Andrew Marr interviews David Gauke about the effects of welfare sanctions
David Gauke claims that the government’s harsh sanctions regime is to ‘change the behaviours’ of people who need to claim support from the welfare state. This is the welfare state that everyone, including those needing support, has funded through the National Insurance and tax system. Gauke clearly thinks that starving people and making them destitute will somehow punish people into working more. He’s riding the fabled rubber bicycle.
Gauke clearly needs to read Abraham Maslow’s work and the results of the Minnesota starvation experiment, because a vast amount of empirical evidence indicates that when people can’t maintain their basic living requirements – fulfilment of basic physical needs for food, fuel and shelter, which every human being has – then they simply will not have the capacity to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs, and that includes looking for work.
Gauke tried to imply that more people are working and this is somehow linked to the punitive conditionality regime. However, he chose to completely ignore comments outlining how more people have become homeless, now face soaring debt and face more risk of experiencing mental health problems because of sanctions.
The government have ensured via systematic deregulation that the ‘supply side’ labour market is designed to suit the wants of employers and not the needs of employees. Much employment is insecure and wages have been driven down to the point where they are exploitative and no longer cover even the basic livings costs of workers. Wages have stagnated, and are most likely to remain stagnated for the foreseeable future.
So we now have an economic situation where even nurses and teachers are having to visit food banks because they can’t afford to eat. At a time when the government boasts more people than ever are in employment, cases of malnutrition and poverty related illnesses are actually rising. Work clearly does not pay.
An international study has recently shown that, rather than acting as a ‘perverse incentive’ as the Conservatives claim, generous welfare states tend to encourage people to work. This fits with Maslow’s framework, and findings of the extensive Minnesota starvation experiment, among many other reliable and valid sources of empirical evidence, indicating that sanctions cannot possibly work to ‘incentivise’ or motivate people to work.
If Gauke was remotely interested in ‘getting it right’, he would have surely paid a little attention to this and other important research findings. However, he seems very happy to operate from within his own and his party’s state of perpetual confirmation bias.
So much so that even the harrowing findings of a United Nations inquiry into the government’s woeful record of systematically abusing the human rights of disabled people who need welfare support didn’t break their stride at all. They simply denied it. I’m surprised that the government didn’t accuse the United Nations of being ‘Momentum supporters’, as they usually dismiss their critics with that comment, or simply label us as ‘scaremongers’ or ‘marxists’. However, unlike the word ‘Tory‘, the latter isn’t actually a derogatory term outside of the minds of the Tories and Daily Mail journalists.
Pressing him on the harmful effects of benefit sanctions, in the interview, Andrew Marr quoted an open letter to the Independent signed by representatives of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the other leading UK psychotherapy organisations.
The letter called on the government, in the words quoted by Andrew Marr, to “immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system” because:
“We see evidence … which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems …
“Vulnerable people with multiple and complex needs, in particular, are disproportionately affected.”
In his reply, Gauke completely ignored this, and simply restated that work ‘can help people’s mental health’, while Marr mentioned that the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have both criticised the Department for Work and Pension for not knowing enough about the effect of sanctions. Gauke implied that sanctions are pretty much experimental – a sort of trial and error approach, that the government ‘doesn’t always get right’.
Actually, it’s not a government that gets much right. It’s not so long ago that government officials admitted that claimant’s comments used in an official benefit sanctions information leaflet were ‘for illustrative purposes only’. The Department for Work and Pensions tried to claim, using fake case studies, and fake ‘testimonials’ that people were ‘happy’ to be sanctioned. The government attempted to manufacture evidence, in other words, to justify the use of despotic state behaviours. It’s not a government that feels any need to be transparent and accountable. It is one, however, thatlikes to get its own way, regardless of how harmful and damaging that may be.
Something I have also raised concerns about on previous occasions is that behavioural economics – the ideological and experimental ‘libertarian paternalist’ approach of the government in changing the behaviours of citizens (note it’s mostly poor citizens that are being targeted for nudge ‘interventions’) – isn’t being monitored, nor does it operate within a remotely ethical framework. No-one seems to care about the potential for abuse here, or about the potential for the state to inflict lasting psychological damage on citizens via its imposition of psychomanagement.
It’s hardly surprising that an authoritarian government using psychological coercion on the poorest citizens by inflicting extreme punishments – in making food, fuel and shelter (basic survival needs) entirely conditional on citizens’ absolute compliance – is causing serious harm and psychological distress to those citizens. It isn’t how people expect governments to behave in a developed, very wealthy so-called democracy.
B.F Skinner’s lab rats were treated better than people needing welfare support. At least once the rats pressed a lever in the operant conditioning chamber during the experiment, they were fed. Some people are left for weeks, months and sometimes up to 3 years without the means to cover their basic survival needs, just to put this into perspective. The government is experimenting on the poorest citizens without their consent. Punishment is being inflicted by the state in an attempt to ‘cure’ state inflicted poverty. Take a moment to think that through.
Behavioural economics entails ‘nudging’ citizens without their informed consent to change their perceptions and behaviours, so that they meet politically defined economic outcomes. The idea of increasing the severity and duration of welfare sanctions came from behavioural economists, who claim, along with the government, that they know what is ‘best’ for citizens and society. Apparently, conditions entailing starvation and destitution is ‘best’ for poor citizens, while handouts, tax cuts and offshore banking is best for the very wealthy minority.
When citizens experiencing such a deep fear of being sanctioned that they are forced to sit through a jobcentre interview while having a heart attack, when vulnerable disabled people are taking their own lives, rather than face a precarious future in a country that is no longer kind; when the government’s actions are causing real and irreversible harm to people who are ill; when the government’s ‘interventions’ are killing people, when cases of suffering, malnutrition and other poverty related diseases begin to reappear, after decades of progress through the welfare state, now being undone when the government refuses to acknowledge these consequences and does nothing to change its own enormously damaging behaviours – simply continuing to deny these inevitable consequences of its own actions – we must ask ourselves if those political actions and the consequences are fully intended.
Policies are political statements of intent, they provide messages about how a government thinks society and the economy should be organised and this is being imposed on citizens. The more a social group suffers the adverse consequences of a failing economic system, the more the government punishes them. It’s despicable.
Ordinarily, governments in wealthy democracies are supposed to reflect the needs of the public they serve. This government expects the public to reflect the needs of the government and meet economic policy outcomes. The neoliberal framework is profoundly damaging, however, to most ordinary citizens. It seems it cannot be imposed without a considerable degree of authoritarianism, and irrational, unevidenced and pretty vile ideological justification. The justification simply reflects Conservative class prejudices and an elitism. All of this of course turns democracy completely on its head.
Gauke showed not a shred of remorse or concern regarding the terrible impact of sanctions during that interview. He simply didn’t respond, insisting instead that conditionality is necessary for ‘behaviour change’, and as a ‘fair’ gesture to that mythological beast of burden, the ‘tax payer’. While Gauke is casually discussing the political misuse of the worst kind of brutal, punitive behaviourist pseudopsychology, which is designed solely to prop up a failing economic system and to justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state, real and qualified psychologists are telling the government about the unforgivable harm and damage they are inflicting. The Conservatives are simply refusing to listen and engage with citizens.
The welfare state has always entailed a degree of conditionality ever since its inception. However, Gauke tried to claim that the extremely impoverishing sanctions now being imposed for often arbitrary reasons – on people who are late for an appointment, who are too ill to attend a meeting, or for a range of other reasons that indicate barriers people may face in complying with often meaningless, trivial tasks – are somehow ‘necessary’. But we know that most people who need to claim welfare support are either past working age, or they are actually in work.
So let’s get this straight, it’s a government that believes withdrawing the means of meeting basic survival needs of poor people is necessary. Let that sink in for a moment.
The arrogant and taken-for-granted assumption is that poor people need behaviour changing ‘state therapy’, when the fault lies with the socioeconomic and political system. Not only has this government done their utmost to pathologise poor people, and scapegoat them for a failing political-economic system, it is a government that is quite happy to watch people suffer. If people can’t meet their basic needs for food, fuel and shelter, they will die. This is a government that is OK with people dying because of government policies. Take a moment to think that through.
Gauke also claimed that work is the only sustainable basis for lifting people out of poverty. As stated previously, most of our welfare spending is on supporting people in work. The problem of low wages is not one that warrants the punitive ‘behaviour change’ approach aimed at those on poor pay and in precarious employment. It’s not as if the government values collective bargaining and trade union interventions. The behaviour that needs changing is that of exploitative, profit driven employers. Yet already disempowered citizens on low pay are being sanctioned for not ‘progressing in work’. This government is absolutely disgraceful, vindictive and unremittingly cruel.
‘Making work pay’ is a simply a Conservative euphemism for the dismantling of the welfare state – a civilised and civilising institution that came into existence to ensure that no-one faces starvation, destitution and the ravages of absolute poverty.
Gauke conveniently overlooked the fact that the majority of people needing support have worked, many move in and out of low paid, insecure employment, others are in employment but are not paid an adequate amount to meet even their essential living costs. In fact the majority are in employment. Everyone – in work and out – pays taxes and contributes to the treasury. Well, except for those with havens and the power to say ‘this is what we will pay, take it or leave it’ to the government. ‘Sweetheart deals’ generally don’t come from sweet hearts. These are people who don’t care if the welfare state, NHS and other gains made from our post-war settlement are being plundered and destroyed: they are the cheerleaders of social and economic destruction and the architects of absolute poverty for others.
Gauke also claimed that work was the only sustainable basis for ‘helping people out of poverty.’ However the original aim of the architects of the welfare state was to ensure no-one lived in absolute poverty. This is a government that fully intends to continue dismantling our social security system, regardless of the harm that this does to individuals and to society as a whole.
The BPS’s call for the suspension of benefit sanctions was repeated in our report Psychology at Work, which was launched last month. The report said sanctions should be suspended pending an independent review into the link between their use and their impact on the mental health and wellbeing of claimants.
The Society called on the government to commit to an end-to-end review of the Work Capability Assessment process in order to bring about the culture change needed to make it beneficial.
Psychology at Work also made recommendations for creating a psychologically healthy workplace and supporting neurodiverse people at work.
Here is the Society’s full open letter to the Independent:
The DWP must see that a bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment
We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.
Findings from the National Audit Office (NAO) show limited evidence that the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective.
But, even more worrying, we see evidence from NHS Health Scotland, the Centre for Welfare Conditionality hosted by the University of York, and others, which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems. This is also emphasised in the recent Public Accounts Committee report, which states that the unexplained variations in the use of benefits sanctions are unacceptable and must be addressed.
Vulnerable people with multiple and complex needs, in particular, are disproportionately affected by the increased use of sanctions.
Therefore, we call on the Government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
But suspending the sanctions system alone is not enough. We believe the Government also has to change its focus from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive – which means a wholesale review of the back to work system.
We want to see a range of policy changes to promote mental health and wellbeing. These include increased mental health awareness training for Jobcentre staff – and reform of the work capability assessment (WCA), which may be psychologically damaging, and lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness.
We urge the Government to rethink the Jobcentre’s role from not only increasing employment, but also ensuring the quality of that employment, given that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.
This should be backed up with the development of statutory support for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.
These policies would begin to take us towards a welfare and employment system that promotes mental health and wellbeing, rather than one that undermines and damages it.
Professor Peter Kinderman, President, British Psychological Society (BPS)
Martin Pollecoff, Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
Dr Andrew Reeves, Chair, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
Helen Morgan, Chair, British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)
Steve Flatt, Trustee, British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)
It seems that real psychologists believe it is the government, rather than poor people, who need to change their behaviours.
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