Tag: Nudge Unit

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called loss aversion.

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than libertarian paternalism, since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people. 

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning, which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income, originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people.”

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes therefore cannot be located within individuals.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

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

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

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

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

So please share widely.

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

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

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

Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information relating to:

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

• Purpose of the research.

• Procedures involved in the research.

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

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

Protection of Participants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image result for work coaches : you can still work if you are ill UK
Source: Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives. Consultation outcome


Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s new
Work and Health Programme, I flagged up concerns regarding government plans to enlist GPs in prescribing work coaches for people who are sick and disabled, and in providing advice on job-seeking. The private and confidential patient-doctor relationship ought to be about addressing medical health problems, and supporting people who are ill, not about creating yet another space for an over extension of the coercive arm of the state to “help people into work”, regardless of whether or not they are actually well enough to cope with working.

I also posted my article on the Pulse site for medical professionals last October, raising some of my concerns. I proposed that the government may use the “intervention” as a further opportunity for sanctioning sick and disabled people for “non-compliance”, and I expressed concern that this would conflict with the ethics and role of a doctor. I also stated my concern about the potential this pilot has for damaging the trust between doctors and their patients. I do support the idea of social prescribing in theory, but this scheme is certainly not that. This is plain state harassment and coercion.

It’s interesting to see that among all those listed present at the various pilot-related meetings behind closed doors regarding the government’s new Work and Health programme, there isn’t a single sick and disabled person or relevant representative charity to be found. That’s telling, because it means that the provision is not founded on consultation, is not designed to be inclusive from the start, nor does it have a democratic or representative foundation. It’s another case of government policy that acts upon groups people, prescriptively, as if they were objects, rather than human subjects with identifiable needs and the capacity for democratic dialogue.

I discovered last October, almost by chance, that the Nudge Unit team have been working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to trial social experiments aimed at finding ways of: “preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

“These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers.”  Source: Matthew Hancock’s conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

Now GPs have raised their own concerns about sharing patient data with the Department for Work and Pensions – and quite properly so. Pulse reports that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to extract information from GP records, including the number of Med3s or so-called “fit notes” issued by each practice and the number of patients recorded as “unfit” or “maybe fit” for work, in an intrusive move described by GP leaders as amounting to “state snooping.”

Part of the reason for this renewed government attack on sick and disabled people is that the Government’s flagship fit note scheme, which replaced sick notes five years ago in the hope it would see GPs sending thousands more employees back to work to reduce sickness-related absence, despite GPs having expressed doubts since before its launch, has predictably failed.

The key reason for the failure is that employers did not take responsibility for working with employees and GPs seriously, and more than half (59%) of employers said they felt unable to support employees by making all of the legally required workplace adjustments for those who had fit notes signed as “may be fit for work.” Rather than address this issue with employers, the government has decided instead to simply coerce patients back into work without essential support.

Another reason for the failure of this scheme is that most people who need time off from work are ill and genuinely cannot return to work until they have recovered. Regardless of the government’s concern for the business and state costs of sick leave, people cannot be simply ushered out of illness and into work by the state to “contribute to the economy.” When a GP says a person is “unfit for work”, they generally ARE unfit for work, regardless of whether the government likes that or not.

The government plans to merge health and employment services, and are now attempting to redefine work as a clinical outcome. Unemployment has been stigmatised and politically redefined as a psychological disorder, the government claims somewhat incoherently that the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

This is the kind of mentality that the new Work and Health programme is founded on: Dr Josephine Sauvage, the joint vice chair of NHS Islington CCG and a GP at City Road Medical Practice, where the programme is being trialed currently, said the programme can help patients.

She said: “When we become ill we often stop doing those things that get us out and about and bring fulfilment to our lives.”

Yes, that’s what being chronically ill means: we often become incapacitated and sometimes we can’t do all of the things we did before. But since when is working the only source of fulfilment? And how does forcing people who are ILL to look for ANY job, regardless of pay, security, terms and conditions and appropriateness lead to “fulfilment”? A patient is defined as:

  • A person who requires medical care.
  • A person receiving medical care or medical treatment.
  • A person under a physician’s care for a particular disease or condition.

There is no mention of a person’s employment status or the pressing need for a job prescription in that definition.

As part of the Work and Health programme, beginning next month, the DWP plans to access people’s medical information. Employment coaches will be able to directly “update” a patient’s medical record.

GPs will have to inform patients of the access to information and any extraction of confidential information from their medical files, but cannot withhold information unless their patient explicitly objects.

Sofia Lind, a senior journalist at Pulse, says: GPs, as data controllers, will be required to tell patients in person, via notices in the practice and on the practice website of the impending extraction.”

Patients have the right to object to the use and disclosure of confidential information that isn’t used for their medical care.

Patients can explicitly refuse their consent to data sharing. The Data Protection Act 1998 covers personal information including health records. Further provision under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 establishes a right to respect for private and family life. This underscores the duty to protect the privacy of individuals and preserve the confidentiality of their health records.

There is also additional guidance from the British Medical Association (BMA) here – GPs as Data controllers guidance. (PDF)

You can:

Write your own letter to the GP health centre. Here is a basic letter template in 3 formats that you can download and use:

Opt out letter (PDF)

Opt out letter (MS Word)

Opt out letter (Rich Text)

Make sure you state clearly that don’t wish for any of your data and medical information, including details of your fit notes, to be shared with the DWP and any other third party. You can also:

In addition to sharing information with the DWP, due to changes in legislation, your GP can now be required to upload personal and identifiable information from the medical record of every patient in England to central servers at the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

Once this information leaves your GP practice, your doctor will no longer be in control of what data is passed on or to whom. This information will include diagnoses, investigations, treatments and referrals as well as other things you may have shared with your doctor including your weight, alcohol consumption, smoking and family history. Each piece of information will be identifiable as it will be uploaded with your NHS number, date of birth, post code, gender and ethnicity. NHS England – the body now in charge of commissioning primary care services across England – will manage and use the information extracted by HSCIC for a range of purposes, none of which are to do with your direct medical care.

Whenever I am ill, I don’t ever consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith or the government more generally for advice. There are very good reasons for this. I don’t want to be confronted with pseudoscientific Conservative anti-welfare dogma, I prefer instead to seek the expert, trusted medical opinion of a qualified doctor. I expect professional medical care, not brute state coercion and a punishment regime that is particularly reminiscent of the 1834 Poor Law amendment Act.

And despite assurances from those professionals currently trialing the Work and Health programme that all participation is (currently) voluntary, against the current backdrop of ever-increasing welfare conditionality, the political stigmatisation of people not in work, the frequent punitive deployment of benefit sanctions, the mandatory  welfare-to-work schemes, it’s difficult to imagine a Conservative scheme that will not entail exercising Conservative prejudice and pseudoscientific justifications of Tory economic Darwinist ideology.

It’s hardly the case that the state has an even remotely credible track record of assessing people’s medical conditions, nor is it the case that this government bothers itself with empirical evidence, or deigns to listen to concerns raised by citizens, academics, professionals and charities regarding the harm that their policies are causing. This is a government that can’t even manage to observe basic human rights, let alone care about citizen’s best interests, health and wellbeing.

It’s not possible to make people who are ill better by punishing them, in just the same way as state coercion and using prejudiced language doesn’t “cure” poverty.  I don’t need more quack medicine on top of the current heavy doses of Conservative big state psychopolitics, traditional prejudices and subsequent quacking, slapstick psychobabble. It’s bad enough that Jeremy Hunt thinks he’s the all singing homeopathic Minister for magic and that Iain Duncan Smith thinks he can miraculously cure sick and disabled people by simply forcing them to work. The side-effects of five years of the Conservative’s ontologically insecure rhetoric, that’s been largely ranting, repetitive, incoherent monologue, are nauseating enough. Nobody should need to say any of this in 2016, but tragically, we seem to have a government that hasn’t yet escaped the feudal era. Or playing with their alchemy sets.

I’m in full agreement with Boycott Workfare, the Mental Health Resistance Network, and Disabled People Against the Cuts. I shared my original article with two of those groups and I’m pleased that they have since organised a protest for March 4, 3pm at the City Road Surgery, 190-196 City Road, London EC1V 2QH to raise public awareness of the issues and implications outlined. I just wish I was currently well enough to get to the protest.

They say: GP surgeries are for medical treatment, the job centre is for “employment coaching” and job-hunting.

And governments in first-world liberal democracies are for creating policies that actually meet public needs, rather than imposing totalitarian control, manipulating and micromanaging citizens to meet government needs and political outcomes.

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Government refuses to review the negative impact of sanctions on people with mental illness

Illustration by Jack Hudson.

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on the behavioural theory called “loss aversion,” which is borrowed from economics and decision theory. Loss aversion refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards “changing their behaviours,” by using a threat of punitive loss, since the underpinning assumption is that people are unemployed because of personal behavioural deficits and making “wrong decisions,” rather than because of socio-economic conditions and political policy decisions.

However, a wealth of evidence has demonstrated that sanctioning does not help clients into work; indeed, it is more likely to make it much harder to get a job. Furthermore, sanctions are often applied in an arbitrary manner, without due regard to proportionality, rationality or for the health and wellbeing of people claiming benefits.

The Government is facing renewed calls for an independent review to examine its controversial benefit sanctions policy and to ensure vulnerable people are protected. However, Department of Work and Pensions minister, Priti Patel, has refused to examine the effect of its  sanctions regime on the mental health of people who are affected by it.

MPs used a question session in the Commons to raise concerns over the impact of benefit sanctions on the mental health of claimants.

Employment minister, Patel, said any analysis of the temporary benefit cuts’ effects would be “misleading” in isolation and that their effect should therefore not be examined.

“There are many factors affecting an individual’s mental health. To assess the effect of sanctions in isolation of all other factors would be misleading,” she told MPs at a Work and Pensions Questions session in the House of Commons.

She also claimed that there was no evidence that sanctions particularly affected people with mental health problems – a claim contrary to the results of independent research.

More than 100 people with mental health issues have their benefits sanctioned every day, according to figures released earlier this year.

The government’s refusal to engage with criticism of the sanction system’s effect on mental health comes after the highly critical study by the charity Mind.

83 per cent of Work Programme participants with mental health issues surveyed by Mind said the scheme’s “support” had made their mental health problems worse of much worse.

Jobseekers are to be given 14 days’ notice before facing benefit sanctions under a new scheme being trialled next year by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

But the government were questioned why they are waiting until next year to trial this idea.

Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP’s social justice and welfare spokeswoman, told Ms Patel: “The so-called yellow pilot scheme is actually an admission by the Government that the sanctions regime isn’t working at the present time, and it’s particularly badly failing people with serious mental illnesses.

“Why is the Government waiting until next year to bring in this pilot scheme, and in the meantime will they please just stop sanctioning people who are seriously ill?”

Ms Patel said she would “respectfully disagree” with Ms Whiteford, adding: “Claimants are only asked to meet reasonable requirements taking into account their circumstances and I think, as you will find with the pilots as they are under way, that again this is about how we can integrate support for claimants and importantly provide them with the support and the guidance to help them get back to work.”

Ms Whiteford insisted the reality is people with mental health problems are being “disproportionately sanctioned”, adding that has been clear for “some time”.

Ms Patel replied: “For a start, the Government has been listening and we have responded to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, hence the reason we will be trialling and piloting the new scheme.”

She reiterated staff in jobcentres are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions, adding: “There is no evidence to suggest mental health claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else.”

Shadow work and pensions minister Debbie Abrahams told Ms Patel: “You may have inadvertently slipped up there.

“There is clear evidence from last year that 58% of people with mental health conditions on the Employment Support Allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned.

“Obviously that’s over half and that’s the equivalent to 105,000 people – 83% in a Mind survey say that their health condition was made worse as a result of this.”

Data released by the mental health charity Mind recently revealed the scale of sanctions imposed on people with mental health problems being supported by out-of-work disability benefits.

Obtained by the charity under the Freedom of Information Act, the figures show that there were up to three times more benefit sanctions issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to people with mental health problems last year than there were people “supported” into work.

There were almost 20,000 benefits sanctions received by people who were out of work because of their mental health last year, while only 6340 of this group were successfully supported into a job during the same period.

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, President of the British Psychological Society, said:

“Today’s news, from a Freedom of Information request made by the mental health charity Mind, shows that three times as many people are subject to benefit sanctions as those who have been supported back into work.”

“We in the British Psychological Society have become increasingly concerned about benefit sanctions and a number of other issues concerning the psychological welfare of those on benefits.

“We have repeatedly sought a meeting with the Secretary of State and his team and now repeat that request so that his Department may become aware of the most up-to-date psychological research and opinion on these issues.

“There are approximately 250,000 people receiving the benefit Employment and Support Allowance who need this support primarily because of their mental health. People can be sanctioned – have their benefits cut – if they fail to participate in work-related activity, including missing appointments or being late for meetings or CV writing workshops.

“However, many people with mental health problems find it difficult to participate in these activities due to the nature of their health problem and the types of activities they’re asked to do, which are often inappropriate.”

The government has a duty to monitor the impact of its policies, and to make the results public. Sanctions are founded on theory and experimental behavioural science, which adds a further dimension of legitimacy to calls for a review into the impacts of sanctions on people.

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

Tory rhetoric, the politics of psychobabble: it’s batshit telementalism and mystification

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Oh come all ye faithful

The Conservative conference was a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Cameron claims that he is going to address “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 them? Under Cameron’s government we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the US, 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 and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending equal opportunities.

“Champions of social justice and opportunities”? Must have been a typo in the transcript: it’s not champions but chancers.

Cameron also claims that the Conservatives are the “party for workers”, and of course lamblasted Labour. Again. Yet it was the Labour party that introduced tax credits to ensure low paid workers had a decent standard of living, and this government are not only withdrawing that support, we are also witnessing wages drop lower than all of the other G20 countries, since 2010, the International Labour Organisation reliably informs us.

This fall not only led to a tight squeeze on living standards, it also led to a shortfall in treasury income in the form of tax revenues. But all of this is pretty standard form for Conservative governments.

It’s interesting to note that the only standing ovation Cameron had for his speech from delegates was not related to policy proposals or even rhetoric. It was a response to the bitter, spiteful and typical Tory bullying approach to any opposition: in this case, an outburst of vindictive, unqualified personal comments, misquotes, misinformation and downright lies about Jeremy Corbyn.

It was more of the usual Conservative claptrap about Labour leaders “hating Britain”. Cameron used an out-of-context quote to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” leader. Cameron had failed to give any context to Mr Corbyn’s comments that he intentionally  misquoted, failing, for example, to mention the fact that Corbyn had said the lack of a trial for Bin Laden was the “tragedy”, not his death itself. The deliberate misquote, however, was met with a deft response from the Left, hoisting Cameron by his own petard.

Here is Cameron’s speech in full technicolour and spectacular ontological insecurity:

Cameron’s malicious comments reminded me again of the Tories’ history of dirty tricks, like the Zinoviev letter, the campaign against Harold Wilson, and made me think of the almost prophetic and increasingly less fictional A Very British Coup.

Even the BBC have called the Conservatives out on their very nasty anti-democratic propaganda campaign against Corbyn.

From the deluge of incoherent commentaries to the mechanisms of telling lies: Conservatives don’t walk the talk

The fact that there is now such an extensive gap between Conservative rhetoric, the claims being made and reality makes the task of critical analysis difficult and somewhat tiring, and I’m not the only writer to comment on this.

The Conservatives use language – semantic shifts – and construct incongruent, dissonance-inducing narratives to misdirect us, and to mask the aims and consequences of their policies.  For example, the words “fair”, “support” and the phrase “making work pay” have shifted to become simple socio-linguistic codifications for very regressive punitive measures such as cuts to social security support (comparable with the principle of less eligibility embedded in the Poor Law of 1834) and benefit sanctions.

The most striking thing about the Conservative conference, for me, isn’t just the gap between rhetoric and reality, it is also the gap between the bland vocabulary used and the references, meanings and implications of what was actually being said.

The semantics are also stratified. People who are unaffected by austerity policies will probably take the bland vocabulary at face value. Cameron said:

“The British people are decent, sensible, reasonable, and they just want a government that supports the vulnerable.”

However, the “vulnerable” know a very different reality to the one substituted and described on their behalf. People who are adversely affected by Conservative policy will regard the bland vocabulary as bewildering, deceitful, frightening – especially because of its incongruence with reality – and most likely, as very threatening. Such rhetoric is designed to hide intention, but it is also designed to deliberately invalidate people’s own experiences of Tory policies and ultimately, the consequences of an imposed Tory ideology.

Not that there can be any mistaking the threats aimed at sick and disabled people from Duncan Smith in his Conference speech. He said:

“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”

Of course the Work and Pensions secretary employed a traditionally Tory simplistic, divisive rhetoric that conveniently sections the population into “deserving” tax payers and “undeserving” non-tax paying citizens, to justify his balefully misanthropic attitude towards the latter group, as usual. However, the majority of sick and disabled people have worked and have contributed tax. 

As Dr Simon Duffy, from the Centre for Welfare Reform, points out, the poor not only pay taxes they also pay the highest taxes.  For example, the poorest 10% of households pay 47% of their income in tax. This is a higher percentage than any other group. We tend to forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes.

Mr Duncan Smith said that many sick and disabled people “wanted to work” and that the Government should give them “support” to find jobs and make sure the welfare system encouraged them to get jobs.

We’ve seen the future and it’s feudal

Ah, he means “making work pay,” which is the Tory super-retro approach to policy-making, based on the 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility again.  The reality is that sick and disabled people are being coerced by the state into taking any very poorly paid work, regardless of whether or not they can work, and to translate the rhetoric further, Duncan Smith is telling us that the government will ensure the conditions of claiming social security are so dismal and brutal that no-one can survive it.

And Cameron’s promise during his address to the Conservative party conference that “an all-out assault on poverty” would be at the centre of his second term is contradicted by a sturdy research report from the Resolution Foundation that reveals planned welfare cuts will lead to an increase of 200,000 working households living in poverty by 2020.

Duncan Smith also criticised what he claimed was Labour’s “something for nothing culture” which was of course a very supportive and fair, reasonably redistributive system. He also dismissed and scorned the protests against his policies, which his party’s conference has been subject to. But demonstration and protest is a mechanism of democracy for letting a government know that their policies are having adverse consequences.

Many of the disabled protesters at the conference are being hounded, hurt and persecuted by this government and actually, we are fighting for our lives. But clearly this is not a government that listens, nor is it one that likes democratic dialogue and accountability.

In his teeth-grindingly vindictive and blindly arrogant speech, Duncan Smith also criticised the old Employment Support Allowance benefit for signing people off work when they were judged by doctors as too sick to work. He claimed that Labour treated disabled people as “passive victims.” I’m wondering what part of professional judgements that a person is too sick to work this lunatic and small-state fetishist finds so difficult to grasp. Duncan Smith is a confabulating zealot who drives a dogmatic steam-roller over people and their experiences until they take some Tory neo-feudalist deferential, flat-earth shape that he thinks they should be.

Let’s not forget that this government have actually cut support for disabled people who want to work. The Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work. The Independent Living fund was also cruelly scrapped by this Government, which also has a huge impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives.

By “support to get jobs”, what Duncan Smith actually means is no support at all. He means more workfare – free labor for Tory donors – and more sanctions – the removal of people’s lifeline social security. He also means that good ole’ totalitarian dictum of “behaviour change,” a phrase that the Tories are bandying about a lot, these days.  Ask not what the government can do for you.

And what about frail and elderly people needing support?

The public care sector has been cut by a third this past 5 years, yet people are still aging and living longer, so demand for the services has risen. We know that private residential care homes notoriously put profit over care standards, as yet there’s not been an equivalent local authority scandal, but cuts and gross underfunding mean care workers are stretched beyond limit, and there aren’t enough funds to run an adequate home care service. It’s mostly the very frail and elderly who need this service. And it’s those vulnerable citizens that are being increasingly left without adequate care, and certainly not care of a sufficient standard to maintain their dignity.

These are citizens that have paid into a social security system that was established for “cradle to the grave” support if it was needed. This government has so wickedly betrayed them. That’s hardly making a lifetime of work and contribution “pay”.

The knock on effect is that many people without adequate care end up stranded in hospital, taking up beds and resources, through no fault of their own, and as we know, the health service is also desperately struggling to provide adequate service because of Tory cuts.

The aim of Conservatives is not to meet public needs, but to nudge the public into complicity with Conservative ideology

Many writers, a number of MPs and Peers have variously likened Conservative rhetoric to George Orwell’s Doublespeak in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Others claim that the idea of a language and thought-manipulating totalitarian regime in the UK is absurd. But that said, I never thought I would witness an era of human rights abuses of disabled people, women and children by the government of a so-called first-world liberal democracy. The same government have also stated it’s their intention to repeal our Human Rights Act and exit the European Convention on Human Rights. I can understand the inclination towards disbelief.

There’s another group of people that know something is wrong,  precisely what that is becomes elusive when they try to think about it and the detail slips through their fingers, as it were, when they try to articulate it. But that’s what Tory rhetoric purposefully aims to generate in those who oppose Conservatism: confusion, cognitive dissonance and disbelief

Which brings me to the government’s woeful brand of “liberatarian paternalism” – manifested in the form of an authoritarian Nudge Unit. The fact that it exists at all and that it is openly engaged in changing people’s decision-making without their consent is an indication of an extremely anti-democratic, psychocratic approach to government. The Tories are conducting politics and policy-making using insidious techniques of persuasion and psycholinguistic hocuspocusery for psychic and material profiteering, ordinarily reserved for the very dubious, telemental, manipulative end of the diabolistic advertising industry.

Once a PR man, always a PR man, that’s David Cameron.

By telemental, I mean it’s based on a kind of communication model that is transmissional, linear, mechanistic – where people are treated as conforming, passive “receivers” of information constructs, rather than an interactive, participatory, dialogical and importantly, a democratic one where people are regarded as autonomous critical interpreters and negotiators. We’re being talked at, not with. The Tories are using telementation to communicate their ideological sales pitch, without any democratic engagement with the majority of citizens, and without any acknowledgement of their needs. (Telementation is a concept originally introduced by linguist Roy Harris. )

The co-author of Nudge theory, Cass Sunstein, actually suggested that government monitors political activism online, too. He has some links with GCHQ’s covert online operations which employ social science to inform their psychological operations to influence online interactions and outcomes. Sunstein proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as “false and damaging conspiracy theories” about the government. “Conspiracy” theories like this one, eh?

The nudging of psychobabble and neuroliberalism

Tory policy is all about social engineering using justification narratives founded on an insensate, draconian ideological and semantic unobtainium equivalent. It’s clear that this government lacks the experience and understanding necessary for the proper use of psychological terms.  The content of their smug and vindictive justification narratives and stapled-together, alienating and psychopathic rhetoric deviates markedly from even basic common sense and good judgement.

The Tories reduce long debated, complex ideas to surprisingly spiteful platitudes, and hand us back dogmas gift wrapped in aggrandized certitude.

Malice in blunderland.

There is an accessible government website outlining some of the Nudge Unit’s neurobabble and subliminal messaging “successes”, albeit the more mundane ones, like getting men to pee on the “right” part of a urinal. Or getting people to pay their taxes on time, or to donate organs.

The Nudge Unit’s behaviourism and psychological quackery, however, is all-pervasive. It has seeped into policy, political rhetoric, the media, education, the workplace, health services and is now embedded in our very vocabulary and social narrative. Every time you hear the phrase “behavioural change” you know it’s a government department acting upon citizens everywhere, using  basic, crude operant conditioning without their consent, instead of actually doing what public services should and meeting public needs. Instead, citizens are now expected to meet the government’s needs.

Where do you think the government got their pre-constructed ideological defence lexicon of psychobabble – they bandy about insidiously bland words like “incentivise” in the context of coercive state actions – such as the ideas for welfare increased conditionality and brutal operant conditioning based sanctions?

Did anyone actually ask for state “therapy” delivered by gaslighting, anti-socially disordered tyrants?

I sent an FOI asking the Department of Work and Pensions for the figures for sanctions since 2010 to the present, and I asked for the reasons they were applied. I also asked how sanctions can possibly “incentivise” or “help” people into work, and what research and academic/psychological/theoretical framework the claim is premised on, after I pointed out Maslow’s motivation theory based on a hierarchy of needs – accepted conventional wisdom is that you can’t fulfil higher level psycho-social needs without first fulfiling the fundamental biological ones.

If people are reduced to struggling to meet basic survival needs, then they can’t be “incentivised” to do anything else. And even very stupid people know that if you remove people’s means to eat, keep warm and shelter, they will probably die. It’s worth remembering that originally, benefits were calculated to meet only these basic survival needs. That’s why welfare is called a social “safety net”.

maslow-hierarchy-of-needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs

There can be no justification whatsoever for removing that crucial safety net, and certainly not as a political punishment for people falling on hard times – that may happen to anyone through no fault of their own.

No matter what vocabulary is used to dress this up and attempt to justify the removal of people’s lifeline benefits, such treatment of citizens by an allegedly democratic, first-world government is unacceptable, despicable, cruel: it’s an act of violence that cannot fail to cause harm and distress, it traps people into absolute poverty and it is particularly reprehensible because it jeopardises people’s lives.

And what kind of government does that?

The nature of deception and psychological trauma

The Government are most certainly lying to project a version of reality that isn’t real.  Critical analysis of Tory rhetoric is a very taxing, tiring challenge of endlessly trying to make sense of disturbing relations and incoherent misfits between syntax and semantics, discourse and reality events. There’s a lot of alienating, fake humanism in there.

When politicians lie, there is a break down in democracy, because citizens can no longer play an authentic role in their own life, or participate in good faith in their community, state, and nation. Deception is cruel, confusing, distressing and anxiety-provoking: keeping people purposefully blind to what the real political agendas are and why things are happening in their name which do not have their agreement and assent.

Lying, saying one thing and doing another, creating a charade to project one false reality when something else is going on, is very damaging: it leaves people experiencing such deception deeply disorientated, doubting their own memory, perception and sanity.

To cover their tracks and gloss over the gaping holes in their logic, the Tories employ mystification techniques, the prime function of which is to maintain the status quo. Marx used the concept of mystification to mean a plausible misrepresentation of what is going on (process) or what is being done (praxis) in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class (the exploiters) over or against another class (the exploited). By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters confuse and disarm the exploited.

The order of concepts is not the order of things

On a psychological level, mystification is used in abusive relationships to negate the experience of abuse, to deceive and to avoid authentic criticism and conflict. Mystification often includes gaslighting, which is a process involving the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, and has a debilitating effect on the victim’s ability to think rationally and often, to function independently of the gaslighter. It can take many forms. In all instances, however, it involves the intentional, cold and cunning distortion of accounts of reality by a predator that systematically undermines the victim’s grasp of what is happening, distorting perceptions of events, editing and re-writing for the gaslighter’s own political, financial, or psychological ends.

And of course, gaslighting exploits the fact that human beings have a tendency to deny and repress those things that are too overwhelming and painful to bear. Much psychotherapy is based on creating a safe space for allowing experience of the dreadful – which as an event has already happened – to “happen.”

A memorable example of psychological mystification is presented in a case study cited by R.D. Laing. (In Did You used to be R.D.Laing, 1989). A woman finds her husband with a naked woman in the living room. She asks: “What is that naked woman doing in my house on my sofa!?” To which her gaslighting husband, without missing a beat, replied:  “That isn’t a woman, that’s a waterfall.” 

The poor woman felt her grasp of reality weaken, because she had trusted her husband and had always tended to believe him. She lost her self to a period of psychosis because of the deep trauma this event caused her. Her husband was an authoritarian figure. We tend to accept that authority figures tell the truth, with little questioning. But it’s not a safe assumption at all.

She was made to doubt her own perception and account of events, despite the utter absurdity of the alternative account of reality presented to her. To have one’s perception and experience of reality invalidated is very painful, threatening to the self and potentially extremely damaging.

We have a government that thinks nothing of using this type of distortion and deception to cover up the worst consequences of its policies.

This is a government of authoritarians and psychocrats who have an apparent cognitive dissonance: they decided that rich people are motivated only by fincancial gains, whilst poor people are motivated only by financial losses and punishments. However, when you replace the word “incentive” with the value-laden term “deserve”, and then slot it into an ideological framework with an underpinning social Darwinist philosophy, it becomes more coherent and actually, profoundly unpleasant. The Tories think that “social justice” is about taking money from those who need the most support, and handing it to those who don’t

This is a government that’s all about manufacturing conformity and obedience. The gospel, according to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, is that we are the architects of our own misfortunes, but when it comes to good fortunes, well of course, the government claims responsibility for those. Incoherent, puerile proselytizing nonsense.

The truth of the human condition, according to the Tories, is that poor people scrounge, rich people are saintly and the former group needs humiliating and state “therapy” – degrading “paternalistic” corrective treatment, (mostly comprised of a barrage of anti-humanist ideology and the constant threat of, and often actual withdrawal of your lifeline income), whereas the latter group need all the praise, support and state handouts they can get.

This is a government that use a counterfeit and dark triad (particularly Machiavellian) inspired language to create an impression of plausibility and truth, and to hide their true aims. They are demogogues of a radical and reactionary anti-social agenda. Intolerance, fear and hatred, machismo and bullying tendencies are masqueraded as moral rectitude.

This is a government that uses superficial, incongruent, meaningless psychobabble to justify the most savage and cruelly coercive policies that we have seen in the UK during our lifetime. Those social groups unaffected by the policies think that the government are acting in our “best interests”, but people are suffering and dying as a consequence of these policies.

People’s life problems such as unemployment and poverty arise from bad decision-making from the government and are not clinical maladies, the use of or implying of pseudo-clinical terms in political victim-blame narratives and gaslighting is not meaningful or appropriate.

Political psychobabble is designed intentionally to limit the freedom of public comprehension, it neutralises our own vocabulary, and invalidates our experiences. The nasty party are engaged in psychic profiteering – a government of quacks spouting pretentious gibberish to justify taking money from the poorest citizens and handing it out to the very wealthy.

It’s irrational, incoherent psychobabble from over-controlling, obedience-obsessed irrationalists whose sole aim is to ensure the population conform to government needs, and meet the demands of neoliberalism, rather than, heaven forbid, wanting a democratic government and an economic system that actually meet public needs.

Or if you prefer plainspeak: Tory rhetoric is rather like a long-empty belfry – full of batshit.

Oh, that way madness lies.

Cam weakness
Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance

sipress-cognitive-dissonance

“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson

I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.

President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.

It’s always a good idea to look at who is lobbing the explosives, too. And to see if they are recycling their bombshells

It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. Critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, analysing and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence, for making sound decisions, and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.

“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.

Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting and whopping lies, dead cat ploys, semantic thrifts, glittering generalities, government PR, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness. Well, dazed and confused, at the very least.

This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.

Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just the Tories that use this method. 

We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.

So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?

Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope  –  what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. If they involve personal attacks, this is generally a strategy of diversion, and  indicate the group flinging smears has less to offer the public than the person or being viciously attacked. 

It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.

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Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).

How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.

Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.

Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?

In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.

In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).

Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.

The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.

Theory and reality.

Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.

What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.

Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.

And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.

Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.

Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit,  I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)

Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.

It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are –  the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.

We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.

Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.

It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?  

But we must.

Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.

The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.

Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.

There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.

cogDisMeter

It’s the design of Universal Credit that presents the biggest concern, not just the delivery

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Universal Credit was originally presented to the public as a positive facet of the otherwise draconian Tory welfare “reforms.” Designed to simplify the benefit system, introducing more flexibilty, and to ensure that benefit claimants were “always better off in work” –  by removing “disincentives” to employment.

Of course, in tandem with this are the much more punitive, coercive and cost-cutting policies – cuts to disability benefits, the introduction of an overall benefit cap and the extended and increasing use of sanctions, as a key part of a stringent and increasingly coercive conditionality regime. 

You have to wonder how the Conservatives have avoided the criticism levelled at the Thatcher government of the 1980s: that it sacrificed and condemned millions who desperately wanted to work to mortify on benefits as a “price worth paying” for ‘economic recovery’ following the recession that the Thatcher administration created in the first place. 

After all, Cameron’s government are still sacrificing those with the least, no matter how much he enlists the support of the media in constructing folk devils to divert and manipulate public attention, to justify a withdrawal of state responsibility, and by using the ensuing media generated moral panic and outrage to justify the draconian welfare “reforms.

To hear Iain Duncan Smith speak, Universal Credit holds some kind of mystical power that will address all manner of social problems from unemployment and the “undesirable” attitudes of benefit claimants to child poverty.

Critics, especially in the media, tend to invoke the dismal consequences of IT contracting and the stunted progress of the policy’s roll-out.

This said, the Department for Work and Pensions are not well known for their cooperation and forthcoming when it comes to sharing pertinent information. But all of this has allowed the continuation of a dangerous myth: that the problems facing UC are all about delivery, rather than design.

It also means that UC becomes an impossible project to manage well. It seems that none of the programme leaders can take big problems to Iain Duncan Smith because he is in desperate denial that big problems can exist. He has clearly invested much ego equity in this vanity project. The Department has therefore a fostered a “good news” front. Staff are undoubtedly sent off to some of the same courses as jobseekers, to learn the powers of positive thinking and other such magical thinking schemes.

As the new generation of cognitive behaviour therapists would have us believe, the world is really ok, it’s just the way you think about it and respond to it that is the real problem… Gee, and I thought that was called ‘gaslighting.’

Staff set to strike in protest of delivery and administrative burdens, not the policy design burdens on claimants

The Mirror report that Universal Credit staff are to strike in protest against oppressive culture under the Tory welfare reforms. However, once again, the focus of contention for the staff is mostly on the delivery and not the design of the policy.

Some 1,500 Universal Credit workers are complaining of staff shortages, poor training and money squandered on IT that wasn’t used. They claim they’re being given unrealistic targets as the government’s flagship reform is rolled out across Britain – over its original deadline and budget.

The cost of Universal Credit has soared to almost £16bn and it will now take at least 5 years to implement, according to a damning watchdog report last month, from The Major Projects Authority (MPA).

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

A pilot scheme has been introduced in selected areas, but only 65,000 people in the UK are currently claiming UC, according to government data.

Huge costs include £40m which was spent on computer code which then wasn’t used – with officials admitting in 2013 it would end up having no value.

And a Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) survey earlier this year found 90% of staff still had concerns the IT system wouldn’t be adequate.

Next week’s walkout will be followed by an overtime ban running until August 18.

The union says that the Department for Work and Pensions isn’t giving the scheme enough resources and has performed a “massive scaling back” of flexible working hours.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said:

“The introduction of Universal Credit has been a textbook example of how not to reform essential public services.

The DWP’s handling of every aspect of it has been disastrous.”

But my own concerns extend well beyond mere financial costs of administration and implementation issues. Universal Credit is designed to cut even more from the amount of support that people get. Many people are struggling because of the cuts that have happened already to ‘legacy’ benefits, such as the cap and bedroom tax.  Further cuts are going to bring devastation to the very people who, as a society, we should be supporting the most. 

Universal Credit is highly likely to inflict more hunger, fuel poverty and destitution on people who are already struggling to meet their basic living costs. The numbers needing to use food banks will certainly rise substantially, and homelessness, too. Universal Credit is not especially designed to accommodate disabled people, too. The conditionality is even more punitive, and it’s likely that the use of sanctions will rise. There is no clarification regarding the carrying over of the various disability premiums from legacy disability benefits to Universal Credit, for example.

One undercover reporter in the Bolton call centre, where workers are now going on strike next week, said he was told not to mention an emergency fund unless callers asked about it.

“Worryingly, the undercover journalist claimed he was told his call centre was “like Fight Club.” A trainer was recorded telling him: “It’s a bit like Fight Club – we don’t discuss what happens in Fight Club.

So you don’t talk about flexible support fund either.”

This kind of repressive withholding of information about support for claimants now permeates job centres, along with an oppressive culture of secrecy imposed on staff more generally.

Altercasting –  authority and compliance‐gaining strategies 

The oppressive welfare “reforms” have a profoundly negative impact on those people who the policies are aimed at. Job Centre Plus’s predominant focus is now on compliance monitoring with less attention given to meaningful and in-depth employment advice and support for claimants. This effectively transforms welfare into a system designed to administer discipline and punishment to people who need support.

Perhaps the major contributing factor to an increase in workplace oppression among DWP staff is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has fashioned, perpetuated, permitted and endorsed traditional prejudices against social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, together with a complicit media. Tory policies have historically embedded a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups.

This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department for Work and Pensions and job centres are also bound by the same  punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.

As established figures of authority and role models, their behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead he employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives government departments and indeed wider society permission and approval to do the same.

Much government policy aimed at marginalised groups is about imposing conformity whilst enforcing the systematic removal of publicly funded state support.

The set of underpinning assumptions that Universal credit is founded on are wrong. The New Right have formulated individualistic psychopolicy interventions aimed at the most excluded social groups. These coercive and punitive policies are dressed up and paraded in a populist, pseudo-language of psychology, poorly defined and flawed concepts such as “lack of motivation” and “psychological resistance to work” are being used by politicians and job centre staff to allocate claimants to more or less arduous workfare regimes, for example.

Such policies are not aimed at supporting people: instead they act upon people, objectifying and dehumanising them. And instructing them how to be.

Welfare has been redefined: it is pre-occupied 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. 

For example, Jobcentre “nudge” posters, designed by the Government Behavioural Insights Team are used to “encourage” claimants to expand the area of job search to increase their chances of finding work. The posters are designed “to challenge claimant attitudes that had been identified as barriers to work.”Aimed at Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, the posters used the idea of  “loss aversion” (an economics and decision theory  which, in basic terms, claims that disincentives are more effective than incentives in modifying behaviours,) by highlighting the potential job opportunities that claimants might miss out on by not widening their job search area. Of course the most powerful application of loss aversion theory is in benefit sanctions for non-compliance.

And to meet Jobcentre targets. 

The Behavioural Insights Team have also prompted the use of “altercasting” (a technique of persuasion, aimed at manipulating identity, (to be assumed by other(s) with whom one interacts with, which is “congruent with one’s own goals”) to establish a social dynamic based on the authority of Jobcentre staff  and an obedient counter-role of claimants.

All of the Tory psychopolicies are authoritarian, they are aimed at coercing compliance, ultimately. Altercasting is a method of persuading people by forcing them into a social role, so that they will be restricted to behaving according to that role.

 

It’s worth considering that the Authority-Agent altercast was also used by Stanley Milgram in 1974 in an experiment to prompt people to give electric shocks (increasing in potency) to other people (in a fake learning experiment that was really about social obedience) under orders of the authoritative experimenter.  The participants were actually administering fake shocks to acting confederates, but they were unaware of this deception. 65% of the participants were compliant in administering what they took to be near-lethal shocks.

The stigmatisation of people needing welfare support not only demoralises those it is aimed at,it is also designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poorest citizens, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state. Such stigmatising –  by using negative affiliation and outgrouping rhetoric – is another type of altercasting. It serves to stabilise benign conceptions of the “authority”, to structure social threat perceptions of others and to legitimate what are ultimately cruel and punitive policies.

But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this psychocratic government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems that are caused by government decisions.

In the Universal Credit white paper (pdf), the government argued:

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

The UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up in homes where no one works and this pattern repeats itself through the generations. Less than 60% of lone parents in the UK are in employment, compared to 70% or more in France, Germany and the Netherlands … Universal Credit will start to change this. It will reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations.” May have?  Despite the claims from government about the existence of families with three or even two ‘workless’ generations, researchers have been “unable to locate any families in which there were three generations in which no-one had ever worked.”

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

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

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

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

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

Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.

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Here are some key problems with the design of Universal Credit:

Monthly payments
The government thinks this will help promote good budgeting and more closely replicate monthly salary payments.  Campaigners are worried that the shift from weekly and fortnightly payments to this new regime may push claimants recipients into debt. The Social Market Foundation says: “Most households in our sample opposed the idea of a monthly payment. This was the case for the majority of households, who tended to budget on a daily, weekly or fortnightly cycle.”

One of the most controversial aspects of Universal Credit is the introduction of a new seven-day waiting period before an individual qualifies for benefit. What is more, people on Universal Credit will have to endure a wait of one calendar month whilst their entitlement is calculated, and then a further seven-day wait for payment into their account, which will produce a total wait of at least five weeks before people already in hardship receive any money.

Benefit payments will go directly to one member of a couple
In cases of domestic abuse and violence, this could give perpetrators command of household income, further enabling them to control and isolate their partners. As Sandra Horley from Refuge points out:

“The housing benefit on which refuges depend is the lifeblood of the national network of services that keep women and children safe. But this vital source of income is now at risk. Many of our refuges do not meet the official definition of “supported exempt accommodation”, which means that a lot of the women we support will fall foul of the benefit cap.

This will be particularly damaging for women who pay two rents – one for the refuge they are living in temporarily, and the other for the home they have fled. Women who move on from refuges and resettle in areas of high rent may also be plunged into debt as a result of the cap. Those who accumulate rent arrears may face eviction and be left with an impossible dilemma either to sleep rough or return to their violent partner.”

Direct payments
The prospect of stopping housing benefit payments to landlords and directly paying the claimant is causing a lot of unease. The National Housing Federation says the shift from paying landlords to paying claimants direct for the housing benefit element could trigger unprecedented levels of arrears and increased rent collection costs.

“Of all the reforms, the introduction of direct payments to tenants is expected to have the biggest impact – more than 80% of housing associations say it will affect their organisations a great deal or a fair amount,” an NHF report warns. “84% of associations believe that rent arrears will increase as a direct result of welfare changes. The average increase expected is 51%, which, if replicated across the sector, would mean an additional £245m of arrears.”

The government has said that “vulnerable” tenants may be excluded (pdf) and has devised an “automatic switchback mechanism” – paying rent to the landlord when a tenant’s arrears hit a threshold level – but there are currently very few details of what constitutes a vulnerable tenant.

There are concerns that more people could be evicted as a result. The BBC obtained figures that showed when the direct payments were piloted in six areas of the country there was a big rise in rent arrears as some tenants failed to pass that money on, with arrears rising from about 2% to 11%.

Conditionality and sanctions
“Entitlement to UC is subject to a strict regime of ‘personalised’ conditionality (ie mandatory activity to prepare for and obtain work), backed by tough benefit sanctions (ie loss of benefit) for non-compliance,” the government says.

The Child Poverty Action Group warns: “The need for more conditionality comes across as a moral crusade, rather than being evidence based … There are concerns that some vulnerable claimants could face repeated sanctions for failing to comply with the demands of the system and that personal advisers and the Work Programme (within a culture of ‘payment by results’) will have too much power and discretion to impose unreasonable requirements on claimants.”

The charity warns in a UC training document: “Sanctions, in the form of loss of benefit, are designed to incentivise claimants to meet their work-related requirements and punish them for unreasonable failures. The regime is harsh, and there is concern that some claimants who repeatedly fail to comply with the system could be sanctioned and forced to survive on below subsistence income for long periods. This could include vulnerable claimants with mental health or social functioning problems, who find it difficult to comply with directions.”

A high level sanction can be imposed if, for example, a claimant fails for no good reason to take up an offer of paid work. The higher level sanction is the loss of the standard allowance of 91 days for a first failure, 182 days for a second higher level sanction within a year, and 1,095 days (three years) for another failure within a further year (disregarding “pre-claim” failures).

Hardship payments will be available of 60% of the sanctioned amount for those who cannot meet their “immediate and most basic and essential needs for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene”.

Lone parents will probably lose out
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that “because of the way the parameters of universal credit have been chosen, couples, and particularly those with children, look set to gain by more, on average, than single-adult families, particularly lone parents, who will lose on average according to our analysis”.

Universal Credit is designed to ensure that the government’s aim is fulfilled: that our social insurance and social security provision is dismantled. 

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