Tag: Disability

Antisemitism and the growth of prejudice and oppression in the UK

Image result for Labour's equality and diversity

Political context

The Labour party’s strong inclusion, equality and diversity principles are being used to undermine the party by the neoliberal right, as part of an ongoing propaganda war. Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership – and particularly before elections – has been accused of “siding” with variety of state constructed and reconstucted ‘enemies’. However, every Labour leader with the exception of Tony Blair, who was conveniently neoliberal, has been accused of having some kind of ‘sympathy’ with Russia.

It’s a Conservative idée fixe that began with the fake Zinoviev letter and should have ended with Ben Bradley’s libellous attempt at combining Conservative malice with bon mot. The Conservatives are creatures of  tradition and habit, no matter how much the world moves on, they try to pull it back to where they stand. 

The Conservatives’ McCarthyist leitmotif of ‘enemies and the traitor’ reveals a lot about their own operant bullying, emphasises their divisive and hierarchical perspective of societies and their outdated colonialism, ethnocentrism and nationalist understanding of the world.

One of Corbyn’s finest qualities is his mature internationalism, and his inclusive and respectful vision of the world. Corbyn sees people first, and does not differentiate their human worth and value on the basis of their group identities and individual characteristics. This is why he is an outstanding diplomat, and champion of social justice.

In an era of nuclear first strike posturing, which indicates the international breakdown of the principle of nuclear deterrence, I’d personally prefer a leader who has such skills and qualities, rather than someone who has no regard for the lives and safety of citizens.

The Conservatives have said that they wouldn’t hesitate in some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack, even if we weren’t under threat.” The government throw scorn at Corbyn for his reluctance to incinerate populations, and some of the UK public don’t seem to realise that they too face the same fate due to the mutually assured destruction which comes free with the nuclear retaliation principle.

Corbyn has publicly condemned the vilification and abuse of Labour MPs who attended Monday night’s demonstration against antisemitism in the party.

Leaders of the Jewish organisations that staged the protest told him that they would not meet him until he intervened to halt the attacks on social media, Corbyn said he was profoundly concerned by any abuse. It’s difficult to know who is making the attacks on social media, since many fake accounts exist for the purpose of creating disruptions, discrediting political opponents, and harassing them. Furthermore, it would be impossible for the Labour leader to monitor social media, given his work load. No-one expects the Conservative government to end the abusive trolling of Conservative supporters, yet I have encountered MANY of them.

People have the right to speak out and the right to demonstrate,” Corbyn told the Jewish News in an interview. “I will not tolerate abuse of people for their beliefs.”

“Any abuse that’s done is not done in my name,” he added.

He also rejected the idea – put forward by a rival demonstration by the Jewish Voice for Labour on Monday – that the reason for the main protest was to smear Corbyn himself.

“Of course it’s not a smear, it’s perfectly reasonable to raise any question about one’s public profile activities,” he went on. “I don’t see that as a smear.”

He is right of course. However that doesn’t quite explain the vitiolic and often irrational comments from some of the right wing pundits over the last few weeks. As a person who has written extensively about prejudice, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here. One is absolutely genuine concern about antisemitism. The other is how that concern is being used politically, outside of the Jewish community. 

Yesterday, Corbyn condemned Israel’s killing of at least 27 Palestinians on the Gaza border as an “outrage” and attacked Western silence about the deaths. In a message read out at a demonstration outside Downing Street, the Labour leader quite reasonably demanded that Theresa May support the United Nation’s call for an independent international inquiry. He also said that Britain should also consider stopping the sale of arms to Israel that “could be used in violation of international law”. Israel has faced very little criticism over the killing of civilian Palestinians. 

The latest deaths came a week after 18 Palestinians lost their lives when Israeli soldiers opened fire at similar demonstrations in support of a “right to return” to land lost to Israel in 1948. The UN human rights spokeswoman, Elizabeth Throssell, has suggested the shootings could amount to wilful killing of civilians – a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Corbyn spoke out after at least nine more Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more injured, by Israeli gunfire, some reportedly shot in the head or upper body.

He said “The majority of the people of the Gaza Strip are stateless refugees, subject to a decade-long blockade and the denial of basic human and political rights.

“More than two thirds are reliant on humanitarian assistance, with limited access to the most basic amenities, such as water and electricity.

“They have a right to protest against their appalling conditions and the continuing blockade and occupation of Palestinian land, and in support of their right to return to their homes and their right to self-determination.” 

“The silence from international powers with the responsibility of bringing a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict must end,” he added.

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said nothing since the first killings on 30 March, although his deputy, Alistair Burt, issued a statement saying he was “appalled by the deaths and injuries”. Burt said: “There is an urgent need to establish the facts, including why such a volume of live fire was used and what role Hamas played in the violence.”

Israel came under pressure after a video was released which showed a protester being shot in the back by an Israeli soldier as he walked away from the fence separating Gaza from Israel. In other footage, Palestinians were shown being killed or wounded as they prayed, walked empty-handed towards the border fence, or simply held up a Palestinian flag.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the Israel Defence Forces’ rules of engagement allow live fire to be used against anyone who approaches the fence. Justifying its response, the Israeli military said: “Several attempts have been made to damage and cross the security fence under the cover of the smokescreen created by the burning tyres that the rioters ignited.”

Corbyn has been loudly condemned previously by the Conservatives because he wanted to include all parties in discussions to bring about a peace process in the region. However, it is worth noting that Corbyn has never made any demands that Jewish communities publicly repudiate the actions of  Israeli settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jewish people more generally are undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jewish’ standards.

Nor is it acceptable to demand that Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted or trusted, either.

It’s also worth noting that although people in power in Israel are Jews, not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders). There are many people left and right who don’t understand what Zionism is, and it has frequently been used as a derogatory label. However, Zionism is simply the belief that Jewish people should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the antisemitism and persecution they face elsewhere.

It does not, however, mean a belief that Jews have a right to take land from others, or a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews. Using the word “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies).

Misunderstanding of Zionism is used to justify antisemitic attacks outside of Israel.  Many of the Jews in Israel who are violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist – they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). We must be very careful with the labels we use. The problem with labelling is that it is often used to create negative stereotypes, denying us our complexity and diversity. Labelling creates stigma and prejudice.

Now, with this clarified, I am not going to claim there hasn’t ever been antisemitic Labour party members or that no problem has ever occurred. Antisemitism is a prejudice arising in wider society. Few people would deny that some people joining the Labour Party may harbour antisemitic prejudices. It’s not possible to know in advance if a person joining the party is prejudiced, however, until that prejudice has been revealed in some way. It’s also important to keep in mind that condemning the murder of Palestinians is not antisemitic.

I want to make this clear: I absolutely condemn any form of prejudice, including antisemitism, regardless of where it arises. 

The party has taken action in addressing these arising issues by vowing to implement all of the recommendations in Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 report (PDF) into alleged antisemitism in the party. Corbyn has also told the party’s newly appointed general secretary Jennie Formby “that her first priority has to be the full implementation of the Chakrabarti Report and there has to be an appointment of an in-house lawyer, a legal team, to ensure that there is a proper approach to these cases.”  

Corbyn has always been a consistent and reliable opponent of racism in all of its forms and he has committed Labour to dealing robustly with the allegations of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is profoundly disturbing, as is any other kind of prejudice and discrimination in democratic, civilised societies. If it is happening, I want to see it addressed just as I want to see prejudice and discrimination against disabled people and other socal groups in the UK addressed. People seem to forget that disabled people were the first social group to be murdered by the Nazis – the Aktion T4 “euthanasia” programme. 

Perhaps at this point it’s worth reflecting on the many deaths and suicides among the disabled community over recent years, and that a correlation with the Conservative welfare “reforms” has been established several times over. The government have persistently denied that there is any “causal relationship” between their policies and the distress, harm and fear experienced by disabled citizens, and furthermore, have refused to investigate this issue any further. There has been relatively little media attention concerning this issue and no public outcry. Yet disabled people are living in fear for their future.

Each case of premature mortality or suicide linked with welfare policy that has been presented to the government has been disregarded, described with contempt as “anecdotal evidence”. Each academic study that shows a clear correlation between policy and harm has been dismissed. The complicit media are by and large far more interested in anything that may be used to smear and criticise Corbyn than in holding the government to account for the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Framing and entrapment 

The allegations regarding Labour’s “problem with antisemitism” are framed using the same kind of psycholinguistic entrapment tactics that we have seen deployed in trying to frame Corbyn as a “Russian dupe”, and by implication, a “threat” to UK security.  This propaganda process was projected onto a basic McCarthy-styled, over-simplistic and  false dichotomy frame: “You either agree with our very narrow terms, or you’re ‘siding with the enemy'”.

As it turns out, Corbyn was absolutely right to exercise caution in stating that Russia was “irrefutably” behind the attack. It would have been more appropriate to claim “on balance of probability” it is likely to be a Russian attack – because of the context and history. However, it now emerges that Boris Johnson lied about the information Porton Down provided the government. Regardless of whether or not Russia were actually behind the poisoning of the Skripals, the UK has lost its international credibility.   

Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia and a deputy chairman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took to Twitter after the UK’s Porton Down government laboratory announced on Tuesday that it could not link nerve agent samples it had collected to Russia.

“If you force almost all NATO countries to show solidarity, shouldn’t you have sound evidence?” Laschet said. “You can think of Russia what you want, but I have learned a different way of dealing with states from studying international law.” 

The international law framework is designed, after all, to ensure that inadequately evidenced allegations and knee jerk political responses don’t lead to the collapse of diplomatic relations and a descent into a catastrophic, escalating war among nuclear states. As a citizen, I’d prefer a leader who is skilled in diplomacy and international law,  who regards the safety of the world’s citizens as a key priority. Instead we have a group of blundering elitist authoritarians in office who, not content with creating monstrous social and economic divisions in the UK, want to extend their dystopic neoliberal vision on a global scale.

It is the same kind of simplistic false dichotomy frame regarding the Labour party’s alleged antisemitism, which the media have also rolled out. It runs like this: If the Labour party confirm that they are “addressing” an antisemitism problem, regardless of whether that problem is real – then it is read as an admission of guilt. However, if the party says there is no problem – regardless of whether there is or isn’t – that will simply be read as a denial of “guilt” and the action of a party that “doesn’t care” about antisemitism more generally.

It’s an accusation designed to make the party and members look bad either way. Note that word – designed. However, as a person who has written extensively about prejudice, Again, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here, which I hope I have made clear. One is the justified concern regarding antisemitism, the other is how that is being politically exploited.

The accusations of antisemitism have been redesigned for use as a political stick with which to beat Corbyn. Again, I would not claim there is no antisemitism within the party. If there is, it must be addressed. However, mine is a question of proportionality, and whether the media focus and comments of right wing commentators are reasonable and justified. This is the same media that displayed no qualms in systematically dehumanising migrants and asylum seekers in their drive to force the EU referendum.

There is an element of irrationality and unreasonableness in trying to blame Corbyn for every allegation made of party members, since any member of the public is free to join the party of their choice. Political parties have no way of knowing of the prejudices of each new member in advance. There has also been a surge in membership over the past couple of years. The Labour party has put in place measures to deal with allegations of antisemitism among members. Nor can party leaders be omnipresent in social media groups to monitor offensive antisemitic comments made. The important issue is that it is addressed when it does arise and is brought to party leader’s attention.

In my own experience of Facebook political groups, there are recognisably active trolls and shills who are present simply to discredit Labour activists and derail discussion. There is always a marked increase in their activity prior to elections.

Unfortunately, even vetting people who wish to join groups doesn’t seem to stop this happening, as some of the profiles are very credible, with no indication they are fakes. If this sounds too “conspiracy theory” for you, perhaps it’s worth considering the implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the uncovered psychological profiling and “strategic communications” element that was revealed in its’ wake. The Snowden leaks before that also revealed that a variety of covert actors, including the state, infiltate groups to manipulate and derail discussions, and to discredit critics and opposition.

I am not, once again, arguing that no Labour party member or supporter holds antisemitic views. And again that must be addressed. However, there is an intense focus and constant, irrational and negative commentary aimed at Corbyn in particular, which is also based on orchestrated and purely politically motivated attacks. There is a lack of openness and reasonableness on behalf of some of the more aggressive critics as to how the party have been permitted to respond by the government, the media and by some of the centrist neoliberals within the party to an array of issues, including the allegations of antisemitism. 

Corbyn and Labour party members have been the target of severe criticism, with allegations being made that left wing members are more prone to antisemitic opinions and behaviour – and of course that Corbyn has “not done enough to prevent this.” 

However data commissioned by a leading antisemitism charity strongly suggest that this narrative is not only inaccurate but counter-factual. YouGov carried out two surveys which may be compared, and the findings are that since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, the party and its supporters have become significantly less antisemitic on every metric used in the survey. (YouGov’s full datasets: 2015 and 2017.)

Concerns among Jewish communities about antisemitism are absolutely valid and absolutely must not be minimised or dismissed. However, it does no-one any favours when those concerns have also been distorted by the media, misused as a propaganda tool and weaponised for political gain. 

Antisemitism quite rightly draws horror from the public because of the terrible atrocity of the Holocaust, the process that led to it, and the historical consequences. It was founded in part on social Darwinist and eugenic ideas.

Those same ideas also underpinned the ideology of competitive individualism in the US and UK. Whenever we have socioeconomic systems that create hierarchies of human worth (based on meritocratic notions of ‘deserving’ or ‘talent’), we also have social prejudice and that is perpetuated by the use of political justification narratives regarding inequality. 

These usually place responsibility on individuals for their low socioeconomic status, rather than the system, which inevitably creates a few ‘winners’ and many ‘losers’ – because that is the nature of any system based on competition. However, inequality is a fundamental feature of the neoliberal system of organisation. Justifying inequality creates stigma, outgrouping and hierarchies of worth.

Prejudice and oppression

Prejudice is a form of oppression which operates to establish a “defined norm” or standard of “rightness” under which everyone is judged. This defined norm is enforced with individual and institutional violence which makes and sustains the oppression.

Oppression may be defined as a pervasive system of supremacy and discrimination that perpetuates itself through differential treatment, ideological domination, and institutional control. At an individual level, oppression is expressed through beliefs (stereotypes), attitudes, values (prejudice), and actions (discrimination) used to justify unfair treatment based on distinct characteristics of one’s identity, real or perceived. These can be internalised and directed towards the self or externalised and directed towards those we interact with on a day-to-day basis. 

Oppression expresses itself through default positions of power within an organised group, both formal and informal. Specifically, it is the denial of accessing and holding positions of power based on the belief that one lacks experience in and/or is incapable of fulfilling (or learning how to fulfill) certain roles and responsibilities based on assumptions related to identity. This also includes the assumption that someone sharing identity with a dominant group is automatically capable, regardless of experience, skills  or talent.

On an institutional level, oppression expresses itself through the denial and limitation of resources, agency and dignity based on one’s social identity. This includes policies, laws, and practices that are enforced in and by an institution, such as governments, made for the benefit of the dominant group with little to no consideration for the longer term harm inflicted on marginalised individuals and groups. In turn, institutions have the power to shape and control cultural narratives that reach individuals on a global scale, regardless of whether they directly interact with such institutions. Narratives are used to normalise oppression, which are shaped by the ruling class. 

Antisemitism is not the only form of oppression. Saying that does not minimise it, however. We currently live in a society where prejudices more generally has been politically encouraged and permitted to flourish. Prejudice tends to multitask. I have written a lot about this over the last few years, as a witness. 

We live in a society where racism has grown over the last few years. We have witnessed profoundly socially divisive rhetoric from an authoritarian government and that has been amplified by a largely right wing, compliant media. As a consequence of that, the far right was given a public platform. The same thing happened under the Thatcher administration, we saw parties like the National Front and the British National Party flourish. This is because the context provided by a such socioeconomically divisive governments leads to the creation of political scapegoats to justify their own prejudices and authoritarianism, draconian policies and wider inequality –  this always leads to racism, as well as other forms of prejudice, too.

The scale of social prejudice

Various forms and systems of oppression are not separate, and can’t be isolated into distinct categories, to be addressed on their own. Oppression is a network of intersecting and related forms of domination and the oppression of one group must be resisted alongside the oppression of others. We must stand side by side to address oppression in solidarity.

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Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right supporting individual who gave gardening tips and services to his neighbours, with a secret festering hatred of some groups of citizens. No-one knew about his monstrous prejudice and intention until he murdered a British MP, who staunchly opposed racism.

This is what political propaganda and scapegoating does to susceptible individuals – it shapes their perception of others and permits them to hate. Some social groups have been marginalised and dehumanised by the government, including disabled people and those needing social security support. It’s no coincidence that hate crime directed at these groups has risen in the UK.

The government have violated the human rights of disabled people, and such acts serve as a role model of behaviours that indicate prejudice and discrimination is publicly acceptable. It also sends out a message that emphasises the differential status and implied devaluation of social groups.

This is how moral and rational boundaries are being pushed: casual comments from more than one Conservative minister about disabled people, who are not “worth the minimum wage”, from a chancellor who claims that national productivity is reduced because more disabled people are in work; a Conservative councillor who called for the extermination of gypsies, and a Conservative deputy mayor said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Conservatives believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” anresearch the consequences of austerity for the most economically vulnerable citizens – those with the “least broad shoulders” –  to understand that these comments reflect how Conservatives think. It is only when such comments conflict with our collective moral norms that we see the process for what it is, and wonder how such comments could ever be deemed acceptable. However, those moral norms are being intentionally transformed. 

This is a government that is creating and using public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinism and neoliberal “small state” principles. We have already seen the introduction of a clear eugenic welfare policy – only the first two children in families needing social security support will be provided with any support. Aside from the frightful human rights implications of this, the fact that it was announced and introduced to “change the behaviours” of the poorest citizens – regardless of whether they work – indicates a political prejudice and active discrimination regarding poor citizens, and a political intention to limit the number of children they have. 

The political creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of previously protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision. It also indirectly justifies low and exploitative wages and insecure employment, since these issues are no longer considered to be part of the problem of poverty. Instead the poverty debate is reduced to a political narrative of “incentives” and individual behaviours.

The state is informing the public that poor people can simply be punished out of their poverty. Regardless of the incoherence of that narrative, the media have been complicit in amplifying this dogma. The pathological socioeconomic structure of our society, the market place Darwinism and the growing imbalances of power relationships remain hidden in plain view, obscurred by linguistic behaviourism and normative manipulation.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision, which is being steadily dismantled. The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Those the government perceives to be the weakest are carrying the burden of austerity to cover the tracks and guilt of the wealthy and powerful people, who are actually responsible for the global recession. Scapegoats. If you read any social psychology, you will know that this is how social prejudice grows. It’s an incremental process, where normative boundaries are pushed until what was once perceived as unacceptable suddenly becomes a reality. 

Gordon Allport wrote about the advancement of that process – by almost inscrutable degrees – in Nazi Germany. It starts with dehumanising language and scapegoating, it progresses to open prejudice and political discrimination, violations of human rights, social and economic isolation, hate crime, murders then, if left unchecked, it results, ultimately, in genocide.

Antisemitism exists in our society. It isn’t a “Labour” problem, it is a SOCIAL problem. It flourishes in a context of extremely divisive political rhetoric. That rhetoric is in part to justify a socioeconomic system that leads to massive social inequality. That inequality is being politically justified by the creation of political scapegoats and the Othering of already marginalised groups. Neoliberalism is a system that leads to the growth of wealth and power for those who already have wealth and power – it sustains an elite.

For citizens, it results in a decline in our standard of living, disempowerment, growing poverty and because it requires an authoritarian regime to impose it – see the history of Pinochet’s neoliberal experiment in Chile, for example – it also profoundly erodes our democracy. The media and right wing ideologues are now simply the PR agents for more neoliberalism. The answer to the disastrous socioeconomic problems created by neoliberalism is apparently, to apply more aggressive neoliberalism. That also means the steady erosion of human rights, citizen freedoms, massive inequality and the removal of any democratic alternative. That is where we are at, as a society. This is happening, and we are the witnesses.

When Corbyn met with a Jewish group recently, commentators on the right – Andrew Neil and  Fraser Nelson, for example – ranted about how this left leaning Jewish group weren’t “representative of Jews”. Fraser Nelson dismissed anyone who disagreed with his views as members of a left wing “cult”. This displays a kind of totalitarian thinking, in that it portrays Her Majesty’s opposition as somehow non-legitimate, and emphasises the sole legitimacy and hegemony of neoliberalism. It also undermines the very notion of democracy. 

It’s reasonable that a left leaning leader would meet a left leaning group. The right leaning Jewish groups have not exactly been particularly accommodating in meeting with Corbyn. However, Andrew Neil actually commented on Jewdas: “who are all these ‘nutters'”. Now THAT is antisemitism. Neil was implying that some groups are “acceptably Jewish” and some are not, defining by his own prejudiced criteria which are “acceptable”. 

These mainstream media commentators on the right are so caught up in a clear ideological crusade and propaganda war that they really don’t see their own prejudices. And furthermore they are furious that Corbyn has allies in the Jewish community. Hence the irrational and diversity-blind rage. And there is this to consider: the criticisms of Corbyn and allegations of antisemitism being rife in the party because of him are coming almost exclusively from the right. 

andrew neil antisemitic

This tweet is so offensive and displays prejudice on more than one level. 

Of course Jewish people reflect a variety of political preferences. Political debate is an essential Jewish tradition that allows no section of opinion to set itself up as the only acceptable one. But the UK right wing don’t particularly value democratic principles, and treat every opposition leader with an outrageous loathing and sneering contempt. They oppose antisemitism only on condition that Jewish groups do not show any support towards the left, and in particular, for Corbyn. 

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Yesterday I saw a comment from Dan Hodges –  who writes for the Daily Mail, that Labour are “irredeemably racist”. This is simply untrue. He never responded to the comment I left him, reminding him of the Daily Mail‘s constant anti-immigration rants, in a series of shots of toxic Daily Mail headlines.  I explained that most Labour supporters were not up for taking lectures on the value of inclusion and diversity from Daily Mail journalists. 

Dan Hodges

I posted this to remind him of the significant contribution the Mail has made to the growth of racism in the UK. 

Image result for daily mail immigration front pages

And this was very offensive, antisemitic, irrational and dangerous comment:

The right have manipulated a concern for social justice on the left – and particularly that concern regarding the murder of Palestinian civilians – and have intentionally pathologised it, weaponising it as a propaganda tool. This has been going on for a long time. 

Jon woodcock judas

Which “mainstream Jewish community” is that, John? How does a meeting with a Jewish community “bait” the Jewish Community? Why are Corbyn’s critics okay with marginalising a Jewish group and deliberately attempting to discredit them when it suits them to? This is absolutely atrocious hypocrisy and completely unacceptable antisemitic behaviour. 

It is telling that some of the Labour “moderates” used right wing gossip-mongers and bloggers – Paul Staines and Alex Whickam – to criticise their own leader. These people should be ejected from the party, since all they do is damage it and support another Conservative term. They don’t care about the misery and despair of citizens living in escalating poverty because of Tory policies, the suicides and deaths of disabled people, or those children living in poverty with their futures and human potential stolen from them, by an authoritarian government.

Shame on them. This is not what the Labour party are about, and until Blair, it never was. The neoliberals’ time has been and gone, the party has moved on and realigned itself to the majority of its members demands for a democratic agenda that reflects their values of inclusion, equality and diversity. That’s how it should be.

Corbyn is one of the leading anti-racists in parliament – one of the very least racist MPs we have. So naturally Corbyn signed numerous Early Day motions in Parliament condemning antisemitism, years before he became leader and backed the campaign to stop Neo-Nazis from meeting in Golders Green in 2015.

Before being elected as Labour party leader, Corbyn chaired Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) in succession to Stan Newens, who is the President of , Liberation. Liberation, founded in 1954 on the initiative of Fenner Brockway, was in the forefront of the struggle against all forms of racism.

When Jeremy took the chair it was accepted that one of our continuing fundamental purposes was opposition to racism – including antisemitism. Liberation has been critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – and often had Israeli or Jewish speakers at meetings arguing the case.

Newens says “It is patently obvious that criticism of Corbyn and the Labour party on grounds of antisemitism is being encouraged by individuals who – unlike the Labour leader himself – have rarely participated in the general struggle against racism. Most are motivated by opposition to Labour under Corbyn and any excuse to harass him will be taken.”

Joseph Finlay, writing for the Jewish News online, says: “The Labour party has thousands of Jewish members, many Jewish councillors, a number of prominent Jewish MPs and several Jewish members of it’s ruling council. Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences.

Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983 – a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him,  As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. He is close friends with the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Group, from whom he has gained a rich knowledge of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund, and he has named the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists at the Battle of Cable as a key historical moment for him. His 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day statement talked about Shmuel Zygielboym, the Polish Bund leader exiled to London who committed suicide in an attempt to awaken the world to the Nazi genocide. How many British politicians have that level of knowledge of modern Jewish history?”

He goes on to say: “Because all racisms are interlinked it is worth examining Corbyn’s wider anti-racist record. Corbyn was being arrested for protesting against apartheid while the Thatcher government defended white majority rule and branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Corbyn was a strong supporter of Labour Black Sections – championing the right of Black and Asian people to organise independently in the Labour party while the Press demonised them as extremists.

“He has long been one of the leaders of the campaign to allow the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands to return after they were forcibly evicted by Britain in the 1960s to make way for an American military base. Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Who do you put your trust in — the people who hate antisemitism because they hate all racism or the people (be they in the Conservative party or the press) who praise Jews whilst engaging in Islamophobia and anti-black racism? The right-wing proponents of the Labour antisemitism narrative seek to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ minorities — they do not have the well-being of Jews at heart.

“Let’s return the story to the facts. Antisemitism is always beyond the pale. Labour, now a party of over half a million members, has a small minority of antisemites in its ranks, and it suspends them whenever it discovers them. I expect nothing less from an anti-racist party and an anti-racist leader. If the Conservatives took the same approach to racism they would have to suspend their own foreign secretary, who has described Africans as ‘Picanninies’ and described Barack Obama as ‘The part-Kenyan President [with an] ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. 

“From the Monday club, linked to the National Front, to MP Aidan Burley dressing up a  Nazi, to Lynton Crosby’s dogwhistle portrayal of Ed Miliband as a nasal North London intellectual it is the Conservative Party that is deeply tainted by racism and antisemitism.

“There are many threats to Jews – and we are right to be vigilant. These threats come primarily from resurgent nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and a Brexit narrative that seeks to restore Britain to a mythical age of ethnic purity. The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error. Worst of all, it’s a bad story that we’ve been telling for far too long. Let’s start to tell a better one.”

The Labour party has prided itself on its inclusion, equality and diversity principles since its inception. Corbyn has always been one of the most inclusive MPs and this is being used to undermine him. His idea of a “broad church” Labour party was based on an assumption that the neoliberals within the party shared the same equality, diversity and inclusion values, and supported a social justice agenda.  It was assumed that they had principles in common with the wider Labour party.  They don’t.

These are MPs that would prefer another Conservative term, further damage to our society, and more suffering of poor and disabled citizens than see a party they consider ideologically “inpure” take office. Their comments and actions are vile. The implications are vile. They are contributing to the sabotage of our party just in time for the local elections. Again. 

I have thought carefully these past months about these issues, and explored the evidence. I haven’t commented on it all until now because I needed to see evidence, analyse and evaluate. The hypocritical outrage from the likes of Hodges, Nelson, Neil and Lord Sugar, along with the sheer rage, incoherence and unreasonableness of their attacks has convinced me that this is a serious strategic propaganda war, nothing more or less.

However, I also agree with Jonathan Freedland, who says “Yes, you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge.” I absolutely agree, and for many of the reasons he has laid out. 

I don’t, however, agree with his assessment that Corbyn represents the “hard left”.

He goes on to say, however, “Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

“Put another way, hasn’t history shown us that racism never stays confined to mere “pockets”? Once the virus is inside, it does not rest until it has infected the entire body.”

As I discussed earlier in this article, the symptoms of an increase in social prejudice have been there for some years, he seems to have overlooked the fact that it has been the disabled community who were the “canary in the coalmine”, and still are.

I agree that prejudice multitasks and grows. Freedland has overlooked that racism has already become the norm, not least because the oppression of others has remained invisible and unacknowledged by the media. In fact the media has tended to amplify it. Furthermore, political prejudice and legislative discrimination directed at already marginalised social groups is causing absolute poverty, harm, distress, death and suicide. Those are visible, real consequences of political prejudice which the media have chosen to ignore. It seems that some prejudices are considered more important than others, even when outright political discrimination and its tragic consequences are evident for all to see. You see, this is how the Holocaust began. 

This poster (from around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read ‘[A] New People‘, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.” 

Here the political portrayal of German disabled people as a “socioeconomic burden” is being used to justify the AktionT4 extermination programme. 

The UK government prefers a wall of private bureacracy that extends a system on their behalf, which simply leaves many disabled people without the means to meet their basic living requirements, while making a profit at the expense of those people in doing so.

This said, Pfannmüller also advocated killing disabled people by a gradual decrease of food, which he believed was more merciful than poison injections. Most of the Nazis were eugenicists, nationalists and antisemites. Carbon monoxide gas was first used to kill disabled people, then its use was extended to other groups of people. The methods used initially at German hospitals such as lethal injections and bottled gas poisoning were expanded to form the basis for the creation of extermination camps where the gas chambers were built from scratch to conduct the extermination of the Jews, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Spanish Republicans, Romani and political dissidents, including many leftists, socialists and communists. 

The Nazis promoted xenophobia and racism against all “non-Aryan” races. African (black sub-Saharan or North African) and Asian (East and South Asian) residents of Germany and black prisoners of war, such as French colonial troops and African Americans, were also victims of Nazi racial policy.  In Germany, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, were two of the numerous groups targeted by the Nazis and were also, ultimately, among the millions of Holocaust victims.

The role of propaganda and the media

Propaganda can be defined as biased information or misinformation designed to shape public perception, opinion, decision-making and behaviour. It simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end. Propaganda is often transmitted to the public through various media, drawing upon techniques and strategies used in advertising, public relations, communications, and mass psychology.

The real danger of propaganda lies when competing voices are silenced. When democratic dialogue, legitimate criticism and valid opposition is systematically pathologised and dismissed as a “cult”, “the loony left”, “Marxists” “leftards”, “virtue signalers” and so forth. Using the internet as well as mainstream media outlets, propagandists have been able to transmit their messages to a wide audience. 

Propaganda served as an important tool to win over the majority of the German public who had not supported Adolf Hitler and to push forward the Nazis’ radical program, which required the acquiescence, support, or participation of broad sectors of the population.

In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.

The  report said hate speech was a serious problem, including against Roma, gypsies and travellers, as well as “unscrupulous press reporting” targeting the LGBT community. The ECRI’s report also concluded that some reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.

It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”

“ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups,” the report concluded. Yet this international condemnation has not encouraged more journalistic responsibility in the UK.

The Nazis used propaganda successfully to increase their public support and appeal. They spent huge sums of money on newspapers, leaflets and poster campaigns with simple slogans encouraging people to support the party. The military style of the Nazis also involved using large political rallies to gain support. Joseph Goebbels began to build an image of Hitler as a great leader. Goebbels manipulated people’s fear of uncertainty and instability to portray Hitler as a man with a great vision for “prosperity and stability.” Germany’s economy was in such a poor state that Hitler’s promise of “strong government” and stability was widely supported.  

I do maintain that our own media are being controlled by the government, and are being used to stage-manage our democracy. The recent history of sustained and vile smear campaigns, lies and unchecked fury directed at the last two labour leaders is pretty clear evidence of that, as is the blatant scapegoating project dressed up as the divisive stigmatising rhetorics of xenophobia, bigotry, prejudice and open discrimination directed at disabled people and other groups who need social security support.

Prejudice multitasks. This is a point made very well by Martin Niemöller, who was a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) emerged as an outspoken public critic and foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The quotation stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Some controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists,  disabled people or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that there had been what he saw as a cowardly complicity through the silence of the church the media, academic institutions and citizens regarding the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of people.

The UK media are at best compliant, paralysed by bystander apathy, and at worst, directly complicit in extending political prejudice, justifying discimination and manipulating social divisions. Unless we actually want to live with an authoritarian one-party state, it’s time to research, think and analyse these issues for ourselves, and quickly.

If not for ourselves, then for our friends, neighbours and loved ones. And especially, for our children.

May there be peace, justice and unity in our days.

 


 

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Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

Image result for work disabled people

A study has found that people with disabilities who claim social security support are 26-53 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than people who are not disabled. According to the research, the main reason behind this is a “culture of disbelief” among jobcentre staff, who fail to take sufficient account of the impact of people’s disabilities on their capacity to meet strict welfare conditionality criteria.

This implies that welfare conditionality has an inbuilt discrimination, as it disproportionately affects people according to their characteristics.

Such discrimination violates the Equality Act 2010:

Ahead of the release of a Demos report by Ben Baumberg Geiger on the Work Capability Assessment on Tuesday, the headline findings on benefits conditionality were featured today in the Observer: ‘More than a million benefit sanctions imposed on disabled people since 2010′.

Ben is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. The figures on benefits sanctions can be found in Ben’s 2017 paper ‘Benefits conditionality for disabled people: stylised facts from a review of international evidence and practice’ published (open access) here (p109-111), and the appendices that provide the source for the UK benefit sanctions data is here.

The article in the Guardian also briefly mentions new polling on the public’s attitudes to sanctioning disabled benefit claimants. However, full details of this will be available in the report to be released on Tuesday. 

The recent Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments highlights how disability benefits are not a ‘safe place’ for disabled people, despite ministers using language that implies it is. Warnings from Iain Duncan Smith about “up to a million people ‘languishing’ on sickness benefits, who could be ‘put back to work’ with the right ‘help’, or descriptions in policy papers of disabled people being “parked” on benefits mislead the public.

It is through such political definitions that groups become restricted, face boundaries, become oppressed. Over the last seven years, disabled people have somehow lost the right to self-determination and to express our own group identity. The Government have redefined us and radically rewritten the terms and conditions of the social contract more generally, removing state obligations and duties towards citizens. The Conservative settlement – a fusion of economic neoliberalism with state and social authoritarianism – openly demonstrates an aversion to any notion of social equality and justice.  

Sanctions – the cutting or withholding of lifeline benefits – are applied as a punishment when citizens infringe the conditions of their welfare support by, say, through missing an appointment, being late or failing to apply for enough jobs.

The sanctions regime has been championed by the Government as a means of imposing ‘behavioural change’ on claimants, as they believe that people are unemployed because they need ‘incentives to work’. However, rather than addressing low pay, insecure employment and poor working conditions, the Government has instead decided that unemployed people and welfare itself are the problem: welfare is seen as a ‘perverse incentive’ that prevents people from looking for employment.

Sanctions and wider welfare conditionality were introduced to significantly reduce the basic security and material comfort of people needing social security, in order to push them back into the labour market. This behaviourist turn has transformed a system that was designed to ensure that all citizens could meet their basic survival needs into one that punishes people for non-compliance with politically imposed conditionality criteria, comprised of what the Conservatives regard as acceptable ‘job seeking behaviours’. In this way, Conservatives claim that people are more likely to gain employment. 

However, unsurprisingly most of the experts consulted as part of the Demos project have concluded that welfare conditionality has little or no effect on improving employment  for disabled people, often having a negative impact to the point where disabled people were even less likely to find employment than if they hadn’t been subjected to state impositions. There was also widespread anecdotal evidence that the threat of sanctions can lead to anxiety and have a wider impact on peoples’ health.

Polly Mackenzie, director of Demos, said it was now clear that the benefits system isn’t working for disabled people: “Conditionality is important in any benefits system, but when disabled people are so much more likely to be sanctioned, something is going wrong. Jobcentre advisers and capability assessors too often have a culture of disbelief about disability, especially mental illness, that leads them to sanction claimants who genuinely could not do the job they are being bullied into applying for.

“We need to think again about how we assess work capability. Employers also need to be better at adapting to disabled people’s needs so that more jobs can be done by people with fluctuating conditions.”

A damning research report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2016, also found that there was no evidence that sanctions were working. It also said there was a failure to measure whether money was being saved, and that the application of sanctions varied from one jobcentre to another. 

The 2017 Demos study uncovered that more than 900,000 JSA claimants who report a disability have been sanctioned since May 2010. People who claim ESA and have been placed in a work-related activity group – which requires them to attend jobcentre interviews and complete work-related activities – can also be sanctioned. The research found that more than 110,000 ESA sanctions have been applied since May 2010.

Mark Atkinson, chief executive at disability charity Scope, said: “Punitive sanctions can be extremely harmful to disabled people, who already face the financial penalty of higher living costs. There is no clear evidence that cutting disabled people’s benefits supports them to get into and stay in work.

“Sanctions are likely to cause unnecessary stress, pushing the very people that the government aims to support into work further away from the jobs market.”

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced in part to bolster neoliberal imperatives related to the supply of labour. The political focus on these economic concerns fails to  prioritise the wellbeing of disabled people. Another reason for the introduction of the WCA was to cut costs. This intention was evident in the ‘scrounger’ and fraud’ narrative that seeped into political and media discourse. Disability welfare is portrayed as ‘unsustainable’, with the Government claiming that resources need to be ‘targeted’ at those ‘most in need’.

However, it is evident from the recent Work and Pensions inquiry into ESA and PIP assessments is that many of those most in need are being catastrophically let down by the current system.

The Guardian reports: Polling for the Demos project found that while the public often supported the imposition of sanctions for disabled people, they did not back the way in which they were applied in practice.

A majority thought that disabled people’s benefits should be cut if they do not take a job they can do, but they were less supportive of sanctioning for minor non-compliance, such as sometimes turning up late for meetings. Even those who supported sanctions preferred a much less punitive approach than the government currently imposes.

The sanctions are taking place in a context where the number of unemployed disabled people being supported with specialist help to find work has actually been halved. according to the companies running the government’s Health and Work programme.

Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association (Ersa), which represents the employment support sector, said: “The size of the new Work and Health Programme means only one in eight disabled people who want to work will have specialist help to do so. As a society, we have an obligation to ensure appropriate support is available and the report shows that we are in danger of failing disabled people and their families.” 

The analysis shows that there is to be a cut in funding from £750m in 2013-14 to less than £130m in 2017. Ersa says that the cut in funding will severely hamper the Government in its goal of securing work for more than 1.2 million more people with disabilities. It seems that the Government is relying on punitive and coercive measures such as the threat and use of sanctions, to achieve its goal. Disabled people are not permitted to have goals that don’t align with state-defined neoliberal ones. 

The collaborative Demos researchers recommend a reduction in the use of so-called “benefit conditionality” for disabled people and a strengthening of the safeguards to ensure disabled people are not unfairly punished. However, despite the growing numbers of campaigners, charity groups and academic researchers calling for the Government to introduce less aggressive sanctions, the Government remains disinclined to do so.

The theories of ‘behaviour change’ underpinning conditionality have been questioned by commentators, particularly with respect to the assumed ‘rationality’ of citzens’ responses to financial sanctions.

Concerns have been raised that welfare conditionality leads to a range of unintended effects, including distancing people from support, causing hardship and even destitution. There is also ample evidence that those social groups with complex needs, such as disabled people, young people with chaotic lifestyles and homeless people have been disproportionately affected by the intensification of welfare conditionality under successive Conservative governments. Research implies that there are differential impacts based on citizens’ characteristics. 

This observation is also consistent with international evidence, especially from the US, that the most potentially vulnerable claimants are at greatest disadvantage within highly conditional social security systems, for example, those with mental health problems, those with long term illnesses and disabled people more generally.

Welfare ensures that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival.

In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.

For disabled people, who already face additional barriers to addressing their  fundamental needs.  Welfare sanctions for disabled people has created injustices, caused fear and inflicted considerable distress and harm on disabled people.

 


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

Image result for skinner lab rat

I’m currently writing an article about the intimacy between neoliberalism and behavioural economics, following Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel award. While I was researching, I came across an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) document about Nudge from 2012Tax and benefit policy: insights from behavioural economics, which suggested the introduction of “ordeals” into the social security system. The authors claim it would “deter fraud”. Although the IFS didn’t quite commit to calling for the idea to be implemented formally via policy, they did present the idea as an incontrovertible fact. Yet it is a controversial opinion, which is not supported by empirical evidence.

Introducing ordeals to social security also deters our most vulnerable citizens from claiming the support they need in order to live. Because of this, it wouldn’t be possible to determine the number of people who were intending to make a fraudulent claim. Prior to the welfare “reforms”, social security fraud was estimated at around 0.7 %. However, this very low figure also included bureaucratic and administrative errors, which resulted in overpayments. 

Image result for welfare fraud vs tax fraud

At the least, this comment reflected something of the mindset and taken-for-granted assumptions behind the Conservative welfare “reforms”, and the statement indicates that the “problems” with and subsequent hardships caused by Universal Credit and other forms of welfare support are intended.

The problems we are witnessing with Universal Credit, Employment Support and Allowance and Personal Independent Payment are arising, not because of unintended consequences, or bureaucratic ineptitude, but because of the governments’ “calculated cruelty”, rather than “gross incompetence”.

The idea of intentionally designed environmental “ordeals” indicates the political (misuse) of behaviourism a perspective that underpins libertarian paternalism  – which is the ideological basis of behavioural economics. The claim is that libertarian paternalism is designed to “help” people who behave irrationally and so are not advancing their own “interests” to behave in ways that self-appointed “choice architects” deem beneficial to themselves and society, while interfering only minimally with people who behave rationally.

Public policy over the last 7 years indicates that the poorest citizens are considered cognitively “faulty”, whereas wealthy people are seen as being cognitively competent precisely because they are wealthy. No-one seems to be challenging this fait accompli approach to public policy and ultimately, to altering public perceptions, experimenting on people without their consent, using armchair psychology and techniques of persuasion, and behavioural engineering on the basis of socioeconomic status.

Image result for blaming the poor for their poverty

Richard Thaler once said that if everyone were rational, we would all invest in the stock market. That’s a pretty limited definition of “rational” behaviour. He also believes that poor people actually choose borrowing money and credit at the highest interest rates. This is the problem with having such a narrow ideological view and focus. It skews, limits and reduces perspective because you miss the impact of real and complex social interactions, of inequality; the influence of power relations on social outcomes; exploitation; the consequences of political decision-making and institutionalised class-based attitudes and prejudices on social behaviours, for example. There are structural constraints to consider, and a host of other crucial interconnections that shape outcomes in our highly complex social world.

Behavioural economics tends to focus on the quantification of human experiences, while framing social problems as simply arising due to incompetence of individuals’ decision making and behaviours. In doing so, it’s scope is so limited and it fails to generate meaningful explanations and promote understanding of those experiences. 

Thaler doesn’t discuss the irrational behaviours of very wealthy people who harm the economy by exploiting workers, by tax evasion or offshore banking. Or the finance industry, who never lend money to people who actually desperately need it. Banks and money lenders generally tend to consider any loan or credit for people with little money as “risky” investment and so, with impeccable logic, they hike up the interest rates. It’s not easy to see how that works out any better in terms of the risk of defaults on payments. Poor people pay much more for their credit because of the credit-scoring, profiteering and institutionalised discrimination and behaviours of the finance industry. 

Thaler doesn’t seem to provide much insight into the context and interdependencies of  behaviours. He simply believes that poverty happens because poor people make “poor choices”. However, being poor means having limited choices in a capitalist society, because it is wealth that creates choice and power, and because complex social and political barriers and institutionalised behaviours compound poverty by closing off possibilities for the poorest to gain an adequate income. It costs a lot more to poor than it costs to be wealthy.

Then of course there are the legal and exploitative loan sharks that are circling people who live in poverty. Provident is one of the largest companies in the UK unsecured lending market. This market targets people for whom banks and credit cards are out of reach – mainly the low paid and people with poor credit histories – and it offers them short-term credit, with a typical APR of 272%. These companies make money by locking people into cycles of debt, interest on debt, late payment charges and interest on late payment charges. The Conservatives talk about “cycles of poverty” as if it’s a matter of poor people’s lifestyle choice. It’s not poor people who create poverty and inequality. It’s the exploitative rich. 

Payday lenders such as Wonga, which sprang up during the financial crash of 2007-08, have more recently counted teachers, nurses and vets among their customers. Payday lenders ratchet up eye-watering interest the longer customers take to repay a loan.

Adrian Beecroft

Vulture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, a major investor in payday lender Wonga, and someone who likes to write draconian emloyment policy for the Conservatives, gave the Conservatives a £50,000 pre-election donation in the week to 6 June. Photograph: Catherine Benson/Reuters

However Thaler shows no interest in the social problems created by immoral greed, exploitation and profiteering of wealthy businesses, who rake in huge amounts of interest because a borrower happens to be poor. Instead he blames the poor for the consequences of those apparently normalised behaviours of the wealthy.

It’s easy to see why Thaler’s work made such an impact on the Conservatives. He’s an academic that provides a justification narrative for Conservative prejudices and draconian policies. He is a free market market advocate and so endorses neoliberalism.  This of course exposes the ideological basis of behavioural economics.

The finance industry’s collective risky behaviours caused a global economic crash, yet Thaler remains supremely unconcerned that his work is being used as a series of techniques of persuasion to enforce public conformity, to impose austerity on the poorest, making them pay for the sins of the wealthy; to politically micromanage and enforce social control within a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, but actually harming many citizens, while leaving the wealthy to continue as they were.

Behavioural economics is therefore a prop for a failing neoliberal system and the status quo. It’s just an extention of a totalising ideology. Neoliberal policies contributed to the global crash, and they are also the key reason why so many people’s standard of living is falling. 

It isn’t therefore in the majority’s best interests to have their “best interests” decided for them.

Conservative scroogenomics: punishing poor people by reducing their lifeline income will miraculously cure their poverty

One technique of persuasion used widely in behavioural economics is framing, which is based on the idea that how choices are presented to citizens affects both behavioural and economic outcomes. The environment in which decisions are made can be shaped to provide “cues” to favour particular choices – “nudges” towards [politically determined] “desirable” behavioural and economic outcomes.

Of course nudge is used disproportionately on poor people, and this asymmetry in the distribution of its use is based on an assumption that people who are poor and need social security support are cognitively “incompetent”, lack mental sophistication, all of which leads to “faulty” and politically undesirable non-neoliberal behaviours.

I’m irresistibly reminded of  B.F Skinner’s draconian laboratory-based rat experiments in operant conditioning, using behavioural reinforcement. We have Skinner to thank for the formal conclusion that punishment can be used to reduce “undesirable” behaviours, though despots and tyrants everywhere had always known this to be so.

All types of bullies, from politics to the playground, are crude behaviourists, after all.

Skinner demonstrated how negative reinforcement works by placing rats in his specially designed operant conditioning chamber, called theSkinner box and then subjected them to an electric shock. As the poor rat moved about the box it was trapped in, by chance it would eventually knock a lever that was purposefully placed. Immediately that it did so, the electric current would be switched off.

The rats quickly “learned” to go straight to the lever after being put in Skinner’s torture chamber a few times. The relief of “escaping” the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action again and again. Skinner subsequently added a reward of food when the lever was pressed.

The Skinner Box represents the environment created within our social security system. It’s enclosed. We don’t enter it by choice. Pressing the lever represents fulfilling welfare conditionality criteria and ultimately, it also represents “work”. The “reward”, once you have figured out what the randomly placed set of conditions are and escaped the ordeal of electrocution, is simply provision for one of your most essential and basic living requirements – food. 

In order to eat, the lab rats first have to navigate through the ordeal, designed by the experimenter. 

Punishment can work either by directly applying a painful or unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially “rewarding” stimulus, for instance, such as food in the Skinner Box.

Or by deducting someone’s lifeline income to punish “undesirable behaviours” such as non-compliance with increasingly draconian and irrational welfare conditionality, aimed at “helping people into work”, by the imposition of hunger and the threat of destitution.

Which of course cannot possibly help anyone into work.  It’s not possible to look for work when you are struggling to meet your basic survival needs. Didn’t Abraham Maslow explain this clearly enough?

Food is essential to survival, surely it should never be provided conditionally, or seen as a reward for navigating an intentionally inflicted ordeal simply to elicit narrow political definitions of compliance and conformity. 

The privatisation of choice. No-one is nudging the choice architects

Of course the government’s explanation of the need for welfare sanctions (“making work pay”) doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially once in-work sanctions were introduced. Those on the poorest wages are also punished financially for not “progressing” in work. Yet the fact that work isn’t paying for many people shows that this line of justification for the welfare cuts is utter nonsense.

In-work poverty is a much larger drain on the welfare system than unemployment or disability, and it is created by exploitative employers, executive decision-making and government labor-market deregulation. It not due to any failure of those being paid a pittance for their work. Most of the provision that helped disabled people get back to work has been cut, too. The government is not providing support for people to find work: they are withdrawing it.

The reason that the welfare “reforms” happened is purely about ideological preference, reflecting traditional Tory prejudices. The ultimate aim is to remove social security completely.

Welfare has nothing to do with “rewarding work”. It’s came about to ensure no-one is left unable to meet their basic needs for food, fuel and shelter. How work is rewarded tends to be decided discretely in boardrooms. 

Social security has been redesigned to deter anyone from actually accessing it, because needing such support is deemed “undesirable behaviour”. However, the national insurance scheme was put in place precisely because it was deemed inevitable that at some point in their lives, most citizens would need some support from public services to ensure their welfare, and that their basic survival needs are met.

International research over recent years has indicated that generous welfare systems tend to increase the numbers of people finding work, rather than “disincentivising” them. That a government in a first-world so called liberal democracy considers, and has framed, the provision for fulfilment of basic and essential human survival needs as a “perverse incentive” is frankly terrifying.

Social security was originally designed to ensure that everyone was protected from the worst ravages of unfettered capitalism. To say that we have regressed as a society since then is an understatement. 

Behavioural economics is a technocratic solution to essentially politically created problems. It addresses social problems by simply shifting the blame and responsibility from state to individual. Nudge is increasingly being used to ensure citizens behaviours are compatible with neoliberal ideology.

I also think that the punitive policies being directed at the poorest citizens reflect traditional class-based Conservative prejudices. Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, memorably pointed out the absurdities of the current system, and the relationship between those in power and those being stigmatised, held in contempt, punished and systematically disempowered. (See There Are Fines And Punishments Associated With Most Aspects Of Working Class Life.) 

There are many problems with using punishment as a political instrument of “behavioural change”, such as:

  • Punished behaviour is not forgotten or “unlearned”: it’s  simply suppressed – behaviour may simply revert when punishment is no longer present.
  • Ethical problems as punishments most often entail inflicting a psychological or physical violence on others, without their consent. 
  • There’s a difference between political “persuasion” and state coercion. The path from the former to the latter takes us down a rapidly descending, very slippery slope. Persuasion usually presents opportunity for some dialogue, coercion does not. 
  • No cognitive development or learning opportunities are presented, and so people may well be very confused about why they are being punished. Nudge works only when people are unaware they are being nudged. This requirement for subject naivety forecloses the possibility of informative or instructive dialogue, facilitating development, realising individual potential and of promoting even basic understanding.
  • Causes increased aggression – demonstrates that aggression towards individuals and social groups is an acceptable way to cope with societal problems. It reinforces political authoritarianism. (See Skinner’s frightfully dystopic book: Walden Two, which is a treatise for positivism as much as it is for authoritarianism).
  • It has unintended and harmful consequences. For example, it creates fear that can influence other generalised “undesirable” behaviours.
  • Does not guide toward desired behaviour – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.
  • Who defines what are deviant or “undesirable behaviours”? Who decides what is an appropriate action to take to discourage such behaviours?  How do we prevent unethical solutions? How do we prevent state actions from simply becoming expressions of political authoritarianism and manifestations of a gross abuse of power? Or expressions of eugenic ideologies and policies? 

We ought to have learned through the history of human atrocities that it’s never a good omen when an already politically marginalised social group is singled out for scapegoating, punishment and dehumanisation by a government. 

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Manipulating social behaviour with antisocial motives

Another key technique of persuasion in behavioural economics is the use of “social preferences”. Individuals are inclined to care not just about their own outcomes but also about those of others. The behavioural “insight” (ironically) is that people derive value from fairness, cooperation and/or from conforming to social norms. These motivations may be [and are] used to give intrinsic “incentives” to make particular choices that accommodate neoliberal outcomes.

So the irony is that people’s tendency towards collectivity, cooperation and fairness may be manipulated by choice architects in order to prop up a system that extends competitive individualism, unfairness and inequality from its very core, in order to ensure politically desirable behaviours that support specific socioeconomic outcomes. 

Social norms may be subjected to political “default setting” which manipulates people’s inclination towards social conformity. For example, it has become “common sense” that poor people are poor because of their own behaviours, rather than because of political decision-making and policy impacting on economic conditions and labour market conditions (deregulation, for example).

In the UK, social security recipients have been transformed into folk devils in order to generate moral panic, to legitimise harsh and punitive welfare cuts and to de-empathise and desensitise the public to the awful consequences of this process. This default has been reset using the bombardment of political and media “norm” narratives. To the point where those claiming any support are quite widely considered as deviant and psychologically pathological.

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“Ordeals” have been introduced to the social security system, and can be clearly identified. This isn’t “nudging”, it is a political clobbering. The endless re-assessments and withdrawals of support for disabled people; the introduction of heavily bureaucratic mandatory reviews, designed to deter appeals; the withdrawal of support and the long periods people are being left without any means of meeting even basic needs; the constant threat of and increased use of much harsher welfare sanctions and so on.

Then there are the unofficial, undeclared and non-legislative means that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) frequently use to try at every opportunity to end claims. For example, it’s fairly common for the DWP to try to end ESA claims because a disabled person has been awarded PIP – a non means-tested income to support day-to-day independence and meet the costs of the additional needs arising because of disabilities. The DWP often try to claim that this is “standard” process when someone has “another award.” But PIP does not affect your eligibility for ESA at all.

The tactic is designed to force disabled people to go through the thoroughly demoralisng, anxiety-provoking and punitive claim process all over again – which means a reduction in income because they will then only be eligible for the basic rate ESA. This also means there will be another long wait for another harrowing assessment, which presents a further opportunity for the withdrawal of disability support, and so on. This kind of tactic was probably also designed to ensure that people never feel secure while needing support – a kind of informal Poor Law-styled “deterrence”.

Such irrational and government-created ordeals are absolutely intentional. There are even targets for reducing the number of disability support awards built into the private service providers’ contracts for delivering the assessments.  (See also Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective).

The Conservatives are all on the same page in the Orwellian handbook

I was forced to leave a profession I loved because I became too ill to continue working. My GP had to provide me with a “FIT” note explaining I was NOT fit for work. It’s worth noting the psycholinguistic framing being used here, as the word “fit” at the very least implies that a medical condition is trivial, it will be transient, and won’t be a long-term barrier to work. However, my illness is chronic, progressive and often life-threatening. 

It’s the Conservatves’ post-truth Orwellian approach to political narrative, a tactic that has emerged with the behaviourist turn. Punishment becomes “support”, social control becomes “welfare”, coercion becomes “behavioural economics”, authoritarianism becomes “nudge”, meeting basic survival needs becomes “incentivisation”.

“Employment and Support Allowance” is another example of state psycholinguistic framing and default setting. Despite the fact that ESA is only awarded to sick and disabled people whose doctors and the state (through the privately contracted assessments) have deemed not capable of work, the name suggests that the award is contingent upon people who are too ill to work nonetheless becoming employed.

I was eventually assessed by the state contracted private company Atos and found to be “fit for work”. By this time I was seriously ill. My doctor was outraged at this, and offered his support, so I appealed and won my case. I was placed in Work Related Activity Group (more psycholinguistics in that title, too).

The key message here is that work is the ONLY option for survival. Any work, regardless of whether or not the wage is sufficient to support your living needs. It does not matter if you are ill and disabled, because the government have pared back support and ultimately aim to remove it completely. 

The DWP said I couldn’t have the money I was owed in ESA back pay, following the Tribunal, because, they claimed, I owed them money. And of course I didn’t. It felt like some form of psychological manipulation, like a bullies’ projection technique. This was most definitely intentional, no explanation was ever given for the claim.

It’s almost as if there are some nudge measures in place to ensure that people lower their expectations in terms of the support that the state is obliged to provide with our taxes and national insurance contributions. Why, it’s as if nudge has become a part of a totalising neoliberal ideology. 

It’s as if the government ultimately aims to completely dismantle our social security system. One of the necessary stages along the way to fulfilling that aim is to make sure people no longer feel “secure” in their right to support. Part of that stage is to normalise the steady reduction in supportive provision, one cut at a time. Another prerequisite is the desensitisation of the public to the plight of those being abandoned by the state, by using norm setting and stigmatisation. Finally, it’s necessary to ensure that all routes of  challenge and redress are blocked by, say, coordinating the removal of public services with abolishing legal aid, restricting access to justice and simply ignoring protective legislations such as the Equality and Human Rights Act, dimissing them publicly as a “bureaucratic burden”.

 I did get the back pay soon after several phone calls and a demand for evidence of the “debt”. It was yet another pointless and designed “ordeal”. I was not provided with any explanation of the “error” regarding the non-existent debt.

However, just 3 months after winning the appeal, I received an appointment from the DWP for another ESA assessment. My illness is lifelong, chronic and progressive. The reassessment was of course another ordeal. This is a fairly standard tactic from the DWP, and I am far from alone in experiencing this particular ordeal.

I’m too ill to work, yet the government tell me that “work is the only route out of poverty”. They also tell me that the assessments and other barriers to my support are to ensure that “those most in need” are targeted, and to “protect the public purse”. The fact that there are people dying because they weren’t assessed as being in the “greatest need” of support illustrates very painfully that these politically expedient comments are untrue. 

The government is spending millions of pounds of our money on private profit-seeking companies to administer a system of “incentives” (punishments and ordeals) to coerce our most vulnerable citizens to somehow work or starve and face destitution.

My GP, my consultants, a Tribunal panel, and at the last assessment, Atos, have all said I am not well enough to work. The ordeals that the state has added to my “support” has exacerbated my illness, moving me further, not nearer, to any employment I may have found had I been supported rather than made to face state manufactured ordeal after ordeal.

There is no economic need or justification for welfare cuts. Nor does the systematic scaling back of the welfare state, and the Skinnerian punitive approach, come cheap. 

The political misuse of psychology costs a lot to plan, coordinate and administrate, in terms of costs for government advisors, willing academics, rogue multinationals and thinktanks, to create justification narratives, superficially feasible theoretical frameworks, and creating a technocratic lexicon that draws on pseudoscience, psychobabble, managementspeak and “common sense”. Those employed to do the administrative dirty work also require a salary. The motivation is entirely ideological.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has already indicated that the welfare “reforms” have cost far more money to implement than they have actually saved. (See Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.”)

For some of us, the Conservatives “long term economic plan” is the road to hell. “Economic competence” has come to mean simply stealing money from the poorest citizens, disdainful moralising about why people are poor and making sick and disabled people suffer. We have witnesed our public funds being handed out to a very wealthy minority in generous tax cuts, who take that money out of the economy and hoard it in private bank accounts.

The rich have their discrete creature comforts, a life of looking the other way, a culture of entitlement, offshore money trees, and a dialogue with the government. The poor have rent arrears, huge debts, eviction notices, hunger and a maximum of 3 visits a year to food banks, if they are referred by a professional. The government doesn’t engage with us, it simply acts upon us as if we were lab rats.

Handing out our public wealth to greedy vulture capitalists isn’t good economics, it’s corruption. It’s not good management of our resources or the economy. 

Being poor is itself an ordeal. 

Yet the government say they expect the use of financial deprivation (sanctions and austerity cuts) to work as a way of “incentivising” people not to be poor. If that actually worked, poor people would have already learned not to be poor. 

Taking money from poor people as a punishment for being poor will simply deepen their poverty and further limit their potential to increase their income, since struggling to survive is pretty time and effort consuming.  Meeting basic survival needs becomes the sole cognitive priority when people are deprived of the means of doing so.

So, you can’t simply punish someone into not being ill or poor. Yet the UK government continues to attempt to do so. This is a particularly irrational approach, reflecting a monstrous form of tyranny. 

Being poor, sick and disabled in the UK under a Conservative government is rather like being married to multiple abusive and gaslighting partners from whom there is absolutely no escape, ever.

It’s a relentless ordeal.

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How political ideology informs “science”. Graphic From Test, Learn, Adapt, a paper by the British government’s Behavioural Insights Team. Photo: Supplied

The simplistic, reductive design of a “behavioural” randomised controlled trial, shown with a test of a new “back to work” programme. There is no category that includes those who cannot work because they are too ill. Or any account of socioeconomic and political factors that may influence labor market conditions or individual circumstances. There is no scope for examining the quality, security and income that work provides (or doesn’t). It’s a very reductionist and deterministic “cause and effect” approach to public policy. Work fare is simply expected to somehow put people into work, and that is the only “route out of poverty”. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

The graphic illustrating the nudge “Intervention” and “Control” groups is itself a nudge – it also has a nudge built into it. There are more green “found work” graphics in the “intervention” – which implies that the “intervention” always works. In a genuine Randomised Control Trial (RCT) there is no guarantee that the experimental “intervention” will work – hence the need for a trial. 

There is no potential for dialogue, qualitative feedback, consideration or measure of citizens’ complexity, dignity or wellbeing. It is simply assumed that any work is the only possible outcome. The government work programme presents an imposing, rigid and restrictive choice architecture – there are just two options. Work or face severe, punitive sanctions. There is no opt out opportunity. There are significant ethical considerations raised because subjects are not participating on the basis of informed consent.

There are also implications for democracy. We don’t elect governments to change our perceptions and behaviours by stealth to suit their ideological agendas. In a first world democracy, it is expected that governments ensure all citizens can meet their basic survival needs. The Conservatives are failing to fulfil that function.

The government’s approach to social security for many has become random, controlling and an unremitting, Orwellian trial. 

 


 

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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Theresa May euphemizes savage cuts to PIP when confronted by an angry disabled person demanding democratic accountability

Theresa May

The prime minister has been avoiding confrontation with real citizens and voters so far, and has simply concerned herself with a series of stage-managed media appearances featuring Conservative supporters.

However, Theresa May faced a series of difficult questions after she was confronted by a furious voter over cuts to disability benefits while she was campaigning in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

Cathy Mohan, who has learning difficulties, challenged the Prime Minister over Conservative cuts, which meant she lost her carer. She also asked about how others had been affected as the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is replaced by the new cost cutting Personal Independence Payment (PIP). She told the PM that she has been forced to live on £100 a month in benefits after being denied essential support with the extra costs of coping with a learning disability.

In the footage captured by Channel 5 News, the voter demanded tht the government return to the DLA payments system, explaining that she couldn’t survive on the PIP scheme that has replaced it. 

Suprisingly, The Express also ran the story, although it was interesting to note the language use and interpretation to describe the exchange, with the Prime Minister “replying”, “saying”, “concluding” and Cathy “continuing her tirade” and “her rant“. Anyone would think that the Express journalist wanted to portray this citizen demanding democratic inclusion as unreasonable. 

Cathy simply asked: “Theresa, are you going to help people with learning difficulties? 

It’s good to see the Prime Minister being held democratically accountable for once by a real member of the public with a real life account of the devastating impacts of Tory austerity cuts, which have fallen disproportionately on those with the very least, and those who are among our most vulnerable citizens. 

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You can see Cathy angrily and bravely confronting the Prime Minister here

Cathy says “I’m being serious, I want you to do something for us.”

 May replied: “We’ve got a lot of plans for people with mental health in particular…”

But absolutely furious with being fobbed off,  Cathy swiftly interrupted the Prime Minister and continued: “And learning difficulties? 

Because I’ve got mild learning disabilities and I haven’t got a carer at the moment, and I’m angry.

I would like somebody to help me because I can’t do everything I want to do.

I’m talking about everybody not just me, for everybody who’s got mental health and anybody who’s got learning disabilities.

I want them not to have their money taken away from them, and being crippled.

They just took it all away from me,” she said.

She added: “The fat cats keep the money and us lot get nothing.”

It’s true that the vulture capitalist private companies undertaking disability assessments take millions from the public purse to deliver pseudo-medical assessments that are specifically designed to make it unlikely that your claim will be successful, regardless of how ill and disabled you are. 

An audit report concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cutting scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill – as Frances Ryan pointed out in the Guardian, it’s the political equivalent of burning bundles of £50 notes.

The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarises:

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

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

13%
Proportion of ESA and PIP targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

See: Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.”

May responded by using trite and meaningless sloganised reassurances: “The government is “particularly focused on those who are most in need”.

“Focusing on those most in need” is a Conservative euphemism for cutting lifeline support for those who need it, by a series of incremental restrictions to the eligibility criteria for PIP.

The criteria for receiving PIP has recently been restricted by the Conservatives, leading to more than 160,000 vulnerable people being denied the additional financial help that they once received.

May continued: What I can do is ensure that we’re giving more help to people with mental health and learning disabilities.

We want to ensure when we look at the help we’re giving to people with any disability that particularly we focus on those who are most in need.”

PIP 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, including staying in work. 

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 PIP. However, what it is that defines those “most in need” involves ever-shrinking, constantly redefined categories, pitched at an ever-shifting political goalpost.

Two independent tribunals have ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should expand the scope and eligibility criteria of 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, the government rushed in an “urgent change” to the law to prevent many people with mental health conditions being awarded the mobility component of PIP. Without any parliamentary debate. 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 new regulations were rushed in without any dialogue with the Social Security Advisory Committee, too, via statutory instrument. 

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 DWP warned that it would cost £3.7bn extra by 2022 to implement the court rulings. The government have responded by formulating an extremely authoritarian “emergency legislation” to stop the legal changes that the upper tribunals had ruled on from happening. From 16 March the law was 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 certainly does not reflect that commitment.  

Let us not forget that last year, the United Nations’ highly critical report confirmed that the UK government has systematically violated the human rights of disabled people.

And let us not forget that this government dismissed the findings of the inquiry and each of the major concerns raised, calling it “offensive”.

It’s rather more offensive that a government of one of the wealthiest so-called democratic nations in the world chooses to disregard its human rights obligations towards disabled people, often leaving them without lifeline support and with devastating consequences, whilst gifting millionaires and rogue multinationals with tax payers money.

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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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Conditionality and discretionary housing payments: when paying rent is more important than buying food

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The government’s behavioural change agenda, which targets the poorest citizens, is being delivered via the increasing conditionality of social security and public service support provision. The underpinning rhetoric is that individual behaviours cause poverty, rather than government policies, which are causing a systemic unequal distribution of wealth.

Councils who are facing shortfalls in government funding to meet their statutory obligations have recently introduced behavioural conditionality to applications for awards of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Most local authorities are now saying they will only help those who will have a “positive outcome” as a result of the support. Yet they claim that this is to ensure limited funds go to only those “most in need”.

The reasoning provided by councils for only supporting those “nearest to the labour market” to encourage “financial independence” is at odds with the aim of ensuring support goes to “those most in need”. Surely those unable to work through illness and disability, who are furthest away from the labour market, actually have more need, yet will be less likely to meet conditionaility requirements and so won’t receive the support that the government tells us is supposed to be in place for us.

DHP is now much less likely to be awarded for those in greatest need precisely because of the new conditionality criteria. It specifically supports people who are more able to find work. Those who can’t are expected to go without food and fuel to meet their housing costs and potentially face destitution.

Disabled people paying for disabled people’s support

On Thursday I went to apply for DHP as I no longer have enough money to live on, partly because of now having to pay council tax and bedroom tax. Like many people, my essential outgoings are considerably greater than my income. The government have claimed that disabled people like me can claim DHP as a safeguard from the financially damaging impact of the bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people.

However, my own council have warned me in advance that they have little funding left for providing DHP support.

ESA and other benefits were originally calculated to meet the costs of food and fuel, and other essential living costs, based on an assumption that you would also get FULL housing and council tax benefit. There hasn’t been full housing benefit provision for some years now, but previously, people who are disabled were exempt from paying council tax, until recent years.  

This is leaving some people without enough money to meet the costs of their basic survival needs – food and fuel. One reason I now have to pay more council tax, according to the statement from my local authority on my bill, is to raise money to meet the costs for the government’s pledged funds for improving adult social care – the adult social care precept. That is being taken from every household, including the poorest, many of which have people with serious medical conditions and disabilities in them.

My local authority says: “The introduction of the National Living Wage and increase in population means this is an area where we have seen significant financial pressures. The 2% increase will help us to maintain our current services.”

There’s a certain horrible irony here, too.

My local authority inform me that I now have to pay council tax to fund support for:

  • older people
  • people with a learning disability
  • people with a physical disability
  • people with sensory loss
  • people with mental health needs

The never-ending need to justify need: facing the bureaucratic wall around support provision

I am a person with physical disabilities because of an illness, and my only income is my ESA, at the support group rate. I ought to have claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP) before now. However my experiences claiming ESA were pretty distressing and extremely anxiety provoking, that has deterred me. The enormous stress and anxiety of the assessments, facing a tribunal and then the reassessment almost immediately after I won my case in court exacerbated my already serious illness, and left me acutely and desperately ill for at least two years.

I’m a reasonably robust person ordinarily. I have worked most of my life, and I enjoyed my work, particularly the youth and community posts I undertook. I did a vocational part-time Master’s whilst I worked full time, and later went on to do mental health social work with young people at risk.

I was very unprepared for what followed when I suddenly became very ill with lupus. I was used to being fit, healthy and very active. I also had a good salary and a relatively comfortable standard of living. Though I was never very affluent, I had enough to cover my family’s needs, and to provide enough for my children to have stability.

I was forced to give up work as I was much too ill to fulfil my role competently and there were significant risks to my health in the workplace. My illness and some of the treatments I have also mean that I am very susceptible to infection. I caught a cold from a colleague in work and ended up with pneumonia and pleurisy more than once, for example. My illness impacted on my capacity to work for many reasons, such as an autoimmune bleeding disorder, widespread joint and tendon damage affecting my mobility, severe nerve pain, deteriorating eyesight, neurological problems and cognitive difficulties and so on. The tribunal panel (regarding my ESA eligibility) concluded that I had made the right decision to leave work because of the further serious risks to my health, after reading my medical reports from my specialists. 

My house was repossessed because my modest mortgage payments became unmanageable as I had no way of making the payments. I did approach my local housing office for help, who told me they could only offer support once I was actually homeless. That would have meant having all my family’s possessions left on the street, too.

I found a house to rent just down the street for a very reasonable amount. In fact initially there was very little shortfall between my housing benefit and actual rent. I had two boys at school, they didn’t want to leave the area as they were in their final years, and we have other family in this area. I was informed by the council that I would be eligible for housing benefit for a three bedroom house at that time. I took out a small loan for my deposit, as by then my last wage had long gone. The council were pleased I had managed to find cheap accommodation that suited my family’s needs.

I moved into the property, but I was very ill and struggled coping. My disability advisor at the job centre advised me to claim ESA at this time. By then I was having weekly chemotherapy treatment (Methotrexate) at the hospital and was considered unavailable for work, I didn’t (and couldn’t) meet thhe jobseeker’s allowance conditionality requirements, and my advisor recognised this.

Within two months of moving into the property, the law changed, and I had to pay bedroom tax for my older son’s room, as he was suddenly expected to share a room with his younger brother. There are no smaller houses locally, none with lower rents, and all of the limited number of two bedroom council flats here are inhabited. Not that moving again would have been easy for me as I was so poorly at this time. The first move down the street had affected my health, and exhausted me for months.

However, after almost a year of struggling to pay the bedroom tax, my oldest son reached 18 and my housing benefit went back up not long before he left for university.  I got almost a year of backpay when I won my ESA tribunal and that helped me get on top of my increasing debt, after months of really struggling. I also got a tax rebate from when I worked, also helped enormously. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided that they would take back an overpayment they made in 2007, whilst I was struggling on basic rate ESA, awaiting tribunal in 2011. I was also paying bedroom tax then. I had claimed income support briefly when I changed jobs, whilst I waited for social services to complete background checks that were necessary for my post. I couldn’t start the post until the checks were done. Meanwhile we had nothing to live on. The checks took three months.

I was entitled to a month of run-on benefit as a lone parent once I took up the post. However, despite the fact I had signed off, the income support payments continued another two months. I had phoned a couple of times and then written twice to inform the job centre again that I had taken up my post.

I don’t mind paying back the money I was overpaid. I did mind that the DWP also took back the run-on benefit that I was actually entitled to for the first month, and told me it was far too late to appeal that decision. The hefty deductions from my reduced ESA did cause me a lot of hardship, but at least I didn’t owe anything by the time I won the tribunal. It was claimed I did still owe money at one point and I had a letter saying my ESA back dated payment wasn’t going to be released as I owed money. I didn’t.

It’s almost as if the DWP want to keep you in a state of constant anxiety, despair and precarity, and to make sure that your life is never remotely acceptably comfortable, secure and safe. Social security is no longer a safety net, it seems to have been transformed into a bureacratic wall that exists simply to discipline poor people and ensure as few people as possible have access to any lifeline support. The letters are written in a way that intends to cause anxiety, I am sure.

I managed financially for a couple of years, though budgeting on such a limited income is difficult. But having worked for a long time, I had furniture and household items, enough clothing and when things got very bad, I had a few personal items to sell if need be. 

Of course over time, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, kettles and cookers break down.  Children grow and need clothes and shoes. I went a whole year without a washing machine when mine broke, but saved a little every month until I had enough for a second hand one. I don’t know how I managed to get by because much of the time I could barely walk or use my wrists/hands, but I had to wash clothes and bedding in the bath. It took up a lot of my time and effort. Poverty is cumulative, too. It gets much worse and more wearying as time goes by. If you are ill and disabled, the impacts of poverty are considerably greater.

Both my youngest sons are at university now. They come home out of term times. I feed them and support them as best I can, though we don’t have any money to cover their living costs. Both are at universities out of the region, they have student finance for term times, but both have struggled to meet living costs. When they come home, it’s for a couple of weeks, though considerably longer at christmas. They have never managed to find work locally to tide them over out of term time, despite trying. No-one wants to hire people for a couple of weeks.

My oldest son found a part time job in his first year at university. He didn’t have regular hours and his employer simply called him when he needed him. However, my son’s travel costs to and from work exceeded what he earned, and more than once his allocated hours coincided with his lectures, which are compulsory.

Both boys are considered as living at home as they return home out of term times and are expected to return home once they complete their studies. 

In the new year, I caught ‘flu and within a couple of days I ended up with pneumonia and sepsis. At the time I was far too ill to know I was so poorly. It was my son who realised how serious my condition was and rang the ambulance, just in time.

I was already in a critical condition with septic shock when the ambulance arrived. My illness means my immunity to infection is very low, so I’m always at risk from pneumonia, kidney infections, random abscesses and so on, but this was the first time I have ever had life-threatening and severe sepsis. I was very ill in hospital and spent a couple of days drifting in and out of a bottomless sleep and hallucinating, whilst on the lifesaving IV treatments and fluids. I needed oxygen support for five days afterwards, anticoagulant injections, and continued taking combined oral antibiotics, steroids and a course of Tamiflu for a couple of weeks after I came home. 

When I got home from hospital in late Jaunary, we had no hot water or heating as my boiler had broken. But we used fan heaters, and I managed to keep warm in my room, I focused on recovery, until the electric went off because of a fault on a circuit. My landlord lives in the US currently and I had difficulty in contacting him. I had no choice but to find somewhere else to stay as the house was so cold it was uninhabitable, and we couldn’t cook food. I was still very weak and very slowly recovering. By this time my youngest son had returned to university. My oldest son and I had to stay with a friend.

The electrical fault was fixed and I got a new boiler fitted the following week. I remained weak and my pulmonary specialist told me it would likely be at least three months before I was fully recovered. I have been diagnosed with additional lung problems since, which showed up on a scan, following more tests showing my lung function is just 40% of what it is expected to be. Some of the problems are related to lupus, which has caused a lot of inflammation in both lungs.

My son decided I needed some additional support to recover and he has taken six months out from his degree to care for me. The alternative was for me to contact social services for support.

I now have to pay bedroom tax for his room, in addition to the council tax, as he is classed as a non-dependent adult. Having no boiler for several months has also meant I used a lot more eletricity, so my bill is much bigger than usual, so my direct debit has more than doubled every fortnight. I managed to negotiate it down a bit, but it is still more than twice my ususal payment. My new boiler is a lot more efficient than the old one, luckily, but I am nonetheless struggling to make ends meet.

So I applied for DHP.

I had an interview on Thursday at our local housing benefit office. 

Rent and council tax are more important than food and fuel, apparently

The interview went as follows:

Firstly, I was asked to give an account of my income and outgoings. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for work?

Me: I am in the Employment Support and Allowance Support Group (ESA). This is because I became too ill to work and it’s been agreed by my doctors, myself and the state that I can’t work “consistently, reliably and safely” due to the severity of my illness and the substantial risks I would face if I were to return to the workplace. I have tried to find a job writing from home that pays a wage to support myself, but had no luck so far. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for cheaper accommodation?

Me: I wasn’t aware I was expected to. However, there is no cheaper accommodation in the area, unless you have any two bedroom social housing to offer me. Then I would need considerable support in moving, as my illness means I have mobility problems, severe problems with profound fatigue, other health problems that make moving risky, and I also need to be organised to accommodate a strict routine for my health care.

Housing Officer: Have you considered taking in a lodger?

Me: I have no spare room to offer a lodger as my sons occupy them out of term time and are expected to return home once they graduate. However, I would not consider taking a stranger into my home because I am disabled and ill, therefore I am potentially vulnerable and feel that this may present an unacceptable risk to my wellbeing and safety. (See for example: Mother and son who ‘gave shelter to homeless man’ stabbed to death at family home.)

Housing Officer: Your weekly shopping average looks slightly high.

Me: Well at the moment it is for two of us. On Friday my youngest son is home for the Easter break, and I will then need to feed him too.

Housing Officer: I only want details of what you spend on yourself.

Me: Do the council expect that I leave my children without food?

(No response)

Me: My weekly shop includes essential items I can no longer get on prescription, such as eye drops, because my tear film is very poor, I don’t produce tears as I have Sjogren’s – painfully dry eyes – as part of my illness. I used to get moisturising drops on prescription from my opthalmologist but they have been discontinued. If I don’t use the eyedrops my cornea becomes scarred and I get eye infections.

I also have to buy sunblock, because I get a blistering and painful rash in the sunlight, even in winter – that’s also part of my illness.  

I have to buy detergents and toiletries that are very hypoallergenic and gentle because my skin is fragile, hypersensitive, prone to rashes and painful blistering in places because I have lupus and eczema, all of which leaves me prone to infection if I don’t treat the conditions with care. I also have to buy cleaning products and antibacterial items, to keep my home as clean as possible because my illness and treatments mean my immunity to infection is very poor. 

None of these items are available on prescription, but I do unfortunately need them. I have also included very modest clothing/footwear costs (I have to take care with footwear because I have severe Raynaud’s – a condition that causes very poor circulation that shuts down in my hands, feet and nose with even slight fluctuations in temperature – and so I need to keep my feet and hands warm.  I am prone to blisters from badly fitted shoes which then turn into serious infections and have developed sepsis at least once because of this. I also need shoes that are cushioned and support my Achilles tendons because of damage to them and my joints. 

I’ve also included modest costs for essential household items, which everybody needs sometimes due to wear and tear. I have a bleeding disorder, which affects me in a way that means I have to spend more on sanitary items than most people. I also have additional dietary needs because I am underweight, and I have IBS and acid reflux, which means I have to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. This is not a lifestyle choice: it’s because of my medical conditions.

Housing Officer: Don’t take any of the questions personally, everyone is asked the same.

Me: The problem with having the expectation of everyone having the same needs is that you then don’t have any opportunity to recognise the more vulnerable clients who need additional support because of their additional needs. Not everyone finds it easy to find suitable employment to support themselves.  Illness and disability can happen to anyone, it is sometimes a major barrier to working and I am not ill because of “lifestyle choices”: it’s not because of something I did or didn’t do. I have worked. Now I can’t. 

People are dying because of that built-in oversight and other government policies that don’t accommodate people’s circumstances and disregard their additional needs because of disability and illness. Many others are suffering unacceptable distress and harm to their health.

Housing Officer: I know.

She delivered that comment with complete and almost menacing detachment. I was so taken aback I couldn’t speak for a few moments. She didn’t even pause for breath, however.

The part that was by far the worst during the interview was this matter-of-fact agreement that people are dying as a result of the policies that she was calmly sat implementing.

It was delivered almost like a veiled threat: that if I didn’t or couldn’t comply with certain unstated behavioural requirements, which were not made explicit at any point during the interview or prior to it, I would also be left to die. 

I was then told I must “prioritise” my rent and council tax payments above everything else.

I explained that my rheumatology consultant has also told me I must prioritise eating well, putting weight on (I weighed less than 8 stones), and keeping warm. I don’t have enough income to do both of those things, as it is. I explained again that I could meet my husing costs before I had to pay council and bedroom tax, and have managed to do so until now, and this is why I had applied for DHP.

My comment was met with silence. 

Apparently, not falling into rent and council tax arrears is more considered more important than meeting basic survival needs such as eating and keeping warm.

I was also almost casually asked if I had any pets or Sky TV. Next I was asked if I had a TV, broadband and a mobile phone contract. I was asked how much I spend on my phone monthly (it’s a pay as you go). I felt I was being turned into a Daily Mail stereotype by bureaucratic questioning that was designed to find ways of dismissing me as ineligible for support in an arbitrary way, under the cover of mundane chit chat.

The more I responded the more demand was placed on me to justify my outgoings, the more information I presented, the bigger the scope for potentially finding reasons for refusing my application.

ESA and PIP assessments work in much the same way – assessors fish for as much information as possible about your everyday life so they can use it to try and claim you are more able to work and less disabled than you and your doctor are claiming.

For example, “Do you watch soaps on TV?” – a deceptively conversational and informal question – may translate your response on the report potentially, as “Can sit unaided and concentrate for at least half an hour”.  The aims and motives behind the questions are deliberately obscurred, so that you don’t have an opportunity to explain or clarify any details or challenge the assumptions being made to justify ending your lifeline support.

That gold locket and chain that was your mother’s, which you wear all the time because you can’t take it off, as the clasp is too difficult for your arthritic fingers, becomes a sign of finger and hand dexterity to an assessor, as it’s just assumed you take it off and put it on again. When I had a chest x-ray rencently, I had to ask the radiographer to take it off. The whole process is designed to search out ways to discredit your doctor’s and your own account by any means at all concerning the level of your disability and the impact it has on your day to day living and work capability.  

Agents of state control and “changing behaviours”

Behavioural conditionality has now been built into every aspect of social safety net provision, this is to save costs and ultimately, to justify the dismantling of social security, public services and healthcare provision. It is justified by an ideological narrative of the neoliberal “small state”, austerity and paying off the national deficit, the “unsustainability” of safety net provision and the state re-translation of competitive individualism into a rhetoric of self help, thrift and “personal responsibility”.

However, the behavioural change programme is being applied only to poor and vulnerable citizens. Against a backdrop of austerity and welfare “reforms” (cuts), millionaires were awarded a tax cut of £107,000 each per year, exempting them from the same obligation to practice personal responsibility, thrift and self help. The Conservatives’ low tax and low welfare society means that perversely, those who have a lot of money are not expected to contribute to our society, whereas those who are low earners or unemployed are expected to pay down the deficit and pull themselves up by invisible bootstraps.

If you suffer or die in the process, apparently that is okay because the government inform us there is no “causal link” between such “adverse” consequences and their adverse policies. However, a correlation has been well-established by independent research and the narratives of many of those affected by the draconian polcies, as well as campaigners.

What really struck me during my housing benefit interview was how the ordinary and seemingly reasonable woman in front of me seemed to suddenly shapeshift into a resentful, disapproving and prejudiced state drone who didn’t feel I deserved any support, about a third of the way into our interview.  I felt like Iain Duncan Smith was conducting the interview.

The government have built up almost impenetrable walls of authoritarian bureacracy around social security provision, and a hive mind army to deliver their distinctive and punitive approach to poverty, which is now all pervasive. All bullies seek the “behavioural change” of others to get their own way.  Conditionality is built upon a behavioural change agenda to prop up neoliberal policies aimed at removing social provisions that the poorest citizens need to survive. Work is no longer the panacea it is held to be, since labour market deregulation and intentionally low social security creates a reserve army of labour, which “incentivises” profiteering employers to keep wages low. 

Even a trip to your GP is likely to trigger the question “do you work” these days, as job coaches are co-located in surgeries to enforce the government’s “work cure” and suck you back into a supply side reserve army of desperate labour. However, sometimes people are simpy too ill to work. The state and its wall of bureaucracy, however, are absolutely refusing to accept this.

There is no end to intrusive state nudging and shoving, especially when you just want to be left to cope with being progressively ill in peace. The government believe that illness and disability are simply a set of “faulty” behaviours that need correcting, and that people will respond to a particularly punitive form of operant conditioning in order to change their behaviours to bring about a miraculous recovery. Work is considered a “health” outcome. However, work is a work outcome and has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s health. In my own experience, work considerably contributed to the progression of my illness. Being constantly expected to work has also contributed significantly to the deterioration in my health.

Furthermore, I don’t recall giving consent for my taxes and national insurance to be used to pay rogue companies that cost the public billions to “save” relatively meagre amounts in welfare and public service spending just to punish, bully and coerce people who need support.

Nor did I give consent to a state experiment in value-laden, poorly designed and prejudice-determined operant conditioning on ill, disabled and unemployed citizens. 

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Cameron was surely mocking when he used this phrase as a slogan from Terry Gilliam’s darkly dystopic film, “Brazil”, which was coincidently about nightmarish totalitarian bureaucracy 

There were no innocent and random comments from the interviewing housing officer. Almost every question was geared towards making me feel guilty for being poor and not being in work, I was challenged over every single penny I spent, as if I have no right to food, items that I need to meet my complex health needs, and no right to extend an ordinary gesture of basic kindness and decency by taking in a stray cat that had no home and no-one. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to sell everything I had bought and kept from when I worked.

I had no idea that disabled people could be refused support if they had a pet. Regardless of whether that pet was one you had when you were in better circumstances, working. How utterly callous to expect people to dispose of their cherished companions when they experience hard times, it’s cruel on the person and cruel on the poor and innocent animal.

Most pets cost very little to feed, too.

My cat is a great source of calm and comfort for me, at a time when I am struggling trying to constantly adapt to a progressive illness, and increasing absolute poverty.  I couldn’t bear to part with her.

I wonder what the decision-makers, who are gatekeeping funds that are meant to support disabled people rather than punish them, expect a person should actually do with a cherished family pet, which may have been a part of a family long before severe financial problems and illness came along.

It’s rather like financially penalising people by cutting off support for some children just because a parent has lost a job and encountered difficult times. It’s a Poor house mentality – we are all categorised as either “deserving” or “undeserving” based on our previous choices as well as our current ones. How very dare anyone have anything at all that gives them a little joy and comfort if they become too ill to work. Even if they worked for it prior to losing their job or becoming ill.

This said, those people who have never been able to work should be supported, unconditionally and without any resentment, to meet their living needs and to lead safe and secure lives. This is how a democratic, decent and civilised society should behave, after all.

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I don’t need a behavioural change agenda. My behaviour didn’t put me in a position of hardship: ill conceived state policies that disproportionately target ill and disabled people for austerity cuts are the root cause of my financial problems. I am not ill because of my behaviour, my medical condition arose because of a complex interplay between genetics (my mother and her father had a connective tissue disease, and both my maternal aunt and uncle do), hormonal events (pregnancy was probably the trigger in my case, as that is when I first became ill, 21 years ago) and possibly some environmental triggers too, such as an infection. It was not because I did or didn’t do something. No-one could have predicted a pregnancy would trigger a connective tissue disease. No-one knows how it will progress either, unfortunately. I managed to work for some years whilst being ill, and stopped only because I absolutely had too when I my symptoms became too severe.

Neoliberalism is founded on the principles of “market competition” and competitive individualism. In competition, a few people do very well and “win”, and many more don’t. That is the nature of competition. This is how it works.

Neoliberalism itself causes inequality and poverty, whilst rewarding most the people who are already very wealthy. Addressing the “behaviours” of poor people to punish them into not being poor won’t change the consequences of inequality because of our socioeconomic organisation one bit. Poverty, by it’s very nature, reduces behavioural choices and opportunity.

It’s really the government who need to change their policies and prejudiced behaviours, not poor, ill and disabled people.

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Related 

What do good Local Welfare Support and Conditionality Schemes look like? – The introduction of local welfare support and conditionality schemes are a side-effect of localisation.


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. 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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Successful Appeals Against Disability Assessments – It’s As If There’s Something Wrong With The System

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Source: the Independent, written by James Moor.

It’s rapidly becoming clear that Prime Minister Theresa May’s bold pledge to create a Britain that works for everyone should have an asterisk attached to facilitate the addition of “except for those pesky people with disabilities, can’t we pack them off somewhere else?”

In recent days the Government’s plan to cut people with serious mental health conditions out of eligibility for personal independent payments has justifiably come under sustained fire. 

However, the attitude problem displayed by both May’s administration, and that of her predecessor David Cameron, goes beyond that, as a delve into the latest statistics demonstrates.

What they show is that the number of appeals against decisions made by the DWP on the basis of assessments made by the private, profit driven contractors working on its behalf is increasing at a similar speed to that at which Lewis Hamilton exits Silverstone corners. 

They show that there were 60,600 Social Security & Child Support appeals between October and December 2016, an increase of 47 per cent. Even Lewis might think twice about acceleration like that. 

Some 85 per cent of those appeals were accounted for by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA).

The rate at which the decisions made by the DWP on the basis of information supplied by the Government’s contractors – Capita and Atos – are overturned is also increasing. 

People started taking notice when it was running at 50 per cent. Now close to two thirds of appeals in the case of the PIP (65 per cent) are successful. The figure is higher still when it comes to ESA (68 per cent). 

I’m given to understand that the people who sit on tribunals have been asked to keep June clear, in an attempt to reduce a growing backlog. So forget about an early summer holiday. 

Needless to say, these people have to be paid, which puts extra cost into the system at a time when the Government says it’s trying to save money. 

Simply applying for either benefit causes a great deal of stress to people with disabilities. Having to go to appeal only exacerbates that. Applicants find themselves in the middle of a process that is humiliating and dehumanising.

That process also seems to throw up scandals with alarming regularity. Channel Four, for example, infamously filmed a Capita assessor saying a claimant had a “disability known as being fat”. Another claimed to have filled out forms before even seeing clients amid pressure to get as many done as quickly as possible. 

Other scandals have involved people with weeks or months to live being told they’re fit for work in the case of ESA, which is paid to people whose fitness to do so is impacted by medical conditions and disabilities. 

Set against that backdrop, is it any wonder that there has been so much criticism of the process, and so many successful appeals? 

If the assessment process worked effectively, and as it should, the number should be limited, and you wouldn’t expect such a large majority to be successful.

Ken Butler, welfare rights advisor at Disability Rights UK, says he is “very worried for all those disabled people who get turned down for benefits and don’t have the time or energy to challenge poor decisions made by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)”. 

He adds: “We’d advise all claimants to get benefits advice and, if they are turned down, to use the independent appeals process.”

Butler says that the high success rate of appeals clearly demonstrates that there is something wrong with the system. 

Unless, of course, the system, also savagely criticised by the United Nations, was deliberately set up to be this way. 

Before you suggest that is me indulging in a conspiracy theory, take a moment to think about this. If you make something difficult, stressful and painful, if you litter it with traps, and take the view that everyone getting involved in it is a dirty scrounger until proven otherwise, a lot of people will get put off and won’t apply. Still more won’t appeal when turned down, saving the Government money it can use for things like millionaires tax cuts. 

Dealing with a disability presents enough of a challenge as it is, without having to get to grips with a state that operates in a manner that would have impressed some of George Orwell’s darker characters. Would anyone be terribly surprised to find O’Brien working as a civil servant in the DWP?

The cynicism on display is breathtaking, if my assessment is correct. Alternatively, the situation I’ve discussed could simply have been created by a toxic mix of bureaucratic callousness and incompetence. 

The net effect is the same regardless, which is why there will be peals of bitter laughter emanating from Britain’s disabled community every time those words of Theresa May’s are trotted out. 

You’d be able to hear them if it weren’t for the fact that so many people with disabilities are now trapped in their own homes.  

Disabled people are once again confronting the spectre of social isolation – Jane Campbell

 

Superficially the UK leads the world on disability rights, but colossal cuts are undermining the progress made over the last few decades
 
Lady Jane Campbell at her home in Surbiton, Surrey
Lady Jane Campbell served on the House of Lords select committee reviewing the impact of the Equality Act. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

On Monday, disabled representatives from disability organisations across England, Scotland and Wales presented reports to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva. It is now eight years since the UK ratified the UNCRPD with cross-party support and this is the committee’s first full examination of the UK’s performance.

So how are we doing? The government is fond of claiming that the UK is a “world leader” on disability rights. Superficially, this claim remains fairly accurate. We have the most comprehensive and proactive equality law anywhere in the world; social care legislation and practice that embodies the principle of choice and control; a social security system that claims to recognise the extra costs of disability; and law and regulations to advance accessibility.

It is important to remind ourselves of what disabled people have achieved over the past 30-40 years of disability rights activism, as we have charted our journey from objects of care and charity to becoming active, contributing citizens. But any assessment of progress cannot be confined solely to what we now have, or where we were in the past. And judging by the UK’s direction of travel, the government’s claim of world leadership quickly unravels: we are seeing big cuts to services and watering down of rights and opportunities of disabled people. 

Last year, I served on the House of Lords select committee, reviewing the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people. We found that this government’s deregulatory zeal and spending cuts significantly undermined the intended effect of the act. Employment tribunal fees, legal aid cuts and loss of advice services have put the act’s protection beyond the reach of most disabled people. And colossal cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget have left the act under-promoted and unenforced.

The UK’s mental health and mental capacity laws fail to comply with the CRPD, which stipulates that disability cannot be grounds for denying people equal recognition before the law or for depriving people of their liberty. Yet in England, there has been a 10% rise in detention each year for the past two years. More than half of these cases related to people with dementia, and a significant minority to adults with learning disabilities. The sanctioned use of restraint, seclusion and anti-psychotic medication remains commonplace on mental health and learning disabilty wards, violating people’s rights to physical and mental integrity and to live free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

NHS benchmarking data revealed that there were 9,600 uses of restraint during August 2015 in mental health wards in England, while the Learning Disability Census 2015 found that one-third of patients with a learning disability were subject to the use of restraint in 2015-16.

Unexpected deaths of mental health in-patients, or those cared for at home in England, are up by 21% yet, unlike deaths in police, prison or immigration detention, there is no system of independent investigation. Since 2011, hospitals in England have investigated just 222 out of 1,638 deaths of patients with learning disabilities. Among deaths they classed as unexpected, hospitals inquired into just over a third.

The Care Act fails to ensure disabled people’s right to independent living, and swingeing cuts in health, social care and benefits are eroding the availability of support and people’s right to exercise choice and control. Disabled people are confronting the spectre of re-institutionalisation as councils and clinical commissioning groups limit the amount they spend on individual packages of support

The UN disability rights committee has already reported on the negative impact of the UK’s measures to cut social security spending. Yet further disability benefit cuts continue to be implemented and the extension of punitive sanctions to those hitherto assessed as unable to work is being proposed on the back of declining investment in employment support.

“Nothing about us without us” is the international motto of the disability rights movement, but there is little evidence of disabled people being involved in policy development. The last 10 years have seen the proportion of public appointees with a self-declared disability halve in number, while helpful measures to support more disabled people into politics, such as the Access to Elected Office Fund, have been suspended in England.

Advancing the rights of disabled people requires good leadership to establish coherence and coordination in Whitehall, and in devolved and local government. The Office for Disability Issues was set up for this very task, but has become a shadow of its former self. But in Wales and Scotland, things are more positive, with the convention firmly embedded in policy and strategy. 

If the UK wants to maintain the mantle of world leader on disability rights, it must see the forthcoming examination as an opportunity to listen and take stock. If it fails to do so, current and future generations of disabled people face the slow, inexorable slide back towards social death once again.

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