Tag: Debbie Abrahams

Government subverts judicial process and abandons promise on mental health ‘parity of esteem’ to strip people of PIP entitlement

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Personal Independence Payment is a non means tested benefit for people with a long-term health condition or impairment, whether physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, intellectual, or any combination of these. It is an essential financial support towards the extra costs that ill and disabled people face, to help them lead as full, active and independent lives as possible.

Before 2010, policies that entailed cutting lifeline support for disabled people and those with serious illnesses were unthinkable. Now, systematically dismantling social security for those citizens who need support the most has become the political norm.

Any social security policy that is implemented with the expressed aim of “targeting those most in need” and is implemented to replace a policy that is deemed “unsustainable” is invariably about cost cutting, aimed at reducing the eligibility criteria for entitlement. The government were explicit in their statement about the original policy intent behind Personal Independence Payment. However, what it is that defines those “most in need” involves ever-shrinking, constantly redefined categories, pitched at an ever-shifting political goalpost.

Disability benefits were originally designed to help sick and disabled people meet their needs, additional living costs and support people sufficiently to allow  a degree of dignity and independent living. You would be mistaken in thinking, however, that Personal Independent Payment was designed for that. It seems to have been designed to provide the Treasury with ever-increasing pocket money. Or as the source of profit for private providers who constantly assess, monitor, coerce and attempt to “incentivise” those people being systematically punished and impoverished by the state to make “behaviour changes,” which entail them not being disabled or ill and taking any available employment, regardless of its suitability. 

The government have already considered ways of reducing the eligibility criteria for the daily living component of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) by narrowing definitions of aids and appliances, and were kite flying further limits to eligibility for PIP last  year

Two independent tribunals have ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should expand the scope and eligibility criteria of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which helps both in-work and out-of work disabled people fund their additional living costs. 

Following a court ruling in favour of disabled people last month, the government is rushing in an “urgent change” to the law to prevent many people with mental health conditions being awarded the mobility component of PIP. The court held that people  with conditions such as severe anxiety can qualify for the enhanced rate of the mobility component, on the basis of problems with “planning and following a journey”, or “going out”. 

The government’s new regulations will reverse the recent ruling and means that people with mental health conditions such as severe anxiety who can go outdoors, even if they need to have someone with them, are much less likely to get an award of even the standard rate of the PIP mobility component. The new regulations also make changes to the way that the descriptors relating to taking medication are interpreted, again in response to a ruling by a tribunal in favour of disabled people.

The first tribunal said more points should be available in the “mobility” element for people who suffer “overwhelming psychological distress” when travelling alone. The second tribunal recommended more points in the “daily living” element for people who need help to take medication and monitor a health condition. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) warned that it would cost £3.7bn extra by 2022 to  implement the court rulings. The government have responded by formulating “emergency legislation” to stop the legal changes that the upper tribunals had ruled on from happening. From 16 March the law will be changed, without any democratic conversation with disabled people and related organisations, or debate in parliament, so that the phrase “For reasons other than psychological distress” will be added to the start of descriptors c, d and f in relation to “Planning and following journeys” on the PIP form.

It’s worth noting that the Coalition Government enshrined in law a commitment to parity of esteem for mental and physical health in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. In January 2014 it published the policy paper Closing the Gap: priorities for essential change in mental health (Department of Health, 2014), which sets out 25 priorities for change in how children and adults with mental health problems are supported and cared for. The limiting changes to PIP legislation does not reflect that commitment.  

The new regulations are being rushed in without any dialogue with the Social Security Advisory Committee, too. 

The government have designed regulations which would, according to Penny Mordaunt, be about “restoring the policy originally intended when the Government developed the PIP assessment”.

The original policy intent was to create an opportunity to limit eligibility for those people previously claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) whilst they were being reassessed for PIP, which replaced DLA. And to limit successful new claims. 

Mordaunt also said in a written statement to MPs: “If not urgently addressed, the operational complexities could undermine the consistency of assessments, leading to confusion for all those using the legislation, including claimants, assessors, and the courts.

“It is because of the urgency caused by these challenges, and the implications on public expenditure, that proposals for these amendments have not been referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee before making the regulations.”

An ever-shifting, ever-shrinking goalpost

Any social security policy that is implemented with the expressed aim of “targeting those most in need” is invariably about cost cutting and reducing eligibility criteria for entitlement. The government were explicit in their statement about the original policy intent of Personal Independence Payment. 

The government has already considered ways of reducing eligibility criteria for the daily living component of Personal Independence Payment by narrowing definitions of aids and appliances, last  year

Prior to the introduction of PIP, Esther McVey stated that of the initial 560,000 claimants to be reassessed by October 2015, 330,000 of these are targeted to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced.

We ought to challenge a government that displays such contempt for the judicial system, and ask where the ever-reductive quest for the ever-shrinking category of “those with the greatest need” will end. 

Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams MP, criticised the government’s decision to overturn the tribunal rulings, she said“Instead of listening to the court’s criticisms of PIP assessments and correcting these injustices, this government have instead decided to undermine the legal basis of the rulings”.

Abrahams added: “This is an unprecedented attempt to subvert an independent tribunal judgement by a right-wing government with contempt for judicial process.

By shifting the goal posts, the Tory Government will strip entitlements from over 160,000 disabled people, money which the courts believe is rightfully theirs. This is a step too far, even for this Tory government.”

The government seem to think that PIP is a policy that ought to benefit only the needs of a government on an ideological crusade to reduce social security away to nothing – “to target those in greatest need” – an ever-shrinking, constantly redefined and shifting category of disability.

It is not a democratic government: they are unwilling to engage in a dialogue with the public or to recognise and reflect public needs: that’s an authoritarian elite taking public money and handing it out to a very wealthy minority group in the form of “incentivising” tax cuts, who then say to the public that providing lifeline support for disabled people and those with mental health/medical conditions is “unsustainable”.

Implications for the UK’s obligations regarding the UN convention on the human rights of disabled persons and the Equality Act

The new PIP changes, pushed through without any public conversation or democratic exchange with disabled people, are in breach of both the UN convention on the rights of disabled persons, and the UK Equality Act.

In the Equality Analysis PIP assessment criteria document, the government concede that: “Since PIP is a benefit for people with a disability, impairment or long-term health condition, any changes will have a direct effect on disabled people. The vast majority of people receiving PIP are likely to be covered by the definition of “disability” in the Equality Act 2010.

By definition, therefore, the UT [upper tribunal] judgment results in higher payments to disabled people, and reversing its effect will prevent that and keep payments at the level originally intended. The difference in income will clearly make a real practical difference to most affected claimants, and (depending on factors such as their other resources) is capable of affecting their ability to be independently mobile, access services etc – all matters covered by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as set out at the start of this Analysis.”

It goes on to say in the document: “However, this does not necessarily mean that the increased payments that would result from the judgment are a fair reflection of the costs faced by those affected, or represent a fair approach as between different groups of PIP claimants.” 

People with the following conditions are likely to be affected by the reversal of the upper tribunal’s ruling on those needing support to manage medication, monitor a health condition, or both:

Diabetes mellitus (category unknown), Diabetes mellitus Type 1 (insulin dependent), Diabetes mellitus Type 2 (non-insulin dependent), Diabetic neuropathy, Diabetic retinopathy, Disturbances of consciousness – Nonepileptic – Other / type not known, Drop attacks, Generalised seizures (with status epilepticus in last 12 months), Generalised seizures, (without status epilepticus in last 12 months), Narcolepsy, Non epileptic Attack disorder (pseudoseizures), Partial seizures (with status epilepticus in last 12 months), Partial seizures (without status epilepticus in last 12 months), Seizures – unclassified Dizziness – cause not specified, Stokes Adams attacks (cardiovascular syncope), Syncope – Other / type not known.

People with the following conditions are likely to be affected by the reversal of the independent tribunal’s ruling regarding PIP mobility awards, with conditions in the general category of “severe psychological distress”:

Mood disorders – Other / type not known, Psychotic disorders – Other / type not known, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective disorder, Phobia – Social Panic disorder, Learning disability – Other / type not known, Generalized anxiety disorder, Agoraphobia, Alcohol misuse, Anxiety and depressive disorders – mixed Anxiety disorders – Other / type not known, Autism, Bipolar affective disorder (Hypomania / Mania), Cognitive disorder due to stroke, Cognitive disorders – Other / type not known, Dementia, Depressive disorder, Drug misuse, Stress reaction disorders – Other / type not known, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Phobia – Specific Personality disorder, Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The government’s so-called commitment to a “parity of esteem for mental health and physical health” was clearly nothing more than an empty promise – an opportunistic platitude. This is a government that says  one thing and then does exactly the opposite.

 It’s all part of a broader gaslighting and linguistic techniques of neutralisation strategy that passes as Conservative “justification” for their draconian deeds and bullying, discriminatory and uncivilised austerity regime, aimed disproportionately at disabled people.

Commenting on the Ministerial announcement (made yesterday, 23rd February), Rob Holland, Public Affairs Manager at Mencap and Disability Benefits Consortium Parliamentary Co-Chair said:

“We are concerned by these changes to the criteria for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). These risk further restricting access to vital support for thousands of disabled people. Last year, MPs strongly opposed restrictions to PIP and the Government promised no further cuts to disability benefits. Other changes have already had a devastating impact on thousands and in far too many cases people have had to rely on tribunals to access the support they need.

We are deeply disappointed as a coalition of over 80 organisations representing disabled people that we were not consulted about these proposals and their potential impact. The Government must ensure the views of disabled people are properly considered before they proceed with these changes.”

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The full ministerial statement can be read here.

Download a copy of the new regulations here.

Related

PIP disability benefit test ‘traumatic and intrusive’

PIP and the Tory monologue

Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective’


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

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Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow comes to Newcastle

Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Rutherford and Debbie Abrahams, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, at the launch of Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow. She is talking to people across the country about what disabled people want to see in Labour’s next manifesto. If you’re a Labour Party member keep an eye on updates from the National Policy Forum for more opportunity to get involved.

The Labour Party’s Disability Equality Roadshow was launched in Manchester in November and is set to go nationwide over the coming months. This democratic engagement process is the vitally important first step in developing policies which will address the structural (social, cultural, political and economic) issues affecting disabled people and their carers across the UK, as well as the challenges we all face in building a fairer, more equal society.

At the launch, Paul Rutherford said: “This initiative will enable Labour to develop real policies which will properly support disabled people, not punish and harm them, making their often difficult lives harder, which is what this government’s policies are doing.”

Debbie Abrahams added: “The roadshow will draw on the experiences and expertise of disabled people themselves who have been particularly affected by this Tory Government’s changes to social security.”

After six years of Conservative policies that have not involved any genuine consultation and engagement with disabled people in political decision-making processes, we have witnessed a raft of increasingly punitive measures and cuts that have been imposed on us, supposedly to “incentivise” the poorest citizens – presumably to be less poor – by imposing financial punishments and heaping stigma on them. Invisible bootstraps were included in the government’s basic incentives package.

The phrase “behavioural change” has become a euphemism for traditional Conservative prejudice, blaming individuals for structural barriers and politically constructed problems. “Incentivising” is another euphemism for discrimination and punitive state behaviour modification policies, such as benefit sanctions, for the poorest people. It’s also a fundamental part of a justification narrative to advance the dismantling of the welfare state in stages, a cut at a time.

The wealthiest people, however, have been presented with the deluxe package of Conservative “incentives”, which entail generous handouts in the form of tax cuts and endorsed exemptions. Such policies, which take lifeline income from the poorest citizens, including those in low paid or part-time work and award it to the very wealthiest, cannot fail to extend and accentuate growing inequalities and increase social and economic exclusion.

This topical comment was very welcomed on Saturday: 

“Tax justice means that supporting disabled people IS sustainable. This is our flag in the sand”. Grahame Morris, Labour MP, on Labour Party priorities at the Disability Equality Roadshow, Newcastle.

Debbie said: Firstly, an inclusive labour market is one that finds the right job for those who can work. The Tory government has focused solely on getting people ‘off-flow’, forcing them into any job to bring down claimant numbers, or none, for example, as a result of sanctions.

I believe there is a fairer way; a more holistic, person-centred approach that looks at people’s strengths and barriers to work whether this relates to skills or housing issues. We need to provide them with the best possible employment support but also opportunities to work.”

And on support for disabled people in work: “Ensuring that proper workplace adjustments are made to retain disabled people who are in work is a vital part of an inclusive labour market. These adjustments could be in the form of more flexible leave arrangements as well as extending Access to Work which currently only supports a tiny minority of disabled people, approximately 36,500 out of 3.7 million in work.”

The Roadshow is part of Labour’s commitment to transform our social security system, ensuring that, like our NHS, it is fit for purpose; there for us all in our time of need.

The Disability Equality Roadshow is using the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons as a framework to help develop a wide array of policies, not just those concerning social security, but also embedding the convention articles in education, health and social care, justice policies and many others.

The Labour Party has already pledged to scrap the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. Debbie Abrahams announced at Labour Party Conference that a Labour government will also scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment. Debbie said she wants to replace it with “a system based on personalised, holistic support; one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.”

Debbie has asked for our help in exploring how this might be achieved.

Many of us welcomed the announcement from Debbie that a Labour government will get rid of this Government’s punitive sanctions too. As Debbie pointed out: “This will mean Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.”

She also discussed the need for a culture change regarding the prejudiced attitudes of many regarding people with disabilities and those out of work.

The event on Saturday was hosted at Unite the Union.

Saturday 3 December was also the International Day for Disabled People.

dis-eq-roadshow Democracy and inclusion in action: discussing social security

Some of the issues that we discussed:

  • We raised individual cases that demonstrated the terrible distress caused by the work capability assessment (WCA) and the serious impact that being told wrongly they are fit for work has on people who are very ill. Labour will scrap the WCA. We said that the evidence that should be considered in claims for disability related benefit should always be medical – presented by qualified doctors and specialists, not from “functional assessment” carried out by non-specialised occupational therapists and nurses employed by private companies hired to cut benefits and make a massive profit at our expense.
  • We must also move away from any process of assessment that is intimidating and distressing. People generally felt that the DLA system was much fairer, with provision for life long awards for chronic and progressive conditions.
  • Increasingly, private companies are taking up money from the social security budget, whilst those that the budget is meant to assist are seeing their support cut and their standard of living plummet. Many are now unable to meet their most basic needs – such as having sufficient income to meet the costs for food and fuel.  It was suggested that benefit levels are set by a specialised  committee, ensuring that the costs of basic needs can be met.
  • As benefits were originally calculated to meet only basic needs, the additional costs of housing and council tax were not included in the benefit level when it was originally calculated. It was assumed that people would remain exempt from paying any additional rent and council tax. That needs to be addressed, since benefits do not cover these or the bedroom tax (though Labour intend to scrap the bedroom tax).
  • The new in-work conditionality is likely to impact on disabled people, many of who may need to work part-time. Shorter and flexible working hours are a reasonable adjustment. Some of us have to also manage hospital appointments with more than one specialist and hospital based treatment regimes. The threat and use of sanctions aimed at part-time and low paid workers is incompatible with the aim of “halving the disability employment gap.”
  • We suggested that employers should fined for not employing a quota of disabled people, rather than being rewarded, as suggested in the government Green Paper, for employing disabled people, given that disabled people have a right to socioeconomic inclusion, including the right to work, without discrimination.
  • The Equality Act was not implemented in full by the Coalition. This limits redress for disabled people regarding:  
    • Dual discrimination: the government decided not to bring this into force as a way of reducing the cost of regulation to business. 
    • Socioeconomic inequalities under the Public Sector Equality Duty 
    • Provisions relating to auxiliary aids in schools
    • Diversity reporting by political parties
    • Provisions about taxi accessibility among other things. These omissions need to be remedied. 
  • Accessibility issues were also raised, ranging from the lack of provision and accessibility for disabled users of public transport and taxis to the lack of large print ESA forms available for people with visual impairments and barriers regarding the availability of home visits for assessments.
  • Run-on benefits for people starting work need to be reinstated, since people usually work a month at least before being paid a wage. Previously, housing benefit, council tax and other benefits were payable for the first month of employment.
  • We discussed the need for culture change to address prejudice, and the now commonly held negative perceptions and attitudes towards disabled people and those out of work.

There were three other task groups, some worked on addressing barriers to access to justice, others worked on disability and barriers at work, among other topics, all of who raised many other issues, which were also fed back. 

It was a very productive and positive event: an excellent opportunity for democratic inclusion in the decision-making process and to contribute positively towards progressive Labour policies.

Of course that process doesn’t stop with the Roadshow events, but in the coming months, if you can get to the Roadshow when it comes to your area, it’s recommended you do. If you’re a Labour Party member you can follow updates from the National Policy Forum, which also provides further opportunity to get involved.

“Nothing about us without us,” as Gail Ward reminded us on the day. This approach provides a solid foundation for democratic norms. Sometimes expressed in Latin, (Nihil de nobis, sine nobis) it is a slogan commonly used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct democratic participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. The saying has its origins in Central European political traditions.

Debbie has asked if I would contribute in a collaborative response to the government’s recent consultation and green paper on work, health and disability, which I’ve agreed to do. 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. It’s very reassuring to know that the Labour party recognise this, especially in a context of an increasingly authoritarian government that isn’t interested in first-hand witness accounts concerning the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Any consideration of future policy and its impacts must surely engage citizens in dialogue, on a democratic, equal basis and ensure participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and government.

The Labour Party recognise that democracy is not something we have: it’s something we  must DO, and that process includes all of us. 

One final point that needs raising is that the progressive left – particularly Labour – do not find any favour with the mainstream corporate media, generally speaking. It is therefore down to all of us to bypass the constraints of media neoliberal framing, to ensure that news of Labour policies and events like this are shared widely. Otherwise genuine alternative narratives to the current socioeconomic paradigm and order will continue to be systematically stifled, at a time when there has never been a greater need for alternatives.

Upwards and onwards. 

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With Alex Cunningham, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward on Saturday at the Disability Equality Roadshow 

I’d like to thank Debbie Abrahams, Grahame Morris, Alex Cunningham, Ian Lavery, Ian Mearns, Emma Lewell-Buck, Richard Williams, Dave Allen, Labour North, Unite the Union, and every one who came on Saturday for an excellent and very productive, hope-inspiring event.

 


 

National consultation on the rights of disabled people – the Labour party’s disability equality roadshow

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Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Rutherford and Debbie Abrahams at the Roadshow in Manchester

The Labour party would like to invite you to attend the Disability Equality Roadshow, an event asking disabled people, their carers and service providers, which policies Labour should develop to best defend and extend their rights.

The events are free and the next one is to be held in the North East in Newcastle on 3 December. You can register to attend here.

Regardless of your personal party affiliations, I think as many of us as possible need to attend these events and have a positive input into policy because we need political parties to recognise disabled people’s needs, especially given the past six years of harrowing and disproportionately targeted austerity cuts and systematic violation of disabled people’s human rights.

I don’t support the Liberal Democrats, but nonetheless have permitted the party to use some of my work on disabled people’s rights and the impact of austerity on their site, because our needs and views ought to matter to every political party. Something as fundamental as the recognition and observation of human rights should be a collaborative and collective cross-party endeavour – a cooperative effort in a democratic, inclusive society.

Human rights should not be a party political issue, but it’s a fact that they are. The Conservatives want to repeal our Human Rights Act, and that must not happen. The government have already demonstrated clearly that they will not observe the rights of disabled people. Without a robust legal framework in place, we would have absolutely no access to justice and redress, and no protection from the brutality and disregard of an increasingly authoritarian government .

Debbie Abrahams has organised and launched the Roadshow, which is an important opportunity for us to have a democratic say in political decision-making and shape future policies. 

The Labour party are using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People as a framework to help develop policies not just on social security but on education, health and social care, justice and more. It was the last Labour government that signed the UK up to the Convention.

The Roadshow will be going across the country to every region and to every nation state. 

Debbie is the Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. She has represented the constituency since her by-election victory in January 2011.

Debbie was a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee from June 2011-March 2015, where she led the call for an independent inquiry into the Government’s punitive New Sanctions Regime. She was re-elected as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee in July 2015 until her appointment as Shadow Minister for Disabled People in September 2015.  In June 2016 she was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Debbie is passionate about tackling inequalities and has campaigned extensively for a fairer society, setting up the Oldham Fairness Commission to deliver this in her own constituency. 

The Labour party assure us that the next Labour government will ensure that the UK upholds its obligations under the UN convention on persons with disabilities. They say their “commitment to people-powered politics means that they believe that future social security policy should be co-produced with deaf and disabled people, carers and service providers”. That is our democratic right. The party want to transform our social security system, based on the principles of dignity, independence and support. 

 The Labour party say they will listen to our views on improving social security, removing the punitive elements such as sanctions, the work capability assessment and the bedroom tax, to ensure it is fit for purpose; ensuring fair and equal access to employment for people who can and want to work; suitable housing and education; improving the provision of care and best supporting carers. 

If you have any additional access needs please email Huma on huma_haq@labour.org.uk by Thursday 1st December. 

Hope to see you there.

 

DATE AND TIME: Sat 3 December 2016, 10:45 – 13:45 GMT

LOCATION: Unite the union

John Dobson Street

Newcastle upon Tyne

NE1 8TW

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The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called loss aversion.

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than libertarian paternalism, since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people. 

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

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

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

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.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

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

Neoliberals 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 outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

Thanks Mr Green, but we want more than token gestures and political opportunism

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The work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, is expected to announce at the Conservative conference that those people with severe, lifelong conditions will no longer face six-monthly reassessments.

Employment and support allowance (a misleading title for sickness and disability support for those people whose doctors say are too unwell to work) will now continue automatically for people who have lifelong, severe health conditions, with no prospect of improvement, according to Green.

However, the retesting of chronically ill or disabled people for another key disability benefit – personal independence payments – is to remain, and thousands with unchanging or degenerative conditions are preparing to be put through that pointless assessment again.

I can’t help wondering how “chronic” and “degenerative” will be defined and how exemption from reassessment will be decided. It’s unclear which medical conditions will be considered grounds for a reprieve from further WCAs, but apparently the criteria will be drawn up by “health professionals. There were no details provided about who these “health professionals” will be. Many people have no faith whatsoever in the medical judgments of the assessors themselves – especially when they have previously been known to ask woefully ignorant questions like “how long are you likely to have Parkinson’s disease?”

It may be the case that those claiming Employment and Support Allowance, placed in the support group will be exempt from the reassessments. However, as Samuel Miller, a human rights specialist and campaigner for disabled people, points out: 

“The Department for Work and Pensions says that it is scraping retesting for people with severe, lifelong conditions at the same time that there has been a sharp drop in Support Group awards and a sharp increase in people placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). Charities report that 45% of people who put in a claim for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and had Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, or Rheumatoid Arthritis, were placed in the WRAG.

Disability rights campaigners are concerned that the figures show the government is cutting spending on disability benefits “below the radar”, after being forced to abandon its attempts to reduce expenditure on personal independence payment (PIP) in April.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, released last month, show the proportion of disabled people applying for ESA who were placed in the support group – for those assessed with “the highest barriers to work” – plunged by 42 per cent in just three months. There are concerns that the Work Capability Assessment has been made even more harsh by stealth.

For assessments completed during November 2015, 57 per cent of claimants were placed in the support group; but by February 2016 that had dropped by 24 percentage points to just 33 per cent. 

Far too little far too late

This small change will not undo the suffering of sick and disabled people who have already been caught in the revolving door of the assessment and reassessment process. It’s not uncommon for people fighting a wrong “fit for work” decision to wait for many months before they win at tribunal, only to find that within three months of their successful appeal, they have another appointment for reassessment.

You would think that if someone has just won an appeal, common sense would prevail – that someone at the DWP would acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely these people have suddenly got better in such a short space of time. The strain of being put through this callous revolving door process has an adverse impact on people with chronic conditions, exacerbating their symptoms. It is profoundly stressful and anxiety-provoking. 

This political token gesture will not undo the profound physical and psychological damage that the WCA has caused some of our most vulnerable citizens. And for many who did not feel vulnerable – those who felt they coped pretty well with their illness ordinarily – the constant strain of having to prove themselves ill and the loss of lifeline income whilst they await mandatory review and appeal, has led to increased vulnerability.

It’s also tragic and painful that it’s far too late to help the people who have died as a consequence of  being told they are fit for work when they are not, and being forced to fight for lifeline social security to meet their basic needs.

I am happy to see the announced decision to stop reassessing chronically sick people every six months, because it’s unlikely they will get better. (The clue was always in the word “chronic,” curiously enough). If that brings about a reduction in the widespread suffering caused by the callous cost-cutting WCA , it’s a small step towards much needed positive change. This move would have been more credible as a signal of good intentions had Green also intended to announce the reversal of the cuts planned for those in the work related activity group, claiming ESA.

That a UK government feels it’s acceptable to financially penalise and punish a previously protected social group – comprised of people judged as too ill to work by doctors – shows how far our society has regressed in terms of equality and human rights. And democracy. 

Labour have already pledged to abolish the Work Capability Assessment

Call me a cynic, but didn’t the Labour party pledge to completely scrap the Work Capability Assessment at their conference? Debbie Abrahams, shadow work and pensions secretary, spoke of strong ethical and empirically evidenced reasons for doing so.

She says: “As ever with this government though, the devil is in the detail. While the end to repeated assessments will be a relief to those that have been affected, this announcement falls far short of the fundamental shift to a more holistic, person-centred approach we so desperately need.

“Too many sick and disabled people will remain subject to this harmful, ineffective assessment. We will continue to push the Tories for a better deal for disabled people.”

After years of people suffering and evidenced feedback from victims of their policies, campaigners and academic researchers, the government decide NOW that chronic actually means “chronic”?

Duncan Smith, whose resignation from the role of work and pensions secretary was seen as an attack on the then leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne, told the Today programme he “completely agreed with the changes.”

“We worked to change this process, it was one we inherited and it just functioned badly on this area,” he said.

That isn’t true.

Some historical context

The Work Capability Assessment was piloted under the last Labour government, but Duncan Smith passed it into law after disregarding the concerns that the Labour party had raised following their review, regarding the assessment process being insensitive to fluctuating conditions and mental health status. In fact Duncan Smith modified the assessment process, making it even less sensitive. In early 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government initiated the planned expansion of the programme to reassess 1.5 million people whom previous governments had judged to be entitled to Incapacity Benefit.

At the same time the DWP introduced long-planned revisions to the test’s eligibility criteria, which became more stringent overall: most notably, the 03/11 version awarded no points when a claimant who had difficulty walking could overcome the disability by using a wheelchair, if reasonably practicable. When Atos were recontracted in 2010, targets to remove the higher rate benefits from seven out of eight claimants were built into the new contract. Dr Steven Bick reported that “experts” testing Incapacity Benefit claimants were told they should rate only about one in eight as so disabled they will never work. The “quota” was enforced by French firm Atos, paid £100 million a year for the testing, and was revealed by undercover GP Bick on Channel 4’s Dispatches.

In February 2011, Professor Paul Gregg, an economist and one of the original architects of ESA, warned that the WCA was “badly malfunctioning” and urged further pilot studies before the more stringent 03/11 version was used as the default assessment. Nevertheless, the mammoth Incapacity Benefit reassessment programme got under way in the spring of 2011, using the new version of the test.

In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each WCA had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus.

The report went on to say that Maximus was facing “significant challenges with staff failing to complete training requirements” and revealed that in July 2015 – less than six months into the new contract – the DWP had been obliged to draw up a “performance improvement plan” with Maximus because “volume targets were not being met”.

Perhaps the real reasons for stopping the six-monthly assessments are entirely financial – merely cost-cutting measures. As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”. 

Green told the Press Association: “We are building a country that works for everyone – not just the privileged few. A key part of that is making sure that all those who are able to work are given the support and the opportunity to do so. But it also means ensuring that we give full and proper support to those who can’t.”

(You can laugh now. I’m just wondering when an assessment for tax-dodging millionaires who were awarded at least £107,000 each per year in the form of a “tax break” will happen. This was at the same time the first round of welfare cuts were announced. It would be refreshing to see the minority of privileged citizens shouldering some of the burden of austerity and “paying down the the deficit” for a change. It would be fair to expect those who have gained the most from society to put something back, after all.)

He went on to say: “That includes sweeping away any unnecessary stress and bureaucracy – particularly for the most vulnerable in society.

“If someone has a disease which can only get worse then it doesn’t make sense to ask them to turn up for repeated appointments. If their condition is not going to improve, it is not right to ask them to be tested time after time. So we will stop it.”

I find it incredible that it’s taken six years for this “revelation” to hit home. Overwhelming empirical evidence that the assessment process is harming sick and disabled people has been presented to the government on many occasions, only to prompt what is, after all, a very small and inadequate policy change.

Green has almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, generally voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices, almost always voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, and almost always voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (the “Bedroom Tax”), which has disproportionately affected sick and disabled people and their carers.

Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”

It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit. 

Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

What Green has offered falls far short of Oakley’s recommendations.

Let’s not accept politically opportunistic sops and scraps of small comfort.

Sick and disabled people deserve so much better than this. The Work Capability Assessment is not only consistently empirically demonstrated as being unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel, but it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.

 

Related

Man leaves coroner letter as he fears Work Capability Assessment will kill him

The Tories are epistemological tyrants: about the DWP’s Mortality Statistics release

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

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

Government Finally Reveals That More Than 4,000 Died Within Six Weeks Of Being Deemed ‘Fit For Work’

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

What you need to know about the Work Capability Assessment

 


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

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

Here is a transcript of Debbie’s excellent speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I challenge the Government to deliver theirs.”

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kitty

Related

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

 

 


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Man leaves coroner letter as he fears Work Capability Assessment will kill him

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The government have persistently denied any “causal relationship” between their welfare reforms and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, despite an existing correlation. Ministers have also denied a link between disability assessments and an increase in mental distress and ill health.

Figures released last year show that between December 2011 to February 2014, 4,010 people died after being told they were fit for work, following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). 40,680 died within a year of undergoing the WCA, making a bleak mockery of any claim that the WCA is a real and valid “health assessment” of any kind. Or that our welfare system is “supportive” to those in most need, in any real or meaningful sense. Those people were clearly not at all “fit for work.” The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics from the public.

Research last year from Leonard Cheshire, a charity that works with disabled people, also showed that the assessments are making people who are ill more sick. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said they found the assessment had a negative impact on their mental or physical health, or both. The same number described the face to face appointment as very stressful.

David Sugg would agree with those research findings. David suffered a life threatening subarachnoid haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) because of an aneurysm (a swollen and very weakened point in a blood vessel) in 2013, and faces more life saving surgery because he has developed two more aneurysms that threatens to rupture, putting him at risk of another catastrophic brain haemorrhage. Whilst he waits for his operation, he has been told that if his blood pressure goes up, he is likely to die.

He had a Work Capability Assessment with Maximus this week. He was so afraid of the adverse health impacts that the strain of the WCA may have on him that he left a letter for the local coroner, to be opened in the event of his sudden death.

The letter said: “You may be looking into the reason for my death. I am hoping I can save you some time. This uncaring and spiteful Tory government killed me.”  

He told me: “My neuro-surgeon says I mustn’t get stressed, but I have been called by the Department for Work and Pensions for an assessment even though I’ve told them about my situation. 

If I don’t go for an assessment my benefits will be stopped. But I fear it may cost me my life.”

Although David survived his appointment, he has been suffering with a violent headache since, and hasn’t been able to eat for a week.

 “That appointment might still kill me. If my blood pressure goes up I could be dead before I hit the floor. I asked the assessor why she was putting my life at risk, but she said it wasn’t her decision,” he said.

Aneurisms are quite often caused by an increase in blood pressure. The majority of people don’t survive a subarachnoid haemorrhage, and those who do are remarkably lucky if they escape without serious disability. Most people don’t survive if they have a second one.

David added that he felt the situation he is in has “Orwellian” parallels. It’s a terrible choice to have to make: he either risks his life and complies with the assessment or loses his lifeline support – his benefit is the only income he has.

David explained to me that like many people needing to claim Employment Support Allowance – which is a very misleading name for a sickness benefit –  he had worked all of his life before becoming ill. He worked in IT and security until a couple of years ago. He became unemployed at that time, and was struggling to find work.

 “I’d paid tax and national insurance all my life – since I was 15,” he said.

“The battle to get Job Seekers Allowance was so stressful I actually think that led me to having the aneurysm in the first place. Then I had to battle to get support. The first work capability assessment I had was just six months after I’d had seven-hour brain surgery.”

He told me that his assessor recognised how inappropriate the appointment was, telling him “you shouldn’t actually be here.”

Despite the fact that David was awaiting life saving surgery, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demanded that he was assessed again. He returned the form, explaining that he was awaiting life saving surgery and must avoid stress, but to his horror, was forced to attend nonetheless.

He said “It’s brutal bullying by the DWP. No wonder people are committing suicide, pushed over the edge. You either die because of your condition or from suicide. All I would have to do is stop taking my pills for a couple of days and I would die.”

Debbie Abrahams, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that David’s case is far from unique.

She said: “This WCA process, revised by this Government, is not only not fit for purpose, there is growing evidence of the harm it is doing. These assessments need to be completely overhauled. Labour want to see a holistic, person-centred approach, not the dehumanising, harmful, inefficient process we have now.”

David wrote to his own MP, Stephen Metcalfe, outlining his extremely distressing circumstances, and was told that Stephen would contact the Department for Work and Pensions, but did not yet receive a response.

The system is designed to deter successful claims

I co-run a support group on Facebook for sick and disabled people claiming disability benefits. I know from the accounts and everyday experience of many others just how stressful the assessment process is. It’s a terrible state of affairs when people who are already struggling with severe health problems are made even more vulnerable because of callous cost-cutting government policies.

The assessment is not always an end to the stress, either. Quite often, people are forced to challenge wrong decisions, because the WCA is designed to find ways of passing people off as “fit for work” regardless of whether they actually are, cutting their benefit. It’s worth remembering that people needing sickness benefits have already been assessed as unfit for work by their own doctors.

If people need to appeal a wrong decision, they first have to go through a mandatory review  – where the DWP “reconsider” the decision. Sickness benefit is stopped at this stage, leaving people who are often very ill without any lifeline income. Most can’t claim jobseekers allowance because they are too ill to work and so cannot meet the harsh and rigid conditionality requirements of that benefit. There is no set time limit for how long the DWP have to undertake the mandatory review. No-one may appeal until after their review is completed. The appeal process is also very stressful and intimidating, it usually entails another wait of months. 

The revolving door of assessments and psychological distress

David is not the only person to contact me this week.

George Vranjkovic has been extremely anxious and distressed about his Work Capability Assessment, too. He is very afraid at the thought that he may lose his lifeline support.

He told me: “I took 5 days filling out the assessment form by hand and I sent it in 12 days before my deadline. But 5 days before the deadline I got a letter saying it had still not been received, so I rang them, and I got some bloke who chuckled. He said it probably got lost and was there anything else he could do.

I blew my top I’m afraid and said he could effing apologise for losing my form!!! He said he deserved to be treated with respect. I was so upset I shouted not if you sit there laughing at desperate people you don’t . Anyway, I ended up filling in the form on line, printing it off and sending one version by fax, and one version by special delivery, which is what I was instructed to do by them… £22.00 that cost me.”

The form showed up, according to another advisor that George spoke to the next day, but by then he had already paid out for the fax and special delivery and was told the likelihood of getting the £22.00 back was pretty remote. This is someone relying on just a lifeline benefit, calculated to meet only basic living costs – essentials: food, fuel and shelter.

Previously, George has been left without any money to live on by the DWP, without them providing any reason. That’s absolutely unacceptable.

“For 6 months when they cut my money off completely,  I was made to feel like a criminal. I was spoken to so badly on the phone. I wasn’t being sanctioned. They just weren’t paying me.

 This is all just another example of the abject cruelty we, as honest people, are put through,” he said.

Like many other disabled people, George has also worked previously, co-running a photographic service.

George talked to me over a period of 24 hours before his assessment yesterday. He hasn’t slept for weeks. He really needed someone to support him emotionally. He was extremely anxious, agitated and afraid. He knows that the WCA is designed to try and cut costs and take lifeline support from sick and disabled people.

He told me that he is someone who usually copes, and doesn’t like to make a fuss. He said “I try not to fall to pieces in public.” He was in a state of sheer panic, however, when he contacted me.

When he arrived for his appointment, George said that the assessor tried to reschedule the assessment. His distress was so great by this time that he absolutely refused to leave until the assessment was carried out. He simply couldn’t face going through the strain of waiting again.

“He asked me how the rescheduling of the test made me feel.  He told me that it wasn’t the first time today he’d heard that forms had got lost or went missing, he asked me if I’d ever thought about committing suicide. Which I have, the last time being a year and a half ago when the DWP cut off my money for 6 months,” he said.

Like many others, George has had several assessments. It’s fairly common experience to have to go through an appeal, only to get another appointment within three months of a successful outcome.

A study published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last year, showed a correlation between worsening mental health and assessments under the WCA. The study linked the WCA tests with an additional 590 suicides, increased mental health problems and hundreds of thousands of antidepressant prescriptions

In a letter to the Guardian, the study’s main author, Benjamin Barr, said it was crucial the DWP takes seriously concerns that WCAs are “severely damaging” mental health. He called on the department to release data it holds to researchers to allow further analysis of the health impact of the controversial test.

Calls to scrap the WCA

Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”

It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit.

Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

The WCA is not only unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel, but it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.

 

What you need to know about Atos assessments

 

 

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