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.
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 schemes, as 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.”
My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’.