This month the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In 1916, the Ministry of Pensions and Ministry of Labour were both founded, the latter having taken over functions of the Board of Trade, such as the labour exchanges and gathering employment-related statistics. The DWP has so far marked the occasion with a potted history of the public service it has offered, told through the eyes of one former and two current employees, who have worked for the department in its different incarnations in the past eighty years.

The department is technically a twenty-first century creation, formed in 2001-2 at the same time as the Employment Service and Benefits Agency were brought together – in the Jobcentre Plus – in order to facilitate more efficiently the conditional attachment of social security to finding work and working on one’s own employability. It is productive, nevertheless, to think about the DWP in relation to its predecessors, it might be argued, particularly in its role as provider of public employment services and administrator of unemployment relief and benefits. In doing so we might draw out important antecedents to the kind of logic that drives the DWP today.

Interwar history

The DWP’s anniversary article begins by mentioning the Out of Work ‘Donation’ Scheme of 1918, what it calls “the original dole”. This was a benefit that covered returning servicemen after the War, which had to be extended in 1921 to respond to rising unemployment and discontented ex-servicemen who rejected the idea that charity alone would support them. The scheme created a difficult precedent for the Government, in that it extended relief for unemployment far beyond insured workers and created an ‘uncovenanted’ benefit open to those who had not yet had enough work to build up contributions. This undid the right to relief from unemployment that had been contingent on a record of work and insurance contribution. Throughout the 1920s, successive governments worked to restrict access to such benefits in a bid to control the bill for relief of unemployment.

The anniversary timeline is notable, though perhaps unsurprisingly so, for its absence of entries for the interwar period, and it is on this history that we might productively focus. This era was shot through with the persistence of Victorian liberalism in discourses about the deserving and undeserving, married with the imperative to reduce public spending on out of work benefits. The 1921 Means Test and 1922 ‘not genuinely seeking work’ rule sought to disqualify claimants from the benefit rolls by restricting eligibility and cutting off those who refused to travel for work. In the 1930s, the much despised Household Means Test submitted claimants to surveillance through visits by officials to their own homes, and determined need, according to Orwell, through “a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive.”

This restriction of provision is what David Price, historian of the employment service in Britain, has called the ‘benefit control’ model. Benefit control is a logic that has been used to discipline the unemployed, compel claimants to accept work or work placements and to try and exclude certain groups from social provision through tightening conditionality, in large part with the aim of reducing spending. It sits in tension with what Price calls the ‘labour market transparency’ model, which seeks to organise the labour market and provide a point of information exchange between workers willing to supply their labour and employers seeking to hire such labour, as well as a model that actively seeks to promote ‘social welfare’.


The interwar history of benefit control might seem familiar; there are a surprising number of parallels to be drawn with today. Reductions of £21bn in welfare spending under the recent Coalition Governmnet, and a further £12bn in cuts set for this parliament, demonstrate the ideological commitment to welfare austerity at the level of budget-setting. We might go further, though, and note several other parallels to interwar benefit control.

Witness the punitive nature of the benefit sanctions regime, which according to recent reports led to a quarter of Jobseekers Allowance claimants receiving a sanction between 2010 and 2015. One of the primary reasons for being sanctioned was not ‘actively seeking work’, a euphemism for the onerous requirements placed on those claiming benefits, which they have been unable to fulfil, more often than not, due to circumstances beyond their control. Under the Claimant Commitment, the contract that, since 2013, lays out the expectations on those signing on at the Jobcentre, there is a requirement to search for employment within a radius of 90 minutes travel time from home. Many are expected to spend up to 35 hours per week looking for work, what has been referred to as “full time jobseeking”.

The Benefit Cap, which restricts the overall amount in benefits individuals can receive, has translated a political-moral outrage over scroungers, encouraged by media responses to the spectre of abuse, into an arbitrary administrative limit that claims to represent the maximum anyone might need. Intensification of benefits stigma in public and political discourse has no doubt been part of the reason why the gap between the number of people experiencing unemployment and the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits they are entitled to grew from a difference of 472,000 in 2007 to 684,000 in 2015.

The trouble with benefit control

The benefit control model today is justified through assertions that it incentivizes people to work and reduces welfare spending in a manner that is fair to ‘hardworking people’ or those ‘just about managing’. The record employment rate is pointed to as evidence that the Government’s strategy has worked, and the triumphant tone with which it is heralded signals a moral investment in the idea that work is everywhere and always good.

Yet, aspects of the present day labour market and ongoing austerity complicate these claims. A majority (55%) of those in poverty – 7.4 million people – are in working families, the highest proportion since this data was first collected in 1994/5. Many of those affected by the benefit cap and other aspects of welfare conditionality, such as the Universal Credit regime, are also already in work. Roughly a fifth of employees are on low pay, and insecure forms of employment – zero-hours contracts, agency work and self-employment – have proliferated. The latest Autumn Statement promised further regressive austerity for those both in and out of work. In depth studies have also questioned the claims that sanctions are an effective motivator for finding work, and instead found that they have wrought a range of negative effects, from food poverty to anxiety and depression. This is not to mention the human cost resulting from reforms and cuts to disability and sickness benefits, most recently portrayed in devastatingly realistic terms by the film I, Daniel Blake.

We come to mark the DWP’s centenary, then, at a time in which its record of supporting the unemployed is highly contested, to say the least. The benefit control model, displayed most explicitly in the interwar period, holds echoes in the regime of extreme deterrence pursued by the DWP today, and record employment signals little about the quality of work provided (nor, indeed, how it is distributed). Furthermore, the recent National Audit Office report on benefit sanctions suggests that the more punitive regime is unlikely to have saved money. The costs of administering sanctions are estimated at £50 million per year, and this does not count the as yet unconsidered wider costs on spending from the additional support needed for those pushed into hardship.

The department itself has not been left untouched by austerity, reforms to conditionality and recent changes in the labour market. Mark Serwotka, head of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, estimates that up to 40% of DWP staff might themselves be eligible for the new Universal Credit benefit because of low pay. At the end of 2015, more than 3,000 DWP full-time staff were let go, only for the department to immediately advertise for nearly as many jobs with short-term contracts. Despite it being, as the anniversary piece notes, one of the largest departments by personnel numbers, it has decreased in size by more than a quarter since 2010, with job losses mostly at the level of direct service provision. The department’s largest contracted-out employment programme has also received cuts of 80% to its budget, which is all the more significant in the context of historically low spending on labour market programmes relative to other OECD countries.

What kind of service the DWP will provide in the future remains to be determined, and issues of job quality and security will also be defined by policies and factors beyond its scope, not least the Government’s promised ‘industrial policy’. Nevertheless, when its more punitive policies find relatively easy analogies in darker interwar history, we might question the nature of the department’s support to those it should be serving today. There is ample evidence that, in broad terms, a change in government policy away from austerity and restrictive conditionality would make for a social security system that better provides for people’s needs both in and out of work.

This blogpost is loosely based on a paper given at the conference on ‘Government and public services in an age of austerity: comparative views from France and the UK’, Paris, 2-3rd December 2016. The paper is forthcoming (2017) as an article in the Observatoire de la société britannique.