The process of capitalist industrialization is accompanied ... by the disorganization and mobilization of labour power. The spread of relations of competition to national and then world markets, the continued introduction of labour-saving technical changes, the undermining of agrarian labour and forms of life, the impact of cyclical crises; these and other factors effectively destroy, to a greater or lesser extent, the hitherto prevailing conditions of the utilization of labour power. The individuals affected by such events find that their own labour capacities--whose conditions of utilization they control neither collectively nor individually--can no longer serve as the basis of their subsistence. The events in many Western capitalist economies since 2007 demonstrate the pertinence of Offe's observations, for it is clear that such economic crises can have a long-term impact upon the ability of individuals to sell their labour power. Such processes--what Offe describes as 'passive proletarianisation'--are a central and continuous feature (from micro to macro level crises) of capitalism. However, it is the potential reaction to such crises that Offe highlights as creating tensions, for he observes that those people unable to sell their labour power because of such processes do not 'automatically hit upon the solution to their problems by alienating their labour power to a third party in exchange for money. Individuals do not automatically enter the supply side of the labour market' (1984). It is this process--the offering of the sale of labour power--that Offe describes as 'active proletarianisation', and it is a process to which the state is central: 'We propose the thesis that the wholesale and complete transformation of dispossessed labour power into active wage-labour was not and is not possible without state policies' (1984: 93, original emphasis). This is because, rather than being the obvious solution to the subsistence problems of workless people, there is:

a range of functionally equivalent 'escape routes' from passive proletarianization ... migration in order to re-establish a now-destroyed independent existence elsewhere; the securing of subsistence through more or less organised forms of plunder; the flight to alternative economic and life-forms ...; the reduction of the level of subsistence to the point that begging and private charity suffice for survival; the extension of the phase prior to entry into the labour market, so that there is a stretching of the phase of adolescence, either within the family system or, more often, through the institutions of the formal educational system; offensive efforts to root out the causes of passive proletarianisation ..., or the development of political movements ... whose goal is the liquidation of the commodity form of labour power itself (1984: 93). Offe is right to point both to the fact that there is nothing inevitable about active proletarianisation, and to the state's role in encouraging it. Workless people sell their labour power because they have to, in a process that has been framed by various approaches at different points in history: for example, in the branding, flogging, whipping and even killing of vagabonds in the 16th century (Beier, 1985); the 'bridewells' (houses of correction) that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries as sites of 'punishment and reformation' for those 'guilty of no more than petty delinquencies considered to be especially characteristic of the poor: "idle and disorderly" behaviour of various kinds' (Innes, 1987: 42); the deliberately degrading and stigmatising workhouse and labour tests of the New Poor Law (for example, Quigley, 1996); instructional and training centres (or 'slave camps' and 'concentration camps' as they were described by some) designed in the 1930s to (re)introduce men to the alleged moral benefits of paid work (Hannington, 1937; King, 1999); and administrative devices that include the 'genuinely seeking work test' of the 1920s (Deacon, 1976), the Wage Stop of the post-Second World War period (Elkes, 1974), and the more recent introduction of the Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and the various New Deals (Jones and Novak, 1999).

The means by which 'non-wage-labourers are transformed into wage-labourers' (Offe, 1984: 92) has changed. The body of the workless poor is no longer marked as it was in previous years, and such people are no longer incarcerated just for their worklessness. (1) Nevertheless, they are still subjected to policies that are designed to do the same thing: to ensure that people sell their labour power, rather than finding other ways of securing their subsistence. The latest incarnation of such concerns, and one on which, broadly speaking, the main political parties in Britain agree, is 'personalised conditionality': a means through which in the future, greater pressure will be placed on greater numbers of workless people to make their labour available to capital.

'Personalising' conditionality

The concept of 'personalisation' is one that in recent years has become visible across a range of social policy areas and interventions that include adult social care, education and health (see, for example, Cutler et al., 2007; Glasby and Littlechild, 2007; Leadbetter, 2004; Pearson, 2006). Ferguson (2007, drawing upon Williams, 1975) argues that 'personalisation', like 'community', is a 'warmly persuasive word' that, first, is 'capable of incorporating multiple meanings' (p. 388) and, second, that is 'overwhelmingly positive and [is] ... therefore very hard to be "against"'. In many senses, the two are linked. It is difficult, for example, to oppose those versions of personalisation that are held out as being positive for service users and, given the political nature of social policy making, even if the version being advocated is not particularly positive for service users, particularly those held to be the most 'undeserving', they may be supported by important political constituents.

Cribb and Owens (2010) observe that conceptually, personalisation encompasses a plurality of models that range from a version concerned with allowing people to identify their basic needs through to one that allows an individual to choose the life he or she wishes to lead. Similarly, Cutler et al. (2007) point to a 'personalization spectrum' that in the pronouncements of the 'new' Labour government ministers meant at the 'one end ... the tailoring of services to meet individual needs and wants ... At the other end it can imply joint involvement of both user and provider in the development and implementation of the services ... what has been termed "co-production"' (Minister of State [Health], Minister of State, Local and Regional Government and Minister of State for School Standards [2005], cited in Cutler et al., 2007: 849).

In our case, focusing upon work-related conditionality in social security policy, it would appear that the main way in which 'personalisation' is used is in regard to the tailoring of services to individual circumstances. In many senses, this is a reflection of economic shifts. As David Miliband (then a minister at the Department for Education and Skills) noted in a speech in 2004, 'products previously produced for a mass market' are 'now ... tuned to personal need' and 'that revolution in business ... has found its way into social norms ... its manifestation in public services in the demand for high standards suited to individual need' (cited in Culter et al., 2007: 848). It would be difficult to ask for a better summation and acceptance of the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism in the framing of welfare services (for example, Burrows and Loader, 1994). And we see such a shift in relation to work-related conditionality in social security policy in the report Realising Potential (Gregg, 2008), commissioned by the last of the 1997-2010 Labour governments.

Realising Potential ...

The origins of the alleged need to personalise conditionality can be found in the somewhat arrogant claims made by 1997-2010 Labour governments that they had dealt with economic 'boom and bust' and that alongside this, they had essentially tackled particularly youth unemployment as a economic and social problem (Blair, 2006; Brown in House of Commons Debates, 2006, col. 288, and House of Commons Debates, 2007, col. 816). A belief in almost constant growth and a need to reconstruct the reserve army of labour to avoid wage inflation led Labour governments to cast their net wider in terms of those people who could be actively proletarianised. Hence it is noted in Realising Potential that the government built upon former investment banker (now Conservative minister for welfare reform) David Freud's (2007) review of 'welfare-to-work' policies and the 2008 Green Paper, No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2008a). The Green Paper, amongst other things, focused on the desire to increase the employment rate in Britain to 80 per cent. Despite making a start on this by, for instance, transferring lone mothers from income support to jobseeker's allowance (JSA) and replacing incapacity benefit with the employment and support allowance (ESA), an alleged lack of clarity in the rules governing the application of conditionality led the then Labour government to ask Paul Gregg, a professor of economics at the University of Bristol, 'to assess the effectiveness of current [conditionality] policy and propose future reforms' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2008b: 13).

In Gregg's (2008: 22) report, Realising Potential: A Vision for Personalised Conditionality, it was argued that conditionality is central to social security policy because its 'over-arching objective ... is to influence the behaviour of as many working age benefit recipients as possible in order to move them into work, avoid long-term benefit receipt and protect the taxpayer'. This is instructive because it demonstrates where the architects of 'personalised conditionality' see the 'problem' in terms of worklessness. It is a problem related to the behaviour and/or character of workless people; that, for whatever reason, individuals choose to withhold their labour power from capital. This cannot be tolerated because, as the work of Offe (1984) tells us, all those who are deemed capable enough should sell their labour power to whoever wants it, and those not willing to do so must be taught that their role is to labour for the profit of others. In this sense, Realising Potential arguably reflected and helped to constitute the changing role of social policy in late modern society: from being concerned with social right to prioritising productivist concerns (Jessop, 2002). Hence, it was well understood in Realising Potential that welfare conditionality is not concerned with establishing the 'needs' of workless people or determining their entitlement, but that its 'primary purpose ... is ... to change behaviour' (Deacon, 2004:912).

Realising Potential justifies conditionality through three approaches that are conjoined by the focus of getting people into paid work at the earliest opportunity. First is an economic argument related to managing the size of the reserve army of labour and its closeness to labour markets (c.f. Grover, 2003). Hence, it was argued in Realising Potential (Gregg, 2008: 22) that conditionality 'directly or indirectly increases movements into work' (2008: 22). Second, a paternalistic argument suggested that conditionality is good for workless people--that it will help 'include' them--because 'imposing requirements on individuals will shape behaviours and mean they acquire new skills and habits that will improve both their own and their family's life chances' (Gregg, 2008: 23). Such requirements will also allow the government 'to support people to act more consistently with their own aspirations' (2008: 23).

In addition to economic and paternal arguments, Realising Potential conceptualises 'personalised conditionality' in contractual terms. It notes, for example, that to 'some degree entitlement has always been expressed as a social contract between the state and the individual' (2008: 21), a contract that is focused upon obliging workless people receiving 'state payments ... to get into work as soon as possible' (2008: 22). In this context, Realising Potential was consistent with the contractualist basis of many of the social policy developments in Britain under Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 (for example, Deacon, 2004). Indeed, the mantra of 'rights and responsibilities' was an expression of it par excellence, for it clearly encapsulated the expectation that in order to receive state-organised benefits and services, individuals had to fulfil any responsibilities demanded of them by the state (Dwyer, 2004).

The contractualist framework of Realising Potential meant that in return for increasing investment in 'personalised support' to help them prepare for and secure paid work, working-age claimants should be required to fulfil demands made of them in order to take advantage of that investment. In this context, it was argued in Realising Potential that effective systems of 'support' (for example, the JSA regime and the various New Deals) has been developed in Britain in the previous two decades, and that in the future they would have to be matched by 'personalised conditionality'. Hence, while the 'support' on offer to individuals was to continue to be 'personalised', conditionality was to catch up with it by ensuring that what was asked 'of individuals in return for their benefits is challenging but effective and appropriate, and tailored to their personal circumstances' (Gregg, 2008: 7).

In order to 'personalise conditionality', Realising Potential argued that in the future there should be three identifiable groups--a 'work ready' group, a 'progression to work' group, and a 'no conditionality' group--into which all working-age claimants would be placed, a recommendation accepted by the then Labour government (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2008b). Given the title of the final group, it was clear that conditionality was to be central to the defining of these groups. The 'work ready group' would be governed by a conditionality regime 'akin to the current Jobseeker's Allowance regime' (Gregg, 2008: 8) and would include all able-bodied workless people (except lone parents with children under the age of seven). The 'progression to work group' would include those claimants who were not job-ready because of sickness and/or disability (those people in the ESA's work-related activity group), or because of their caring responsibilities in the case of lone parents and the partners of workless people with children under the age of seven. The members of the 'no conditionality' group would not be expected to engage with work-related activity. This would be the smallest group, including those receiving the support element of the ESA, certain carers, and lone parents and partners of workless people with very young children (under the age of one).

... and 21st-century welfare

Some 18 months after the government's acceptance of the idea of 'personalised conditionality', the inconclusive results of the 2010 General Election led to the formation of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in Britain. In order to reduce public spending, the coalition government had, at the time of writing (eight months after its formation), made or proposed significant changes to social security policy that proved to be controversial. They upset those on the left who are concerned with the erosion of the value of benefits and changes in their governance that will undoubtedly impoverish people in the future (c.f. Browne and Levell, 2010), while those on the Right--somewhat surprisingly given the preference of the Right for selectivity--have been particularly exercised by a more targeted approach to focusing Child Benefit and means-tested benefits (such as Child Tax Credit) on the poorest households. However, while these developments are part of the coalition government's desire to reduce public spending by 81 billion [pounds sterling] per annum by 2014/15 (the total benefit savings are estimated to be 18 billion [pounds sterling] per annum by then--Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2010a, 2010b), it is also the case that the coalition government has announced more wide-ranging and in some senses fundamental changes to social security policy. These announcements, including the introduction of a single benefit--the 'universal credit'--for working-age people, are being driven (although with some Treasury resistance) by the newly appointed secretary of state for social security, Iain Duncan Smith. He is drawing upon the work of the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank that he set up in 2004 to 'seek effective solutions to poverty that blight[s] parts of Britain' (Centre for Social Justice, 2012. See, for example, Social Justice Policy Group, 2006a, 2006b, Economic Dependency Working Group, 2009).

Despite the announced changes being construed as forward looking 'reforms', many of the concerns, for example, with curtailing expenditure, financial work incentives and 'dependency', that informed them are part of the institutional fabric of social security policy. Hence, while there may be differences in the detail of policies between the 1997-2010 Labour governments and the current coalition government, there is also a great deal of continuity. Indeed, the concept of 'personalised conditionality' has survived the change of government and has been linked to the introduction of the universal credit as the mainstay of 'a benefits system for the 21st century' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010a: 2) that will be framed by 'a more tailored, personalised system in which the conditionality regime for people within certain groups could be extended' (2010a: 31). For the coalition government, this means:

In setting conditionality, advisers will ensure that the requirements they place on a recipient are reasonable for that person, taking into account their particular capabilities and circumstances. In line with this personalised approach, we will continue to give advisers the flexibility to target stronger conditionality on some jobseekers where they think this is necessary to help move them into work. (2010a) For the coalition government, 'personalised conditionality' is concerned with ensuring that Jobcentre Plus advisers have powers to ensure that the conditionality imposed upon workless benefit claimants reflects their 'capabilities and circumstances'. However, this is only in the context of the possibility of extending conditionality for particular claimants: to make it 'stronger'. This seems to be at odds with the idea of a 'personalised' system of conditionality because the implication is that in the drive to get workless people to sell their labour power, the conditionality regime will not particularly be tailored to the 'capabilities and circumstances' of individual claimants because it is assumed that conditionality will only ever need to be made tougher. This does not bode well for those people who, for whatever reason, are unable to meet the conditionality requirements imposed upon them, for they will not be able to have the requirements made of them reduced.

That said, there is political agreement in principle about the necessity for 'personalised conditionality', even though the detail may differ. We have seen, for instance, that in Realising Potential it was suggested, and accepted by the then Labour government, that there should be three groups of claimants facing various levels of conditionality. The coalition government proposes four such groups: an 'active job search' group (made up of those people receiving JSA), a 'work preparation group' (those people in the ESA's work-related activity group), a 'keeping in touch group' (lone parents and lead carers in couples with a child aged over one, but below the age of five), and a 'no conditionality group' (those people in the ESA's support group and lone parents and lead carers in couples with a child aged under the age of one) (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b). These groups are essentially a variation on Realising Potential's groupings (for instance, a dividing of its 'progression to work group' into a 'work preparation' and 'keeping in touch' group) and they will face different levels of conditionality that are similar to those outlined in Realising Potential, ranging from an expectation that claimants are available for and actively seeking work in the 'active job search' group, to no conditionality for those with the most acute caring responsibilities and disabled people in the ESA's support group. Furthermore, while the sanctions to be applied to those people adjudged not to be fulfilling their conditionality responsibilities are to be tougher under the coalition government proposals, the general approach--that they should be escalated for 'repeat offences' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b: 28)--is similar to that in Realising Potential.

In addition, the coalition government's approach to conditionality also demonstrates continuity with that of the previous Labour government and Realising Potential in that its support for it is also framed by contractualist concerns. So, for example, the coalition government argues that 'personalised conditionality' is part of a 'new contract with the British people', a contract that 'is about a responsible society working together to improve the quality of life for those who are worst off' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010a: 1).

For the coalition government, 'personalised conditionality' will be introduced through the Work Programme, a single 'welfare-to-work' scheme that will, it is held by the government, 'support' all workless people to access work through a more flexible, cost effective and inclusive approach compared to previous such schemes. Reflecting the idea that different claimant groups face various issues in trying to access paid work, conscripts to it will face interventions at different points in their worklessness that range from three months for those JSA claimants, for example, adjudged to have 'significant barriers' to paid employment, to twelve months, for instance, for JSA claimants aged 25 and over (Department for Work and Pensions, 2010). In the months before being conscripted to the Work Programme, claimants will have to engage with Jobcentre Plus, which 'will help people to volunteer, do work experience or take advantage of peer-to-peer support, before they enter the Work Programme' (2010: para. 21). Those people judged not to be fulfilling their responsibilities under these arrangements face benefit sanctions (the withdrawal of, or reduction in, benefit) of up to three years.

'Personalised conditionality' and active proletarianisation

'Personalised conditionality' has been placed at the centre of social security policy in a way that suggests that it, like personalisation more generally, is 'warmly persuasive': that it is a benign policy that is good for individuals, for their families and for wider society. However, where applied to conditionality framing the receipt of social security benefits, there is nothing 'warmly persuasive' about personalisation, for it is employed as a means of helping to reproduce the social relations of capitalism. In this section we examine how this is the case and look at the problems associated with the use of personalisation in this manner.

Active proletarianisation, contractualism and dilemmas of 'personalised conditionality'

We have seen that contractualism is central to the development of 'personalised conditionaility'. It is worth considering the implications of contractualism for the 'transformation of dispossessed labour power into active wage-labour' (Offe, 1984: 93, emphasis in original), for while it is an appealing idea, it is at least in its policy interpretation, imbued with tensions for social welfare policy in capitalist societies. Offe (1984) was one of a number of Marxist and neo-Marxist analysts writing in the 1970s and early 1980s (see also Ginsburg, 1979; Gough, 1979, for discussion; Jessop, 1999; Klein, 1993) who suggested that the two main roles--the legitimation of capitalism and the reproduction of an environment in which it can remain profitable--of social welfare policies were in tension. In the words of Offe (1984: 153), 'capitalism cannot coexist with, neither can it coexist without, the welfare state'. While such observations have been criticised because they represented an analysis of relationships between capitalism and social welfare policy at a particular historical juncture (Jessop, 1999), it is nonetheless the case that such policies, and social security policy in particular, create a number of tensions for capitalism, including, and most importantly for our purposes, tensions related to active proletarianisation. So, for instance, sections of both the left and the right have argued in recent years that merely having a social security system for working-age people creates disincentives that act against people taking paid employment. However, not to have such a system of poor relief would heighten the potential for social unrest. Similarly, any development in social security policies, such as those related to 'personalised conditionality', are likely to expose tensions and dilemmas that have potentially damaging economic and social impacts. We examine such concerns by focusing upon the basis of 'personalised conditionality' in contractualist ideas regarding relationships between the individual and the state.

There are two main problems with the idea of contractualism informing the development of social welfare policies. Both relate to unequal power relations framing the contract, and both highlight dilemmas that contractualism creates in capitalist societies. First, what is often overlooked in its political and policy interpretation is that the proponents of contractualist approaches to social policy argue that if the recipients of welfare benefits and services are expected to act in particular ways, then the state also has commitments to them (its part of the 'contract'). White (2003), for instance, argues that governments must satisfy 'core commitments' which 'include the elimination of "brute luck" poverty, adequate protection against market vulnerability, the reduction of inequalities and protection against discrimination' (Deacon, 2004: 915). Given the levels of economic and social inequalities, the inadequacy of social security benefits and lessening social mobility (for example, Blanden et al., 2005; Hirsch et al., 2009), it is possible to argue that recent governments in Britain have failed in relation to most of these. And, given recent announcements outlining cuts in public expenditure (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2010a, 2010b), and notwithstanding a desire to address child poverty as an indicator of 'broken Britain' (Dwyer, 2010), it is likely that such phenomenon will worsen in the future (see, for example, Brewer and Joyce, 2010 on poverty). The implication is that recent governments in Britain have not fulfilled their side of the contract and hence, at a philosophical level at least, it is the case that the state is not in a position to demand more of those people receiving state benefits.

However, for the state the problem with policies that might eliminate 'brute luck' poverty and provide 'adequate protection against market vulnerability' is that they might also act to encourage or exacerbate passive proletarianisation: to decommodify labour. Hence, the state's concern that economic and social 'less eligibility' continues to inform social security policies (Grover, 2010). The fact that income poor people must be forced to labour under capitalism arguably discourages the state from fulfilling its side of the contract. Nevertheless, individuals are to be held to account for their worklessness through 'personalised conditionality' as part of an unfulfilled contract on the part of the state.

Second, and related, as the development of 'personalised conditionality' demonstrates, the state can change its side of the 'contract' when and in ways it wants to. It can increase the responsibilities that claimants face in order to access rights without expanding those rights; or it can reduce the rights that claimants have without commensurate reductions in the responsibilities they face; or it can extend the rights of individuals, but in ways that are felt to be exclusionary by those who have to fulfil the conditions attached to them (c.f. Young, 2002). In other words, the 'welfare contract' is not equally balanced in terms of power. The state has the power to rewrite it unilaterally, while claimants have little choice but to fulfil their side of it if they need to access state organised benefits and services (Dwyer, 2004). In the case of 'personalised conditionality', the 'reform' it represents will do this by strengthening the criteria for the receipt of out-of-work benefits and applying them to a greater number of people. We have seen, for example, that 'personalised conditionality' is to be premised upon tougher conditionality applied in an escalating format to those deemed not to be taking enough responsibility for (re)entering paid work and that only those with the most acute disability or caring responsibilities will be free from demands to make at least some effort to secure paid work.

While I have argued that this represents a repositioning of active proletarianisation in late modern society, the development of 'personalised conditionality' should not simply be seen as functional for capitalism. Such policy developments are not simply an objective reaction to economic dilemmas. As recent and longer-term history tells us, they are often hedged with uncertainties and often there is a trial and error element (Peck, 2010) where the state attempts to find its metaphorical 'feet' in relation to a particular policy. It is also the case that toughening the benefits regime as 'personalised conditionality' aims to do may have consequences that, eventually, will require further intervention. So, for instance, toughening conditionality requirements may discourage people from claiming benefits when they are workless. This, of course, may be problematic for the individuals concerned, but equally as problematic from the state's view, is that it will defeat the role of 'personalised conditionality' in active proletarianisation. This is because if workless people do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled, the state has less potential for intervening in their lives to ensure they are preparing for and actively seeking work. Moreover, because it essentially blames worklessness on the individual the tougher and more personalised conditionality becomes the more likely it is to undermine active proletarianisation by making other forms of subsistence more economically and, perhaps, socially attractive (Grover, 2008). In other words, tougher, 'personalised conditionality' may deter the active proletarianisation that is held to be required for longer-term economic stability.

In addition, 'personalised conditionality' may force people to leave out-of-work benefits for the first available job that for a range of reasons they may not be suitable for. There are also economic dangers here. For instance, a potential drag on productivity; a longer-term cost to the state through either 'churning' workers between periods of worklessness and poorly paid work (see, for example, Kemp and Davidson, 2010) or a longer-term effect on earning potential. Arni et al. (2009), for instance, found that while benefit-sanctioning policies did encourage people to leave unemployment benefits, they also encouraged them to enter less well paid and less secure employment. Hence, Arni et al. (2009: 33) concluded that the 'net effect of benefit sanctions is negative'. Essentially, what they were demonstrating was the operation of active proletarianisation at entry level where the working class is constituted, at least in part, through state interventions through pressure to take any available work.

Criminalising workless people: 'personalised conditionality' and active proletarianisation

As I have hinted, in Britain there is a long history of workless people being treated in a manner akin to those who have transgressed the law: the institutionalisation of workless people and the marking of their bodies and, even with the decarceration of worklessness, the demarcation of workless people, particularly the able-bodied, as being 'undeserving', and hence justifiably poorly treated, if they required support from the state. In the case of 'personalised conditionality', the stigmatisation of worklessness and the equating of it with criminality has continued. This is most visible in the discourses that framed its development.

First, Realising Potential (Gregg, 2008) conceptualises non-compliance with conditionality as being an 'offence'. It argued, for instance, that one of the problems of the existing conditionality regime was that 'there are highly variable sanctions for the same offence, for instance non-attendance at a WFI [Work First Interview] is currently handled differently in different benefits' (2008: 74, emphasis added). Furthermore, the outline of a new regime for dealing with 'failures to attend an interview or appointment' (2008) in Realising Potential, includes for the 'First offence ... a formal warning' (2008, bold in original), increasing to a 'Fifth offence ... disentitlement to benefit for a period of four weeks' (2008, bold in original). Such discourse has been imported into the coalition government's policies that note, for instance, that: 'The most serious failures that apply to jobseekers will lead to Jobseeker's Allowance payment ceasing for a fixed period of at least three months (longer for repeat offences)' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b: 28, emphasis added). Second, Realising Potential makes reference to 'repeat offenders'--a 'hardcore minority who repeatedly fail to comply with their obligations' (2008:15); and third, it makes reference to the use of sanctions, more usually referred to in the context of criminal justice policy. Hence, a desire to introduce 'fixed fines to aid comprehension' (2008: 72, emphasis added) about what is required of benefit claimants in terms of their 'personalised conditionality', and the use of 'profiling' to ensure that workless people are placed in the correct group, which, as we have seen, determines the level of conditionality they face.

What we have here is an example of what Wacquant (2010: 58, bold in original) describes as 'Rolling out the Penal State'. While Wacquant is in danger of overstating the newness of such trends, he makes trenchant criticisms of recent developments in welfare policy in the USA and other countries:

The 'shift from carrots to sticks,' from voluntary programs supplying resources to mandatory programs enforcing compliance with behavioural rules by means of fines, reductions of benefits, and termination of recipiency irrespective of need, that is programs treating the poor as a cultural similes of criminals who have violated the civic law of wage work, is meant to dissuade the lower fractions of the working class from making claims on state resources and to forcibly instill conventional morality into their members. (2010: 60, emphasis in original). In the process of criminalising income-poor workless people, Wacquant points to its role in active proletarianisation. The use of criminalising discourses the workless as being marginal to the 'mainstream': an 'underclass', as some on the right (and the left) describe it, that threatens economic and social stability and that is to be feared (for example, Murray, 1990, 1994; for discussion Young, 2002). The use of such discourse creates binaries between 'them' and 'us', the irresponsible and the responsible, the feckless and the competent, the employed and the workless. While such binaries are problematic, their use in an orthodox political economy manner is concerned with demarcating workless labour power from employed labour power so that the former desires to be the latter, and the latter is not encouraged to become the former. Therefore, in its active proletarianisation role 'personalised conditionality' can be understood as being a re-statement of financial and social 'less eligibility' that is premised upon workless benefit claimants reacting in an economically rational manner to threats made to them in order to force them to step up to the responsibilities that 'personalised conditionality' demands. So, for instance, Gregg (2008) and the coalition government are united in the belief, that, first, the sanctioning regime accompanying 'personalised conditionality' must be 'clear, transparent and well understood' (Gregg, 2008:12) or, according to the coalition government, it requires 'strong and clear' sanctions (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b: 28). And, second, that sanctions need to escalate in severity for what are described as 'repeat offenders' (although the level of sanction, and the escalation in their severity, is a lot higher in the coalition government plans compared to those of Realising Potential).

The irony is that having escalating sanctions in the 'personalised conditionality' regime suggests that the system is unlikely to be reacted to in the desired manner: that people will not necessarily react in an economically rational manner even when faced by sanctions to force them to change their behaviour. The problem for income-poor people is that those people who do not react in such a way will be pathologised as being particularly problematic, although there may be several reasons why they do not act as such.

First, and this is something that Gregg (2008) and the coalition government argue needs to be addressed, it is often unclear to claimants when and for what reason they have been sanctioned, because changes to the amount of benefit paid to them can be the consequence of a number of issues (for example, changing social fund loans and other third-party deductions and changes in circumstances). Griggs and Evans (2010: 29), for example, note that: 'evidence indicates that although most claimants are aware of sanctions and understand the principles behind them, they have little knowledge of the details of the sanctioning system'. This meant that of those who had been sanctioned, 'many did not know how the penalty could have been avoided'. Second, as the work of Duncan and Edwards (1999; also see Edwards and Duncan, 1996) demonstrates, structuring benefit policy on the premise of economic rationality is misconceived, because in their studies, lone mothers' decisions about paid work were structured by gendered concerns about the location of paid work in considerations of what it is to be a 'good' mother. Such considerations, however, are not part of the 'personalised' approach to conditionality that is only structured by an economic rationality, rather than any other form of rationality, including 'gendered moral rationalities'.

It is also difficult, because of the way in which it criminalises claimants, to envisage how some of the claims that are made for a social security policy framed by 'personalised conditionality' will be met. So, for example, in Realising Potential, Gregg (2008) argued that it would be central to tackling child poverty while, as we have seen, the coalition government argued in 21st Century Welfare that it is part of a contract that would 'improve the quality of life for those who are worst off' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010a: 1). Such claims seem to be at odds with an approach that aims to enforce the classic political economy idea that the poorest people require poverty as an incentive to labour.

While Realising Potential is careful to point out that a danger of 'personalised conditionality' is that it 'runs the risk of both worsening the position of the most vulnerable and reinforcing disadvantage' (Gregg, 2008: 23), it is unclear how such diswelfares might be avoided. Indeed, it is of concern that Realising Potential (2008: 14) noted that 'effective sanctions ... penalises non-compliance without creating excessive hardship', the implication being that as long as the hardship caused by sanctions could not be considered 'excessive' then it is perfectly acceptable to reduce out-of-work benefits that are already widely considered as being inadequate.

However, it needs to be recognised that such effects are the very point of sanctions that accompany conditionality. In the pursuit of active proletarianisation, they are meant to make the position of workless people, if they are deemed not to be making enough effort to prepare for, and take, paid work, even worse than that of compliant workless people. The hope is, as we have seen, that such an approach will ensure that workless people make more effort to get into paid work. However, such sanctions have the effect of reducing the ability of income-poor people to pay not only for those activities that impact upon themselves and their families in social inclusion terms (for example, paying pocket money and for school trips), but also inhibits their ability to pay for those items (food, rent and utility bills) that are crucial to subsistence (for example, Joyce and Whiting, 2006; Lee et al., 2004). The point, for Realising Potential, is that of whether such hardships can be considered 'excessive'. More worryingly, such concerns do not even seem to have entered the considerations of the coalition government, for it has suggested that the provision that currently exists for those families facing hardship when sanctioned should be replaced by loans (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b), thereby 'imposing', according to the Daily Mail (2010), 'another penalty on those who break the rules'.

Personalised conditionality and the demand for workers

Given that 'personalised conditionality' is concerned with moving people into paid work, the issue of the demand for workers is very visible by its absence in the discussions of such a policy. In Realising Potential, it is noted that its proposals for 'personalised conditionality' were 'primarily about the subsequent recovery' (Gregg, 2008: 5) after the first economic crisis of the 21st century, but it was arguably overly optimistic in its claim that by 2018 its proposals would 'reduce the numbers on workless benefits' (2008) by one million compared to the pre-economic crisis level. The coalition government has been less optimistic, but optimistic nevertheless, arguing that the consequence of its 'reforms' of social security, including the introduction of the universal credit and 'personalised conditionality', will reduce the number of workless households by 300,000, with there being 'no reason why this ... should not be brought about within two or three years of implementation' (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010b: 59).

Where the jobs that these people will be doing will come from is not clear. The coalition government believes that if economic growth is to be sustainable in the future, it will have to be premised upon private sector expansion; but this seems to miss the point that it was the actions of private sector institutions, framed by weak governance structures, that created the current economic crisis, and that expansion in the private sector can only come from demand for the goods and services it produces. However, in the context of the financialisation of personal incomes (Lapavitsas, 2009) and the 'wage squeeze' from the 1970s (Lansley, 2010) that will continue into the future, and the removal of 81 billion [pounds sterling] per year in public spending by 2014/15 that, it is estimated, will result in 490,000 fewer public sector workers (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2010b:, para 1.95), it is unclear where such demand will come from, particularly in domestic markets.

These observations are important since they highlight the tensions at the centre of 'personalised conditionality' as a means of active proletarianisation. At a time when more will be demanded of an increasing number of workless people to attempt to secure paid work, the opportunity to work is deteriorating for many people. The problem here can be gleaned from the concept of 'personalised conditionality'. Even if conditionality could be made more sensitive to the circumstances of workless people (which is unlikely to be the case), the circumstances that can be taken into account in such a policy will only ever be 'personal'. In this sense, the development of 'personalised conditionality' is consistent with the loss of the policy commitment to full employment in the Thatcherite shift to neoliberalism in the 1980s. The wider structural context--whether work is actually available--is immaterial to 'personalised conditionality'.


In this paper, we have focused upon the development of the idea and policy of 'personalised conditionality'. Unsurprisingly, in political and policy discourses it is spoken and written about in wholly positive terms, most notably in its potential to reflect the circumstances and 'needs' of individuals in what is expected of them in their preparations for, and/or their seeking of, paid work. However, because this new version of conditionality is concerned with old dilemmas related to active proletarianisation, it is actually a conservative approach in social security policy that, rather than looking to the future, as its location in discourses related to 'reform' suggests, is located in issues that have structured collective responses to the relief of poverty since their inception. Hence, 'personalised conditionality' can be understood as a restatement of long-standing concerns, the consequence of which will be the development of a policy that is not only premised upon the idea that people will sell their labour power when they are threatened with poverty, but which does not recognise that worklessness is a demand-side problem, rather than a supply-side problem. Without acknowledging this it is unlikely that 'personalised conditionality' will be any more successful in actively proletarianising workless people than have been the myriad of programmes, schemes and administrative devices that have come before. However, it is likely to succeed in making the economic situation of many of the poorest people in British society even more precarious than it is now.


This paper was started when the author was a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto in 2010. I would like to thank Linda Piggott for reading a draft of the paper and providing useful comments on it, and the three anonymous referees whose comments helped to focus the paper.


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Chris Grover

Lancaster University, UK


(1.) This argument should not be pushed too far, since it is clear that prison populations in many Western countries are disproportionately made up of the dispossessed and marginalised (see, for example, Grover, 2008 on Britain and Wacquant, and 2010 on the USA). However, such people are not incarcerated as a policy response to their poverty, but because they have done something, often contextualised by their poor material circumstances, that transgressed the criminal law.

Author biography

Chris Grover is a senior lecturer in social policy in the Department of Applied Social Science at Lancaster University. He is interested in the political economy of social security and labour market policy, and is the author of Crime and Inequality (Willan, 2008) and The Social Fund 20 Years On: Historical and Policy Aspects of Loaning Social Security (Ashgate, 2011).

Corresponding author:

Chris Grover, Lancaster University, UK

Email: c.grover@lancaster.ac.uk

DOI: 10.1177/0309816812437923

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