Demos say the DWP should be axed, I disagree. Here’s why

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A leading cross-party thinktank has proposed that ministers should consider abolishing the Department for Work and Pensions.

In a provocative paper that marked the start of Demos’ research examining the Department of Work and Pensions, Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind, who has also completed an 18 months secondment to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), illustrates a bureaucracy blighted by “historic dynamics and averse to radical thinking.”

Pollard’s paper identifies three problems with the DWP. First, the department is afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where case handlers perceive employment support as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than a means of enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Where benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick. Sanctioning claimants for misdemeanours such as arriving late to meetings creates a “confrontational dynamic of power asymmetries.” In other words, it strips citizens of their autonomy.

Many neoliberals have also claimed that welfare strips citizens of responsibility, though there has been no convincing evidence of this to date. 

Second, Pollard argues the department is impoverished in ambition. DWP staff are often promoted from frontline roles working in job centres. While such expertise is valuable, he argues that staff often seem “incapable of thinking about radical solutions”, and repeat the mistakes of the past, gravitating towards punitive systems of conditionality and sanctions.

These factors contribute to the DWP’s “injured reputation” among frontline users. Productive engagement between case handlers and claimants is dependent on trust. “There’s such a rift between the DWP and hard to help groups that I don’t know how you could get back to engaging on meaningful terms – there’s too much baggage”, Pollard says.

In the thought-provoking paper, entitled Pathways from Poverty: a case for Institutional reform, Pollard explains why he believes that the DWP is institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to deliver better outcomes for society’s most vulnerable and sets out a radical new vision for the future of welfare provision.

Most of the work of Amber Rudd’s department could be carried out more effectively by other Whitehall ministries, according to Pollard. He calls for the DWP to be stripped of responsibility for these “hard-to-help groups”, with the health department and NHS helping the ill find work, local government taking over Jobcentre Plus, and benefits and pensions delivered by HMRC. The charitable sector could also be given a bigger role. 

Some criticisms

Pollard critically discusses the culture within the DWP, implying that the key problems and devastating social consequences arising from the government’s welfare reform programme are simply a result of staff attitudes and inept administrative procedure within the department. 

The crisis in our social security system is the result of government’s policies, which have embedded traditional prejudices about people experiencing poverty, and that have led to the institutionalisation of discriminatory practices within the DWP. There is no guarantee that moving the functions of the DWP somewhere else will bring about any change in attitudes and practices, or improved outcomes for people relying on social security as a lifeline. 

The DWP has come under constant fire from many campaigners, academics and charities for serious problems with universal credit, and for the catastrophic work capability assessments of those who are unfit to work. Rudd is attempting to repair The department’s reputation by tinkering with the roll-out of universal credit and fighting with the Treasury to end the freeze on working-age benefits. However, these gestures are nowhere near enough to put the major shortcomings of the system right and to mitigate the cuts to support that univesal credit and other benefits entail. 

The report concludes that while the DWP has been able to “help” people with minor difficulties into employment, the outcomes are “much poorer when it comes to supporting people with more complex needs”, such as the ill, disabled, older people, those with drug and alcohol problems, ex-prisoners and those who are homeless.

Pollard proposes that if the removal of these functions from the DWP proves to be a success, a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether”.

He says: “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

The problem is that the reforms are not “well-intentioned”, and the outcomes are not “disappointing”, they are catastrophic. The policies were intentionally punitive, leading to the consequences we see: people experiencing hardship have been punished by as system that was designed originally to support them and mitigate the circumstances of  hardship.

Pollard accuses the DWP of seeing claimants through a “benefits lens”, in which conditions were placed on their payments as a way of forcing them into work. He warns that the department’s reputation among many groups is now so bad that it may prove impossible and expensive to improve. “A bad reputation is far harder to lose than a good one,” he says.

However, the problem is rather much larger than the poor reputation of the DWP. It is the policy framework that determines the set of administrative practices which in turn, shapes the “culture” within the DWP.  It is the distress and harms that are being experienced by people claiming support, most of whom have also paid into the Treasury – that is the most pressing issues here, not reputation ‘damage limitation’ strategies, or an exercise in PR trust building for the government.

Abolishing the DWP, merging it with the Department of Health and involving charities in service delivery, as proposed by Pollard, will send out the clear message that social security is no longer a discrete function or key priority of the state. It also permits the state to withdraw from providing social security.

Responsibility for budgeting for and administering welfare will become diffuse. Placing social security side by side with healthcare is also risky, as it may further stigmatise jobseekers. We have already seen the government consistently stigmatise those who are out of work, implying that unemployment is some kind of psychological disorder. Others, such as Adam Perkins, have even proposed that there is a “genetic welfare trait.” , that runs counter to Conservative notions of “good citizenship”. 

The NHS is also suffering from chronic under-funding. How will it prioritise welfare provision, when it is already struggling to deliver health care, in the face of the increasing rationing of treatments and procedures?

Historically, charities administered welfare. But the provision was patchy and varied from area to area. There were no consistent standards of support for people in hardship. During times of economic recession, charities were often unable to provide people with any support at all, at a time when they needed it most.

Local authorities are now struggling to deliver statutory services because of government cuts. Essential provisions are being rationed as a consequence. There is no guarantee that any additional funding would be ringfenced. We have already seen social services sending vulnerable young people to other areas – sometimes back to their hometown, for example – to shift the burden of cost to another local authority.  The old Poor Law saw parishes moving poor people out of their area, they were pushed from parish to parish, refused ‘relief’ in order, often, to keep local rates bills low.

A recent paper entitled “Dependency, Shame and Belonging” examines the practice of making the poor wear badges from the 16th century through to the compulsory identification of all parish paupers under a 1679 statute, differentiating between those deemed ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. By the late 17th century, magistrates and legislators decided to deter potential badge applicants by making life on the parish as unattractive as possible. Badging became a means of preventing begging and shaming holders, made compulsory in 1697.

The proposal from Demos simply exchanges one form of expensive, intrusive and ineffective bureaucracy with another. How would the Department of health and charities be allocated funds to carry out this publicly funded state function? How would they be held accountable? 

As I touched on earlier, unless the policy framework is also radically changed to one that is supportive, rather than punitive, and to one that isn’t about administering cuts to people’s lifeline support, then the perverse incentives to apply conditionality and sanctions will remain embedded in administration practices. 

A government that does not support a social security programmme – and the anti-welfarism of the Conservatives has been apparent for a long time – is likely to see the shift in responsibillity for delivering social security as a further step in abolishing welfare provision entirely, which has always been their long term aim. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that Demos produced a paper in 2011 advocating reducing the costs of disability benefit by “engaging with the private insurance industry” and proposing that: “reform to encourage individual responsibility and income protection is genuinely of mutual benefit.” The approach laid out in this report builds on the theory and practice of the profoundly antidemocratic ‘libertarian paternalism’ or ‘nudge’ theory. 

Other papers from the thinktank peddle the views of antiwelfarist James Purnell, who, for example, proposed charging interest on crisis loans to unemployed people and pensioners made by the Department for Work and Pensions, which were interest-free, at a rate of up to 26.8% per annum. This was met with great hostility and was blocked by the intervention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was Purnell who announced the Work Capability Assessment, triangulating the Conservatives. Purnell advocated Unum’s approach to “claims management”, in a bid to cut costs of disability support. (See Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper for more detailed discussion). 

The Conservative’s ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemesas have some ‘blue Labour’ neoliberals, including Purnell. 

The th empirically unevidenced idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The government have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision, which is the ultimate ideological goal. That is the root of the problem. 

In light of this, the timing of Pollard’s set of proposals is also rather suspect – see The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security.

A DWP spokesperson has responded from the government’s crib sheet of crafted statements: “This report is completely misguided and we have no plans to reduce functionality at a time when unemployment is at its lowest, welfare reforms are rolling out across the country and millions are saving for a private pension for the first time. Jobcentres are a local presence yet benefit from a national framework. DWP supports around 20 million people to get into work and save for their retirement, as well as giving stability to those who cannot work, and will continue to do so as one responsible organisation.”

 


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26 thoughts on “Demos say the DWP should be axed, I disagree. Here’s why

  1. Until dep workers are stopped getting bonus’ to sanction more people the dwp is not fit for purpose, it needs to be scrapped and a proper department put into place.

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    1. @Meryl. That would be playing right into the hands of people like Pollard. His mission is not to help solve the problems within the department but to find other ways of negating fund allocations to those who need it most and pass the buck from the government to the NHS or charities. It’s a trap, cleverly presented but a trap nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What we pay in as ‘National Insurance’ is not anywhere near enough to meet the needs of the DWP. What buoys it up is – what I was told over 25 years ago was that vehicle excise duty, VAT, etc. all go into a pot and the DWP gets an allocation. ‘Road tax’ from vehicle excise goes into this pot not for building or to maintain roads as people believe from source, that is given out later.

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      2. Yet much of the money for our social security is being squandered on privately contracted companies who, the evidence shows, are not fit for purpose. We also pay tax for public service provision, including social security. I’d suggest the government sits down and works out how to remedy the waste of our money on rogue companies, as well as the tax dodging strategies they employ, together with taxing fairly those who have the most. It’s about time the loopholes were closed.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Wasting it on IAS, Capita, Maximus, Mandatory Reconsideration, 10’s of thousands of tribunal appeals (they don’t pay for those, but they do have to prepare and send the “bundle”, and they often send a rep), and all the staff involved in the multiple projects trolling back through claims to fix their mistakes. I’m sure there are all kinds of other extra expenses, too. JC+ and DWP staff who get stressed out of their minds and have to go off sick, for example?

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  2. The fundamental problem with the dwp is they regard themselves as sentries guarding the States money rather than people who are there to help people.
    Until that is fixed they will remain the same.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. In 2016 as a futurist, I told my job coach that millions of jobs would be lost to Robots and automation and that the DWP would have to do something to prepare for the end game that would bring. No surprise that the job coach did not reply. I suppose they didn’t have a scripted response to answer that.

    Fast forward 3 years and a DWP official now acknowledges that 9 million jobs will be lost to automation, so it is nice to be ahead of the game and have your ‘I told you so moment’. Privately.

    My own lamented experience recently of the DWP, leaves me in no doubt it is shambolically run, there is clearly little if any claims management being done, evidenced by no set staff dealing with your claim as it used to be 25 years ago when I worked briefly for the then DSS.

    Had I shown the same degree of incompetence in the DSS days I would have been shown the door early in. Yet in 2017, I submitted a commercial tenancy agreement to the DWP on 3rd January, 6 weeks later it was decided to action it. When I asked that this be investigated and someone be held accountable, nothing was done. A responder from the DWP said ‘Sorry.’ There was no will to investigate this, the then Director of UC was informed, nothing was done. This added insult to injury and led to me being eventually £4000 out of pocket.

    My Universal Credit claim was a fiasco from day one and parts of it are still unresolved three years after it started and two years after it ended. The gross incompetence and negligence I encountered first hand are seriously worrying, with staff not apparently knowing what they are doing, giving incorrect and sometimes contradictory information, making life changing decisions without checking information and imposing sanctions incorrectly.

    That is without trying to deal with a Kafkaesque organisation where mostly you can’t speak directly to anyone dealing with claims just a phone line, mostly no contact details are given except ‘for office manager’ and letters rarely signed by anyone, leave alone a named contact.

    There is a very simple alternative to the DWP. It will cost less. It will address the robots and automation situation, we will all be better off. Yet when I discussed this with my MP, he said of my proposal that ‘They (the Government) are not even looking at that.’

    I believe that a Basic Income Guarantee system is the only answer. You are eligible as a UK citizen aged 16 or over to receive a payment of £16,000 a year. This will benefit the people because it provides a safety net for people, even if you don’t work and have a partner (you can’t currently claim much if at all) you will be paid, you transition across a set of tick boxes and there is no rules or costly regulation to have to fight against. It will not be sanctioned.

    In this new world where work is unlikely, you will have a safety net, you can then volunteer for things which will save the government money for things like care, people will not be wage slaves just to live, they will actually be able to develop things they want and can make into a future, learn new skills, child care problems should then become avoided because parents should be available. People can volunteer to do things to improve the community.

    The DWP is a top heavy over bureaucratic tangle, it costs £389 million a year to run and that does not include the benefits paid out. It is an out of date dinosaur walking towards extinction because it is out of step, it tries to be an employment agency and a training agency and it fails at both. It does not employ trainers or people with the actual skills in my experience to speak at ‘training courses’ which are little more than box ticking exercises.

    The ‘work experience’ they run is only suitable for first or second jobbers and worse still it is akin to slave labour – that is you get £2.67 an hour which comes out of the benefit you are paid to do menial work which if you have professional experience is unlikely to get you a job – there is no extra payment except any travelling costs. They put people in work experience posts for which the jobs are already advertised externally, so an employer won’t fill them and pay an employee when they can get a DWP claimant for no money to work for no cost to themselves.

    We have the GDP to fund Basic Income and it is affordable, we will also when we are out of Europe not be forced to spend £14 billion a year in foreign aid ‘because we are told to’ and stop giving millions to already rich countries like China and help indirectly to subsidise their space program indirectly.

    We can start spending the money in the UK, where we need it, so that we don’t have the problems we have now. Being the 5th richest country in the world, why are we in such a shambles?

    No one in authority is seemingly having the big debate about what I call the ‘Robot manifesto’ that is how automation has and will influence our existence to come, what to do with automation, how to make it work for us and a host of other outcomes.

    In about 15 or 20 years the way we live will be very different, Proxy Living and Big Data will run most of our lives, leaving us to get on with our own lives. This next industrial revolution is already here and we need to advantage ourselves now, because the jobs are going and have been for many years both in terms of quality and quantity.

    We need to realign ourselves to how we work in the future and education for children when the jobs are not there. It is no use just providing sausage machine education that is already out of date. The DWP is irrelevant, it is just a question of when not of it is put out of its misery.

    Ask any futurist worth their salt and they will tell you basic income is the only option if we are not to go backwards. If we don’t plan now we will create a massive future problem. This should not be left to hapless amateurs to deal with, this needs business people with the nous and experience to set up for all our benefit, not private interest groups. We have seen how these private venture groups go bust and for example leave an empty and almost complete hospital unusable.

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  4. The ‘established’ shambles of the UK ‘government’, ‘organization’ and ‘management’ facility demands complete demolition and total reconstruction to make it anywhere near fit for 21st century purpose. Simply tinkering around the edges of archaic, medieval institutions and protection of entrenched elitist concepts at any cost with the fanciful notion that they are somehow essential and indispensable to ‘our’ way of life and therefore sacrosanct, are pushing this still inward thinking, island nation to the brink of catastrophe: a pathetic basket case in the eyes of our neighbours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem is that hapless amateurs with often little or no experience get to run things. If someone like Alan Sugar was given the task of sorting out the DWP for example, they wouldn’t know what had hit them. If the DWP was a business it would not last a week.

      Often in departments you get ’empire building’ and non jobs, that’s another part of the problem. The unsackables often just get moved sideways or seconded to projects which will never become reality. The way to get on is to get on to working groups, become ‘important’ make contacts and progress.

      It is now no longer feasible for people who are ‘hobbyists’ to run things, they need people with direct and relevant experience. They should not get a bonus for doing the job well, they should be sacked for not doing it well. The bonus culture in civil service and local authority jobs must cease.

      The DWP reportedly paid out millions in bonuses to staff whilst their staff caused billions of cock ups. If the cost of the cock ups came out of the DWP staff’s pockets, perhaps they would be more careful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And yet it seems that most Ministers are… hobbyists. Few of them have any training or experience in their bailiwicks….

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  5. “…He says: “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”…”
    What well intentioned reforms?
    I would hardly call the benefit and welfare denial programmes as having “disappointing outcomes”, they worked out rather well for the Tory and Right Wingers who wanted to limit access to them.
    Good for you for picking up on that particular fairy tale.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s what gave the game away, for me. For those of us who have suffered under the DWP, a knee jerk response is to want to see it gone. But a careful reading of the language Pollard uses, and a scan through other papers that Demos has produced on welfare indicate that this is simply another proposal with an underlying, toxic neoliberal anti-welfarist agenda

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Perhaps all the adverse and public bad publicity from the Universal Credit debacle is now making people think the unthinkable about the DWP.

        There is no point in rolling out 10,000 more people onto the UC benefit that has about as much integrity as a piece of swiss cheese because it is full of holes. Stop, rethink and do something that will work.

        What I suggested as an alternative does away with tribunals, sanctions, incompetence and all the rubbish. The DWP likely wastes thousands on staging tribunals where the outcome they are trying to row back in was in the hundreds in many cases.

        My suggestion is simple and effective. The DWP is just one of the government organisations facing automation on an even bigger scale than in recent years. HMRC is another, machines can gather money and send out bills more effectively. It is time to stop the big ‘legal evaders’ from exploiting the system. This is the other end of the leakage problem.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Between the Second World War and the formation of the DWP, welfare provision was the business of TWO government departments.
    One was the DEP – Department of Employment and Productivity – which dealt with benefits qualified for by National Insurance contributions – Unemployment Benefit, State Pensions and various other benefits related to sickness and life situations. It also ran Labour Exchanges and Jobcentres to help (in the archaic sense of facilitating and assisting) people find work. (Arranging interviews, making phone calls etc). It later got renamed the DE, losing whatever remit it had for productivity.
    The other was the DHSS – Department of Health and Social Security – which provided means tested help to anyone ineligible for NI benefits who would otherwise be left without money. The “Health” was dropped from its name during the Thatcher era.
    Given that HMRC provided not benefits, but tax allowances which served the same function as “handouts” would, this “radical proposal” to eradicate the DWP sounds like a severe case of back to the future.
    If charities are to be significantly involved it sounds like a very severe case because we are headed back to before the 1940s.
    As the DWP was introduced to streamline processes and make them more efficient, it will be intetesting to see the justification for handing it’s work back to three different departments.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. We don’t need to abolish social security but make it fairer and less complex to administer. A basic income system is the only real alternative.

        It seems to be a point of agreement that only those with experience should head departments or be given jobs, this might explain why perhaps otherwise employable people run things in the public sector, because they are useless?

        In business if you are no good you get found out and have to leave. The public sector should be no different.

        My experience of the UC has been to experience gross negligence, incompetence and a lack of structured claims management. I have never encountered such a shambles anywhere like this before.

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  7. I agree with you. More generally, a group of people will often advocate revolutionary change, saying that it will eliminate existing problems and bring wonderful improvements including greater efficiency and simplicity. One example is the campaign to leave the EU. But drastic change brought about by people of proven selfishness and malevolence could be ruinous.

    Liked by 4 people

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