On Wednesday I am travelling down to Westminster. I have been invited to attend a meeting chaired by Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Welfare experts, researchers and campaigners are to contribute to a new drive to expose the mental health impacts and other harms linked with the government’s controversial reforms, such as the Work Capability (WCA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments.
We will also explore and identify the wider impacts of the government’s Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) policies on the economy and society.
The Labour party is committed to scrapping the fundamnetally flawed assessments, and have placed equalities at the centre of Labour party economic research through cross-departmental and multi-disciplinary collaboration. A Labour government will also undertake a specific stock-take of welfare policy and benefit sanctions to address the rising number of suicides, which have soared in recent years. The Labour party have said that they will place equalities at the centre of Labour’s economic research through cross-departmental and multi-disciplinary collaboration.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, the shadow chancellor says that he became furious during a Parliamentary debate when he demanded a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of welfare reforms on disabled people and the government refused. He praised the website Calum’s List, which details the cases of at least 60 deaths linked to welfare cuts.
He added: “We said to the Government we know now from Calum’s List, listing people from reports in the press and elsewhere of people committing suicide as a result of Government cuts.
“We knew the Government were monitoring some coroners’ reports and we wanted them published, [then DWP minister Esther] McVey wouldn’t and I got really angry.”
“Next week, what we are doing is getting a group of campaigning organisations and a group of experts together to talk about the way in which Work Capability Assessments are still having an impact, to try to get to the bottom in terms of mental health and suicide.”
McDonnell added that Labour’s first Queen’s Speech include legislation “making sure we have a welfare and benefit system that lifts people out of poverty”.
He said that his Hayes and Harlington constituency casework now operates an open-door system four days a week due to demand from people hit by government cuts.
He added: “Helen who runs my office said the casework now is on a scale and a depth of suffering that we’ve never seen before. And this in a constituency with the [Heathrow] airport, high levels of employment but wages not matching the housing costs and the pressure on people working all hours just to keep a roof over their heads.
“If anything goes wrong they fall out of the system. Last month we were dealing with two families living in cars. We also have the ‘beds in sheds’ phenomenon, families living in a shed or garage rented out to them, it’s staggering really.
“Before this last eight years, those sort of horrendous situations would be infrequent but you wouldn’t have someone so heavily sanctioned. The sanctions often impact on people with mental health conditions hardest.”
The Labour party’s track record of inclusion and democratic consultation with disabled citizens and their communities contrasts starkly with the Conservative’s exclusionary ‘we know better than you’ approach to disability policies. The government have imposed cuts on disabled people, acting upon them as if they are objects of policy rather than being citizens within a democracy.
Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.
However, in the UK, the way that welfare policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have more generally become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.
McDonnell was involved in the setting up of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC). Furthermore, after a nationwide round of consultations with disabled people about policies which enshrine the Equality and Human Rights acts, led by Debbie Abrahams, the Labour party wrote a manifesto, outlining policies for disabled people, called Nothing about you without you .
Alex Cunningham, me, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward after the Disability Equality Roadshow in December, 2016.
The government have persistently refused to acknowledge that there is a ‘causal link’ between their punitive welfare policy programme – which has seen vulnerable citizens, including many disabled people, lose their lifeline support – and has been correlated with the rise in distress, suicides, harm and premature mortality among ill and disabled people in particular.
The correlation has consistently been recognised by disabled citizens, and evidenced by researchers, charities and disabled peoples’ organisations over the last few years. Although correlation is not the same thing as ‘causation’, it quite often implies a causal relationship. The problem is that the government have simply refused to investigate the established association further, choosing to simply deny the established link exists instead. That is completely unacceptable.
Without further investigation of the many concerns raised, the government have no evidence whatsoever to verify their own claims of there being ‘no causal link’ precisely because they consistently refuse to conduct an inquiry regarding the established correlation between policies and harm, or to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of those policies.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons (CRPD) says (in article four) that governments must, in implementing the convention, “closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities… through their representative organizations”. It also says (article 33) that “civil society, in particular persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, shall be involved and participate fully” in monitoring the implementation of the convention in each country. In July, Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, refused to meet a coalition of disabled people’s organisations, in an apparent breach of the UN disability convention.
At the very least, Newton shows no inclination whatsoever to listen to the accounts of the lived experiences of disabled people, nor does she value a democratic dialogue with us. That is profoundly worrying.
In July, the Shadow Disabilities Minister, Marsha De Cordova, also once again raised in parliament the fact that the United Nations (UN) had found “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights” in the UK.
The Labour MP added: “This government’s policies have created a hostile environment causing grave violations on disabled people.”
Newton responded by claiming “it’s ‘not true’ that disabled people face a hostile environment.” She also asked the opposition not to say “things” that they “know are not true”.
The United Nations (UN) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have already verified the truth of the statements, presented many times by Labour shadow ministers, disability charities and disabled people to an indifferent government.
However, the Conservatives have a track record of denying empirical findings that don’t match their predetermined and ideological expectations. They simply deny and dismiss any criticism of their discriminatory policies. Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary at the time of the UN inquiry report, famously claimed that cuts to support for disabled people did “not necessarily mean worse outcomes.” That is a bit of a climb down to previous claims from the government that cuts to lifeline support for disabled people ‘help’ them into work by removing the ‘perverse incentives’ of provision.
In July, in a rather frightening and repressive, authoritarian outburst, Newton went on to claim that the opposition’s comments were “dangerous” and “deter” people who need support from claiming it. However, it is government policies that are dangerous, and that have created a series of ordeals and barriers in the assessment process, designed to weight the assessments towards permitting the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to refuse people support.
Much of Newton’s response to legitimate criticism entails rationalisation techniques that are designed to undermine the credibility of the accounts of others and especially that of the narrator by editing the narrative, and presenting an alternative order of events. More broadly, the right wing media took up this role on behalf of the government, in scapegoating and stigmatising disabled people and others who need social security support, in advance of the welfare reform act. By portraying disabled people as ‘fakes’, ‘scroungers’ and as an ‘economic burden’, this rhetoric was designed to create folk devils, and to justify punitive cuts to ‘undeserving’ disabled people.
Many of us have been through the ordeals that claiming ESA entails and then faced further ordeals confronting mandatory reconsideration and appeal.Many of us have been deterred from claiming PIP. That was my own experience too. Despite needing PIP from 2011, I couldn’t face claiming PIP until I really had to. I put it off for seven years because my experience of the ESA assessments was so horrible and distressing, it made me seriously ill, because the stress exacerbated my symptoms. (I have lupus). My local authority supported me with the claim when they provided aids and adaptations to help my mobility in my home.
Conservative ministers conveniently overlook the fact that many disabled people have worked and contributed to the UK’s social security provision via tax and through the national insurance system. I worked for many years until I became too ill to do so in 2010.
Newton went on to say: “We have very strong protections for people with disabilities in our country.”
Newton even had the cheek to cite Labour’s Equality Act as a ‘protection’ for disabled people, as if it was the Conservatives who designed this policy. This is same Act that the government has violated over and over because of their welfare ‘reforms’ and austerity programme. This protection was brought about by the last Labour government, which also included the Human Rights Act, and signing the UK up to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) – an international human rights treaty intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.
The UK’s established human rights and equality frameworks have been methodically ignored by this government, who decided to target disabled people with a significantly disproportionate burden of their ideological austerity programme. The UN found that the Conservatives’ treatment of disabled people gravely and systematically violates our human rights. The evidence gathered by the UN came from disabled people’s accounts (including mine) and those of disability organisations, academic researchers and charities.
This is a government that has systematically marginalised disabled people economically socially and politically, sidestepping human rights and equality legal frameworks. Apparently the government doesn’t regard democratic accountability to disabled people as particularly important. Instead, ministers simply lie and deny other people’s experiences and accounts.
Newton also shamefully suggested people losing their motability cars, scooters and wheelchairs should complain to the Motability charity – not the government. It’s not the charity that are creating a hostile environment for disabled people, carrying out assessments that are absolutely unfit for purpose. It is not the charity’s fault that assessments are inaccurate and designed to ensure as few people as possible are given a full PIP award.
This is a repressive, opaque, unaccountable and profoundly undemocratic government that simply refuse to accept any responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.
If the government genuinely believed that there is no causal link whatsoever between their cuts, extremely punitive policies and the distress, harm, increased suicide rate and deaths of disabled people, surely the way to provide evidence of their claim is to permit an independent investigation, and to undertake a thorough cumulative assessment of their policies.
Instead, it seems blunt denials and techniques of neutralisation are the government’s prefered response to legitimate criticism and serious concerns regarding the welfare and wellbeing of disabled people in the UK.
Techniques of neutralisation:
These are strategies often used to switch off the conscience when someone plans or has done something to cause harm to others. They most often entail rationalisations of denial.
The idea of techniques of neutralisation was first proposed by criminologists David Matza and Gresham Sykes during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. Matza and Sykes were working on juvenile delinquency, they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift, 1964.
They identified the following psychological techniques by which, they believed, delinquents justified ‘illegitimate’ or morally unacceptable actions, and Alexander Alverez further identified these methods used at a socio-political and psychological level in Nazi Germany to attempt to “justify” the Holocaust:
1. Denial of responsibility. The offender(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control.
2. Denial of harm and injury. The offender insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage.
3. Denial of the victim. The offender believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed. Or they may claim that there isn’t a victim.
4. Condemnation of the condemners. The offenders maintain that those who condemn their offence are doing so purely out of spite, ‘scaremongering’ or they are shifting the blame from themselves unfairly.
5. Appeal to higher loyalties. The offender suggests that his or her offence was for the ‘greater good’, with long-term consequences that would justify their actions, such as protection of a social group/nation, or benefits to the economy/ social group/nation.
6. Disengagement and Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez added to the techniques formulated by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust. Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews and other non-Aryans as subhuman. A process of social division, scapegoating and dehumanisation was explicitly orchestrated by the government.
This also very clearly parallels Gordon Allport’s work on explaining how prejudice arises, how it escalates, often advancing by almost inscrutable degrees, pushing at normative and moral boundaries until the unthinkable becomes tenable. This stage on the scale of social prejudice may ultimately result in genocide.
Any one of these six techniques may serve to encourage violence by neutralising the norms against prejudice and aggression to the extent that when they are all implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, a society can seemingly forget its normative rules, moral values and laws in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, discrimination, exclusion of citizens, hatred and ultimately, in genocide.
I’m not comparing what is happening to disabled people in the UK with the Holocaust, though it is worth noting that disabled people were among the first group that were murdered by the Nazis. What I am saying is the techniques used to exclude, and to normalise the political oppression of a group, are the same. They are also used as a form of ‘norm default setting’ to desenisitise the public to the circumstances and experiences of groups being politically targeted with discriminatory and oppressive treatment.
In accusing citizens and the opposition of ‘scaremongering’, the Conservatives are denying responsibility for the consequences of their policies, denying harm, denying distress; denying the victims and condemning the condemners.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Suicide is a complex issue and our sympathies are always with those left behind, but it’s misleading to link it to welfare reforms.
“We continually review and make improvements where needed, for example strengthening the Work Capability Assessment service by stopping reassessments for those with the most severe and lifelong conditions, and introducing video recording in PiP assessments.
“We are committed to ensuring people get the support they need, and to improving lives. Decisions for PiP and ESA are made following consideration of all the evidence, including from someone’s doctor or medical specialist. Meanwhile sanctions are only applied in a small minority of cases when someone fails to meet their agreed requirements.”
Earlier this week the government stressed that it was committed to ensuring that disabled people get the support they need.
We don’t agree.
For many of us, the government’s approach to social security has become random, controlling and an unremitting Orwellian trial.
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