Tag: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Why won’t ministers come clean about the impact of cuts on disabled people? – Frances Ryan


B
ack in 2014, armed with only a laptop and phone, disabled campaigners started a hunt for the truth. As policies including the bedroom tax, the abolition of disability living allowance, and the rollout of controversial out-of-work sickness benefits hit, War on Welfare (Wow) called on the coalition government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of the wave of disability cuts to measure the effect on disabled people. It resulted in a debate in parliament – the first time disabled people had secured a debate in the main chamber of the House of Commons – but no action

Now, four years on, Wow has gained the backing of a cross-party coalition that wants Theresa May’s government to calculate the overall impact of the so-called welfare reforms on disabled people. Every party except the Conservatives is in favour of a Commons debate on conducting this assessment, including the DUP. In light of the pressure over Northern Irish abortion reform, their support for detailed analysis of the impact of Tory disability cuts is another awkward clash between May and the DUP’s 10 MPs propping up her administration. But more than that, it’s a sign of hope that ministers may have to finally investigate just what damage their disability cuts are causing – from the social care crisis to cuts to multiple parts of the NHS, to the disastrous rollout of universal credit; now delayed for an extra year until 2023

Last week’s damning report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on universal credit castigated the system’s inability to protect and support “vulnerable claimants”. It follows the revelation this month that the government was forced to say it would repay thousands of severely disabled people made worse off under the UC system ahead of the high court ruling last week that it was “discriminatory” to have docked two disabled men’s benefits after transferring to UC. Following pressure from disability groups, this week ministers made another U-turn, this time to stop repeatedly testing some disabled people for personal independence payments.

The government’s austerity programme has resulted in multiple reductions in income since 2010 that have hit disabled people all at once and disproportionately. Being hit by the bedroom tax is tough – but losing your sickness benefits as well after being found “fit for work” is even harder.

If you need an insight into the damage these policies have done, just go to Wow Voices, a website set up by campaigners that features disabled people explaining the impact of cuts on them. One woman with terminal breast cancer writes of how, for the last 18 months, she’s been told she needs to be reassessed for her benefits every six months, and she’s frantic about the thought of losing her support. “I’ve cried more about this than my terminal diagnosis,” she says. 

The UN’s damning report in 2016 into the UK’s “violations” of disabled people’s rights has put further pressure on the government over its treatment of disabled citizens. Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s own cumulative impact assessment shows that families with a disabled adult and a disabled child will lose £5,500 a year by 2022 as a result of tax and benefit changes – contradicting the government’s claim that such analysis would be “too complex” to do. 

This month, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found around 650,000 people with mental and physical health problems were officially destitute in the UK last year – that means being so poor, they can’t afford deodorant, the electric, or regular meals – with social security changes found to be a key cause. It’s bad enough for ministers to take away state support from disabled people en masse, but to refuse to analyse its effects is the definition of irresponsible. The Conservatives must finally shine a light on the impact that disability cuts have had. What are they so afraid of?

 

Related

The government response to the WoW petition is irrational, incoherent nonsense on stilts

The government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare “reforms”. Again

 


I write voluntarily, to do the best I can to raise awareness of political and social issues. In particular I research and write about how policy impacts on citizen wellbeing and human rights. I also co-run a group on Facebook to support other disabled people going through ESA and PIP assessments, mandatory reviews and appeals.

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But 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. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

Research finds 80% of rough sleepers who died in London in 2017 had mental health needs

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A research report published on Tuesday by the homeless charity St Mungo’s shows that four out of five (80%) rough sleepers who died in the capitol in 2017 had mental health needs, a huge increase from three in 10 (29%) in 2010. The rise in deaths of rough sleepers with mental health problems have risen sharply over the last seven years, prompting concern that specialist services are not reaching those who need them. 

The number of people sleeping rough has risen by 169% since 2010. Last year in England more than 4,700 people slept rough on any one night, and a far larger number experienced rough sleeping during the course of the year.

The charity is calling on the prime minister to take urgent action to prevent more people dying on the streets and ensure that the deaths are not ignored. The charity says the government need to invest more in specialist support, as NHS services are “severely overstretched”. this could sometimes be overlooked. Petra Salva, director of St Mungo’s rough sleeping services, said:

This is a scandal and something the government needs to recognise and do more about … there should be more funds and support for these groups but instead they have been cut over the years and that correlates in these people stuck living on the streets … these deaths are preventable.”

He added: “The rise is because rough sleepers with mental health support needs end up sleeping rough and the help isn’t there and when it is there it is not quick enough … access to help and support is getting harder and so the prevalence of death … is increasing.”

The report said “Research carried out by St Mungo’s showed that only 32% of the areas where 10 or more people are sleeping rough on any one night commission mental health services actively targeting people sleeping rough.” 

The report also featured a survey of dozens of street outreach workers and 63% said they were aware of someone who had died while sleeping rough in their local authority area last year. However, only 23% had experienced a review being carried out.

“With access to vital emergency accommodation and support services getting harder and harder, it is unsurprising that the number people dying on the streets is rising. Urgent action to provide rapid relief from rough sleeping is needed to turn this around,” the report stated.

Having a mental health problem can create the circumstances which can cause a person to become homeless in the first place. Yet poor housing or homelessness can also increase the chances of developing a mental health problem, or exacerbate an existing condition. In turn, this can make it even harder for that person to recover. It also makes it very challenging to develop good mental health, to secure stable housing, to find or maintain a job, to stay physically healthy and to maintain relationships.

The figures come amid concern about the growing number of homeless deaths and the lack of reviews into what has led to them. Out of the hundreds of deaths that have occurred in recent years, reports suggest only eight have resulted in a review.

The Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalists revealed earlier this year that 340 homeless people died on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the last six years, surging from 32 in 2013 to 78 in 2017. A further 59 deaths have been recorded so far this year, already more than the whole of 2016.

In the capital, the only place where a local authority records homeless deaths, 158 people died between 2010 and 2017, an average of one death a fortnight.

Experts and campaigners have warned that without official records, counts and reviews, it’s impossible to determine why so many homeless people are dying and design and take effective action to prevent future deaths. 

Howard Sinclair, the St Mungo’s chief executive, said: “This is nothing short of a national scandal. These deaths are premature and entirely preventable.”

Sinclair said that he welcomed the government Homeless Rduction Act set out by Sajid Javid to reduce the number of people sleeping rough. 

Though he added: “The forthcoming strategy presents a vital opportunity to make sure no one else dies as a result of sleeping rough. We are calling on the prime minister to follow through on her commitment to end rough sleeping by making sure all parts of the public sector play their part, especially the health, justice and welfare systems.”

The Homelessness Reduction Act received Royal Assent in April 2017 and will commence in April 2018. The Act places a new duty on local authorities to help prevent the homelessness of all families and single people, regardless of priority need, who are eligible for assistance and threatened with homelessness. 

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said: “In 21st-century Britain, nobody should be dying on our streets, especially when there is clear evidence to show that rough sleeping – and all forms of homelessness – can be ended. 

“Homelessness is a devastating experience. People sleeping on our streets – who are experiencing the most visible form of homelessness – are exposed to everything from sub-zero temperatures, to violence, to debilitating illnesses. And all of these dangers puts them at serious risk of death.”

Back in 2016, Theresa May unveiled the £40 million package designed to prevent homelessness by intervening to help individuals and families before they ‘end up on the streets.’ It was claimed that the ‘shift’ in government policy will move the focus away from dealing with the consequences of homelessness and place prevention ‘at the heart’ of the Prime Minister’s approach. I criticised the approach at the time, as it was framed with a narrative of individualism, and was based on a considerable degree of political prejudice regarding the causes of homelessness, which positioned citizen ‘decision-making’ as a key factor. 

The Conservatives fail or refuse to recognise that many problems in wider society arise as a consequence of a prejudiced ideology that shapes political decision making, and that contributes significantly towards homelessness. These structural causes include a lack of affordable housing; high levels of poverty, low wages, the high cost of living, unemployment and underemployment; welfare cuts, punitive sanctions and problems with the way benefits system operates. Also, the way that social housing is rationed has a direct impact on levels of homelessness. 

In 2016, Sajid Javid, then Communities Secretary, announced that the Government will support reforms to England’s anti-homelessness laws and strengthen local authority duties to prevent people becoming homeless. But local authorities are already struggling to meet their statutory obligations because of years of underfunding because of the Conservatives’ ideological austerity.

The Homelessness Reduction Bill – a private member’s bill put forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman – will place a duty on local authorities to help eligible people at risk of homelessness to secure accommodation, 56 days before they are threatened with eviction. However, councils have already expressed their concerns regarding delayed government code of guidance and funding on the Homelessness Reduction Act.

Announcing the Government’s support of the bill, Javid said: “No one should have to sleep rough on the streets. We want to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. That’s why we are determined to do all we can to help those who lose their homes and provide them with the support they need to get their lives back on track.

“This Government is therefore, very pleased to support Bob Blackman MP’s Private Members Bill, with its ambitious measures to help reduce homelessness.”

Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, said he welcomed the Government’s decision. He added: “Throughout my 24 years in local government prior to becoming an MP, I saw the devastation that can be caused by homelessness first hand, with too many people simply slipping through the net under the current arrangements.

“By backing this bill, the Government is demonstrating its commitment to an agenda of social justice and also shows that it is willing to listen. I look forward to working with Ministers going forward in order to bring about this important change in legislation.”

The 2013 annual State of the Nation report by the charities Crisis and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed that the number sleeping rough had risen by six per cent in England that year, and by 13 per cent in London. There has been a 10 per cent increase in those housed temporarily, including a 14 per cent rise in the use of bed and breakfast accommodation.

Writing just a year after the highly controversial Welfare Reform Act was ushered through the legislative process on the back of Cameron’s claim to the “financial privilege” of the Commons , the JRF report authors explicitly blamed the Government’s welfare cuts for compounding the problems caused by the high cost and shortage of housing as demand outstripped supply. The researchers found found that the cap on housing benefit made it more difficult to rent from a private landlord, especially in London, and claimed the controversial “bedroom tax” has caused a sharp rise in arrears for people in public housing, particularly in the Midlands and North.

A separate survey by Inside Housing magazine showed that councils and housing associations are increasingly resorting to the threat of eviction, as the loss of an adequate social security safety net is causing increasing hardship for social housing tenants. The reduction of council tax benefit for people who were previously exempt from paying council tax has also contributed significantly to experiences of material hardship, too. 

Ministers have emphatically denied that their reforms have contributed to the return of homelessness. However, homelessness has now risen in each of the years since the Tory-led coalition was formed – after falling sharply in the previous six years, and has continued to rise rapidly, since.

The government’s welfare policies have emerged as the biggest single trigger for homelessness now the economy has allegedly recovered, and are likely to increase pressure on households for the next few years, with the new benefit cap increasing the strain, according to the independent research findings in the Homelessness Monitor 2015, the annual independent audit, published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The Homelessness Monitor study 2015 found:

  • Housing benefit caps and shortages of social housing has led to homeless families increasingly being placed in accommodation outside their local area, particularly in London. Out-of-area placements rose by 26% in 2013-14, and account for one in five of all placements.
  • Welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax contributed to an 18% rise in repossession actions by social landlords in 2013-14, a trend expected to rise as arrears increase and temporary financial support shrink
  • Housing benefit cuts played a large part in the third of all cases of homelessness last year caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy, and made it harder for those who lost their home to be rehoused.

The study said millions of people are experiencing  precarious circumstances because of “hidden homelessness”, including families forced by financial circumstances to live with other families in the same house, and people categorised as “sofa surfers” who sleep on friends’ floors or sofas because they have nowhere to live. 

At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions also announced that it was cutting funding for homeless hostels and supported housing for disabled people by reducing supported housing benefit rent payments for three years. The homelessness reduction bill in the current policy context is yet another example of how Conservatives don’t seem to manage coherent, joined up thinking. 

Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said the cut would leave the homeless charity with £3 million a year less to spend on services. 

“The rent reduction will threaten the financial viability of some of our hostels and other supported housing schemes and offers no direct benefit to vulnerable tenants who mostly rely on housing benefit to cover their housing costs,” he said.

It’s just not good enough that the Government simply attempts to manipulate and colonise progressive rhetoric, claiming they ‘stand for social justice’, when they very clearly don’t walk the talk.

Conservative neoliberal “small state” anti-welfare policies are increasing homelessness. The bedroom tax, council tax benefit reductions, housing benefit reductions, welfare caps, sanctions, the deregulation of private sector, the selling off and privatising of social housing stock have all contributed to the current crisis of homelessness. 

It was particularly remarkable that May claimed the government are “doing the right thing for social justice” yet the Conservative policy framework is, by its very design, inevitably adding to the precariousness of the situations those people with the least financial security are in.

Affordable, accessible and safe accommodation brings stability and security; provides a gateway to access health services like GPs; enhances social and community inclusion; and provides the basis for the right to private and family life. A home is vital for good mental and physical health, allowing people to live in safety, security, peace and dignity.

Currently there is no such ‘right to housing’ in itself, however, the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing, is recognised in the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Of course, there are numerous factors which can cause people to become homeless, many of which are beyond individual control, such as lack of affordable housing, disability and poverty. But what really needs to be highlighted is the two-way relationship between homelessness and mental health.

Government policies haven’t worked because they overlook the obvious. Despite Theresa May’s claims, the government tends to simply address the effects and not the real causes of homelessness. Unless the government actually address the growing inequality, poverty and profound insecurity that their own policies have created, then homelessness and absolute poverty will continue to increase.

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You can help a homeless person by contacting Streetlink. (Click) When a rough sleeper is reported via the Streetlink app, or by phone – telephone number 0300-500 0914.

The details you provide are sent to the local authority concerned, so they can help connect the person to local services and support. You will also receive an update on what action was taken so you’ll know if the situation was resolved. StreetLink aims to offer the public a means to act when they see someone sleeping rough, and is the first step someone can take to ensure rough sleepers are connected to the local services and support available to them.

Related

Number of new social homes has plummeted by almost 90% under Tories

Don’t walk on by. We are better than this 

Two very vulnerable homeless men left to die in sub-zero temperatures

 


I write voluntarily, to do the best I can to raise awareness of political and social issues. In particular I research and write about how policy impacts on citizen wellbeing and human rights.

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But 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. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Critique of the ‘Origins of Happiness’ study. Psychologists Against Austerity respond

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Clinical psychologists have widely criticised Labour peer and economist, Richard Layard, over research he led that claims failed relationships and physical and mental illness were bigger causes of misery than poverty. 

“Happiness scholars” and authors of the study report, Andrew Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee and George Ward say:

“Understanding the key determinants of people’s life satisfaction will suggest policies for how best to reduce misery and promote wellbeing. This column discusses evidence from survey data on Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US which indicate that the things that matter most are people’s social relationships and their mental and physical health; and that the best predictor of an adult’s life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child.”

In the their study, the Origins of Happiness, the authors call for a new focus for public policy: not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation.'”

The authors say: “Most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness. Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% while eliminating poverty would reduce it by 5%. And on top of that, reducing mental illness would involve no net cost to the public purse.” 

So the authors propose the delivery of more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), whilst income redistribution and social justice perspectives are considered trivial and insignificant because they are deemed too costly. Layard in particular enthusiastically endorses CBT, which he regards as the modern evidence-based psychological therapy of choice. Layard was one of the key signatories of The Depression Report, and one of the main campaigners, along with David Clark, for the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which has entailed the mass provision of CBT.

CBT is a cheap, short-term, goal-oriented treatment that practitioners claim takes a “hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving.” Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behaviour that are claimed to be behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel about their circumstances. However, I have critiqued this approach more than once. 

I’ve also critiqued the use of quantitative methodology and survey methods more generally in policy-making, as such methods frequently fail to pay due regard to authenticity, reliability and validity, inclusion and full participation: quantitative methods tend to be used non-prefiguratively. (See for example: The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)

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Happiness is a neoliberal warm gun: depopulating policy

CBT is of course premised on the assumption that interpreting situations “negatively” is a bad thing, and that thinking positively about bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt by perceiving their circumstances in a stoical and purely “rational” way. CBT is primarily about self-governance techniques.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the authors are expecting people to accept stoically. Socioeconomic inequality? Absolute poverty? Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets? Starvation and destitution? Political authoritarianism? The end of democracy?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? It seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of draconian government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such narrow, politically defined and specific economic outcomes, which extend and perpetuate inequality. In this context, CBT becomes state “therapy” used only as an ideological prop for neoliberalism.

CBT is too often founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, it is currently assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than sociopolitical, and that particular assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework, which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty” in some way. The deeply flawed political/economic system that entrenches inequality isn’t challenged at all: its victims are discredited and stigmatised instead.

Yet historically (and empirically), it has been widely accepted that poverty significantly increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill health. Mental health is shaped by the wide-ranging characteristics and circumstances (including inequalities) of the social, economic and physical environments in which people live. Successfully supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people living in poverty, and reducing the number of people with mental health problems experiencing poverty, requires engagement with this complexity. (See: Elliott, I. (June 2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation).

In the social sciences there is a longstanding and unresolved debate over the primacy of structure or agency in shaping human behaviour. Structure is the recurrent patterned social, economic and political arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available to citizens. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act autonomously and independently of “outside forces” to make their own free choices. 

Layard et al. dismiss the importance of context on human behaviours, cognitions, perceptions, attitudes and states of mind, and the study is premised and proceeds as if this controversy has been resolved. It hasn’t. 

Such an approach crucially overlooks conflict, the impacts of political decision-making, economic arrangements, social structure, prevailing cultural norms and ideologies, for example.

Rather predictably, Layard’s approach to research (for he’s an economist, not a psychologist, hence his approach shares more in common with the behavioural economists from the cost-cutting, antidemocratic Nudge Unit) conflates human needs and wellbeing with narrow ideological (antiwelfarist, “small state” neoliberal) outcomes, by removing any consideration of the complex interactions, constraints and impacts of the economic, social, cultural and political context on human happiness. Layard’s neuroliberal approach therefore may be read as an endorsement of existing socioeconomic inequalities. 

Furthermore, definitions of “happiness” are culturally specific. They are susceptible to culturally (and politically defined) dominant moral judgements. The happiness imperative may be regarded as an artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature of the human condition. Across cultures and time, happiness has most frequently been defined as “good luck” and arising because of favourable external conditions. Some definitions place notions of a virtuous life and “hard work” as essential and central qualities of happiness. It’s worth noting that from 1997 to 2001, Layard was an adviser to New Labour and one of the key architects of the “New Deal” and “Welfare to Work” policies. He certainly has clearly defined ideological inclinations.

In those countries with a dominant ideology that is founded on competitive individualism, such as the US and the UK, the definitions of happiness and wellbeing based on chance and context were replaced by definitions focused on favourable internal feelings and states. In other words, happiness came to be regarded as an inner state that we have some personal control over. The significant rise in the availability and popularity of “self help” literature in the western world is a testament of this view that the happiness of citizens is a personal responsibility, and not a political one.

A central theme in this individualist approach is a relentless optimism about the capacity of individuals to improve their own mental health, and accept things as they are in order to bask in earned and fully deserved human happiness and fulfilment. The starting point of the self help perspective, (dating back to Samuel Smiles and his moralising, conservative disquisitions on Thrift and Self help: the austerity ideologue of mid Victorian laissez faire) is that the world is basically okay, the problems arising at an individual level are simply because of how we choose to perceive it – this is reflected in an emphasis on the necessity of changing the way you see and think about the world, particularly in neoliberal economies. It’s very clear why CBT is so appealing to the UK Conservative government. It doesn’t challenge the status quo at all. 

Establishing happiness as a metric is only meant to serve a political end. Indeed, it may even be regarded as a form of political gaslighting. I’m not alone in my concern that “happiness” research could be used to advance authoritarian aims. Studies show that in European elections since 1970, the subjective “life satisfaction” of citizens is the best predictor of whether the government gets re-elected  – this apparently is much more important than economic growth, social conditions, unemployment or inflation.

CBT is the modern descendant of the discredited, ever so quantitative behaviourist tradition, spearheaded by B.F. Skinner, who views persons as nothing more than empty and simple mediators between behaviour and the environment. Integral to this perspective of behaviourism is the concept of behaviour modification through rewards or “consequences.” This has been politically translated into a reductionist economic language of incentives and outcomes. (Stimulus => response.)

This is paralleled with the growth of nudge, which is a technocratic behaviourist solution and ideological prop in the form of behavioural economics, which is also all about generating public policies that aim to quantifiably change the perceptions and behaviours of citizens, aligning them with narrow neoliberal outcomes.

Even the likes of Oliver James (author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, among other works) critique the symptoms of neoliberal policies rather than the disease: neoliberalism itself.

This is precisely why independent research findings consistently highlight the value of adopting less idiomatic and more value neutral historical, political, cultural and linguistic perspective in the study of public happiness.

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I think it’s fair to say that mental illness is not caused by just one thing. Poverty can be one factor or trigger that interacts with a complexity of other events, such as adverse life events, genetic predisposition, poor physical health or substance abuse. But so far, the strongest evidence suggests that poverty can lead to mental illness, especially disorders such as depression.

Living in poverty causes chronic distress and struggle. Failure to meet basic human needs certainly has an impact on human and social potential – Abraham Maslow explored how our cognitive priorities are reduced when our physiological needs are not met or our survival is threatened. Struggle and distress may have an ultimate biological impact on brain function. According to one controversial hypothesis, schizophrenia is the result of chronic experience of social adversity and defeat, which disturbs the dopamine level and function in the brain, for example.

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A report published by the World Health Organization this year strongly suggests that poor individuals are twice as affected by mental health conditions compared to rich individuals. The report concludes: “Whilst the relationship between poverty and mental health is complicated, individual measures taken to reduce global poverty are likely to have positive impacts on mental health issues in underprivileged populations.”

Regardless, a society may be judged on how it treats its most disadvantaged citizens. The harrowing problems of poverty, as described in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and social rehabilitation, or lack of it, as portrayed by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, sadly remain as pressing today.

The statement from Psychologists Against Austerity

The Origins of happiness study overlooked the social and political context of mental health, say campaign group Psychologists Against Austerity. This lets politicians and the architects of austerity off the hook.

The London School of Economics (LSE) study, led by Layard, was published in early December. The report claims that eliminating depression and anxiety would be a cheap way to reduce misery by 20 per cent, while eliminating poverty would be more difficult – and, besides, it would only reduce unhappiness by 5 per cent.

Psychologists against austerity (PAA) have condemned the stark and simplistic dichotomy presented in the report between income and mental illness as predictors of life satisfaction.

In a response published online, the group, which is made up of practising mental health professionals, highlighted the fact “some media reports have gone further, apparently taking the results to imply that there is no causal relationship between poverty and mental illness”, and blamed the researchers for not making the complex relationship between poverty and mental health clearer. According to the psychologists, the two things “are related in a complex variety of ways, with both causally influencing the other”.

The group of psychologists said it was easy for the researchers to downplay the link in their findings, because the relationship is not as simple as happiness being dependent on income alone.

“Living in poverty is more stressful, with fewer buffers, so challenges are more likely to be catastrophic,” their statement said. “People living in poverty have less agency and control over their lives, and live with lower status, often accompanied by stigma, powerlessness and shame.”

Layard’s emphasised that as UK average incomes have increased, the country has not got happier. But PAA point out that in addition to becoming richer, Britain has also become a profoundly more unequal society since the 1980s.

The original study states that relative poverty is more important than absolute poverty in mental health terms, but does discuss this in detail.

Decades of previous research supports PAA’s statement, and many individual psychologists and academics agree with the anti-austerity group’s statement. 

The study “lets politicians off the hook, it lets austerity off the hook” by treating mental illness as if it exists in a void and is not intrinsically linked to societal factors, director of clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, Dr Anne Cooke, told the Guardian:

“It says that all that doesn’t matter, making a better society doesn’t matter, just offering technical treatments,” she said. “I am one of the people that offers technical treatments and I think they can be extremely helpful to some people but that argument is being stretched beyond the point at which it applies.”

Dr Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, has said he welcomed Lord Layard’s call for a focus on national wellbeing through investment in mental health services. But he added, speaking to the Guardian, that he had misgivings about how the study had treated mental illness as a distinct variable from human misery.

Layard’s work has previously led to David Cameron’s adoption of national “wellbeing” statistics, and he was also a driving force behind the adoption of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

That latter policy was particularly controversial because it established finding work as an outcome of psychological treatment, which critics said may not be a suitable outcome for some and encouraged a policy of forcing people into work which may not be appropriate for them. PAA and other campaign groups have previously called aspects of the scheme’s implementation “profoundly disturbing”, attacking 2015 plans by then-chancellor George Osborne to link welfare and therapy by placing IAPT therapists in job centres. Layard, who is an economist rather than a psychologist, is now calling for a “new role for the state” that “swaps wealth creation for wellbeing creation” through targeted mental health interventions.

The LSE study has worried psychologists because Layard is highly influential with policymakers. The Labour peer’s recommendations previously led David Cameron to adopt national wellbeing statistics, and Lord Layard was also a driving force behind the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) scheme to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist, told the Guardian Layard’s call “negates decades worth of data linking mental health to poverty”.

“It’s ripe for misuse … in the current political climate,” she added.

Dr Anne Cooke said there were better ways to improve wellbeing than by focusing on isolated mental health interventions. Policy should take a more holistic public health approach, she proposed.

“Cholera wasn’t eradicated by developing new treatments, it was eradicated by improving drains back in pre-Victorian times.

What [Layard] neglects is the people at the bottom of the pile who are really, really struggling, and in current circumstances there are a lot of them. People who you see at food banks for example, who are in incredible distress and certainly would – most of them or a lot of them – meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or depression,” she said.

But it’s largely a response to their circumstances. If we do something about that, rates of mental illness in the population are going to come down a lot more effectively than providing a lot more therapy.”

Meanwhile, PAA suggested that rather than doing nothing to help the most disadvantaged people, the study could actually contribute to perpetuating poverty.

“Discussions of mental health that leave out a thorough analysis of poverty and income inequality may be used uphold policies that maintain disadvantage and oppression in society,” the group said.

You can read PAA’s full response here

 

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Adults in the poorest fifth are much more likely to be at risk of developing a mental illness as those on average incomes: around 24% compared with 14%.

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Related

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies 

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

 


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Government backs new law to prevent people made homeless through government laws from becoming homeless

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Theresa May’s ritualistic Tory chanting: “getting people’s lives back on track”

Earlier this month, Theresa May surprisingly unveiled a £40 million package designed to prevent homelessness by intervening to help individuals and families before they end up on the streets. It was claimed that the “shift” in government policy will move the focus away from dealing with the consequences of homelessness and place prevention “at the heart” of the Prime Minister’s approach. 

Writing in the Big Issue magazine – sold by homeless people – May said: “We know there is no single cause of homelessness and those at risk can often suffer from complex issues such as domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues or redundancy.”

“So I believe it’s time we changed our approach. We can no longer focus on tackling the symptoms and immediate consequences of homelessness. We need to put prevention at the heart of a new approach.

“As a first step towards this change, I’m announcing a new £40 million package to both prevent and tackle the causes of homelessness. This will include £20 million for local authorities to pilot innovative initiatives to tackle the causes of homelessness – helping to find solutions for families and individuals before they reach crisis point.”

Earlier this year it was revealed that under David Cameron’s administration homelessness in England had risen by 54 per cent since 2010

This reflected the sixth consecutive annual rise, with households becoming homeless in London increasing to 17,530 (9 per cent) in the last year alone and 58,000 households across the whole of England.

That’s during six consecutive years of the Conservatives in Office, and six years of savage austerity measures that target the poorest citizens disproportionately, by coincidence.

Or by correlation.

There are a few causes that the prime minister seems to have overlooked, amidst the Conservative ritualistic chanting which reflects assumptions and prejudices about the “causal” factors of social problems and a narrative of individualism. It’s a curious fact that wealthy people also experience “complex issues” such as addiction, mental health problems and domestic abuse, but they don’t tend to experience homelessness and poverty as a result. 

The deregulated private sector and increasingly precarious tenancies

“This Government is therefore, very pleased to support Bob Blackman MP’s Private Members Bill, with its ambitious measures to help reduce homelessness.”

Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, said he welcomed the Government’s decision. He added: “Throughout my 24 years in local government prior to becoming an MP, I saw the devastation that can be caused by homelessness first hand, with too many people simply slipping through the net under the current arrangements.

“By backing this bill, the Government is demonstrating its commitment to an agenda of social justice and also shows that it is willing to listen. I look forward to working with Ministers going forward in order to bring about this important change in legislation.”

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, welcomed the Government’s commitment but warned that unless “MPs [need to] offer their support at the bill’s second reading on Friday, this historic opportunity could easily be lost”.

Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive, added: “This is a credible and much-needed piece of legislation which now has the backing of the Government, the opposition and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. The cross-party consensus is there, and we hope that MPs from across the political spectrum will come together on October 28 to vote on the bill.

“Helping people to stay off the streets and rebuild their lives is about basic social justice – it’s the right thing to do – but it also makes good economic sense. New research from Crisis has revealed how preventing 40,000 people from becoming homelessness could save the public purse up to £370m a year, or just over £9,000 per year for every person helped. The logic is clear: preventing homelessness saves lives, but also reduces public costs.

“For 40 years we’ve had a system that fails too many homeless people and turns them away at their time of need. The Homelessness Reduction Bill could help put an end to that injustice once and for all. It is a major opportunity to improve the rights of people currently shut out of the system, whist continuing to protect families with children.”

Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils and had opposed an earlier draft of the Bill, said granting councils the ability to build homes would be a more effective step towards ending homelessness and the housing crisis in general.

“Councils want to end homelessness and are already doing everything they can within existing resources to prevent and tackle it. However, there is no silver bullet, and councils alone cannot tackle rising homelessness. The causes of homelessness are many and varied and range from financial to social,” he said.

“After having worked closely with Bob Blackman, we are confident that the new Bill, if it does go through Parliament, will be in a better place.

“However, it is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. If we are all to succeed, then all new duties proposed in the Bill will need to be fully funded. Councils need powers to resume our role as a major builder of affordable homes.”

The shortage of housing and the impact of the Government’s welfare “reforms”

The 2013 annual State of the Nation report by the charities Crisis and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed that the number sleeping rough had risen by six per cent in England this year, and by 13 per cent in London. There has been a 10 per cent increase in those housed temporarily, including a 14 per cent rise in the use of bed and breakfast accommodation.

Writing just a year after the highly controversial Welfare Reform Act was ushered through the legislative process on the back of Cameron’s claim to the “financial privilege” of the Commons , the report authors explicitly blamed the Government’s welfare cuts for compounding the problems caused by the high cost and shortage of housing as demand outstripped supply. The researchers found found that the cap on housing benefit made it more difficult to rent from a private landlord, especially in London, and claimed the controversial “bedroom tax” has caused a sharp rise in arrears for people in public housing, particularly in the Midlands and North.

A separate survey by Inside Housing magazine showed that councils and housing associations are increasingly resorting to the threat of eviction, as the loss of an adequate social security safety net is causing increasing hardship for social housing tenants. The reduction of council tax benefit for people who were previously exempt from paying council tax has also contributed significantly to experiences of material hardship, too. 

Ministers have emphatically denied that their reforms have contributed to the return of homelessness. However, homelessness has now risen in each of the five years since the Coalition was formed – after falling sharply in the previous six years, and has continued to rise throughout 2016.

The government’s welfare policies have emerged as the biggest single trigger for homelessness now the economy has allegedly recovered, and are likely to increase pressure on households for the next few years, with the new benefit cap increasing the strain, according to the independent research findings in the Homelessness Monitor 2015, the annual independent audit, published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The housing minister, Kris Hopkins, said the study’s claims were “misleading”. Local authorities had “a wide range of government-backed options available to help prevent homelessness and keep people off the streets,” he said.

“This government has increased spending to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping, making over £500m available to local authorities and the voluntary sector,” he added.

It hasn’t worked. This is because, despite Theresa May’s claims, the government tends to simply address the effects and not the real causes of homelessness. Unless the government actually address the growing inequality, poverty and profound insecurity that their own policies have created, then homelessness and absolute poverty will continue to increase.

Hopkins added that the government had provided Crisis with nearly £14m in funding to help about 10,000 single homeless people find and sustain a home in the private rented sector.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Homelessness can be catastrophic for those of us who experience it. If we are to prevent a deepening crisis, we must look to secure alternatives to home ownership for those who cannot afford to buy: longer-term, secure accommodation at prices that those on the lowest incomes can afford.”

The Homelessness Monitor study 2015 found:

  • Housing benefit caps and shortages of social housing has led to homeless families increasingly being placed in accommodation outside their local area, particularly in London. Out-of-area placements rose by 26% in 2013-14, and account for one in five of all placements.
  • Welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax contributed to an 18% rise in repossession actions by social landlords in 2013-14, a trend expected to rise as arrears increase and temporary financial support shrink
  • Housing benefit cuts played a large part in the third of all cases of homelessness last year caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy, and made it harder for those who lost their home to be rehoused.

The study says millions of people are experiencing “hidden homelessness”, including families forced by financial circumstances to live with other families in the same house, and people categorised as “sofa surfers” who sleep on friends’ floors or sofas because they have nowhere to live.

Official estimates of  the numbers of people sleeping rough in England in 2013 were 2,414 – up 37% since 2010. But the study’s estimates based on local data suggest that the true figure could be at least four times that.

The Department for Work and Pensions also announced last month that it was cutting funding for homeless hostels and supported housing for disabled people by reducing supported housing benefit rent payments for three years. The homelessness reduction bill in the current policy context is yet another example of how Conservatives don’t seem to manage coherent, joined up thinking. 

“The Government’s proposals will compromise the right for people with a learning disability to live independently, and must be reconsidered urgently,” Dan Scorer, head of policy at the learning disabilities charity Mencap, warned after the announcement.

Meanwhile Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said the cut would leave the homeless charity with £3 million a year less to spend on services. 

“The rent reduction will threaten the financial viability of some of our hostels and other supported housing schemes and offers no direct benefit to vulnerable tenants who mostly rely on housing benefit to cover their housing costs,” he said.

It’s just not good enough that the Government simply attempts to colonise progressive rhetoric, claiming they stand for social justice, when they very clearly don’t walk the talk.

Conservative neoliberal “small state” anti-welfare policies are increasing homelessness. The bedroom tax, council tax benefit reductions, housing benefit reductions, welfare caps, sanctions, the deregulation of private sector, the selling off and privatising of social housing stock have all contributed to the current crisis of homelessness.

It was particularly remarkable that May claimed the government are “doing the right thing for social justice” yet the Conservative policy framework is, by its very design, inevitably adding to the precariousness of the situations those people with the least financial security are in.

Someone should explain to the prime minister that “social justice” doesn’t generally entail formulating predatory policies that ensure the wealthy accumulate more wealth by dispossessing the poorest citizens of their public assets, civilised institutions and civilising practices gained through the post-war settlement.

Devolving responsibility for the housing crisis and lack of adequate social security provision to local authorities that are already strapped for cash because of government cuts, and with an ever-dwindling housing stock, won’t help to address growing inequality, or alleviate poverty and destitution.

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Related

From homes fit for heroes to the end of secure, lifelong social housing tenancies

Update

Let’s Pressurise MP’s To Attend the Vote On the ‘Once In a Lifetime Homelessness Bill’ – template letter to MPs, courtesy of the Dorset Eye


 

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State-regulated cryptocurrency and micro-managing people claiming welfare

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Context

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Behavioural Insights Team (Nudge Unit), particularly with regard to its insidious and malevolent influence, manifested in a range of psychoregulation policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are being imposed on the poorest citizens. Technocracy is the “science of social engineering.” Nudge is a technocratic approach to fulfilling the requirements of neoliberalism. It’s about maintaining an established socioeconomic order, rather than advancing progressive social change.

In 1932, Howard Scott and Marion King Hubbert founded Technocracy Incorporated, and proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates. The group argued that “apolitical, rational engineers should be vested with authority to guide an economy into a thermodynamically balanced load of production and consumption, thereby doing away with unemployment and debt.” Sounds just like old school sociological Functionalism to me: it’s a systems theory  – utterly tautological and deterministic tosh. Bear with me, because there’s a couple of contemporary parallels I want to discuss.

The Conservatives prefer to do away with unemployment and debt by “incentivising behaviour change” to ensure that poor people who don’t have any money to live on are punished out of their poverty. 

Smart Cards, another antiwelfarist, technocratic imposition, entered our collective consciousness during autumn 2012, as Iain Duncan Smith declared his intention to discipline Britain’s “troubled” families. In unveiling his proposals at the Conservative Conference back in October 2012, Duncan Smith attempted to frame the cards as better value for taxpayers’ money, implying that poor people don’t pay taxes, (when the poorest actually pay proportionally more) and his rhetoric was extremely stigmatising.

He said: I am looking […] at ways in which we could ensure that money we give [benefit claimants] to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle.”  [Boldings mine.]

Then MP Alex Shelbrooke presented his private member’s bill in December 2012, providing us with yet another shuddering glimpse into the underlying Tory moral outrage, prejudice and punitive attitudes towards people claiming benefits. He argued for a “welfare cash card” to limit spending to absolute basics. Isn’t welfare provision as it is just enough to cover the absolute basics for survival? It’s calculated to meet the basic cost of food, fuel and shelter only.

Despite his scapegoating narrative about addressing “idleness”, Shelbrooke’s proposed psychocompulsion was intended to apply to those in work, who claim benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit, penalising and outgrouping those on a minimum or low wage, also. The plan was to restrict the goods that people claiming benefits could buy with their cards. Not so much offering a “nudge” or “incentive”, but rather, delivering a bludgeoning enforcement, without a shred of respect for diverse needs and individuals’ autonomy and choice. 

A principled objection is that we should not be stigmatising or inflicting punishments on people, or reducing their freedom to spend money as they need and wish, just because they are forced to spend some time out of work, or because they aren’t paid a wage that is sufficient to live on. Such an approach is extremely draconian.

Having been previously rejected, this is certainly not a democratically endorsed policy.

This is an authoritarian restriction on what people claiming benefits may buy, and a limiting of lifestyle choices that they are permitted. It is a particularly spitefully directed ideological move that does not make any sense in terms of the wider economy, or in terms of any notion of “supporting” people, and “fairness.” The latter two categories of reason would entail extending opportunities and freedoms, not repressing them. 

Financial hardship already limits choice. When people are struggling financially, budgeting isn’t the problem: low wages, benefit cuts and rising costs of essential items are. Those factors are ultimately shaped by government policies, not poor people.

No matter how this is dressed up by the Tories, poor people don’t respond to “corrective” narratives and coercive policy like Pavlov’s dogs. Yet the Tories nevertheless insist on placing a psychopolitical variant of operant conditioning – behaviour modification – at the core of their increasingly repressive class-contingent policies. This isn’t about state “assistance” for the entitled poor, most of who have worked and contributed to the treasury, contrary to the politically expedient “economic free rider” label.  It’s about traditional Tory prejudices, state interference and coercion. It’s more blaming and punishing the casualities of neoliberalism and social conservatism. 

Having failed in introducing the punitive smart card more than once, the Conservatives are now resorting to a stealthy introduction of a variation to curtail the freedom of poor people claiming social security, using cryptocurrency, state regulation and an unprecedented, Orwellian level of state monitoring and control of what people who are struggling to make ends meet are buying. 

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Some basic (but wordy) definitions

Cryptocurrency is a medium of exchange, alternative to Fiat currencies, which uses a type of virtual currency, such as bitcoin. It uses cryptography for security and anti-counterfeiting measures. Public and private keys are often used to transfer cryptocurrency between individuals. Ownership of bitcoins, for example, implies that a user can spend bitcoins associated with a specific address. To do so, a payer must digitally sign the transaction using the corresponding private key. Without knowledge of the private key, the transaction cannot be signed and bitcoins cannot be spent. The network verifies the signature using the public key.

Bitcoin is a pseudonymous currency, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities, but rather, to bitcoin addresses. For cryptocurrency enthusiasts, the pseudoanonymity element is attractive, as it tends to empower individuals rather than institutions. Cryptocurrencies typically feature decentralised and unregulated control, and transactions are recorded in a public distributed ledger called the blockchain. 

Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public

The value of a cryptocurrency is determined by the market (whatever people are willing to pay for it). The welfare or state of your nation’s economy will not affect the value of your cryptocurrency. The value of a cryptocurrency is based solely on global supply and demand and functions much like a commodity on the stock market.

Cryptocurrencies are ordinarily used outside of existing banking and governmental institutions and exchanged over the Internet. They have often been seen by the establishment as a “rogue currency”, and as a potential threat to the monetary order. Because of the pseudoanonymity afforded by “virtual assets”, cryptocurrency is also sometimes used in controversial settings such as online darknet markets, like Silk Road, accessible by Tor, (free software for enabling anonymous communication, it conceals a user’s location and usage) which further minimises the risk of detection by law enforcement agencies. (See: Silk Road and Bitcoin.)

People in Russia and China have been bypassing very strict surveillance laws by using bitcoin-like cryptocurrencies in order to communicate securely. Cryptocurrencies, starting with bitcoin, have emerged and been increasingly utilised almost in parallel with revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden about mass government surveillance. 

As the sheer extent of government spying still continues to emerge, encrypted communication services become important and have surged in popularity. Tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple, have capitalised on this by adding encryption to their services. However revelations that these same companies seem complicit in the NSA’s surveillance operations have led to some reservations from users. Now it seems the UK government wants to utilise cryptocurrency, inverting the political freedom it allowed by turning it into a tool of state control. 

Government proposals: virtual food vouchers and automated nudge

Earlier this year, the government set out proposals in a report regarding how Blockchain Technologies’ distributed ledger technology which provides “efficient and transparent” digital records of cryptocurrency transactions, could be used for public services. In their report called Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond block chain, the government’s scientific advisor says:

“Distributed ledger technology (DLTs) offer significant challenges to established orthodoxy and assumptions of best practice, far beyond the recording of transactions and ledgers. These potentially revolutionary organisational structures and practices should be experimentally trialed — perhaps in the form of technical and non-technical demonstrator projects — so that practical, legal and policy implications can be explored.”

“Areas where we believe work could be taken forward include the protection of national infrastructure, reducing market friction for SMEs [Small and medium-sized enterprises] and the distribution of funds from Department for Work and Pensions and other government departments.” [Boldings mine.]

To recap, a distributed ledger is a database that can record financial, physical or electronic assets for sharing across a network through what is claimed to be entirely transparent updates of information.

Its first incarnation was Blockchain in 2008, which underpinned digital cash systems such as Bitcoin. The technology has now evolved into a variety of models that may be applied to different business problems.

Speaking at Payments Innovation Conference earlier this month, Lord Freud, one of the main architects of the welfare “reforms” said:

“Claimants are using an app on their phones through which they are receiving and spending their benefit payments. With their consent, their transactions are being recorded on a distributed ledger to support their financial management.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been working with Barclays, Npower, University College London and a UK-based distributed ledger platform startup called GovCoin to create an app which tracks people’s benefit spending

The ongoing trial which, is designed to demonstrate “the practical applications of the technology,” began in June. It’s yet another Conservative experiment on people claiming social security.

Jeremy Wilson, the vice chairman of corporate banking at Barclays, said: “This initiative focuses on adding an additional layer of richer data and identity onto payments, so that a deeper and more effective relationship can be established between the government and claimants.”

I wonder exactly what that “effective relationship” will entail? I bet it’s not one based on mutual respect and democratic dialogue. I also wonder if the Department for Work and Pensions will be issuing people who have no income with Smart phones. 

How will the collected information on spending be used? Are we going to see people claiming social security being named and shamed for buying Mars bars, a bottle of wine or a book? Or birthday and Christmas presents for their children? Will the state be sanctioning people that make purchases which the government deems “unnecessary”? 

He added: “We are keen to see how the positive potential of this service develops and adds to our wider efforts to explore the uses of distributed ledger technology.”

Distributed ledger technology was identified as a way of potentially “saving billions of pounds a year from welfare fraud and overpayment errors.”

Oh, that whoppingly over-inflated 0.7% of claimants again. Many of whom were simply overpaid as the result of an administrative error, after all. Just imagine how many trillions we would save if we used technology to get a grip of tax avoidance and tackle offshore tax havens, and addressing the “spending habits” of the hoarding wealthy. 

The technology is hoped to provide a cheap and easy way of getting welfare claimants without bank accounts into the system as well as verifying their identities, and would also provide a “transparent account of how public money was spent, transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity,” the government’s chief science adviser, Sir Mark Walport, said in a report last January. Those same words are used every time vulture capitalists are circling a public service, on the hunt for easy profits.

Walport said: “Distributed ledger technology has the potential to transform the delivery of public and private services.”  

More words from the vulture capitalist crib sheet of glittering generalities.

“It has the potential to redefine the relationship between government and the citizen in terms of data sharing, transparency and trust and make a leading contribution to the government’s digital transformation plan.”

The government distributes £3.8bn in payments every day. However, there are some serious concerns over how protection of data and privacy with the technology will be “managed.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI) welcomed the findings on the whole. However, it warned that the government must be wary of the challenges involved in blockchain technology and apply it in an effective way. They say: “We agree that blockchains could be used to build confidence in government services, through public auditability, and could also be used for widely distributed data collection and publishing, such as supply chain information. Smart contracts also hold great potential; what if your train tickets were smart contracts that meant you paid less for delayed trains?” 

Smart cards and smart contracts, the more things change, the more the Tories stay the same.

Further comment from the ODI: “However, in our research we have seen cases where people are trying to bolt old, failed or impossible policy and business ideas onto the new technology or to unnecessarily reinvent things that work perfectly well.”

The institute also warned of the privacy issues raised by incorporating private data and suggested the government better develop and solve these challenges by focusing on industry specific groups such as the finance or healthcare sectors.

Some thoughts

Conservatives claim to endorse personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and deregulation, amongst other things. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservatives claim their policies generally emphasise “empowerment of the individual to solve problems”.

So how does any of this tally with harsh welfare cuts, public service cuts, restrictions on the right to by certain goods, the removal of access to legal aid, limiting housing options for the poorest, bedroom tax, numerous human rights contraventions, increasing conditionality for sick and disabled people, psychocompulsion through increasingly stringent welfare behavioural conditionality and the draconian sanction regime, for example?

Limiting consumer choice and spending flies in the face of the Tories’ own free market dogma. Furthermore, as it stands legally, the government cannot currently stipulate how people claiming benefits spend their money. So they would have to re-write the law to suit their “policy outcomes”. Again.

The Tory definition of “troubled family” conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Iain Duncan Smith claims to be targeting substance abusers (“drug addicts” and “alcoholics”) but it’s clear that the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled people. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re “drug addicted” would actually target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

Once again we see the disciplinarian and psychocratic Tories stigmatising the poorest people for the conditions that Tory policies have caused. If such “troubled families” existed (and the Joseph Rowntree foundation research has put paid to the myth of families with three generations unemployed), it would not be reasonable to treat their situations as an issue of personal spending choices rather than a consequence of how our economy is run.

The Tories have, over the past five years, parodied a political process that is supposed to be about engaging the public’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs within society. The UK is not an inclusive democracy. Instead we see the employment of a behaviourist brand of psychocomplulsion, and the media are complicit in propping up an increasingly incoherent, irrational and profoundly prejudiced ideology which informs class-contingent, anti-social and deeply damaging neoliberal policies.

I’ve pointed out previously that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.

In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. “Accountability to the taxpayer” is being used more and more by the state as a justification to exclude those needing financial support from democratic society. Yet those people claiming benefits are not the same people year by year. The “economic free-rider” myth assumes that people claiming welfare do so continuously, yet we know that most move in and out of work, being forced to undertake insecure, poorly paid work regularly. It’s hardly fair to punish people for the detrimental conditions of the wider labor market.

In the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. Instead, policy is about directing us in how to be. We are being coerced into behaving only in ways that accommodate and prop up neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism.

“Workers of the World unite. You have nothing to lose but their blockchains.” Hubert Huzzah

 —

All despots and bullies are behaviourists. They inflict punishment on others to get the “outcomes” that they want. 

Governments are elected to reflect and accommodate public need. In the UK, the government expects the public to change their perceptions, expectations and behaviours to meet the government’s need. They say:

“Behaviour change is one of the primary functions of government communications – helping change and save lives, helping the government run more effectively as well as save taxpayer’s money.

Our approach is to use a mix of awareness raising, persuasion, practical help and behavioural theory, to demonstrate why changes in behaviour are important and to make these changes easy for the public to adopt”.

The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change

gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1

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Government told Universal Credit roll-out plans are “not credible”

66864_464287263640807_1896397853_nCourtesy of Robert Livingstone

The Government has been warned that their plan to see it’s flagship welfare policy – Universal Credit (UC) – implemented within five years is not “credible”. The benefit is to replace six of the main welfare benefits, and tax credits, with a single monthly payment. The aim is to save billions of pounds of taxpayers money.

UC, championed by Duncan Smith with David Cameron’s full support, received royal assent in 2012 with initial plans for a full roll-out by the 2015 general election.

David Freud, who was being questioned by MPs on the Work and Pensions Parliamentary Select Committee, said he was “quite confident” the plan would succeed, despite the fact that previous governments have said that the streamlining process is too complicated to implement unproblematically.

Lord Freud who is the government welfare adviser and somewhat controversial Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that he wants seven million people receiving the new Universal Credit by the “end of 2020”, despite only 146,000 people being on the system to date.

He said that the project was following an “S-curve”, which involved a “careful start, big ramp, and then a tail at the end”.

Asked at what stage the scheme was at, he said: “We are coming up to the approach trajectory.”

However, Labour’s Steve McCabe, who serves on the Committee, questioned whether the target was realistic given the modest number of people on it since the programme was “re-set” two years ago.

The MP said: “If we’re at 146,000 and we’re at the bottom of the S as it begins to rise, and you want to get to 7 million by May 2020, that would suggest by any standard you’ve got to be near 3 million in less than 18 months time.

“You’ve got to have a massive escalation at some point. How is that credible? I’m wondering how on earth you seriously believe you’ll hit that figure.”

Speaking to the HuffPost later, he said : “This matters because if you can’t get your projections right what does it mean for your projected savings and does that mean people will suffer? You’re left with a fragmented benefits system and a recipe for chaos.”

In response, Lord Freud insisted there would be “a massive escalation” once the system has been tested fully.

He defended Universal Credit for “producing benefits of £7 billion to society a year”, adding: “I will not hurry the department to do something that is so big.”

“It’s the most incredible programme. It’s much more efficient way of getting money to the poorest people,” he said.

Freud was questioned by the Committee regarding the prospect of the Chancellor raiding the Universal Credit budget and asked  if this would delay its roll-out, to which he replied: “It doesn’t give me cause for concern about the roll-out. That’s a slightly different issue.”

He added that changes to tax credits would mean “parallel changes” to the so-called working allowance element of Universal Credit.

He also said  he would “doubt it” if tax credits still existed in 2020, meaning they would be “replaced” by then.

“We will go on talking (with the Treasury) because the two systems are in parallel,” Lord Freud said.

A coalition of major Churches has warned the UK Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill will make some of poorest families in Britain even poorer. 

Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church and author of the report, said: “No child should be left without enough in order to motivate their parents.

“If children live in a family which doesn’t have enough money they are more likely to die young, do worse at school, and experience worse health.

Commenting on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and the Government’s proposed cuts to tax credits, Mr Morrison said: “Many of these families are already in work and working very hard.

“Any policy that claims that taking £1,000 from a family will enhance the life-chances of its children, as the Bill does, is not only supremely questionable but morally flawed.”

The study also shows that government policies are out  of step with public opinions, too, revealing that 61% of the general public believe benefits should be set at a high enough level to cover basic living costs, rather than too low to deter people claiming lifeline support when they need to.

Perhaps the focus on timescales and the problems with implementing UC has allowed the continuation of a dangerous myth: that the problems facing UC are all about delivery, rather than design.

In the universal credit white paper (pdf), the government argued:

Welfare dependency has become a significant problem in Britain with a huge social and economic cost.” The new benefit will be “leaner” and “firmer”.

The UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up in homes where no one works and this pattern repeats itself through the generations. Less than 60% of lone parents in the UK are in employment, compared to 70% or more in France, Germany and the Netherlands … Universal credit will start to change this. It will reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study that debunked  the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012.  I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive psychopolitics based on behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune and for failing to factor in political decision-making.

The theory which UC is premised on is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

And then there is the fact that in-work poverty is rising. Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, we need to ask why have those “personal failings” only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years.

The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions, but surely, it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by sincerely addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.

It could be argued that unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” to work people are.

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

Benefit cuts may not be as popular as we’re led to believe – Bernadette Meaden

IDS_nIn 2013, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that public attitudes towards welfare have “hardened.” Similarly, the British Social Attitudes Survey report concluded that public support for government spending on social security benefits has declined markedly over the last decade, and that people are also more sceptical about whether benefit recipients deserve the support they get. Seems that people forget that the majority of people claiming benefits have worked previously and paid for their own provision through the national insurance and tax systems.

However, the way questions in surveys are framed often influences the responses by introducing bias, which affects the validity and reliability of research findings.

Furthermore, simply adding detail, such as using examples that include real groups of people in survey questions may elicit a different set of responses.  Re-humanising groups claiming benefits tends to prompt sympathetic responses. As it is, the current government and much of the media tend to dehumanise those claiming any form of welfare support quite purposefully.

Of course the media has and continues to play a major role in defining public perceptions about welfare, but the media are conveying what are ultimately political justification narratives for the Tory notion of an “efficient” small state and their aim to dismantle our post-war settlement.

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This excellent article is by Bernadette Meaden, originally posted on the Ekklesia site:

We are constantly being told that the British public has swallowed the ‘scroungers and skivers’ rhetoric about benefit claimants, and is broadly in favour of welfare cuts. Any politician who opposes these cuts is widely portrayed as unrealistic and unelectable. But what if that is not true, and the public’s attitude is actually far less harsh than the Westminster bubble would have us believe?

A poll carried out by YouGov in the two days after the recent Budget makes interesting reading, with some valuable lessons, and encouragement, for all who oppose the welfare cuts.

When asked a rather leading question about benefit claimants in general, and the total amount spent on benefits, 45% of respondents agreed with the statement that benefits are ‘Too high – the amount of money people can claim in benefits is too much, it’s too expensive and unfair on taxpayers.”

So far, so Daily Mail. But when asked to think about specific groups of benefit claimants, i.e. to think of real people not statistics, attitudes changed significantly.

Listing different groups of benefit recipients, respondents were asked if too much money was spent on them, or not enough. For disabled people, 46% felt that too little was spent, whilst only 9% felt that too much was spent on them. 28% felt that the amount was about right.

The figures were roughly the same for people in work on low pay, and for pensioners who have only a state pension. The group which received the least sympathy was ‘better off retired people’, whilst the views on what people who are out of work receive was almost evenly split – there was certainly no majority for the view that they get too much.

Taking the cuts in general, 38% of people thought that benefit cuts had gone too far, whilst only 24% thought they had not gone far enough. So there is no real appetite for further cuts. We should also bear in mind that the poll was conducted on the two days immediately after the Budget, when the media was trumpeting George Osborne’s claims about a new National Living Wage. As people discover the reality, that this is no more than a small rise in the minimum wage and comes with a large cut to tax credits, it seems likely that the percentage who feel cuts have gone too far may rise significantly.
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Those who responded to the survey were probably also not fully aware of the drastic cut to Employment and Support Allowance which will see people in the Work Related Activity Group (who aren’t fit for work) losing around £30 per week. If this is spelled out, it seems highly likely that based on this survey, a clear majority of the public would oppose it.

The poll should also provide food for thought to politicians who feel they have to constantly defer to the business community in order to be electable. Asked about how to address low pay, a clear majority of respondents wanted government to get tough with employers, choosing the statement, ‘It is better for government to use the law to force companies to pay low paid workers a better wage, even if this leads to higher unemployment.’

This poll should encourage all who are campaigning to defend the welfare state and oppose cuts to the incomes of the poorest people. Despite the hyperbolic headlines and the poverty porn, British people still want to see the poor, the disabled and the elderly guaranteed a decent standard of living. They may have absorbed some of the propaganda about ‘out of control’ welfare spending, but if we can show that to be false, and continue to highlight what benefit cuts mean in terms of real people rather than statistics, we should be able to build a groundswell of opinion in defence of the welfare state.

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See also:

Why we can’t afford not to have a welfare state

The budget: from trickle-down to falling down, whilst holding hands with Herbert Spencer.

430847_149933881824335_1645102229_n (1)Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone