Tag: Behavioural Insights Team

Initial thoughts on the work, health and disability green paper

proper Blond

I’ve read the government’s Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives and consultation from end to end. It took me a while, because I am ill and not always able to work consistently, reliably and safely. It’s also a very long and waffling document. I am one of those people that the proposals outlined in this green paper is likely to affect. I read the document very carefully.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts on what I read. It’s organised as best I can manage, especially given the fact that despite being dismally unsurprised, I am scathing.

The context indicates the general intent

“The fact is that Ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the Prime Minister said that disabled people would be protected.”Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, Official Report, Commons, 2/3/16; cols. 1052-58.

I always flinch when the government claim they are going to “help” sick and disabled people into work. That usually signals further cuts to lifeline support and essential services are on the way, and that the social security system is going to be ground down a little further, to become the dust of history and a distant memory of a once civilised society. 

If the government genuinely wanted to “help” sick and disabled people into work, I’m certain they would not have cut the Independent Living Fund, which has had a hugely negative impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives, and the Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is also a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work.

The government also made the eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – a non-means tested out-of- work and an in-work benefit – much more difficult to meet, in order to simply reduce successful claims and cut costs. This has also meant that thousands of people have lost their motability vehicles and support.

Earlier this year, it was estimated at least 14,000 disabled people have had their mobility vehicle confiscated after the changes to benefit assessment, which are carried out by private companies. 

Under the PIP rules, thousands more people who rely on this support to keep their independence are set to lose their vehicles – specially adapted cars or powered wheelchairs. Many had been adapted to meet their owners’ needs and many campaigners warn that it will lead to a devastating loss of independence for disabled people.

A total of 45% or 13,900 people, were deemed as not needing the higher rate of PIP, and therefore lost their vehicles after reassessment. And out of the 31,200 people who were once on the highest rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) who have been reassessed, just 55%, or 17,300 – have kept their car.

dpac
In 2012, Esther McVey, then the Minister for people with disabilities, as good as admitted there are targets to reduce or remove eligibility for the new disability benefit PIP, which was to replace DLA. How else could she know in advance of people’s reassessment that 330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced as she had informed the House of Commons. 

This was a clear indication that the new assessment framework was designed to cut support for disabled people. A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to an ever-shrinking category of “those with the greatest need.” 

The Government was twice defeated in the Lords over their proposals to cut Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people in the work related activity group (WRAG) from £103 to £73. However the £30 a week cut is to go ahead after bitterly disappointed and angry peers were left powerless to continue to oppose the Commons, which has overturned both defeats.

The government hammered through the cuts of £120 a month to the lifeline income of ill and disabled people by citing the “financial privilege” of the Commons, and after Priti Patel informing the Lords, with despotic relish, that they had “overstepped their mark” in opposing the cuts twice. 

A coalition of 60 national disability charities condemned the government’s cuts to benefits as a “step backwards” for sick and disabled people and their families. The Disability Benefits Consortium said that the cuts, which will see people lose up to £1,500 a year, will leave disabled people feeling betrayed by the government and will have a damaging effect on their health, finances and ability to find work. 

Research by the Consortium suggests the low level of benefit is already failing to meet disabled people’s needs. A survey of 500 people in the affected group found that 28 per cent of people had been unable to afford to eat while in receipt of the benefit. Around 38 per cent of respondents said they had been unable to heat their homes and 52 per cent struggled to stay healthy.

Watching the way the wind blows

Earlier this year I wrote that a government advisor, who is a specialist in labor economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group.

To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. 

I think the word “need” is being redefined to meet politically defined neoliberal economic outcomes. 

Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.” 

I’m sure the rogue company Unum would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the company denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states. The settlement related to Unum’s handling of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions. 

The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. By coincidence, the company has been involved with the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right? 

It’s difficult to see how someone with a serious, chronic and progressive illness, (which most people in the ESA Support Group have) can actually “manage” their illness and “move back into work.” The use of the extremely misinformed, patronising and very misleading term manage implies that very ill people actually have some kind of choice in the matter.

For people with Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure, for example, mind over matter doesn’t fix those problems, positive thinking and sheer will power cannot cure these illnesses, sadly. Nor does refusing to acknowledge or permit people to take up a sick role, or imposing benefit conditionality and coercive policies to push chronically ill people into work by callous, insensitive and inept and often medically unqualified assessors, job advisors and ministers.  

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.  

The Reform think tank proposes that the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. It is claimed that the cut will  somehow “incentivise” those people to find work, as if they simply lack motivation, rather than being ill and disabled. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessment have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again in the near future, many won’t be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut, given the additional needs that disabled people have, which is historically recognised, and empirically verified by research. 

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.” People on sickness benefits don’t move into work because they are sick. Forcing them to work is outrageous. 

The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – PIP. However, as outlined, the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into hard work.

The current United Nations investigation into the systematic and gross violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK because of the Conservative welfare “reforms” is a clear indication that there is no longer any political commitment to supporting disabled people in this country, with the Independent Living Fund being scrapped by this government, ESA for the work related activity group (WRAG) cut back, PIP is becoming increasingly very difficult to access, and now there are threats to the ESA Support Group. The Conservative’s actions have led to breaches in the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES – CRPD articles 4, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and especially 19, 20, 27 and 29 (at the very least.)

There are also probable violations of articles 22, 23, 25, 30, 31.

The investigation began before the latest round of cuts to ESA were announced. That tells us that the government is unconcerned their draconian policies violate the human rights of sick and disabled people.

And that, surely, tells us all we need to know about this government’s intentions.

Coercing those deemed to ill to work into work. It’s not “nudge”: it’s psycho-compulsion

The casual discussion in the green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” some ESA claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation” is also cause for some concern. 

Apparently these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Teamthe controversial Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office and Nesta.

Most people who read my work regularly will know by now that I am one of the staunchest critics of nudge, which is being used as an antidemocratic, technocratic, pseudoscientific political tool to provide a prop and disguise for controversial neoliberal policies. It’s very evident that “disabled people’s organisations” were not major contributors to the design. It’s especially telling that those people to be targeted by this “intervention” were completely excluded from the conversation. Sick and disabled people are reduced to objects of public policy, rather than being seen as citizens and democratic subjects capable of rational dialogue.  

John Pring at Disability News Service (DNS) adds: “Grassroots disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have criticised the government’s decision to exclude them from an event held to launch its new work, health and disability green paper. 

The event for “stakeholders” was hosted by the disability charity Scope at its London headquarters, and attended by Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said in its invitation – it turned down a request from Disability News Service to attend – that the event would “start the consultation period” on its green paper, Improving Lives. 

It said that it was “launching a new conversation with disabled people and people with health conditions, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers”.  

But DWP has refused to say how many disabled people’s user-led organisations were invited to the event, and instead suggested that DNS submit a freedom of information request to find out.
But DNS has confirmed that some of the most prominent user-led organisations with the strongest links to disabled people were not invited to the launch, including Shaping Our Lives, Inclusion London, Equal Lives, People First (Self Advocacy) and Disabled People Against Cuts.” 

For further discussion of the policy context leading up to the green paper, see The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work from October 2015. 

Also see G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy” and Stephen Crabb’s obscurantist approach to cuts in disabled people’s support and also Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records from earlier this year.

The dismal and incoherent contents of the green paper were entirely predictable.

The Conservatives claim work is a “health” outcome: crude behaviourism

A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

It was then decided that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming ESA by “encouraging” them into work. Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”. For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to a broader aim of dismantling social security.

From the document: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

Rather than make a link between manual work, lack of reasonable adjustments in the work place and the impact this may have on longer term ill health, the government chose instead to promote the cost-cutting irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome. Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually downright dangerous.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, it seems.

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship.

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive.

It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism.

Earlier this year, I said: The Conservatives have come dangerously close to redefining unemployment as a psychological disorder, and employment is being redefined as a “health outcome.” 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.

But the government’s aim to prompt public services to “speak with one voice” is founded on questionable ethics. This proposed multi-agency approach is reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive provision.

This is psychopolitics, not therapy. It’s all about (re)defining the experience and reality of a social group to justify dismantling public services (especially welfare), and that is form of gaslighting intended to extend oppressive political control and micromanagement. In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. It will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

Conservatives really seem to believe that the only indication of a person’s functional capacity, value and potential is their economic productivity, and the only indication of their moral worth is their capability and degree of willingness to work. But unsatisfactory employment – low-paid, insecure and unfulfiling work – can result in a decline in health and wellbeing, indicating that poverty and growing inequality, rather than unemployment, increases the risk of experiencing poor mental and physical health. People are experiencing poverty both in work and out of work.

Moreover, in countries with an adequate social safety net, poor employment (low pay, short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. 

There is ample medical evidence (rather than the current raft of political dogma) to support this account. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example. The understanding that food deprivation in particular dramatically alters cognitive capacity, emotions, motivation, personality, and that malnutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.)

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous.

In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.

In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being reduced by conditionally; by linking it to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will reduce every service to nothing more than a political semaphore and service provision to a behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers.

The Government is intending to “signpost the importance of employment as a health outcome in mandates, outcomes frameworks, and interactions with Clinical Commissioning Groups.”

I have pointed out previously that there has never been any research that demonstrates unemployment is a direct cause of ill health or that employment directly improves health, and the existing studies support the the idea that the assumed causality between unemployment and health may actually run in the opposite direction. It’s much more likely that inadequate social security support means that people cannot meet all of  their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter), and that contributes significantly to poor health outcomes.

It’s not that unemployment is causing higher ill health, but that ill health and discrimination are causing higher unemployment. If it were unemployment causing ill health, at a time when the government assures us that employment rates are currently “the highest on record,” why are more people becoming sick?

The answer is that inequality and poverty have increased, and these social conditions, created by government policies, have long been established by research as having a correlational relationship with increasing mental and physical health inequalities. 

For an excellent, clearly written and focused development of these points, the problem of “hidden” variables and political misinterpretation, see Jonathan Hulme’s Work won’t set us free.

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Prior to 2010, cutting support for sick and disabled people was unthinkable, but the “re-framing” strategy and media stigmatising campaigns have been used by the Conservatives to systematically cut welfare, push the public’s normative boundaries and to formulate moralistic justification narratives for their draconian policies. Those narratives betray the Conservative’s intentions.

Not enough people have questioned what it is that Conservatives actually mean when they use words like “help”, “support”, and “reform” in the context of government policies aimed at disabled people. Nor have they wondered where the evidence of “help” and “support” is hiding. If you sit on the surface of Conservative rhetoric and the repetitive buzzwords, it all sounds quite reasonable, though a little glib.

If you scrutinise a little, however, you soon begin to realise with horror that Orwellian-styled techniques of neutralisation are being deployed to lull you into a false sense of security: the ideologically directed intentions behind the policies and the outcomes and consequences are being hidden or “neutralised” by purposefully deceptive, misdirectional political rhetoric. It’s a kind of glittering generalities tokenism ; a superficial PR ritual of duplicitous linguistic detoxification, to obscure deeply held traditional Conservative prejudices and ill intent.

Rhetoric requires the existence of an audience and an intent or goal in the communication. Once you stand back a little, you may recognise the big glaring discrepancies between Conservative chatter, policies, socioeconomic reality and people’s lived experiences. At the very least, you begin to wonder when the conventional ideological interests of the Conservatives suddenly became so apparently rhetorically progressive, whilst their policies have actually become increasingly authoritarian, especially those directed at the most disadvantaged social groups.

The ministerial foreword from Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, is full of concern that despite the claim that “we have seen hundreds of thousands more disabled people in work in recent years”, there are simply too many sick and disabled people claiming ESA.

They say: We must highlight, confront and challenge the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings that, after many years, have become engrained in many of the policies and minds of employers, within the welfare state, across the health service and in wider society. Change will come, not by tinkering at the margins, but through real, innovative action. This Green Paper marks the start of that action and a far-reaching national debate, asking: ‘What will it take to transform the employment prospects of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions?’

I think mention of the “engrained attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings within the welfare state and across the health service” is the real clue here about intent. What would have been a far more authentic and reassuring comment is “we have met with disabled people who have long-term health conditions and asked them if they feel they can work, and what they need to support them if they can.”

Instead, what we are being told via subtext is that we are wrong as a society to support people who are seriously ill and disabled by providing civilised health and social care, social security and exempting them from work because they are ill or injured.

Ministers say:Making progress on the government’s manifesto ambition to halve the disability employment gap is central to our social reform agenda by building a country and economy that works for everyone, whether or not they have a long-term health condition or disability. It is fundamental to creating a society based on fairness [..] It will also support our health and economic policy objectives by contributing to the government’s full employment ambitions, enabling employers to access a wider pool of talent and skills, and improving health.”

I think that should read: “By building a country where everyone works for the [politically defined] economy.”

There’s patronising discussion of how disabled people should be “allowed to fulfil their potential”, and that those mythic meritocratic principles of talent determination and aspiration should be “what counts”, rather than sickness and disability. There are some pretty gaping holes in the logic being presented here. It is assumed that prejudice is the reason why sick and disabled people don’t work.

But it’s true that many of us cannot work because we are too ill, and the green paper fails to acknowledge this fundamental issue.

Instead “inequality” has been redefined strictly in terms of someone’s employment status, rather than as an unequal social distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. All of the responsibility and burden of social exclusion and unemployment is placed on sick and disabled people, whilst it is proposed that businesses are financially rewarded for employing us.

Furthermore, it’s a little difficult to take all the loose talk seriously about the “injustice” of ill people not being in work, or about meritocratic principles and equal opportunities, when it’s not so long ago that more than one Conservative minister expressed the view that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage. This government have made a virtue out of claiming they are giving something by taking something away. For example, the welfare cuts have been casually re-named reforms in Orwellian style. We have yet to see how cutting the lifeline benefits of the poorest people, and imposing harsh sanctioning can possibly be an improvement for them, or how it is helping them.

The Conservatives are neoliberal fundamentalists, and they have supplanted collective, public values with individualistic, private values of market rationality. They have successfully displaced established models of welfare provision and state regulation through policies of privatisation and de-regulation and have shifted public focus, instigating various changes in subjectivity, by normalising individualistic self-interest, entrepreneurial values, and crass consumerism. And increasing the social and material exclusion of growing numbers living in absolute poverty.

Basically, the Tories tell lies to change perceptions, divert attention from the growing wealth inequality manufactured by their own policies, by creating scapegoats.

Another major assumption throughout the paper is that disabled people claiming ESA are somehow mistaken in assuming they cannot work: “how can we improve a welfare system that leaves 1.5 million people – over 60% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance – with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market? How can we build a system where the financial support received does not negatively impact access to support to find a job? How can we offer a better user experience, improve system efficiency in sharing data, and achieve closer alignment of assessments?”

The government’s brand of armchair pseudo-psychology, propped up by the Nudge Unit, is used to justify increasingly irrational requirements being embedded in policy. The government intend to merge health and employment services, redefining work as aclinical health outcome. According to the government, the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability and sickness absence from work, is… work.

The new work and health programme, “support” for disabled people, is actually just another workfare programme. We know that workfare tends to decrease the likelihood of people finding work.

Work is the only politically prescribed “route out of poverty” for disabled people, including those with mental distress and illness, regardless of whether or not they are actually well enough to work. In fact the government implicitly equates mental health with economic productivity. Work will set us free. Yet paradoxically, disabled people haven’t been and won’t be included in the same economic system which is responsible for their exclusion in the first place.

Competitive market economies exclude marginalised groups, that’s something we ought to have learned from the industrial capitalism of the last couple of centuries. GPs inform us that employers are not prepared to make the necessary inclusive workplace adjustments sick and disabled people often need to work.

But in a dystopic Orwellian world where medical sick notes have been  politically redefined as ”fit notes”, sick and disabled people are no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. People are already being punished and coerced into taking any available job, regardless of its appropriateness, in an increasingly competitive and exclusive labor market.

The nitty gritty

You know the government are riding the fabled rubber bicycle when they calmly propose coercing the most disabled and ill citizens who are deemed unlikely to work by their doctors and the state (via the Work Capability Assessment) into performing mandatory work-related activities and finding jobs. Previously, only those assessed as possibly capable of some work in the future and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) were expected to meet behavioural conditionality in return for their lifeline support.

However, the government have cut the WRAG component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – another somewhat Orwellian name for a sickness and disability benefit – so that this group of people, previously considered to have additional needs because of their illness and disability, are no longer supported to meet the extra costs they face. The ESA WRAG rate of pay is now to be the same as Job Seeker’s Allowance.

If the government make work related activity mandatory for those people in the ESA Support Group, it will mean that very sick and disabled people will be sanctioned for being unable to comply and meet conditionality. This entails the loss of their lifeline support. The government have the cheek to claim that they will “protect and support” the most vulnerable citizens.

Hello, these ARE among our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why they were placed in the ESA support group in the first place.

Apparently, sick citizens are costing too much money. Our NHS is “overburdened” with ill people needing healthcare, our public services are “burdened” with people needing… public services. It is claimed that people are costing employers by taking time off work when they are ill. How very dare they.

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberal economies organise societies into hierarchies.The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes of these sociopolitical problems therefore cannot be located within individuals.

The ESA Support Group includes people who are terminally ill, and those with degenerative illnesses, as well as serious mental health problems. It’s suggested that treating this group of people with computer based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (cCBT), and addressing obesity, alcohol and drug dependence will “help” them into work.

Ministers claim that this group merely have a “perception” that they can’t work, and that they have been “parked” on benefits. It is also implied that illness arises mostly because of lifestyle choices.

Proposals include a punitive approach to sick and disabled people needing support, whilst advocating financial rewards for employers and businesses who employ sick and disabled people.

And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

So, a new “independent” assessment and private company will most likely soon have a lucrative role to get the government “the right results”.

Meanwhile health and social care is going to be linked with one main outcome: work. People too ill to work will be healthier if they… work. Our public services will cease to provide public services: health and social care professionals will simply become co-opted authoritarian ideologues.

Apparently, the new inequality and social injustice have nothing to do with an unequal distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. Apparently our society is unequal only because some people “won’t” work. I’m just wondering about all those working poor people currently queuing up at the food bank, maybe their poorly paid, insecure employment and zero hour contracts don’t count as working.

I’ve written as I read this Orwellian masterpiece of thinly disguised contempt and prejudice. I don’t think I have ever read anything as utterly dangerous and irrational in all my time analysing Conservative public policy and the potential and actual consequences of them. These utterly deluded and sneering authors are governing our country, shaping our life experiences, and those of our children.

The sick role and any recovery time from illness or accident that you may need has been abolished. Work will cure you.

Well, at least until you die.
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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

The closing date for the consultation is 17 February 2017.
You can download the full consultation document from this link.
You can take part in the consultation from this link.



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The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

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The Department for Work and Pensions has submitted a document about the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) they are currently conducting regarding in-work “progression.” The submission was made to the Work and Pensions Committee in January, as the Committee have conducted an inquiry into in-work conditionality. The document specifies that:
This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.” 

So please share widely.

The Department for Work and Pensions claim that the Trial is about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” The document focuses on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security, and evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit. (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”

Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial is mandatory. There is clearly no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychopolitical approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct. It’s also very worrying that this intervention is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) have issued a code of ethics in psychology that provides guidelines for the conduct of research. Some of the more important and pertinent ethical considerations are as follows:

Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information relating to:

• A statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.

• Purpose of the research.

• Procedures involved in the research.

All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.

• Subjects’ right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.

Protection of Participants

Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants.

Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. Withdrawing lifeline support that is calculated to meet the costs of only minimum requirements for basic survival – food, fuel and shelter – as a punishment for non-compliance WILL INVARIABLY cause distress, harm and loss of dignity for the subjects that are coerced into participating in this Trial. Participants should be able to leave a study at any time if they feel uncomfortable.

The Economic and Social Research Council has recently issued a new research ethics framework, and the website has lots of useful guidance that is also worth referring to.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting behavioural research interventions.

Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

Unfortunately there is nothing to prevent a government from deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. It is not appropriate to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example.

Some background

I wrote last year about the Work and Pensions Committee’s in-work progression in Universal Credit inquiry. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) intends to establish an “in-work service”, designed to encourage individual Universal Credit claimants on very low earnings to increase their income. Benefit payments may be stopped if claimants fail to take action as required by the DWP. The DWP is conducting a range of pilots to test different approaches but there is very little detail about these. The new regime might eventually apply to around one million people.

We really must challenge the Conservative’s use of words such as “encourage” and “support” and generally deceptive language use in the context of what are, after all, extremely punitive, coercive  policies.

I wrote a statement at the time regarding my own submission to the inquiry, prompted by Frank Field’s spectacularly misguided and conservative statement. Here are a few of the issues and concerns I raised: 

Field refered to the Conservative “welfare dependency” myth, yet there has never been any empirical evidence to support the claims of the existence of a “culture of dependency” and that’s despite the dogged research conducted by Keith Joseph some years ago, when he made similar claims.

In fact, a recent international study of social safety nets from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists categorically refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programmes discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependencydiverts us from political discrimation via policies, increasing inequality, and it serves to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens, normalising prejudice and resetting social norm defaults that then permit the state to target protected social groups for further punitive and “cost-cutting” interventions to “incentivise” them towards “behavioural change.”

Furthermore, Welfare-to-Work programmes do not “help” people to find jobs, because they don’t address exploitative employers, structural problems, such as access to opportunity and resources and labour market constraints. Work programmes are not just a failure here in the UK, but also in other countries, where the programmes have run extensively over at least 15 years, such as Australia.

Welfare-to-work programes are intimately connected with the sanctioning regime, aimed at punishing people claiming welfare support. Work programme providers are sanctioning twice as many people as they are signposting into employment (David Etherington, Anne Daguerre, 2015), emphasising the distorted priorities of “welfare to work” services, and indicating a significant gap between claimant obligations and employment outcomes.

The Conservatives have always constructed discourses and shaped institutions which isolate some social groups from health, social and political resources, with justification narratives based on a process of class-contingent characterisations and the ascribed responsiblisation of social problems such as poverty, using quack psychology and pseudoscience. However, it is socioeconomic conditions which lead to deprivation of opportunities, and that outcome is undoubtedly a direct consequence of inadequate and discriminatory political decision-making and policy.

It’s worth bearing in mind that many people in work are still living in poverty and reliant on in-work benefits, which undermines the Libertarian Paternalist/Conservative case for increasing benefit conditionality somewhat, although those in low-paid work are still likely to be less poor than those reliant on out-of-work benefits. The Conservative “making work pay” slogan is a cryptographic reference to the punitive paternalist 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility.

The government’s Universal Credit legislation has enshrined the principle that working people in receipt of in-work benefits may face benefits sanctions if they are deemed not to be trying hard enough to find higher-paid work. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining. In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they hate it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else.

There are profoundly conflicting differences in the interests of employers and employees. The former are generally strongly motivated to purposely keep wages as low as possible so they can generate profit and pay dividends to shareholders and the latter need their pay and working conditions to be such that they have a reasonable standard of living.

Workplace disagreements about wages and conditions are now typically resolved neither by collective bargaining nor litigation but are left to management prerogative. This is because Conservative aspirations are clear. Much of the government’s discussion of legislation is preceded with consideration of the value and benefit for business and the labour market. They want cheap labour and low cost workers, unable to withdraw their labour, unprotected by either trade unions or employment rights and threatened with destitution via benefit sanction cuts if they refuse to accept low paid, low standard work. Similarly, desperation and the “deterrent” effect of the 1834 Poor Law amendment served to drive down wages.

In the Conservative’s view, trade unions distort the free labour market which runs counter to New Right and neoliberal dogma. Since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards.

In-work conditionality enforces a lie and locates blame within individuals for structural problems – political, economic and social – created by those who hold power. Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a significant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

The government intends to continue formulating policies which will punish sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.

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It’s the design of Universal Credit that presents the biggest concern, not just the delivery

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Universal Credit was originally presented to the public as a positive facet of the otherwise draconian Tory welfare “reforms.” Designed to simplify the benefit system, introducing more flexibilty, and to ensure that benefit claimants were “always better off in work” –  by removing “disincentives” to employment.

Of course, in tandem with this are the much more punitive, coercive and cost-cutting policies – cuts to disability benefits, the introduction of an overall benefit cap and the extended and increasing use of sanctions, as a key part of a stringent and increasingly coercive conditionality regime. 

You have to wonder how the Conservatives have avoided the criticism levelled at the Thatcher government of the 1980s: that it sacrificed and condemned millions who desperately wanted to work to mortify on benefits as a “price worth paying” for ‘economic recovery’ following the recession that the Thatcher administration created in the first place. 

After all, Cameron’s government are still sacrificing those with the least, no matter how much he enlists the support of the media in constructing folk devils to divert and manipulate public attention, to justify a withdrawal of state responsibility, and by using the ensuing media generated moral panic and outrage to justify the draconian welfare “reforms.

To hear Iain Duncan Smith speak, Universal Credit holds some kind of mystical power that will address all manner of social problems from unemployment and the “undesirable” attitudes of benefit claimants to child poverty.

Critics, especially in the media, tend to invoke the dismal consequences of IT contracting and the stunted progress of the policy’s roll-out.

This said, the Department for Work and Pensions are not well known for their cooperation and forthcoming when it comes to sharing pertinent information. But all of this has allowed the continuation of a dangerous myth: that the problems facing UC are all about delivery, rather than design.

It also means that UC becomes an impossible project to manage well. It seems that none of the programme leaders can take big problems to Iain Duncan Smith because he is in desperate denial that big problems can exist. He has clearly invested much ego equity in this vanity project. The Department has therefore a fostered a “good news” front. Staff are undoubtedly sent off to some of the same courses as jobseekers, to learn the powers of positive thinking and other such magical thinking schemes.

As the new generation of cognitive behaviour therapists would have us believe, the world is really ok, it’s just the way you think about it and respond to it that is the real problem… Gee, and I thought that was called ‘gaslighting.’

Staff set to strike in protest of delivery and administrative burdens, not the policy design burdens on claimants

The Mirror report that Universal Credit staff are to strike in protest against oppressive culture under the Tory welfare reforms. However, once again, the focus of contention for the staff is mostly on the delivery and not the design of the policy.

Some 1,500 Universal Credit workers are complaining of staff shortages, poor training and money squandered on IT that wasn’t used. They claim they’re being given unrealistic targets as the government’s flagship reform is rolled out across Britain – over its original deadline and budget.

The cost of Universal Credit has soared to almost £16bn and it will now take at least 5 years to implement, according to a damning watchdog report last month, from The Major Projects Authority (MPA).

The scheme, championed by Duncan Smith with David Cameron’s full support, received royal assent in 2012 with initial plans for a full roll-out by the 2015 general election.

A pilot scheme has been introduced in selected areas, but only 65,000 people in the UK are currently claiming UC, according to government data.

Huge costs include £40m which was spent on computer code which then wasn’t used – with officials admitting in 2013 it would end up having no value.

And a Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) survey earlier this year found 90% of staff still had concerns the IT system wouldn’t be adequate.

Next week’s walkout will be followed by an overtime ban running until August 18.

The union says that the Department for Work and Pensions isn’t giving the scheme enough resources and has performed a “massive scaling back” of flexible working hours.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said:

“The introduction of Universal Credit has been a textbook example of how not to reform essential public services.

The DWP’s handling of every aspect of it has been disastrous.”

But my own concerns extend well beyond mere financial costs of administration and implementation issues. Universal Credit is designed to cut even more from the amount of support that people get. Many people are struggling because of the cuts that have happened already to ‘legacy’ benefits, such as the cap and bedroom tax.  Further cuts are going to bring devastation to the very people who, as a society, we should be supporting the most. 

Universal Credit is highly likely to inflict more hunger, fuel poverty and destitution on people who are already struggling to meet their basic living costs. The numbers needing to use food banks will certainly rise substantially, and homelessness, too. Universal Credit is not especially designed to accommodate disabled people, too. The conditionality is even more punitive, and it’s likely that the use of sanctions will rise. There is no clarification regarding the carrying over of the various disability premiums from legacy disability benefits to Universal Credit, for example.

One undercover reporter in the Bolton call centre, where workers are now going on strike next week, said he was told not to mention an emergency fund unless callers asked about it.

“Worryingly, the undercover journalist claimed he was told his call centre was “like Fight Club.” A trainer was recorded telling him: “It’s a bit like Fight Club – we don’t discuss what happens in Fight Club.

So you don’t talk about flexible support fund either.”

This kind of repressive withholding of information about support for claimants now permeates job centres, along with an oppressive culture of secrecy imposed on staff more generally.

Altercasting –  authority and compliance‐gaining strategies 

The oppressive welfare “reforms” have a profoundly negative impact on those people who the policies are aimed at. Job Centre Plus’s predominant focus is now on compliance monitoring with less attention given to meaningful and in-depth employment advice and support for claimants. This effectively transforms welfare into a system designed to administer discipline and punishment to people who need support.

Perhaps the major contributing factor to an increase in workplace oppression among DWP staff is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has fashioned, perpetuated, permitted and endorsed traditional prejudices against social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, together with a complicit media. Tory policies have historically embedded a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups.

This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department for Work and Pensions and job centres are also bound by the same  punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.

As established figures of authority and role models, their behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead he employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives government departments and indeed wider society permission and approval to do the same.

Much government policy aimed at marginalised groups is about imposing conformity whilst enforcing the systematic removal of publicly funded state support.

The set of underpinning assumptions that Universal credit is founded on are wrong. The New Right have formulated individualistic psychopolicy interventions aimed at the most excluded social groups. These coercive and punitive policies are dressed up and paraded in a populist, pseudo-language of psychology, poorly defined and flawed concepts such as “lack of motivation” and “psychological resistance to work” are being used by politicians and job centre staff to allocate claimants to more or less arduous workfare regimes, for example.

Such policies are not aimed at supporting people: instead they act upon people, objectifying and dehumanising them. And instructing them how to be.

Welfare has been redefined: it is pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing. 

For example, Jobcentre “nudge” posters, designed by the Government Behavioural Insights Team are used to “encourage” claimants to expand the area of job search to increase their chances of finding work. The posters are designed “to challenge claimant attitudes that had been identified as barriers to work.”Aimed at Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, the posters used the idea of  “loss aversion” (an economics and decision theory  which, in basic terms, claims that disincentives are more effective than incentives in modifying behaviours,) by highlighting the potential job opportunities that claimants might miss out on by not widening their job search area. Of course the most powerful application of loss aversion theory is in benefit sanctions for non-compliance.

And to meet Jobcentre targets. 

The Behavioural Insights Team have also prompted the use of “altercasting” (a technique of persuasion, aimed at manipulating identity, (to be assumed by other(s) with whom one interacts with, which is “congruent with one’s own goals”) to establish a social dynamic based on the authority of Jobcentre staff  and an obedient counter-role of claimants.

All of the Tory psychopolicies are authoritarian, they are aimed at coercing compliance, ultimately. Altercasting is a method of persuading people by forcing them into a social role, so that they will be restricted to behaving according to that role.

 

It’s worth considering that the Authority-Agent altercast was also used by Stanley Milgram in 1974 in an experiment to prompt people to give electric shocks (increasing in potency) to other people (in a fake learning experiment that was really about social obedience) under orders of the authoritative experimenter.  The participants were actually administering fake shocks to acting confederates, but they were unaware of this deception. 65% of the participants were compliant in administering what they took to be near-lethal shocks.

The stigmatisation of people needing welfare support not only demoralises those it is aimed at,it is also designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poorest citizens, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state. Such stigmatising –  by using negative affiliation and outgrouping rhetoric – is another type of altercasting. It serves to stabilise benign conceptions of the “authority”, to structure social threat perceptions of others and to legitimate what are ultimately cruel and punitive policies.

But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this psychocratic government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems that are caused by government decisions.

In the Universal Credit white paper (pdf), the government argued:

“Welfare dependency has become a significant problem in Britain with a huge social and economic cost.” The new benefit will be “leaner” and “firmer”.

The UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up in homes where no one works and this pattern repeats itself through the generations. Less than 60% of lone parents in the UK are in employment, compared to 70% or more in France, Germany and the Netherlands … Universal Credit will start to change this. It will reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations.” May have?  Despite the claims from government about the existence of families with three or even two ‘workless’ generations, researchers have been “unable to locate any families in which there were three generations in which no-one had ever worked.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published the study that debunked  the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012.  I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive positivist/behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune.

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

And then there is the fact that in-work poverty is rising. Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, why have those “personal failings” only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years?

The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions(state ‘therapy’), but it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by sincerely addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.

Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.

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Here are some key problems with the design of Universal Credit:

Monthly payments
The government thinks this will help promote good budgeting and more closely replicate monthly salary payments.  Campaigners are worried that the shift from weekly and fortnightly payments to this new regime may push claimants recipients into debt. The Social Market Foundation says: “Most households in our sample opposed the idea of a monthly payment. This was the case for the majority of households, who tended to budget on a daily, weekly or fortnightly cycle.”

One of the most controversial aspects of Universal Credit is the introduction of a new seven-day waiting period before an individual qualifies for benefit. What is more, people on Universal Credit will have to endure a wait of one calendar month whilst their entitlement is calculated, and then a further seven-day wait for payment into their account, which will produce a total wait of at least five weeks before people already in hardship receive any money.

Benefit payments will go directly to one member of a couple
In cases of domestic abuse and violence, this could give perpetrators command of household income, further enabling them to control and isolate their partners. As Sandra Horley from Refuge points out:

“The housing benefit on which refuges depend is the lifeblood of the national network of services that keep women and children safe. But this vital source of income is now at risk. Many of our refuges do not meet the official definition of “supported exempt accommodation”, which means that a lot of the women we support will fall foul of the benefit cap.

This will be particularly damaging for women who pay two rents – one for the refuge they are living in temporarily, and the other for the home they have fled. Women who move on from refuges and resettle in areas of high rent may also be plunged into debt as a result of the cap. Those who accumulate rent arrears may face eviction and be left with an impossible dilemma either to sleep rough or return to their violent partner.”

Direct payments
The prospect of stopping housing benefit payments to landlords and directly paying the claimant is causing a lot of unease. The National Housing Federation says the shift from paying landlords to paying claimants direct for the housing benefit element could trigger unprecedented levels of arrears and increased rent collection costs.

“Of all the reforms, the introduction of direct payments to tenants is expected to have the biggest impact – more than 80% of housing associations say it will affect their organisations a great deal or a fair amount,” an NHF report warns. “84% of associations believe that rent arrears will increase as a direct result of welfare changes. The average increase expected is 51%, which, if replicated across the sector, would mean an additional £245m of arrears.”

The government has said that “vulnerable” tenants may be excluded (pdf) and has devised an “automatic switchback mechanism” – paying rent to the landlord when a tenant’s arrears hit a threshold level – but there are currently very few details of what constitutes a vulnerable tenant.

There are concerns that more people could be evicted as a result. The BBC obtained figures that showed when the direct payments were piloted in six areas of the country there was a big rise in rent arrears as some tenants failed to pass that money on, with arrears rising from about 2% to 11%.

Conditionality and sanctions
“Entitlement to UC is subject to a strict regime of ‘personalised’ conditionality (ie mandatory activity to prepare for and obtain work), backed by tough benefit sanctions (ie loss of benefit) for non-compliance,” the government says.

The Child Poverty Action Group warns: “The need for more conditionality comes across as a moral crusade, rather than being evidence based … There are concerns that some vulnerable claimants could face repeated sanctions for failing to comply with the demands of the system and that personal advisers and the Work Programme (within a culture of ‘payment by results’) will have too much power and discretion to impose unreasonable requirements on claimants.”

The charity warns in a UC training document: “Sanctions, in the form of loss of benefit, are designed to incentivise claimants to meet their work-related requirements and punish them for unreasonable failures. The regime is harsh, and there is concern that some claimants who repeatedly fail to comply with the system could be sanctioned and forced to survive on below subsistence income for long periods. This could include vulnerable claimants with mental health or social functioning problems, who find it difficult to comply with directions.”

A high level sanction can be imposed if, for example, a claimant fails for no good reason to take up an offer of paid work. The higher level sanction is the loss of the standard allowance of 91 days for a first failure, 182 days for a second higher level sanction within a year, and 1,095 days (three years) for another failure within a further year (disregarding “pre-claim” failures).

Hardship payments will be available of 60% of the sanctioned amount for those who cannot meet their “immediate and most basic and essential needs for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene”.

Lone parents will probably lose out
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that “because of the way the parameters of universal credit have been chosen, couples, and particularly those with children, look set to gain by more, on average, than single-adult families, particularly lone parents, who will lose on average according to our analysis”.

Universal Credit is designed to ensure that the government’s aim is fulfilled: that our social insurance and social security provision is dismantled. 

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

proper Blond

The current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency.” Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions are an integral part of the Conservative ideological pseudo-moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed at making claiming benefits much less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure, exploitative job.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems caused by the government’s decisions, rather than as the casualities.

And actually, that a recognisable bullying tactic known as projection, (the vehicle for projection is blame, criticism and allegation), as is scapegoating.

The 2015 budget included plans to provide online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to 40,000 claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme, as well as putting therapists in more than 350 job centres.

I wrote an article in March about the government plans to make the receipt of social security benefits conditional on undergoing “state therapy.” I raised concern about ethical issues – such as consent, the inappropriateness of using behaviour modification as a form of “therapy,” and I criticised the proposed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme on methodological and theoretical grounds, as well as considering wider implications.

I’ve written at length about the coercive and punitive nature of the conservative psychopolicy interventions, underpinning the welfare “reforms,” and giving rise to increased welfare “conditionality” and negative sanctions.

In particular, I’ve focussed on the influence of the Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Team or “nudge unit” and “the application of behavioural science and psychology to public policy. (See: The nudge that knocked down democracy, The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting, and Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England? )

I was pleased to see that the BBC reported a summary of the research findings of Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn, which was supported by the Wellcome Trust. The report – Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes reflects many of the concerns raised by other professionals. I strongly recommend you read it. (See: Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies.)

The BBC summarised from the report that benefit claimants are being forced to take part in “positive thinking” courses in an effort to “change their personalities.” Those people claiming benefits that do not exhibit a “positive” outlook must undergo “reprogramming” or face having their benefits cut. This is humiliating for job seekers and does not help them find suitable work.

New benefit claimants are interviewed to find out whether they have a “psychological resistance” to work, with those deemed “less mentally fit” given more “intensive coaching.”

And unpaid work placements are increasingly judged on psychological results, such as improved motivation and confidence, rather than whether they have led to a job.

The co-author of the report, Lynne Friedli, describes such programmes, very aptly, as “Orwellian.” She says:

“Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel.

“This makes the government’s proposal to locate psychologists in job centres particularly worrying.

“By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”

Friedli also criticised the way psychologists were being co-opted as “government enforcers” and called on professional bodies to denounce the practice.

Quite rightly so. It’s our socio-economic system, and the ideologues who shape it that present the problems, not the groups of people forced to live in it as its casualities – the “collateral damage” of neoliberalism and social conservatism.

“I don’t think anything can justify forced psychological coercion. If people want to go on training courses that should be entirely voluntary,” Lynne told BBC News.

She also questioned the aim of the motivational courses and welfare-to-work placements, which felt like “evangelical” self-help seminars.

“Do we really want a world where the only kind of person considered employable is a ‘happy clappy’, hyper-confident person with high self-esteem?

“That is a very a narrow set of characteristics. There is also a role in the workplace for the ‘eeyore’ type.”

Absolutely. Frankly, I would rather have health and safety programmes that are designed by a pessimist, capable of thinking of the worst case scenario, for example, than by a jolly, positively biased, state-coerced optimist.

I would also prefer pessimistic appraisal of social policies. That way, we may actually have impact assessments carried out regarding the consequences of Conservative policies, instead of glib, increasingly Orwellian political assurances that are on the other, more scenic, illusory side across the chasm from social realities.

Although pessimism and depression are considered to be affective disorders, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of the brain, depressed patients were shown to be more accurate in their causal attributions of positive and negative social events, and in self assessments, and assessment of their own performance of tasks, than non-depressed participants, who demonstrated a positive bias.

As a former community-based psychosocial practitioner who saw the merits and value of a liberationist model, the question that needs to be asked is: for whose benefit is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations.

The socially dispossessed are being coerced by the state, part of that process is the internalisation of the negative images of themselves created and propagated by their oppressors.

CBT is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and specific outcome.

The problem that we need to confront is politically designed and perpertuated social injustice, rather than the responses and behaviour of excluded, stigmatised individuals in politically oppressed, marginalised social groups.

CBT is founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, in this case it is assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than socio-political, and that assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty.”

However, democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly about telling us how to be.

As I have said elsewhere, as well as aiming at shaping behaviour, the psycho-political messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for neoliberal welfare “reform”, austerity policies, the small State (minarchism) and also legitimises them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.) The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational.

Conservative narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatising the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Many of the current ideas behind “reforming” welfare come from the Behavioural Insights  Team – the Nudge Unit at the heart of the Cabinet. Nudge theory has made Tory ideology, with its totalitarian tendencies, seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using discredited pseudoscience. Those policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date.

Nudge-based policy is hardly in our “best interests,” then.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England?

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Framing the game

Earlier this year, David Cameron defended his welfare “reforms”, claiming that: “Labour has infantilised benefit claimants”, and he argued it was “not big-hearted” to leave people claiming sickness allowances when “they could be incentivised to get treatment for alcohol dependence or obesity.”

I should not need to point out that despite the bizarre attempt at stigmatising sick and disabled people with such a loaded, moralising and media agenda-setting comment from our PM, the majority of people claiming sickness benefits are neither dependent on alcohol nor are they claiming because they are obese. This said, I think that alcohol dependence and obesity are illnesses that ought to be treated with compassion instead of moralising. But the general public on the whole do not hold this view. Cameron knows that. In fact Cameron has contributed to the scapegoating of social groups, outgrouping and public division significantly over the past five years

I claim sickness benefit simply because I have a life-threatening illness called lupus. There is no cure, and no-one may imply I am ill because of “life-style choices”. However, people using alcohol often have underlying mental distress, and drinking alcohol is pretty much a social norm. Poverty often means that people are forced to buy the cheapest food, which is the least healthy option. Some illnesses and disabilities cause mobility problems, and some treatments cause weight gain. So it cannot be assumed that alcohol dependence and obesity are simply about “making wrong choices” after all. 

I have to say that it IS “big-hearted” to leave me claiming benefits, Mr Cameron, because I am no longer fit for work. Indeed I was forced to take my case to tribunal after your government tried to “kindly” incentivise me to abandon my legitimate claim for sickness benefit, and the tribunal panel decided that if I were return to my profession(s) (social work and previously, youth and community work – with young people at risk of offending,) that would, though no fault of my own, place me in situations that are an unacceptable risk to my health and safety, and of course would also place others – vulnerable young people – at risk. Which is why I claimed sickness benefit in the first place – because I am too ill to work.

Libertarian paternalism isn’t “fatherly”

Mr Cameron, however, thinks he knows better and continues to insist that it is is everyone’s best interests to work. I can assure him that isn’t the case. So can many others with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Back in 2013, Esther McVey defended the increased use of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions in front of the work and pensions committee by infantilising claimants and playing the behaviourist paternalistic libertarian nudge card. She said: “What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same time they are wanting your best interests at heart.”

“They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”

Since when did the state become comparable with a strict, punitive, authoritarian headmaster at a remedial school called “we know what’s best for you” in this so-called first-world liberal democracy?  That is not democracy at all: it’s despotic paternalism.

One of the cruellest myths of inequality is that some people are poor because they lack the capability to be anything else. Meritocracy is a lie. It is used to justify the obscene privileges and power at the top of our steep social hierarchy and the cruel exclusion and crushing, humiliating deprivation at the bottom. No-one seems to want to contemplate that people are poor because some people are very very rich, and if the very rich have a little less, the poor could have a little more.

Neoliberalism is a socioeconomic system founded entirely on competition. This means that people have to compete for resources and opportunities, including jobs. Inevitably such as system generates “winners” and “losers”. Poverty has got nothing to do with personal “choices”; the system itself creates inequalities.

Deserving and undeserving: the rich deserve more money, the poor deserve punishment

At least one third of those people with the most wealth have inherited it. It’s a manifestation of prejudice that poor people are seen as “less deserving”, based on “ability” and on vulgar assumptions regarding people’s personal qualities and character. In fact the media, mostly talking to itself,  in judging “the undeserving”  has given a veneer of moral authority to an ancient Conservative prejudice. It’s very evident in policies. The austerity cuts don’t apply to the fabulously lucky wealthy. Whilst the poorest citizens have seen their welfare cut and wages decrease, as the cost of living spirals upwards, millionaires were handed a tax break of £107, 000 each per year.

Surely our stratified social system of starkly divided wealth, resources, power, privilege and access is punishment enough for poor people.

As Ed Miliband pointed out: “David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.

But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.”  So Tory “incentives” are punitive, but only if you are poor. Wealth, apparently, is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Tories create “scroungers” and “skivers”

As I’ve commented elsewhere, it’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who suddenly seem to develop a considerable range of baffling personal ineptitudes and immediately dysfunctional lives.

We see a proliferation of  “skivers” and “scroungers”, an uprising of “fecklessness”, a whole sneaky “culture of entitlement”, “drug addicts”, a riot of general all-round bad sorts, and apparently, the numbers of poor people who suddenly can’t cook a nutritious meal has climbed dramatically, too. We are told that starvation is not because of a lack of money and access to food, but rather, it’s because people don’t know how to budget and cook.

That’s odd, because I always thought that poverty is a consequence of the way society is organised and how resources are allocated through government policies.

That’s a fundamental truth that we seem to be losing sight of, because of the current poverty of state responsibility and the politics of blame.

However, the current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency”.  Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions were an integral part of the conservative moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed to make claiming benefits less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure job.

Sanctions simply worsen the position of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. Creating desperation by removing people’s means of basic survival forces them into low paid, insecure work and exerts a further downward pressure on conditions of employement and wages. It commodifies the reserve army of labor, which is strictly in the interests of exploitative, profit-driven plutocrats.

Can this really be England? 

Cruel Brittania. A man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment. A lone mother was sanctioned because she was a little late for a jobcentre  interview, as her four year old daughter needed the toilet.

A man with diabetes was sanctioned because he missed an appointment due to illness, he died penniless, starving, without electricity and alone as a consequence. His electricity card was out of credit, which meant that the fridge where he should have kept his insulin chilled was not working. Three weeks after his benefits were stopped he died from diabetic ketoacidosis – because he could not take his insulin. Here are 11 more irrational, unfair, purely punitive applications of sanctions.

How can removing the basic means of survival for the poorest people in our society possibly incentivise them, “help them into work” or be considered to be remotely “fair”?

There are targets set for imposing benefit sanctions. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction people’s benefits, according to their union. Failure to impose “enough” sanctions is said to result in staff being “subject to performance reviews” or losing pay.  “Success” as an employee at the jobcentre is certainly not about helping people to get a job but rather, it’s about tricking them out of the money they need to meet their basic needs. Such as food, fuel and shelter. Welfare is no longer a safety net: it is an institutionalisation of systematic state punishment of our poorest citizens.

Angela Neville worked as an adviser in Braintree jobcentre, Essex, for four years and she has written a play with two collaborators, her friends Angela Howard and Jackie Howard, both of whom have helped advocate for unemployed people who were threatened with benefit sanctions by jobcentre staff.

One central motivation behind the play was how “morally compromising” the job had become. In one scene an adviser tells her mother that it’s like “getting brownie points” for cruelty. When Neville herself became redundant in 2013, she was warned about being sanctioned for supposedly being five minutes late to a jobcentre interview.

There was a strong feeling among the playwrights that the tendencies in wider society and the media to stigmatise and vilify benefits claimants needed to be challenged and refuted. The play opens with a scene where “nosey neighbours” spot someone on sickness benefit in the street and assume they must be skiving instead of working.

This perspective is one shared widely amongst disabled people, groups, organisations and charities that advocate for and support disabled people, and is evidenced by the rapid rise of disability-related hate crime since 2010, reaching the highest level since records began by 2012. The UK government is currently the first to face a high-level international inquiry, initiated by the United Nations Committee because of “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people.

That ought to be a source of shame for the both the government and the public, especially considering that this country was once considered a beacon of human rights, we are (supposedly) a first-world liberal democracy, and a very wealthy nation, yet our government behave like tyrants towards the most vulnerable citizens of the UK. And the public have endorsed this.

“This play is about getting people to bloody think about stuff. Use their brains. Sometimes I think, crikey, we are turning into a really mean, spying on our neighbour, type of society,” Angela said.

The title of the play, Can This be England? is an allusion to the disbelief that Angela Neville and many of us feel at how people on benefits are being treated. And she describes the play, in which she also acts, as a “dramatic consciousness-raising exercise”. The idea behind this production is that the play may be performed very simply, with minimum rehearsal. Scripts are carried throughout and few props are used.

It can take place in any room of a suitable size, and there is no need for stage lighting. The script is freely available to all who wish to use it for performances to raise awareness (non-commercial purposes). Click HERE to download a PDF file. If you find it useful please e-mail any feedback to Angela Neville at the Show and Tell Theatre Company.

Psychopolitics

Welfare has become increasingly redefined: it is now pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social well-being. The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

Framed by ideological concerns, the welfare “reforms” reflect an abandonment of concern for disadvantage and the meeting of human needs as ends in themselves. We have witnessed an extremely punitive system emerge, under the Tories, at a time when jobs are becoming increasingly characterised by insecurity and poor pay. Last year, two-thirds of people who found work took jobs for less than the living wage (£7.85 an hour nationally, £9.15 in London), according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

There are as many people in work that are now in poverty as there are out of work, partly due to a vast increase in insecure work on zero-hours contracts, or in part-time or low-paid self-employment. Poverty-level wages have been exacerbated by the number of people reliant on privately rented accommodation and unable to get social housing, the report said. Evictions of tenants by private landlords outnumber mortgage repossessions and are the most common cause of homelessness. The rapidly rising cost of living – price rises for food, energy and transport – have so many people on low pay struggling to make ends meet.

But pay for people on what were comfortable incomes previously is now outstripped by inflation, leaving many more struggling with rising prices. Public spending has decreased, having a knock-on effect on the economy.

Economic Darwinism doesn’t promote growth

Last year, I wrote about the study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who found what most of us already knew: that income inequality actually stifles economic growth in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, whilst the redistribution of wealth via taxes and benefits encourages growth.

The report from the OECD, a leading global think tank, shows basically that what creates and reverses growth is the exact opposite of what the current right-wing government are telling us, highlighting the rational basis and fundamental truth of Ed Miliband’s comments in his speech – that the Tory austerity cuts are purely ideologically driven, and not about managing the economy at all.

There is a dimension of vindictiveness in the Tory claim that cutting people’s lifeline benefits will somehow “make work pay”, once you see past the Orwellian unlogic of the statement, and recognise the extent of waged poverty in the UK. Making work pay would rationally need to involve a rise in wages, surely, but that has not happened.

To understand this, it is important to grasp the elitist socio-economic priorities that are embedded in Conservative ideology, which I’ve outlined previously in Conservatism in a nutshell. The whole idea beneath the Orwellian doublespeak is comparable with the punitive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 – in particular, we can see a clear parallel with the 1834 “less eligibility principle” and the Tory notion of “making work pay” which I’ve previously discussed in The New New Poor Law.

The parallels are underpinned by a shift from macro-level socio-economic explanations of poverty and state responsibility to micro-level punitive, moral psychologising, scapegoating, and the abdication of state (and public) responsibility.

Policies provide a conceptual frame of reference, which tend to shape public attitudes, they are also deeply symbolic gestures that convey subliminal messages. The Conservative war on welfare and the NHS further devalues the worth of human life, turning the needy into a disposable state commodity, a coerced, desperate reserve army of cheap labour.

It also conveys the message that to care about the survival and well-being of others is futile; it pathologises collectivism, cooperation and altruism. This is a government that operates entirely by generating fear and division, on a social, economic and cultural level, but also, increasingly intrusively, within phenomenological, psychological and psychic dimensions too.

How did the poor become such an easy enemy of the state, and how can the public believe the dominant narrative that pathologises the victim, and fail to recognise the irrational, circular argument of benefit sanctions, when the conservatives’ reasoning is that the application of sanctions demonstrates the moral ineptitude of the individual – but it merely acts to justify poverty and inequality.

The perverse logic runs as follows: welfare for the poorest citizens – those who require collective responses to poverty – can only retain public support by threatening to, and by actually making the poorest even poorer. Is this really welfare?

No, not any more.

How can welfare ever be about some politically manufactured, apocryphal and malevolent desire for retribution, based on pseudo-moralising about the poor and demoralised, and a concern for the spiteful, perverted, mean-spirited sense of satisfaction for the better off, at the expense of the material and biological well-being of those in need: the poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

Conservative rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. If the Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for many others.

Democracy exists partly to ensure that the powerful are accountable to the vulnerable. The Conservatives have blocked that crucial exchange, they despise the welfare state, which provides the vulnerable with protection from  exploitation by the powerful.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the wide recognition that unbridled capitalism causes casualties is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest, there is inevitably going to be winners and losers. That is the nature of competitive individualism, and along with crass inequality, it’s an implicit, undeniable and fundamental part of the meritocracy script.

Poverty is created by government policies that reflect a pursuit of free market ideals;  by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that ensure taxes cuts for the wealthy, banish fiscal and other business regulations, shred the social safety net, and erode social cohesion and stability, whilst directing the media and population to chant the diversionary mantra of self-reliance and individual responsibility.

Poverty intrudes on people’s lives, it dominates attention and constantly commands that our biologically-driven priorities are met, it reduces cognitive resources, it demotivates, it overwhelms, it reduces experience of the world to one of material paramountcy which cannot be transcended, it stifles human potential.

Need is NOT greed, regardless of the malicious justification narratives in the media and spiteful political rhetoric from the champions of social Darwinism and the Randian self-serving free market. Meeting basic survival imperatives – food, warmth and shelter – is a fundamental prerequisite for life. If the means for meeting these basic survival needs is taken away, then people will die. Surely even the most cold, callous, psychopathic and dogmatic defenders of the status quo can manage to work that one out.

Punishing poor people with more poverty is savage, obscene, barbaric, brutal, and can NEVER work to “incentivise” people to not be poor, nor can it change the pathological idiom that shapes and imposes such unfortunate, unforgiving and unforgivable circumstances on those with the least in the first place.

430835_148211001996623_1337599952_n (1)With thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent memes

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

The power of positive thinking.

The government invests a lot of time and money in “nudging” people to accept the unacceptable.

George Osborne announced in the budget that the government will be funding a “package of measures” to improve “employment outcomes” which will entail putting Cognitive Behaviour therapists in more than 350 job centres to provide “support” to those with “common mental health conditions,” and making online access to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy available for people who are claiming employment support allowance (ESA) and job seekers allowance (JSA).

From the HM Treasury document – Budget 2015, page 64: 1.236:

“Budget 2015 also announces a package of measures to improve employment outcomes for people with mental health conditions. Starting from early 2016, the government will provide online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to 40,000 Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants and individuals being supported by Fit for Work. From summer 2015, the government will also begin to co-locate Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) therapists in over 350 Jobcentres, to provide integrated employment and mental health support to claimants with common mental health conditions.”

The government put up an online contract notice which specifically states:

“This provision is designed to support people with common mental health conditions to prepare for and move into work, with intervention at the earliest possible point in a claim to benefit or access to the Fit for Work service.”

Under the government’s plans, therapists from the NHS’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme would support jobcentre staff to assess and treat claimants, who may be referred to online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) courses.

We really must question the ethics of linking receipt of welfare with “state therapy,” which, upon closer scrutiny, is not therapy at all. Linked to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – this is nothing more than a blunt behaviour modification programme. The fact that the Conservatives plan to make receipt of benefits contingent on participation in “treatment” worryingly takes away the fundamental right of consent.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is used to change how you think (“Cognitive”) and what you do (“Behaviour”). It bypasses emotions, personal history and narrative, to a large extent, and tends to focus on the “here and now.”

CBT is an approach that facilitates the identification of “negative thinking patterns” and associated “problematic behaviours” and challenges them. This approach is at first glance a problem-solving approach, however, it is of course premised on the assumption that interpreting situations “negatively” is a bad thing, and that thinking positively about bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt by perceiving their circumstances in a stoical and purely rational way.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the government are expecting people claiming benefits to accept stoically. Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets ? Starvation and destitution?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and specific outcome.

CBT is too often founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, in this case it is assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than sociopolitical, and that assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty” in some way.

There is also an underpinning assumption that working is good for mental health, and that being in employment indicates mental wellbeing. It’s well-established that poverty is strongly linked with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental disorder. But that does not mean working is therefore somehow “good” in some way, for mental wellbeing. Therapy does not address social conditions and context, and so it permits society to look the other way, whilst the government continue to present mental disorder as an individual weakness or vulnerability, and a consequence of “worklessness” rather than a fairly predictable result of living a stigmatised, marginalised existence of material deprivation.

Inequality and poverty are political constructions and arise because of ideology and policy-formulated socioeconomic circumstances, but the Conservatives have transformed established explanations into a project of constructing behavioural and emotional problems as “medical diagnoses” for politically-created (and wholly ideologically endorsed) socioeconomic problems.

Austerity, which targets the poorest disproportionately for cuts to income and essential services, was one ideologically-driven political decision taken amongst alternative, effective and more humane choices.

The government are not strangers to behaviour modification techniques and have been applying crude behaviourism to public policy, drawing on the “expertise”of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)  – the “Nudge Unit” – that they established and installed in the Cabinet Office in 2010. (See Mind the Mindspace, which outlines some of the implications of a government extending operant conditioning via policies to an unconsenting public.)

It is disadvantaged people and excluded groups who are the primary targets of dogmatic, coercive and punitive psychopolicy interventions.

The casual manner in which advocates of behaviourism dismiss the right of people to behave in accordance with their own feelings, intuition and instincts exposes their authoritarian (not “libertarian paternalistic”) ambitions.

It’s frankly terrifying that our so-called democratic government is waging an ideological crusade directed at altering citizens’ thoughts and behaviour, and avoiding any accountability, sidestepping any engagement in potentially difficult political debate about their policies and the impacts that they have.

The objectives adopted by the Nudge Unit choice architects, politico-therapists and psychocrats are entirely about the state micromanagement of public perceptions and behaviours.

These objectives resemble ambitions usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This is a gross state intrusion into a previously private domain. Not only is this government trespassing on an intimate, existential level; it is tampering with our perceptions and experiences, damaging and isolating the poorest, burdening them with the blame for the consequences of their own policies whilst editing out state responsibilities towards citizens.

Both CBT and Nudge are aimed at pushing people in ways that bypass reasoning. The assumption is that because our decision-making ability is limited we need to use non-rational means to persuade people to do what is “good” for them. But who has the moral authority to decide that? This is not about helping people make better choices – it’s about coercing people to make the choices that policymakers want them to make. And again, those “choices” are based on enforcing conformity to the ideological commitments of policymakers.

This psychocratic turn is in diametric opposition to Enlightenment narratives – it fosters a profound anti-rationality and anti-autonomy approach, it’s not remotely democratic: it’s based on a ridiculous premise that people use their freedom and liberty poorly, but somehow, those passing that judgement on everyone else are exempted from such judgements themselves. It is also extends profoundly anti-humanistic consequences.

Apparently, some people think that everyone else is susceptible to flawed thinking and behaviours, but that theory magically excludes the theorist from such human failings, since they are claiming some objective, mind-independent vantage point – a position far away from the rest of us: this is your “human nature” but not ours.

Whether or not we agree on the efficacy of CBT as a therapeutic model in principle is a small consideration which is overshadowed by the fact that the government are using such “therapeutic” techniques as a highly partisan tool – to enforce traditional Tory biases and prejudices and to achieve their ideologically-driven policy agenda.

CBT will be deployed in job centres to simply favour the political objectives of Conservatism: propping up an anti-progressive austerity agenda, regressive ideology, endorsing an ever-shrinking state, whilst reflecting Tory misanthropy.

The social problems arising because of a lack of provision will remain unaddressed and unchallenged because of the Conservative paradigm shift in causal explanations of political and social problems: it’s not down to policy, it’s all the fault of individuals (who are of course those individuals affected adversely by policy.)

CBT is a short-term treatment, which is cheap and simple to deliver. I suspect this is one other reason for it becoming more popular with the Coalition than is warranted.

CBT has limitations for treating certain groups, including people with severe and treatment-resistant depression and those with personality disorders.

Studies concerning the efficacy of CBT have consistently found high drop-out rates compared to other treatments, with the numbers abandoning therapy often being more than five times higher than other treatments groups. (P. Cuijpers,  A. van Straten, G.  Andersson & P. Van Oppen. (2008)).

Researchers analysed several clinical trials that measured the efficacy of CBT administered to young people who self-injure. The researchers concluded that none of them were found to be efficacious. (See: Task force on the promotion and dissemination of psychological procedures: A reported adopted by the Division 12 Board – D. Chambless, K. Babich, P. Crits-Christoph,  E. Frank, M. Gilson & R. Montgomery. (1993)).

CBT fails fundamentally on a theoretical level: it lacks basic clarity, depth and coherence. It doesn’t provide a definition of “clear and correct” thinking – curiously, CBT theorists develop a framework for determining distorted thinking without developing a framework for “cognitive clarity” or what would be deemed “healthy, normal thinking.” This leaves a large space for partisan definitions and political agendas.

And why is irrational thinking considered to be a source of mental and emotional distress when there is no evidence of rational thinking causing psychological wellbeing? Furthermore, social psychology has never demonstrated that the normal cognitive processes (whatever they are) of the average person are irrational.

CBT is deterministic: it denies agency and any degree of free-will. Human behaviour, in this view, is determined by the cognitive processes invoked by external stimuli. It focuses on the former, ignoring the latter. CBT theory basically contends that what you feel is somehow not very important to why you do what you do and think what you think.

But human beings are not automata: we are complex and multi-faceted. Our emotionality is a fundamental part of being human, too – our emotional bonds and attachments, and our interactions with significant others over time contribute hugely to shaping who we are: we are socially contextualised. We are intersubjective, reciprocal and intentional beings. A therapy that sidelines how we feel must surely, at best, be regarded as superficial in its efficacy, scope and reach.

Moreover, in emphasising thought processes to the exclusion of complex and legitimate emotions, therapists may contribute to the harmful repression and denial of feelings.

CBT encourages an unhealthy avoidance of psychological discomfort by diverting thoughts from the source of discomfort. CBT may rouse immature, neurotic and pathological defence mechanisms. It devalues resilience based on mature coping strategies such as openness, courage, mindfulness, acceptance and emotional self-sufficiency.

Not only is that psychologically unhealthy for a person, it’s bad for society as it desensitises and de-empathises people, stultifies learning from experience by disconnecting people’s thoughts from their circumstances and from others. It discourages personal development.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of CBT is that it encourages self-deception and self-blame within clients and patients, because it maintains the status quo. The basic premise of cognitive therapy is: except for how the patient thinks, everything is okay. You can see why this would appeal to the Conservatives.

Poor mental health is often linked with poverty (Melzer et al. 2004) poor community integration, and competitiveness amongst social groups (Arrindell et al., 2003). Key questions arise as to the efficacy, therefore, of working with individuals, when much research suggests community work would be much more effective (Orford, 2008).

The Beacon Project (Stuteley, 2002) was pioneered by health workers who supported those with depression and other health problems by working with their whole community – addressing their basic social needs and developing mutual social support systems. There were significant changes in physical and mental health for the whole community, showing the benefits of fostering a psychology of mutual support, altruism, cooperation and building social capital.

Human needs, public services and provisions, developmental processes, social relationships and contexts are important to any comprehensive model of mental health. Community work offers something that CBT can’t: unlimted scope and reach, sustainable, self-perpetuating, long-lasting provision with an inbuilt preventative agenda.

But the government has no interest in addressing mental health and wellbeing or building social support provisions. The government insists that people’s problems are self-generated and endogenous. But the socioeconomic context, policy decisions and consequences are the fundamental cause of unemployment, poverty and much mental distress.

When people are affected by social problems with structural causes, such as inequality, this in turn leads to a lack of opportunity, economic disadvantage and deprivation, unemployment, ill-health, absolute poverty (increasingly), poor housing, political scapegoating and punishment via policy, it’s ludicrously and grossly unfair to further stigmatise them and claim that their problems arise because of how they think and behave.

For the Tories, the only aim of CBT is a strongly emphasised participation in the labour-market, with minimal expectations of the state and minimal reliance on public services.

“Social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” David Cameron.

No. Social problems are most often the consequence of a government that uses policy to create social inequality, poverty, social exclusion and extremely challenging economic circumstances for those people who have the least to start with. The government uses denial and a process of individualising blame for the problems caused by this government’s ideological austerity programme, which is used to legitimise further cruel constraint by those socio-economic factors caused by the government.

The Tories would have us believe that poor people suddenly become inadequate whenever we have a Tory government. They don’t, but they do become poorer. They are then held responsible and punished for the consequences of Conservatism.

If anyone needs to change the way they think, it’s certainly the Conservatives.

Update June 26, 2015: Mental health workers protest at move to integrate clinic with jobcentre

“This month Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, president of the British Psychological Society (BPS), pointed out recent research which presented evidence that claimants had been forced to accept psychological treatment. Researchers from Hubbub and Birkbeck, University of London, found unemployment was being rebranded as a psychological disorder in many advanced economies, with interventions being introduced to promote a positive outlook or leave claimants of welfare to face sanctions.

Dave Harper, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London, told the Guardian he believed there was an ideological agenda driving the government’s proposals.

“We are in a recession,” Harper said. “There are not many jobs out there and this is implying that unemployed people are to blame for their situation. It’s shifting the focus away from economic policy and on to the individual.”

As a BPS member, I was happy to see a clear, ethical statement from the President.

Related

The just world fallacy

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The idea of libertarian paternalism was popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”? That would be the government, of course.

Nudge philosophy is dressed-up as libertarian paternalism, which in turn dresses-up Tory ideology. Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction.

The direction is towards a small state, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing  citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own bootstraps. It’s the new nothing for something culture.

Behavioural economics is actually founded on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psycho-political theory that arose in the mid-20th century, linked with behaviourism. Theorists from this perspective generalise that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus – Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory. Nudge theorists propose that we are fundamentally irrational, and that our decision-making processes are flawed because of “cognitive biases.” Nudge theory therefore bypasses any engagement with our deliberative processes.

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, (also known as the Nudge Unit) which is a part of the Cabinet  Office,  is made up of people such as David Halpern, who is also a part of Cameron’s “Big Society” campaign. He co-authored the Cabinet Office report:  Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psycho-babble of words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It says the report “addresses the needs of policy-makers.”  Not the public.

The behaviourist educational function made explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and more subliminally, it’s embedded in the very language that is being used.

Education is a dialogic process, with consenting, willing participants. Even compulsory education involves consent and dialogue – children are engaged in the process. What the Nudge Unit is doing is not engaging in the least, nor is it done with our consent: we are being acted upon. Not as inquiring subjects, but as passive objects.

At the heart of every Coalition policy is a “behaviour modification” attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and based on the discredited, pseudo-scientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the messages being given loud and clear are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, “austerity policies” the small State (minarchism) and also legitimises them.

Nudge has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using discredited pseudo-science. Those policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then.

Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion  including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatising the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE framework

All of these basic ideas are being utilised to uphold Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our other social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls  “incentivising” people by using systematic punishments translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “bullying” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego are all contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave.

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being in our “best interests.”

There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach to Conservative policy-making that is aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: work-shy, the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to being a night-watchman – but it watches out only for the propertied class.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

There are serious political ramifications regarding the application of  behaviourism to an unconsenting public. Firstly, that in itself is undemocratic. Skinner was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians. Behaviourism is basically a theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t endorse behaviourism. Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants.

Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects public’s needs. Under the new nudge tyranny that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect Governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality and reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government are substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive psycho-political experiment.

This was taken from a longer piece, here’s the full articleCameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.