Category: Compliance

Our social security has been redesigned. It’s now a welfare deterrent


Hunger and desperation used quite ruthlessly by a “health care professional” to controversially justify refusing a disability support claim. Access to food banks can only happen if you are referred by a professional, such as a doctor or social worker. Furthermore, you can generally have a maximum of only 3 referrals per year. The ESA and PIP eassessment guidance says that a person must be able to walk the distance specified “reliably, consistently, safely and in a timely manner.”

Iain Duncan-Smith struggled financially once, but then he got off his backside and was given a Tudor mansion by his father-in-law, the fifth Baron Cottesloe, which proves rewards come to those prepared to make an effort.  Reuters.

“Universal Credit doesn’t go far enough – work won’t pay until people are running naked through stinging nettles to get their benefits.

As Universal Credit develops, it can encourage other skills, so if your electricity has been cut off, you have to screw your application form into a ball and dribble it through a line of cones before kicking it into a bucket. That way you can soon come off benefits and earn £5m a year as a winger for Manchester City.” Mark Steel, writing for the Independent

The Conservative notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor is a false dichotomy. No-one deserves to be poor

“Deserving” is a politically divergent word if there ever was one. The Conservatives have used it to apparently wage an all out class war, using austerity as a smokescreen. They certainly don’t take the side of the proverbial underdog. In fact the more need you have, the less this government considers you “deserving” of support and sympathy.

Policies aimed at people with what are politically regarded as “additional needs” are largely about ensuring your compliance, conformity and commitment to “behavioural change”, on the assumption that people somehow erroneously “choose” to need financial support. Claiming any form of state support has come to entail a deeply hostile and extremely challenging process that is causing psychological distress and often, physical harm, to our most vulnerable citizens. There are plently of examples of cases where this has happened documented on this site alone.

Such a disciplinarian mindset is now embedded in social security policy, rhetoric and administration. But we’ve been here before, back in 1832, when the Poor Law Amendment Act was aimed at categorising and managing “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Those considered “deserving” were unfortunately placed in workhouses and punished by a loss of citizens freedoms and rights, in order to “deter” people from being poor. (See also The New New Poor Law, 2013.)

I’ve yet to come across a single case of someone being punished out of their poverty. Someone ought to send every government minister a copy of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and remind them all that our post-war social security was originally designed and calculated to ensure people could meet the costs of basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter.

It was recognised back then that people struggling with basic survival requirements were highly unlikely to fulfil other higher level psychosocial potential, such as looking for work. If we want people to find work, we must first ensure they have the necessary resources to do so. And that the work available will make a real difference to their standard of living. 

Poor people don’t create poverty, state decision-making does. The economy and labor market conditions do. The punitive approach to poverty didn’t work in the 1800s and 1900s, and it isn’t working and can’t possibly be made to work now. It’s an ideological dead horse. It died because of the brutal and unrelentless use of too much political brutality, the heavy hand of the state offering all stick and no carrots for poor people.

Being poor is itself punishing enough. Now the poor are being punished for being punished with poverty.  No-one chooses to be poor, our overarching socioeconomic organisation is founded on the very principles of competition. Neoliberalism invariably means there will be a few “winners” (1%) and a lot of “losers” (99%). It’s embedded in the very nature of such a competitive system that emphasises individualism, rather than collectivism, to create increasing inequality and poverty. 

It’s worth considering that people on low pay, or with part-time hours in work are also being sanctioned, if they claim “top up” benefits to supplement their exploitative rate of pay or poor and unstable work conditions. This fact is hardly a good advertisment for the government’s claim of “making work pay”, unless of course we refer back to the poor law reform “deterrence” of 1834. Apparently, making welfare sufficiently punitive to deter people from claiming it is how we make work pay, not by raising wages in line with the cost of living. Silly me. I mistook a propaganda soundbite at face value. It seems old ideolologies die hard, with a vengeance.

Apparently it’s an individual’s fault for not “progressing in work”. Nothing to do with increasingly precarious employment situations, executive decision-making, or a deregulated labor market, of course. 

In-work benefits have effectively subsidised employers’ wage costs. Yet low paid workers are being punished by the government for this state of affairs.

It’s not so long ago that we had a strong trade union movement that used collective bargaining as a method of improving wages and working conditions. But the free market ideologues don’t like trade unions, or welfare provision. They like a neat, tidy and very small, limited interventionist state. Or so they claim.

The paradox, of course, is that in order to reduce supportive provisions, and dismantle the welfare state in order to fulfil the terms and conditions of neoliberalism, the government has to implement strategies that ensure citizen compliance. Many of those strategies are increasingly authoritarian, rather than “non interventionist”, in nature.

It’s not the welfare state, but the state of welfare that is the pressing problem

Private companies have become more firmly embedded in the core concerns of all departments of government in designing and delivering on public and social policies, and policies have become increasingly detached from public need, and more directed at meeting private interests, largely involving making huge and private profits. The Conservatives don’t seem to consider that rogue private businesses like G4S, Atos, Maximus, A4E, and so on, are extensions of the state, fulfilling what are, after all, state-determined functions.

Of course this creates an imbalance between the role of the welfare state in aiding private capital and its role in maintaining and supporting labor, and fulfilling the basic needs of citizens. Corporate welfare underpins neoliberal economies, and it costs the public far more than reduced public provisions promises to save.

In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each Work Capability Assessment (WCA) had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus. The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarised:

Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

Estimated increase in cost per Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)

Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

£1.6 billion
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

Proportion of ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

Before 2010, cuts to disability support were unthinkable. Now the Treasury regards our provision as their pocket money for tax cuts for the very wealthy

This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus, and other private companies involved in the delivery of welfare programmes are serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making a massive profit in doing so. It would cost much less to simply pay people the support they were once simply entitled to. However, the Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. 

As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. That’s despite the fact that the government introduced another layer of bureacracy in the form of “mandatory review” in order to deter appeals. People going through mandatory review for a decision to stop their ESA cannot claim ESA again until after mandatory review (if you need to appeal, you can claim ESA once you have the review decision), and so are forced to either try and claim Universal Credit, going 6 weeks at least without any support, or to wait out the Review outcome, which has no set time limit, but usually takes at least 6 weeks for the decision about the original decision. Which is usually the same decision as the original decision, due to outrageous targets that were revealed in the department’s response to a Freedom of Information request, that stated staff conducting mandatory reconsideration reviews were held to a “key performance indicator” that said “80 per cent of the original decisions are to be upheld”.

This is a government that claims social security is “unsustainable” and a “burden” on the public purse, yet has no problem with an extraordinary profligacy with public funds and dispossessing tax payers when it comes to implementing “cost-cutting” and draconian welfare “reforms.” Conservative anti-welfare dogma and traditional prejudices are costing the UK billions of pounds. 

The Tories are all about ideology and not facts. As two authors astutely noted recently, the government seems to be driven by an idea that creating the conditions of purgatory for those they consider “undeserving” will somehow cleanse, redeem and purify people into not being so sinfully poor.  So it’s not actually “welfare” any more, but rather, it’s a “correctional” institution, for coercing citizens into conformity, compliance and a class contingent meekness, with a liberal dash of the protestant work ethic in with the catholic inquisition flavoured ingredients in the mix. Yes, the nasty authoritarian Conservatives really do think like this.

Disability support is virtually impossible to access for many people that doctors consider severely disabled, and involves a measured and ritualised humiliation. The assessments are solely designed to look for “discrepancies” in people’s accounts of how their illness/disability impacts on your day to day living. In other words, it is aimed at looking for reasons, no matter how flimsy, to ensure that welfare support for disabled and ill people is pretty much unobtainable.

Those questions you are asked by the (inappropriately named) Health Care Professional (HCP) that seem like innocent conversation, such as “Do you watch TV? Do you like the Soaps?” translate onto a report that says “Can sit unaided for at least half an hour”. “Do you have a pet?”becomes “Can bend to feed cat/dog.” “Do you use the internet at all?” becomes “No evidence of focus or cognitive difficulties, adequate hand dexterity.”

If you wear any jewellry, that may be noted and used as evidence that you have dexterity in your hands, even if you have severe arthritis and can’t fasten your buttons or a zip,  you won’t be asked if you ever remove your locket/ring/earrings. It will be assumed that you do. It’s a kind of opportunism of neglect and assumption used by HCPs to justify refusing some elements of PIP, or all of your claim. Or it’s the difference between being placed in the ESA Support Group, being placed in the WRAG on the lower award, or simply being refused an award altogether, and told you are “fit for work”. 

If you are unfortunate enough to need a referral to a food bank, and you actually manage to get to the appointment,  because you are desperate, that may also be used as evidence that you can walk further than 200 or 500 metres, even if you can’t, and managed to get a lift there and back.

Challenging such ridiculous assumptions wears you down. It creates distress when someone acting as a gatekeeper to the support you need dismisses your medical reports and account with such disdain, just stopping short of calling you a liar. Challenging the reasons provided for the DWP refusing you a PIP or ESA award is tedious, very stressful and time consuming and tiring. I’m sure that if you manage to do so successfully, even the fact that you managed to collate evidence, ask you doctor for supportive evidence and so forth may be used as evidence that you can function too well to warrant any support. If you demonstrate any ingenuity in coping with your condition, you’ve basically had it.

Once upon a time, support for disabled people was designed to help us remain independent, and to enable us to participate in society. PIP is non means-tested and people can claim it (allegedly) whilst in work.

However, I worked for social services until I became too ill to work. I loved my job, and my salary was very good, too. It was a terribly dehumanising experience to have to face the fact I was no longer well enough and fit for my post. 7 years later, at my PIP assessment, it was decided that my previous job “proved” that I don’t currently have “any cognitive problems.”

That’s despite the assessor acknowledging  in the report I now even need an aid to remember to take my treatments and medications, and that during the appointment, I had to be reminded several times what I’d been asked, as I kept forgetting what I was supposed to be answering. I have systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and cognitive dysfunction is very commonly experienced  symptom of this illness

People have even been refused PIP at appeal because they “spend too much time on Facebook.” Too much for what, exactly? Last time I checked, there were no laws in place that meant sick and disabled citizens were prohibited from using social media. Since when did it become acceptable for government officials to endorse and promote the social exclusion of disabled people online? 

But apparently, contradictions and paradoxes are allowed if you happen to be the assessing HCP. The report said that I was “thin” abut “adequately nourished”. She didn’t check my vitamin and mineral levels at all. Nor did she ask me about what I ate and how often. She just said that the aids I have were “adequate” (a perch stool, easy to use tin opener and specially designed easy to use cutlery, which are not especially designed for disabled people, but are easier for me to use because of the handle design and the steak knives instead of standard ones.)

What’s the point of welfare “support” if so few people are able to access it, despite their obvious need?

The United Nations (UN) inquiry into the allegations many of us made regarding the systematic abuse of the human rights of disabled people in the UK has exposed the multiple injustices of targeted cuts and the disproportionate burden of austerity heaped on sick and disabled people, their carers and their families, evidencing and detailing the effects of a range of policy measures affecting them that have been introduced since 2010. These include the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits, funds to support independence and social care.

The report concludes that the overall effect of what is now an essentially punitive welfare regime, which has been based almost entirely on unevidenced political claims and assumptions, has had an extremely detrimental and regressive effect on the rights of disabled people, to live independently, to meet their basic needs, to seek and stay in work,  and to be able to live an ordinary life as citizens.

The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund.

I wrote a lengthy article about the unsurprising but nonetheless disquieting report findings and recommendations, as I read throughit at the time, here.

The government have of course indignantly refused to accept the findings of the UN, or accept the accounts of individuals and campaigners like me, disability groups and charities, and other organisations. That’s because the government prefer to cling relentlessly to free market dogma and their traditional prejudices rather than face empirical evidence, facts and truths.

The days of genuine support, to ensure disabled people can maintain dignity and independence, and to be socially, economically, politically and culturally included, are gone. PIP and ESA focus exclusively on what you can’t do: on “functionality”. If you walk your dog or take a holiday, this is taken to somehow indicate that you are not ill or disabled enough to need support. In fact the media turns you into some kind of nasty folk devil and state parasite for trying to live as normal life as possible. If the government and media had their way, we would be trapped indoors in abject misery, or institutionalised.

How dare we try to live an ordinary life.

The government have formulated draconian policies aimed particularly at disabled people. And unemployed people, low paid people, and young people. And migrants. And old people who, like many disabled people, have paid in contributions towards a welfare system, should they need it, but now they also have to work until they drop.

Hey, and you thought governments are elected to meet public needs and spend our money wisely? No, apparently we’re here to serve government needs, to behave exactly as the Conservatives think we should. 

Welfare as a deterrent to… well, welfare.


Image result for poverty welfare punishment

And social security has been redesigned to punish those citizens who have the misfortune to find themselves in poverty.



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The compliance framework: Concentrix’s ‘reign of terror’ and ever-decreasing tax credits


A US outsourcing company, Concentrix, which was awarded a £75m contract by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – the department responsible for collecting taxes and paying out certain benefits – has been accused of exercising a “reign of terror” over people who claim tax credits.

The private company was contracted to “reduce fraud and error” in the tax credit system, and to carry out “compliance checks” in a bid to save the government money. More than 500 civil servants have been deployed to help the private company resolve problems it caused by stopping people’s tax credit payments. This includes tax credit awards for the children of both in work and out of work parents, as well as child care payments.

The company has issued an apology for failures that have left many people with no benefit payments for up to two months, leaving them without money for essentials. The US firm has been accused of “incorrectly” withdrawing tax credits. 

Officials from HM Revenue and Customs told a committee of MPs that a breakdown in customer services at Concentrix had resulted in only 10% of calls being answered on some days.

Many thousands of people had their tax credits stopped after Concentrix said they were making “fraudulent claims”. In what can at best be described as Kafkasque taunting, one poor woman was told she was in a relationship with a chain of newsagents, another with the philanthropist and poverty researcher, Joseph Rowntree, (who died in 1925,) according to a BBC report. A teenage single mum receiving tax credits was told she was married to a dead pensioner, after having her child tax credit withdrawn. Another mother was told she was living with the previous tenants of the house that she had lived alone in for two and a half years with her son, after her child tax credit was also withdrawn. 

It’s difficult to conceive that these allegations could possibly have been made in genuine error. Mumsnet, an online forum for parents, has had over a thousand comments from parents who received letters from Concentrix demanding evidence out of the blue that they live alone. This was just on one page of ten on the site about the unreasonable demands for “compliance” that the company has been making of parents.

Many have been forced to print off documents like utility bills which were online, or pay for numerous backdated bank statements, to provide endless evidence of their circumstances. This is a costly process for people who need additional support in the first place, and many had already had their payments ended. The main reason for “compliance checks” has been suspicion of an “undisclosed partner,” challenging the legitimacy of a single claim, based on other data indicating that another adult is living at the address. 

In October 2010, HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions released a joint error and fraud strategy. As a result, HMRC increased its compliance activity across the tax credits system and introduced the use of data from credit reference agencies to inform compliance decisions. Through this process, single claims were identified where there was an indication that there may be a second adult living with the claimant – an “undisclosed partner”. However, credit reference agency data is notoriously unreliable.


The “compliance framework” is a government method of preempting and preventing “non-compliance”, based on data collection and “analysis” by private companies that are hired by the public service sector. Instead of being “reactive” and acting after a “transaction”, the private companies are using “insights” to calculate “high risk” claimants. Ultimately, the aim is to cut costs, “through real-time auditing and prevention of fraud and error, agencies can collect the right amount of taxes to help ensure the right people receive the benefits they deserve.” (My bolding).

And: “Services can be embedded in processing functions to prevent non-compliance.” 

The rationale: “Struggling with increasing demand for services amid widespread economic constraint, human services organizations face a major dilemma—how to minimize costs while improving services and ensuring accurate benefit distribution.

By using analytics, forward-thinking human services organizations are rising above this challenge. They are preventing, detecting and mitigating transactions where there is error, fraud or abuse. And they are using information gleaned from analytics to significantly reduce operating costs and drive business results.” (From: Accenture Intelligent Processing Services).

I’ve discussed elsewhere that the increasing use of a narrative of “objectivity” and emphasis on “analytics”, detachment and quantification, associated with small state ideology and austerity, tends to place some social groups at a psychological distance from administrators, and objectifies them, as if people claiming support because they can’t work, or because their wages are low and exploitative, are a homogenous group of people, bound by characteristics rather than circumstances in a context of political decision-making.

It becomes easier to disassociate from someone you view “objectively” and to distance yourself from the impact of your calculated and target-led decision-making, constrained within a highly political framework. Such an objectification of a person or group of people serves to de-empathise us, which is a key characteristic requirement of neoliberal ideology, embedded in inhumane “small state” policy and extended via administrative (and outsourced, privatised) practices. It leaves us much less likely to relate to the circumstances, emotions or accept the needs and choices of others. Such interactions become much more open to bureaucratic abuse and political exploitation.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) have previously undertaken research into the costs of compliance on individuals, and their report refers to the time, money and psychological costs that are being imposed on applicants for, and recipients of, benefits and tax credits and on others by meeting all the various rigid requirements placed on them by social security and tax credit law and statutory authorities.

However, this study was undertaken before the Conservatives increased conditionality and compliance requirements further, in the radical Welfare Reform Act 2012. The burdens on those needing welfare support have grown substantially since the research was completed. (See: Understanding the Compliance Costs of Benefits and Tax Credits. )

Some of the people affected gave emotional testimonies, as they told the work and pensions select committee that they had been forced to borrow money and go to food banks as a result of the hardship caused by Concentrix’s actions.

The committee was told that of the 45,000 payments stopped, nearly 15,000 had appealed so far and that “90% – 95%” had been successful in overturning the decision.

HMRC officials said they first became concerned of problems at Concentrix in August when they started receiving reports that only 10% of calls were being answered within five minutes – the target was 90%.

Jon Thompson, chief executive of HMRC, said “a collapse in basic customer service” had occurred caused by too few staff being on hand, and that he’d personally taken the decision not to renew Concentrix’s contract. It ends in March next year.

Frank Field, the chair of parliament’s work and pensions committee, has said that a company’s “reign of terror” over tax credit recipients will be drawing to a close, after HMRC decided not to renew its contract.

On Thursday, the work and pensions committee heard from claimants who wrongly had their tax credits stopped and suffered the distress and humiliation of having to borrow money or visit food banks to feed their children.

The committee also heard that, at the height of the crisis, only 1% of the calls being made to Concentrix were actually being answered.

The committee issued a comment on the “extraordinary” evidence it heard, from four single parents who had wrongly had their tax credits stopped, senior staff from Concentrix, including senior Vice President Philip Cassidy, and HMRC, including Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary Jon Thompson.

Claimant humiliation and appalling customer service

The Committee heard about:

  •  The humiliation of claimants who were forced to borrow money from friends and family in order to feed their children as they were left without benefits, to which they were ultimately found to be entitled, for up to seven weeks
  • Appalling customer service which saw claimants calling up to 70 times to get through as just 1% of calls were answered by Concentrix at the height of the crisis. One claimant finally waited 90 minutes to speak to a Concentrix adviser on an 0845 number, at great personal expense
  • Appeal success rates of 73% according to HMRC or 90-95% according to Concentrix; either way a terrible indictment of the original decision-making process
  • Refunds to claimants taking place over a series of months. In one case, a single mother lost housing benefit because a refund of wrongly withdrawn tax credits took her over an income threshold. Others will have taken on debts in the meantime
  • Repeated buck-passing between Concentrix and HMRC, who signed the contract, as to who was responsible
  • HMRC Permanent Secretary Jon Thompson was unable to explain what had gone wrong and why
Committee to seek clarifications from Concentrix and HMRC

The Committee has agreed to write to both Concentrix and HMRC demanding urgent information regarding:

  • How the performance of Concentrix was monitored by HMRC
  • Levels of staffing at Concentrix, in particular during August 2016, and the training provided to staff
  • Steps HMRC will take to compensate claimants, ensure they are not further disadvantaged, and review decisions taken by Concentrix
  • Assurance that Concentrix will not be compensated for HMRC taking much of their responsibilities back in-house

The Committee also plans to issue a report into the scandal.

Chair’s comment

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

“The Committee was astonished by the extraordinary evidence we heard. From Concentrix we saw a company desperately out of their depth and unable to deliver on the contract awarded to them by HMRC. From senior HMRC officials we saw a palpable disregard for the human implications of this gross failure of public service. From the tax credit claimants we saw dignity in the face of appalling and traumatic experiences.

We have no doubt that many people similarly affected have been unable to come forward. I welcome HMRC’s swift action on the Concentrix contract, but that does not excuse them for ever having allowed this to happen.”

You can listen to the work and pensions committee meeting about the Concentrix and tax credits controversy here:


See also:

The government’s tax credit Claimant Compliance Manual

Tax credits: undisclosed partner interventions – Child Poverty Action Group

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can help by making a donation and support me in continuing to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I’m disabled because of my illness (lupus) and  co-run support groups for other disabled people going through the assessment and appeals processes. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.
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