Category: Welfare

Twin brothers found hanging from tree in tragic suicide pact after benefits were cut

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Vulnerable twin brothers were found hanging from a tree in Greater Manchester within months of their social security support being axed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Manchester Evening News reportsNeil and Paul Micklewright were found by someone walking their dog in Urmston on 31 July 2018.

Suicide notes were found in the brothers’ pockets, and similar longer notes were found “neatly laid out” on a table in their home. Police coroners officer David Wood told an inquest that when officers searched the brothers’ flat they found financial documents had been arranged in folders, the fridge and freezer had been emptied and defrosted, the fish tank had been emptied and cleaned, their clothes had been packed away in plastic bags, electrical appliances had been switched off, the batteries were removed from the smoke alarms and the beds had been stripped.

The two brothers, who are said to have “relied on each other most of the time”, were reported to have received £40,000 inheritance following the death of their mother which resulted in their benefits being stopped. However, it is also reported that neither brother had more than a few pounds in their bank accounts at the time of their deaths. Their sister Julie Gillaspy told an inquest that the twins were “too proud” to go back to claim social security and were suffering financial hardship in the months leading up to their death.

The inquest into the 52-year-old twins’ deaths heard that they were “gentle, kind and generous”, and had lived with their parents their entire lives.

 Gillaspy described the two men as “introverted,”  adding: “They were very close, sometimes to the exclusion of others.” She said that she had “struggled to understand” why her brothers took their own lives. 

The two suicide notes found in the pockets of the brothers and the two found left n their home were described by a coroner as “essentially identical”, and offered no real clue as to the reasons behind the apparent suicide pact, other than to say that they had “had enough”. 

But it was clear that the twins were vulnerable. “I think they struggled socially and I think it all just got on top of them”, Gillaspy said.

“They were very proud people who perhaps weren’t dealt the best hand in life.”

A post-mortem examination gave both brothers’ cause of death as hanging.

Wells said the brothers’ suicide pact “appeared to be a well-planned event”, he added: “All suicides are tragic but the death of two brothers in these circumstances is particularly tragic.”

Researchers and sociologists have identified several causes for rises in the rate of suicide in the United Kingdom; these include recent recessions, unemployment, austerity measures and loneliness. Research undertaken by Samaritans suggested that mental-health issues of middle-aged men and loss of masculine pride and identity are also major factors behind the high rate of suicide.

It is very difficult to establish a single cause of suicide, the reasons are often very complex. One of the thoughts that struck me when I wrote this is how inaccessible our social security system has become, especially for vulnerable people. One of the reasons for this is related to the stigma that has been attached to claiming support, which has happened at least in part because of utterly irresponsible political and media scapegoating narratives, as well as the government’s programme of punitive welfare policies. This made me very angry and also, terribly saddened, because those people who need support the most are being catastrophically let down by a dehumanising system.

There is no narrative from the inquest, as far as I know, that explains why the twin brothers had scarcely any money in their accounts to get by, given the reported circumstances of their inheritance. 

The Samaritans and other charities and campaign groups have called for a prioritisation of resources towards services aimed at suicide reduction and prevention. 

My own view is that unless we ensure people can meet their basic living needs as a society – such as ensuring that social security is accessible and covers the costs to secure food, fuel and shelter – citizens’ psychosocial needs will always be less of a priority, while they are struggling to survive. Abraham Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of human needs explains how psychological and social wellbeing is very much dependent on our physical wellbeing, and meeting survival needs. 

It is difficult to report on suicide. I try my best to do so responsibly and sensitively, while ensuring that the wider public are kept informed. It is important not to brush over the complex realities of suicide and its devastating impact on those left behind, and to also remain mindful of how an article is written, which may have potential consequences for others, including people who are vulnerable, or who identify with the persons who have died.

I know that researching and writing about suicide affects my own state of mind.

If you have been affected by this article, or if are experiencing distress and anxiety and don’t know who to talk to, the Samaritans (116 123) operate a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about using the phone, or being overheard, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

The Sanctuary (0300 003 7029 ) helps people who are struggling to cope – experiencing depression, anxiety, panic attacks or in crisis. You can call them between 8pm and 6am every night.

 


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’. 

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62 year old woman faces losing home because of unfair and pointless welfare sanction

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A 62-year-old woman says that she’s been forced to leave her home after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctioned her – cut her benefits – for turning up late for a meeting.

Faith Hurford, from Hillesley near Stroud, who suffers with a range of medical conditions that haven’t been disclosed, says the benefit sanction means she is unable to afford the rent and has to move away from her home because of the DWP’s callous and unfair decision.

The Stroud News and Journal reports that despite her health problems, Faith had to travel a staggering 15 miles (one way) to attend a meeting about her Universal Credit claim in Stroud.

Due to heat, the sheer distance she had to cycle, as well as her chronic health issues, Faith was forced to stop and take a break at a Sainbury’s store to recover her energy, before continuing the arduous journey.

This meant that Faith turned up late for the appointment and was subsequently sanctioned for failing to turn up for the meeting on time.

Faith described the sanction as “unlawful” and tried to appeal the harsh ruling, but the loss of benefit meant she could no longer afford the rent and has to move away to Nailsworth.

“I had been a supporter of Universal Credit before – it helps you look for work and it’s simpler to use – but that sanction was unlawful.

“By the time I got to Sainsbury’s after hours of cycling I couldn’t go any further, I was completely dazed.”

Faith says that she tried to explain the reason for her lateness but her reasonable appeals fell on deaf ears.

She says that the sanction has cost her nearly £200 in lost benefit payments.

“You need to take a person’s circumstances into account. The effort I went to was not recognised in any shape or form.

“I can’t recover from a sanction like that, I’m on a shoestring. I grow my own veg, I’ve reduced my food intake. There’s nothing else I can do,” she said, adding “I’ve fallen behind on rent and I can’t afford this place now. I’ve got to move out.”

Faith is currently looking for a new place to live while waiting to hear back about an appeal lodged with the social security tribunal.

Sanctions on welfare payments which have caused thousands of claimants to fall into hardship are being handed out without evidence that they actually work. The Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t even monitor and analyse its own data, making claims that sanctions “work” from an evidence-free zone. 

There is no evidence that sanctions work as the government insists they do

A report published earlier this year by the WelCond project, led by the University of York and involving the Universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Salford, Sheffield Hallam and Heriot-Watt, analysed the effectiveness, impact and ethics of welfare conditionality from 2013 to 2018.

The findings of this report’s adds more evidence to a substantial and growing body that welfare conditionality within the social security system is largely ineffective and that benefits sanctions have severe and negative impacts on personal, financial and health outcomes, including mental health.

The report suggests that too much emphasis is being placed on negative consequences for not being engaged in job-seeking activities and not enough emphasis on more positive and individualised work-shaping activities to help people access work that they wish to be in.

In 2016 the British Psychological Society (BPS) and a range of allied organisations (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)), stated a very clear position against welfare sanctions, in response to reports of a lack of efficacy and potential harm to mental health, as outlined in their 2016 joint response

The organisations say that key concerns remain that not only is there no clear evidence that welfare sanctions are effective, but that they can have such negative effects on a range of outcomes including mental health.

They go on to say “We continue to call on the Government to address these concerns, investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems and consider suspending the use of sanctions subject to the outcomes of an independent review.”

The collective organisations – BPS, BACP, BPC, BABCP and UKCP – are the UK’s leading professional associations for psychological therapies, representing over 110,000 psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who practise psychotherapy and counselling.

In 2016, even the government’s technocratic team of behavioural economists and policy gurus at the Nudge Unit did a u-turn on benefit sanctions. They said that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from neoliberal behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

It’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning – psycho-coercion – which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income which was originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people into work.” 

Commons Select Committee inquiry into sanctions 

The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report this month regarding the findings of an ongoing inquiry into welfare conditionality and sanctions. They say: 

“The human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the ‘only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated’ – appears simply too high. The evidence that it is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears ‘arbitrarily punitive’.”  

The Committee say in their report that the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim, as the NAO describes it, that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment.”

At that point, the Government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis. But six years later, Government “is [still] none the wiser.”

In their report, the select committee urge the government to reassess the sanctions regime. However, there is no evidence they ever assessed it in the first place.

Commenting on the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry, Chair Frank Field MP says:

“We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.

While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the Government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the Government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.

The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”

Yes, we must.

Related

Pointlessly cruel’ sanctions regime must be reassessed, says Commons Select Committee

New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening


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 support others.

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Why won’t ministers come clean about the impact of cuts on disabled people? – Frances Ryan


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ack in 2014, armed with only a laptop and phone, disabled campaigners started a hunt for the truth. As policies including the bedroom tax, the abolition of disability living allowance, and the rollout of controversial out-of-work sickness benefits hit, War on Welfare (Wow) called on the coalition government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of the wave of disability cuts to measure the effect on disabled people. It resulted in a debate in parliament – the first time disabled people had secured a debate in the main chamber of the House of Commons – but no action

Now, four years on, Wow has gained the backing of a cross-party coalition that wants Theresa May’s government to calculate the overall impact of the so-called welfare reforms on disabled people. Every party except the Conservatives is in favour of a Commons debate on conducting this assessment, including the DUP. In light of the pressure over Northern Irish abortion reform, their support for detailed analysis of the impact of Tory disability cuts is another awkward clash between May and the DUP’s 10 MPs propping up her administration. But more than that, it’s a sign of hope that ministers may have to finally investigate just what damage their disability cuts are causing – from the social care crisis to cuts to multiple parts of the NHS, to the disastrous rollout of universal credit; now delayed for an extra year until 2023

Last week’s damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on universal credit castigated the system’s inability to protect and support “vulnerable claimants”. It follows the revelation this month that the government was forced to say it would repay thousands of severely disabled people made worse off under the UC system ahead of the high court ruling last week that it was “discriminatory” to have docked two disabled men’s benefits after transferring to UC. Following pressure from disability groups, this week ministers made another U-turn, this time to stop repeatedly testing some disabled people for personal independence payments.

The government’s austerity programme has resulted in multiple reductions in income since 2010 that have hit disabled people all at once and disproportionately. Being hit by the bedroom tax is tough – but losing your sickness benefits as well after being found “fit for work” is even harder.

If you need an insight into the damage these policies have done, just go to Wow Voices, a website set up by campaigners that features disabled people explaining the impact of cuts on them. One woman with terminal breast cancer writes of how, for the last 18 months, she’s been told she needs to be reassessed for her benefits every six months, and she’s frantic about the thought of losing her support. “I’ve cried more about this than my terminal diagnosis,” she says. 

The UN’s damning report in 2016 into the UK’s “violations” of disabled people’s rights has put further pressure on the government over its treatment of disabled citizens. Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s own cumulative impact assessment shows that families with a disabled adult and a disabled child will lose £5,500 a year by 2022 as a result of tax and benefit changes – contradicting the government’s claim that such analysis would be “too complex” to do. 

This month, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found around 650,000 people with mental and physical health problems were officially destitute in the UK last year – that means being so poor, they can’t afford deodorant, the electric, or regular meals – with social security changes found to be a key cause. It’s bad enough for ministers to take away state support from disabled people en masse, but to refuse to analyse its effects is the definition of irresponsible. The Conservatives must finally shine a light on the impact that disability cuts have had. What are they so afraid of?

 

Related

The government response to the WoW petition is irrational, incoherent nonsense on stilts

The government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare “reforms”. Again

 


I write voluntarily, to do the best I can to raise awareness of political and social issues. In particular I research and write about how policy impacts on citizen wellbeing and human rights. I also co-run a group on Facebook to support other disabled people going through ESA and PIP assessments, mandatory reviews and appeals.

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

British Psychological Society reafirms its opposition to welfare sanctions

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The UK’s leading professional associations for psychological therapies have reaffirmed their opposition to welfare sanctions.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, British Psychoanalytic Council, British Psychological Society and UK Council for Psychotherapy between them represent more than 110,000 psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who practise psychotherapy and counselling.

In a joint response to the recent report of the Welfare Conditionality project, the organisations say:

“Our key concerns remain that not only is there no clear evidence that welfare sanctions are effective, but that they can have negative effects on a range of outcomes including mental health.

“We continue to call on the Government to address these concerns, investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems and consider suspending the use of sanctions subject to the outcomes of an independent review.”

The organisations reaffirmed the clear position against welfare sanctions that they took in a 2016 joint response.

Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard the British Psychological Society’s acting director of policy said:

“We are delighted to sign this joint statement. The Society has seen increasing evidence that benefit sanctions undermine people’s health and wellbeing, and that people with multiple and complex needs are disproportionately subject to them.”

I’ve written a lot of critical articles over the last few years about the government’s controversial welfare policies. The Conservatives claim that welfare sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. However, the authoritarian application of a behaviourist idea – that punishment somehow motivates people to “change their behaviour” – especially when such punishment involves the cruel and barbaric removal of people’s means of meeting their most fundamental survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – contradicts conventional wisdom and flies in the face of a substantial body of empirical evidence.

Making provision for meeting fundamental human needs so rigidly conditional is an atrociously brutal act. There is simply no justification for a government in a very wealthy democracy to behave in such an inhumane manner. 

Social security is a safety net that most people have contributed towards. It came into being to ensure that no citizen would face absolute poverty – hunger and destitution – when they experience hardships, in a civilised and civilising democracy.

Punitive welfare sanctions are an extremely regressive policy. It was widely recognised during the 1940s that absolute poverty reduces citizens’ motivation and prevents us from fulfilling our potential at an individual level and as a society. 

Click here to read the Society’s recent comment on benefit sanctions.

Click here to read the statement from the five organisations. 

I wrote about the extensive study of  welfare conditionality here: Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work.

Related

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies 

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

Psychologists Against Austerity: mobilising psychology for social change

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, accordingto research

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Social security is a provision paid for by the public to support the public ‘from from the cradle to the grave’ when they fall on hard times

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This post follows on from my previous article, which critically addresses David Gauke’s irrational defence of the punitive use of social security sanctions.

Some logical gaps in government rhetoric

The government claim that more people are in employment. However, 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. Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of ‘restrictive’ practices, such as the protection of employment.

For example, as part of supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting worker’s ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action.

More recently, the Conservatives have attacked trade unions again, encroaching on work place democracy and civil rights. People claiming social security are being coerced by the state to take any job available, regardless of conditions and pay, or face sanctions.

This also seriously undermines any kind of bargaining for better pay and working conditions. It leaves workers without protection against profit-driven monopsonist employers (large employers that tend to dominate the employment market, such as Capita, G4S, Atos, Amazon, Uber, for example) leading to lower and lower wages. The government’s claims about the merits of increased labour market ‘flexibility’ have nonetheless introduced a considerable degree of precarity, which makes workers feel insecure, and more fearful of losing their jobs. It has also led to lower wage growth and rapidly increasing inequality.

As a consequence of government decision-making, 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 stagnatedand are most likely to remain stagnated for the foreseeable future. 

So we now have a politically constructed economic situation where even nurses and teachers are forced 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, the numbers of cases of malnutrition and poverty-related illnesses are actually rising

The official UK unemployment rate has been well below the EU average for some years, and the as the government keeps pointing out, the employment rate is almost at a historic high, yet the welfare state is seen as a major concern, with the government claiming it presents people with ‘perverse incentives’, which prevent them from working. That very clearly isn’t true. However, the employment figures disguise the serious problem of under-employment, employment precarity and low wages.  

Furthermore, a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that more than a  fifth of the UK population is now living in poverty amid the worst decline for children and pensioners in decades. Nearly 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than five years ago, during which time there have been continued increases in poverty across both age groups – prompting experts to warn that hard-fought progress towards tackling destitution is ‘in peril’. 

The analysis highlights that 3 factors which had, over previous decades, led to a fall in poverty, are now cause for concern; social security support for many of those on low incomes ensured that people didn’t experience severe hardship and poverty, but it has been falling in real terms, changes to welfare policy have seen the numbers in poverty rising again, affordable social housing is no longer accessible and rents are increasing (particularly in the private sector), and lastly, rising employment is no longer reducing poverty.  

Work very clearly does not pay. 

The UK is regressing. We have a government that is undoing the social gains made following our progressive post-war settlement. 

The economic problems, inequality and poverty that we are witnessing have not arisen because welfare creates ‘disincentives’ to work, nor is there a shortage of  ‘hard workers’ or a sudden growth in the number of ‘shirkers’, or people with faulty characters, as every Conservative government since Margeret Thatcher has claimed. 

There is a shortage of good, secure and adequately salaried jobs. The small rise in the national minimum wage will unfortunately be offset with increasing living costs and the welfare cuts to both in and out of work social security. It’s not, by the way, a ‘national living wage’, as the Tories keep trying to claim. It’s a very modest rise in the minimum wage, which is rather long overdue. 

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‘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.

Most of our welfare spending goes on pensions, first, then the bulk of the rest goes on supporting people in work who are paid exploitatively low wages.  

Making work pay for employers: the ‘business friendly’ government 

Trade unions are disempowered, because the government hates any form of collective bargaining which is aimed at improving the living and working conditions of ordinary people. They legislated to ensure that any collective action is very difficult. The government also punishes people on low pay with sanctions. As if taking money from people already on the breadline will somehow address the profit seeking executive decisions of employers. That’s cruel beyond belief. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says that the squeeze on living standards now risks storing up problems for the future, with people being caught in a  ‘standstill generation’ – one where people are unable to build the foundations for a decent, secure life. 

Over the last couple of days, I have seen a few people of pension age claiming that pensions are ‘not welfare’. That pensions are a ‘right’, and that people who paid in all their lives deserve support. Of course they do. 

However, so do our young people (who live in a much less kind society than the one our generation enjoyed), working people, disabled people and everyone else who faces material hardship. We ALL pay into the welfare state. It was designed to provide ‘from the cradle to the grave’ support for everyone who should need it, as set out in Sir William Beveridge’s report Social Insurance and Allied Services, published on 1 December 1942.

Beveridge’s vision was for an national insurance-based welfare state in which entitlement would be earned largely by the function the citizen undertook, either through work or by assuming caring responsibilities. When Winston Churchill finally turned his attention to domestic politics after the Second World War he conjured up the phrase by which Beveridge’s proposals would be described: he envisaged a compulsory national insurance that would afford coverage ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

Social security originally included maternity grants, child benefit, unemployment and sickness benefits, old-age pensions and a grant to cover the costs of death. 

The underpinning welfare principles of universalism and collectivism 

The national insurance scheme is intuitively fair to most people, it is based on collective ethics, rather than being governed by private market insurance rules. 

‘Welfare’ means Wellbeing/Safety/Health. Beverage was tasked with the responsibility of determining what was needed for Britain to take care of the basic needs of citizens, ensuring no-one lived in poverty, and to create a set of reforms that ensured everyone had a basic standard of living, regardless of their circumstances.

Welfare was originally designed to be universally accessible when people were in need of assistance. No-one deserves support in meeting their basic survival needs more than anyone else. Or rather, every person ought to have the same right to adequately meet the costs necessary for survival – basic costs for fundamental needs such as for food, fuel and shelter, for example.

It’s a measure of how successful the Conservatives’ intentional, purposefully divisive stigmatising campaign has been of those in receipt of social security that some social groups want to now distance themselves from the very term ‘welfare’.

Yet the welfare state was a truly great British achievement, it was a civilised and civilising reform that improved the lives of many, sparing them the abject misery of absolute poverty. The Conservatives don’t pay for welfare provision: we do. Yet to hear their anti-welfare rhetoric and to read their anti-humanist ideology, anyone would think the funding comes from their own pockets, such is their scorn and indignation that people should have, and expect the right, to an adequate standard of living and healthcare.

Yet this is what Cameron had in mind when he said he wanted to end ‘the culture of entitlement’. He was signalling that the Conservatives intend to dismantle welfare,  other public services and provisions. The government portrays our welfare state as a ‘free good’, but WE have already paid for it. As did our parents.

Instead of regarding welfare as ‘unsustainable’ and as the problematic ‘vulnerability’ of some citizens requiring support in a system that invariably creates wealth for a few, and increasing hardship for the many, perhaps it’s time to view the government’s obsession with welfare conditionality, ‘behaviour change’ and punitive sanctions – which have turned a provision aimed at meeting basic material needs into a means of disciplining poor people – and with dismantling our social security, for what this really is: state oppression. 

In the 1940s, a widely shared international consensus specifically linked social welfare to democratic citizenship, upholding universal rights, greater equality and social justice. We share with Europe a common history of social rights, democratic participation and welfare capitalism. In light of the recent global transformations of the economic order, significant changes in the distribution of wealth and power have reshaped the meaning of citizenship and redefined the relationship between the state and citizens in a post-welfare-state era. The lasting and damaging effects of austerity and inequality will inevitably negatively influence democratic inclusion and participation, as well as having a profound impact on people’s material wellbeing. 

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show in their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (2013), that the human costs of dismantling the welfare state may be measured out in increased morbidity and mortality figures, as evidenced in the global recession. The book explores government responses to financial crises through the lens of health outcomes. The authors argue that austerity is never the right prescription as it hinders return to growth and causes immense suffering to citizens’ health and wellbeing. 

In those countries that maintained their welfare system, no such increases occurred. Stuckler and Banjay also point out that those countries which maintained their welfare system recovered quicker from the recession than those that didn’t, indicating that welfare spending is an excellent stimulus to the economy.

The truth is that for Conservatives, their perceived problems of the welfare state is not really an issue of its ‘sustainability’ or cost, it is a purely ideological issue. The Conservatives’ most treasured class-based prejudices and beliefs in the not so free Free Market are chronically and morbidly offended by it. 

I guess Beverage didn’t foresee the sixth great ‘evil’ – the overarching anti-collectivism of belligerently imposed neoliberal socioeconomics, which extends ever-widening inequality and increasing poverty of the masses wherever it travels. 

Welfare was designed for everyone in need, regardless of their age. That was the whole point of welfare – to ensure no-one in the UK is starving and destitute. 

As citizens, we need to stand on our hind legs and bypass the intentionally divisive rhetoric. We need to stand together to defend what is OURS: the welfare state was never funded by the government and never was. 

The wefare budget is therefore not the government’s money to cut.


 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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Generous welfare benefits increase the work ethic. The government is wrong about ‘perverse incentives’

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The UK establishment have intentionally created a scapegoating project. A dominant political and cultural narrative has targeted people needing social security support, constructing welfare folk devils and generating moral panic. This is to justify the dismantling of the welfare state, and to de-empathise the public to the plight of the poorest citizens. The government have misled the public, claiming social security provision leads to a “culture of dependency”. International research shows this is untrue.

Comparative research at an international level has undermined the government claim that the UK welfare state encourages “widespread cultures of dependency” and presents unemployed people with “perverse incentives”. 

study, which links welfare generosity and active labour market policies with increased employment commitment, was published in 2015. It has demonstrated that people are more likely to look for work if they live in a country where welfare provision is generous and relatively unconditional. Empirically, the research includes more recent data, from a larger number of European countries than previous studies.

The research also compared employment motivation in specific sub-sections of communities across countries: ethnic minorities, people in poor health, non-employed people and women, and adds depth to previous studies. It has been concluded that comprehensive welfare provision is increasingly seen as a productive force in society (Bonoli, 2012), that stimulates employment commitment (Esser, 2005) and supports individual inclusion and participation in society and the labour market, particularly among disadvantaged groups

Sociologists Dr Kjetil van der Wel and Dr Knut Halvorsen, from Oslo and Akershus University College, Norway, examined responses to the statement “I would enjoy having a paid job even if I did not need the money” presented to the interviewees for the European Social Survey in 2010.

In a paper published in the journal Work, employment and society, (published by the British Sociological Association and SAGE) titled The bigger the worse? A comparative study of the welfare state and employment commitment, sociologists compare the responses with the amount the country spent on welfare benefits and employment schemes, whilst taking into account the population differences between states.

The researchers found that the more a country paid to unemployed and disabled people, and invested in employment schemes, the more its population were likely to agree with the statement, whether employed or not.

They found that almost 80% of people in Norway, which pays the highest benefits of the 18 countries, agreed with the statement. By contrast in Estonia, one of least generous, only around 40% did. It’s also the case that the countries with the highest levels of financial support for those in need also have the highest employment rates, which challenges neoliberal antiwelfare narratives regarding so-called “perverse incentives” and their highly controversial and stigmatising “scrounger” rhetoric.

The UK was then considered average in terms of our generosity of benefit levels, and the percentage of subjects agreeing with the statement was almost 60%.  However, this research was carried out in 2010, prior to the radical changes to the UK social security system that happened with the Coalition Welfare Reform Act in 2012 and subsequent Conservative policies.

The researchers also found that government programmes which intervene in the labour market to support unemployed people in finding work made it more likely that those people agree that they wanted to work even if they didn’t need the money. In the countries with the most interventionist states, around 80% agreed with the statement and in the least around 45%. The UK’s response, though one of the least interventionist then (and is even less positively interventionist now), was around 60%.

In the article, the researchers say: “Many scholars and commentators fear that generous social benefits threaten the sustainability of the welfare state due to work norm erosion, disincentives to work and dependency cultures. 

A basic assumption is that if individuals can obtain sufficient levels of well-being – economic, social and psychological – from living off public benefits, compared to being employed, they would prefer the former. When a ‘critical mass’ of individuals receive public benefits rather than engaging in paid work, the norms regulating work and benefit behaviour will weaken, setting off a self-reinforcing process towards the ‘self-destruction’ of the welfare state. The more people are recipients of benefits, the less stigmatizing and costly in terms of social sanctions it is to apply for benefits.

However, other commentators suggested that because employment rates are higher in countries with generous welfare states, more people will have positive experience of work. People who receive generous benefits when out of work may feel more inclined to give something back to the state by striving hard to find work.

This article concludes that there are few signs that groups with traditionally weaker bonds to the labour market are less motivated to work if they live in generous and activating welfare states.

The notion that big welfare states are associated with widespread cultures of dependency, or other adverse consequences of poor short term incentives to work, receives little support.”

On the contrary, employment commitment was much higher in all the studied groups in bigger welfare states. Hence, this study’s findings support the welfare resources perspective over the welfare scepticism perspective.”

The UK government launched an unprecedented range of cuts on public services which happened between 2010 to 2015. However, the UK’s millionaires were awarded substantial tax cuts over that time period. George Osborne handed out a cut in tax that rewarded millionaires with £107, 000 each per year at the same time the welfare “reform” bill became policy.

The biggest percentage of cuts affected social security benefits and local government, which has adversely impacted on housing, local authority services and ultimately, on ordinary people in local communities. The cuts in social care and welfare fall disproportionately on two groups that overlap: people in poverty and disabled people. They fall hardest of all on people with the most severe disabilities, who need both benefits and social care.

Using an extremely divisive justification narrative peppered with words such as “workshy” and “scrounger”, and redefining what is “fair”, the government made out that UK tax payers were a discrete group from people needing welfare support, and that the latter group were a kind of economic free rider, sharing a “something for nothing culture”.  The government intentionally fostered resentment in employed people “paying taxes to carry the burden of those who won’t work”.

The Conservatives have persistently claimed that there are moral hazards and adverse behavioural consequences attached to providing poverty relief. This is a view shared by other neoliberal nation states, such as the US.

Policies represent perceptions and establish state instructions regarding how various social groups ought to be perceived and treated. They reflect how a government thinks society should be organised. They encode messages about how people ought to behave and how our individual degree of freedoms are defined, extended or restricted. Policies are always intentional acts that shape socioeconomic organisation.

The government have colonised left wing rhetoric, and conflated social justice and inclusion with work, making citizenship and human rights conditional, and contingent on a person’s economic productivity. They claimed to be “the party of workers”, yet the Conservatives have legislated more than once to undermine collective bargaining and trade unionism more generally. There has been a marked downward shift in wage levels and working conditions over the past six years, as well as drastic reductions in welfare support.

The word “reforms” is now a euphemism for cuts. Words like “support” and “help” are used as techniques of neutralisation, to divert people from the coercive, punitive and targeted elements of the “reforms”. These are semantic shifts of Orwellian proportions. 

The majority of unemployed people move in and out of work, indicating that policy, the economy and labour market conditions, rather than personal failings and dubious “cultures”, are the reason why people become unemployed. The tax payer/benefit claimant dichotomy is a false one. Everyone contributes to welfare, that is why national insurance was introduced: to pay for support provision that you may need in the future.

Furthermore, unemployed people pay taxes, and stealth taxes such as VAT contribute a significant amount to the Treasury. When social security benefits were originally calculated, they covered only the costs of food and fuel. It was assumed that people claiming support were exempt from council tax and paying rent. That is no longer the case, but benefit levels have not risen to adjust for this. 

The highest welfare spending has actually been on pensions, followed by in-work benefits. The latter subsidises employers paying low wages that don’t support families in meeting the costs of living. However, under the new Universal Credit, in-work support will be conditional and significantly reduced, especially for those families on low pay with children. 

The Conservative’s austerity cuts have disproportionally targeted the very people that a fair and civilised society should protect. This was justified partly by the global economic recession, though not everyone was expected to “live within their means” and contribute to reducing the national deficit. Remarkably, those that caused the recession appear to have got off free from obligation to contribute to the reduction of the debt, in a “low tax, low welfare society.”

The Conservative cuts were also justified by the perpetuation of a dominant neoliberal discourse based on small state ideology, antiwelfare myths and the purposeful creation of welfare folk devils and moral panic.

One consequence of the Conservative’s “reforms” has been the return of absolute poverty in the UK – some people cannot meet their basic needs and are going without adequate food and fuel. Many people have suffered distress, harm and some have died as a result of the government’s welfare regime. 

The Samaritan’s recent study – Dying from Inequality – links suicidal behaviours with socioeconomic deprivation. Their report says: “Suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve. Countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.”

There is also a further extensive cost to human potential. As Abraham Maslow indicated, if people cannot meet their basic physical needs, they are not likely to fulfil psychosocial ones.

 christianity-and-social-justice-exploring-the-meaning-of-welfare-reform-29-638

Graphic courtesy of Dr Simon Duffy,  The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Related

A bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment, say UK’s top psychologists

Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – report from Samaritans

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment provided empirical evidence that demonstrates clearly why welfare sanctions can’t possibly work as an “incentive” to “make work pay”


 

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Labour pledge to scrap punitive Tory sanctions and the Work Capability Assessment

Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that she will scrap punitive benefit sanctions and the discredited Work Capability Assessment, at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. The pledge was echoed by newly re-elected party leader Jeremy Corbyn in his main speech to the conference. He said a Labour government would be “scrapping the punitive sanctions regime and the degrading work capability assessment.”

Here is a transcript of Debbie’s excellent speech:

“It is a real honour to stand here before you as the Party’s spokesperson for Work and Pensions, my first time on the Conference platform.

Conference, we live in troubling times. Our nation seems more adrift than ever. Our troubles often seem insurmountable.

But when I’m faced with complexity and difficulties, I recall some wise words: “The more complicated something is, the more important it is to define what your simple truths are.”

So, what are my ‘simple truths’? First, I am a socialist. I believe that society is stronger – can achieve more – when we stand together, and that every citizen has an equal stake in our future.

It is to me a simple truth that a nation aspiring to decency and fairness does not punish the disabled and disadvantaged.

It is to me a simple truth that the way a government prioritises finite finances reveals its authentic self.

So when this Tory Government imposes the bedroom tax on disabled people but gives tax breaks to millionaires, then their own simple truths are laid bare.

It is to me a simple truth that where the dignity of rewarding work is deprived to millions through a lack of quality jobs, the rise of zero-hours contracts, and indignities heaped on loyal work forces by the likes of Sports Direct and BHS, then social and economic progress is stunted.

And it is also a simple truth that targeting the most vulnerable in our society damages the least vulnerable, too. If you haven’t already, please read the Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level.

This shows that societies with a wider gap between rich and poor experience higher levels of infant mortality, lower life expectancy, poorer mental health, and less social mobility.

To me, as a former academic, it is a simple truth that evidence-based policy must replace policy-based evidence. That’s why I’m a socialist. Because all the evidence points to another simple truth.

By building a society where the hope of progress is genuine and realistic and not forlorn, where every citizen feels themselves an equal participant in our nation, and where government is seen to be working for everyone, we create a virtuous circle of growth, stability and contentment.

For all the Prime Minister’s warm words, it is by her actions we will judge her. She has been a senior member of a government that has chosen to visit austerity on the most vulnerable in society. She has been a senior member of a government that continues to rain down on our education system ideological reforms with little or no evidentiary justification. And she has been a senior member of a government where the number of foodbanks increased ten-fold in 4 years.

Conference, inequality is not inevitable. We are all here precisely because we know that change is both possible and necessary.

Today there are 3.9 million children living in poverty, and children’s charities are estimating that will be 5 million. Conference, children being in poverty affects not just their childhood but their whole future life chances.

And the five million disabled people living in poverty because of the extra costs that they face associated with their disability, is set to increase as a result of even more cuts in social security support.

While I am proud of the last Labour Government’s success at reducing pensioner poverty, women and the lowest paid remain at high risk of falling into poverty in their retirement.

This injustice is being extended to 2.6 million women born in the 1950s, who have been short-changed by this Government bringing forward their state pension age.

The pensions system that I want to see ensures dignity in retirement, and a proper reflection of the contribution that older people have made, and continue to make, to our society.

This Government has fostered an insidious culture of fear and blame to justify their programme of cuts, deliberately attempting to vilify social security claimants as the new undeserving poor.

I wanted to show you the trailer from Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ as I think it sets out so clearly much of that is wrong with the current social security system.

I believe there is a better way, a fairer way. One where Britain is the centre of a new industrial revolution with industries and technologies as diverse as our people.

To achieve this, we need to invest in our greatest asset – our citizens – nurturing a highly skilled workforce and rebuilding our country.

For too long the labour market has been dominated by poor quality, low paid, insecure jobs resulting in two thirds of children living in poverty coming from working families. Four in every five people working in low paid jobs are still stuck in them ten years later.

For those unable to work through illness or disability, we need to transform our social security system to one that is efficient, responsive, and provides basic support. Time and time again, I hear of how worthless the system makes people feel. For the vast majority of people who have paid into it all their working lives, this is like a slap in the face. People often feel desperate, have been left destitute and have even died.

I want to change the culture of our social security system and how the public see it. I believe that, like the NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life were we to fall on hard times or become incapacitated, giving us a hand up, not a hand out.

Work should always pay more than being on social security, but being in work shouldn’t mean living in poverty and neither should being on social security.

The Labour Party has already pledged to get rid of the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. But I want to go further.

I want to scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment and replace it with a system based on personalised, holistic support, one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.

This Government’s punitive sanctions system must go too, so Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.

I want to see disabled people better supported into and at work. We will halve the Disability Employment Gap – and when we say it we mean it. And we will tackle other labour market inequalities too.

I believe in a fair and just Britain, where everyone can get on and no-one is left behind.

Labour’s policies will deliver prosperity for all and tackle the inequalities and poverty in Britain today.

I challenge the Government to deliver theirs.”

 


I just wanted to add a note of clarification, as some people are claiming that it isn’t the intention of the Labour party to scrap sanctions entirely. There has always been a degree of benefit conditionality, since the inception of the welfare state. This has not previously been particularly problematic, and a reasonable degree of government accountability and protecting the “public purse” has always been expected from the public.

However, the Conservatives introduced a very harsh and punitive regime in 2012, extending the use of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents and sick and disabled people. The severity and length of the sanctions was also radically increased, and as we know from evidence gathered since 2012, it is these changes that have caused so much hardship and distress for many people.

We also know that sanctions are very often applied unfairly, and that one of the main aims of them is to cut costs and reduce the welfare state. Instead of supporting citizens, our social security is now about coercing citizens into “job seeking” rule-following and conformity, regardless of the employment market conditions and other social and economic constraints.

The Conservatives introduced these changes because they think that coercive “behavioural change” techniques may align citizens’ behaviours with neoliberal outcomes. Their sanction regime is founded on a nudge theory – that we have a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion. The Conservatives expect that by manipulating this alleged bias – using the fear of financial loss – people will comply and get a job. That assumes, of course, that the cause of unemployment is something that happens within an individual, and not because of political decision-making and socioeconomic conditions. 

In this context, sanctions are a punishment for non-compliance with politically defined outcomes, directed entirely by economic dogma. It’s a form of operant conditioning. It does not take into consideration the real structural socioeconomic barriers that people face in finding appropriate work. Instead the individual is held responsible for the failings of a competitive, market-based system.

The stigmatisation of people needing social security – the political and cultural use of dehumanising metaphors and rhetoric – has been used to justify the ideologically-driven dismantling of the welfare state and the other gains of our post-war settlement. The punitive sanction regime is part of this process of political demolition. This is clearly a political misuse of “psychology”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a technocratic application of techniques of persuasion: the marketing strategy and packaging for controversial “small state” and authoritarian neoliberal policies.

Debbie acknowledges much of this. She has promised to repeal the Conservative’s punitive sanction regime and the WCA. Her speech indicates clearly the direction of travel for the Labour party.

I welcome that. I’m certain that many others will. It’s long overdue.

Kitty

Related

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

 

 


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The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

“This is a round up.”

The song is about a world where citizens are deeply suspicious of one another, where fear of the Other is politically instigated and nurtured, social conformity, discrimination, exclusion and prejudice reign supreme. It’s about a society blindly climbing Allport’s ladder.

 

“Of the forehead, when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.” Johann Kaspar Lavater, phrenologist (1741–1801).

 

Back in the nineteenth century, phrenology was the preferred “science” of personality and character divination. The growth in popularity of “scientific” lectures as entertainment also helped spread phrenology to the masses. It was very popular among the middle and working classes, not least because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were supportive of the liberal laissez faire individualism inherent in the dominant Victorian world view. It justified the status quo. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the charlatan George Combe to feel the bumps and “read” the heads of their children.

During the early 20th century, there was a revival of interest in phrenology, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (pursued by Cesare Lombroso). Some people with political causes used phrenology as a justification narrative for European superiority over other “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved.

It’s now largely regarded as an obsolete and curious amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy, colonialist supremicism with a dash of moral philosophy. However, during the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus. More recently in 2007, the US State of Michigan included phrenology (and palm reading) in a list of personal services subject to sales tax. 

Any system of belief that rests on the classification of physical characteristics is almost always used to justify prejudices, social stratifying and the ranking of human worth. It highlights what we are at the expense of the more important who we are. It profoundly dehumanises and alienates us.

Though the saying “you need your bumps feeling” has lived on, may the pseudoscience of phrenology rest in pieces. 

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Phrenology is dead: long live the new moralising pseudoscience

The Conservatives have simplified the art of personality and character divination. They have set up a new economic department of the mind called the Behavioural Insights Unit. This fits with the age old Conservative motif of a “broken Britain”and their obsessive fear of social “decay and disorder.” Apparently, we are always on the point of moral collapse, as a society. And apparently, it isn’t the government’s decision-making that is problematic: poor people are entirely responsible for the poor state of our country. Those who have the very least are to blame. That’s why they need such targeted austerity policies, to ensure they have even less. We can’t have the poor being rewarded with not being poor, that’s just bad for big business.

Under every Conservative government, we suddenly see the proliferation of bad sorts; cognitively biased and morally incompetent people making the wrong choices everywhere and generally being inept, non-resilient and deficient characters. The way to diagnose these problems of character, according to the government, is to establish whether or not someone is “hard working”. This is usually determined by the casting of chicken bones, and a quick look at someone’s bank balance. If it lies offshore, you are generally considered a jolly good sort.

If you need to claim social security, be it in-work or out-of-work support, then you are most definitely a “wrong sort”; a faulty person and therefore in need of some state treatment to put you right, just to ensure that your behaviours are optimal and aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes. Apparently, poor people are the new “criminal types.” The only cure, according to the government, is to make poor people even poorer, by a variety of methods, including a thorough, coercive nudging: a “remedial” income sanctioning and increased conditionality to eligibility for support; benefit cuts; increasing welfare caps and a systematic dismantling of the welfare state more generally,

Oh, and regular shaming, outgrouping, stigmatising and scapegoating in the meanstream media and political rhetoric, designed to create folk devils and moral panic.

The new benefit cap: a policy designed by the neoliberal rune casters

The regressive benefit cap will save a paltry amount of money in the short term. In the long term it will cost our health and social services many millions. It’s misleading of the government to claim that it will save the “tax payers” money, since most people needing to claim social security have worked and paid taxes too. VAT is also a tax, and last time I checked, people needing support because they lost their job or became sick or injured are not exempt from paying taxes. In fact the poorest families pay the highest proportion of their income in tax

We forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes
  • Bedroom tax

Of course there’s a stark contrast in the way the state coerces the poorest citizens into behaving “responsibly”, carrying the full burden of austerity, while there is an abject failure to rein in executive pay, or to tax the Conservative party paymasters, and recover the billions lost in revenue to the Treasury through tax havens.

Poor people get the bargain basement package of behavioural incentives – which is all stick and no carrots – whereas the wealthy get the deluxe kit, with no stick and plenty of financial rewards. 

Nearly a quarter of a million children from poor families will be hit by the extended household benefit cap due to be introduced this autumn, according to the government’s latest analysis of the impact of the policy. It will see an average of £60 a week taken out of the incomes of affected households that are already poor, pushing them even deeper into poverty. About 61% of those affected will be female lone parents.

The cap will damage the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children, and force already poor families to drastically cut back on the amount they spend on essential items to meet basic needs, such as food, fuel and clothing. Originally benefit rates were calculated to meet basic survival needs – covering the costs of food, fuel and shelter only. 

The new cap unjustifiably restricts the total amount an individual household can receive in benefits to £23,000 a year in London (£442 a week) and £20,000 in the rest of the UK (£385 a week). It replaces the existing cap level of £26,000. All of this support is dependent on whether or not you comply with the very complex conditionality criteria. The support can be withdrawn suddenly, in the form of a sanction, for any number of reasons, and quite often, because your benefit advisor simply has targets to reach in order to let you know that nothing at all may be taken for granted: eating, feeding your children, sleeping indoors and keeping warm in particular.  

The government claims the cap incentivises people to search for work, and says that 23,000 affected households have taken a job since the introduction of the first cap in 2013. However, the government uses “off flow” as a measurement of employment, which is unreliable, as studies have indicated many claimants simply vanish from record.

Worryingly, an audit in January this year found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.

It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “The benefit cap restored fairness to the system by ending the days of limitless benefit claims and provides a clear incentive to move into work.”

However, firstly, social security is based on a national insurance contribution principle, and was already fair. Most people have worked and contributed to their own provision. Secondly, people in work are also poor. Those on low pay who need to claim additional support are also being sanctioned for “non-compliance”. In fact  much of our welfare spending goes towards supporting those people in work on low wages. We spend most on pensions, a large amount on in-work benefits and relatively little provision is for those out of work. The DWP don’t half chat some rubbish. A fair system would entail the government ensuring that employers pay adequate wages that cover rising living costs, instead of permitting employers to profit from our welfare state.

In a deregulated labour market, poorly paid workers are now held individually and entirely responsible for how much they earn, how many hours they work, and generally “progressing in work”. If they don’t “progress”, then what used to be an issue for trade unions and collective bargaining is now an issue addressed by punitive social security law, authoritarian welfare “advisors” and financial penalties.  

You can see where the incremental increases in the benefit cap are leading the public. The justifications and line of reasoning presented by the Conservatives are leading us down a cul-de-sac of rationale, where the welfare state is completely dismantled, and the reason given will be that this ensures “everyone works”, regardless of labour market conditions and the availability of reasonable quality and secure jobs that pay enough to support people, meeting their basic needs sufficiently to lift them out of poverty.

If these measures are intended to force people into work, this government’s self-defeating, never-ending austerity policy is hardly the ideal economic climate for job creation and growth, and where are the affordable social homes for the growing ranks of low paid workers in precarious financial situations because of increasing job insecurity and zero hour contracts? The gig economy is a political fig leaf.

An official evaluation of the cap by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 found the “large majority” of capped claimants did not respond by moving into work, and a DWP-backed study in Oxford published in June found that cutting benefit entitlements made it less likely that unemployed people would get a job. Not that we didn’t already know this. If people cannot meet their basic needs, then they simply struggle to survive and cannot be “incentivised” to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government need to read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the Minnesota starvation experiment. (See Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work .)

Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of the charity Z2K, said: “Our experience helping those affected by the original cap shows that many of those families will have to reduce even further the amount they spend on feeding and clothing their children, and heating their home to avoid falling into rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness.”

As Patrick Butler points out in the Guardian, the government have already been ordered to exempt carers from the cap after a judge ruled last year that it unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by capping benefits for relatives who cared for them full time. Ministers had argued that carers who looked after family members for upwards of 35 hours a week should be treated as unemployed.

A previous court ruling found that the benefit cap breached the UK’s obligations on international children’s rights because the draconian cuts to household income it produced left families unable to meet their basic needs. This is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world, and supposedly a first world liberal democracy.

The deputy president of the supreme court, Lady Hale, said in her judgment: “Claimants affected by the cap will, by definition, not receive the sums of money which the state deems necessary for them adequately to house, feed, clothe and warm themselves and their children.

As Stephen Preece from Welfare Weekly pointed out yesterday, the word vulnerable suggests that people are weak, when in fact they are only made vulnerable through the actions or inaction of those around them, including (and especially) the government. I agree. To label people as vulnerable displaces responsibility from government and diverts us from the reality and nature of the punitive policies aimed at poor citizens – this is political oppression. 

Ideological justification narratives and pseudoscience

I waded through the government document Welfare Reform and Work Act: Impact Assessment for the benefit cap. Basically the government use inane nudge language and their central aim is to “incentivise behavioural change” throughout the assessment. But they then claim that they can’t predict or accurately measure that. It is very difficult to measure psychobabble accurately though, it has to be said.

There are a lot of techniques of neutralisation and euphemisms peppered throughout the document. For example, taking money away from the poorest citizens is variously described as: “achieving fairness for taxpayers” (as previously stated, people claiming benefits have usually worked: they have and continue to pay taxes); “ensures there is a reasonable safety net of support for the most vulnerable” (by cutting it away further).and “strengthening work incentives”. 

For those alleged free riders claiming support because they fell on hard times, “doing the right thing” and “moving into work” is deemed to be the ultimate aim of the cap, regardless of whether or not the work is secure, appropriate, with adequate levels of pay to lift people out of poverty. Work, in other words, will set us free.

I also took the time and trouble to read the studies that the government cited as “evidence” to support their pseudoscientific claims. The government misquoted and misapplied the research they used, too. They made claims that were NOT substantiated by the scant research referenced. And there are many more studies that completely refute the outrageous and ideologically premised government claims made in this document. 

For example, Freud makes the claims that: “Children in households where neither parent is in work are much more likely to have challenging behaviour at age 5 than children in households where both parents are in paid employment. Growing up in a workless household is associated with poorer academic attainment and a higher risk of being not in education, employment and training (NEET) in late adolescence.”

The study cited was Barnes, M. et al. (2012) Intergenerational Transmission of Worklessness: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Department for Education research report 234. It says:

“Though it must be stated that much of the association between parental worklessness and these outcomes was attributable to these other risk factors facing workless families. Parental worklessness had no independent effect on a number of other outcomes, such as children’s wellbeing (not being happy at school, being bullied and bullying other children), feelings of lack of control, becoming a teen parent, and risky behaviour. This evidence provides limited support for a policy agenda targeted only at getting parents back into work. ”

It is poverty, not “worklessness” that creates poor social outcomes. That is why around half of the people queuing at food banks are those in work. The biggest proportion of welfare support paid out is in-work benefits.

Freud also states that: “A lower cap recognises that many hard working families earn less than median earnings – a lower cap provides a strong work incentive.”

Actually, raising wages in line with the cost of living would be a far better incentive, instead of punishing unemployed people for the failings of a Conservative government that always oversees an increasingly desperate reserve army of labour, and ever-falling wages. 

Perhaps one of the most outrageous claims made in the document is that the cap is consistent with “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Those sick and disabled people in the ESA work-related activity group are not protected from the cap. The government is currently being investigated by the UN for “gross and systematic” abuses of the human rights of disabled people, because of the previous welfare “reforms” (a euphemism for cuts).

This is an authoritarian government that is coercing people into any low paid and insecure work, regardless of how suitable it is. It’s about dismantling the welfare state, bit by bit. It is about ensuring people are desperate so that people’s right to turn down jobs that are unsuitable, thus reducing any kind of scope for collective bargaining to improve working conditions and pay, is removed. It’s also about bullying people into doing what the government wants then to do, removing autonomy and choices. That isn’t “incentivising”, it’s plain and brutal state coercion. All bullies and tyrants are behaviourists. 

It’s impossible not to feel at least a degree of concern and outrage reading such incoherent, flimsy and glib rubbish from an ideologically-driven government waging a full on class war on the poorest citizens, and then claiming that is somehow “fair” to the “taxpayer”. And it’s noteworthy that there is a harking back to the discredited and prejudiced theories of Keith Joseph – “intergenerational worklessness” – which were debunked by the theorists’ OWN research back in the Thatcher era. It is being paraded as irrefutable fact once again. 

I’m expecting a government phrenology unit to be established soon.

And an announcement that the Department for Work and Pensions is to be renamed the Malleus Maleficarum.

220px-1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog


 

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Department for Work and Pensions Recruits Staff To Reduce ESA And PIP Appeal Success Rates

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Legal Aid funding became unavailable for welfare cases at First Tier tribunal in April 2013, because of the Conservative-led Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). This included Legal Aid for appealing all benefit decisions. Legal Aid at Second Tier tribunal may be available if the case is about a point of law. Political lip service was paid to the legal human rights implications regarding the violation to the right to a fair trial (Article 6 of the ECHR), equal access to justice , and the Act provided that funding may be granted on a case-by-case basis where the failure to provide legal aid would be a breach of the individual’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) or the rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable European Union rights.

The Lord Chancellor’s Exceptional Funding Guidance (Non-Inquests) clarified that in determining whether Article 6 ECHR would be breached, it has to be shown that the failure to grant funding would mean that bringing the case would be “practically impossible or lead to an obvious unfairness in proceedings” (para 63). But Ministry of Justice figures showed that from 1 April 2013 to 31 December 2013, of the 1,083 applications determined, funding was granted in only 35 cases (3% of cases). This indicates that the criteria are being applied in an intentionally “overly restrictive manner” and, in the case of welfare benefits, all 11 applications were refused: Exceptional Case Funding Statistics – April 2013 to March 2014

Considering this in a context that includes the introduction of the Mandatory Review, in 2013, and in light of more recent events, I think it’s fair to say that the Conservatives have shown they are determined to take away money that provides essential support from disabled people in particular, one way or another, no matter how much it costs to do so.

Many thanks to Benefits and Work for the following information:

The Department for Work and Pensions has been given £22 million to recruit presenting officers in an effort to reduce the number of claimants winning their personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA) appeals.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) “Economic and Fiscal Outlook” document lists the following amount:

“£22 million to DWP to recruit presenting officers across 2016-17 to 2017-18 to support the department in personal independent payments and employment and support allowance tribunals.”

Buzzfeed is reporting that the money will pay for 180 new presenting officers.

The number of PIP appeals is expected to skyrocket over the coming two years as the forced move from DLA to PIP takes place.

In addition, the proportion of successful PIP appeals has increased with every quarter since the benefit was introduced. PIP claimants won in 60% of cases from July to September 2015, up from 56% in the previous quarter.

58% of ESA cases are also won by the claimant.

The DWP is also concerned by the way that tribunal judges have been interpreting the very badly drafted PIP legislation in favour of claimants. In particular, the widening of what counts as aids and appliances for PIP activities by judges is what led to the disastrous attempt to change the point scores for PIP.

In theory, presenting officers should act a s a ‘friend of the court’, helping judges to reach a fair decision. In reality, they will be sent by the DWP to try to discredit claimants and argue as forcibly as possible for the DWP’s interpretation of the law to be accepted.

Attending an appeal tribunal is likely to be an even more gruelling process for claimants over the next few years.

Update

Recovery In The Bin is a mental health social justice group, who are fundraising to help train 16 volunteers to support people with mental health difficulties before and up to ESA/ PIP tribunals. They say:

“Here’s what we’re doing about it

We have asked Welfare trainer Tom Messere, author of the Big Book of Benefits, if he would train 20 volunteers in the basics that they will support people up to these tribunals to give them a bit more of a fighting chance. And whilst we have Tom at our disposal we are also we will be training the volunteers to help fill out the often complex and confusing forms, so that less have to go to tribunal in the first place. The training will be on ESA and PIP, form filling, getting any available medical and informal evidence correctly pitched (what the person needs to ask for), possible calls, key pointers for accompanying, and up to tribunals.

You can join us

We are hoping you can donate to help pay for the training, the venue, transport and accommodation for Tom, and as we are recruiting volunteers, many on low incomes themselves, and as we will need to have representatives in as many places as we can (sorry, we wish we could provide for everywhere) then we are trying to raise as much help for their travel as well.

As such we are looking to raise £2250.”

 

You can support Recovery In The Bin in their aim to provide support for people who need to fight at tribunal for their ESA and PIP award, and donate here

Call for evidence – Future of Jobcentre Plus inquiry launched

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The Work and Pensions Committee has launched an inquiry into the future of Jobcentre Plus (JCP), the public employment service arm of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Changes affecting Jobcentre Plus services

A number of important changes will affect the services offered by JCP over the next few years, including:

  • The full implementation of Universal Credit (UC), which, particularly once a fully-functioning digital service is developed, will be a largely online process and have implications for digital inclusion
  • More frequent interviews at the Jobcentre for unemployed claimants in the early stages of benefit claims
  • Delayed referral of long-term unemployed claimants to externally-contracted employment services (welfare-to-work) providers, meaning that JCP will support people who remain out of work for two years
  • The development of a support offer for UC claimants who are in work but on very low incomes
  • Plans for greater co-location of JCP offices with other local services such as council benefit teams and physical and mental health services, including IAPT services
  • Plans for JCP to offer advice, particularly on traineeships and apprenticeships, to 12 to 18 year old school pupils
  • The process of devolution of employment services to combined local authorities and the devolved governments

Call for written submissions

The Committee invites written submissions addressing one or more of the following areas:

  • The likely effects of the planned changes on claimants, including on the quality of services offered to them and the implications in relation to digital inclusion
  • The potential implications for JCP, including in relation to:
    • Resourcing of JCP
    • Jobcentre “footfall” and the configuration of JCP offices
    • The development of suitable performance measures
  • JCP’s capability to provide new, tailored services for particular groups of people, including people with mental health problems
  • Opportunities afforded by coordination with other local services, including the NHS and schools
  • The extent to which reforms will require cultural change within JCP, and the DWP’s capability successfully to foster this change
  • The opportunities and challenges for JCP presented by greater devolution of employment services to regional and national governments

Send a written submission through the Future of Jobcentre Plus inquiry page.

The deadline for written submissions is Friday 22 April 2016.

Committee comments

Heidi Allen MP, Committee Member, said:

“In the brave new world of Universal Credit, the Jobcentre will become so much more than the place where people simply ‘sign on.’ I am in absolutely no doubt that UC marks the beginning of a new age in which the individual and the state are partners in the future potential of the individual, but the Jobcentre and its staff will need to undergo significant transformation. We must ensure Jobcentre Plus has the capacity and capability to change with the times, and deliver quality services which are sensitive to the increasingly varied needs of the individuals it serves.”

 Craig Williams MP, Committee Member, said:

“As much as different people have different needs, so do different places. The DWP has run a pretty centralised network of Jobcentre Plus offices, for perhaps too long. We will want to consider carefully the potential opportunities for greater decentralisation of employment-related services to combined authorities and the devolved governments.”

Further information

Some initial thoughts and concerns regarding the JCP’s capability to provide new, tailored services for particular groups of people, including people with mental health problems

The government’s Work and Health programme involves a plan to integrate health and employment services, aligning the outcome frameworks of health services, Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT), Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme. 

There are concerns that the government have already come close to redefining unemployment as a psychological disorder, and now they aim to redefine work as a clinical outcome.

The Work and Health programme in particular is aimed at finding ways of: “preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

“These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers.”  Source: Matthew Hancock’s conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

Whilst for some clients, improving employment prospects may be realistic and what they want, for many others this is not the case and such an intrusive state intervention may be profoundly anxiety-provoking and potentially psychologically damaging. People sometimes become too ill to work. GP surgeries are not the place to subject people to what may be perceived, essentially, as a blunt state behaviour modification programme, designed to coerce people to work regardless of their current capacity of doing so.

People placed in both Employment Support Allowance groups (work related activity group and support group) have been deemed unable to work by both their own qualified doctors and by the state via the work capability assessment. It may well be the case that some people feel able to and want to work in the future, and ask for support to find suitable employment, but it extremely unethical to coerce people to work that are too ill to do so.

That is why an absolute assurance of the voluntary element of client engagement is of paramount importance, it has to be a central underpinning principle of the work and health programme. Furthermore, it has to be assured that any proposed treatment may proceed only on the basis of (and provision for) informed consent from the client.

The principle of consent is an important part of medical ethics and international human rights law. Consent is required by law from a patient regardless of the intervention.

Generally, for consent to be valid it must be informed consent. For this to be the case it must be:

  • Given voluntarily (with no coercion or deceit)
  • Given by an individual who has capacity
  • Given by an individual who has been fully informed about the issue.

GPs have raised their own concerns about sharing patient data with the Department for Work and Pensions – and quite properly so. Pulse reports that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to extract information from GP records, including the number of Med3s or so-called “fit notes” issued by each practice and the number of patients recorded as “unfit” or “maybe fit” for work, in an intrusive move described by GP leaders as amounting to “state snooping.”

There are also very serious concerns regarding the plans to permit medically unqualified job coaches to access and “update” patients medical records. That must not happen. Citizen’s complex health conditions and healthcare should never be subject to state editing and nor should these be conflated with political aims. That is potentially very dangerous and has nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of patients. A person’s employment status has no bearing on objective professional and specialist accounts of a person’s illness, diagnosis, medical tests and treatments. Work does not cure illness.

Patients have the right to explicitly refuse their consent to data sharing. The Data Protection Act 1998 covers personal information including health records. Further provision under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 establishes a right to respect for private and family life. This underscores the duty to protect the privacy of individuals and preserve the confidentiality of their health records. This right must remain intact. There is also additional guidance from the British Medical Association (BMA) here – GPs as Data controllers guidance. (PDF)

The government’s expressed aim is to prompt public services to “speak with one voice.” This proposed multi-agency approach is potentially very reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive provision. There is a danger that such a cross-agency approach will simply involve the co-opting of service providers and professionals as state enforcers, conflating complex citizen needs with simply getting people to work.

Public services “speaking with one voice” will make accessing support conditional, and potentially further isolate already marginalised social groups. It may damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, not government slogans and potenially damaging messages. Places that have traditionally provided safe havens for people on low incomes, such as community centres, will no longer be places where people may feel they can escape the pressures and distresses of their circumstances and be relatively and unconditionally secure.

Human beings are subjects, not objects of policy, and the worrying trend towards the government instructing citizens how to be, under the guise of libertarian paternalism, is profoundly antidemocratic, non-dialogic and intrusive – it curtails citizen’s autonomy and basic freedoms and is incongruent with the democratic role of government in formulating policies that meet citizen’s needs. Instead, citizens are being coerced into meeting government aims and policy outcomes.

The move to “join up all public services to ‘get local people back to work'”, including housing and foodbanks may also be used as additional opportunity to extend welfare conditionality, including sanctions, to people who were previously exempted because of their circumstances.

Not only would this raise some serious ethical problems regarding the enforcing of a limited but mandatory state “treatment” on people who cannot work because they are ill, based on a political prejudice that work is somehow “good” for them, it would also limit access to other services that ordinarily provide a broader scope of support with a wider range of aims and outcomes that are more in line with a holistic approach to complex client needs, health and wellbeing.

It would potentially undermine people’s right to health care and support by making provision conditional to finding a job.

In linking receipt of welfare with health services, other public provision providers and access to “therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government runs the risk of conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with diktats, and isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

All 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, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

The government have not got a reassuring track record regarding the assessment of people’s illnesses, disability and capability for work, it has to be said. When serious concerns have been raised with ministers regarding the negative and often distressing experiences of sick and disabled people because of government policies, such concerns have been met with denial and a refusal to investigate or indeed, to engage any further.

I should like to know when those citizens who will be directly affected by the proposed policies, especially the work and health programme, were consulted? Have service users had any say at all in the design and aims of these proposed interventions?

It’s worth remembering that governments in first-world liberal democracies are for creating policies that actually meet public needs, rather than imposing totalitarian levels of control, manipulating and micromanaging citizens to meet government needs and political outcomes.