Tag: Statutory Instruments

Very important consultation on the migration of people onto universal credit from legacy benefits

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The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has launched an important public consultation on the government’s proposals for moving all existing claimants of a working age income-related benefit to Universal Credit.

From next year the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will begin the process of moving claimants in receipt of one or more of the following benefits to Universal Credit:

  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Housing Benefit

The wide-ranging draft legislation, which was presented to the Committee for scrutiny at its meeting on 20 June 2018, sets out the government’s proposals on:

  1. requirements for claimants on existing benefits to make a claim for Universal Credit (including the deadlines for doing so) and arrangements for ending their existing benefit
  2. the calculation, award and ongoing treatment of transitional protection

The task of safely moving around 3 million claimants (in around 2 million households) from legacy benefits to Universal Credit raises important questions about the delivery challenge facing the department and the potential impact on claimants.

SSAC has therefore decided to examine this draft legislation, and the impacts that flow from it, in more detail. To help inform this work, the committee would welcome evidence from a broad range of organisations and individuals who have good insight into and/or experience of the following aspects of these proposals:

  • the overall migration timetable
  • arrangements for contacting claimants and inviting claims from them
  • issues associated with making a claim, and ending legacy benefit claims
  • the calculation of transitional protection (including the treatment of earnings and capital)
  • the impact of proposed transitional protection (including how easily it will be delivered and the degree to which it will be understood by claimants)
  • the impact on workers, including the self-employed
  • equality impact (whether there will be particular effects for different groups and how these can best be addressed), for example are there any groups that will not be covered by transitional protection?
  • monitoring and evaluation

The Committee would welcome responses to ensure that its advice to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is informed by a range of perspectives. The committee would welcome real or hypothetical case studies or specific examples as part of that evidence.

Paul Gray, the Committee’s Chair, said:

“The planned rollout of Universal Credit is now reaching its most critical and challenging stage. The government’s draft proposals involve major issues on both detailed entitlement rules and delivery logistics, and are due to be debated in Parliament later this year. SSAC is keen to ensure that the scrutiny report it submits to ministers and Parliament is as well-informed as possible, and we therefore strongly encourage all organisations and individuals with relevant evidence to take part in this consultation process.”

The government has said that migration onto Universal Credit will take place between 2019 and 2023. Under the recent government proposals, people currently receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will receive a letter informing them that their benefits will be stopped and asking them to make a new claim to Universal Credit. The proposals suggest people will be given between one and three months to do this, with some circumstances in which that would be extended.

Some thoughts on the government’s proposals

The ‘managed migration’ entails claimants making a new claim for Universal Credit, which could mean that people with health problems may see their benefits stopped entirely while they struggle with the difficult and lengthy process of applying for Universal Credit. These are people who have already been through a rigorous and stressful assessment process and declared eligible for benefits because they are disabled or unwell. A gap in support for ill or disabled or people would leave them very vulnerable, and may have distressing and potentially harmful consequences.

It’s not as if the government have a particularly good track record on managing migrations. It’s difficult to find any good faith regarding the ‘managed’ transition to Universal Credit for so many people from a complex variety of legacy benefits, when the Conservatives’ welfare ‘reforms’ have had such a profoundly damaging effect on so many people already. This is because the word ‘reforms’ has been used to euphemise cruel austerity cuts that have fallen disproportionately on the poorest citizens.

Nor have the government demontrated that they are particularly observant of human rights frameworks and equality legislation. In fact their track record indicates they hold such safeguards and mechanisms of accountability in contempt.

This is a good reason why the 50 page poorly worded government document requires very careful scrutiny via a consultation. It’s not appropriate or adequate for the government to adopt a ‘test and learn’ approach that lacks safeguarding measures for those at risk of vulnerability through a cut or delay in their lifeline income, while the government attempts to get this right through trial and error at their expense. 

The ‘safeguards’ that government has proposed simply do not address the concern that people will be left without a source of income during the migration. It’s completely unfair to place all the responsibility on severely unwell people to have to reapply for a new benefit and risk losing their income in the process.

The government should take full responsibility for migrating ill and disabled people onto Universal Credit smoothly and safely while protecting their income, health and wellbeing. 

If people have to make a claim for Universal Credit due to a change in circumstances, such as moving house, or living with a new partner, rather than simply being migrated from the legacy benefit, that may also potentially place at risk any transitional protections they would have been entitled to, such as the severe disability premiums that some people are entitled to on ESA, since those are not included in Universal Credit. It’s also not clear if such a group would have to go through reassessment. That would also cause hardship and distress, because of the long waiting period between assessments, mandatory review and appeal.

Originally, the government had implied that migration from ESA to Universal Credit would not entail having to make a claim, and that provided the claimant’s circumstances have not changed, they would receive a transitional protection to compensate for the loss of the severe disability allowance and other amounts under legacy benefits which are not covered by Universal Credit. 

A regulation [2(6)] has been ‘inserted’ which will introduce a ‘Gateway Condition’ into previous social security regulations from 2014, so that claimants who are receiving:

  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA(IR);
  • income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA(IB));
  •  Income Support (IS); or 
  •  HB; 

and have the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) included in their award will not be
able to claim UC. Instead, rather than naturally migrate to UC, they will remain on
their existing benefit if they have a change of circumstance that would require a new claim for a benefit that UC is replacing to be made.

This is because of a recent landmark High Court ruling, earlier this month, in which the Court ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) unlawfully discriminated against two severely disabled men, who both saw their benefits dramatically reduced when they claimed Universal Credit, as they lost their SDP under Universal Credit rules. 

However, there is no clear mention in the document of what will happen to those who receive Enhanced Disability Premium (EDP) on ESA, which is also not payable under Universal Credit. Also, there needs to be more discussion and debate around clarifying the details of how the tapering of transitional protections is going to happen, and indeed, if this should happen at all. 

It’s difficult to forget that disabled people who were ‘migrated’ from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independent Payment (PIP) were also ‘invited’ to apply for PIP following notification of their claim for DLA being closed, which meant facing reassessment. Many people lost their eligibility for this lifeline support, and others were assessed as eligible for only part of an award, leaving them with rather less money than they had before they claimed PIP. Many have lost their motability vehicles as a consequence of losing the mobility component at reassessment for PIP.

These are just some of the worrying issues that the government’s latest proposals raise, which need to be addressed. We need to respond collectively to this consultation as a matter of urgency. 

The overall effect and impacts of the proposed amendments placed before the Committee, outlined in the 50 page government document, are to be subject to a government ‘test and learn’ approach to implementation. It is unacceptable that those migrated first onto Universal Credit are regarded by the government as a sort of group of experimental test cases, when a rigorous impact assessment would have been much more appropriate to safeguard these citizens from hardships and distress created by government policy and administration.

People who need social security, paid for by the public, among whom are people needing social security support, and those who may in the future, are not lab rats for the government to experiment on without their consent. Most unemployed, underemployed, disabled or ill people have contributed to the Treasury and deserve better management of their money, adequate provision and rather more competent policy administration by the government.

Having read through the government proposal document, it does say that there are certain protections for claimants who have a disability or a health problem when they ‘transition’ to UC from ESA or incapacity benefits. Such protections include:

  • ensuring that a capability for work determination for ESA can automatically be applied to the UC award; and 
  •  paying the Limited Capability for Work addition in UC if they have been continuously entitled to ESA and entitled to the Work-Related Activity Component in ESA prior to 3rd April 2017. 

Glancing through this document, it not very clearly outlined what will happen to those people with a more recent award of the Work-Related Activity Component, or to those where there has been a break in their previous entitlement since April 2017. 

Regulation 19 states that in cases where ESA claimants had the Support Component (SC) or Work-Related Activity Component (WRAC) applied to their award immediately before they make a claim for UC, if ESA claimants have the SC applied to their ESA award, the Limited Capability for Work and Work-Related Activity (LCWRA) element in UC would be applied to their UC award, without the need for a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), from the start of their first (UC) assessment period.

An assessment period is one month. Entitlement to Universal Credit depends on your circumstances and your income in each complete assessment period. This potentially introduces a degree of uncertainty for people on long-term disability support, who rely on a degree of financial security to manage day-to-day living with additional needs. 

UC is ordinarily paid monthly in arrears, and there is very little discussion in the government proposal document about how the gap will be bridged when legacy benefit claims are closed. There is mention that in some circumstances, where a claim for full housing benefit is in place, people migrated onto Universal Credit may claim a kind of ‘run on’, for a two-week period. However, housing benefit is always paid in arrears, and the two week run-on would simply cover the period of arrears from legacy benefits.

Regulation 20 states that with cases where the ESA assessment phase has not ended at the point the claimant claims UC, any unspent portion of the 13-week ESA assessment phase is carried forward and, if awarded, the appropriate UC element will apply. 

The proposed regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and, as such, will need to be debated in both Houses of Parliament. Affirmative procedure is a type of parliamentary procedure relating to statutory instruments (SIs), which are traditionally reserved for non-controversial policies. 

An SI laid under the affirmative procedure must be actively approved by both Houses of Parliament. Certain SIs on financial matters are only considered by the Commons. However affirmative resolution SIs require the approval of Parliament.

SSAC is an independent advisory body of the Department for Work and Pensions. The Committee’s role is to give advice on social security issues; scrutinise and report on social security regulations (including tax credits) and to consider and advise on any matters referred to it by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions or the Northern Ireland Department for Communities.

The Committee’s Chair is Paul Gray. Its membership comprises: Bruce Calderwood, David Chrimes, Carl Emmerson, Chris Goulden, Philip Jones, Jim McCormick, Grainne McKeever, Dominic Morris, Seyi Obakin, Judith Paterson, Charlotte Pickles, Liz Sayce and Victoria Todd.

Most social security regulations go before SSAC for scrutiny, the only significant exceptions being regulations which go to other advisory bodies or set benefit rates. When SSAC has considered regulations which it has asked to be formally referred, its response is made in the form of a report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. That report must be presented to Parliament when the regulations are laid with a statement from the Secretary of State showing what has been done (or is intended to be done) about the SSAC’s recommendations (section 174(1) and (2) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992).

Please read the regulations and explanatory memorandum in full if you intend to send a response regarding the consultation.

Responses should be submitted to the Committee Secretary by no later than 10am on Monday 20 August:

The Committee Secretary 
Social Security Advisory Committee 
5th Floor 
Caxton House 
Tothill Street 
London 
SW1H 9NA 

Alternatively responses can be emailed to – ssac.consultation@ssac.gsi.gov.uk

I will need to read through all of the government proposals carefully in order to make my own full response, which I’ll publish in due course.

And of course, Universal Credit, its impact, adequacy and performance as a form of social security, needs some more careful scrutiny, too. 

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I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Government criticised for lack of diversity, lack of transparency and poor fiscal management

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The Institute For Government (IFG) published their annual Whitehall Monitor Report on Thursday, presenting an insight and analysis of the size, shape and performance of government and the civil service.

In the opening paragraph, the IFG say: “The Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap general election. Revelations about ministers’ inappropriate conduct resulted in three Cabinet resignations. Preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by the snap election, by turnover in personnel and by difficulties in parliamentary management. The Government faces challenges in key public services, notably hospitals, prisons and adult social care.

It was noted in the report that preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by “difficulties in parliamentary management”. The Government has introduced only five of the nine new bills it says are needed for Brexit, and a third of the Government’s major projects worth over £1bn are at risk of not being delivered on time and on budget.

This Whitehall Monitor annual report – which is the fifth – summarises:

  • The political situation following the early election constrained the Prime Minister’s political authority and created challenges for the Government’s legislative programme and management of public services, major projects and Brexit.
  • The civil service is growing, in terms of size, but should be more diverse.
  • Government is less open than it was after 2010, and is not using data as effectively as it should.

I’ve used the summary to shape my analysis.

Fiscal management

The forecasts for tax revenues have been downgraded, the Government also forgoes billions of pounds through tax expenditures that are not subject to rigorous value-for-money assessments.

Since 2010, the value of liabilities on the government’s balance sheet has grown more quickly than the value of assets, increasing net liabilities. Furthermore, “revenue is not likely to overtake spending, in the foreseeable future”. 

Despite the promises from George Osborne of a budget surplus by 2020, and his fiscal straitjacket – the imposed, rigid programme of spending cuts and austerity for the majority of citizens, and tax cuts to the wealthiest ones. 

In real terms, revenues from taxes have grown 7% since 2010/11. This is largely the result of:

  • VAT receipts increasing by 22% (partly due to the standard VAT rate increasing from 17.5% to 20% in 2011)
  • National Insurance contributions increasing by 11%
  • Some increases in income tax collected following a stabilisation following the global crash

Council tax is also included in Treasury revenue, and that will have risen, since many low paid or out of work people now pay a contribution, whereas previously, they were exempt. Despite the increases in VAT, revenue from the sale of goods and services has fallen 34% since 2010/11. 

For the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) downgraded its forecasts for productivity growth. This, in turn, has resulted in the outlook for Government revenue being revised downwards.

Tax expenditures cost £135bn per year. Tax expenditures are tax discounts or exemptions that “further the policy aims of government”. The total sum of all forgone revenue from tax expenditures across income tax, National Insurance contributions, VAT, corporation tax, excise duties, capital gains tax and inheritance tax was £135bn in 2015/16. This is equal to a quarter of the total central government tax revenue in that year, and is larger than the total budgets of all but two departments (Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health).

For capital gains tax, the cost of tax expenditures was more than four times the amount of revenue collected

This certainly provides a strong indication of the government’s policy and budget priorities, making a mockery of trite sloganised claims of “a country that works for everyone”. Some social groups clearly raise rather more hidden political costs than others, but it is only disadvantaged and marginalised groups that tend to be negatively ideologically portrayed as a “burden” on the state by Conservatives and the media. 

In the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced new stamp duty reliefs for first time buyers purchasing properties worth under £500,000. Due to the policy being specifically targeted at first time buyers, this policy resembles a tax expenditure, and in 2018/19 (its first full year) is expected to cost £560m.

Furthermore, the National Audit Office has reported that the Treasury does not monitor tax expenditures and assess the value for money they offer with the same rigour as it does general expenditure. The Institute for Government, along with the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has called for the tax reliefs that most closely resemble spending measures to be treated as spending for accountability and scrutiny purposes.

Net government liabilities are now over £2 trillion. The Whitehall Monitor report says: “The Government’s net liability has implications for future generations of taxpayers, who will bear the costs of meeting these obligations, but the long-term nature of such obligations can make discussions around the government balance sheet seem more remote than the immediate choices about how much departments should spend each year.

“Nonetheless, policy choices have important implications for the Government’s liabilities – for example, the decisions taken by the Coalition Government to increase the state pension age, and to set a triple lock that guarantees annual increases of at least 2.5% in the state pension, are likely to have contrasting effects on the size of the state pension liability.”

The report goes on to say: “But the Government has made commitments to voters on public services, productivity, social mobility and major projects. If it fails to meet their expectations, it risks further undermining confidence in government.”

The government is still not transparent about its spending plans. The report says that “Better data is needed to understand the benefits – and risks – of outsourced public services”. 

“Wider government contracting includes back-office outsourcing by departments and the purchase of goods they use in the delivery of public services (e.g. paper, energy), as well as privately run public services. In 2015/16, £192bn was spent by government on goods and services, of which £70bn was spent by local government, £65bn by the NHS and £9bn by public corporations, with central government departments and other public bodies accounting for the remaining £49bn. 

“While some contract data is published, the Institute for Government and Spend Network have previously highlighted gaps in transparency – including on contractual terms, performance and the supply chains of third-party service providers.

“The Information Commissioner has said that the public should have the same right to know about public services whether the service is provided directly by government or by an outsourced provider”. [My emphasis]

The IFG also say in their report: “In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the outsourcing of health disability assessments at DWP had resulted in claimants ‘not receiving an acceptable level of service from contractors’, while costs per assessment had increased significantly. [My emphasis. Some 10% of the budget for the Department for Work and Pensions goes to private contractors.]

“Similarly, in 2013 MoJ [Ministry of Justice] found that it had been overbilled in relation to contracts worth £722m.”

There have been numerous high-profile failings in government outsourcing. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights many of the longstanding and existing issues, and should encourage a political focus on solving them.

The report continues: “There is no centrally collected data outlining the scope, cost and quality of contracted public services across government. Nonetheless, we know that Whitehall departments account for only a portion of outsourced service delivery, which can also happen further downstream after departments have provided funds to public bodies (for example, the purchasing of services from GPs by the NHS) or local authorities.”

The next section of the report outlines the 2016–17 parliamentary session, in which 24 government bills were passed – fewer than in any session under the 2010–15 Coalition Government. In part, this reflects the curtailed session, which ended with the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May ahead of the election in early June. The report goes on to say that 1,097 pages of legislation – 38% of all pages passed in the session – were dealt with at speed, raising questions about the adequacy of the scrutiny these bills received.

There were also concerns raised about the scope of the powers the government has sought regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, which has proven controversial. In particular, the inclusion of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, allowing the Government to amend or repeal existing primary legislation without the scrutiny normally afforded to bills. This has quite properly provoked concern among parliamentarians.

Curiously, the report says that the use of statutory instruments (SIs) – previously used only to pass non-controversial policies and amendments – has dropped. However, this flies in the face of existing evidence, which is sourced from the government’s own site. If there has been a drop since 2014, it certainly contradicts the trend set since 2010. Furthermore, the Government has been criticised for using SIs to pass controversial policies, such as welfare cuts.

It seems that IFG counted the number of SIs by parliamentary session (the parliamentary year which tends to run from Spring to Spring) rather than by calendar year.

Scrutiny of SIs is rather less intensive than scrutiny of primary legislation. They are subject to two main procedures, neither of which allows Parliament to make any amendments:

  • negative procedure, in which an SI is laid before Parliament and incorporated into law unless either House objects within 40 days
  • affirmative procedure, in which both Houses must approve a draft SI when it is laid before them.

It’s also worth reading: Conservative Government accused of ‘waging war’ on Parliament by forcing through key law changes without debate.

The lack of progress on inclusion and diversity

The IFG says there has been “little recent progress” in numbers of senior civil servants with disabilities or ethnic minority backgrounds, while the percentage of women  also decreases proportionally with ascending Whitehall pay scales. .

They report: “The civil service needs to fulfil the promise of its diversity and inclusion strategy, especially in improving the representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior levels.”  

Of those appointed to the highest departmental rank of permanent secretary in 2017, “as many were men with the surname Rycroft as were women – two in each case”. The report notes also “there has never been a female cabinet secretary for the UK”.

Despite the much-trumpeted launch of the Disability Confident employment scheme, aimed at “helping to positively change attitudes, behaviours and cultures,” and “making the most of the talents that disabled people can bring to the workplace”, sadly there is no evidence that the Government intends role-modeling positive behaviours or putting into practice what it preaches.

The representation of disabled civil servants at senior level has improved only very slightly: 5.3%, up from 4.7% in 2016. Across the UK population as a whole, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 21% of people are estimated to have a disability (some 18% of the working-age population). 

Lack of openness, transparency and accountability

In the UK, the idea that government should be open to public scrutiny and policies congruent with public opinion is central to our notion of democracy. Government openness and transparency also tends to be linked with citizen inclusion, democratic participation and a higher degree of collaboration between citizens and government on public policy decisions. It also ensures that corruption and the misuse of political  t power for other purposes, such as forms repression of political opponents is less likely.

Information and data deficits are more likely to lead to political corruption and a reduction in democratic accountability.

The IFG report says that in 2016–17, more ministerial correspondence was answered in time, which were thanks to more generous targets, while fewer parliamentary questions were answered on time and information was withheld in response to more Freedom of Information requests.

Parliament has other mechanisms to hold government to account, including urgent questions (which have most tellingly increased significantly in recent years) or select committee inquiries (which have also increased in number, with the election delaying government responses). The Government has established a track record of withholding details of planned legislation from the opposition. (See for example: PIP and the Tory Monologue).

According to Democracy Audit UK  an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the Public Policy Group in the LSE’s Government Department – the lack of transparency has been fuelled by the coalition period, and now, the Conservative’s’ narrow majority,  as the amount of secondary legislation is growing, and primary legislation is drafted in ways that increasingly leave its consequences obscure, to be filled in later via statutory instruments or regulation. Commons scrutiny of such “delegated legislation” is subsequently reduced, and likely to be very weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, departments’ publication of mandated data releases, including spending over £25,000, organograms and ministerial hospitality, is patchy. Departments also proactively publish on GOV.UK, though supply and demand differs by department

The IFG says that many departments are not publishing their data as frequently as they should and this, coupled with the difficulty of measuring government performance, suggests that the government is becoming less transparent and accountable.

A rise in the numbers of Freedom of Information requests that are being refused

Since 2010, government departments have become rather less open in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. In 2010, 39% of requests were fully or partially withheld; this had increased to 52% by 2017. 

Departments are able to refuse requests on a number of grounds: if the request falls under one of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (such as national security or personal information) or those in the Environmental Information Regulations; if it breaches the limit for the cost involved in responding (£600 for central departments and Parliament); if the request is repeated; or if the request is ‘vexatious’ (meaning it is likely ‘to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation’). 

Of the 2,342 requests withheld in full in 2017, 50% were held to be due to FoI Act exemptions, 47% to cost, 2% to repetition and 1% to vexatiousness.

Of course exemptions may also be used as “good reasons” – excuses – to withhold inconveniently controversial information that is likely to bring valid criticism and cause scandal.

Mike Sivier‘s request for information about how many people have died after going through the Work Capability Assessment, which had resulted in a decision that they were fit for work, was originally refused. The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics being made public, through Mike’s Freedom of Information request.

After the request, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent authority set up to uphold public information rights, agreed that there was no reason not to publish the figures, despite the Department for Work and Pensions variously claiming the request was “vexatious”, and that it “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”.

However, clearly the real reason for the original refusal of this request is that the information was highly controversial and contradicted political claims regarding the completely unacceptable level of harm that has been caused to citizens by the damaging impact of the Conservative’s draconian welfare policies. 

The ICO said: “Given the passage of time and level of interest in the information, it is difficult to understand how the DWP could reasonably withhold the requested information.”

More recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has continued to try to block John Slater’s FoI request which is likely to expose the widespread failings of two of its Personal Independent Payment (PIP) disability assessment contractors, initially claiming that it did not hold the information he had requested, before arguing that releasing the monthly reports would prejudice the “commercial interests” of Atos and Capita.

The DWP later told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that releasing the information “will give rise to items being taken out of context… [and] will be misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers”, and would “prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs” by DWP.

It also warned the ICO that the information could be “maliciously misinterpreted to feed the narrative that the Department imposes ‘targets’ for the outcomes of assessments”.

However, that comment alone indicates the highly controversial nature of the information being withheld, and thus also betrays the real motive. Information is being restricted to stifle legitimate criticism of Government policy and to hide from public view the empirical evidence of its consequences.

The ICO has nonetheless ordered the release of the information requested. A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the ICO judgement and we are currently considering our position.” 

If the DWP disagree with the decision and wish to appeal, it must lodge an appeal with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) within 28 calendar days. The requester also has a right of appeal.

The ICO say: Failure to comply with a decision notice is contempt of court, punishable by a fine.

It’s also worth noting that the DWP are obliged to inform any contractors of how the Freedom of Information Act may affect them, making it clear that no guarantee of complete confidentiality of information may be made and that, as a public body, it must consider for release any information it holds if it is requested. 

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) overtakes the DWP to become the most opaque department. This is one example of a wider lack of transparency around Brexit and reflects the wider reluctance of the Government to share assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy. Publication of spending and organisational data remains patchy, suggesting departments are not using the data themselves. 

The Scotland Office, Wales Office and Department for Transport tend to grant more requests in full, and in a timely manner. Among the more opaque are several departments regularly granting fewer than 30% of requests, particularly since 2015, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Minstry of Justice (MoJ).

None of the departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – has ever granted even half of its total requests in full. In the three-quarters leading up to Q3 2017, DExEU was the least likely of all departments to comply with FoI requests, respectively answering 18%, 10% and 15% in full. It also refused a higher percentage because they were considered “vexatious” than any other department in 2017; 14% of requests.

The IFG report says “DExEU’s lack of transparency here, and its tardy responses to other requests for information (though not on FoI, where it is the sixth most responsive department), are consistent with its wider reluctance to release information, including the Government’s assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy.”

Chart percentage of Freedom of Information requests withheld by government departments

You can read the full IFG Whitehall Monitor Report here


 

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

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

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

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

The Strathclyde review and Conservative authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sis

The view from the Social Security Advisory Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ideological drive to dismantle the welfare state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the report:

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

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

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

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

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

Unless we collectively fight back.

— 

Related

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014-02-17-BurdenoftheCuts-thumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a signifant proportion of that group of citizens recently. Their proposed tax credit cuts, designed to creep through parliament in the form of secondary legislation, which tends to exempt it from meaningful debate and amendment in the Commons, was halted only because the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

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

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

We can’t afford Conservative ideological indulgence.

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

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

The NAO report summarises:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

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


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

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

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

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

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

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

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

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

DPAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s the sound of one hand clapping.

one hand clapping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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