Tag: National Audit Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those that do use Verify, problems are widespread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related

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

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

 


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

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled and don’t have any paid employment. But you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

Raincoat. Age. Die. A guest post by Hubert Huzzah

Hubert

In 2008 there were 700,000 people with dementia in the UK. That number is rising rapidly and is projected to be over 1 million by 2025. One in three people over 65 will end their lives with a form of dementia. In 2008 there were 580,000 people with dementia needing Carers in England.

Not all Dementia Sufferers are home owners. For the age group most likely to suffer Dementia 71.6% (45-75+) of the population do own their own home. The average home is worth £215,847 at 2017 prices. So, of the one million people with dementia by 2025, 716,000 will be sitting on assets worth a total of £154Bn.

Imagine being able to take ownership of £154Bn of assets simply by waiting ten years. That is the Dementia Tax. By 2027 those who are currently suffering from even mild dementia symptoms will have to pay for care as the value of the Home will be taken into account when means testing financial support for social care.

Currently, Carers put £132Bn into the Economy purely through Caring Services. This is the amount of money after all benefits – not just Attendance Allowance or Carers Allowance – are paid out. Carers are, in general, the next generation for Dementia sufferers – the children and grandchildren. In total, the Dementia Tax will be taking £286Bn from people who already pay substantial amounts into the economy and have been doing so for two generations.

That means penalising people until 2050 and it does not even make financial sense.

A report from the London School of Economics and King’s College London commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society estimated the financial cost of dementia at over £17 billion for the state and families in 2008. This cost grew significantly as the number of people with dementia rose. A King’s Fund study estimated that the cost of dementia in England would rise from £14.9 billion per year in 2007 to £24 billion (at 2007 prices) by 2026, making up 74% of mental health service costs. Using £154Bn of assets to pay for £24Bn of expenditure is not only poor economics it is an invitation to fraud on an industrial scale.

The less well understood outcome will be a house price collapse leaving first time buyers in negative equity for the first time since the 1980s. In efforts to reduce the amount paid for Care Services, it will become rational for Carers of Dementia Sufferers to undervalue the property to bring the total estate under £100,000 for the purposes of means testing. Undervaluation to receive benefits is, in Social Security Law, fraud. Which will result in a market in avoidance and evasion promoting corruption. The policy, itself, is about effective money laundering which is, always, corrupt.

This undervaluation of properties will, inevitably, signal to the markets that house prices are dropping and so provide pressure to further reduce house prices. This will leave existing first time buyers at risk of negative equity. When Dementia Sufferers within the Dementia Tax Regime begin to die, First Time Buyers will sell to escape negative equity. Resulting in an extreme boom and crash market that will last for decades. The initial boom will be hailed as an economic miracle until the initial crash reveals the depth of the problem. In 2007 the National Audit Office estimated that £102 million could be saved by reducing the time people Dementia Sufferers stay in hospital.

A Lincolnshire case study they found that people with dementia on orthopaedic wards were staying over 24 days on average compared to under 17 days for people without. That increased length of Hospital stay is increasingly expensive as Private Contractors provide the service. At the same time, the Private Contractors, driven by profit, have no incentive to move Dementia sufferers out of Hospitals. The overall outcome is that Hospitals will become bed blocked by Private Contractors and that will feed back to poorer Accident and Emergency Service, longer waiting times and increased ill health in the general population.

The Dementia Tax is a poorly thought out policy that has one objective: releasing £154Bn of assets into financial markets. With the net contribution of £29Bn to the UK economy from the Insurance Sector in 2015, the indication is that the £154Bn will be a five year soft landing for the Insurance Sector on exit from the EU. That soft landing will, inevitably, be a source of capital flight from the UK to other EU capitals such as Dublin, Paris and Berlin. Which leaves the policy cascading out from the Health and Social Care Sector to cascade destabilisation across the Economy.

There are 379 authorised Life Insurance Companies in the UK. 200 are UK authorised and 179 are headquartered in another European country and passport in under the EU Third Life Directive. With the unfolding of Exit from the European Union, the Dementia Tax creates a mechanism for capital flight from the UK via those 179 passported Life Insurance companies. If the UK wishes to retain a working financial services relationship after exit then those 47.2% of Life Insurance Companies passported into the UK market will become the potential source of almost £73Bn of capital flight.

It is a poorly thought out, uncosted, scheme that seeks to buy time for the Tories. Given the public availability of information that can be used to cost the scheme, and the pieces of past research that show how poor equity-release is for solving financial problems, where did the Dementia Tax actually come from?

 

Sources: National Audit Office, Alzheimers Society, Association Of British Insurers. Picture: Madeline Von Foerster. “The Promise II” (Death And The Maiden).

Written by Hubert Huzzah

Thanks Mr Green, but we want more than token gestures and political opportunism

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The work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, is expected to announce at the Conservative conference that those people with severe, lifelong conditions will no longer face six-monthly reassessments.

Employment and support allowance (a misleading title for sickness and disability support for those people whose doctors say are too unwell to work) will now continue automatically for people who have lifelong, severe health conditions, with no prospect of improvement, according to Green.

However, the retesting of chronically ill or disabled people for another key disability benefit – personal independence payments – is to remain, and thousands with unchanging or degenerative conditions are preparing to be put through that pointless assessment again.

I can’t help wondering how “chronic” and “degenerative” will be defined and how exemption from reassessment will be decided. It’s unclear which medical conditions will be considered grounds for a reprieve from further WCAs, but apparently the criteria will be drawn up by “health professionals. There were no details provided about who these “health professionals” will be. Many people have no faith whatsoever in the medical judgments of the assessors themselves – especially when they have previously been known to ask woefully ignorant questions like “how long are you likely to have Parkinson’s disease?”

It may be the case that those claiming Employment and Support Allowance, placed in the support group will be exempt from the reassessments. However, as Samuel Miller, a human rights specialist and campaigner for disabled people, points out: 

“The Department for Work and Pensions says that it is scraping retesting for people with severe, lifelong conditions at the same time that there has been a sharp drop in Support Group awards and a sharp increase in people placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). Charities report that 45% of people who put in a claim for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and had Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, or Rheumatoid Arthritis, were placed in the WRAG.

Disability rights campaigners are concerned that the figures show the government is cutting spending on disability benefits “below the radar”, after being forced to abandon its attempts to reduce expenditure on personal independence payment (PIP) in April.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, released last month, show the proportion of disabled people applying for ESA who were placed in the support group – for those assessed with “the highest barriers to work” – plunged by 42 per cent in just three months. There are concerns that the Work Capability Assessment has been made even more harsh by stealth.

For assessments completed during November 2015, 57 per cent of claimants were placed in the support group; but by February 2016 that had dropped by 24 percentage points to just 33 per cent. 

Far too little far too late

This small change will not undo the suffering of sick and disabled people who have already been caught in the revolving door of the assessment and reassessment process. It’s not uncommon for people fighting a wrong “fit for work” decision to wait for many months before they win at tribunal, only to find that within three months of their successful appeal, they have another appointment for reassessment.

You would think that if someone has just won an appeal, common sense would prevail – that someone at the DWP would acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely these people have suddenly got better in such a short space of time. The strain of being put through this callous revolving door process has an adverse impact on people with chronic conditions, exacerbating their symptoms. It is profoundly stressful and anxiety-provoking. 

This political token gesture will not undo the profound physical and psychological damage that the WCA has caused some of our most vulnerable citizens. And for many who did not feel vulnerable – those who felt they coped pretty well with their illness ordinarily – the constant strain of having to prove themselves ill and the loss of lifeline income whilst they await mandatory review and appeal, has led to increased vulnerability.

It’s also tragic and painful that it’s far too late to help the people who have died as a consequence of  being told they are fit for work when they are not, and being forced to fight for lifeline social security to meet their basic needs.

I am happy to see the announced decision to stop reassessing chronically sick people every six months, because it’s unlikely they will get better. (The clue was always in the word “chronic,” curiously enough). If that brings about a reduction in the widespread suffering caused by the callous cost-cutting WCA , it’s a small step towards much needed positive change. This move would have been more credible as a signal of good intentions had Green also intended to announce the reversal of the cuts planned for those in the work related activity group, claiming ESA.

That a UK government feels it’s acceptable to financially penalise and punish a previously protected social group – comprised of people judged as too ill to work by doctors – shows how far our society has regressed in terms of equality and human rights. And democracy. 

Labour have already pledged to abolish the Work Capability Assessment

Call me a cynic, but didn’t the Labour party pledge to completely scrap the Work Capability Assessment at their conference? Debbie Abrahams, shadow work and pensions secretary, spoke of strong ethical and empirically evidenced reasons for doing so.

She says: “As ever with this government though, the devil is in the detail. While the end to repeated assessments will be a relief to those that have been affected, this announcement falls far short of the fundamental shift to a more holistic, person-centred approach we so desperately need.

“Too many sick and disabled people will remain subject to this harmful, ineffective assessment. We will continue to push the Tories for a better deal for disabled people.”

After years of people suffering and evidenced feedback from victims of their policies, campaigners and academic researchers, the government decide NOW that chronic actually means “chronic”?

Duncan Smith, whose resignation from the role of work and pensions secretary was seen as an attack on the then leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne, told the Today programme he “completely agreed with the changes.”

“We worked to change this process, it was one we inherited and it just functioned badly on this area,” he said.

That isn’t true.

Some historical context

The Work Capability Assessment was piloted under the last Labour government, but Duncan Smith passed it into law after disregarding the concerns that the Labour party had raised following their review, regarding the assessment process being insensitive to fluctuating conditions and mental health status. In fact Duncan Smith modified the assessment process, making it even less sensitive. In early 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government initiated the planned expansion of the programme to reassess 1.5 million people whom previous governments had judged to be entitled to Incapacity Benefit.

At the same time the DWP introduced long-planned revisions to the test’s eligibility criteria, which became more stringent overall: most notably, the 03/11 version awarded no points when a claimant who had difficulty walking could overcome the disability by using a wheelchair, if reasonably practicable. When Atos were recontracted in 2010, targets to remove the higher rate benefits from seven out of eight claimants were built into the new contract. Dr Steven Bick reported that “experts” testing Incapacity Benefit claimants were told they should rate only about one in eight as so disabled they will never work. The “quota” was enforced by French firm Atos, paid £100 million a year for the testing, and was revealed by undercover GP Bick on Channel 4’s Dispatches.

In February 2011, Professor Paul Gregg, an economist and one of the original architects of ESA, warned that the WCA was “badly malfunctioning” and urged further pilot studies before the more stringent 03/11 version was used as the default assessment. Nevertheless, the mammoth Incapacity Benefit reassessment programme got under way in the spring of 2011, using the new version of the test.

In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each WCA had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus.

The report went on to say that Maximus was facing “significant challenges with staff failing to complete training requirements” and revealed that in July 2015 – less than six months into the new contract – the DWP had been obliged to draw up a “performance improvement plan” with Maximus because “volume targets were not being met”.

Perhaps the real reasons for stopping the six-monthly assessments are entirely financial – merely cost-cutting measures. As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”. 

Green told the Press Association: “We are building a country that works for everyone – not just the privileged few. A key part of that is making sure that all those who are able to work are given the support and the opportunity to do so. But it also means ensuring that we give full and proper support to those who can’t.”

(You can laugh now. I’m just wondering when an assessment for tax-dodging millionaires who were awarded at least £107,000 each per year in the form of a “tax break” will happen. This was at the same time the first round of welfare cuts were announced. It would be refreshing to see the minority of privileged citizens shouldering some of the burden of austerity and “paying down the the deficit” for a change. It would be fair to expect those who have gained the most from society to put something back, after all.)

He went on to say: “That includes sweeping away any unnecessary stress and bureaucracy – particularly for the most vulnerable in society.

“If someone has a disease which can only get worse then it doesn’t make sense to ask them to turn up for repeated appointments. If their condition is not going to improve, it is not right to ask them to be tested time after time. So we will stop it.”

I find it incredible that it’s taken six years for this “revelation” to hit home. Overwhelming empirical evidence that the assessment process is harming sick and disabled people has been presented to the government on many occasions, only to prompt what is, after all, a very small and inadequate policy change.

Green has almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, generally voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices, almost always voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, and almost always voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (the “Bedroom Tax”), which has disproportionately affected sick and disabled people and their carers.

Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”

It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit. 

Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

What Green has offered falls far short of Oakley’s recommendations.

Let’s not accept politically opportunistic sops and scraps of small comfort.

Sick and disabled people deserve so much better than this. The Work Capability Assessment is not only consistently empirically demonstrated as being unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel, but it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.

 

Related

Man leaves coroner letter as he fears Work Capability Assessment will kill him

The Tories are epistemological tyrants: about the DWP’s Mortality Statistics release

Labour pledge to scrap punitive Tory sanctions and the Work Capability Assessment

The Government’s brutal cuts to disability support isn’t ‘increasing spending’, Chancellor, but handing out tax cuts to the rich is

Government Finally Reveals That More Than 4,000 Died Within Six Weeks Of Being Deemed ‘Fit For Work’

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

What you need to know about the Work Capability Assessment

 


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

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Conservative social security policy is not founded on rational analysis and evidence

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Recently I wrote an article about the new benefit cap which parodied Conservative ideology, traditional class prejudices and subsequent justification narratives for their welfare “reforms”, likening the latter to nineteenth century character divination – phrenology in particular. Sometimes, it’s easier to highlight the ridiculous by simply ridiculing it.

A lot of my work is themed around serious and rational critique of Conservative shortcomings when it comes to the whole process of policy-making and research, from the theories” that inform the process, to the ideologically-driven impacts and narrow neoliberal aims and outcomes, which have led to some catastrophic social consequences. This is because austerity has been aimed exclusively at those citizens who had the very least to start off with. Sick and disabled people have been systematically and disproportionately targeted for cuts to their support.

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I’ve written previously about the government’s increasing use of secondary legislation to push through controversial and highly partisan policies without an adequate degree of parliamentary scrutiny and debate. The public are entirely excluded from this process. This is one way that the Conservatives have been getting away with highly prejudiced, ideologically-driven policies that have not been analysed in terms of safeguarding citizens, impact, compatibility with our international human rights obligations and are neither adequately justified nor evidenced. 

The Strathclyde review and Conservative authoritarianism

Secondary legislation is unamendable and is allocated 90 minutes debate in the Commons at best, by the Conservatives. Secondary legislation in the form of Statutory Instruments was only ever intended for non-controversial and small tidying up legislative measures. A Tory aide admitted that the government are trying to get as much unpopular legislation in through the secondary route as possible. But this has been very evident anyway. The government is intent on dismantling any inconvenient piece of the constitution.

In a democracy there is always a responsibility and need to ensure additional checks and balances against incumbent governments and for extending opportunities to review and improve the quality of legislation. There is always a need to broaden the political participation and democratic inclusion of particular groups in society; to explore ways by which under-represented groups may be identified and included in political decision-making processes.

Statutory Instruments are the principal form in which delegated legislation is made, and are intended to be used for simple, non-controversial measures, in contrast to more complex items of primary legislation (known as Bills.) The opposition has frequently complained that the government uses Statutory Instruments to pass complex and controversial legislation which should have been subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny. Universal credit, the legal aid and tax credit cuts are clear examples of the misuse of secondary legislation, each with far-reaching and detrimental socioeconomic consequences for many people.

The steep rise in the use of Statutory Instruments since 2010 is an indication of how the Conservatives are politically managing pre-legislative scrutiny, stifling healthy debate, curtailing opposition, and side-stepping essential democratic transparency and accountability. It’s also an indication that much Conservative legislation is ideologically-driven rather than needs-driven: the use of secondary legislation as a means of avoiding scrutiny demonstrates that the government are aware that much of their planned programme won’t stand up to close Parliamentary examination and rational debate.

Lord Strathclyde was asked in October last year by David Cameron to undertake a “rapid review” that considered how to secure the decisive role of the House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation. Of course, Strathclyde’s report was published by the Government on the 17 December, 2015, which marked the final sitting of Parliament before Christmas. Nonetheless the media did actually cover the contents of the report and some of the implications of the recommendations made.

Strathclyde concluded in his report that the House of Lords should be permitted to ask the Commons to “think again” when a disagreement on proposed legislation exists, but should not be allowed to veto. MPs would ultimately make a decision on whether a measure is passed into law. The review focuses in particular on the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, in relation to the former’s primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation.

The key problem is that Statutory Instruments (SI) are being over-used and are under-scrutinised in the Commons. SIs have become a major form of law-making activity in the UK. In 2015, the UK Parliament passed 34 Acts, whilst 1,999 Statutory Instruments were made. (In fact, 2015 has been a relatively light year for SIs: in 2013 and 2014, 3,292 and 3,486 SIs were made.)

The government ensure they have a majority on any SI committee and MPs are chosen by Whips. The Hansard Society estimate that SIs currently account for as much as 80 per cent of the Government legislation that impacts citizens. However, they are given substantially less Parliamentary time than Bills, enabling government to push through their ideologically designed legislative programme with very little scrutiny, exacerbating a lack of democratic transparency and accountability of the Executive (the government). 

Further presented justification for grotesquely unfair policies from the Conservatives is based on a claim that “we have a clear mandate to do this.” The concept of a government having a legitimate mandate to govern via the fair winning of a democratic election is a central component of representative democracy. However, new governments who attempt to introduce policies that they did not make explicit and public during an election campaign are said to not have a legitimate mandate to implement such policies. 

In order to keep his promises on further future tax cuts for higher earners, George Osborne made even more cuts to public services, public sector pay and the social security safety net that are so deep they will severely damage both the economy and potentially, the fabric of our society. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) have criticised Osborne’s proposed tax credit cuts, because it is “at odds” with wider Conservative stated aims to “support hardworking families”.

Research conducted by the IFS calculated that only around quarter of money take from families through tax credit cuts would be returned by the new National “Living Wage”.Tax credits are payments made by the government to people on lower incomes, most of whom are in work. 

Cameron effectively ruled out cutting the benefit before the election, telling a voter’s Question Time that he “rejected” proposals to cut tax credits and did not want to do so. The cuts are part of £12bn cuts to the social security budget that the government is to make – the details of which the Conservatives refused to announce before the election.

However, in an unprecedented move, the Conservatives have threatened a constitutional “showdown”, and have refused to engage in dialogue with peers that want kill off the proposed Tory cuts. The government warned the House of Lords it would trigger a full-scale constitutional crisis by pressing ahead with their plans. 

The review by Lord Strathclyde, commissioned by a rancorous and retaliatory Cameron followed the delay and subsequently effective defeat of government tax credit legislation in the House of Lords, and it has, of course, recommended curtailing the powers of Upper House. 

Strathclyde proposed that the House of Commons is given the final say over secondary legislation (in particular, Statutory Instruments), which are, as previously stated, frequently being used for political manoeuvring to edit the details of Acts, and ensure rules, regulations and even changes to legal definitions are made by ministerial order, rather than by the rather more open and democratic process of primary legislation: it’s being used as a way of bypassing Parliamentary scrutiny. 

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The view from the Social Security Advisory Committee

More recently, the Chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has also concluded that “pressure from the Treasury” resulted in welfare changes being pushed through parliament “without meaningful analysis of impact or interactions with other parts of the benefit system.” He also raises the same issues that I previously have regarding the government’s increased use of secondary legislation.

In a very damning report on how the government develops welfare policies, SSAC Chair Paul Gray says top-down pressure from the former chancellor, Osborne, to meet Budget deadlines meant legislation was being rushed without proper analysis or scrutiny.

In a foreword to the report, Gray writes: “On the basis that primary legislation was to be debated in some detail in Parliament, the Government was not required to bring the majority of these provisions to SSAC.

Consequently, the amount of secondary legislation presented to us in the first few months of the reporting year was lighter than usual.

By contrast from September onwards a number of sets of regulations were presented to us for scrutiny – most with their origins in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget proposals for reducing benefit expenditure.”

He goes on to say: “The Committee has observed that legislation required to deliver policies announced by the Chancellor during his Budget or autumn statements is often developed at pace to meet challenging deadlines set by HM Treasury.

This has regularly resulted in secondary legislation being presented to us without meaningful analysis of impact or interactions with other parts of the benefit system.

The absence of evidence underpinning some of the Government’s policy choices has been a significant concern to us over the past year, and we hope that the Government will adjust this aspect of its approach to policy-making in the coming year.”

He added: “The committee has noted in the past the absence of analytical material on the cumulative impact of welfare reforms.”

Gray also draws attention in particular to tax credit changes proposed in the summer budget highlighting “the lack of available evidence to support the policy changes being presented to us”.

Gray concludes: “There can be no question that this committee is hampered in its role of scrutinising proposed changes in cases where the supporting explanatory material and evidence is scant.”

It’s a point I have made myself many many times. However, unlike the government, I do tend to include evidence and analysis in my ongoing critique of Conservative policies.

The ideological drive to dismantle the welfare state

Despite the relentless Conservative attacks on social security since 2010, (which is funded by the citizens that it supports when they experience hardships), Theresa May will not rule out delivering yet more brutal welfare cuts if the economy suffers a downturn because of Britain exiting the EU. The prime minister refused to offer any guarantees that she will spare struggling families if Whitehall savings are needed in the coming months. 

May has made it clear there will be no end to Tory austerity, she said: “What I’m clear about is we’re going to continue as we have done in Government over the last six years – ensuring that we’re a country that can live within our means.”

I’m just wondering how awarding millionaires £107,000 each per year in the form of a “tax break” in 2012 at the same time as introducing the radical cuts to social security can possibly be construed as an act that ensures “a country that can live within our means.” It seems to me that the Conservatives want to completely dismantle our welfare state, along with all the other gains of our social settlement (social housing, the NHS, legal aid and public services) but fear public opposition.

So rather than be honest about their intention, the Conservatives have chosen to stigmatise people needing welfare support to disperse public sympathy, to create scapegoats and generate moral panic. The public gradually come to accept the anti-welfare narrative as “fact”, despite the lack of evidence and analysis. Moral and rational boundaries will be pushed, prejudice will advance stage by stage. The incremental cuts will continue until there is nothing left to cut.

Earlier this year, the chancellor was forced to try and defend his decision to use the cuts in disability benefits to fund tax breaks for the wealthy. Controversially, the cuts benefitted the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor raised the threshold at which people start paying 40p tax, in a move that saw many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax. 

Osborne callously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.” It was an utterly ludicrous comment.

The cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.

In a wealth transfer from the poorest to the very rich, we have witnessed the profits of public services being privatised, but the losses have been socialised – entailing a process of economic enclosure for the wealthiest. The burden of losses have been placed on the poorest social groups and some of our most vulnerable citizens – largely those people who are ill, disabled and elderly. The Conservative’s justification narratives regarding their draconian policies, targeting the poorest social groups, have led to media scapegoating, social outgrouping, persistent political denial of the aims and consequences of policies and reflect a wider process of political disenfranchisement of the poorest citizens, especially sick and disabled people.

That the cuts are ideologically driven, and have nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity, was demonstrated only too well by the National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year. The NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The report indicates how public services are being appropriated for purely private benefit.

The audit report in January concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments conducted by private companies than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill.

From the report:

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

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending.

This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payer’s money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work”and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Private companies like Maximus are paid millions from our welfare budget, yet they are certainly not “helping the government” to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, private companies serve the private needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making lots of private profit whilst it does so. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist, antidemocratic, profoundly uncivilising prescriptions and longstanding class-based prejudices.

When the Conservatives say they are going to “tackle poverty”, what they mean is that they intend to rigidly police the poor, rather than alleviate poverty. Meanwhile, the new right’s economic enclosure act – austerity – will continue to impoverish many more. The state will respond to each crisis with more authoritarianism and psychopolitical techniques of persuasion, amplified via the media. And the wealthy and powerful will become wealthier and more powerful.

Unless we collectively fight back.

— 

Related

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

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

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

 


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Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

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National Audit Office (NAO) is currently undertaking a study of benefit sanctions, in order to:

“… examine whether the Department for Work and Pensions is achieving value for money from its administration of benefit sanctions. This includes how benefit sanctions fit with the intended aims and outcomes of DWP’s wider working age employment policy, whether sanctions are being implemented in line with policy and whether use of sanctions is leading to the intended outcomes for claimants.”

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

Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial is mandatory. There is clearly no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychopolitical approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits 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 unfair, punitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, causing death.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The reconceptualision of poverty makes it much more difficult 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 turns democracy completely on its head. Policies are meant to meet public needs, rather than being used simply as tools of government to have the public meet ideologically-determined government outcomes.

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 also places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.

It’s clear that the government intends to continue embedding sanctions in policies which were meant to provide a minimal income for people needing support. This is policy based entirely on ideology and traditional Conservative prejudice, aimed at punishing sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers, inflicting conditions of hardship, distress and absolute poverty on those social groups. 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.

It’s important that we gather and present as much evidence as possible about the detrimental impact of welfare sanctions. The NAO study will run until the Autumn, so that gives us some time to have our say about our own experiences.

It is easy to make a submission to the study. Just go to the contact page and select welfare and benefits as the topic, and write “FAO Colin Ross” or “Max Tse” in the subject field. Alternatively,  you can email Colin Ross, the audit manager, directly at Colin.ROSS@nao.gsi.gov.uk

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. If we can’t meet our basic physiological needs, it isn’t likely that we will be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs.

Related

We would like to hear your stories about how the cuts have affected you and your service. We want the wider public and politicians to understand the real life costs of public sector cuts. It can be hard to speak up alone, so we are collating everyone’s stories – together we have more power and a louder voice. We all have stories of frustration, fear and anger, so please use this as a way to tell the world about how the cuts have impacted on you and/or the people you work with. We are interested in stories from everyone who works in, uses, or needs Psychology services:

Psychologists Against Austerity campaign – call for evidence

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

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

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

 


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Conservative welfare “reforms” – the sound of one hand clapping

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“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.

Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric:  How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.

“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.

Conservative policies are incoherent: they don’t fulfil their stated aims and certainly don’t address public needs. Furthermore, Conservative rhetoric has become completely detached from the experiences of most citizens and their everyday realities.

Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality.”

The Conservatives have since claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and introducing severe conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of unfortunate circumstances, bad political decision-making and subsequent politically-constructed socio-economic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed a manipulated semantic shift, “fair” has become a Glittering Generality – part of a lexicon of propaganda that simply props up Tory ideology in an endlessly erroneous and self-referential way. Conservative ideology is permeating language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help”, “justice” , “equality” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The altered semantics clearly signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative narrative, constructed on the basic, offensive idea that people claiming welfare do so because of “faulty” personal characteristics, and that welfare creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support and opportunities – social insurance and security when people need it.

The government claims to be “committed to supporting the most vulnerable” and ensuring “everyone contributes to reducing the deficit, and where those with the most contribute the most.” That is blatantly untrue, as we can see from just a glance at Conservative policies.

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Conservative rhetoric is a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Glittering Generalities are being used to mask political acts of discrimination.

Cameron claims that he is going to address “inequality” and “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating those problems via policies? Under Cameron’s government, we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the USA, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income, than the UK.

I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees, removing bursaries and maintainance grants for students from poorer backgrounds and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending “equal opportunities.”

It’s perplexing that a government claiming itself to be “economically competent” can possibly attempt to justify spending more tax payers money on appealing a Supreme Court decision that the bedroom tax policy is discriminatory, when it would actually cost less implementing the legal recommendations of the court. As Owen Smith, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Just the Supreme Court session itself will cost the Government more in legal fees than the £200,000 needed to exempt domestic abuse victims affected.

“If the Tories had an ounce of decency they could have stood by the decision and exempted the two groups.

“Instead they are instructing expensive lawyers to fight in the Supreme Court for the right to drive people further into poverty.”

As a consequence of the highly discriminatory and blatantly class-contingent Tory policies, rampant socio-economic inequality apparently is the new Tory “fair”. There is a clear incongruence between Conservative rhetoric and the impact of their policies. This is further highlighted by the fact that the UK is currently being investigated by the United Nations regarding serious contraventions of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and other marginalised groups, because of the dire impact of Conservative welfare “reforms.”

It’s clear that the austerity cuts which target the poorest are intentional, ideologically-driven decisions, taken within a context of other available choices and humane options.

The rise in the need for food banks in the UK, amongst both the working and non-working poor, over the past five years and the return of absolute poverty, not seen since before the advent of the welfare state in this country, makes a mockery of government claims that it supports the most vulnerable.

Income tax receipts to the Treasury have fallen because those able to pay the most are being steadily exempted from social responsibility, and wages for many of the poorer citizens have fallen, whilst the cost of living has risen significantly over this past five years.

The ideologically motivated transfer of funds from the poorest half of the country to the more affluent has not contributed to deficit reduction. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the cumulative impact of Tory tax and welfare changes, from out-of-work and in-work benefits to council tax support, to the cut in the top rate of income tax and an increase in tax-free personal allowances, has been extremely regressive and detrimental to the poorest.

The revenue gains from the tax changes and benefit cuts were offset by the cost of tax reductions, particularly the increase in the income tax personal allowance, benefitting the wealthiest.

The Treasury response to this is to single out the poorest yet again for more cuts to “balance the books” – which basically translates as the Conservative “small state” fetish, and deep dislike of the gains we made from the post-war settlement. Yet for a government that claims a non-interventionist stance, it sure does make a lot of interventions. Always on behalf of the privileged class, with policies benefitting only the wealthy minority.

How can Conservatives believe that poor people are motivated to work harder by taking money from them, yet also apparently believe that wealthy people are motivated by giving them more money? This is not “behavioural science,” it’s policy-making founded entirely on traditional Tory prejudices.

The government claim that “Every individual policy change is carefully considered, including looking at the effect on disabled people in line with legal obligations,” but without carrying out a cumulative impact assessment, the effects and impacts of policies can’t possibly be accurately measured. And that is intentional, too.

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.

The use of secondary legislation has risen at an unprecedented rate, reaching an extraordinary level since 2010, and it’s increased use is to ensure that the Government meet with little scrutiny and challenge in the House of Commons when they attempt to push through controversial and unpopular, ideologically-driven legislation.

Conservative cuts are most often applied by stealth, using statutory instruments. This indicates a government that is well aware that its policies are not fit for purpose.

We can’t afford Conservative ideological indulgence.

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

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

The NAO report summarises:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

65%
Estimated increase in cost per ESA assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)


84%
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

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

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

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

This summary reflects staggering and deliberate economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically-motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people.

The government claim they want to “help” sick and disabled people into work, but nearly 14,000 disabled people have lost their mobility vehicle after the changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessment, which are carried out by private companies. Many more, yet to be reassessed, are also likely to lose their specialised vehicles.

In 2012, Esther McVey revealed that the new PIP  was about cutting costs and that there were targets to reduce the number of successful claims when she told the House of Commons:330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced.How else could she have known that before those people were actually assessed? A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to “those with the greatest need.”

That basically meant a narrowing of eligibility criteria for people formerly claiming Disability Living Allowance, increasing the number of reassessments required, and limiting the number of successful claims. The government have used the review to attempt to justify further restrictions to PIP eligibility, aimed at cutting support for people who require aids to meet fundamental needs such as preparing food, dressing, basic and essential personal care and managing incontinence. “Greatest need” has become an ever-shrinking category under Conservative austerity measures. 

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The use of political pseudo-psychological “diagnoses” to both stigmatise and “treat” what are generally regarded by the Conservatives as deviant behaviours from cognitively incompetent citizens, infering that the problem lies within the individual rather than in their circumstances, or arise as a consequence of political decision-making and socio-economic models, has become the new normal. We are discussing people here who have been deemed too ill to work by their own doctor AND the state. Not for the first time, the words Arbeit macht frei spring to mind.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

It is the human costs that are particularly distressing, and in a wealthy, first world liberal democracy, such draconian policies ought to be untenable. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. Those prescriptions are costing the UK in terms of the economy, but MUCH worse, it is costing us in terms of our decent, collective, civilised response to people experiencing difficult circumstances through no fault of their own; it’s costing the most vulnerable citizens their wellbeing and unforgivably, it is also costing precious human lives.

It’s not just that Conservative rhetoric is incoherent and incongruent with the realities created by their policies. Policy-making has become increasingly detached from public needs and instead, it is being directed at “incentivising” and “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet a rigidly ideological state agenda. That turns democracy completely on its head. There is no longer a genuine dialogue between government and citizens, only a diversionary and oppressive state monologue.

And it’s the sound of one hand clapping.

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There are many ways of destroying people’s lives, not all of them are obvious. Taking away people’s means of meeting basic survival needs, such as money for food, fuel and shelter – which are the bare essentials that benefits were originally calculated to cover – invariably increases the likelihood that they will die. The people most adversely and immediately affected are those who have additional needs for support.

The moment that sick and disabled people were defined as a “burden on the state” by the government, we began climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice.

Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of  world war 2 and Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with the political scapegoating and systematic dehumanisation of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

If you think this observation is “extreme” then you really haven’t been paying attention. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to be the highest ever recorded. By 2015, there was a further 41 per cent rise in disability hate crime. This is the so-called “civilised” first world, very wealthy liberal democracy that is the UK.

Most disabled people have worked, contributed to society, paid taxes and national insurance. Those that haven’t genuinely cannot work, and as a decent, civilised society, we should support them. Being ill and disabled is not a “lifestyle choice.” Unfortunately it can happen to anyone. A life-changing accident or illness doesn’t only happen to others: no-one is exempted from such a possibility. That this government thinks it can get away with peddling utter nonsense about the characters, lives and motivations of a marginalised social group, dehumanising them, directing hatred, resentment, prejudice and public derision towards them, demonstrates only too well just how far we have moved away from being a decent, civilised society. 

It seems to be almost weekly that there’s a report in the media about a sick and disabled person dying after being told by the state that they are “fit for work” and their lifeline benefits have been halted, or because the state has sanctioned someone and withdrawn their only support. There are many thousands more suffering in silence, fearful and just about living.

 

Debbie Abrahams MP Calls Slow Disability Payments “Unjust And Inhumane”

536738_306169162785952_999031084_nOldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams is calling for an end to the ‘injustice of delayed payments to disabled and terminally ill people’.

Mrs Abrahams has spoken in a Westminster debate detailing her concerns about the quality of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), how assessments are processed, and the huge toll slow payments are putting on thousands of disabled people and their families.

In her speech, the Labour MP said: “Along with other Labour MPs I welcome welfare reforms where we can see there will be genuine benefit.

“But the PIP process has been beset with problems since it was introduced – the toll of process cannot be overestimated.”

The National Audit Office report, which came out in February last year, described it as a ‘poor early operational performance’ with ‘long uncertain delays’ for new PIP claimants.

At that time, the average wait was 107 days – for terminally ill claimants, claims were taking 28 days on average.

Mrs Abrahams added: “I heard from a woman whose partner has cancer and is waiting for radiotherapy – they have been living on £113 a week since they applied at the beginning of April.

“There is also an effect on passported benefits such as a carer’s allowance, disability premiums and concessionary travel.”

It is estimated that 602,000 people currently receiving Disability Living Allowance will not be eligible for PIP, by 2018 – £24billion will have been cut from 3.7million disabled people.

Mrs Abrahams noted that about a third of respondents to a survey of more than 4,000 Parkinson’s suffers said they are ‘financially worse off’ since being diagnosed.

She said: “For more than a quarter of them money concerns are having a negative impact on their Parkinson’s.

“Some 42,000 people are waiting more than 42 weeks, and four out of 10 people are still waiting for their PIP claim to be processed.”

After the debate Debbie said: “How the government expects people to manage with no money for so long is a complete mystery to me.

“It was clear from this debate that there is no remorse from the government. I still find it hard to comprehend their injustice and inhumanity.

“There is evidence of a culture of intimidation and general hassling of claimants on JSA, ESA and DLA/PIP – the delays are just another way of making people ‘give up’.

“If there is one message I would like to get across it is that this could be you or me!

“We could become ill, or have an accident and become disabled, or lose our jobs and then we’d rely on our welfare system.

“We should be proud not just of our NHS but of all parts of our welfare system. This is what a wealthy, humane society such as the UK should do for its citizens. 

“Yes, there will always be people who misuse the system but they are a tiny, tiny minority and not as the government always tries to imply the majority. The evidence just doesn’t support them.”

Thanks to Neil Athey.

10177255_710935002309364_996655242459079802_nPictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone.