Tag: Social Security

Campaigners organise ‘First Do No Harm lobby’, aimed at preventing further social security related deaths

this ESA round

Disabled campaigners, researchers and organisations who have played a key role in exposing the discrimination and harm caused by the government’s social security reforms have been travelling to Westminster to attend round table discussions with five Labour shadow ministers. The meetings are chaired by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. I was invited to attend by John McDonnell’s office in September, because of my own ongoing campaign work.

The meetings are also the launch of a series of campaigning efforts and consultation between the Labour party, disabled activists, researchers and allied organisations. Labour MPs also hope to secure support from members of other political parties in the longer term.

We will be continuing to challenge the government’s persistent denial of a ‘causal link’ between their draconian social security policies and the distress, systematic human rights violations, serious harm and deaths of disabled people that have arisen in correlation with those policies.

Unless the government undertakes a cumulative impact assessment of the harm and  injustices that have followed in the wake of their welfare reform acts, they cannot provide evidence to support their own claims and flat denials that their policies are causing hardship, harm and distress. 

Public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford have also produced a research report titled First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? A longitudinal ecological study. It highlights that the process of reassessing people on incapacity benefit for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) from 2010 to 2013 was “associated with” an extra 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems, and the prescribing of a further 725,000 anti-depressants.

Speaking to the Huffington Post last year, the shadow chancellor said that he became furious during a Parliamentary debate when he demanded a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of welfare reforms on disabled people and the government refused. He praised the website Calum’s List, which details the cases of at least 60 deaths linked to welfare cuts.

He added:  “We said to the Government we know now from Calum’s List, listing people from reports in the press and elsewhere of people committing suicide as a result of Government cuts.

We knew the Government were monitoring some coroners’ reports and we wanted them published, but [then DWP minister Esther] McVey wouldn’t and I got really angry.”

“Next week, what we are doing is getting a group of campaigning organisations and a group of experts together to talk about the way in which Work Capability Assessments are still having an impact, to try to get to the bottom in terms of mental health and suicide.”

McDonnell added that Labour’s first Queen’s Speech include legislation “making sure we have a welfare and benefit system that lifts people out of poverty”.

He said that his Hayes and Harlington constituency casework now operates an open-door system four days a week due to demand from people hit by government cuts. 

He added: “Helen who runs my office said the casework now is on a scale and a depth of suffering that we’ve never seen before. And this in a constituency with the [Heathrow] airport, high levels of employment but wages not matching the housing costs and the pressure on people working all hours just to keep a roof over their heads.

“If anything goes wrong they fall out of the system. Last month we were dealing with two families living in cars. We also have the ‘beds in sheds’ phenomenon, families living in a shed or garage rented out to them, it’s staggering really.

“Before this last eight years, those sort of horrendous situations would be infrequent but you wouldn’t have someone so heavily sanctioned. The sanctions often impact on people with mental health conditions hardest.”

The Labour party’s track record of inclusion and democratic consultation with disabled citizens and their communities contrasts starkly with the Conservative’s exclusionary ‘we know better than you’ approach to disability policies. The government have imposed cuts on disabled people, acting upon them as if they are objects of policy rather than being citizens within a democracy.  

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 welfare policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have more generally become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

The Labour party listen to citizens’ accounts, and have always acknowledged our concerns. John McDonnell was involved in the setting up of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC). After a nationwide round of consultations with disabled people about policies which enshrine the Equality and Human Rights acts, led by Debbie Abrahams, the Labour party wrote an additional manifesto, outlining policies for disabled people, called Nothing about you without you, which many of us have contributed to.

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Alex Cunningham, me, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward after the Disability Equality Roadshow and consultation in December, 2016.

The First Do No Harm lobby on 13 February aims to expose the continued harm caused to disabled people by government social security reforms, and to seek safeguarding changes to the social security system. It follows many years of growing concerns about the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and the failure of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to make the necessary changes to make the assessment process safe.

Disability rights campaigners and MPs will focus on the repeated failure of the DWP to ensure that the “further medical evidence” needed to demonstrate a disabled person’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits is always collected, particularly for claimants with mental health conditions.

The three key asks of the lobby are:

1. To incorporate the principle of “First Do No Harm” into the assessment process for disabled people in the welfare system.
2. To call for the publication of a cumulative impact assessment of social security changes to disabled people.
3. To implement an assessment framework that treats disabled people with dignity and respect.

The lobby has been facilitated by Labour’s Treasury and work and pensions teams, through shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood. Both Labour MPs and activists hope that MPs from all parties will attend. 

Shadow chancellor, John McDonnell has previously said that he believed the ongoing meetings with disability rights campaigners and allied organisations could herald the start of “a significant movement to expose the brutality of the system” and secure “permanent change”.

He told Disability News Service: “Disabled people have had enough of the continuing austerity, attacks and discrimination.

“The lobby will brief on the plight of disabled people and lobby for reform to protect against this harm.” The aim is to push for the principle of “First Do No Harm” to be included in the benefits assessment process, through a framework that “treats disabled people with dignity and respect”.

The lobby also aims to push the government to acknowledge years of raised concerns by our community to carry out a cumulative assessment of the impact of its social security cuts and reforms on disabled people. 

Campaigners will also call for an end to the government’s punitive sanctions and conditionality regime.

The First Do No Harm lobby is the first organised action arising from the ongoing meetings between disabled activists and allies and Labour shadow ministers, including John McDonnell, Margaret Greenwood and shadow minister for disabled people Marsha de Cordova.

Both Margaret Greenwood and Marsha de Cordova are to speak at the briefing as part of the lobby on 13 February.

A mass lobby is one way of using your right to turn up to the House of Commons and request a meeting with your MP as one of his or her constituents. An MP’s role is to represent a constituent’s interests – even if he or she does not entirely agree with them. As each MP may have up to 90,000 constituents to look after, it is best to be as brief, clear and courteous as possible when you meet your MP.   

Disabled people or allies who want their MP to attend the lobby should write to their MP – you can find MP’s email addresses here: WriteToThem – to inform them you wish to seek an appointment on the day of the lobby. 

The lobby is due to take place on Wednesday 13 February between 1pm and 6pm, with the briefing from 2-3.30pm, in the Palace of Westminster’s committee room 15. The committee room can be used for one-to-one meetings with MPs or further discussions on the issue from 1pm-2pm and then from 3.30pm-6pm 

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The most recent meeting at Portcullis House, Westminster.

 

Related

John McDonnell attacks Tory disability cuts and vows to address suicides linked to welfare reforms

Lobby aims to persuade MPs that DWP must First Do No Harm on assessments

Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow comes to Newcastle

Nothing about you without you – the Labour party manifesto for disabled people

I very much wanted to attend this very important mass lobby and contacted my MP in respect of this. However, unfortunately I am currently not well enough to travel down to Westminster. I will, however, be working hard promoting the event on social media. 


 

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Labour party pledge to reinstate legal aid, restoring equal access to justice

Image result for justice

The Labour party will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to social security, such as Universal Credit and Personal Independent Payment, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”. 

Back in 2012, I warned that without equal access to justice, citizens simply cease to be free. I strongly welcome this move from the opposition, in particular because I regard access to justice – a basic human right – as absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy.

Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on social security payments, many of which are incorrect and unfair, will be able to gain access to legal advice to help them pursue appeals, Labour has pledged.

Burgon argues that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right the first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (PIP) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says the Labour party, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health. 

Since the Coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions.

In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on PIP and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015. That means  the state is spending huge amounts of money to get its’ own way in imposing wrongful decisions, while ensuring those affected cannot easily challenge such unjust decision making processes, which become embedded into an increasingly punitive social security system. It’s difficult to regard this as anything other than a politically coordinated attack on the rights of citizens and the welfare state by the Conservatives.

Since the Laspo act came into effect, many expert social security lawyers have left the field because cases were no longer funded. The MoJ has experienced the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010; its budget is to shrink further over the next two years.

Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout.

“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

Unless, of course, the intention all along was to ensure that the state’s ‘incorrect’ decisions stand. I rather suspect that is so.

The number of people granted legal aid in welfare cases has plummeted from 91,431 in 2012-13 to 478 in 2017-18, according to Legal Aid Agency figures.

A 2010 Citizens Advice report (pdf) concluded that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80.

Labour estimates that to restore early legal advice to pre-Laspo levels for benefits cases would cost £18m a year and help about 90,000 cases.

The party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.

Burgon says “Cuts have left vulnerable people without the legal support they need when faced with a rogue landlord, a difficult family breakup, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment. 

“But of all the cuts to legal aid, the slashing of advice for ill and disabled people unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. It creates the shameful situation where people are first denied the financial support to which they are legally entitled and then must struggle through a complex appeal without legal advice, causing further stress and anxiety.”

He says that the Labour-initiated Bach commission on access to justice outlined the direction in which the government needs to go. The Conservatives’ review (due before Christmas) should follow its recommendation to boost funding for early legal advice. Instead, however, it’s likely to be ‘another missed opportunity’. 

As Burgon notes, next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949. Too often, legal aid has been treated as the forgotten pillar of the welfare state. Access to health and education are rightly recognised as the right of every citizen. Access to justice should be too.

 

See also: Labour will restore legal aid so all citizens have access to justice – not just the rich


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Select Committee launch inquiry into ‘effectiveness of welfare system’ as UN rapporteur condemns Conservative policies

Image result for philip alston

The Work and Pensions Select Committee have launched an inquiry into ‘effectiveness of welfare system.’ The Committee say the inquiry was launched as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty makes an investigative visit to the UK, and it will consider how effectively our welfare system works to protect citizens against hardship and chronic deprivation.

The Committee have noted that the UK’s welfare system is currently undergoing fundamental reform, in the transition to Universal Credit alongside other major and largely untested reforms like benefit sanctions and the benefit cap. 

Image result for universal credit roll out cartoon

The Committee’s latest work on Universal Credit examined how Government will (or won’t) safeguard some of the most vulnerable members of our society as it implements this huge programme of change.

After the recent Budget, Members from across the House expressed concerns on this issue, including some senior MPs telling the Government that continuing the freeze on benefits in place since 2010 was “immoral”.

Previously, the Work and Pensions Committee inquired into the local welfare safety net in response to changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012—which replaced several centrally administered schemes with locally run provision—and further changes in the Summer 2015 Budget.

The Committee looked at whether these changes represented “localism in action” as claimed, or rather, created a postcode lottery of service provision, with people falling through the gaps or “holes” in the welfare safety net and the costs shunted on to local authorities, services and charities.

The Committee concluded that welfare ‘reforms’ risk leading people into severe hardship and called on the government to:

  • Ensure reforms such as the benefit cap do not inadvertently penalise groups who cannot actually adapt to it or offset its effects, and that appropriate mitigation strategies are in place.

    For example, some people cannot find or move to cheaper housing, because none is available, or cannot move in to work because they are a single parent and there is no appropriate childcare in their area. 
  • Conduct robust, cross-departmental evaluation on the impact of local schemes on the most vulnerable households 
  • Co-ordinate with local government better to ensure more consistent quality of provision

Since then indicators strongly suggest that chronic deprivation is on the rise. These include numbers of households in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers, and people referred to foodbanks, says the Committee.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“We are now seeing the grim, if unintended, consequences of the Government’s massive welfare reforms across several major inquiries. Policy decision after policy decision has piled the risks of major changes onto the shoulders of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and then onto local authorities, services and charities scrambling to catch them if and when they fall.

The welfare safety net ought to be catching people before they are plunged into debt, hardship and hunger. Instead it appears to be unravelling before our very eyes. The Committee now wants to find out whether the Government’s policies are sufficient to save people from destitution—and, if not, what more needs to be done.”

We do have to wonder how much evidence it will take before the government concedes that its draconian welfare policies are discriminatory, ideologically driven,  empirically unverified in terms of their efficacy and profoundly damaging; creating poverty and extreme hardships for historially marginalised groups. 

Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has discussed a ‘Government in denial’ in his scathing report. He draws pretty much the same conclusions that many of us have over the last few years. He says that “key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned.”

Much of the contract has been dismantled, including access to justice via legal aid, as well as universal welfare, health care, social housing and many other social gains and safety net provisions that were a fundamental part of the post war democratic settlement.

This is a consequence of the Conservative’s coordinated and sustained attack on democracy, public services and establised ideas about universal rights and citizenship, since 2010. It’s very difficult to see this as anything else but an ongoing and intentional attack. 

The government’s ‘mean spirited’ welfare policies have intended outcomes. They are codified expressions of how a government thinks society ought to be structured.

Alston draws the same conclusions as I have since 2012; that the harms and suffering being inflicted on the most politically disadvantaged citizens is part of “a radical social re-engineering’, and nothing to do with any economic need for austerity.”

In other words, the all too often devastating consequences of Conservative welfare policies are deliberate and intended. 

Alston says that the government’s policies and drastic cuts were “entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting “unnecessary” hardship in one of the richest countries in the world.

“When asked about these problems, Government ministers were almost entirely dismissive, blaming political opponents for wanting to sabotage their work, or suggesting that the media didn’t really understand the system and that Universal Credit was unfairly blamed for problems rooted in the old legacy system of benefits,” he said.

Yet another example of  the government’s strategy of loud and determined denials and sustained use of techniques of neutralisation.

When it was announced that the UN was investigating the impact of government policies and severe poverty in the UK, Conservative Minister for the 17th Century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said: “Surely the UN has better ways of wasting money?”

A government gaslighting  spokesman said: “We completely disagree with this [Philip Alston’s] analysis. With these Government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.

“Universal Credit is supporting people into work faster, but we are listening to feedback and have made numerous improvements to the system including ensuring 2.4 million households will be up to £630 better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”

Of course, the empirical evidence does not support this government statement.

Send the Committee your views

The Committee is now inviting evidence, whether you are an individual, group or organisation, on any or all of the following questions. 

Please send your views by 14 December 2018.

  • How should hardship and chronic deprivation be measured?
  • What do we know about chronic deprivation and hardship in the UK?
  • Is it changing? How?
  • Why do some households fall into poverty and deprivation?
  • What factors best explain the reported increases in indicators of deprivation like homelessness, rough sleeping and increased food bank use? 
  • What about the local variations in these markers of deprivation?
  • Do Jobcentre Plus procedures and benefit delays play a role?
  • What role does Universal Credit play in in relation to deprivation, or could it play in tackling it?
  • Is our welfare safety net working to prevent people falling into deprivation?
  • If not, how could it better do so?
  • What progress has been made on addressing the issues identified in the Committee’s 2016
    Report, (described above / link)?
  • What are the remaining weaknesses, how should these now be addressed?

Send a written submission

Related

Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchers

 


 

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The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

Image result for skinner lab rat

I’m currently writing an article about the intimacy between neoliberalism and behavioural economics, following Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel award. While I was researching, I came across an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) document about Nudge from 2012Tax and benefit policy: insights from behavioural economics, which suggested the introduction of “ordeals” into the social security system. The authors claim it would “deter fraud”. Although the IFS didn’t quite commit to calling for the idea to be implemented formally via policy, they did present the idea as an incontrovertible fact. Yet it is a controversial opinion, which is not supported by empirical evidence.

Introducing ordeals to social security also deters our most vulnerable citizens from claiming the support they need in order to live. Because of this, it wouldn’t be possible to determine the number of people who were intending to make a fraudulent claim. Prior to the welfare “reforms”, social security fraud was estimated at around 0.7 %. However, this very low figure also included bureaucratic and administrative errors, which resulted in overpayments. 

Image result for welfare fraud vs tax fraud

At the least, this comment reflected something of the mindset and taken-for-granted assumptions behind the Conservative welfare “reforms”, and the statement indicates that the “problems” with and subsequent hardships caused by Universal Credit and other forms of welfare support are intended.

The problems we are witnessing with Universal Credit, Employment Support and Allowance and Personal Independent Payment are arising, not because of unintended consequences, or bureaucratic ineptitude, but because of the governments’ “calculated cruelty”, rather than “gross incompetence”.

The idea of intentionally designed environmental “ordeals” indicates the political (misuse) of behaviourism a perspective that underpins libertarian paternalism  – which is the ideological basis of behavioural economics. The claim is that libertarian paternalism is designed to “help” people who behave irrationally and so are not advancing their own “interests” to behave in ways that self-appointed “choice architects” deem beneficial to themselves and society, while interfering only minimally with people who behave rationally.

Public policy over the last 7 years indicates that the poorest citizens are considered cognitively “faulty”, whereas wealthy people are seen as being cognitively competent precisely because they are wealthy. No-one seems to be challenging this fait accompli approach to public policy and ultimately, to altering public perceptions, experimenting on people without their consent, using armchair psychology and techniques of persuasion, and behavioural engineering on the basis of socioeconomic status.

Image result for blaming the poor for their poverty

Richard Thaler once said that if everyone were rational, we would all invest in the stock market. That’s a pretty limited definition of “rational” behaviour. He also believes that poor people actually choose borrowing money and credit at the highest interest rates. This is the problem with having such a narrow ideological view and focus. It skews, limits and reduces perspective because you miss the impact of real and complex social interactions, of inequality; the influence of power relations on social outcomes; exploitation; the consequences of political decision-making and institutionalised class-based attitudes and prejudices on social behaviours, for example. There are structural constraints to consider, and a host of other crucial interconnections that shape outcomes in our highly complex social world.

Behavioural economics tends to focus on the quantification of human experiences, while framing social problems as simply arising due to incompetence of individuals’ decision making and behaviours. In doing so, it’s scope is so limited and it fails to generate meaningful explanations and promote understanding of those experiences. 

Thaler doesn’t discuss the irrational behaviours of very wealthy people who harm the economy by exploiting workers, by tax evasion or offshore banking. Or the finance industry, who never lend money to people who actually desperately need it. Banks and money lenders generally tend to consider any loan or credit for people with little money as “risky” investment and so, with impeccable logic, they hike up the interest rates. It’s not easy to see how that works out any better in terms of the risk of defaults on payments. Poor people pay much more for their credit because of the credit-scoring, profiteering and institutionalised discrimination and behaviours of the finance industry. 

Thaler doesn’t seem to provide much insight into the context and interdependencies of  behaviours. He simply believes that poverty happens because poor people make “poor choices”. However, being poor means having limited choices in a capitalist society, because it is wealth that creates choice and power, and because complex social and political barriers and institutionalised behaviours compound poverty by closing off possibilities for the poorest to gain an adequate income. It costs a lot more to poor than it costs to be wealthy.

Then of course there are the legal and exploitative loan sharks that are circling people who live in poverty. Provident is one of the largest companies in the UK unsecured lending market. This market targets people for whom banks and credit cards are out of reach – mainly the low paid and people with poor credit histories – and it offers them short-term credit, with a typical APR of 272%. These companies make money by locking people into cycles of debt, interest on debt, late payment charges and interest on late payment charges. The Conservatives talk about “cycles of poverty” as if it’s a matter of poor people’s lifestyle choice. It’s not poor people who create poverty and inequality. It’s the exploitative rich. 

Payday lenders such as Wonga, which sprang up during the financial crash of 2007-08, have more recently counted teachers, nurses and vets among their customers. Payday lenders ratchet up eye-watering interest the longer customers take to repay a loan.

Adrian Beecroft

Vulture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, a major investor in payday lender Wonga, and someone who likes to write draconian emloyment policy for the Conservatives, gave the Conservatives a £50,000 pre-election donation in the week to 6 June. Photograph: Catherine Benson/Reuters

However Thaler shows no interest in the social problems created by immoral greed, exploitation and profiteering of wealthy businesses, who rake in huge amounts of interest because a borrower happens to be poor. Instead he blames the poor for the consequences of those apparently normalised behaviours of the wealthy.

It’s easy to see why Thaler’s work made such an impact on the Conservatives. He’s an academic that provides a justification narrative for Conservative prejudices and draconian policies. He is a free market market advocate and so endorses neoliberalism.  This of course exposes the ideological basis of behavioural economics.

The finance industry’s collective risky behaviours caused a global economic crash, yet Thaler remains supremely unconcerned that his work is being used as a series of techniques of persuasion to enforce public conformity, to impose austerity on the poorest, making them pay for the sins of the wealthy; to politically micromanage and enforce social control within a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, but actually harming many citizens, while leaving the wealthy to continue as they were.

Behavioural economics is therefore a prop for a failing neoliberal system and the status quo. It’s just an extention of a totalising ideology. Neoliberal policies contributed to the global crash, and they are also the key reason why so many people’s standard of living is falling. 

It isn’t therefore in the majority’s best interests to have their “best interests” decided for them.

Conservative scroogenomics: punishing poor people by reducing their lifeline income will miraculously cure their poverty

One technique of persuasion used widely in behavioural economics is framing, which is based on the idea that how choices are presented to citizens affects both behavioural and economic outcomes. The environment in which decisions are made can be shaped to provide “cues” to favour particular choices – “nudges” towards [politically determined] “desirable” behavioural and economic outcomes.

Of course nudge is used disproportionately on poor people, and this asymmetry in the distribution of its use is based on an assumption that people who are poor and need social security support are cognitively “incompetent”, lack mental sophistication, all of which leads to “faulty” and politically undesirable non-neoliberal behaviours.

I’m irresistibly reminded of  B.F Skinner’s draconian laboratory-based rat experiments in operant conditioning, using behavioural reinforcement. We have Skinner to thank for the formal conclusion that punishment can be used to reduce “undesirable” behaviours, though despots and tyrants everywhere had always known this to be so.

All types of bullies, from politics to the playground, are crude behaviourists, after all.

Skinner demonstrated how negative reinforcement works by placing rats in his specially designed operant conditioning chamber, called theSkinner box and then subjected them to an electric shock. As the poor rat moved about the box it was trapped in, by chance it would eventually knock a lever that was purposefully placed. Immediately that it did so, the electric current would be switched off.

The rats quickly “learned” to go straight to the lever after being put in Skinner’s torture chamber a few times. The relief of “escaping” the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action again and again. Skinner subsequently added a reward of food when the lever was pressed.

The Skinner Box represents the environment created within our social security system. It’s enclosed. We don’t enter it by choice. Pressing the lever represents fulfilling welfare conditionality criteria and ultimately, it also represents “work”. The “reward”, once you have figured out what the randomly placed set of conditions are and escaped the ordeal of electrocution, is simply provision for one of your most essential and basic living requirements – food. 

In order to eat, the lab rats first have to navigate through the ordeal, designed by the experimenter. 

Punishment can work either by directly applying a painful or unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially “rewarding” stimulus, for instance, such as food in the Skinner Box.

Or by deducting someone’s lifeline income to punish “undesirable behaviours” such as non-compliance with increasingly draconian and irrational welfare conditionality, aimed at “helping people into work”, by the imposition of hunger and the threat of destitution.

Which of course cannot possibly help anyone into work.  It’s not possible to look for work when you are struggling to meet your basic survival needs. Didn’t Abraham Maslow explain this clearly enough?

Food is essential to survival, surely it should never be provided conditionally, or seen as a reward for navigating an intentionally inflicted ordeal simply to elicit narrow political definitions of compliance and conformity. 

The privatisation of choice. No-one is nudging the choice architects

Of course the government’s explanation of the need for welfare sanctions (“making work pay”) doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially once in-work sanctions were introduced. Those on the poorest wages are also punished financially for not “progressing” in work. Yet the fact that work isn’t paying for many people shows that this line of justification for the welfare cuts is utter nonsense.

In-work poverty is a much larger drain on the welfare system than unemployment or disability, and it is created by exploitative employers, executive decision-making and government labor-market deregulation. It not due to any failure of those being paid a pittance for their work. Most of the provision that helped disabled people get back to work has been cut, too. The government is not providing support for people to find work: they are withdrawing it.

The reason that the welfare “reforms” happened is purely about ideological preference, reflecting traditional Tory prejudices. The ultimate aim is to remove social security completely.

Welfare has nothing to do with “rewarding work”. It’s came about to ensure no-one is left unable to meet their basic needs for food, fuel and shelter. How work is rewarded tends to be decided discretely in boardrooms. 

Social security has been redesigned to deter anyone from actually accessing it, because needing such support is deemed “undesirable behaviour”. However, the national insurance scheme was put in place precisely because it was deemed inevitable that at some point in their lives, most citizens would need some support from public services to ensure their welfare, and that their basic survival needs are met.

International research over recent years has indicated that generous welfare systems tend to increase the numbers of people finding work, rather than “disincentivising” them. That a government in a first-world so called liberal democracy considers, and has framed, the provision for fulfilment of basic and essential human survival needs as a “perverse incentive” is frankly terrifying.

Social security was originally designed to ensure that everyone was protected from the worst ravages of unfettered capitalism. To say that we have regressed as a society since then is an understatement. 

Behavioural economics is a technocratic solution to essentially politically created problems. It addresses social problems by simply shifting the blame and responsibility from state to individual. Nudge is increasingly being used to ensure citizens behaviours are compatible with neoliberal ideology.

I also think that the punitive policies being directed at the poorest citizens reflect traditional class-based Conservative prejudices. Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, memorably pointed out the absurdities of the current system, and the relationship between those in power and those being stigmatised, held in contempt, punished and systematically disempowered. (See There Are Fines And Punishments Associated With Most Aspects Of Working Class Life.) 

There are many problems with using punishment as a political instrument of “behavioural change”, such as:

  • Punished behaviour is not forgotten or “unlearned”: it’s  simply suppressed – behaviour may simply revert when punishment is no longer present.
  • Ethical problems as punishments most often entail inflicting a psychological or physical violence on others, without their consent. 
  • There’s a difference between political “persuasion” and state coercion. The path from the former to the latter takes us down a rapidly descending, very slippery slope. Persuasion usually presents opportunity for some dialogue, coercion does not. 
  • No cognitive development or learning opportunities are presented, and so people may well be very confused about why they are being punished. Nudge works only when people are unaware they are being nudged. This requirement for subject naivety forecloses the possibility of informative or instructive dialogue, facilitating development, realising individual potential and of promoting even basic understanding.
  • Causes increased aggression – demonstrates that aggression towards individuals and social groups is an acceptable way to cope with societal problems. It reinforces political authoritarianism. (See Skinner’s frightfully dystopic book: Walden Two, which is a treatise for positivism as much as it is for authoritarianism).
  • It has unintended and harmful consequences. For example, it creates fear that can influence other generalised “undesirable” behaviours.
  • Does not guide toward desired behaviour – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.
  • Who defines what are deviant or “undesirable behaviours”? Who decides what is an appropriate action to take to discourage such behaviours?  How do we prevent unethical solutions? How do we prevent state actions from simply becoming expressions of political authoritarianism and manifestations of a gross abuse of power? Or expressions of eugenic ideologies and policies? 

We ought to have learned through the history of human atrocities that it’s never a good omen when an already politically marginalised social group is singled out for scapegoating, punishment and dehumanisation by a government. 

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Manipulating social behaviour with antisocial motives

Another key technique of persuasion in behavioural economics is the use of “social preferences”. Individuals are inclined to care not just about their own outcomes but also about those of others. The behavioural “insight” (ironically) is that people derive value from fairness, cooperation and/or from conforming to social norms. These motivations may be [and are] used to give intrinsic “incentives” to make particular choices that accommodate neoliberal outcomes.

So the irony is that people’s tendency towards collectivity, cooperation and fairness may be manipulated by choice architects in order to prop up a system that extends competitive individualism, unfairness and inequality from its very core, in order to ensure politically desirable behaviours that support specific socioeconomic outcomes. 

Social norms may be subjected to political “default setting” which manipulates people’s inclination towards social conformity. For example, it has become “common sense” that poor people are poor because of their own behaviours, rather than because of political decision-making and policy impacting on economic conditions and labour market conditions (deregulation, for example).

In the UK, social security recipients have been transformed into folk devils in order to generate moral panic, to legitimise harsh and punitive welfare cuts and to de-empathise and desensitise the public to the awful consequences of this process. This default has been reset using the bombardment of political and media “norm” narratives. To the point where those claiming any support are quite widely considered as deviant and psychologically pathological.

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“Ordeals” have been introduced to the social security system, and can be clearly identified. This isn’t “nudging”, it is a political clobbering. The endless re-assessments and withdrawals of support for disabled people; the introduction of heavily bureaucratic mandatory reviews, designed to deter appeals; the withdrawal of support and the long periods people are being left without any means of meeting even basic needs; the constant threat of and increased use of much harsher welfare sanctions and so on.

Then there are the unofficial, undeclared and non-legislative means that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) frequently use to try at every opportunity to end claims. For example, it’s fairly common for the DWP to try to end ESA claims because a disabled person has been awarded PIP – a non means-tested income to support day-to-day independence and meet the costs of the additional needs arising because of disabilities. The DWP often try to claim that this is “standard” process when someone has “another award.” But PIP does not affect your eligibility for ESA at all.

The tactic is designed to force disabled people to go through the thoroughly demoralisng, anxiety-provoking and punitive claim process all over again – which means a reduction in income because they will then only be eligible for the basic rate ESA. This also means there will be another long wait for another harrowing assessment, which presents a further opportunity for the withdrawal of disability support, and so on. This kind of tactic was probably also designed to ensure that people never feel secure while needing support – a kind of informal Poor Law-styled “deterrence”.

Such irrational and government-created ordeals are absolutely intentional. There are even targets for reducing the number of disability support awards built into the private service providers’ contracts for delivering the assessments.  (See also Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective).

The Conservatives are all on the same page in the Orwellian handbook

I was forced to leave a profession I loved because I became too ill to continue working. My GP had to provide me with a “FIT” note explaining I was NOT fit for work. It’s worth noting the psycholinguistic framing being used here, as the word “fit” at the very least implies that a medical condition is trivial, it will be transient, and won’t be a long-term barrier to work. However, my illness is chronic, progressive and often life-threatening. 

It’s the Conservatves’ post-truth Orwellian approach to political narrative, a tactic that has emerged with the behaviourist turn. Punishment becomes “support”, social control becomes “welfare”, coercion becomes “behavioural economics”, authoritarianism becomes “nudge”, meeting basic survival needs becomes “incentivisation”.

“Employment and Support Allowance” is another example of state psycholinguistic framing and default setting. Despite the fact that ESA is only awarded to sick and disabled people whose doctors and the state (through the privately contracted assessments) have deemed not capable of work, the name suggests that the award is contingent upon people who are too ill to work nonetheless becoming employed.

I was eventually assessed by the state contracted private company Atos and found to be “fit for work”. By this time I was seriously ill. My doctor was outraged at this, and offered his support, so I appealed and won my case. I was placed in Work Related Activity Group (more psycholinguistics in that title, too).

The key message here is that work is the ONLY option for survival. Any work, regardless of whether or not the wage is sufficient to support your living needs. It does not matter if you are ill and disabled, because the government have pared back support and ultimately aim to remove it completely. 

The DWP said I couldn’t have the money I was owed in ESA back pay, following the Tribunal, because, they claimed, I owed them money. And of course I didn’t. It felt like some form of psychological manipulation, like a bullies’ projection technique. This was most definitely intentional, no explanation was ever given for the claim.

It’s almost as if there are some nudge measures in place to ensure that people lower their expectations in terms of the support that the state is obliged to provide with our taxes and national insurance contributions. Why, it’s as if nudge has become a part of a totalising neoliberal ideology. 

It’s as if the government ultimately aims to completely dismantle our social security system. One of the necessary stages along the way to fulfilling that aim is to make sure people no longer feel “secure” in their right to support. Part of that stage is to normalise the steady reduction in supportive provision, one cut at a time. Another prerequisite is the desensitisation of the public to the plight of those being abandoned by the state, by using norm setting and stigmatisation. Finally, it’s necessary to ensure that all routes of  challenge and redress are blocked by, say, coordinating the removal of public services with abolishing legal aid, restricting access to justice and simply ignoring protective legislations such as the Equality and Human Rights Act, dimissing them publicly as a “bureaucratic burden”.

 I did get the back pay soon after several phone calls and a demand for evidence of the “debt”. It was yet another pointless and designed “ordeal”. I was not provided with any explanation of the “error” regarding the non-existent debt.

However, just 3 months after winning the appeal, I received an appointment from the DWP for another ESA assessment. My illness is lifelong, chronic and progressive. The reassessment was of course another ordeal. This is a fairly standard tactic from the DWP, and I am far from alone in experiencing this particular ordeal.

I’m too ill to work, yet the government tell me that “work is the only route out of poverty”. They also tell me that the assessments and other barriers to my support are to ensure that “those most in need” are targeted, and to “protect the public purse”. The fact that there are people dying because they weren’t assessed as being in the “greatest need” of support illustrates very painfully that these politically expedient comments are untrue. 

The government is spending millions of pounds of our money on private profit-seeking companies to administer a system of “incentives” (punishments and ordeals) to coerce our most vulnerable citizens to somehow work or starve and face destitution.

My GP, my consultants, a Tribunal panel, and at the last assessment, Atos, have all said I am not well enough to work. The ordeals that the state has added to my “support” has exacerbated my illness, moving me further, not nearer, to any employment I may have found had I been supported rather than made to face state manufactured ordeal after ordeal.

There is no economic need or justification for welfare cuts. Nor does the systematic scaling back of the welfare state, and the Skinnerian punitive approach, come cheap. 

The political misuse of psychology costs a lot to plan, coordinate and administrate, in terms of costs for government advisors, willing academics, rogue multinationals and thinktanks, to create justification narratives, superficially feasible theoretical frameworks, and creating a technocratic lexicon that draws on pseudoscience, psychobabble, managementspeak and “common sense”. Those employed to do the administrative dirty work also require a salary. The motivation is entirely ideological.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has already indicated that the welfare “reforms” have cost far more money to implement than they have actually saved. (See Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.”)

For some of us, the Conservatives “long term economic plan” is the road to hell. “Economic competence” has come to mean simply stealing money from the poorest citizens, disdainful moralising about why people are poor and making sick and disabled people suffer. We have witnesed our public funds being handed out to a very wealthy minority in generous tax cuts, who take that money out of the economy and hoard it in private bank accounts.

The rich have their discrete creature comforts, a life of looking the other way, a culture of entitlement, offshore money trees, and a dialogue with the government. The poor have rent arrears, huge debts, eviction notices, hunger and a maximum of 3 visits a year to food banks, if they are referred by a professional. The government doesn’t engage with us, it simply acts upon us as if we were lab rats.

Handing out our public wealth to greedy vulture capitalists isn’t good economics, it’s corruption. It’s not good management of our resources or the economy. 

Being poor is itself an ordeal. 

Yet the government say they expect the use of financial deprivation (sanctions and austerity cuts) to work as a way of “incentivising” people not to be poor. If that actually worked, poor people would have already learned not to be poor. 

Taking money from poor people as a punishment for being poor will simply deepen their poverty and further limit their potential to increase their income, since struggling to survive is pretty time and effort consuming.  Meeting basic survival needs becomes the sole cognitive priority when people are deprived of the means of doing so.

So, you can’t simply punish someone into not being ill or poor. Yet the UK government continues to attempt to do so. This is a particularly irrational approach, reflecting a monstrous form of tyranny. 

Being poor, sick and disabled in the UK under a Conservative government is rather like being married to multiple abusive and gaslighting partners from whom there is absolutely no escape, ever.

It’s a relentless ordeal.

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How political ideology informs “science”. Graphic From Test, Learn, Adapt, a paper by the British government’s Behavioural Insights Team. Photo: Supplied

The simplistic, reductive design of a “behavioural” randomised controlled trial, shown with a test of a new “back to work” programme. There is no category that includes those who cannot work because they are too ill. Or any account of socioeconomic and political factors that may influence labor market conditions or individual circumstances. There is no scope for examining the quality, security and income that work provides (or doesn’t). It’s a very reductionist and deterministic “cause and effect” approach to public policy. Work fare is simply expected to somehow put people into work, and that is the only “route out of poverty”. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

The graphic illustrating the nudge “Intervention” and “Control” groups is itself a nudge – it also has a nudge built into it. There are more green “found work” graphics in the “intervention” – which implies that the “intervention” always works. In a genuine Randomised Control Trial (RCT) there is no guarantee that the experimental “intervention” will work – hence the need for a trial. 

There is no potential for dialogue, qualitative feedback, consideration or measure of citizens’ complexity, dignity or wellbeing. It is simply assumed that any work is the only possible outcome. The government work programme presents an imposing, rigid and restrictive choice architecture – there are just two options. Work or face severe, punitive sanctions. There is no opt out opportunity. There are significant ethical considerations raised because subjects are not participating on the basis of informed consent.

There are also implications for democracy. We don’t elect governments to change our perceptions and behaviours by stealth to suit their ideological agendas. In a first world democracy, it is expected that governments ensure all citizens can meet their basic survival needs. The Conservatives are failing to fulfil that function.

The government’s approach to social security for many has become random, controlling and an unremitting, Orwellian trial. 

 


 

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A bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment, say UK’s top psychologists

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Last month, the following letter was sent to the Independent, titled The DWP must see that a bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment:

“We, the UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and counsellors, call on the Government to immediately suspend the benefits sanctions system. It fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health.

Findings from the National Audit Office (NAO) show limited evidence that the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective.

But, even more worrying, we see evidence from NHS Health Scotland, the Centre for Welfare Conditionality hosted by the University of York, and others, which links sanctions to destitution, disempowerment, and increased rates of mental health problems. This is also emphasised in the recent Public Accounts Committee report, which states that the unexplained variations in the use of benefits sanctions are unacceptable and must be addressed.

Vulnerable people with multiple and complex needs, in particular, are disproportionately affected by the increased use of sanctions.

Therefore, we call on the Government to suspend the benefits sanctions regime and undertake an independent review of its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

But suspending the sanctions system alone is not enough. We believe the Government also has to change its focus from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive – which means a wholesale review of the back to work system.

We want to see a range of policy changes to promote mental health and wellbeing. These include increased mental health awareness training for Jobcentre staff – and reform of the work capability assessment (WCA), which may be psychologically damaging, and lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness.

We urge the Government to rethink the Jobcentre’s role from not only increasing employment, but also ensuring the quality of that employment, given that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.

This should be backed up with the development of statutory support for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.

These policies would begin to take us towards a welfare and employment system that promotes mental health and wellbeing, rather than one that undermines and damages it.

Professor Peter Kinderman, President, British Psychological Society (BPS)

Martin Pollecoff, Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)

Dr Andrew Reeves, Chair, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)

Helen Morgan, Chair, British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)

Steve Flatt, Trustee, British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)”

“Making work pay” for whom?

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It’s a draconian, crude behaviourist and armchair technocratic government that would claim to “make work pay” by decreasing social security support for the poorest members of society, rather than raising wages to meet the rising costs of living. This approach was justified by claims that poor people became “dependent” on benefits because the welfare state provides “perverse incentives” for people seeking employment. However, there is no empirical evidence of these claims. Keith Joseph, a leading New Right advocate of the welfare dependency theories, set out to try and establish evidence dependency during the Thatcher era, and failed. Both Thatcher and Joseph wanted to extend Victorian bourgeois values of thrift, self-reliance and charity among all classes.

Such an approach has benefitted no-one but wealthy employers motivated by a profit incentive, as people who are out of work or claiming disability related benefits have become increasingly desperate. These imposed conditions have created a reserve army of labour, which has subsequently served to devalue labour, and drive wages down. We now witness high levels of in-work poverty, too. The Victorian Poor Law principle of less eligibility had the same consequences, and also “made work pay.” It’s shameful that in 2017, the government still believe that it is somehow effective and appropriate to punish people into not being poor. Especially when the government’s own policies are constructing inequality and poverty.

Last week I wrote about the Samaritans report: Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour, which strongly links socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality with psychological distress and suicidal behaviours. The report reiterates that countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.

Research has consistently found that in countries with a generous social safety net, poor employment (low pay, poor conditions, job insecurity short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. This is particularly true of neoliberal states with minimal and means tested welfare regimes. It seems health and wellbeing are contingent on the degree to which individuals, or families, can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation, and on the kind of social stratification  (socioeconomic hierarchies indicating levels of inequality) is fostered by social policies.

Furthermore, despite the government’s rhetoric on welfare “dependency”, and the alleged need for removing the “perverse incentives” from the social security system by imposing a harsh conditionality framework and a compliance regime – using punitive sanctions – and work capability assessments designed to preclude eligibility to disability benefits, research shows that generous social security regimes make people more likely to want to work, not less.

The government’s welfare “reforms” have already invited scathing international criticism because they have disproportionately targeted cuts at those with the least income. Furthermore, the government have systematically violated the human rights of those with mental and physical disabilities. In a highly critical UN report last year, following a lengthy inquiry, it says: “States parties should find an adequate balance between providing an adequate level of income security for persons with disabilities through social security schemes and supporting their labour inclusion. The two sets of measures should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.”

However, the UK government have continued to conflate social justice and inclusion with punitive policies and cuts, aimed at coercing disabled people towards narrow employment outcomes that preferably bypass any form of genuine support and the social security system completely. 

See – UN’s highly critical report confirms UK government has systematically violated the human rights of disabled people.

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Kitty.

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. The budget didn’t do me any favours at all.

But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – report from Samaritans

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As Samaritans release a report ahead of Wednesday’s Budget linking inequality with a higher risk of suicide, the charity is calling on the government, businesses, industry and sector leaders to be aware of the risks of suicide and to direct support to those with unstable employment, insecure housing, low income or in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.

The report, Dying from Inequality, produced in conjunction with leading researchers and academics, is far-reaching and highlights clear areas of risk to communities and individuals, including the closure and downsizing of businesses, those in manual, low-skilled employment, those facing unmanageable debt and those with poor housing conditions.

In today’s press release, Samaritans’ CEO Ruth Sutherland says, “Suicide is an inequality issue that we have known about for some time, this report says that’s not right, it’s not fair and it’s got to change. Most importantly this report sets out, for the first time, what needs to happen to save lives. Addressing inequality would remove the barriers to help and support where they are needed most and reduce the need for that support in the first place. Government, public services, employers, service providers, communities, family and friends all have a role in making sure help is relevant and accessible when it matters most.

“Everyone can feel overwhelmed at times in their life. People at risk of suicide may have employers, or they may seek help at job centres, or go to their GP. They may come into contact with national and local government agencies, perhaps on a daily basis. So, in the light of this report we are asking key people and organisations from across society, for example those working in housing, in businesses, medical staff, job centre managers, to all take action to make sure their service, their organisation, their community is doing all it can to promote mental health and prevent the tragedy of suicide. 

Samaritans has already started addressing the inequalities driving people to suicide, by making its helpline number free to call, by calling on Government for more frontline staff to be trained in suicide prevention in England and by campaigning for local authorities to have effective suicide prevention plans in place. Now, in response to the findings of this report, the next steps will involve instigating working groups, in different sectors, bringing together businesses and charities who can influence in the areas highlighted, in order to tackle this issue in a collaborative, systematic and effective way to ensure that fewer people die by suicide.”

Sutherland continues: “Each suicide statistic is a person. The employee on a zero hour’s contract is somebody’s parent or child. A person at risk of losing their home may be a sibling or a friend. And each one of them will leave others devastated, and potentially more disadvantaged too, if they take their own life. This is a call for us as individuals to care more and for organisations that can make a difference, to do so.”

She went on to say: “Living in poverty shouldn’t mean losing your life. Going through difficult times like losing your job or being in debt shouldn’t mean not wanting to live. But that is what’s happening in the UK and Ireland today. Suicide is killing the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, devastating families and communities.”

Some key points from the report summary:

There is no single reason why people take their own lives. Suicide is a complex and multi-faceted behaviour, resulting from a wide range of psychological, social, economic and cultural risk factors which interact and increase an individual’s level of risk.

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a key risk factor for suicidal behaviour.

Socioeconomic disadvantage or living in an area of socioeconomic deprivation increases the risk of suicidal behaviour.

The research evidence was considered at three levels: societal, community and individual: 

Societal: political, economic and social policies related to, for example, economic change, employment, social support and the labour market; stigmatised attitudes towards people on the basis of their socioeconomic standing or their suicidal behaviour.

Community: the local economic, social, cultural and physical environment, including, for example, geographical location, job opportunities, service availability and accessibility, and home ownership.

Individual: demographic characteristics, such as gender and age; socioeconomic position, including occupational social class and type of employment; mental health; and health-related behaviours.

Suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve. Countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.

During the most recent recession (2008-09), there was a 0.54% increase in suicides for every 1% increase in indebtedness across 20 EU countries, including the UK and Ireland. Social and employment protection for the most vulnerable in society, and labour market programmes to help unemployed people find work, can reduce suicidal behaviour by reducing both the real and perceived risks of job insecurity and by increasing protective factors, such as social contact. In order to be effective, however, programmes must be meaningful to participants and felt to be non-stigmatising.

There is a strong association between area-level deprivation and suicidal behaviour: as area-level deprivation increases, so does suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are two to three times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent.

Admissions to hospital following self-harm are two times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent. Multiple and large employer closures resulting in unemployment can increase stress in a local community, break down social connections and increase feelings of hopelessness and depression, all of which are recognised risk factors for suicidal behaviour.  

While the economic situation and policy approaches vary across the nations in which Samaritans operates, the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and increased risk of suicide is evident in all these nations. It is therefore essential that we understand why this link exists. We all need to address this inequality issue which is resulting in the tragic loss of lives.

Features of socioeconomic disadvantage include low income, unmanageable debt, poor housing conditions, lack of educational qualifications, unemployment and living in a socioeconomically deprived area. Individual Individuals experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and adverse experiences, such as unemployment and unmanageable debt, are at increased risk of suicidal behaviour, particularly during periods of economic recession.

The risk of suicidal behaviour is increased among those experiencing job insecurity and downsizing or those engaged in non-traditional work situations, such as part-time, irregular and short-term contracts with various employers. The experience of being declared bankrupt, losing one’s home or not being able to repay debts to family and friends is not only stressful but can also feel humiliating. This can lead to an increased risk of suicidal behaviour.

The risk of suicidal behaviour increases when an individual faces negative life events, such as adversity, relationship breakdown, social isolation, or experiences stigma, emotional distress or poor mental health.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience ongoing stress and negative life events, thus increasing their risk of suicidal behaviour. In the UK, socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are less likely to seek help for mental health problems than the more affluent, and are less likely to be referred to specialist mental health services following self-harm by GPs located in deprived areas.

Different welfare states have been shown to have different effects on social and health inequalities. High quality public service provision leads to a more cohesive society than policies based on means-testing which may generate social divisions. Given the link between inequalities and suicidal behaviour, labour market policy design can help improve wellbeing and reduce the risk of suicide.

Employment

Evidence on the association between working conditions, debt and suicide suggests that increased, involuntary part-time work, job insecurity and workplace downsizing are important risk factors for suicidal behaviour. It is not only unemployed people who are at increased risk. Employees who keep their jobs during a workplace downsizing may experience job insecurity and negative relationships with their peers, as well as stress from an increased workload. People who are self-employed can also be affected if demand for their business decreases. 

Unemployment benefits

Generous unemployment benefits and other types of social protection can reduce the risk of suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates tend to increase in countries which implement significant budget cuts, which was evident during the 2008-09 recession in some EU countries (Karanikolos et al., 2013). Unemployment benefits compensate for some of the income loss experienced from involuntary unemployment. Depending on the level of benefits, they should help ease financial worries that may lead to suicidal behaviour. However, means-tested benefits may actually contribute to suicidal behaviour, if recipients feel stigmatised, leading to feelings of shame, worthlessness, a loss of status, and a deterioration of mental health.

Employment protection

Strong employment protection should reduce real and perceived risks around job insecurity and unemployment, resulting in a positive impact on mental health. In contrast, weak employment protection is likely to increase real and perceived insecurity, and could lead to precarious forms of employment, such as temporary or zero-hours contracts, with adverse effects on mental health.

Inexperienced workers with low skills are particularly vulnerable in such contexts, since they are most likely to be on contracts which are less well protected and more precarious. The risk of mental health problems is increased among those engaged in non-traditional work situations, such as part-time, irregular and short-term contracts with various employers, especially where there is little or no choice, as well as for those experiencing job insecurity and downsizing. Suicidal behaviour can be reduced amongst the most vulnerable in society through social and employment protection and labour market programmes. This will reduce the real and perceived risks of job insecurity and reduce stigma of unemployment.

Recommendations:

Individuals, communities and wider society can all play a part in reducing the risk of suicidal behaviour. Governments need to take a lead by placing a stronger emphasis on suicide prevention as an inequality issue.

National suicide prevention strategies need to target efforts towards the most vulnerable people and places, in order to reduce geographical inequalities in suicide. Effective cross-governmental approaches are required, with mental health services improved and protected.

Suicide prevention needs to be a government priority in welfare, education, housing and employment policies. Workplaces should have in place a suicide prevention plan, and provide better psychological support to all employees, especially those experiencing job insecurity or those affected by downsizing.

Poverty and debt need to be destigmatised so that individuals feel valued and able to access support without fear of being judged. Every local area should have a suicide prevention plan in place. This should include the development and maintenance of services that provide support to individuals experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage.

Staff and volunteers in services accessed by socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals or groups should receive specialist training in recognising, understanding and responding to individuals who are in distress and may be suicidal (even if they do not say they are feeling suicidal). People bereaved or affected by suicidal behaviour, and therefore at higher risk of suicide themselves, should be offered tailored psychological, practical and financial support particularly in disadvantaged communities.

It is well understood that adverse individual or family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown, unemployment or debt, can result in a higher risk of suicidal behaviour (Gunnell & Chang 2016). What is less well known is the potential impact of the place where people live (neighbourhood, city, region) on the likelihood of suicidal behaviour.

The public health evidence is clear: as area-level deprivation increases, so does suicidal behaviour. For both men and women, those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour; and every increase in area-level affluence results in a reduction in the risk of suicidal behaviour.

The health of people in a neighbourhood, town, region or country is the product of the demographic, behavioural, socioeconomic and other characteristics of the people who live there. Compositional factors that are likely to increase the risk of suicidal behaviour in areas of socioeconomic deprivation include (O’Reilly et al., 2008; Lorant et al., 2005): experiencing multiple negative life events, such as poor health, unemployment, poor living conditions feeling powerless, stigmatised, disrespected, social disconnectedness, such as social isolation, poor social support other features of social exclusion, such as poverty, and poor educational attainment.

People living in the most deprived areas are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are two to three times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent, and rates of hospitalised self-harm are also twice as high. Neighbourhoods that are the most deprived have worse health than those that are less deprived and this association follows a gradient: for each increase in deprivation, there is a decrease in health. Additional support for those living in deprived areas is needed to reduce geographical inequalities in health and the risk of suicidal behaviour.

Experiences of childhood adversity, negative life events, and the cumulative effects of stress are associated with feelings of entrapment and hopelessness and increase the risk of suicidal behaviour, especially among those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Stressful life events and childhood adversity

Exposure to negative life events, particularly those involving loss, such as bereavement or a relationship breakdown, heightens the risk of suicidal behaviour. Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience such negative life events, and therefore more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour. Experiencing childhood adversity increases the likelihood that individuals will become socioeconomically disadvantaged in later life.

For example, unemployment is more likely among those who have adverse childhood experiences, particularly men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Stress response and allostatic load Ongoing exposure to stress and adversity may gradually reduce an individual’s biological stress regulation resources, leading to a cumulative physiological toll known as “allostatic load” (Seeman et al., 2010).

Socioeconomic disadvantage itself is a stressor linked to increased allostatic load, but it may also influence allostatic load indirectly by increasing the likelihood of individuals experiencing childhood adversity and other stressful life events. Increased allostatic load brought about by the chronic and acute stresses associated with socioeconomic disadvantage may contribute to suicidal behaviour.

Socioeconomic disadvantage, from a psychological perspective, makes a major contribution to the occurrence of suicidal behaviour.

 

You can read the full summary report here

The full version of the report will be available on 10th March

 


 

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Government Attack on Benefits Claimants: A Message from the Counselling and Psychotherapy Alliance

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In a letter to the national news media, an organisation representing mental health professionals in the UK write:

“The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy is a nationally recognised interest group of mental health professionals from diverse clinical and academic backgrounds. 

We were appalled to learn that last Friday, February 24th, without consultation or warning, the Government launched yet another vicious attack on the psychological, as well as financial resources of benefit claimants with mental health and physical disabilities (Tory ministers have rewritten the law to deny increased disability benefit payments to more than 150,000 people Daily Mirror, 24 Feb).

In response to the latest Government attack on benefits claimants with mental health and physical disabilities, the Alliance (which is part of the Mental Wealth Alliance) has written to the press and to the major psy-organisations, who we call upon to take a much more critical stance on these issues.

Emergency legislation has over-ridden the rulings of two tribunals that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should expand the reach of Personal Independence Payments (PIP). At stake is mobility support for over 140,000 people who suffer “overwhelming psychological distress” when travelling alone, and more than 1,000 people who need help to take medication and monitor a health condition.

The courts ruled both categories of support needed to be included in the PIP assessment of people’s needs. The DWP itself admits this will include for example those who have a learning disability, diabetes, epilepsy, anxiety or dementia.

In September 2016, Theresa May and her DWP ministers promised there would be no more welfare cuts on top of the string of draconian measures agreed last year as the final contribution of Cameron and Osborne’s campaign to punish those who cannot work. It seems her promise was another lie.

With delicious irony, Disabilities Minister Penny Mordaunt said this latest move would “make sure we are giving support to those who need it most”. Meanwhile on Marr this Sunday, Tory party chairman Patrick McGloughlin responded to criticism of the emergency legislation by stating “as far as supporting disabled people in this country is concerned, we do very proudly.

This is a government determined, come hell or high water, to strip welfare provision to the absolute bone, an ideological commitment it justifies in terms of the fiscal necessity of austerity savings and the therapeutic magic for all benefit claimants of getting themselves into work.

As mental health professionals, we find it tragic and painful to be living through a period in which the social contract between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is under full-frontal attack.

More particularly, we find it shameful that our own professional bodies – psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists – continue to participate in the abuse of human rights and of their own ethical codes through their involvement in the psycho-compulsion of benefits complainants through the DWP’s workfare and Work and Health policies.

We call on the government to reverse its policies of welfare cuts as a minimum step to honouring Theresa May’s promises for a fairer deal for those struggling to cope to maintain any decent conditions of life.

And we call upon our fellow ‘psy’ professionals to now insist on a withdrawal of all involvement in supporting the psychological coercion and punishment by the DWP of the most disadvantaged members of our society.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Atkinson and Professor Andrew Samuels (for the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy)

See both letters from the Alliance by clicking on the link below .

Source: Government Attack on Benefits Claimants: A Message from the Alliance