Tag: Clare Bambra

The government’s in-work sanctions are incompatible with ‘halving the disability employment gap’ (and other ideological problems)

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The government have introduced in-work sanctioning for low paid and part-time workers to “incentivise” them to “progress” in work. Historically, wages and employment conditions were raised, and hours were often negotiated by Trade Unions. Now those decisions are entirely down to the executive decisions of employers not employees. Sanctioning employees is grossly unfair, because they have very little negotiating and bargaining power (especially since the raft of Conservative anti-collectivist and anti-Trade Union legislation) to improve their lot.

There is also a significant growing body of empirical evidence that informs us sanctions do not work as the government claim.

It’s not as if employees’ behaviour is at fault or that they would ever actually want poor pay, fewer rights and adverse working conditions – that’s down to exploitative employers who are primarily profit driven. It’s hardly fair to punish workers for the motivations and behaviour of their employers.

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. 

Clearly, the weight of favour in policy-making is heavily towards big business profiteering. Implying that the behaviours of workers are a problem in this context is simply another way justification is presented for the further erosion of state responsibility and support and ultimately, the long term plan is to remove such support completely.

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 primarily with consideration of the value and benefit for big business and the labour market. They want a cheap labour  force 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 Act – the principle of less eligibility – also 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 spiraled 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 peers in the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

Sanctioning people in work flies in the face of the government’s previous “hard working families” mantra. But it also flies in the face of their aim to “help” disabled people into work. Many of disabled people would have to work part-time: reduced and flexible hours are also a reasonable adaptation, especially for people who are ill. Many of us also have to accommodate hospital appointments, often with a variety of specialists, as well as hospital based treatment regimes. All of which probably makes us much more likely to face in-work sanctioning in the future.

How does this address the “disability employment gap”? 

The government propose tax cuts and other rewards for employers who employ disabled people in their recent consultation on work, health and disability. However, it is against the law to treat someone less favourably than someone else because of a personal characteristic, such as being disabled.

Furthermore, disabled people have a legal RIGHT to work and to be included in the economy, and I think in light of this, employers should be fined for not employing a quota of disabled people instead. “Disability Confident” is supposed to be about supporting disabled people, not providing publicly funded handouts to employers, whilst at the same time, financially punishing the very people that the policy is supposedly designed to “support.”

There was some very worrying discussion in the recent work health and disability green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” disabled Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation.” 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. 

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.

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. In fact sanctioning people make it less likely that they will find work.

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. State imposed sanctions on sick and disabled people are known to have very harmful consequences. In fact sanctions create significant difficulties and distress for everyone subjected to them. (See also An example of in-work conditionality: when work doesn’t pay).

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 systematically reduced by increasing conditionally; by linking support to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will ultimately reduce every service to nothing more than a state behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers of an ideology  which is perpetuating and accentuating socioeconomic problems in the first place.

Work is not a “health” outcome

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

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 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 fulfill their broader aim of dismantling social security and to uphold their ideological commitment to supply-side policy.

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”

The government made a political and a particularly partisan decision, rather than one that has any an evidence base, to promote the cost-cutting and unverified, 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 potentially downright harmful and dangerous.

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.

2020health – Working Together is a report from 2012 that promotes the absurd notion of work as a health outcome. This is a central theme amongst the ideas that are driving the fit for work and the work and health and programme. Developing this idea further, Dame Carol Black and David Frost’s Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence was aimed at reviewing ways of “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.”

Seems that the central aim of the review wasn’t a genuine focus on sick and disabled people’s wellbeing and “health outcomes,” then. Black and Frost advocated changing sickness certification to further reduce the influence of GPs in “deciding entitlement to out-of-work sickness benefits.”

The subsequent “fit notes” that replaced GP sick notes (a semantic shift of Orwellian proportions) were designed to substantially limit the sick role and reduce recovery periods, and to “encourage” GPs to disclose what work-related tasks patients may still be able to perform. The idea that employers could provide reasonable adjustments that allowed people who are on sick leave to return to work earlier, however, hasn’t happened in reality.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has been highly critical of the language used by the government when describing the fit for work service. The association said it was “misleading” to claim that fit for work was offering “occupational health advice and support” when the emphasis was on sickness absence management and providing a focused return to work.

The idea that work is a “health” outcome is founded on an absurd and circular Conservative logic: it’s an incorrect inference based on the fact that people in work are healthier than those out of work. It’s true that they are, however, the government have yet again confused causes with effects. Work does not make people healthier: it’s simply that healthy people can work and do. People who have long term or chronic illnesses most often can’t work. It has been historically  and empirically established that poverty is closely correlated with disproportionate levels of ill health, and it’s most probable that targeted austerity, leading to increasingly inadequate welfare provision, has made a significant contribution to poorer health outcomes, too.

The government’s main objection to sick leave and illness more generally, is that it costs businesses money. The government remain committed to a supply-side labour market model. However, as inconvenient as it may be, politically and economically, it isn’t ever going to be possible to cure people of serious illnesses by cruelly coercing them into work.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. 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.

However, 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 to challenge the current political dogma, and 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. 

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 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

– childhood immunisation
– antibiotics
– access to education, and particularly, improving female literacy
– increasing social equality

Given that, as statistics sadly show, the health of the poorest in the UK is again declining despite the first four factors mainly still being accessible to even the UK’s very poorest, one can only point at the worsening inequalities and social injustices as a significant cause. The Marmot review pretty much concludes the same. “

Addressing these issues is not consistent with the ideological thrust of Conservative policies, unfortunately, since the government insist that social problems such as poverty and ill health (the biopsychosocial model, with an emphasis on the “psychosocial” elements) are due to individual “behaviours.” Their approach to date has been to level punitive policies with an embedded core of behaviour modification techniques which usually entails the punitive removal of lifeline income at the poorest citizens – casually called “incentivising” and “supporting” – whilst addressing the behaviours of the wealthy with a system of publicly funded financial reward. This simply recreates, deepens, perpetuates and accentuates existing inequalities.

Empirical research published two years ago demonstrated the high a cost the country paid in terms of health and wellbeing for the Thatcher administration’s neoliberal economic and social policies. The study, which examined at material from existing research and data from the Office for National Statistics, illustrates that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature deaths of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and a widespread degradation of wellbeing.

Co-author and researcher Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute of Health and Wellbeing said that deaths from violence and suicide all increased substantially during the Thatcher era in comparison with other countries. Regional inequalities in life expectancy between north and south were also exacerbated, as were health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

Professor Bambra also says that the welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7% in 1975 to 12% by 1985; poverty is well known to be one of the major causes of ill health and mortality. Income inequality also increased in the Thatcher period, as the richest 0.01% of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average by 1990. Other research (The Spirit Level) indicates that income inequality is internationally associated with higher mortality and morbidity.

Yet earlier this year, the welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, refused to monitor the number of people who take their own lives as a result of the £120-a-month cut planned for those people in the work related activity group (WRAG), claiming employment and support allowance from April 2017. Concerns were raised in the House of Lords, when Baroness Meacher, amongst others, warned that for the most vulnerable citizens, the cut was “terrifying” and bound to lead to increased debt.

Condemning the truly callous and terrible actions of the Treasury, she urged ministers to monitor the number of suicides in the year after the change comes in, adding: “I am certain there will be people who cannot face the debt and the loss of their home, who will take their lives.”

Many people have died as a consequence of the welfare “reforms.”

Not only have the government failed to carry out an impact assessment regarding the cuts, Lord Freud said that the impact, potential increase in deaths and suicides won’t be monitored, apart from “privately” because individual details can’t be shared and because that isn’t a “useful approach”.

He went on to say “We have recently produced a large analysis on this, which I will send to the noble Baroness. That analysis makes it absolutely clear that you cannot make these causal links between the likelihood of dying – however you die – and the fact that someone is claiming benefit.”

However, a political refusal to investigate an established correlation between the welfare “reforms” and an increase in the mortality statistics of those hit the hardest by the cuts – sick and disabled people – is not the same thing as there being no causal link. Often, correlation implies causality and therefore such established links require further investigation. It is not possible to disprove a causal link without further investigation.

Whilst the government continue to deny there is a “causal link” between their punitive welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, they cannot deny there is a clear correlation , which warrants further research and political accountability.

We have a government that provides disproportionate and growing returns to the already wealthy, whilst imposing austerity cuts on the very poorest. How the government possibly claim that inequality is falling, when inequality is so fundamental a prop to their ideology and when social inequalities are extended and perpetuated by all of their policies? It seems an Orwellian re-writing of language about inequality is being used to mislead us into thinking that the economy is far more “inclusive’ than it is. The number of vulture private businesses payrolled by the government to deliver increasingly ideologically biased and punitive welfare, health and social care “services” has risen dramatically this past six years, all of which has cost the UK taxpayer billions.

Meanwhile, those people who need essential supportive public services are facing severe cuts to their lifeline provision. Many of the multinationals contracted by the government are paid to cut the costs of public services, but are costing the public far more than they save.far more than they save. This brand of neoliberal crony capitalist is an entrenched mindset that needs to radically change, because the only beneficiaries are big businesses, and at the expense of those people with the highest level of need. The government’s policies are harming our most vulnerable citizens.

It seems that for wealthy people, “incentives” are always financial rewards, and for poor people, “incentives” simply involve grossly unfair financial punishments, which have too often challenged people’s  capacity to meet basic survival needs.

It’s time to challenge the class-based prejudice and blatant discrimination that is embedded in Conservative policies, which ultimately may only serve to deepen existing wealth and health inequality and increase social and economic division.

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The Government’s brutal cuts to disability support isn’t ‘increasing spending’, Chancellor, but handing out tax cuts to the rich is

Chancellor George Osborne

 

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Source: Hansard

Context

Many of us recognised in 2012, when the welfare “reforms” and other cuts to public services that support the poorest citizens were forced through parliament despite considerable opposition, using only the “financial privilege” of the Commons as a justification, that the Conservatives are on an ideological crusade, which flies in the face of public needs, democracy and sound economics, to shrink the welfare state and privatise our essential services.

In a wealth transfer from the poorest to the very rich, we have witnessed the profits of public services being privatised, but the losses have been socialised – entailing a process of economic enclosure for the wealthiest, whilst the burden of losses have been placed on the poorest social groups and our most vulnerable citizens – largely those who are ill, disabled and elderly. The Conservative’s justification narratives regarding their draconian policies, targeting the poorest social groups, have led to media scapegoating, social outgrouping, persistent political denial of the aims and consequences of policies and reflect a wider process of political disenfranchisement of the poorest citizens, especially sick and disabled people.

That the cuts are ideologically driven, and have nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity, was demonstrated only too well by the National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year. The NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The report indicates how public services are being appropriated for purely private benefit.

The audit report in January concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments conducted by private companies than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill.

From the report:

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

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending.

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

However, Maximus is serving the private needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making lots of private profit whilst it does so. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist, antidemocratic, profoundly uncivilising prescriptions and longstanding prejudices.

Last week I wrote about the £30 a week Employmen Support Allowance (ESA) work related activity group (WRAG) cuts, which the Government have forced through the legislative process, despite meeting with widespread opposition, the government claim that it is their financial privilege to do so. Yesterday I wrote about the brutal cuts that are planned for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for sick and disabled people, which are aimed at saving money by reducing eligibility for the support. The cut, it is estimated, will affect at least 640,000 disabled people by 2020, who may lose up to £150 a week. This is money that provides essential support for people who need help to prepare food, use the toilet or dress themselves, amongst other things, and to maintain a degree of dignity and independence.

The cuts to ESA and Personal Independent Payments (PIP) take place in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. In fact in March last year, the Prime Minister signalled that the Conservatives will protect disabled claimants from welfare cuts in the next parliament (this one). Cameron said the Conservatives would not “undermine” PIP, which was introduced under the Coalition to save money by “targeting those most in need.” Now it seems those most in need are not the ones originally defined as such.

At the time he told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve replaced one benefit – Disability Living Allowance – with a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – it’s working well, it is also going to lead to some savings over time and we haven’t created that benefit in order to undermine it. We want to enhance it and safeguard it.”

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” or about “helping”, “supporting” or insultingly, “incentivising” sick and disabled people who have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors and the state via the work capability assessment to work.

The Tories all too frequently employ such semantic shifts and euphemism – linguistic strategies – as an integral part of a wider range of techniques of neutralisation that are used, for example, to provide linguistic relief from conscience and to suspend moral constraint – to silence both “inner protest” and public objections – to the political violation of social and moral norms; to justify acts that cause harm to others whilst also denying there is any subsequent harm being inflicted; to deny the target’s and casualties’ accounts and experiences of political acts of harm, and to neutralise remorse felt by themselves or other witnesses.

Media discourse has often preempted the Conservative austerity cuts, resulting in the identification, stereotyping and scapegoating of the groups in advance of the targeted, discriminatory policies. Media discourse is being used as a vehicle for the government to push their ideological agenda forward without meeting legitimate criticism, public scrutiny and without due regard for essential democratic processes and safeguards.

The five neutralisation techniques identified by Gresham Sykes and David Matza are: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners.

The really critical part of Sykes and Matza’s argument is that rationalisations precede immoral, cruel or controversial acts and are a key factor in making deviant behaviour possible (amongst delinquents, the mafia or Conservative ministers). As such, the rationalisations betray intent.

The cuts of £120 a month to the disability benefit Employment Support Allowance  are also claimed to be “fair.” and “supportive.” Though I have yet to hear a coherent and rational  explanation of how this can possibly be the case. Ministers claimed that people subjected to the ESA Work Related Activity Group cuts could claim PIP if they required support with extra living costs, but now we are told that PIP is to be cut, too.

Osborne’s techniques of neutralisation: calling a cut “increased spending”

The chancellor has defended his decision to use the cuts in disability benefits to fund tax breaks for the wealthy. On the Andrew Marr show yesterday, he was questioned about his decision to cut PIP, currently made to over 640,000 disabled people in a bid to save at least £1.2 billion. Many severely disabled people are facing a cut of up to £150 a week under the new reduced eligibility assessment criteria.

Controversially, the cuts to disability benefits will fund tax cuts for the most affluent – the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor is set to raise the threshold at which people start paying 40p tax, in a move that will probably see  many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax, in the coming budget. Mr Osborne says he wants to “accelerate progress” towards the Conservative’s manifesto pledge of raising the threshold for the 40p rate to £50,000 in 2020, it is understood. The average annual income in the UK is around £27,000. 

Andrew Marr said: You’re taking money out of the pockets of some of the most vulnerable people in this country, disabled people. These are the people who can least afford the sacrifice, the people with the weakest shoulders.

And you’re changing the rules to hit them. Is that really your priority?”

Osborne ludicrously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.”

But as Marr pointed out, the cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.

From January 2017, the cut to PIP is likely to hit sick and disabled people who face fundamental barriers to health and essential basic care. The cut, it is estimated, will affect at least 640,000 disabled people by 2020.

Andrew Marr went on to say: “At the same time as you’re raising thresholds to help middle-class tax payers, it’s going to seem a very callous set of priorities.”

However, Mr Osborne maintained that the brutal and uncivilised cuts were “necessary to improve the economic conditions in the UK”. He said: “Yes, times are tough. The fiscal situation is a difficult one. All Western countries are not productive enough.”

You can see the interview here:


Austerity and premature mortality

Since 2011, a year after the government began their austerity programme, mortality rates have increased rapidly. Advisers to Public Health England (PHE) have warned that the 4-year trend may be the worst since World War II.

Data from the Office of National Statistics shows a 5.4% (27,000) increase in deaths in the past year alone, prompting calls for an urgent investigation. The year-on-year rise, to a total of 528,340 deaths, is the highest since 1968.

PHE said the elderly were bearing the worst of Tory austerity cuts, with women suffering disproportionately, though this is partly because they live longer, however, it is also due to a growing crisis in the NHS and cuts to social care. Professor Danny Dorling, from Oxford University, an advisor to PHE on older age life expectancy, said:

“When we look at 2015, we are not just looking at one bad year. We have seen excessive mortality – especially among women – since 2012.”

Figures show that the number of deaths had been falling steadily until 2011, a year after the government began their austerity programme, when deaths rates began to increase rapidly.

Professor Dorling cited Tory austerity as the biggest cause:

“I suspect the largest factor here is cuts to social services – to meals on wheels, to visits to the elderly.”

Empirical research published two years ago demonstrated the high a cost the country paid in terms of health and wellbeing for the Thatcher administration’s economic and social policies. The study, which looked at material from existing research and data from the Office for National Statistics, illustrates that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature deaths of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and a widespread degradation of wellbeing. Co-author and researcher Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute of Health and Wellbeing said that deaths from violence and suicide all increased substantially during the Thatcher era in comparison with other countries. Regional inequalities in life expectancy between north and south were also exacerbated, as were health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

Professor Bambra also says that the welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7% in 1975 to 12% by 1985; poverty is well known to be one of the major causes of ill health and mortality. Income inequality also increased in the Thatcher period, as the richest 0.01% of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average by 1990. Other research (The Spirit Level) indicates that income inequality is internationally associated with higher mortality and morbidity.

Welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, refused to monitor the number of people who take their own lives as a result of the £120-a-month cut planned for those people in the work related activity group (WRAG), claiming employment and support allowance from April 2017. Concerns were raised in the House of Lords last week, when Baroness Meacher, amongst others, warned that for the most vulnerable, the cut was “terrifying” and bound to lead to increased debt.

Condemning the truly callous and terrible actions of the Treasury, she urged ministers to monitor the number of suicides in the year after the change comes in, adding: “I am certain there will be people who cannot face the debt and the loss of their home, who will take their lives.”

Many people have died as a consequence of the welfare “reforms.”

Not only have the government failed to carry out an impact assessment regarding the cuts, Lord Freud said that the impact, potential increase in deaths and suicides won’t be monitored, apart from “privately” because individual details can’t be shared and because that isn’t a “useful approach”.

He went on to say “We have recently produced a large analysis on this, which I will send to the noble Baroness. That analysis makes it absolutely clear that you cannot make these causal links between the likelihood of dying – however you die – and the fact that someone is claiming benefit.”

Actually, a political refusal to investigate an established correlation between the welfare “reforms” and an increase in the mortality statistics of those hit the hardest by the cuts – sick and disabled people – is not the same thing as there being no causal link. Often, correlation implies causality and therefore such established links require further investigation. It is not possible to disprove a causal link without further investigation.

Whilst the government continue to deny there is a causal link between their welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, they cannot deny there is a clear correlation establised, which warrants further research and political accountability.

Then they came for the ESA Support Group …

Despite the fact that this government face a UN inquiry into grave and systematic abuses of the human rights of disabled people, the blatant attacks on a social group with legally protected characteristics continues and the Conservatives continue to target disabled people for a disproportionately large and unfair burden of austerity cuts.

A government advisor, who is a specialist in labour 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. The Conservative definition of “the basis of need” seems to be an ever-shrinking category.

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 private 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 often 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 benefit conditionality and being coerced into work by callously insensitive and medically ignorant assessors, 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. 

Reform says 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. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessement have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut.

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.”

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 activiy 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 and PIP were announced.

 

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Reverse the ESA disability benefit cut: sign the petition

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Related

A tale of two suicides and a very undemocratic, inconsistent government

Paternalistic Libertarianism and Freud’s comments in context

Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records

Conservative governments are bad for your health

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

Benefits Assessor: How Long Are You Likely To Have Parkinson’s?

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Conservative governments are bad for your health

proper Blond 

Context: the politics of blame

Increasing employment and pushing ill and disabled people into work are key elements of the UK Government’s public health and welfare “reform” agendas. The arguments presented for this approach are primarily economic and particularly, moralistic. The reasoning presented is not founded on biological, psychological or sociological evidence. The government maintains that work is the most effective way to improve the wellbeing of individuals, their families and their communities. There is a perception that unemployment is harmful to physical and mental health, so the corollary has been assumed – that work is beneficial for health. 

However, that does not necessarily follow, and to claim that it does is distinctly unscientific and irrational. As the Conservatives themselves have often pointed out in less appropriate circumstances in order to avoid democratic accountability and responsibility, there is a difference between an association and a causal relationship.

There is a clear ideological context from which the welfare “reforms” proceeded, and the politically-directed media campaigns that have purposefully stigmatised and outgrouped unemployed people demonstrates quite clearly that reducing welfare support is not about a politically calculated extension of social inclusion and social justice policies, Conservative bonhomie, or overall concern for the wellbeing of welfare recipients and people who are disabled.

The government are attempting to entrench neoliberal ideology in our culture by co opting GPs, social workers and other professionals as agents of the state. The idea that “work is a health outcome” has been embedded in policies such as the Orwellian renaming of sick notes (now “fit notes”), which are designed to explore what work a person who is absent from work because of illness may undertake.  However, the government intend a much more far-reaching outcome than simply attempting to reduce the sick “role” and recovery time. The government’s “behavioural change” agenda has become a centrally-orchestrated programme for governance. The provision of public goods and crucial support, from housing and discretionary housing payments to employment benefits and disability support is becoming increasingly conditional. 

Political rhetoric, aimed at perpetuating an extremely divisive and intentionally misleading “strivers and skivers” dichotomy is designed to undermine public support for the welfare state and the other gains of our post-war settlement – the NHS, legal aid and social housing for example – also betrays the lack of coherence, rationality and empirical support for the Conservative’s “reforms.” Furthermore, the extremely targeted, class-contingent and punitive nature of the Conservative austerity programme indicates that the welfare “reforms” were founded on traditional Tory prejudices, rather than on any genuine causal relationship based on empirical evidence and social or economic necessity.

This explains why the government have persistently ignored the many evidence-based concerns raised by academic researchers, campaigners and opposition MPs that their austerity policies are having an extremely harmful effect, most often on our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

The Conservatives are ideologically bound to notions of a small state, minimal levels of political responsibility and intervention, minimal levels of government spending, the heavy promotion and administration of privatisation, competition, fiscal austerity, deregulation and free trade in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy, all of which are the central strands of the neoliberal hegemony. Conservative ideology runs counter to any notion that all citizens must be treated fairly, which also means that they must be given equal economic opportunities and provided with a adequate minimum standard of living. Neoliberal ideology is incompatible with a human rights-based society.

Democracy exists partly to ensure that the powerful are accountable to the public, and particularly to our most vulnerable citizens. This government have blocked that crucial exchange, and show disdain for human rights, the welfare state and the NHS, all of which provides ordinary people and the most vulnerable citizens basic protection from those in power.

Conservatives despise human rights and rights-based social provision. They absurdly claim that welfare provision causes vulnerability, and a “culture of dependency,” despite the fact that there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this view. History has consistently taught us otherwise. The Conservative’s policies are expressions of contempt for the lessons and empirical evidence from over a century of social history and administration.

Tory rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor people if the welfare state didn’t somehow “create” them. If the Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst a neoliberal system has a few beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for many others. That is what a system based on competitive individualism is about: it creates a few “winners” and a lot of others lose.

Conservative cuts are based on nothing more than the ridiculous myth that poverty is somehow a lifestyle choice or a moral failing which people can be punished or starved out of. The new Tory neoliberal “paternalists” really seem to believe that if they make life for poor people insufferable, they will simply be “incentivised” to choose to be wealthier. It’s a thinly disguised revamp of the ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law deterrence principle of “less eligibility” – that was supposedly aimed at “making work pay” too. But it didn’t. It’s not possible to frighten and punish people out of poverty. Only a Conservative government would claim to be making work pay by cutting welfare down to the bare bones, rather than increasing wages. The welfare cuts have actually had the effect of driving down wages too.

Of course, by framing the issue of poverty in terms of personal responsibility and morality, the Conservatives have stifled debate and restricted public discussion in the hope that people won’t recognise the wider structural inequalities and economic failings, for which this government are solely responsible.

Debbie Abrahams said: “The Conservatives point the finger at sick and disabled people for the rise in spending. They are still shamelessly spinning their tired “shirkers” and “strivers” narrative, designed to whip up public support for cuts to the most vulnerable. But this divisive rhetoric can no longer conceal the fact their economic strategy has failed. It is the government’s failure that has led to rising social security costs. 

As we saw at the Autumn Statement (2016), borrowing is up, growth is down, deficit targets have been hopelessly missed and wages have flat-lined. At the same time, the government has refused to tackle the driving forces behind increased social security spending, from low pay to high housing costs. Instead, the government is slashing support to those who need it most, exacerbating the financial strain so many are facing this Christmas, and failing its own targets in the process.   

[…] Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that we need to be building 80,000 affordable homes a year to meet demand and keep the current spend on housing benefit stable. This government managed a pathetic 30,000 homes last year. It is this refusal to build enough homes that keeps the housing benefit bill growing. People are left struggling to find somewhere affordable to live, and the state is forced to subsidise the sky-high rents charged by private landlords 

We could also look at tax credits, which currently make up more than £20bn a year in the spending under the cap. Tax credits top up working people’s pay where it is insufficient. Wages today are lower than they were in 2008, and won’t even return to the levels of 2008 until 2021. A record six million workers are paid less than the living wage. This is why tax credit costs have risen – because the government has had to increase the amount spent on topping wages up. 

Labour founded the welfare state to give pensioners and disabled people dignity, to prevent homelessness, children going hungry, and to cover for periods of unemployment or ill-health. It was never designed to be spending tens of billions substituting for low-wage employers or subsidising rip-off landlords.”

Economic productivity is the new health outcome

The claim that “work is good for you” is allegedly based on “scientific evidence” that people in work tend to be healthier than those claiming unemployment and sickness benefits. However, to draw the conclusion that “employment is good for you” from the data is an example of inferring causality inappropriately, from what is only an association. Yet it is being used to prop up Conservative justifications for dismantling the welfare state.

Unemployment has been linked to increased rates of sickness, disability and mental health problems, and to decreased life expectancy. The claim has also been made that it results in an increased use of medication, medical services, and higher hospital admission rates. However, surely it makes much more sense to say that sickness, disability and mental health problems, the use of medication, medical services, and higher hospital admission rates all cause unemployment, rather than the converse. This government seem to have a major problem accepting the fact that sometimes, people really are simply too ill to work.

Most people who are too ill to work are obviously not as healthy as those who can work. That is hardly controversial. However, that doesn’t mean that work itself is good for your health, it just means those who don’t work tend to have worse health than those who do. People don’t work because they have poor health.

Linking ill health with “worklessness” is an ideological preference which ignores other variables. It is much more likely that the “reforms”, which have reduced welfare provision to inadequate levels – leaving people all too often unable to meet their basic needs – is bad for health, rather than being out of work. 

But the Conservatives have used this “evidence” of an association between poor health and unemployment to make an inference based on a “causal link” that hasn’t actually been empirically verified. Iain Duncan Smith has made the claim, for example, that “work is good for you.” He has even claimed that work can make people’s health problems “better.” But that isn’t very likely to be true. It’s akin to claiming that chatting and exercise is a cure for multiple sclerosis, lupus, blindness or cancer. Or that a work coach on prescription will cure rheumatoid arthritis, a disc prolapse or schizophrenia.

This is why I visit my doctor when I am ill, and not Iain Duncan Smith or the government.

The claim that work is good for your health is simply a part of Tory justification narratives for cutting support for sick and disabled people, and hounding people who need to claim benefits. Yet this axiom informs current UK policy towards increased benefit conditionality, harsh sanctions, compulsory work experience and the “workfare” or “work-for-benefits” thinking which the Conservatives favour. However, this is an approach that can never work, unless, of course, the aim is to completely dismantle the welfare state. Oh, hang on…

The biopsychosocial model

The biopsychosocial model (BPS) of ill health is not without controversy, although many see it as more pragmatic or humanistic than the medical model of illness, which came to be regarded as reductionist and deterministic. The biopsychosocial model is the conceptual status quo of contemporary psychiatry, and many believe that it has played an important role in combatting psychiatric dogmatism.

The biological component of the model is based on a traditional allopathic (bio-medical) approach to health. The social part of the model investigates how different social factors such as socioeconomic status, culture and poverty impact on health. The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model looks for potential psychological causes for a health problem such as lack of self-control, emotional turmoil, and negative thinking.

Of course a major criticism is that the BPS model has been used to disingenuously trivialise and euphemise serious physical illnesses, implying either a psychosomatic basis or reducing symptoms to nothing more than a presentation of malingering tactics. This ploy has been exploited by medical insurance companies (infamously by Unum Provident in the USA) and government welfare departments keen to limit or deny access to medical, social care and social security payments, and to manufacture ideologically determined outcomes that are not at all in the best interests of patients, invalidating diagnoses, people’s experience and accounts, and the existence of serious medical conditions. (See also: Getting rich on disability denial, and  A Tale of two Models by Debbie Jolly.)

Unum was involved in advising the government on making the devastating cuts to disabled people’s support in the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill. (See also: The influence of the private insurance industry on the UK welfare reforms.)

This is a government that tends to emphasise citizen responsibilities over rights, moralising and psychologizing social problems, whilst quietly editing out government responsibilities and democratic obligations towards citizens.

For example, poverty, which is caused by political decisions affecting socioeconomic outcomes, is described by the Conservatives, using elaborate victim-blame narratives, and this is particularly objectionable at a time when inequality has never been greater in the UK.

Poverty may only be properly seen in a structural context, including account of the exclusion and oppression experienced by those living in poverty, the global neoliberal order, the gender order, the disability, racial, sexual and other orders which frame social life and precipitate poverty in complex and diverse ways. It’s down to policy-makers to address the structural origins of poverty, not the poor, who are currently regarded as the “collateral damage” – casualities – of politically imposed structural constraints.

Conservative governments are unhealthy

The effects of loss of income on people who can’t work because of illness is a confounding factor, too. How is it possible to isolate the devastating impacts of the Conservative “reforms” and the steady dismantling of the welfare state on unemployed people from the misleading generalisation that unemployment is bad for health? Surely if the Conservatives genuinely believed their own claims, they would be more inclined to increase rather than radically decrease provision and support for unemployed people.

Of course, not all work is beneficial. The review that led to the widespread folk tale that work is good for you is based on research involving people who had common and minor illnesses, and fulfilling, secure jobs. That doesn’t reflect the experiences of many people.

Not all jobs are rewarding and positive experiences, and some work can cause serious risks to health.

Doctor Frank Scheer, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says:

“There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

These differences we’re seeing can’t just be explained by lifestyle or socioeconomic status.”

Shift work and poor quality working environments and employment conditions are also linked to stomach problems and ulcers, hypertension, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, general health complaints, all-cause mortality and an increased risk of accidents or injury. Long working hours are equally linked with a detrimental impact on health, according to medical research – see: The impact of overtime and long work hours on occupational injuries and illnesses: new evidence from the United States.

There is a growing and potentially corrosive problem of low paid, poor quality, precarious and temporary work which threatens levels of social inclusion and, ultimately, the health of the workforce.

Research shows unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment. Peter Butterworth examined the mental health implications of those moving from unemployment into employment and found that:

“Those who moved into optimal jobs showed significant improvement in mental health compared to those who remained unemployed. Those respondents who moved into poor-quality jobs showed a significant worsening in their mental health compared to those who remained unemployed.”

Overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. However the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality. (See: The psychosocial quality of work determines whether employment has benefits for mental health: results from a longitudinal national household panel survey.)

More recently, in a letter to the Guardian, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors called on the Government “to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.

Findings from the National Audit Office (NAO) show limited evidence that the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective.

But, even more worrying, we see evidence from NHS Health Scotland, the Centre for Welfare Conditionality hosted by the University of York, and others, which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems. This is also emphasised in the recent Public Accounts Committee report, which states that the unexplained variations in the use of benefits sanctions are unacceptable and must be addressed.”

The impact of poverty on health

The largest study of poverty conducted in the UK has laid out the dire extent of British material deprivation – and seriously undercut the government’s claim to be lifting people out of poverty through work.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE) project details how, over recent years, the percentage of households living below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14% to 33% – despite the fact that the economy has increased in size over the same period. The study found that low wages are a central cause of widespread deprivation. For many people, full-time work is not enough to lift them out of poverty; almost half of the working poor work 40 hours a week or more. And one in six adults in paid work (17%) is poor, suffering low income and unable to afford basic necessities.

Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York said they showed many parents who work full time still have to make huge sacrifices to try and protect their children from deprivation.

“We already know from DWP data that the majority of children with incomes below the the relative income poverty threshold have a working parent. The PSE survey shows that the majority of deprived children, those lacking two or more socially perceived necessities, and very deprived children (lacking five or more socially perceived necessities) have a working parent.

We found that 65% of the deprived and 58% of the very deprived children had a working parent, and 50% of the deprived and 35% of the very deprived had at least one parent working full-time. Child poverty is not being driven by skivers, but is the consequence of strivers working for low earnings while in-work benefits are being dissipated by government austerity measures.”

Responding to the findings, Clare Bambra, a professor at Durham University, said that the research was a shameful picture of “the devastating and far-reaching human costs of inequality and poverty in the UK today.”

She said:

“It’s shameful for a rich country like ours to be tolerating such levels of poverty especially amongst our children and young people. The mantra that work sets people free from poverty has been shown to be a grand old lie.

We will be living with the long term consequences of this social neglect for decades to come – there are clear links between poverty and reduced life expectancy and higher rates of ill health, especially concentrated in deprived areas and the north.

These findings show us the true cost of austerity.”

Public health experts from Durham University have denounced the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on the wellbeing of the British public in a comprehensive study which examines social inequality in the 1980s.

The study, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of wellbeing.

The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under Baroness Thatcher – the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985.

Baroness Thatcher’s governments wilfully engineered an economic catastrophe across large parts of Britain by dismantling traditional industries such as coal and steel in order to undermine the power of working class organisations, say the researchers. They suggest this ultimately fed through into growing regional disparities in health standards and life expectancy, as well as greatly increased inequalities between the richest and poorest in society.

Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, co-author of the research report, commented:

“Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”

Thatcher’s policies  have been condemned for causing “unjust premature deaths.” Cameron’s policies are even more class-contingent and cruel.

I think there is a growing body of empirical evidence which indicates clearly that Conservative governments are much worse for public health, prosperity and wellbeing than unemployment.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

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In England between 2010 and 2013, just over one million recipients of the main out-of-work disability benefit, Employment Support Allowance (ESA) had their eligibility reassessed using a new stringent functional (as opposed to medical) checklist – the Work Capability Assessment.

Doctors, disability rights organisations, mental health chaities and individual campaigners, such as myself, have raised concerns that this has had an adverse effect on the mental health of claimants, but there have been no population level studies exploring the health effects of this or similar policies, until now.

Research, conducted by B Barr, D Taylor-Robinson, D Stuckler, R Loopstra, A Reeves, and M Whitehead, has established a link between the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and suicide. The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (which is peer-reviewed,) and carried out by social scientists from a variety of backgrounds, from the universities of Oxford and Liverpool, scrutinised the rates of mental health issues and suicide in different local authorities in England.

The study found that the authorities with a greater number of people undergoing WCAs also have more people reporting mental health problems, more people being prescribed antidepressants, and more people taking their own lives. The research found that every 10,000 assessments led to around six suicides.

For comparison in terms of statistical significance, isotretinoin, an acne medication which was notoriously linked to suicides, is associated with around four extra deaths per 10,000 treatments.

The researchers estimate that for every 10,000 people reassessed, you would expect to see an additional six suicides (95% confidence interval (CI) 2 to 9), an extra 2,700 reports of mental health problems (95% CI 548 to 4,840) and 7,020 extra antidepressants prescriptions (95% CI 3,930 to 10,100). By convention, 95% certainty is considered high enough for researchers to draw conclusions that can be generalised from samples to populations.

There have been more than 1 million assessments since the WCA was introduced, which suggests that there may be more than 600 people who have taken their own lives who would otherwise have not. The researchers say: “Our study provides evidence that the policy in England of reassessing the eligibility of benefit recipients using the WCA may have unintended but serious consequences for population mental health.”

There have been earlier claims and evidence that the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) reforms have led to deaths. However, the DWP has persistently refused to release data which would make it possible to assess whether the death rate for people found fit for work is higher than would be expected.

Both the assessment and appeals process itself, which is widely reported to be stressful, and the financial hardship that occurs when people are denied disability benefits, could result in negative health effects. There is good evidence that loss of income, particularly for people already on low incomes, increases the risk of common mental health problems.

People undergoing a WCA are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the adverse mental health consequences of this policy because a very high proportion have a pre-existing mental health problem. Furthermore, those with physical chronic illness are more prone to mental health problems such as reactive depression, and sometimes, forms of depression that are associated with the illness itself.

The research included efforts to rule out other possible causes of suicide – to eliminate potential confounding variables and bias – for example, there is no similar effect found in people over 65, who are not subject to the WCA – and so the results suggest that the link between the WCA and suicide is not due to “confounding” factors, but is most likely causal.

The Department for Work and Pensions has rejected the study’s findings. A spokesperson said in a statement: “This report is wholly misleading, and the authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.” 

However, the DWP have no grounds for their own claim whatsoever. Whilst correlation isn’t quite the same thing as cause and effect, it often strongly hints at a causal link, and as such, warrants further investigation. It certainly ought to raise concern from the DWP and ministers, regarding the negative impact of policy on many of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens.

The association with the WCA and its adverse effects is, after all, more clearly defined than the one between the drug isotretinoin and suicide, and the drug was withdrawn in the US and some European Member States.

In the UK, it is now (as of November last year) prescribed only under strict monitoring conditions, and patients are provided with warnings about the possibility of adverse psychiatric effects. No such warning and monitoring exists regarding the possible adverse psychiatric effects of the WCA. In fact the government have stifled both enquiry into a causal link and discussion of even the possibility there may be such a causal link, despite being presented with much evidence of a strongly indicated correlative association.

Dr Benjamin Barr, one of the researchers from Liverpool University, said that a causal link was likely: “Whilst we cannot prove from our analysis that this is causal, there are various reasons why this is a likely explanation,” he said.

He agreed that a study looking specifically at people who had undergone a WCA would be more precise, but added that the DWP has not released that information.

Dr Barr said: “If the DWP has data on this they should make it openly available to independent analysis.” He added that the DWP has so far chosen not to run a trial of its own into a link between WCAs and suicides.

The researchers found that those local areas where a greater proportion of the population were exposed to the reassessment process experienced a greater increase in three adverse mental health outcomes – suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing.

These associations were independent of baseline conditions in the areas, including baseline prevalence of benefit receipt, long-term time trends in these outcomes, economic trends and other characteristics associated with risk of mental ill-health. These increases followed – rather than preceded – the reassessment process.

The report concluded that the study results have important implications for policy. The WCA and reassessment policy was introduced without prior evidence of its potential impact or any plans to evaluate its effects. Given that doctors and other health professional have professional and statutory duties to protect and promote the health of patients and the public, this evidence that the process is potentially harming the recipients of these assessments raises serious ethical issues for those involved.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has also said the research was of “high quality”, adding that it called into question the wisdom of the Government’s reforms.

Last year, coroner Mary Hassell told the DWP she had concluded that the “trigger” for Michael O’Sullivan’s suicide was his fit for work assessment.

“During the course of the inquest, the evidence revealed matters giving rise to concerns. In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken,” she wrote in the document, known as a Prevention of Future Deaths or regulation 28 report.

At the inquest, Hassell said O’Sullivan had been suffering from long-term anxiety and depression, “but the intense anxiety which triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions [benefits agency] as being fit for work and his view of the likely consequences of that”.

The inquest heard that the DWP assessing doctor, a former orthopaedic surgeon, did not factor in the views of any of the three doctors treating O’Sullivan. The coroner said O’Sullivan was never asked about suicidal thoughts, despite writing them down in a DWP questionnaire.

Previously, the loss or reduction of benefits has been cited by coroners as a factor in deaths and suicides of claimants.

The DWP have so far failed to respond coherently, other than with a denial of a “causal” link.

You can read the full research report here.

It’s not the only time that Conservative austerity policies have been implicated in causing harm to citizens. Nor is it the only time that Conservatives have responded with utter indifference to the disproportionately negative impact of their policies on the poorest people. 

A study from Durham University, which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concluded that as a result of unnecessary recession, unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of wellbeing.

The research shows that there was a massive increase in income inequality under Baroness Thatcher – the richest 0.01 per cent of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average in 1990, and UK poverty rates went up from 6.7 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 1985. Suicides increased.

Co-author Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham University, commented: “Our paper shows the importance of politics and of the decisions of governments and politicians in driving health inequalities and population health. Advancements in public health will be limited if governments continue to pursue neoliberal economic policies – such as the current welfare state cuts being carried out under the guise of austerity.”

David Cameron’s government has gone much further than Thatcher ever did in cutting essential support and services for protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people, and poorer citizens.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Largest study of UK poverty shows full-time work is no safeguard against deprivation

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By Andrew Naughtie, Deputy editor, Politics + Society, The Conversation

The largest study of poverty ever conducted in the UK has laid out the dire state of British deprivation – and seriously undercut the government’s claim to be lifting people out of poverty through work.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE) project details how, over the last 30 years, the percentage of households living below society’s minimum standard of living has increased from 14% to 33% – despite the fact that the economy has doubled in size over the same period.

The 3rd Peter Townsend Memorial Conference, which begins in London today, will hear from an array of academic analysts discussing the findings and how the problems they reveal can best be tackled.

The extent of poverty

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by the University of Bristol, the PSE report is based on surveys of more than 12,000 people made in June 2012. The surveys found that that millions of Britons in paid employment live with high levels of deprivation.

Among other things, the report found that around 5.5m adults go without essential clothing, around 2.5m children live in homes that are damp, and around 1.5m children live in households that cannot afford to heat their homes.

Meanwhile, one in four adults lives on an income below what they themselves consider necessary to avoid poverty, while one in every six in paid work is technically poor. More than one in five had been forced to borrow money to pay for basic day-to-day needs in the year prior to being surveyed.

But most topically of all, the PSE finds that full-time work is not always sufficient to keep families out of poverty. This calls into question the government’s flagship strategy of getting low-income families into employment and shifting them off state assistance.

Since 2010, Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has put reducing unemployment and dependence on benefits at the core of his welfare policy. But the PSE finds that children who suffer multiple deprivations are not typically living in homes marked by family breakdown and unemployment.

Instead, the majority live with both parents, at least one of whom is employed; they live in small families, with one or two siblings, are white, and live in England.

The cost of austerity

Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York said they showed many parents who work full time still have to make huge sacrifices to try and protect their children from deprivation.

“We already know from DWP data that the majority of children with incomes below the the relative income poverty threshold have a working parent. The PSE survey shows that the majority of deprived children, those lacking two or more socially perceived necessities, and very deprived children (lacking five or more socially perceived necessities) have a working parent.

“We found that 65% of the deprived and 58% of the very deprived children had a working parent, and 50% of the deprived and 35% of the very deprived had at least one parent working full-time. Child poverty is not being driven by skivers, but is the consequence of strivers working for low earnings while in-work benefits are being dissipated by government austerity measures”.

The study finds that low wages are a central cause of the widespread deprivation it describes. For many people, full-time work is not enough to lift them out of poverty; almost half of the working poor work 40 hours a week or more. And one in six adults in paid work (17%) is poor, suffering low income and unable to afford basic necessities.

Reacting to the findings, Clare Bambra, professor of geography at Durham University, said that the research was a shameful picture of “the devastating and far-reaching human costs of inequality and poverty in the UK today”.

She said: “It’s shameful for a rich country like ours to be tolerating such levels of poverty especially amongst our children and young people. The mantra that work sets people free from poverty has been shown to be a grand old lie.

“We will be living with the long term consequences of this social neglect for decades to come – there are clear links between poverty and reduced life expectancy and higher rates of ill health, especially concentrated in deprived areas and the north.

“These findings show us the true cost of austerity.”

The Conversation

Andrew Naughtie, Deputy editor, Politics + Society, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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