Tag: DWP

The government are challenging independent disability assessment appeal decisions

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In 2017, the then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, said that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was “recruiting, training and deploying” approximately 150 presenting officers (POs) to attend Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) tribunals “in order to present the Secretary of State’s case and support the first tier tribunal in arriving at the right decision”.

The question is the ‘right decision’ for whom? It’s certainly not disabled people.

Given that, at the point of appeal, the Secretary of State’s case has already been presented twice –  at the first DWP decision following assessment and again during the mandatory review – it seems that the government is using an incredibly oppressive and authoritarian approach to prevent successful appeal outcomes for ill and disabled people trying to access disability-related social security alone, without legal aid and support in the majority of cases. 

Last week I spoke to someone who won her PIP appeal following a reassessment which had resulted in the loss of her PIP award. After waiting two weeks for some communication from the DWP,  she rang to see when her award would be reinstated. She was informed that the DWP had requested the full written reasons for the tribunal’s decision, and that they were considering challenging the court’s decision. If the DWP decide to proceed with their challenge, they must apply for permission to appeal.

The application must be made within one month of the date of the tribunals’ written statement of reasons. So far, the claimant has been left without her award for 13 weeks, and she is very distressed. Having gone through mandatory review and appeal, she is utterly exhausted and the stress of the process has significantly exacerbated her illness – she has multiple sclerosis. Since her assessment, she has also needed treatment for anxiety and depression.

The claim for PIP was in relation to her physical disabilities, but she has become mentally unwell as a direct consequence of her extremely distressing experiences. The DWP will be permitted to appeal the tribunal’s decision only if it is considered that the decision resulted from an error of law. Once the tribunal have received the request the chair of the tribunal will provide a written statement to the claimant and the DWP explaining why they awarded PIP.  It can take up to 12 weeks for the written statement to be sent out.  

I co-run a support group online for people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments, mandatory review and appeals. We are seeing a rise in the number of cases where the DWP are requesting written reasons for the decision of the tribunal, but quite often, it eventually emerges that they are not proceeding with an appeal. 

This leaves people waiting many months with the fear they may lose their lifeline award, causing a lot of additional and unnecessary distress. Furthermore, the DWP are not keeping people informed of their intentions in a reasonable and timely manner, which adds significantly to the distress and uncertainty that the whole awful process has created.

There are two people who have waited over 12 months after they won their appeal, while being told by the DWP that they are still awaiting the judge’s decision as to whether the DWP can proceed with a challenge. Meanwhile, the DWP refuse to discuss the details of the matter any further when people ask for details and an idea of a timescale.

One person told me he felt that the DWP are “intentionally playing mind games to demoralise and scare people”, and that leaving people feeling precarious was “a deliberate strategy” to undermine people’s expectation of support, and 

Someone else who won their PIP appeal has been left for four months without any payments, the DWP claim he owes them money for an overpayment, and refuse to release the money he is owed. However, he told me that he does not owe any money, and has never been overpaid, as prior to his relatively recent claim for PIP and ESA, he was in work and received no social security. He ahs also been forced to appeal the DWP’s decision not to award him ESA. 

The DWP were allocated £22m of public money to hire the “presenting officers” to “support” the DWP at disability benefit tribunals. Disability campaigners warn that these 180 presenting officers, rather than helping judges to make fair decisions about whether to overturn the DWP’s rejection of someone’s claim for benefits, will inevitably argue as forcibly as possible in the government’s favour. The aim is to cut the number of successful appeal outcomes for claimants. The reality is that PO’s are sent by the DWP to try to discredit claimants’ accounts and to argue forcibly for the DWP’s interpretation of the law to be accepted. 

A freedom of information request by Disability News Service resulted in them being sent forms that have to be completed by presenting officers after each tribunal they attend.

Included in the documents are the following questions for presenting officers attending ESA and PIP tribunals, respectively:

“PO impact – Was SG [support group] award averted”

“PO impact – was enhanced PIP award averted?”

DNS quotes a DWP insider, saying that presenting officers are being given the ‘target’ of stopping enhanced PIP payments and that this was placing ‘immoral pressure’ on presenting officers. (See the full article: ‘Truly appalling’ revelations ‘show DWP is subverting justice’ at appeal tribunals.)

The DWP outline says: “The PO must be confident that the decision is accurate and prepared to lapse appeals where this is not the case. They must highlight inconsistencies and take appropriate action when new evidence comes to light, including making a critical assessment of its validity.

But surely that is the role of an independent court.

At the time, Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, described the DWP’s admission as “truly appalling”.

She said: “The idea that the ‘impact’ of DWP staff is being assessed on whether they managed to get ESA support group or enhanced PIP awards ‘averted’ is truly appalling.

“Presenting officers are supposed to be there to provide fair and balanced evidence of a claimant’s needs.

“In May last year [2017], freedom of information requests revealed that the DWP was setting targets to reject 80 per cent of social security appeals at mandatory reconsideration.

“They clearly haven’t changed their approach.”

She added: “The whole system is broken: from assessments where, for example, only eight per cent of claimants think assessors understood their mental health, through to appeals where judges are overturning over 67 per cent of initial ESA and PIP decisions.

“Labour will scrap the current PIP and ESA assessments, bringing an end to the Conservatives’ failed, privatised assessment system.

“Instead of enforcing a culture of distrust and cost-cutting, we will work with disabled people to ensure that they have personalised, holistic support to live full and independent lives.”

The assessment process, from beginning to end, is almost entirely about providing opportunities for assessors and DWP decision makers to manufacture as many far fetched ‘inconsistenciesas they can to prevent awards and deter as any higher rate awards as possible.

This means that PIP is not about meeting the needs of disabled people, it is about how little the state can get away with paying out from public funds, regardless of a person’s needs and entitlement.

It was acknowledged in my own PIP assessment report that I had cognitive difficulties because of my illness. The HCP said that I had difficulty focusing when asked questions and needed prompting. She acknowledged that I rely on a 7 day pill organiser to ensure I take my medication safely and correctly.

However, the report said that I had a degree (I graduated back in 1996), I had worked in a profession – as a social worker (until 2010, when I became too ill to work) and I had a driving licence in 2005 (I haven’t been able to drive since 2005 because of flicker-induced partial seizures). The assessment took place in 2017. I was not awarded a point for cognitive problems, and was just one point short of an enhanced PIP award. The reasoning behind not awarding the one point was unreasonable, irrational pretty thinly stretched, given that I cannot drive, I was forced to give up work in 2010, and I graduated in 1996. The decision at mandatory review was exactly the same, with the same woefully incoherent reasoning presented again.  

In November 2017, POs attended 23% of all first tier PIP tribunals, but the aim back then is to increase this to 50%.

It would seem likely that presenting officers are being used primarily to target claimants who are likely to be seeking enhanced rates of PIP or the support group of ESA. In which case their presence has nothing to do with improving decision making by feeding back to colleagues and everything to do with taking awards from disabled people, regardless of the high price disabled people have to pay in terms of loss of independence, loss of income to meet their basic and additional needs, placing them in unacceptable situations of severe hardship. 

A claimant who secretly recorded his personal independence payment (PIP) assessment and provided a transcript to a tribunal has won his appeal against a disability living allowance (DLA) to PIP transfer decision, the BBC has reported.

Nev Cartwright, 45, received DLA because of breathing difficulties caused by a lung tumour which led to his left lung being removed.

Last year he was told to attend a ‘medical’ to assess him for PIP instead of DLA. Because he had seen a programme the night before questioning the fairness of PIP assessments, Nev decided to secretly record the interview on his mobile phone.

As a result of the assessment Nev lost his higher rate mobility and had to return his Motability car.

When he read the PIP assessors report he realised that there was information missing and other details such as his peak flow reading, had been altered. The effect was to make Nev seem much more mobile than he actually was.

Nev had a professional company write a transcript of his assessment recording and asked to be allowed to submit it as evidence for his appeal.

The DWP tried to prevent the transcript being admitted by the tribunal, but they failed and the transcript was taken into account. As a result Nev won his case and now has his Motability vehicle again.

Given the very costly restrictions attempt to place on openly recording your PIP assessment, it is not surprising that some claimants turn to doing so covertly. Although we have had members who have used relatively inexpensive cassette recorders at their assessment.

It is not illegal to secretly record your assessment.

But if you are caught doing so and refuse to stop, the interview is likely to be ended and you will be held by the DWP to have failed to take part in the assessment with the result that you will not be awarded PIP.

This imbalance of power is most certainly subverting justice for disabled people. We often hear about the outright unfair methods the DWP uses to cut disabled people’s income when they have been held to account. But for every case we hear about where justice prevails in the end, there are many more that slip under the radar, because perhaps some of us are simply too ill, exhausted and disheartened to appeal alone, without any legal support, while the government spends hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to prevent us from having a fair and balanced assessment and hearing, and accessing the social security support that most of us have paid towards.

Meanwhile, Atos and Capita have come under fire for the reported mishandling of as many as a third of the PIP assessments they carried out. The firms received a raise for their efforts last year, raking in more than £250 million each for the controversial disability welfare checks, despite Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee recently suggesting vulnerable people had been “pushed to the brink of destitution” by the contractors’ handling of the scheme.

That’s because the private companies are contracted to do precisely that by the government.

pip-esa inhumane

 


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Misleading DWP letter to GPs is depriving disabled people of lifeline support

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Credit: PA Images

Last month I reported about the issues raised by the Department for Work and Pensions’ ESA65B GP’s letter template, which was only recently placed on the government site, following a series of Parliamentary Written Questions.

Campaigners and MPs have called for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) standard letter to GPs to be scrapped after it emerged that ill and disabled appealing against unfair work capability assessment (WCA) decisions were left in near destitution after their GPs refused to provide further ‘fit notes’, because they were advised they did not need to by DWP officials.

It emerged that ministers ordered changes to the standard-issue letter to remove references that made it clear to GPs they may have to issue a medical statement if their patient wished to appeal against a WCA decision. The DWP claims this was not intended to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes. 

Those people who challenge WCA decisions are entitled to continue to receive employment and support allowance (ESA) at basic rate, worth £73.10 a week while they await their appeal hearing, but to do so they must obtain fit notes from their GPs to prove they are too ill to work.

They must also await the outcome of a mandatory review.  Before a claimant may lodge an appeal, the must first ask the DWP to ‘reconsider’ their original decision. However, the DWP has a stated target of upholding 80% of their original decisions, so the majority of people then have to appeal following the review outcome. The law says that the claimant may claim basic rate ESA following mandatory review if they wish to proceed with an appeal.

So the misleading change to the template letter routinely sent from the DWP to GPs has led to people who have lodged an appeal against an unfair decision being blocked from claiming ESA while awaiting the appeal hearing. This prevents many low-income disabled people from accessing financial support while they wait for months on end to go to tribunal. Furthermore, we know that catastrophically inaccurate assessments within the DWP are pretty much the norm. Nationally, 72% of people who appeal against their work capability assessment decision are successful.

Entitlement to ESA pending appeal is enshrined in the ESA Regulations to cover the whole of the period leading up the hearing. It is also possible to have the payment backdated to cover the Mandatory Review waiting period too – it can take over six weeks for the DWP to review their original decision, over which time people are left without welfare support.

ESA pending appeal is not paid automatically – people usually have to ask for it, and must provide fit notes from their GP, presenting these along with their appeal acknowledgment letter from the Tribunal Courts to their local Job Centre. The Job Centre should report back to the DWP who will arrange for ESA pending appeal to be paid.

From last year, then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, responded to one of several Written Questions from Emma Dent Coad, saying: “The ESA65B letter is issued to GPs in every case where an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimant has been found ‘fit for work’. This process was built into the IT system as part of the introduction of ESA in October 2008. 

“Following a Ministerial requirement by the Cabinet Secretary, which was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the content of the ESA65B letter has been improved in order to explain to GPs the type of support customers can expect to receive from their local Jobcentre, and to ask GPs to encourage customers in their efforts to return to work.” [My emphasis]. 

The decision to change the letter template was made without any scrutiny from or consultation with parliament or the public.

The standard letter, titled “Help us support your patient to return to or start work.” says: “We assessed [Title] [First name] [Surname] on and decided that [select] is capable of doing some work, but this might not be the same type of work [select] may have done before.

“We know most people are better off in work, so we are encouraging [Title] [First name] [Surname] to find out what type of work [select] may be able to do with [select] health condition or disability through focused support at [select] local Jobcentre Plus.

“In the course of any further consultations with [Title] [First name] [Surname] we hope you will also encourage [select] in [select] efforts to return to, or start, work

“Please do not give [Title] [First name] [Surname] any more fit notes relating to [select] disability/health condition for ESA purposes.

Minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, responded to one of several Written Questions from Emma Dent Coad, saying: “The ESA65B letter is issued to GPs in every case where an ESA claimant has been found ‘fit for work’. This process was built into the IT system as part of the introduction of ESA in October 2008. 

“Following a Ministerial requirement by the Cabinet Secretary, which was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the content of the ESA65B letter has been improved in order to explain to GPs the type of support customers can expect to receive from their local Jobcentre, and to ask GPs to encourage customers in their efforts to return to work.” [My emphasis]. 

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said the lack of clarity over when GPs should issue fit notes could put patients’ finances and health at risk. “No GP wants that, and it only serves to threaten the long-standing trust that patients have in their family doctor.”

Until 2017 the standard letter advised GPs that if their patient appealed against the WCA decision they must continue to provide fit notes.

However, on (undisclosed) ministerial orders, the letter now states that GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes for ESA purposes”. It does not mention the possibility that the patient may appeal, or that a fit note is needed for the patient to obtain ESA payments until the appeal is heard.

Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, has also raised the issue with the then disability minister Sarah Newton back in January. Newton replied that the wording was amended “to make the letter simpler and clearer”, adding that DWP communications were intended to be “clear, understandable and fit for purpose”.

Field replied that the wording was “not having the desired effect”, and urged her to revise it to make clear ESA claimants on appeal were entitled to fit notes. “This simple step could greatly ease the stress and worry that people who are awaiting an appeal experience.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes, to claim otherwise is inaccurate.”

However, there is a hint the letter may be changed. Newton told Field: “We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP). However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.”  Newton tends to stick to a script in her responses, though. She told Emma Coad Dent exactly the same thing, almost word for word last year, in her response to a Written Question.

It remains very unclear on what basis the RCGP agreed to the new wording as the change was agreed at a DWP stakeholder meeting for which, according to Newton, there are no formal minutes. Newton confirmed this in the correspondence between herself and Field, as well as in her responses to Emma Coad Dent’s long series of Written Questions on this issue.

Firstly, on 16 May, last year, Newton says: “The Cabinet Secretary first issued the requirement to revise the ESA65B letter in November 2014.

“The wording of the ESA65B was changed to emphasise the benefits of work and to ask GPs to encourage their patients in their efforts to return to some form of work.”

Then, according to Newton: “The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners agreed to the revised wording of the ESA65B on 4 August 2016.” 

However, in June last year, she also said, in response to a Written Question from Emma Dent Coad: “DWP’s Legal Service cleared the revised wording on 29 July 2016 and the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions subsequently authorised the changes.”

Yet when asked in November last year what written evidence her Department holds on the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners agreement to the revised wording of the ESA65B letters sent to claimants’ GPs when they fail the work capability assessment, she replied: “There is no written evidence relating to the agreement obtained from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B letter.

“In accordance with the Answer of 30 May 2018 to Question 146987, agreement on the final wording of the ESA65B was obtained via the regular meetings DWP holds with both organisations.” 

Newton had previously also said: “In accordance with the Answer of 3 July 2018 to Question 155402, the information is not available as there is no written minute of the meeting between officials from this Department and representatives from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B letter.” 

In June last year, Dent Coad asked Newton who attended the meetings between officials in her Department and the (a) British Medical Association and (b) Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B; and if she would place in the Library a copy of the minutes of those meetings. Newton responded on 03 July 2018:  

“The names of the participants representing the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners who attended the meetings referred to constitute their personal data and in accordance with data protection principles, they will not be disclosed without informed consent. DWP officials did not take minutes of these meetings.”

And: “No other external stakeholders were consulted on the development of the revised ESA65B letter.”

Newton has also said in response to Written Questions: “The Department is committed to ensuring all of its communications are clear, accurate and understandable and we continuously improve our letters. We engage regularly with the welfare benefits advice sector and disability charities and take into account all of the feedback we receive.”

“We have received comments from a number of sources including MPs, stakeholder organisations and GPs on the current version of the ESA65B letter and will take all of their feedback into account when revising it.”

I should hope so. The idea of the state persuading doctors and other professionals to “sing from the same [political] hymn sheet”, by promoting work outcomes in social and health care settings is more than a little Orwellian. Co-opting professionals to police the welfare system is very dangerous. 

In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” as the government are urging, will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. Citizens’ safe spaces for genuine and objective support is shrinking as the state encroaches with strategies to micromanage those using public services. This encroachment will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

 

Related

Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

GPs told to consider making fit notes conditional on patients having appointment with work coach

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

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through Universal Credit, PIP and ESA assessment, mandatory review and appeal. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Former DWP boss tells how Tory policies pushed her to quit her job

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Mhairi Doyle with her grandson Isaac supporting junior doctors at Southport Hospital. Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

A Merseyside councillor has spoken out about why she retired from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after 25 years. She says it’s because she “refused to be complicit in how the Tories treat vulnerable people.”

Mhairi Doyle, Labour councillor for Norwood ward in Southport, was also the social inclusion manager for Merseyside in the Department of Work and Pensions until 2012. She moved to Southport in 1988, having been born and raised in Edinburgh.

Doyle received an MBE for her work with disadvantaged people, especially her work with Street Sex Workers in Liverpool, and has worked at local, regional and national levels developing policy to help change lives.

She said: “I was working with heroin users, sufferers of domestic violence, people who were in and out of prison, homeless people… with some funding we managed to create networks to support people and help them out of horrendous situations.

“We were getting about 80% of people back into work.

“It took time and energy but we had a really good thing going. And then the coalition government came in and everything was cut, gone in an instant.

“Everyone was shocked when I said I was retiring; they used to joke that I’d have to be carried out, I loved my job so much. But I could not be complicit in the way the Tories think it’s acceptable to treat vulnerable people.”

Doyle said that there have been abrupt changes in the ethos of job centres since 2012. She said: “We used to be there to help and advise, but it’s gone from being a service about people to a service about numbers.

“The benefit regime is so harsh. They say people don’t have targets on benefit sanctions but it’s all semantics – there is an expectation on staff to cut benefits.

“I’m not having a go at anybody who works at job centres. It’s a difficult job and it’s not well-paid, it’s the system. Workers are expected to get people out the door quickly and get them to do it online, but not everyone is computer literate or has internet access.”

She added: “The bulk of my caseload is people struggling to get the benefits they need to live on, and a lot of these people work.”

She continued: “When I moved here I was told, as many of us were, that a vote for Labour was a wasted vote. So, to keep the Tories out I voted Lib Dem until 2010, when I voted Lib Dem and still got the Tories.

“Even worse, they took part in and enabled all the devastating cuts still affecting us today.

“I don’t think it is fair that our NHS is being sold off piece by piece or that my grandson when he gets out of university, will leave with over £50,000 of debt.

“And I don’t think it is fair that the Tories and Lib Dems have starved our local council of money, forcing them into such difficult decisions over services and amenities and then stand back and blithely criticise when they are the very reason it is happening.”

In a completely meaningless response, a DWP spokesman reading from the DWP crib sheet, said: “Finding work is the best route towards prosperity and Universal Credit is a force for good, providing tailored support for over 1.6 million people as they find jobs faster and stay working longer.

“Extra digital help and budgeting support are also available.”

The comment doesn’t address the issues raised by Doyle at all, nor do the political platitudes mitigate the hostile environment that has been engineered by successive Conservative-led governments, which is having dire consequences for many people, both in and out of work.

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Mhairi Doyle, pictured here alongside Bootle MP Peter Dowd and Southport Labour members, won her seat in 2018.  Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

 


I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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The UK in 2019: Dickensian levels of poverty, malnutrition, scurvy and rickets

 Tories and their tall stories

The government have claimed over the last few successive years that the numbers of people in work has reached ‘record levels’. The Conservatives claim that work has ‘many benefits’. One of those claims, for example, is that “work is a health outcome”. So we should reasonably expect that the general health of the population has improved since around 2015, when the claimed employment ‘boom’ began, if the government’s claim were true.

However, that has certainly not happened. In fact public health  has generally has got worse In 2014, the government tried to claim that a substantial drop in food sales was because of ‘market competition’, rather than the growth in absolute poverty. Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July of that year, which put the the UK’s alleged recovery in doubt. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicated then that many citizens evidently had not felt the benefit of the so-called recovery.

It remains the case that what the government is telling us is nothing like the lived experiences of many citizens. The claimed economic ‘benefits’ of a Conservative government are not reaching the majority of citizens. In fact many citizens have been pushed into absolute poverty, while the wealthiest citizens have enjoyed a substantial boost to their own disposable income. This shift in public funds is intentional, as the government’s policies have been fundamentally designed to move public wealth from the public domain to the private one.

Cameron’s one moment of truth was when he made a slip, declaring that the Conservatives were “raising more money for the rich”. The Conservatives only ever tell the truth in error, it seems.

Reported cases of malnutrition caused by food poverty have significantly risen

The number of people who are so malnourished they have to go to hospital has more than tripled in the last ten years, and is continuing to rise. In 2017,  8,417 patients were treated for malnutrition. By then, the cases of malnutrition had risen by approximately 400% compared to the number of cases during the global recession in 2008.

Of those admitted in 2017, 143 were under the age of nine and another 238 were aged between ten and 19. Shocking statistics also showed that the number of people in hospital with scurvy, a serious deficiency illness arising because of a lack of vitamin C, has doubled in the same period from 61 to 128 cases.

The shameful figures lay bare the true human cost of cuts in wages and social security in a context of ever-rising food prices and the general costs of living.

These rising figures for hospital admissions because of malnutrition in England by NHS Digital show just the tip of the ­iceberg, as GPs say they have been treating ­thousands more less serious cases of malnutrition, without referring them to our already over-burdened hospitals.

Last year, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “It’s absolutely shameful that malnutrition and scurvy admissions to hospital have risen so ­dramatically after eight years of Conservative rule.

“As the sixth largest economy in the world, surely we are better than this.

“But this is the consequence of eight years of cuts to public services, the cost of living rising and falling real wages hacking away at the social fabric of our society.

“Labour in government will lead an all-out assault on the unacceptable health ­inequalities facing our society.”

Dianne Jeffrey, Chairman of the Malnutrition Taskforce, said: “I find these figures incredibly concerning. We already know up to 1.3 million of our older friends, relatives and neighbours are malnourished or at risk.”

Increasingly, children are also at risk.

Additionally, the Lancashire Evening Post reports that doctors at hospitals in Preston and Chorley, Lancashire, have seen a sharp increase in malnutrition over the last three years. They say they are seeing patients with rickets and scurvy.  Patients were admitted to hospital with malnutrition around 70 times at the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in the 12 months up to March 2018, according to NHS Digital data. 

This was an increase of around 75 per cent from the same period two years ago, when there were 40 recorded cases. The county’s NHS Foundation Trust also saw cases of rickets and scurvy during 2017-18.

Natalie Thomas, the community assistant at the Salvation Army which runs the food bank in Preston, says she is not shocked that hospitals in the county have seen people suffering from scurvy and rickets. “It’s scary, it really is but I’m really not all that shocked knowing what we see in here,” she said.

“It’s like we are going backwards in time. It’s quite believable with the amount of bags [of food] we are giving out at the moment.

“It’s not getting any better. Since July when Universal Credit came in we’ve been giving out approximately 1,000 bags of food a month. Since then we have not had any quieter months during the year because people are now getting monthly benefit payments rather than fortnightly payments.

“It’s not surprising for us. The Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is also collecting food for us.” 

Food banks rarely give out fresh fruit and vegetables, however, since they are perishable foods. Because of storage issues, the food bank in Preston does not hand out fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis.

Major Alex Cadogan said: “We are not medical professionals but in our food parcels we try and give out a healthy diet but we can only give what we are given. 

“When we are sometimes in receipt of fresh fruit and vegetables we distribute it as rapidly as we can. We do hand out tinned fruit and vegetables regularly.” 

Vitamin C is needed by humans every day to prevent scurvy, as the body cannot store it. It is a water soluble vitamin, and it is easily destroyed by canning processes and by over-cooking. It’s found most in a range of fresh fruit and vegetables. Vitamin D, which is fat soluble, can be stored in the body. It is found in milk, cheese, yogurt, egg yolks, oily fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel. Lack of vitamin D causes rickets and other bone disorders. Lack of calcium and vitamin D can also affect the development of children’s teeth and cause osteoporosis later in life.

Hard Times

Scurvy and rickets were rife in Preston – and most other industrial towns and cities – during the Victoria era. And it was Preston’s heavy industry that formed the inspiration for one of Charles Dickens’ best-known books. The author, famed for his books about the impoverished working classes in Victorian England, spent three months in Preston. His time in the city is widely believed to have inspired his novel Hard Times, about people living in extreme poverty. 

These are the socioeconomic conditions that the Conservative government have recreated through their policies, which have reduced and stagnated wages and cut social security support radically, while the cost of living has dramatically increased, causing severe hardship for many families both in work and out. Meanwhile the very wealthy are rewarded with generous tax cuts from the public purse. 

Across England, the number of cases of malnutrition increased by a further 18 %, from 7,855 cases in 2015-16 to 9,307 cases in 2017-18. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that over 1.5 million households across the country are regularly left struggling to afford basic survival essentials such as food.

Chris Goulden, from the organisation, said: “Living in poverty can severely restrict a family’s ability to put food on the table and lead a healthy life.

“The poorest fifth of households spend twice as much of their income on food and fuel compared with those in the richest fifth, meaning those on the lowest incomes are most vulnerable to price rises, inflation and the benefits squeeze.”

Public Health England recommends that people follow its Eatwell Guide to make sure they are eating a healthy, balanced diet. However, a 2018 report by independent think tank the Food Foundation found more than one in four households would need to spend more than a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs to meet the guide’s recommendations. For parents in the bottom 20 per cent of earners, the cost would be 42 per cent of their income.

The Food Foundation have warned that the figures were signs of a “broken food system”. Executive director Anna Taylor said: “Although cases of rickets, scurvy and malnutrition are caused by a complicated range of factors, they are not conditions that we should have to be talking about anymore in a country as wealthy as the UK.

“Nearly four million children in the UK live in households for whom a healthy diet is unaffordable. We need industry and government to take action now to ensure that everyone has access to enough nutritious food.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Work and Pensions claims there are now fewer households with low incomes.

“We know there’s more to do to ensure that every family has access to nutritious, healthy food”, she said.

“Malnutrition is a complex issue and most patients diagnosed in England have other serious health and social problems.

“For people that need extra support with their living costs we spend £90 billion a year on working-age benefits and will be spending £28 billion more by 2022 than we do now.”

However, while malnutrition may sometimes be caused by relatively rare illnesses that cause absorption problems in the stomach, the most common cause of malnutrition, scurvy and rickets is vitamin and mineral deficiency, which is due to a lack of access to adequate, fresh and varied food, due to absolute poverty.  This is why the number of reported cases of malnutrition is rising. 

Meanwhile charities, food banks and campaigners have continually warned that many households simply cannot afford a healthy diet, and have called for government action to increase access to nutritious food.

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The government’s identity verification portal – Verify – is another Tory flagship failure

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The National Audit Office has strongly criticised the government’s flagship identity verification scheme. The damning report says Gov.UK Verify has fallen well short of its target of 25 million users by 2020, managing only 3.6 million so far.

The government has had to lower its estimates for Verify’s financial benefits by 75%.

Nineteen government services currently use Verify, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, in the process of delivering universal credit, those claiming a tax refund from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and HM Land Registry’s Sign your mortgage deed may all be accessed through Verify, too.

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The NAO have published its investigation on Verify, the government’s flagship identity verification portal. It has found Verify’s performance has consistently been below the standards initially set, and take-up among the public and departments has been much lower than expected.

Verify asks people wanting to sign up to government services via the GOV.UK website to pick a commercial identity provider to check and verify their identity. Current providers include Barclays, Digidentity, Experian, Post Office and secureidentity/Morpho. (Royal Mail and CitizenSafe/GBG were also providers but recently decided not to continue as identity providers on the commercial terms applying from October 2018.)

For those that do use Verify, problems are widespread.

Currently only 48% of people who try to sign up for the service are successful on their first try.

This rate is even lower (38%) for universal credit claimants using the service to authenticate their identity online. This has led to increased operational costs, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) expecting its spend on manual verification to be about £40m over the next decade.

The NAO’s report follows on from their previous work on Verify in the Digital transformation in government report. This found that Verify’s take-up had been undermined by its performance and that Government Digital Service had lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the project.

The Government Digital Service (GDS), part of the Cabinet Office, developed Verify to be the default way for people to prove their identities so they can access online government services securely. It originally intended for Verify to be largely self-funding by the end of March 2018.

However, the NAO’s investigation highlights that the number of people and departments using Verify is well below expectations. GDS has significantly revised down its estimated financial benefits by over £650 million, for the period 2016-17 to 2019-20, from £873 million to £217 million. Government also continues to fund it centrally, although it announced in October 2018 that this would stop in March 2020.

In 2016 GDS forecast that 25 million people would use Verify by 2020. By February 2019, 3.6 million people had signed up for the service. If current trends continue, approximately just 5.4 million users will have signed up by 2020.

Nineteen government services currently use Verify, less than the 46 expected to by March 2018, and of those, at least 11 can still be accessed through other online systems. Some government service users, such as Universal Credit claimants, have experienced problems. As a result, departments have needed to undertake more manual processing than they anticipated, increasing their costs.

Verify uses commercial providers to check people’s identities. GDS has reported a verification success rate of 48% at February 2019, against a projection of 90%. The success rate measures the proportion of people who succeed in signing up for Verify, having had their identities confirmed by a commercial provider. It does not count the number of people dropping out before they finish their applications nor indicate whether people can actually access and use the government services they want after signing up with Verify.

The vast majority of funding comes from central government (and ultimately, the tax payer). Verify has cost at least £154 million by December 2018 but this is likely to be an underestimate of all costs, as GDS’s reported spend does not include costs of departments reconfiguring their systems to use Verify.

The largest component of known costs, some £58 million, was payments to commercial providers. In addition, out of seven departments invoiced for their use of Verify from 2016-17 only one department (HMRC) has paid. The total amount invoiced was £3.6 million, of which £2 million is currently still outstanding.

Universal Credit remains Verify’s biggest government customer base in verifying claimants identities and remains the major constraint in closing Verify.

However, most claimants cannot even use Verify to apply for Universal Credit: only 38% of Universal Credit claimants can successfully verify their identity online (of the 70% of claimants that attempt to sign up through Verify). The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is working with GDS on an improvement plan to increase the number of claimants successfully verified.

Verify has been subject to over 20 internal and external reviews, including a July 2018 review by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority that recommended Verify be closed as quickly as practicable, bearing in mind Universal Credit’s critical dependency on it. This followed a Cabinet Office and Treasury decision in May 2018 to approve GDS’s proposal to ‘reset’ Verify in an attempt to improve its performance and take up.

Meg Hillier MP, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, called Verify “a textbook case of government’s over-optimism and programme-management failure.”

“Despite spending at least £154m on Verify, only half the people that try to sign up are able to use it and take-up is much lower than expected.”

The report notes that the total cost of Verify is in fact likely to exceed £154m, as this figure does not include the amount it has cost departments to reconfigure their systems to use Verify.

Of the known costs, more than one-third has gone on payments to the commercial identity providers behind the system, including Barclays and the Post Office.

The Cabinet Office announced in October 2018 that government would stop funding Verify in March 2020. It has capped the amount it will spend on Verify during this time to £21.5 million. GDS has confirmed 18-month contracts with five commercial identity providers who will continue to verify people’s identities. After March 2020, GDS’s intention is for the private sector to take over responsibility for Verify.

GDS will withdraw from its operational role running Verify from April 2020. GDS claims that under a market-based model, departments will procure Verify’s services directly from commercial providers. This means departments that currently do not pay their full usage costs for Verify would have to in future.

The NAO report concludes: “Unfortunately, Verify is also an example of many of the failings in major [government] programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives. Even in the context of GDS’s redefined objectives for the programme, it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified.” 

The full privatisation of this service is highly likely to present further problems, however, since the prospect of private profit introduces perverse incentives, which empirical evidence demonstrates are clearly linked with poor service standards and delivery.

It is a purely ideological strategy that has resulted in the poor management of public funds increasingly over the last few decades, and particularly, over this past eight years.

 

 


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The state is policing social security claimants in hospital and via their medical records to find reasons to cut their support

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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officers have been visiting patients in hospital to check if they are actually unwell, a damning new review into the roll-out of universal credit has revealed. This news comes after it emerged that the DWP are in the process of designing an automated system to trawl claimants NHS health records. 

Doctors have already raised serious concerns that social security claimants could be deterred from accessing healthcare after it emerged that the government is to start accessing medical records as an intrusive part of the welfare assessment process. A job advert posted by the DWP shows that a team in Leeds is building a system to “capture information from citizens and present this to DWP agents”. The work is proceeding on the controversial assumption that the consent of patients would make the system lawful. 

However the DWP have told doctors that when people make a claim for disability benefits, they have already consented for medical information to be shared.

GPs and charities said the plans resemble the controversial data-sharing scheme  between the Home Office and the NHS, which prompted outrage after it emerged some immigrants were subsequently afraid to access healthcare, ultimately forcing the government to end the policy.

In response, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, expressed concern that the process would damage the doctor-patient relationship, and “deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance when they need it”.

“If the reports are true, the DWP, like the Home Office before them, must not consider GP patient data as an open resource to support them to carry out their duties. We are doctors, whose first interest is the care of our patient: we are not border guards, and we are not benefits assessors.

“We do not hold our patients’ confidential data to help other organisations check their eligibility for welfare, their immigration status, or any other function not related to their health and wellbeing,” she said.

Head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, said the sharing of people’s medical records would breach patient confidentiality and put GPs and other medical staff in the “invidious” position of benefits assessors.

However it seems the DWP are determined to co-opt doctors into policing people who are ill and claiming social security. I raised my own concerns about this back in 2015-16 and have continued to campaign on this issue, raising awareness of the implications and consequences of state intrusion in the health care of vulnerable citizens.

The DWP continually look for reasons to end people’s disability awards, even following assessments that have deemed them eligible. Trawling through people’s medical records presents another opportunity to look for tenuous reasons to cut people’s support claim. 

As does intruding on people who are ill in hospital.

The all-pervasiveness of welfare conditionality and the state panopticon

In 1965, American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb published an essay, The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham, in which she portrayed Bentham’s mechanism of surveillance as a tool of oppression and social control. Bentham’s famous mechanistic and inhumane approach to human lives – the Panopticon – is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher  in the late 18th century. The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums. The idea is that people are in constant fear of being scrutinised, and so are coerced or compelled to regulate or change their own behaviour to comply. Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”. Elsewhere, in a letter, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

The Panopticon is the tool of a deeply suspicious state with a very pessimistic view of human nature. 

Last year, Dr Jay Watts wrote:  “The level of scrutiny all benefits claimants feel under is so brutal that it is no surprise that supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has a policy to share CCTV “where we are asked to do so by a public or regulatory authority such as the police or the Department for Work and Pensions”. Gym memberships, airport footage and surveillance video from public buildings are now used to build cases against claimants, with posts from social media used to suggest people are lying about their disabilities. More and more private companies are being asked to send in footage. The atmosphere is one of pervasive suspicion, fuelled by TV programmes such as Benefits Street and successive governments’ mentality of “strivers v skivers”. 

People claiming disability benefits have often raised concerns that the right to privacy is no longer their own – and this is a deliberate function of an extremely punitive regime.

Mass surveillance has become a norm in developed countries, through both the proliferation of overt measures like security cameras, the use of facial recognition software, but also more subtle and invasive means like data trawling, analysis, segmentation, psychograpic profiling and targeted , tailored ‘interventions’.

Governments, corporations and other powerful entities are able to comb through large volumes of data on specific people or larger demographics in order to gather information on them and exert control over their decision-making and behaviours. Nudge reflects the further development of covert state strategies to scrutinise and  manage citizens’ perceptions and behaviours.

Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, developed the Panopticon as a metaphor for the modern disciplinary society, in which the state constantly oversees the behaviour of the citizens, and he saw it as a mechanistic tool and oppressive system of permanent visibility as a tool of power. Foucault’s idea of panoptic architecture turned it
made it into an omnipresent and insidious institution. It’s true to say that now, the disciplinary “eye of the state Inspector” is upon all of us. But some are scrutinised more than others.

More recently, DWP employees have also found to be interviewing people awaiting NHS treatment to ensure they were on the “right money” and not “abusing the system.” This is a particularly intrusive, oppressive practice, designed to police claims and scrutinise the ever-shrinking criteria of validity for someone’s need or social security support.

The visits were condemned as ‘grotesque’ by a council scrutiny panel in London, where it has emerged that hospitalised universal credit claimants have received shock visits from the welfare officials policing patient’s claims.

Islington’s Policy and Performance Scrutiny Committee, which has been tracking the full roll out of universal credit in Islington since last June, published a review earlier this month, where the information emerged that DWP officers have been pursuing ill claimants while in hospital.

In the meeting on 14 February, concern was expressed that DWP staff visiting claimants in hospital and this added to the stress that patients were already under while in hospital.

The DWP responded that “the visiting team may occasionally visit claimants in hospital but this would be done in a supportive manner and it happened on only a very small number of cases”.

On one occasion, DWP officers visited a person in hospital awaiting an operation because they had missed an appointment,
 reports the Islington Gazette.

The committee’s vice chair, Councillor Troy Gallagher, told the Gazette: “The fact that the DWP send people out to the hospital to interview and pursue people sends the wrong message.

“When people are in hospital they are not there to be chased and it’s not for the DWP to guess or validate if they are well or unwell. I think it’s callous.

“It’s an issue they need to amend quickly because it’s highly stressful and deeply upsetting.”

Cllr Gallagher added: “It’s grotesque and unbelievable.

“If someone says they’re unwell, whatever the reason is, you should always accept that.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Jobcentre staff occasionally conduct hospital visits to confirm people’s bank account or rent details. This ensures we can pay their full benefits on time.”

They added that visits to claimants homes will be made “if necessary”.

The DWP told me “Claimants must inform the relevant benefit office when they go into hospital and when they come out. If they don’t report changes and they’re overpaid as a result, they have to pay back any money they owe. They may also have to pay a civil penalty.

“State Pension will not be affected.

“A stay in hospital affects people’s disability benefit support in the following ways:

“If someone has been in hospital for 28 days, they should stop receiving these benefits:

  • Attendance Allowance
  • Disability Living Allowance (DLA)
  • Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

“If someone is discharged but goes back into hospital within 28 days, the days spent in hospital on both occasions will be added together and if the total is more than 28 days they will lose eligibility until they go back home. They will still be paid for the days they spend at home between hospital stays.”

I was also informed: “Employment and support allowance is paid for an indefinite period as long as the other qualifying conditions are met. If someone is getting income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), certain premiums and housing costs are affected:

  • Severe disability premium will stop after four weeks if someone is in hospital and they lose their attendance allowance, disability living allowance care component or personal independence payment daily living component. If the person has a partner who is not in hospital and who also qualifies for the severe disability premium, they will continue to receive it.
  • Carer premium will stop 8 weeks after the person’s carer’s allowance stops.
  • After 52 weeks, they will lose the enhanced disability premium unless they have a partner who meets the conditions for the premium themselves. They will also lose their work-related activity or support component.”

It seems that documented evidence from doctors isn’t considered sufficient for the DWP to verify that someone is ill and in need of support. People who are ill in hospital are being treated as though they have done something wrong because of the effect their ill health has on their ability to work.

The government claims that disability support such as PIP is “targeted at those most in need”. Yet we see that those who are clearly most in need are being policed constantly and in an inexcusably intrusive, disrespectful way that strips disabled people of security and dignity.

What use is a social security system that is being designed to constantly work against those very people it was initially set up to help? 


 

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The DWP call handlers’ strike, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework

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Universal Credit call handlers working at centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall have overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action, accusing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of treating them with “utter contempt”.

A ballot of PCS members working for the DWP on it’s highly controversial programme was announced earlier this month, warning of “severe under investment, staff shortages and ironically, criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also want full contracts for fixed-term workers, and an end to “management by statistics.”

Speaking ahead of the vote, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka challenged assumptions by government ministers that “Universal Credit is working well for workers and claimants”, instead arguing that “the opposite is in fact the case”.

He said that is was clear the DWP “want to run this service into the ground”, but the DWP insisted its “top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers”.

PCS and its members are calling on the DWP to hire 5,000 new staff, full contracts for fixed-term workers, and a reduction in the number of calls from Universal Credit claimants each case manager is required to handle.

Commenting on the result of the ballot, Serwotka said: “The message from our members is clear – changes need to be made otherwise they will walkout for two consecutive days.

This will mean that approximately 274 call handlers who work at the two offices will walk out for 48 hours starting on 11 March, after 90% of those balloted by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union backed industrial action.

Serwotka added: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail. Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly but the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “It is shocking that staff working in DWP offices are feeling so stressed through overwork that they are going on strike and calling for the government to recruit more staff.

“Not only is the government’s flagship social security policy Universal Credit failing claimants, the government is also failing the DWP staff who work so hard.

“Labour will deliver a social security system that treats those in need and the people who are employed to support them with respect.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “This result is disappointing, we greatly value the work that our colleagues do and our top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers.

“We are comfortable with current staffing levels and will monitor and reallocate resource where necessary.

“Contingencies are underway to ensure the smooth running of our services to minimise any impact.

“We urge PCS to seek to resolve this through further dialogue.”

Serwotka said: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail.

“Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly.

“But the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Four years ago, 1,300 Universal Credit staff staged a 48-hour walkout in protest of the “oppressive” workplace culture.

DWP workers complained of staff shortages, poor training and at least £40m ‘squandered’ on IT that wasn’t used.

However, there was no complaint made about the intentionally cruel policies being implemented by the DWP, which troubles me a lot.

Some thoughts: government policy, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework 

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One of the most famous and controversial studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1963, he was a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment which explored the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Milgram examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence was often based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors.

The experimental procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’  However, the draw was fixed so that the participant was always the ‘teacher’, and the ‘learner’ was one of Milgram’s confederates (and actor pretending to be a real participant).

The ‘learner’ (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the ‘teacher’ and researcher (there was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor – not Milgram) went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). 

Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person, and how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities. 

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the ‘learner’ (with an electric chair) and another for the ‘teacher’ and experimenter with an electric shock generator. The ‘learner’ (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs, the ‘teacher’ then tested him by naming a word and asking the ‘learner’ to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices. For the purpose of the experiment, Mr Wallace gave the wrong answers deliberately.

The punitive shocks were administered at an increasing voltage each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake. There were 30 switches on the shock generator (pictured above) marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). 

Milgram wanted to know whether people would administer what they believed to be fatal shocks to another person under the pressure of an authority figure.

Some of the teachers protested as the authority figure gave the orders to continue — which began with “please continue” or “please go on” and increased in severity to “you have no other choice, you must go on.” 

Other subjects were detached and methodical, not protesting even as the learner screamed from the other room, ostensibly from the extremely painful shocks.

65% (two-thirds) of participants (‘teachers’) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Mr Wallace was a convincing actor who shrieked in pain and begged for the shocks to stop. All of participants believed the shocks they administered were real. 

They weren’t.

Participants in the experiment were also told that researchers know a good deal about how positive reinforcement improves learning, but they know very little about how punishment improves learning. This was the ‘front’ for the purpose of the study.

Milgram’s pessimistic conclusion was that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

People tend to obey orders from other people if they believe their authority is morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.

The government’s welfare policies place emphasis on citizen ‘learning’, compliance and obedience to authority. The Conservatives’ distorted and prejudiced views about social security claimants have resulted in technocratic attitude and ‘behavioural change’ programmes – a pseudoscientific behaviourist approach – which is embedded in extremely punitive and oppressive policy and DWP practices.  The government’s coercive and behaviourist methods of achieving their aim has resulted in a class related and particularly vindictive form of structural violence. 

The politically orchestrated hierarchical organisation and institutionalisation of structural violence has recently reminded me of the Milgram experiment. 

Structural violence

structural violence

The government’s antiwelfarist ideology has resulted in structural violence being institutionalised, administrated and imposed on targeted groups of society, namely the poorest citizens. From the top down, this culture of inflicting harm on certain groups has become routinised and normalised. It’s hidden in plain view. 

However, the key difference between the experiment and current punitive practices within the DWP – such as sanctions – is that the harm inflicted in the former was not real. The punishments inflicted by the DWP are very real and are having catastrophic consequences on some groups of citizens, ranging from hunger and fuel poverty to destitution, rough sleeping and even death. 

In a few years it has become acceptable to threaten people who are already on the breadline with the removal of their lifeline support, leaving them without the means to meet their most basic survival needs – food fuel and shelter.  

According to Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs”. As it is avoidable, structural violence is a high cause of premature death and unnecessary disability. Because structural violence affects people differently in various social structures or groups, it is very closely linked with inequality, social injustice and oppression.

A major contributing factor to the increase the ‘culture of workplace oppression’ is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed citizens, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices.

Because the Conservatives’ policies embed such a deeply punitive approach towards the poorest social groups, this in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the DWP and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at the targeted group.

As authority figures and role models, their behaviours establish a normative framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted by the Conservatives with a clear basis of one-upmanship, lies and aggression, rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, ministers frequently sneer at rationality and do not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead they employ the tactics of a bully: denial, gaslighting, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations.

This in turn pushes moral and normative boundaries and gives wider society permission and approval to behave the same.

Studies of power, and obedience to authority provide an interesting paradigm in psychology, sociology, social psychology, political science, and obviously within organisational behaviours.

Scapegoating groups of citizens has a wide range of focus: from ‘approved’ enemies of very large groups of people (such as the mythologically discrete group known vaguely as the  ‘tax payer’) down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals.

The scapegoater’s target always experiences a terrible sense of their personal accounts of experiences being edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the perpetrator often inserted into public accounts of their character (projection), resulting in isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.

Many of the participants in Milgram’s experiment said they acted as they did, not because they were committed to the experimenter or to science, but because they trusted the experimenter not to let them inflict serious harm.

The call handlers who voted to go on strike complain of “severe under investment, staff shortages and criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also mention a culture of oppression. Perhaps they believe they are administering harmless policies, and that their own stresses are simply down to severe under-staffing, “management by numbers”, mismanagement of IT projects and ‘complaints’ from claimants. But the call handlers are not those who are being targeted with political ‘contempt’. 

I was shocked that the DWP call handlers complained of “criticism from claimants on how they are treated”, rather than criticising how claimants are being actually being treated. 

Authority bias is the tendency to obey the orders of authority figures, even when you strongly believe that there is something wrong with those orders. During the Milgram experiment, participants could indicate at any point that they wished to stop. Most didn’t. 

At any point during the experiment, participants could indicate that they wish to stop. Any time this happened, the experimenter would tell the subject the following things, in order using an authoritative tone:

Please continue.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after saying all four lines, the subject still refused to carry on with the experiment, then the experiment was stopped. 

I’m bitterly disappointed that both the workers themselves and the union fail to recognise the part those workers play within a hierarchy of power that is instrumental in inflicting structural violence on people claiming social security – those who have no negotiating power to change their circumstances whatsoever. 

It’s time to stop the experiment now.

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am struggling to get by, like many other ill and disabled people. But if you like, you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through the disability assessment process, mandatory review and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.