Conditionality in social security: Lessons from the household duties test

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Discussions of conditionality and sanctions in benefits policy are usually concerned with behavioural conditionality, for example evidence of work-seeking activities. However, eligibility rules for benefits also create conditions of entitlement. Failure to meet these conditions does not lead to sanctions. Instead, claimants are not entitled to the benefit at all. This article discusses the controversial and short-lived ‘Housewives Non-contributory Invalidity Pension’ (HNCIP), a non-contributory, non-means-tested, benefit, which was available to married and co-habiting women in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the eligibility requirements of the benefit was that women had to establish that they were ‘incapable of normal household duties’. This article draws on archive and other historical sources on the introduction, implementation and subsequent abolition of HNCIP to consider how this form of conditionality worked in practice. The household duties test for HNCIP was discriminatory since it applied to married and co-habiting women, with no such rule for men or single women. Although the test appears anachronistic today, it represents a form of eligibility conditionality in benefits policy which is sometimes overlooked in the debate on conditionality and sanctions. There are three lessons we can learn from this: that category conditionality can be as important in excluding people from entitlement to financial support as behavioural conditionality; that category conditionality can lead to equally humiliating and degrading assessments; and that assumptions about what is ‘normal’ are heavily constructed by assumptions about social structures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-78
JournalJournal of Social Security Law
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • conditionality
  • gender
  • social security benefits
  • women
  • legal history
  • housework


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