Tag: “making work pay”

Universal Discredit

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, travelled across the country to examine the impact of austerity. He came to Newcastle, visiting a West End foodbank, among other places. He concluded that Universal Credit and other ‘reforms’ are “entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery.” According to his research, 14 million people – a fifth of the population – live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basics essentials. Alston said: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.” 

Universal Credit has been designed to change the relationship between the state and citizens. It is about altering the public’s expectations of the role of government. It is about deepening targeted austerity. It is also about cutting social security and dismantling the welfare state. 

The one-off £10 payment, which was designed to be an extra boost to families over the festive period, has been axed under Universal Credit, which demonstrates very well what kind of “mean spirited” intentions went into the design of system. I rang the Department for Work and Pensions press office to confirm this and it was affirmed that the cut has happened. A spokesperson said: “Universal Credit claimants have never received a one-off December payment, but many disabled people on Universal Credit will be better off on average by £100 month than when they received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

Yesterday, someone I know through social media sent me a copy of a notice they got when they logged onto the Universal Credit system. It said: Image may contain: text

So, if an employer pays his employees early in December due to the Christmas holiday period or pays a Christmas bonus, people may well receive a reduced Universal Credit payment in December or none at all. This is due the fact that the unadaptable system cannot cope with people being paid twice in one assessment period, even though it isn’t an additional payment, it is simply an early payment. 

Judicial reviews

The controversial Universal Credit programme is to undergo another legal challenge at the High Court in London, as evidence mounts further that the new social security system will leave thousands of people already on low incomes significantly worse off. Four women are taking the government to court because of this reason.

This is the second judicial review of Universal Credit. It follows the High Court’s finding in June that the Universal Credit system was unlawfully discriminating against severely disabled people. Those who had qualified for the support component of income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are also eligible for a disability premium.  However, as a result of the abolition of both the severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP) under Universal Credit rules, according to the disability charity, Scope, the cut to the disability income guarantee will see disabled people lose as much as £395 a month

The high court judge ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions unlawfully discriminated against two severely disabled men who both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they moved Local Authority – one of them because of the bedroom tax – and were required to claim Universal Credit. The court found that the implementation of Universal Credit and the absence of any ‘top up’ payments for this vulnerable group as compared to others constitutes discrimination contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since the court case, Esther McVey, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, announced that no severely disabled person in receipt of the SDP will be made to move onto Universal Credit until transitional protection is in place. She also committed to compensating those like the two claimants who have lost out on their disability premium because they had to claim Universal Credit.

Yet despite this, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has sought permission to appeal, maintaining that there was “nothing unlawful” with the way the claimants were treated.

The second judicial review comes amid mounting concern over Universal Credit, which academics have described as a “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” system pushing people into debt and rent arrears. 

Last week it emerged that more than half of people denied Universal Credit were found to be entitled to it when their cases were investigated, prompting fresh demands for the national rollout of the new system to be halted. It’s something of an irony, given that Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 with the stated intention of bringing “fairness and simplicity” to Britain’s social security system.

Now, four plaintiffs say the flaw, which relates to the way Universal Credit monthly payments are calculated, disproportionately affects working parents with children and leaves claimants with a “dramatically fluctuating income” and unable to budget from month to month.

In one case uncovered by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) reported by The Guardian, a family’s monthly payment swung from £1,185 to zero, making budgeting impossible. One of the women has said that as well as being irrational, the payment system is also discriminatory as it disproportionately affects single parents, who are predominantly female. Last month, MP Frank Field said the system was driving some women in his constituency into sex work in a bid to avoid absolute poverty.

A single mother says she was forced to turn down a promotion and use a food bank after issues with the assessment period for the new benefit system made it “impossible to budget”.  

She said: “I invested £40,000 in higher education studies so that I could become an occupational therapist and it’s great that I’ve got my degree but I have had to put my career hopes on hold because of Universal Credit.  

“I had to go to a food bank and I took out an advance that I am still paying back. I took two jobs – as a PA and a waitress – which I could do without the education I invested in but which had paydays which don’t clash with my assessment period. I wanted to become free of welfare through my chosen profession but Universal Credit is holding me back from that.” 

Although she had originally wanted a healthcare job, which was relevant to her degree and would move her nearer earnings that would eventually take her out of the social security system altogether, she found that the NHS and other health organisations mostly paid salaries at the end of the working month so she would face the same assessment period trap. 

She left the council and initially took two part time jobs, and she now has one part time job.

Her solicitor, Carla Clarke of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said: “Universal Credit is promoted as a benefit that ‘incentivises’ work but in practice its rigid assessment period system undercuts that claim. 

“Our clients have been left repeatedly without money for family essentials simply because of the date of their paydays.

“One of them, for example, did her utmost to find a workaround but ultimately had to decline a promotion in a job with good prospects when her then contract came to an end just to escape the trap.

“We say that the DWP’s refusal to alter our clients’ assessment period dates to avoid this problem discriminates against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being irrational and undermining one of the stated purposes of universal credit – to make sure that ‘work always pays’.”

CPAG argues that the DWP refusal to alter Woods’ assessment period dates to avoid the problem discriminated against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being “irrational and undermining.” 

Clarke added “This is a fundamental defect in Universal Credit and an injustice to hard-working parents and their children that must be put right for our clients and everyone else affected”.

Another of the women involved in the court case is paid by her employer on the last working day of each month. However, the Universal Credit assessment periods run from the last day of each month, meaning that if she is paid before the last day of the month she is assessed as having been paid twice that month.

Lawyers from the legal firm supporting  Johnson at LeighDay, say: “This has resulted in her receiving fluctuating Universal Credit payments throughout the year, making it very hard to budget from one month to the next.”

They add: “It has also caused her to be around £500 worse off annually due to the fact that she is entitled to ‘work allowance’ as a parent.

“The work allowance is a disregard of £198 per month of a parent’s monthly earnings so in months where she is treated as having no earned income, she loses the whole benefit of the work allowance. In months where she is treated as having double income, she does not receive any extra work allowance.”

Legal aid for social security appeals is almost entirely gone. People adversely affected by unfair decisions are effectively being denied support in accessing justice. It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a planned and coordinated attack on people’s most basic human and democratic rights. 

Universal Credit increases and extends the risk of domestic abuse

Couples who live together are required to make a single household claim for Universal Credit. Their individual entitlements are calculated—based on household income—and combined into a single payment, paid into one account only. In December 2017, 55,000 couple households, including 40,000 with dependent children, were claiming Universal Credit. Once it is fully rolled out, around 2.9 million couple households will claim it. MPs have warned that Universal Credit increases the risk of allowing domestic abusers to exert financial control over victims. 

A critical report by the Work and Pensions committee in August said the way Universal Credit is paid per household means that perpetrators could too easily take control of the entire budget, leaving vulnerable women and their children dependent on an abusive partner to survive. Frank Field, Labour chair of the committee, said: “This is not the 1950s. Men and women work independently, pay taxes as individuals, and should each have an independent income.

“Not only does Universal Credit’s single household payment bear no relation to the world of work, it is out of step with modern life and turns back the clock on decades of hard-won equality for women.”

He added “The government must acknowledge the increased risk of harm to claimants living with domestic abuse it creates by breaching that basic principle, and take the necessary steps to reduce it.”

Ministers were urged by the committee to consider overhauling the system so payments are automatically split between couples, as victims face “great danger” if they request their own payments under current rules.

The report said: “Universal Credit currently only allows claims to be split between partners in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

“The DWP itself recognises the risk that requesting such an arrangement poses to survivors. The perpetrator will realise the survivor has requested the split when their own payments fall, potentially putting them in great danger.

“In light of this risk, many survivors simply will not request a split.”

The committee also suggested the main carer of children should automatically receive the whole payment, while officials explore ways to develop a split payment scheme. JobCentres must set aside private rooms for vulnerable claimants and appoint a domestic violence specialist to deal with specific claims, the report also said.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We have long been warning that Universal Credit risks making the domestic abuse worse for survivors and putting an additional barrier in the way of them escaping the abuse.

“That’s why we welcome the committee’s report and urge the government to take action to make Universal Credit safe for survivors.

“We know from our work with survivors that abusers will exploit single household payments, yet applying for a split payment can also be dangerous. If the abuser finds out that a survivor has made an application, she may be at further risk.”

Domestic abuse is hugely complex, and the training Work Coaches currently receive leaves them ill-equipped to perform this vital function. Under Universal Credit, claimants living with domestic abuse can face seeing their entire monthly income—including money meant for their children—go into their abusive partner’s account. There is no guarantee that any of the money they need to live or care for their children will reach them. That risks them remaining dependent on their abusive partner and making it much harder for them to leave, should the opportunity present itself.

Yet the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation which requires the Scottish Government to introduce split payments by default.

Universal Credit is perpetuating gender inequality – an issue that the Equality and Human Rights Commission have also raised concerns about. If money is paid into an abuser’s account, that compromises a woman’s financial autonomy. Their recent report recommends:

  • offering Universal Credit as single payments to individuals rather than joint payments to avoid exacerbating financial abuse for women experiencing domestic violence
  • reconsidering the ‘spare room subsidy’ regulations which discriminate against survivors of domestic abuse who have safe rooms.

But the government justifies the policy by claiming that few couples manage their finances separately. They argue that paying one benefit into a single bank account means families can make decisions about their household finances without government interference. However, this assessment ignores the realities of women trapped in controlling relationships.

Two child policy – regarding children as a commodity, and some say, eugenics by stealth

This policy restricts support through means-tested family benefits to two children only and affects the child tax credit payable for all third or subsequent children born after April 2017 and all new claims for Universal Credit, whenever they were born. In doing so, the two-child policy breaks the fundamental link between need and the provision of minimum support and implies that some children, by virtue of their birth order, are less deserving of support. It is a very large direct cut to the living standards of the poorest families of up to £2780 per child, per year.

In 2015/16 — the latest year for which data is available — 27 per cent of households with children had more than two children, representing more than 1 in 3 children in poverty (after housing costs). The risk of poverty is already 39 per cent for households (after housing costs) with three or more children compared with 26 per cent for one- and 27 per cent for two-child families. The most recent statistics reveal that during the first year of operation, 59% of the 73,500 families who lost financial support for a third child were in work. Nine per cent of UK claimant households with three or more children were affected.

A number of groups in the population are particularly likely to be hard hit by the policy, including Orthodox Jews, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families, and Roman Catholics. It will also hit large families bereaved by the loss of  a parent, divorced families, and all large families falling upon hard times and needing to claim means-tested support.

Originally there were no intentions to make exceptions to the two-child policy, but the government was forced to make concessions for, among others, third and subsequent children under kinship care and those conceived as a result of rape — which in itself forces highly sensitive disclosure. A number of women’s rights and rape support organisations have raised serious concerns about the third-party evidence model for the rape/coercion exception and the risk that women claiming this exception will be exposed to further trauma and gross breaches of privacy.

The so-called rape clause has been condemned by campaigners, who say it is outrageous that a woman must account for the circumstances of her rape to qualify for support. The SNP MP Alison Thewliss called it “one of the most inhumane and barbaric policies ever to emanate from Whitehall”.

A government spokesperson said: “The policy to provide support in child tax credit and universal credit for a maximum of two children ensures people on benefits have to make the same financial choices as those supporting themselves solely through work.

The rationale for the two-child limit was to reduce the deficit by £1.36 billion per year by 2020/21. But the government also sought to justify it on the basis that they are hoping to ‘change behaviours’ — hoping to ‘encourage parents to reflect carefully on their readiness to support an additional child’. Yet, the savings to be made from the policy are quite modest in the context of the austerity cuts of £27 billion per year since 2010.

The rollout of Universal Credit will increase the number of families affected. All new claims for the benefit after February 2019 will have the child element restricted to two children in a family, even if they were born before the policy was introduced.

The government estimated 640,000 families will lose support as a direct result of the proposed changes. The Children’s Society estimate that the total loss of a child element plus the family element of child tax credit will mean that a family with three children will lose up to £3,325 per year. A family with four children will lose up to £6100. Troublingly, disabled children will also be affected by this measure on top of the major cuts in children’s disability support through Universal Credit.

Jamie Grier, the development director at the welfare advice charity Turn2us, has spoken out about mothers in low income families faced with the agonising choice of terminating wanted pregnancies already, because of their financial circumstances.

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child PovertyAction Group, said: “An estimated one in six UK children will be living in a family affected by the two-child limit once the policy has had its full impact. It’s a pernicious, poverty-producing policy.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has projected that 600,000 more children will live in absolute child poverty by 2020/21 compared with 2015/16 — all of them in families with three or more children. The absolute child poverty rate is to increase over that period from 15.1 per cent to 18.3 per cent. The two-child limit accounts for around a third of this impact. Absolute poverty is when people can’t meet one or more of their basic survival needs.

The policy is extremely likely to contravene human rights treaties to which the UK is a signatory, including those relating to women’s reproductive rights and protection from religious and gender-based discrimination contrary to Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

It would also discriminate against groups with a conscientious objection to contraception and abortion, or for whom large families are a central tenet of faith, in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, it fails to give primary consideration to the best interest of the child in contravention of Article 3(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised a specific concern about the effect of cuts to social security on the standard of living enjoyed by families with two or more children in the Concluding Observations of its recent review of the UK’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The policy is going to be challenged in the courts on discrimination grounds and may well reach the Supreme Court and European Court of Justice. 

Context and policy intent

Universal credit is the controversal reform of the social security system, rolling together six so-called “legacy” benefits (including unemployment benefit, employment and tax credits and housing benefit) into one benefit paid monthly to claimants, to “make work pay.”

However, at a time of stagnant wages and ever-increasing living costs, the government slogan ‘making work pay’ is certainly not about a national wage increase. It’s rather more about neoliberal supply-side ideology.  Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of what are deemed ‘restrictive practices’, and labour market rigidities, such as the protection of employment and workers’ rights. For example, as part of  neoliberal supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting workers’ ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action. More recently the Conservatives have again made substantial legislative changes that undermine the role of trade unions.

Deregulation and privatisation of state industry and services are also components of supply-side economics. Supply-side measures have a negative effect on the distribution of income. For example, lower taxes rates for the wealthiest, lower wages for workers, reduced union power, and privatisation have all contributed to a widening of the gap between rich and poor citizens. Universal Credit facilitates a supply-side labour market, it coerces people into accepting low paid, insecure work. Any work.

People claiming Universal Credit do not get a say in the kind of work they take on. If people don’t comply with Universal Credit conditionality they are generally sanctioned. This entails a loss of welfare support for between four weeks and up to a maximum of three years for refusing to take a job or prescribed community work. 

Some economists argue that a lack of bargaining power because union membership has been in long term decline – is leading to fewer widespread agreements on earnings increases, which has served to  keep wages stagnant. A lack of employee confidence and certainty following the recession and fears, then, over job losses has also led to fewer demands for rises.

Given that collective bargaining has been politically undermined, it is particularly outrageous that the government has introduced sanctions for those on low pay and in work, for a failure to single handedly negotiate better pay or an increase in working  hours with their employer. 

Perhaps we should ask “making work pay” for whom?

It’s interesting that the government have outlined what Universal Credit means for employers, indicating the intent behind the policy is not about mitigating poverty. It’s about employers “having access to a more flexible and responsive workforce, which can help your business with the challenges of filling vacancies.

“Universal Credit payments automatically adjust each month based on the real time PAYE information you report to HMRC, so it’s important that you report this information accurately and on time.”

The ‘business friendly’ government says “Universal Credit increases the financial incentive of work and provides employers like you with a more flexible workforce.”

So while employers are promised a workforce that will accept more, in terms of conditions, rates of pay and job security, the same workforce is being set up to fail when trying to negotiate more pay and longer hours by the government’s ‘business friendly’ deregulation. And failure can mean facing having their Universal Credit cut via sanctions.

It does go on to say on the site that “Jobcentre Plus work coaches will encourage claimants to discuss with their employers how they can increase their chances of earning more. This could be by improving their skills which may help them to take on more responsibilities. You may find your employees asking for more hours or for help with building their skills. You can play a role in this – helping your business become more productive.”

So, employers “can” but workers “must”, despite the substantial imbalance of power, made worse by the fact that workers are being coerced into “flexibility”. That invariably means lowering their expectations of employers and of the conditions of their employment.

The publicly stated aim of Universal Credit, for which there was orginally general support across the political divide, was to simplify the welfare system, making it more “efficient” and easy to access at a single claim point. Despite these claims, many have complained that Universal Credit is bafflingly complex, unreliable and difficult to manage, particularly if you are without internet access, and that Universal Credit staff are often poorly trained. The combination of these problems is leaving people in precarious and very vulnerable circumstances.

For families and lone parents in particular, there are barriers to taking short term low paid work, as continuity of income and availability of childcare are key priorities for parents.

The Conservatives have also claimed that the new benefit will provide incentives for people to work rather than stay on benefits. Perhaps it’s worth noting that only 34% of people claiming state welfare are of working age, the majority – 66% – are people of pension age.

The government say “It is intended that by introducing a single in-work and out-of-work benefit, previous barriers to employment such as taking up temporary employment or fewer hours are removed, therefore making it easier for claimants to take up any work and changing claimant perceptions of work and welfare, and their employment behaviours, at an individual and household level.”

The Conservatives go on to claim that employment levels are at a record high, because Universal Credit is “working”. Some 80% of men are in work, the joint highest employment rate since 1991. And over 70% of women are in work, the highest employment rate since records began in 1971. But that increase is down, partly, to state pension age changes which mean fewer women are retiring between the ages of 60 and 65. 

However, as I have indicated, the structure of the employment market also matters. Zero hours contracts and hyper-flexible employment might be welcomed by some for the options they offer, but they work against collective bargaining agreements on earnings, keeping wages low. And low wages, not lack of incentives, are the reason why people need welfare support. The trade union wage gap, the difference in earnings of union members compared with non-members, is 16.9% in the public sector and 7.1% in the private sector (which employs well over 80% of people). There cannot be any genuine economic ‘bounce back’ until the UK’s decade-long stagnation in wages ends.

Universal Credit was supposedly intended as a payment to help people with living costs. It’s for those on a low income or out of work. As of February this year, the number of people on Universal Credit was 770 thousand. Of these people 300 thousand were in employment. The intention embedded in the design of Universal Credit to force up to a million low-paid workers to seek more hours or move to higher-paid jobs, under threat of financial sanctions (in-work conditionality), is another ticking bomb.

It is being introduced in stages across the country.  People claiming Universal Credit receive a single monthly household payment, paid into a bank account in the same way as a monthly salary; support with housing costs will usually go direct to the person claiming as part of their monthly payment. 

People will usually make a claim for Universal Credit online, during which initial claim verification will take place. This entails people providing evidence of their identity. However, there have been some problems highighted with the government’s verification framework. 

MP for Liverpool Walton, Dan Carden, called on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to postpone the roll-out of Universal Credit in his constituency until after Christmas and highlighted an issue with people having to pay out for a driving licence as one of many administrative problems with the new system.

In a letter to the secretary of state, Amber Rudd MP, Carden said: “We have families experiencing poverty on an unprecedented scale and now facing further avoidable hardship in the run up to Christmas. 

“I have now been informed that job centres across Liverpool are advancing payments to my constituents to obtain provisional driving licences for the purposes of identification and then deducting the cost from their benefits.

“Constituents are also having to pay for postal orders, passport photographs and postage, just to obtain provisional licences.”

He explained that the DVLA says there is a five-week wait for provisional licences, and highlighted the delays before the first payments are made when someone is transferred on to Universal Credit.

The controversial benefit is being rolled out in many parts of Liverpool this week. Carden added: “Continuing with this roll-out will leave many of the most vulnerable families in Liverpool Walton destitute by Christmas and I am therefore asking you to intervene as a matter of urgency.”

Rudd’s response was to say Carden was ‘scaremongering’, and she denied that ID was needed to claim Universal Credit. However, it seems she failed to bother checking her own government’s web site for advice and evidence. The site which outlines how to claim Universal Credit  completely contradicts Rudd’s claims, it says on the government’s site:

Amber rudd lies 1

Amber rudd lies 2

When people apply for Universal Credit they are asked to verify their identity online via the GOV.Verify service. 

To do so, you need either;

  • A valid UK driving license
  • A valid UK passport.

On the government document it says “Universal Credit cannot be paid to a claimant whose identity has not been verified. Failure to provide identity documentation means that there is no valid claim.”

Of course this creates significant problems for those without the required documents. Their Universal Credit claim cannot go ‘live’ without conforming to the ID verification framework. People generally can’t get an advance because their claim isn’t live. Once they’ve received their new ID document, (takes around 6-8 weeks usually), it’s then a further 5 weeks (at least) until their first Universal Credit payment. That’s a very long time to go without support that is intended to meet people’s most basic living needs: food, fuel and shelter. 

According to the government web site, you can only apply for an advance on your first payment if you have already verified your identity. It says:

You can apply for an advance payment in your online account or through your Jobcentre Plus work coach.

You’ll need to:

  • explain why you need an advance
  • verify your identity (you do this online when you submit your Universal Credit claim or at your first Jobcentre Plus interview)
  • provide bank account details for the advance (talk to your work coach if you cannot open an account.)

The claim date is the date that a claimant completes this process and submits their claim. After making a claim, an initial interview will take place with the claimant, where the eligibility for Universal Credit will be confirmed and the claimant will accept a Claimant Commitment. Failure to comply with the Commitment without ‘good reason’ will result in a sanction. What constitutes a ‘good reason’ unfortunately varies from area to area and even among advisors in the same building. One of the many criticisms of welfare sanctions is how arbitrary they are. Universal Credit is a far stricter regime than the previous ones, and indications are that people are being sanctioned more frequently.

The Universal Credit project was passed through legislation in 2011 under the patronage of its loudest champion, former secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith. The plan was to roll it out across the UK by 2017. However, a series of management failures, expensive IT blunders and design faults mean it has fallen at least five years behind schedule.

Under the current schedule it will be fully implemented to include about 7 million claimants by 2022-23, when it is estimated that it will account for around £63bn of spending. A substantial proportion of that is due to administration blunders. Earlier this year, the National Audit Office said “The benefits that it set out to achieve through Universal Credit, such as increased employment and lower administration costs, are unlikely to be achieved.”

The administrative cost of every Universal Credit claim is an eye-watering £699 per case against an ultimate target of just £173, others in the field are calling to stop this utter shambles now and reconsider all options. 

The Department is seriously criticised for “a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants”. Forget normal Whitehall tact, here are eight years of unrelenting failure, ploughing on despite alarms as costs rose to £2bn. One of the most urgent needs is to restore the £23bn that George Osborne cut from the budget, which is due to cause a record 37% of children in poverty by 2022, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. That’s likely to be a conservative estimate.

Despite a few minor changes, such as shortening the waiting period by a week, huge underlying problems remain with Universal Credit. Multibillion-pound cuts to work allowances imposed by the former chancellor have left it hollowed out. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, Universal Credit will leave about 2.5 million low-income working households more than £1,000 a year worse off. Reversing those cuts requires a political decision, not more tinkering around the edges and technical fixes.

Universal Credit is paid monthly, in arrears, so people have to wait one calendar month from the date they submitted their application before their first UC payment is made. This is called the assessment period. People then have to wait up to seven days for the payment to reach your bank account. That is of course providing everything goes right. 

So far, the ‘customer’ experience of Universal Credit for too many people (and other stakeholders, such as landlords) has been utterly dismal. Critics argue that Treasury cuts to the benefit mean it is now far less likely to incentivise people to move into work, or to work more hours – what the Conservatives call ‘in-work progression’. As a result of cuts, Universal Credit is significantly less generous than originally intended, leaving many claimants worse off when they move on to it than they were while claiming legacy benefits. Added to that are design flaws and administrative glitches that put poorer claimants especially at heightened risk of hunger, debt and rent arrears, ill-health and homelessness. 

Their report is intended to help the Council and partners to further develop the approach to supporting those affected by current and future welfare reforms. 

It builds on Sheffield Hallam University research published in March 2016 which suggested that welfare reforms have cost the city’s economy the equivalent of £157M per year, set to rise to £292M per year by 2020. Liverpool City Council has had a 58% cut in central government funding since 2010 and has to find another £90M in savings by 2020, is having to use around £7M of those reduced funds to help with rent top ups and crisis payments.

Liverpool Food People are part of a food insecurity sub group that reports into The Mayoral Action Group on Fairness and Tackling Poverty – food has been identified as one of the basic needs – and a recommendation within the report is that action to address food poverty and fuel poverty is coordinated across the city and that research is carried out on the level of food insecurity (both moderate and severe) across the city. 

New research conducted for Gateshead council concludes that Universal credit has become a serious threat to public health after the study revealed that the stress of coping with the new benefits system had so profoundly affected peoples’ mental health that some considered suicide.

The researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among vulnerable citizens claiming Universal Credit, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation, all of which was exacerbated by hunger and destitution.

The Gateshead study comes as the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, prepares to publish a report of the impact of Conservative austerity in the UK. Alston has been collecting evidence and testimonies on the effects of the welfare reforms, council funding cuts, and Universal Credit during a two-week visit of the UK. 

This research is highly likely to raise fresh calls for the system’s rollout to be halted, or at the very least, paused to attempt to fix the fundamental design flaws and ensure adequate protections are in place for the most vulnerable people claiming it.

Approximately 750,000 chronically ill and disabled claimants are expected to transfer on to Universal Credit from 2019. Yet earlier this year, the first legal challenge against Universal Credit found that the government unlawfully discriminated against two men with severe disabilities who were required to claim the new benefit after moving into new local authority areas. Both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they moved to a different Local Authority and were required to claim Universal Credit instead of Employment and Support Allowance.

The study findings are yet another indication of how unfit for purpose Universal Credit is. Six of the participants in the study reported that claiming Universal Credit had made them so depressed that they considered taking their own lives. The lead researcher, Mandy Cheetham, said the participant interviews were so distressing she undertook a suicide prevention course midway through the study.

The report says: “Universal Credit is not only failing to achieve its stated aim of moving people into employment, it is punishing people to such an extent that the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, their families and of [support] staff is being undermined.”

One participant told the researchers: “When you feel like ‘I can’t feed myself, I can’t pay my electric bill, I can’t pay my rent,’ well, all you can feel is the world collapsing around you. It does a lot of damage, physically and mentally … there were points where I did think about ending my life.”

An armed forces veteran said that helplessness and despair over Universal Credit had triggered insomnia and depression, for which he was taking medication. “Universal Credit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It really did sort of drag me to a low position where I don’t want to be sort of thrown into again.”

Unsurprisingly, the report concludes that Universal Credit is actively creating poverty and destitution, and says it is not fit for purpose for many people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. It calls for a radical overhaul of the system before the next phase of its rollout next year.

Alice Wiseman, the director of public health at Gateshead council, which commissioned the study, said: “I consider Universal Credit, in the context of wider austerity, as a threat to the public’s health.” She said many of her public health colleagues around the country shared her concerns.

Wiseman said that Universal Credit is “seriously undermining” efforts to prevent ill-health in one of the UK’s most deprived areas.

She added “This is not political, this is about the lives of vulnerable people in Gateshead. They are a group that should be protected but they haven’t been.”

The qualitative study focused on those claimants with disabilities, mental illness and long-term health conditions, as well as homeless people, veterans and care leavers.

The respondents found that compared to the legacy benefits, Universal Credit is less accessible, remote, inflexible, demeaning and intrusive. It was less sensitive to claimants’ health and personal circumstances, the researchers said. This heightened peoples’ anxiety, sense of shame, guilt, and feelings of loss of dignity and control.

The Universal Credit system itself was described by those claiming it as dysfunctional and prone to administrative error. People experienced the system as “hostile, punitive and difficult to navigate,” and struggled to cope with payment delays that left them in debt, unable to eat regularly, and reliant on food banks.

The government claimed that people making a new claim are expected to wait five weeks for a first payment. That’s a long time to wait with no money for basic living requirements. However, the average wait for participants on the study was seven and a half weeks, with some waiting as long as three months. Researchers were told of respondents who were so desperate and broke they turned to begging or shoplifting.

Wiseman made a point that many campaigners have made, and said that alongside the human costs, Universal Credit was placing extra burdens on NHS and social care, as well as charities such as food banks. It also affected the wellbeing of advice staff, who reported high stress levels and burnout from dealing with the fallout on those claiming the benefit.

Guy Pilkington, a GP in Newcastle said that the benefits system had always been tough, but under Universal Credit, those claiming faced a higher risk of destitution.

“For me the biggest [change] is the ease with which claimants can fall into a Victorian-style system that allows you to starve. That’s really shocking, and that’s new,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “This survey of 33 claimants doesn’t match the broader experience of more than 9,000 people receiving Universal Credit in Gateshead, who are taking advantage of its flexibility and personalised support to find work.”

“We have just announced a £4.5bn package of support so people can earn £1,000 more before their credit payment begins to be reduced, and we are providing an additional two weeks’ payments for people being moved from the old system.”

That will still leave people with nothing to live on or to cover their rent for at least three weeks. The study focused on those less likely to be able to work – people with disabilities, mental illness or chronic health conditions. The DWP failed to recognise that this group have different needs and experiences than the broader population, which leave them much more likely to become vulnerable when they cannot meet their needs.

Vulnerable people are suffering great harm and some are dying because of this government’s policies. It is not appropriate to attempt to compare those peoples’ experiences with some larger group who have not died or have not yet experienced those harms. Where is the empirical evidence of these claims, anyway? Where is the DWP’s study report?

Callousness and indifference to the suffering and needs of disadvantaged citizens – disadvantaged because of discriminatory policies – has become so normalised to this government that they no longer see or care how utterly repugnant and dangerous it is.

The DWP are not ‘providing’ anything. Social security is a publicly funded safety net, paid for by the public FOR the public. It’s a reasonable expectation that citizens, most of who have worked and contributed towards welfare provision, should be able to access a system of support when they experience difficulties – that is what social security was designed to provide, so that no one in the UK need to face absolute poverty. It’s supposed to be there so that everyone can meet their basic survival needs.

What people in their time of need find instead is a system that has been redesigned to administer punishments, shame and psychological abuse. What kind of government kicks people hard when they are already down?

Universal Credit was considered the antidote for the Conservative’s ‘welfare dependency’ myth, yet there has never been any empirical evidence to support their 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. He never found any evidence despite trying very hard. Most people move in and out of work, because jobs have become increasingly precarious over the last few years. 

In fact over recent years, an 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.  Gabriel Kreindler, Benjamin Olken and colleagues 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 dependency’ diverts us from political class discrimination via policies, increasing inequality, and it serves to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens, normalising the inequality and prejudice embedded in neoliberal ideology 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.’ Outrageously, the behavioural change required by the state is that the public do not use publicly funded welfare services.

Stepping back from this, it becomes clear that the policy driver is ‘small state’, antiwelfarist neoliberal ideology. This is being propped up by pseudoscientific behavioural economic rationalisations. 

There is mounting evidence, according to local authority researchers in Liverpool, for example, that shows the actual effect is the reverse of what was claimed was intended; Universal Credit is harming the very people it was designed to support. It is forcing households into debt, causing severe poverty including to those in work, leaving too many people, including children, facing food insecurity, destitution and eviction. Liverpool council’s welfare reform cumulative impact analysis last year shows that the groups most adversely affected by the Government’s raft of ‘welfare reforms’ are the long-term sick and disabled, families with children, women, young adults and the 40-59 age group who live in social housing. 

Many working households are suffering a shortfall in Housing Benefit, Housing Allowance and a reduction and removal of many other benefits, all set against the backdrop of ever increasing living costs. Poverty disincentives people. 

In recent years welfare conditionality has become conflated with severe financial penalities (sanctions), and has mutated into an ever more stringent, complex, demanding set of often arbitrary requirements, involving frequent and rigid jobcentre appointments, meeting job application targets, providing evidence of job searches and mandatory participation in workfare schemes. The emphasis of welfare provision has shifted from providing support for people seeking employment to increasing conditionality of conduct, enforcing particular patterns of behaviour and monitoring citizen compliance.

Government Statistics tell us that more people get sanctioned under Universal Credit than under the existing legacy benefits system.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare payments in cases where claimants are deemed to be out of compliance with  requirements.” They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence – the threat that puts a big stick behind coercive welfare programme rules and “incentivises” citizen compliance with a heavily monitoring and supervisory administration. The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

There is plenty of evidence that sanctions don’t help people to find work, and that the punitive application of severe financial penalities is having a detrimental and sometimes catastrophic impact on people’s lives. We can see from a growing body of research how sanctions are not working in the way the government claim they intended.

Sanctions, under which people lose benefit payments for between four weeks and three years for “non-compliance”, have come under fire for being unfairpunitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, even causing death.

However, if people are already needing to claim financial assistance which was designed to meet only very basic needs, such as provision for food, fuel and shelter, then imposing further financial penalities will simply reduce those people to a struggle for basic survival, which will inevitably demotivate them and stifle their potential.

The current government demand an empirical rigour from those presenting criticism of their policy, yet they curiously fail in meeting the same exacting standards that they demand of others. Often, the claim that “no causal link has been established” is used as a way of ensuring that established correlative relationships, (which often do imply causality,) are not investigated further.

Qualitative evidence – case studies, for example – is very often rather undemocratically dismissed as ‘anecdotal,’ or as ‘scaremongering’ which of course stifles further opportunities for research and inquiry.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The partisan reconceptualision of poverty makes it much harder to define and very difficult to measure. Such a conceptual change disconnects poverty from more than a century of detailed empirical and theoretical research, and we are witnessing an increasingly experimental approach to policy-making, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent.

This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.

I want to discuss two further considerations to add to the growing criticism of the extended use of sanctioning, which are related to why sanctions don’t work. One is that imposing such severe financial penalities on people who need social security support to meet their basic needs cannot possibly bring about positive “behaviour change” or incentivise people to find employment, as claimed. This is because of the evidenced and documented broad-ranging negative impacts of financial insecurity and deprivation – particularly food poverty – on human physical health, motivation, behaviour and mental states.

The second related consideration is that “behavioural theories” on which the government rests the case for extending and increasing benefit sanctions are simply inadequate and flawed, having been imported from a limited behavioural economics model (otherwise known as nudge” and libertarian paternalism) which is itself ideologically premised.

Sanctions and workfare arose from and were justified by nudge theory, which is now institutionalised and deeply embedded in Conservative policy-making. Sanctions entail the manipulation of a specific theoretical cognitive bias called loss aversion.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical  propositions, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive, coherent accounts and understanding about human motivation and behaviour.

I reviewed research and explored existing empirical evidence regarding the negative impacts of food poverty on physical health, motivation and mental health. In particular, I focussed on the Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment and linked the study findings with Abraham Maslow’s central idea about cognitive priority, which is embedded in the iconic hierarchy of needs pyramid. Maslow’s central proposition is verified by empirical evidence from the Minnesota Experiment.

The Minnesota Experiment explored the physical impacts of hunger in depth, but also studied the effects on attitude, cognitive and social functioning and the behaviour patterns of those who have experienced semistarvation. The experiment highlighted a marked loss of ambition, self-discipline, motivation and willpower amongst the subjects once food deprivation commenced. There was a marked flattening of affect, and in the absence of other emotions, Doctor Ancel Keys observed the resignation and submission that continual hunger manifests.

The understanding that food deprivation dramatically alters emotions, motivation, personality and that nutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.

The experiment highlighted very clearly that there’s a striking sense of immediacy and fixation that arises when there are barriers to fulfiling basic physical needs – human motivation is frozen to meet survival needs, which take precedence over all other needs. This is observed and reflected in both the researcher’s and the subject’s accounts throughout the study. If a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes.

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to seek work. Abraham Maslow’s humanist account of motivation also highlights the same connection between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats.

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Ancel Keys published a full report about the experiment in 1950. It was a substantial two-volume work titled The Biology of Human Starvation. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive scientific examination of the physical and psychological effects of hunger.

Keys emphasised the dramatic effect that semistarvation has on motivation, mental attitude and personality, and he concluded that democracy and nation building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.

I also explored the link between deprivation and an increased risk of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance addiction. Poverty can act as both a causal factor (e.g. stress resulting from poverty triggering depression) and a consequence of mental illness (e.g. schizophrenic symptoms leading to decreased socioeconomic status and prospects).

Poverty is a significant risk factor in a wide range of psychological illnesses. Researchers recently reviewed evidence for the effects of socioeconomic status on three categories: schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Whilst not a comprehensive list of conditions associated with poverty, the issues raised in these three areas can be generalised, and have clear relevance for policy-makers.

The researchers concluded: “Fundamentally, poverty is an economic issue, not a psychological one. Understanding the psychological processes associated with poverty can improve the efficacy of economically focused reform, but is not a panacea. The proposals suggested here would supplement a focused economic strategy aimed at reducing poverty.” (Source: A review of psychological research into the causes and consequences of poverty – Ben Fell, Miles Hewstone, 2015.)

There is no evidence that keeping benefits at below subsistence level or imposing punitive sanctions ‘incentivises’ people to work and research indicates it is likely to have the opposite effect

Food banks have reported that demand for charity food goes up significantly when Universal Credit is introduced into the local area.

The Trussell Trust has expressed concern that, given the links between Universal Credit, financial hardship, and foodbank use, the next stage of the roll out could lead to further increased financial need and more demand for foodbanks. Their report uses referral data from Trussell Trust foodbank vouchers to examine the impact of Universal Credit on foodbank use. Their key findings were:

  1. On average, 12 months after rollout, foodbanks see at least a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas with Universal Credit for 3 months or less. This increase cannot be attributed to randomness and exists even after accounting for seasonal and other variations. 
  2. Benefit transitions, most likely due to people moving onto Universal Credit, are increasingly accounting for more referrals and are likely driving up need in areas of full Universal Credit rollout. Waiting for the first payment is a key cause, while for many, simply the act of moving over to a new system is causing serious hardship.

The Trussell Trust says that poor administration, the long wait for the first payment, and repayments for loans and debts are driving some people into severe financial need. This is particularly acute for families with dependent children and disabled people.

Ministers still claim that evidence from early official trials shows people claiming Universal Credit were more likely to get a job. However, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) has said there remains insufficient evidence for this claim. Other researchers have found that the low benefit amounts coupled with rigid conditionality and sanctions profoundly disincentivise people to find work or progress in work. Evidence supports the latter proposition. 

But the government simply responds by labelling researchers and campaigners as ‘scaremongers’ and continues to deny the well-evidenced and documented experiences of citizens which demonstrate that Universal Credit is harmful, creating distress and entrenching inequality and absolute poverty.

 


 

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Social security is a provision paid for by the public to support the public ‘from from the cradle to the grave’ when they fall on hard times

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This post follows on from my previous article, which critically addresses David Gauke’s irrational defence of the punitive use of social security sanctions.

Some logical gaps in government rhetoric

The government claim that more people are in employment. However, the government have ensured via systematic deregulation that the ‘supply-side’ labour market is designed to suit the wants of employers and not the needs of employees. Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of ‘restrictive’ practices, such as the protection of employment.

For example, as part of supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting worker’s ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action.

More recently, the Conservatives have attacked trade unions again, encroaching on work place democracy and civil rights. People claiming social security are being coerced by the state to take any job available, regardless of conditions and pay, or face sanctions.

This also seriously undermines any kind of bargaining for better pay and working conditions. It leaves workers without protection against profit-driven monopsonist employers (large employers that tend to dominate the employment market, such as Capita, G4S, Atos, Amazon, Uber, for example) leading to lower and lower wages. The government’s claims about the merits of increased labour market ‘flexibility’ have nonetheless introduced a considerable degree of precarity, which makes workers feel insecure, and more fearful of losing their jobs. It has also led to lower wage growth and rapidly increasing inequality.

As a consequence of government decision-making, much employment is insecure and wages have been driven down to the point where they are exploitative and no longer cover even the basic livings costs of workers. Wages have stagnatedand are most likely to remain stagnated for the foreseeable future. 

So we now have a politically constructed economic situation where even nurses and teachers are forced to visit food banks because they can’t afford to eat. 

At a time when the government boasts more people than ever are in employment, the numbers of cases of malnutrition and poverty-related illnesses are actually rising

The official UK unemployment rate has been well below the EU average for some years, and the as the government keeps pointing out, the employment rate is almost at a historic high, yet the welfare state is seen as a major concern, with the government claiming it presents people with ‘perverse incentives’, which prevent them from working. That very clearly isn’t true. However, the employment figures disguise the serious problem of under-employment, employment precarity and low wages.  

Furthermore, a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that more than a  fifth of the UK population is now living in poverty amid the worst decline for children and pensioners in decades. Nearly 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than five years ago, during which time there have been continued increases in poverty across both age groups – prompting experts to warn that hard-fought progress towards tackling destitution is ‘in peril’. 

The analysis highlights that 3 factors which had, over previous decades, led to a fall in poverty, are now cause for concern; social security support for many of those on low incomes ensured that people didn’t experience severe hardship and poverty, but it has been falling in real terms, changes to welfare policy have seen the numbers in poverty rising again, affordable social housing is no longer accessible and rents are increasing (particularly in the private sector), and lastly, rising employment is no longer reducing poverty.  

Work very clearly does not pay. 

The UK is regressing. We have a government that is undoing the social gains made following our progressive post-war settlement. 

The economic problems, inequality and poverty that we are witnessing have not arisen because welfare creates ‘disincentives’ to work, nor is there a shortage of  ‘hard workers’ or a sudden growth in the number of ‘shirkers’, or people with faulty characters, as every Conservative government since Margeret Thatcher has claimed. 

There is a shortage of good, secure and adequately salaried jobs. The small rise in the national minimum wage will unfortunately be offset with increasing living costs and the welfare cuts to both in and out of work social security. It’s not, by the way, a ‘national living wage’, as the Tories keep trying to claim. It’s a very modest rise in the minimum wage, which is rather long overdue. 

Image result for welfare spending uk pie chart

‘Making work pay’ is a simply a Conservative euphemism for the dismantling of the welfare state – a civilised and civilising institution that came into existence to ensure that no-one faces starvation, destitution and the ravages of absolute poverty.

Most of our welfare spending goes on pensions, first, then the bulk of the rest goes on supporting people in work who are paid exploitatively low wages.  

Making work pay for employers: the ‘business friendly’ government 

Trade unions are disempowered, because the government hates any form of collective bargaining which is aimed at improving the living and working conditions of ordinary people. They legislated to ensure that any collective action is very difficult. The government also punishes people on low pay with sanctions. As if taking money from people already on the breadline will somehow address the profit seeking executive decisions of employers. That’s cruel beyond belief. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says that the squeeze on living standards now risks storing up problems for the future, with people being caught in a  ‘standstill generation’ – one where people are unable to build the foundations for a decent, secure life. 

Over the last couple of days, I have seen a few people of pension age claiming that pensions are ‘not welfare’. That pensions are a ‘right’, and that people who paid in all their lives deserve support. Of course they do. 

However, so do our young people (who live in a much less kind society than the one our generation enjoyed), working people, disabled people and everyone else who faces material hardship. We ALL pay into the welfare state. It was designed to provide ‘from the cradle to the grave’ support for everyone who should need it, as set out in Sir William Beveridge’s report Social Insurance and Allied Services, published on 1 December 1942.

Beveridge’s vision was for an national insurance-based welfare state in which entitlement would be earned largely by the function the citizen undertook, either through work or by assuming caring responsibilities. When Winston Churchill finally turned his attention to domestic politics after the Second World War he conjured up the phrase by which Beveridge’s proposals would be described: he envisaged a compulsory national insurance that would afford coverage ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

Social security originally included maternity grants, child benefit, unemployment and sickness benefits, old-age pensions and a grant to cover the costs of death. 

The underpinning welfare principles of universalism and collectivism 

The national insurance scheme is intuitively fair to most people, it is based on collective ethics, rather than being governed by private market insurance rules. 

‘Welfare’ means Wellbeing/Safety/Health. Beverage was tasked with the responsibility of determining what was needed for Britain to take care of the basic needs of citizens, ensuring no-one lived in poverty, and to create a set of reforms that ensured everyone had a basic standard of living, regardless of their circumstances.

Welfare was originally designed to be universally accessible when people were in need of assistance. No-one deserves support in meeting their basic survival needs more than anyone else. Or rather, every person ought to have the same right to adequately meet the costs necessary for survival – basic costs for fundamental needs such as for food, fuel and shelter, for example.

It’s a measure of how successful the Conservatives’ intentional, purposefully divisive stigmatising campaign has been of those in receipt of social security that some social groups want to now distance themselves from the very term ‘welfare’.

Yet the welfare state was a truly great British achievement, it was a civilised and civilising reform that improved the lives of many, sparing them the abject misery of absolute poverty. The Conservatives don’t pay for welfare provision: we do. Yet to hear their anti-welfare rhetoric and to read their anti-humanist ideology, anyone would think the funding comes from their own pockets, such is their scorn and indignation that people should have, and expect the right, to an adequate standard of living and healthcare.

Yet this is what Cameron had in mind when he said he wanted to end ‘the culture of entitlement’. He was signalling that the Conservatives intend to dismantle welfare,  other public services and provisions. The government portrays our welfare state as a ‘free good’, but WE have already paid for it. As did our parents.

Instead of regarding welfare as ‘unsustainable’ and as the problematic ‘vulnerability’ of some citizens requiring support in a system that invariably creates wealth for a few, and increasing hardship for the many, perhaps it’s time to view the government’s obsession with welfare conditionality, ‘behaviour change’ and punitive sanctions – which have turned a provision aimed at meeting basic material needs into a means of disciplining poor people – and with dismantling our social security, for what this really is: state oppression. 

In the 1940s, a widely shared international consensus specifically linked social welfare to democratic citizenship, upholding universal rights, greater equality and social justice. We share with Europe a common history of social rights, democratic participation and welfare capitalism. In light of the recent global transformations of the economic order, significant changes in the distribution of wealth and power have reshaped the meaning of citizenship and redefined the relationship between the state and citizens in a post-welfare-state era. The lasting and damaging effects of austerity and inequality will inevitably negatively influence democratic inclusion and participation, as well as having a profound impact on people’s material wellbeing. 

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show in their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (2013), that the human costs of dismantling the welfare state may be measured out in increased morbidity and mortality figures, as evidenced in the global recession. The book explores government responses to financial crises through the lens of health outcomes. The authors argue that austerity is never the right prescription as it hinders return to growth and causes immense suffering to citizens’ health and wellbeing. 

In those countries that maintained their welfare system, no such increases occurred. Stuckler and Banjay also point out that those countries which maintained their welfare system recovered quicker from the recession than those that didn’t, indicating that welfare spending is an excellent stimulus to the economy.

The truth is that for Conservatives, their perceived problems of the welfare state is not really an issue of its ‘sustainability’ or cost, it is a purely ideological issue. The Conservatives’ most treasured class-based prejudices and beliefs in the not so free Free Market are chronically and morbidly offended by it. 

I guess Beverage didn’t foresee the sixth great ‘evil’ – the overarching anti-collectivism of belligerently imposed neoliberal socioeconomics, which extends ever-widening inequality and increasing poverty of the masses wherever it travels. 

Welfare was designed for everyone in need, regardless of their age. That was the whole point of welfare – to ensure no-one in the UK is starving and destitute. 

As citizens, we need to stand on our hind legs and bypass the intentionally divisive rhetoric. We need to stand together to defend what is OURS: the welfare state was never funded by the government and never was. 

The wefare budget is therefore not the government’s money to cut.


 

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An example of in-work conditionality: when work doesn’t pay

Tory UK

Under in-work conditionality, those people claiming Universal Credit who are already working up to 35 hours a week – and who may never have been unemployed in their life – are forced to seek more work hours, higher pay, or an extra job as a condition of receiving low-wage top-ups and other benefits, or else face sanctions. 

Low-paid workers put through this process report “dehumanising” and “intimidating” experiences. Following years of government rhetoric about prizing “hardworking people”, suddenly many hard working people have found themselves subject to the same sanctions as out-of-work claimants.

A woman from Barrow described how she was given a benefit sanction after missing a job centre appointment because she took a last-minute offer of extra part-time work.

The punishment is one of three she has received, which she says have left her and her partner on the breadline for a year.

The couple were forced to use Barrow’s foodbank and town community kitchen so they didn’t starve, whilst living without heat or power on occasions when the high tariff pre-payment electricity meter at their rented home ran out of credit.

Hitting out at the unfair sanctions at the heart of the benefit system, the couple say this punitive approach is making them ill.

The woman, who is in her 20s, says she has applied for scores of jobs in a bid to secure full-time work, said: “I was given some extra hours on a Monday morning starting at 7am.

“My job centre appointment was at 9.30am and I didn’t have any credit on my phone. I took the work and called to explain about the appointment the next day but it was a sanction.

“I got another one for missing a workshop about Twitter. I know how to use Twitter but it didn’t make any difference. They’ll sanction you for anything.”

The sanctions have had such a detrimental effect that the couple faced homelessness when they could no longer afford the rent on their two-bedroom home.

They moved into a one-bedroom flat in the town after the landlord offered to accept a deferred deposit.

“We try our hardest,” she told the North West Evening Mail.

“I would love to have a full-time job but we’re really struggling. The stress has made me ill. These sanctions are not fair; they need to be stopped.”

The government claim that sanctions are a method of enforcing “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security. This of course assumes that people’s behaviours are a problem in the first place. Sanctions don’t address the decision-making of employers – who are ultimately responsible for establishing rates of pay and the hours of work for employees – exploitation, structural problems, such as access to opportunity and resources and labour market constraints. 

Barrow councillor and former job centre employee Michael Cassells said there needed to be more flexibility in the system to ensure sanctions were dished out fairly.

“There’s no doubt sanctions are cruel and causing real hardship and, unfortunately, in most cases, people are not told they can appeal against them, or how to do it.

“We need this system to be looked at so that people are treated with respect and empathy. Otherwise they simply feel they are trying their best but hitting a brick wall with nowhere to turn to for help.”

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 despise 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 supply end of the labour market. They want a cheap, disciplined reserve army of  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.

Benefit sanctions are leaving people almost destitute, with some individuals being pushed toward “survival crime” in order to eat and children missing school because parents can’t pay the bus fare. These are the preliminary findings of a major study into increased restrictions on receiving benefits in the UK welfare system, published in full earlier this year.

The research, led by the University of York, also shows the controversial extension of benefit sanctions to working people on Universal Credit  can produce disincentives to work.

The government clearly intends to continue formulating draconian 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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Related

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

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

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

Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

Exclusive: DWP Admit Using Fake Claimant’s Comments In Benefit Sanctions Leaflet

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

 


 

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Numbers of cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

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The Office of National Statistics (ONS) have released figures that show 391 people died from malnutrition in 2015. There were 746 hospital admissions for malnutrition in just 12 months. The statistics also show two people in the UK are admitted to hospital with the condition every day in what campaigners have called a “national scandal.” 

Health minister Nicola Blackwood confirmed the numbers in a written answer in Parliament.

More than six people a month perish from starvation in England, which is one of the richest nations in the world.  The UK’s biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, provided more than a million three-day food packages over the past year, including 415,866 to children.What is worrying is that people may only have this support for a maximum of three days and have to be referred by a professional, such as a doctor or social worker.

Chairman Chris Mould said: It’s a scandal that people living in the sixth largest economy in the world are going hungry, which is why we’re working to engage the public, other charities and politicians from all parties to find solutions to the underlying causes of food poverty.

Our food banks support many thousands of people in various states of hunger.

Some people have been missing meals for days at a time; others have been unable to afford certain food groups or have sacrificed quality for long periods of time to keep costs down.

This, no doubt, has a negative effect on their health – and for people at the extreme end of the scale it will lead to malnutrition.

Every day we meet families across the UK who are struggling to put enough nutritious food on the table and hear from parents who go without food so their children have enough to eat.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “We now have record numbers of people in work and wages rising faster than inflation. 

But we need to go further, which is why we’ve committed to increase the National Living Wage, we’re taking the lowest paid out of income tax and our welfare reforms are ensuring it always pays to work.”

However it seems that “making work pay” is a euphemism for punishing those out of work or those in part-time or low-paid work with absolute poverty. In December 2015, I wrote about research from the Child Poverty Action Group, Oxfam, Church of England and the Trussell Trust which found that failures in the social safety net itself are most often the trigger for food bank referrals.

The report said that while money is tight for many reasons, including bereavement, relationship breakdown, illness or job loss, issues such as sanctions, delays in benefits decisions or payments or being declared “fit for work” led people to turn to food banks for support.

  • Around a third of foodbank users in the sample were waiting for a decision on their benefits – and struggling in the meantime
  • Between 20 and 30% more had their household benefits reduced or stopped because of a sanction

Other factors included loss of income due to the “bedroom tax” or the benefit cap. For between half and two-thirds of the people included in this research, the immediate income crisis was linked to the operation of the benefits system (with problems including waiting for benefit payments, sanctions, or reduction in disability benefits) or tax credit payments.

Amongst this group of people are many that are actually in low-paid work, claiming top-up benefits. The remaining number of people needing support from food banks to meet their most basic need are certainly in work, making a complete mockery of the Department for Work and Pension’s statement.

The research used 40 in-depth interviews with food bank users, data from over 900 users at three food banks around the country, and detailed analysis of nearly 200 clients accessing one food bank in Tower Hamlets. Another academic study said the government’s welfare reformsincluding benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax, are a central factor in the explosion in the numbers of impoverished people turning to charity food banks

The study, part of a three-year investigation into emergency food provision, was carried out by Hannah Lambie-Mumford, a Sheffield University researcher who co-authored a recently published government report into the extent of food aid in the UK.

That report concluded there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate a clear causal link between welfare reform and food bank demand in the UK. This is because the government has refused to make that information available by ensuring the reason for food bank referrals are no longer recorded. But Lambie-Mumford’s study says the rise in demand for charity food is a clear signal “of the inadequacy of both social security provision and the processes by which it is delivered”.

In 2015, more than 2,000 cases of patients with malnutrition were recorded by 43 hospital trusts in a single year.

There were 193 “episodes” of malnutrition in 12 months at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust alone, according to new figures.

Freedom of Information (FOI) figures show a rise of 259 between the 43 trusts compared with three years previously.

With the more recent introduction of more stringent in-work conditionality, including the extension of sanctions to those in part-time and low-paid work, the Conservative’s coercive psychopolitical approach to poverty will invariably make it even more difficult for many more to meet their basic survival needs.

At the same time, in 2014,  Community Links published a study called Just about Surviving which revealed that far from encouraging people on benefits to move into work, the draconian welfare cuts have pushed many further from employment. The report said that the state has reduced welfare support to the point where it barely enables people to survive.

Overwhelmingly, the reforms have made people “feel insecure and vulnerable to even small fluctuations in their small income or circumstance; continuing to erode their resilience.”

Furthermore, by forcing people into stressful situations where day-to-day survival becomes a pressing priority, the “reforms” (that are, in reality, simply cuts to people’s benefits), which were hailed by the Conservatives as a system of help and incentives – to “nudge” people into changing their behaviour so that they try harder to find work – are in fact eroding people’s motivation. In other words, the reforms have deincentivised and hindered people looking for employment, achieving the very opposite to the intent claimed by the Tories, to justify their draconian policies.

The report states that people are caught between trying to escape welfare reform through poor employment alternatives and feeling trapped in poverty. They move in and out of low paid work and are extremely susceptible to financial shocks and unprepared for the future.

In 2014, Oxfam’s director of campaigns and policy, Ben Phillips, said: “Britain is becoming a deeply divided nation, with a wealthy elite who are seeing their incomes spiral up, while millions of families are struggling to make ends meet.”

“It’s deeply worrying that these extreme levels of wealth inequality exist in Britain today, where just a handful of people have more money than millions struggling to survive on the breadline.”

Diseases associated with malnutrition, which were very common in the Victorian era in the UK, became rare with the advent of our welfare state and universal healthcare, but they are now making a reappearance because of the rise of numbers of people living in absolute poverty.

NHS statistics indicate that the number of cases of gout and scarlet fever have almost doubled within five years, with a rise in other illnesses such as scurvy, cholera, whooping cough and general malnutrition. People are more susceptible to infectious illness if they are under-nourished.

In 2013/14, more than 86,000 hospital admissions involved patients who were diagnosed with gout – an increase of 78 per cent in five years, and of 16 per cent on the year before. Causes of gout include a lack of vitamin C in the diet of people who are susceptible.

The figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) show a 71 per cent increase in hospital admissions among patients suffering from malnutrition – from 3,900 admissions in 2009-10 to 6,690 admissions in 2013-14.

Cases of scarlet fever admitted to hospital doubled, from 403 to 845, while the number of hospital patients found to be suffering from scurvy also rose, with 72 cases in 2009/10 rising to 94 cases last year.

The figures also show a steep rise in cases diagnosed with cholera, a water-borne disease which was extremely prevalent in the 19th century, causing nearly 40,000 deaths.

The new in-work conditionality regime may eventually apply to around one million more people.

The quantity of food being bought in food stores is also decreasing. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that repressed, stagnant wages and RISING living costs will result in reduced sale volumes. Survation’s research in March 2014 indicates that only four out of every ten of UK workers believe that the country’s economy is recovering.

But we know that the bulk of the Tory austerity cuts were aimed at those least able to afford any cut to their income.

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. 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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Related

Welfare sanctions cannot possibly incentivise people to work

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Welfare sanctions make vulnerable reliant on food banks, says YMCA

Study finds Need For Food Banks IS Caused By Welfare Cuts

It’s absolute poverty, not “market competition” that has led to a drop in food sales.

Welfare reforms, food banks, malnutrition and the return of Victorian diseases are not coincidental, Mr Cameron

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

 

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Report shows significant challenges facing the Universal Credit system

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It’s disappointing and very worrying that a published report from the Work and Pensions Committee says: “The employment support service for in-work claimants of Universal Credit (UC) holds the potential to be the most significant welfare reform since 1948, but realising this potential means a steep on-the-job learning curve, as the policy appears to be untried anywhere in the world.”

The Work and Pensions Committee recommendations in the report are:

Given there is no comprehensive evidence anywhere on how to run an effective in-work service, the DWP will be learning as it develops this innovation. The Committee says:

  • for the reform to work, it must help confront the structural or personal barriers in-work claimants face to taking on more work, such as a lack of access to childcare and limited opportunities to take on extra hours or new jobs
  • the question of applying proposed sanctions is complex: employed people self-evidently do not lack the motivation to work.  The use of financial sanctions for in-work claimants must be applied very differently to those for out-of-work claimants
  • a successful in-work service will also require partnership between JCP and employers to a degree not seen before.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee said:

“The in-work service promises progress in finally breaking the cycle of people getting stuck in low pay, low prospects employment. We congratulate the Government for developing this innovation. As far as we can tell, nothing like this has been tried anywhere else in the world. This is a very different kind of welfare, which will require developing a new kind of public servant.”

This imprudent comment from Field implies that individuals need financial punishments in order to find work with better prospects and higher pay. Yet 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. 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.

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 declines in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led 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.

It’s worth considering that in-work conditionality and sanctions may have unintended consequences for employers, too. If employees are coerced by the State to find better paid and more secure work, and employers cannot increase hours and accommodate in-work progression, who will fill those posts? Financial penalties aimed at employees will also negatively impact on the performance and reliability of the workforce, because when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, their cognitive and practical focus shifts to survival, and that doesn’t accommodate the meeting of higher level psychosocial needs and obligations, such as those of the workplace. It was because of the recognition of this, and the conventional wisdom captured in the work of social psychologists such as Abraham Maslow that provided the reasoning behind the policy of in-work benefits and provision in the first place. 

In-work conditionality reinforces 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 signifant 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.

Last month I wrote about the Department for Work and Pensions running a Trial that 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 Department for Work and Pensions 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.” 

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 very serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. It’s also very worrying that this intervention is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.

Owen Smith MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, commenting on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report  into ‘in-work progression’ in Universal Credit, said:

“This report shows there are significant challenges facing the new Universal Credit system, not least how to ensure work pays and people are incentivised in to jobs.  As a result, it is deeply worrying that at the early part of the rollout, huge Tory cuts to work allowances will undermine this aim, as 2.5 million working families will left over £2,100 a year worse off. 

“If Universal Credit is to be returned to its original intentions of supporting and encouraging people in to work then Stephen Crabb needs to change his mind and reverse the Tory cuts to working families urgently. 

“It’s also problematic that the committee found there is insufficient information available after a year of piloting in-work conditionality, especially given the complete mess that has been made of the existing sanctions regime.  The DWP should move quickly to make available as much information as possible, to ensure the roll out of Universal Credit is properly scrutinised.”

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Related

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

Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

It’s time to abolish “purely punitive” benefit sanctions


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

 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.

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Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

 

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“It’s fear of the political-correctness brigade that has stopped my colleagues going public — quite sensibly, as it turns out. But I felt I owed it to the taxpayers who are funding the welfare state to publish these data.” Adam Perkins.

Tax payers who “fund the welfare state” are not a discrete class of citizens: most of them come to rely on it as a safety net to ensure they can meet their basic needs at some time in their life. Those currently claiming  social security benefits, who are not all of the same people who did last year or the year before, still contribute to one of the largest sources of revenue for the Treasury – VAT and other stealth taxes, such as council tax. In fact almost all benefits are paid back as taxes. The biggest beneficiaries of welfare are those employed to administrate it, especially the growing number of private sector “providers”.

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, his highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic semantics, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself with apparent ease simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neoliberal destination. He is certainly very fluent in the language of New Right Conservatism, it has to be said. I’m certain he must be very good friends with Charles Murray, of the Bell Curve fame during the Thatcher and Reagan era..

Many from across the political spectrum have objected to Perkins’s book because of the strong whiff of eugenics and social Darwinism that has hit the fan, along with the stench of the long-rotten corpse of Nazism. The atrocities associated with essentialising social groups – attributing “natural”, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined groups (based on gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic status, for example) – were thought to be long buried under the brutal and horrifying lessons of history, and quite properly considered taboo.

When societies essentialise others, it is assumed that individual differences can be explained by “inherent”, biological, “natural” characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentialising results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. It invariably involves political discourse that decontextualises structural inequality, using narrative that “relocates” it, coercing the responsibility, internalisation and containment of social problems within some individuals and groups. This always involves processes of projection, stigmatising, outgrouping and scapegoating.

Essentialist thinking is anchored in binary conceptual schema – simplistic and dualistic (two-categories: either this – or that) modes of thought. Both classic and contemporary social theorists have identified and challenged essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world. Essentialising targets and stigmatises minority groups who historically do not have equal access to power in the cultural production and validation of “knowledge”.

In Perkins’s previous co-authored work – Personality and occupational markers of ‘solid citizenship’ are associated with having fewer children, which is a study of associations between personality and reproductive fitness, he claims that such associations may reveal the adaptive significance of human behavioural traits. He says: “What we dub ‘solid-citizenship’ personality characteristics such as self-control, diligence and responsibility may repay study from an evolutionary perspective as they protect against negative life-outcomes.” 

“Perkins et al. tend to regard risk as a synonym of probability and so equate evolutionary fitness with moral hazard.Hubert Huzzah.

Low conscientiousness, criminality, low educational attainment, low occupational status, extraversion, neuroticism, catholicism, a lack of diligence, responsibility, self control and other assigned personality characteristics are then linked with contraception use, and conflated with low socioeconomic status and negative life-outcomes that are curiously isolated from a wider socioeconomic context.

Again, the very idea that citizenship is defined by certain perceived personal qualities associated with conformity and Conservative values indicates Perkins’s tendency to politicise concepts of human “nature”, and conflate them with New Right narratives, reflected in his interests, choice of research topics and demonstrated in the framing of his conclusions. This reflects a wider current tendency towards the political medicalisation of social problems, which shifts public attention from the sociopolitical and economic context of inequality, poverty and social injustice to politically inculpated, marginalised outgroups.

I have written a lengthy critique of Adam Perkin’s controversial book called “The Welfare Trait.” Whilst I have criticised the work because of its quite blatant partisan ideological, political and economic inception and framing, I have also raised other important issues regarding problematic underpinning assumptions, which include commiting a fallacy of inventing fictitious proximal causes for behaviour, such as “perverse incentives,” problems with constructs of personality and difficulties measuring behaviour traits.

Much of the current understanding of personality from a neurobiological perspective places an emphasis on the biochemistry of the behavioural systems of reward, motivation, and punishment. But those are largely extrinsic factors, located, for example, in political and socioeconomic environments, external to the individual, who responds to their context. This theoretical stance is therefore both limited in terms of depth and explanatory coherence and limiting in terms of generating understanding – the study lacks comprehensiveness and methodological rigour – there is very little consideration of confounding variables, for example, which hinders further potential investigation and discovery. It also reflects in part a re-platforming of an over-simplistic Pavlovian behaviourism. Definition and theory of the biological basis of personality is not universally accepted. There are many conflicting theories of personality in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and neuroscience.

Perkins implies that welfare somehow creates personality disorders and “undesirable” traits. However, such pathologies are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

Perkins also conflates descriptive statements with prescriptive ones. Moral conclusions can’t be drawn from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”,  and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. However empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set far too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully.

Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity are profoundly psychologically harmful as well as physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

Climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice

Since writing my own response to The Welfare Trait I have encountered a surprisingly high number of people in the UK who believe that anyone who can’t work should be left with no money at all to meet their basic survival needs. To clarify, that means they think that not everyone should have a fundamental right to life. My work was labelled “hysterical dogma” by one commentator on the Adam Smith Institute website. I have been very struck by how normalised social Darwinism and related perspectives have become over the last few years, again. And how people that disagree with those views are defined, increasingly as the other. Along with the growing number of other politically defined others. It’s a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian climate.

I was called a “politically correct bleeding heart leftard” by a eugenics advocate on the Telegraph comments section, and was truly baffled that someone could see social conscience, a sense of justice, basic, ordinary qualities of caring, empathy and compassion as somehow pathological qualities. It’s also remarkable that a group of people who claim that sanctions, which entail the removal of people’s means of meeting basic survival needs is “helping” or “supporting” people into work, somehow “fair” and about “making work pay” feel they can lecture anyone else on appropriate language choices, techniques of neutralisation, modes of linguistic behaviourism and censorship.

I have always felt strongly that we have a democratic duty to protect marginalised groups and look out for the cultural underdog –  it’s the oppressed that are denied a voice, their rights, autonomy and identity, not the oppressors. Underdogs are generally seen as casualties of injustice or persecution. They are also most often predicted to be losers in a struggle.

Of course not all underdogs remain underdogs. J.K. Rowling, a lone mother claiming social security, who wrote seven of the best-selling books of all time, created a vulnerable, lovable underdog character, Harry Potter – an oppressed but passionate orphan with character, modesty, integrity and all the best of human qualities. He grew up in a cupboard, wearing oversized hand-me-down clothes and doing accidental bursts of magic to get by. He came to face and fight the forces of evil that had oppressed and terrorised two generations of wizards and witches, and non-magical folk alike.

Jo Rowling had a very difficult seven-year period that left her coping with the death of her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, severe depression, the birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until she finished the first novel in the series.

What is remarkable about Rowling isn’t her “rags to riches” success, though that is undoubtedly a commendable achievement: it’s the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given to so many, young and old alike, that really stands out, and her considerable philanthropy.

Rowling said: “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity.

Defining a group’s superiority and purity always means defining others as “inferior.”

But is it not normal to care about such issues? Surely that is how we relate to others, our inclination to bond originating from relationships within our families and with significant others, extending to wider communities, and to society as a whole? Yet this way of seeing the world is being pathologised by a growing number of people who see the world only in terms of hierarchies of status and human worth: a raw, “red in tooth and claw” competitive individualism, and always, it seems, for what they can get, how much they can profit and how much they can take from others, rather than what they can give to society.

The general public over the past 5 years have been generally treated by a government of elitist, antidemocratic, cognitive and class supremicists as a political means to an end. Meanwhile people raising genuine concerns about corruption, greed, the stigmatisation of minorities and the growing human rights abuses of marginalised social groups, authoritarianism and so on are ostracised, treated with scorn, ridicule and contempt, and turned into the growing number of Conservative folk devil constructs.

Names such as “extremists”, “raving trot” “loony leftie” “leftard” are bandied around so much now that those using the labels have lost sight of the fact that these are offensive and rude. The really worrying thing is my views are hardly extreme or remotely  radical  – I’m no “commie.” Most people on the political Left are just regular people wanting regular fairness, social justice, equal rights for all, an end to cruel and unnecessary cuts which target only the poorest, and an end to such crass socioeconomic policies that result in massive inequality and poverty. How did being so normal become so non-mainstreamed?

How can it possibly be that to care for the wellbeing of others in our society, and the kind of world our children will inherit from us is somehow wrong, that values of cooperation, mutual aid and compassion are not the norm, that taking a clear ethical position is something to be ashamed of or a reason to be mocked?

The Conservatives have a moralising, rather than a moral political position, and have you noticed that Tory moralising only ever applies to the poorest people and invariably generates public prejudice, discriminatory policies and fosters social divisions?

Political Correctness

It’s a sure sign that the Right have no arguments and critical reasoning to support their fundamental ideological position, that whenever their partisan narratives are challenged by our own narrative, then we are met with blatant attempts to close down debate by a barrage of nasty, resentful, immature name-calling and outrage that is thrown at anyone and everyone that challenges the cultural, epistemological and right-wing ontological status quo and neoliberal doxa.

Some people use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. However, speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Bigotry is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Furthermore, bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty, resentful, vindictive and prejudiced isn’t “being truthful” or “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the Right – it’s just being inequitable, petty, resentful and prejudiced. And some things are not worth saying. We do have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth. Free speech carries with it some responsibilities.

And the right-wing do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct.

However, “political correctness” was adopted by US  New Right Conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote civil rights, multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

Importantly, political correctness arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of “Conservative correctness.” Most often, the case is entirely ignored, or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We have a right-wing Logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial and discimatory narrative and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in their justification.

The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice.

The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite hatred and then to incite genocide.) As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice, which advance culturally by almost inscrutable degrees.

The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.

The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: positive parenting, education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, like parents, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.

Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or “offence.” Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learned this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence. In this context, political correctness is about inclusive free speech, with rationality, critical thinking, democratic civility and a degree of mutual respect chucked in.

I’m proud to be a part of an ethical, rational, reasonable, decent and civilised Left-wing.

And politically correct?

Damn right I am.

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Freedom of speech isn’t about shouting the loudest, trying to intimidate, silence and disempower others or having the last word.

 

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Infantilizing the nation – an insight into Conservative ‘paternalism’

                                               hqdefault                                                 Young Bullers

 

Paternalist parenting classes? Heaven forbid

The Prime Minister claims that every family needs help in improving behaviour and discipline. Ironically, this is from a politician who claims to despise the “nanny state”. He much prefers the Bullingdon brand of paternalist interference in people’s everyday lives. Cameron is also recommending “parenting classes” for all, which is understandable given his own strong instincts as a parent. He left his own child in a pub, after all.

Of course Cameron feels that it’s other people that need parenting and discipline. After all, this is a man who spent his early adulthood involved in bizarre initiation rituals, patriarchal debauchery, recklessly banqueting, getting drunk, trashing college rooms and pubs, listening to Supertramp and smoking pot with James Delingpole and vandalising restaurants. In 2013, it was reported that members of the Bullingdon Club were required to burn a £50 note in front of a beggar as part of an “initiation ceremony”. How encouraging to see the elite showing responsibility, compassion, a concern for social justice and cohesion, equality and alleviating poverty, at an early age.

Now that’s a real deviant subculture.

The draconian sentences handed down to the rioters in 2011, advocated by Cameron –  like the 23-year-old student with no previous convictions who was jailed for the maximum permitted six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from Lidl in Brixton, for example –  shows only too well that he believes there is one rule for the Oxford elite and another for the rest of the society. Punishment is a central component of the social order and a means by which social order is produced and maintained.

Actually, defining others as deviant is, too. It’s a Conservative means of enhancing social power and status differentials by degrading the rule-breaker’s status and power.

Cameron’s response to the riots reflects a characteristically Bullingdon conservative disdain: an authoritarian, strict and oppressive approach towards perceived, labelled and stigmatised subordinates. Conservatives have always seen the social world as being organised in terms of hierarchies of worth. Smashing up a pub or restaurant and causing 10k worth of damage is no problem if you can cough up the costs on the spot to keep your thuggish behaviour private, hidden away from the scrutiny of the legal system and the public. Money talks and bullshit struts.

The Conservatives inform us that it is bad parents that cause poverty, opting for a rhetoric of authoritarian populism, creating cardboard monsters, manufacturing folk devils and moral outrage for the tabloids, making excuses for the consequences of their own prejudiced and damaging policy-making.

The establishment is a kind of Moebius strip of finger-pointing, arrogant, moralising privileged and feckless bullies passing the buck. And importantly, these wayward boys and girls always get their own way. They can’t democratically govern the country; they lack the social skills, motivation, developmental and emotional capacity to actually engage in any genuine and democratic dialogue with ordinary people, so they rule. Conservatives have always prefered the simplicity of a socio-economic system defined by inherited social ranks.

Cameron says that the government’s Life Chances Strategy – an “initiative to target tackle child poverty” – will include a plan for “significantly expanding parenting provision”. It will also recommend ways to “incentivise” all parents to take up the offer of classes. The hope is, presumably, that if the middle class take Cameron up on his offer of state parenting instructions, the process of social norming will provide the foundation of state-defined “correct behaviours” for the insubordinate working classes, who are perpetually caught up, according to the Tories, in a pathological cycle of something or other, and therefore need state therapy from elitist antipodean role models to set them straight and put them in their place. It’s the new behaviourism: do as we say, but not what we do.

It seems that poverty is to be addressed with nothing more than a paternalist brand of cheap psychopolitics. The government won’t be dipping their hands into the treasury, which is what’s needed. Instead they prefer to employ shabby techniques of persuasion aimed at indoctrinating a Conservative world-view and enforcing conformity as a replacement for genuinely needs-led and evidence-based policies.

At no point does Cameron mention any commitment to improving people’s standard of living, or ensuring that families have a basic level of income in order to meet their fundamental needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – because struggling to meet basic material needs are the main barriers for people experiencing poverty. It’s sobering to consider that the Tory obsession with the work ethic, embodied in their mantra “making work pay”, is nothing more than a meaningless glittering generality, that purposefully diverts attention from elitist policy-making, and subsequent growing poverty and inequality.

Around half of those who are in poverty and of working age live in a household where at least one person works. The steady drop in real wages since 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics, is the longest for 50 years.

Furthermore, 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.

Ah, and Cameron uttered that inane managementspeak word again – “incentivise”. It never bodes well when Conservatives use that word. It means he has been listening to the psychobabbling of the Nudge Unit, again. Welfare sanctions, which are the punitive withdrawal of lifeline benefits from people who need to claim welfare support to meet their basic needs are claimed to “incentivise” people to find a job, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, and the cuts to child tax credit, limiting support to just two children, are based on the charming and archaic eugenicist idea that poor people ought to be “incentivised” to have fewer children.

Rich people are apparently “incentivised” by large cash carrots, but poor people just get the brutal, merciless stick. What a classic example of flagrant Conservative ideological incoherence.

Psychopolitical paternalism doesn’t address poverty, it is simply a way of apportioning blame, of abdicating political responsibility and ensuring that poor people accept the Conservative and neoliberal decree that they somehow deserve to be poor.

Cameron claims that:

“Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.”

The announcement from Cameron was welcomed by Relate, whose chief executive, Chris Sherwood, said:

“Relationship support can help to reduce family breakdown, which is a key driver of poverty and can result in poor outcomes for children.”

Actually, family breakdown is quite often a consequence of poverty, not a cause of it. Back in 2010, Fergus Drake, director of UK programmes with Save the Children expressed an unease that many of us felt, regarding the Conservative’s feckless drive to offload the responsibility for poverty onto poor people, who are casualities of the consequences of neoliberalism, which extends discriminatory economic policies. He said:

“We would say poverty causes family breakdown rather than vice versa. If you are worried about putting food on the table, or being able to turn on the heater so you can have a hot bath, the stress that causes to a relationship can make things really difficult.”

Poverty isn’t caused by family breakdown, it’s caused by discriminatory policies and social insititutions that extend and perpetuate inequality. We are now the most unequal country in the European Union, and even more unequal than the US. If Cameron really wanted to address childhood poverty, he would ensure that people have enough to meet their basic needs, instead of steadily withdrawing welfare support and cutting public services. He should end the class-contingent austerity that his government have imposed on only the poorest people.

Tim Nichols, of the Child Poverty Action Group, agrees that the Conservatives should be careful not to confuse causes and consequences. He says:

“We don’t think that this is robust strategy. Tackling child poverty can’t be done without more redistribution.”

Cameron is talking ideologically-driven nonsense, reflecting traditional Tory prejudices. This government has become obsessed with moralising about and manipulating individual agency, which is increasingly seen as being to blame for high levels of poverty and social exclusion in the UK, which are created entirely by callous, discriminatory political policies. Political gaslighting does not help people out of poverty.

People are poor because they don’t have enough money to meet their needs. That is what Cameron needs to acknowledge and address.

Parenting and elitist-authoritarian ideology

Cameron’s paternalist-authoritarian turn was evident back in 2010, when he said that:

“Discipline is the foundation of a good education. Headteachers need to decide on exclusions.”

Most people that have worked in either formal or informal education settings are very aware that using punishment and threats is very counterproductive. Making young people suffer in order to change their future behaviour can often elicit temporary compliance, but this strategy is highly unlikely to lead to conversion or to help children become ethical, responsible decision makers in the long term. Punishments don’t involve any engagement of deliberative processes.

Punishment, even if referred to euphemistically as “consequences,” tends to generate oppositional behaviours, anger and defiance.  Furthermore, it models the use of power rather than reason and damages the important trust-based relationship between adult and child.

Authoritarian models of parenting are emotionally and physically traumatising. There’s an Old Testament brand of harshness in conservative authoritarian approaches to human behaviours.

Authoritarian parents often have prejudices based on wealth and what may be defined as “achievement”, gender, class and race. They tend to be highly competitive, lacking warmth and empathy. They teach their children to compete at all costs, and to win by whatever means. Most authoritarians are behaviourists, with a preference for punishments rather than rewards to control others.

Authoritarians tend to advocate corporal punishment, they see freedom as chaotic, they can’t tolerate ambiguity or recognise the complexities and subtleties of human conduct, and they tend to advocate capital punishment.

Because authoritarian parents expect absolute obedience, children raised in such settings are typically very good at following rules.

However, they often lack self-discipline. Children raised by authoritarian parents are not encouraged to explore and act independently, so they never really learn how to set their own limits and personal standards.

Whilst developmental experts agree that rules, boundaries and consistency are important for children to have, most believe that authoritarian parenting is too punitive and lacks the warmth, unconditional love, safety, trust and nurturing that children need.

Of course public schools also foster authoritarianism and elitism. Boarding school: the trauma of the ‘privileged’ child by Joy Schaverien explores the emotional deprivation and abuse that many experience as a result of public school culture. Psychotherapist Nick Duffell (2000) wrote a book based on workshops he has conducted over ten years with adults who attended boarding schools as children. He has identified many lasting pathological psychological patterns common in those he calls Boarding school survivors.

In his recent work: Wounded Leaders: the Psychohistory of British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, Nick says:

“A cherished national character ideal, eschewing vulnerability and practising a normalised covert hostility based on bullying in the dorm adversely affects even those who did not have the privilege of such an education. It leaves Britain in the social and emotional dark ages, led by “the boys in the men that run things.

This specific culture of elitism, protected by financial interests and the “It never did me any harm” syndrome, means that Britain is unlikely to foster the kind of leadership necessary in our world of increasing complexity, which needs a communal mindset and cooperative global solutions. But worse, new scientific evidence shows that this hyper-rational training leaves its devotees trapped within the confines of an inflexible mind, beset with functional defects, presented here as the Entitled Brain.”

It’s a sobering thought that so many boarding school survivors – psychologically and emotionally damaged individuals – are involved in running the country and determining the terms and conditions of our lives.

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I don’t make any money from my work. My articles are free. If you like, you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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