Tag: Ethics

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality


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

So please share widely.

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

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

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

Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information relating to:

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

• Purpose of the research.

• Procedures involved in the research.

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

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

Protection of Participants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Department for Work and Pensions don’t know what their ethical and safeguarding guidelines are but still claim they have some


I have recently written quite extensively about problems with how the government conduct “research,” I’ve also highlighted the many official rebukes the Conservatives have faced because of their tendency to invent statistics to “verify” their ideologically-driven, value-laden “hypotheses.”

Who could ever forget the Department for Work and Pension’s fake testimonials from fake benefit claimants telling us all how fakely beneficial the fakesters had found having their fake lifeline benefits withdrawn for fake non-compliance, leading to fake improvements of behaviour, presumably after a bout of fake starvation and destitution.

The new Work and Health Programme, aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is currently still at a research and trialing stage. Part of the experimental nudge element of this research entails enlisting GPs to “prescribe” job coaches, and to participate in constructing “a health and work passport to collate employment and health information.”  (See The new Work and Health Programme: the government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work.)

This raised some serious ethical concerns for me, which I addressed in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The most important part of the request was:

I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants. What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing behaviours of claimants? And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department and by job centres?

I did ask a further three brief and reasonable questions, citing a source of information – The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change quoting from it and explaining the questions.

My request was refused.

The DWP response

I can confirm that we hold information falling within the description specified in your request. However, we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would exceed the appropriate limit for central Government, set by regulations at £600. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.

Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act the Department is not therefore obliged to comply with your request and we will not be processing it further.


Firstly, something as fundamentally important as safeguarding and ethical guidelines regarding government behavioural/psychological experimentation should actually be available for public access and scrutiny, not hidden away in a place that allegedly takes so much time, effort and money to locate.

Anyone would think those comments are simply an obstructive tactic, if the DWP can confirm that they have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request. Wouldn’t you think?

Someone who is earning £600 for 3½days work is on a very generous annual salary of around £45K. Unless this person is being paid to be intentionally incompetent and obstructive, their job skills suck, it has to be said. So do the logic and reasoning skills of the person who wrote that response.

I also know from experience that the DWP regularly respond only partially. They had the option of answering some of my request, at least. After all, they claim to have the information, seems a shame not to share some of it.

However, because the ethical considerations of government experiments and trials on people needing welfare support are so very important, I have pursued this request further by taking the option of simplifying it.

I wrote:

Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,

You confirm that you have the information that I requested, but then claim that it would exceed the £600 limit to provide that
information which you state is because of the “estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.”

If you confirm you have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request.

I will however simplify my request. Most people would expect that ethical guidelines, safeguards and the important matter of client consent to participating in Government trials and experiments on people needing welfare support is something that the DWP would have to hand – easy to retrieve and very important information that one would expect to be in the public domain in any case. But I can’t find it.

I refer again to the The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change –

In particular, I refer to page 5: “Behavioural theory is a powerful
tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”

I should like to ask:

  • What ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants?
  • What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?
  • And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?

Yours sincerely,

Susan Jones

Link to the request

Here is the FoI request and response in full: Use of behavioural theory to change behaviours of people claiming benefits.

Under Section 16 of the FoI Act the DWP should assist me in helping to narrow my request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. I have narrowed my request and submitted a shorter, simplified version, focussing on the ethical issues only. It is reasonable to expect the DWP, whose remit includes face to face work with some of our most vulnerable citizens, to have ethical and safeguarding guidelines and consent forms to hand without having to pay someone hundreds of pounds for days of work to “find and retrieve” information that ought to be in the public domain anyway. 

In the event of that request being refused, I will be pursuing this further via the Internal Review Mechanism, and if need be, I shall be contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office.


I wonder if the response was influenced by this


My second amended request has been refused. I have therefore asked for an Internal Review. I said:

Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,

I refer to your first response: “Under section 16 of the Act we
should assist you in helping you narrow your request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. It may help to reduce the number of questions by refocusing it to only a few elements of the presently broad request. We will consider a fresh any revised request however we cannot guarantee that any revised request will fall within the cost limit.”

I subsequently submitted a narrowed and focussed request in
response, with just 3 basic questions from the initial FOI request. You responded by refering to my original request, and completely ignored my amended and narrowed down, shorter request.

I am therefore making a formal complaint that you did not address the reduced, simplified and narrowed down request. I am asking for an internal review.

I wrote:

“I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place
regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants.

What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any
potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?

And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a
subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?”

You have stated that you do have this information. As I have
considerably narrowed down the request to 3 very basic questions, the costs involved in retrieving and providing it ought to be quite minimal. It’s also a very reasonable request. The DWP works with some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is especially important that in light of the current experimental nature of behavioural theories, and the current trialing of the new government health and work programme, that there are ethical guidelines and safeguards in place to protect vulnerable clients, and also, that there is a mechanism for gaining informed consent from clients who are subjects of trials and experiments.

These are issues that researchers within the medical sciences and social sciences have to consider every day. Using behavioural modification (“behavioural change theory”) methods on citizens without their consent and without engaging their deliberative processes has enormous ethical implications.

The British Psychological Society , for example, has strict code of
conduct and human research ethics –

And I refer to the Helsinki Declaration regarding medical research http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles…

The Geneva Declaration – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaratio…

And the the Nuremberg code includes such principles as informed consent and absence of coercion; properly formulated scientific experimentation; and beneficence towards experiment participants – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_…

These are just a few examples of codes of ethics regarding human research.

There are a wide range of legal and Human Rights implications
connected with experimentation and research trials conducted on social groups and human subjects. My request for clarification that there are ethical guidelines, safeguards and protections for subjects and basic consent mechanisms in place and the details of what they are is therefore a very reasonable one.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Jones

Link to this

I also added that Section 16 of the FoI Act places a duty on public authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants. I was not provided with “advice or assistance.” I was not asked if I prefer to narrow my request in an alternative way to reduce costs (this is a breach of the section 16 duty to advise and assist). Nonetheless I did narrow my request, and that was completely ignored, the second response I received was related entirely to the initial request. In fact it was exactly the same response. I also challenged the DWP’s estimate of the costs of meeting my request. The rest of the grounds for my request for an Internal Review may be viewed here.