Tag: Tom Pollard

Demos say the DWP should be axed, I disagree. Here’s why

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A leading cross-party thinktank has proposed that ministers should consider abolishing the Department for Work and Pensions.

In a provocative paper that marked the start of Demos’ research examining the Department of Work and Pensions, Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind, who has also completed an 18 months secondment to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), illustrates a bureaucracy blighted by “historic dynamics and averse to radical thinking.”

Pollard’s paper identifies three problems with the DWP. First, the department is afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where case handlers perceive employment support as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than a means of enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Where benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick. Sanctioning claimants for misdemeanours such as arriving late to meetings creates a “confrontational dynamic of power asymmetries.” In other words, it strips citizens of their autonomy.

Many neoliberals have also claimed that welfare strips citizens of responsibility, though there has been no convincing evidence of this to date. 

Second, Pollard argues the department is impoverished in ambition. DWP staff are often promoted from frontline roles working in job centres. While such expertise is valuable, he argues that staff often seem “incapable of thinking about radical solutions”, and repeat the mistakes of the past, gravitating towards punitive systems of conditionality and sanctions.

These factors contribute to the DWP’s “injured reputation” among frontline users. Productive engagement between case handlers and claimants is dependent on trust. “There’s such a rift between the DWP and hard to help groups that I don’t know how you could get back to engaging on meaningful terms – there’s too much baggage”, Pollard says.

In the thought-provoking paper, entitled Pathways from Poverty: a case for Institutional reform, Pollard explains why he believes that the DWP is institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to deliver better outcomes for society’s most vulnerable and sets out a radical new vision for the future of welfare provision.

Most of the work of Amber Rudd’s department could be carried out more effectively by other Whitehall ministries, according to Pollard. He calls for the DWP to be stripped of responsibility for these “hard-to-help groups”, with the health department and NHS helping the ill find work, local government taking over Jobcentre Plus, and benefits and pensions delivered by HMRC. The charitable sector could also be given a bigger role. 

Some criticisms

Pollard critically discusses the culture within the DWP, implying that the key problems and devastating social consequences arising from the government’s welfare reform programme are simply a result of staff attitudes and inept administrative procedure within the department. 

The crisis in our social security system is the result of government’s policies, which have embedded traditional prejudices about people experiencing poverty, and that have led to the institutionalisation of discriminatory practices within the DWP. There is no guarantee that moving the functions of the DWP somewhere else will bring about any change in attitudes and practices, or improved outcomes for people relying on social security as a lifeline. 

The DWP has come under constant fire from many campaigners, academics and charities for serious problems with universal credit, and for the catastrophic work capability assessments of those who are unfit to work. Rudd is attempting to repair The department’s reputation by tinkering with the roll-out of universal credit and fighting with the Treasury to end the freeze on working-age benefits. However, these gestures are nowhere near enough to put the major shortcomings of the system right and to mitigate the cuts to support that univesal credit and other benefits entail. 

The report concludes that while the DWP has been able to “help” people with minor difficulties into employment, the outcomes are “much poorer when it comes to supporting people with more complex needs”, such as the ill, disabled, older people, those with drug and alcohol problems, ex-prisoners and those who are homeless.

Pollard proposes that if the removal of these functions from the DWP proves to be a success, a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether”.

He says: “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

The problem is that the reforms are not “well-intentioned”, and the outcomes are not “disappointing”, they are catastrophic. The policies were intentionally punitive, leading to the consequences we see: people experiencing hardship have been punished by as system that was designed originally to support them and mitigate the circumstances of  hardship.

Pollard accuses the DWP of seeing claimants through a “benefits lens”, in which conditions were placed on their payments as a way of forcing them into work. He warns that the department’s reputation among many groups is now so bad that it may prove impossible and expensive to improve. “A bad reputation is far harder to lose than a good one,” he says.

However, the problem is rather much larger than the poor reputation of the DWP. It is the policy framework that determines the set of administrative practices which in turn, shapes the “culture” within the DWP.  It is the distress and harms that are being experienced by people claiming support, most of whom have also paid into the Treasury – that is the most pressing issues here, not reputation ‘damage limitation’ strategies, or an exercise in PR trust building for the government.

Abolishing the DWP, merging it with the Department of Health and involving charities in service delivery, as proposed by Pollard, will send out the clear message that social security is no longer a discrete function or key priority of the state. It also permits the state to withdraw from providing social security.

Responsibility for budgeting for and administering welfare will become diffuse. Placing social security side by side with healthcare is also risky, as it may further stigmatise jobseekers. We have already seen the government consistently stigmatise those who are out of work, implying that unemployment is some kind of psychological disorder. Others, such as Adam Perkins, have even proposed that there is a “genetic welfare trait.” , that runs counter to Conservative notions of “good citizenship”. 

The NHS is also suffering from chronic under-funding. How will it prioritise welfare provision, when it is already struggling to deliver health care, in the face of the increasing rationing of treatments and procedures?

Historically, charities administered welfare. But the provision was patchy and varied from area to area. There were no consistent standards of support for people in hardship. During times of economic recession, charities were often unable to provide people with any support at all, at a time when they needed it most.

Local authorities are now struggling to deliver statutory services because of government cuts. Essential provisions are being rationed as a consequence. There is no guarantee that any additional funding would be ringfenced. We have already seen social services sending vulnerable young people to other areas – sometimes back to their hometown, for example – to shift the burden of cost to another local authority.  The old Poor Law saw parishes moving poor people out of their area, they were pushed from parish to parish, refused ‘relief’ in order, often, to keep local rates bills low.

A recent paper entitled “Dependency, Shame and Belonging” examines the practice of making the poor wear badges from the 16th century through to the compulsory identification of all parish paupers under a 1679 statute, differentiating between those deemed ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. By the late 17th century, magistrates and legislators decided to deter potential badge applicants by making life on the parish as unattractive as possible. Badging became a means of preventing begging and shaming holders, made compulsory in 1697.

The proposal from Demos simply exchanges one form of expensive, intrusive and ineffective bureaucracy with another. How would the Department of health and charities be allocated funds to carry out this publicly funded state function? How would they be held accountable? 

As I touched on earlier, unless the policy framework is also radically changed to one that is supportive, rather than punitive, and to one that isn’t about administering cuts to people’s lifeline support, then the perverse incentives to apply conditionality and sanctions will remain embedded in administration practices. 

A government that does not support a social security programmme – and the anti-welfarism of the Conservatives has been apparent for a long time – is likely to see the shift in responsibillity for delivering social security as a further step in abolishing welfare provision entirely, which has always been their long term aim. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that Demos produced a paper in 2011 advocating reducing the costs of disability benefit by “engaging with the private insurance industry” and proposing that: “reform to encourage individual responsibility and income protection is genuinely of mutual benefit.” The approach laid out in this report builds on the theory and practice of the profoundly antidemocratic ‘libertarian paternalism’ or ‘nudge’ theory. 

Other papers from the thinktank peddle the views of antiwelfarist James Purnell, who, for example, proposed charging interest on crisis loans to unemployed people and pensioners made by the Department for Work and Pensions, which were interest-free, at a rate of up to 26.8% per annum. This was met with great hostility and was blocked by the intervention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was Purnell who announced the Work Capability Assessment, triangulating the Conservatives. Purnell advocated Unum’s approach to “claims management”, in a bid to cut costs of disability support. (See Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper for more detailed discussion). 

The Conservative’s ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemesas have some ‘blue Labour’ neoliberals, including Purnell. 

The th empirically unevidenced idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The government have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision, which is the ultimate ideological goal. That is the root of the problem. 

In light of this, the timing of Pollard’s set of proposals is also rather suspect – see The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security.

A DWP spokesperson has responded from the government’s crib sheet of crafted statements: “This report is completely misguided and we have no plans to reduce functionality at a time when unemployment is at its lowest, welfare reforms are rolling out across the country and millions are saving for a private pension for the first time. Jobcentres are a local presence yet benefit from a national framework. DWP supports around 20 million people to get into work and save for their retirement, as well as giving stability to those who cannot work, and will continue to do so as one responsible organisation.”

 


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Work Programme continues to harm people with mental health problems

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The Government’s Work Programme is making the lives of people with mental health problems worse, and having a detrimental impact on people’s ability to work, research by a leading mental health charity has found.

A report from Mind said the flagship scheme, which requires people to take unpaid work allocated by contractors or face losing their lifeline benefits, was taking entirely the wrong approach and actually damaging people’s motivation and capacity to work.

The research found that most people who are on the scheme because of their mental health problems reported worsening health issues due to their experiences of it.

83 per cent of people surveyed said the scheme’s “support” had made their mental health problems worse or much worse.

The latest statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveal that less than 8 per cent of people being supported by Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have moved into employment through the Work Programme. Around half of people on ESA are being supported primarily because of their mental health problems.

Tom Pollard, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Mind, said:

“These latest figures provide further evidence that the overwhelming majority of people with disabilities and mental health problems are not being helped by the Government’s flagship back-to-work support scheme. A recent report from Mind found that people with mental health problems are less likely to be supported into employment through the Work Programme than those with other health conditions and are more likely to have their benefits sanctioned.”

Even more worryingly, the majority of respondents to our survey said the Work Programme was actually making their health worse, and as a result they had needed more support from health services and felt further from work than previously. Mind is calling for everyone with a mental health problem who is receiving mainstream support through this scheme to be placed onto a new scheme and offered more personalised, specialist support which acknowledges and addresses the challenges people face in getting and keeping a job.”

Additionally, over three quarters of people – 76 per cent – said the Work Programme had actually made them feel less able to work than before they were coerced to participate in the scheme.

The results resonate with figures released in a number of previous years suggesting that people on the Work Programme are actually far less likely to return to work than people who are simply left to their own initiative.

In the first year of the £450 million programme, just two out of 100 people on the scheme returned to work for more than six months.

In 2013 Labour’s then shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne described the scheme as “literally worse than doing nothing”.

Mind’s chief executive Paul Farmer wrote:

“Cutting someone’s support for failing to meet certain requirements causes not just financial problems but a great deal of psychological distress too.

Mind was one of a group of six mental health organisations to respond to a Work and Pensions Committee Welfare to Work inquiry within which we voiced concerns with the system and made a number of recommendations for improving benefits and back-to-work support. A number of schemes deliver far more effective support to people with mental health problems, at a fraction of the cost of the Work Programme.

WorkPlace Leeds, for example, delivered by Leeds Mind, costs much less than the Work Programme and achieves far better outcomes, with nearly a third (32 per cent) of people with severe and enduring mental health problems gaining paid employment. Schemes such as these are far more helpful and effective in supporting those ready and able to work into fulfilling, appropriate paid employment, relevant to their individual skills and ambitions.

We wholeheartedly support the Government’s aspiration to halve the disability employment gap by helping a million more disabled people into work. However, this will only happen if bold changes are made. As the Welfare Reform and Work Bill makes its way through Parliament, Mind is calling on Employment Minister Priti Patel to overhaul the benefits system, by focusing less on pressurising people and investing more in tailored, personalised support. We’re calling for everyone with mental health problems on the Work Programme to be taken out of this scheme, and instead given alternative support which acknowledges and addresses the challenges they face in getting and keeping a job.”

There are perverse political incentives for pushing people onto workfare programmes. The DWP has simplified its performance measures and now primarily targets the move by claimants away from benefits, or “off-flow”, as a simple and intuitive measure of performance. However, this gives no information about how individual jobcentres perform in supporting claimants to work. Some may have found work but, in more than 40 per cent of cases, the reason for moving off benefits is not actually recorded.

The government does not track or follow up the destination of all those leaving the benefit system, and so the off-flow figures will inevitably include many having their claim ended for reasons other than securing employment, including sanctions, awaiting mandatory review, appeal, death, hospitalisation, imprisonment, on a government “training scheme” (see consent.me.uk  and the Telegraph – those on workfare are counted as employed by the Labour Force Survey, which informs government “employment” statistics.)

Workfare programmes offer further opportunity for imposing sanctions, too. Last year, Iain Duncan Smith met a whistle-blower who has worked for his Department for Work and Pensions for more than 20 years. Giving the Secretary of State a dossier of evidence, the former Jobcentre Plus adviser told him of the development of a “brutal and bullying” culture of “setting claimants up to fail”.

“The pressure to sanction customers was constant,” he said. “It led to people being stitched-up on a daily basis.”

The whistle-blower wished to remain anonymous but gave his details to Iain Duncan Smith, DWP minister Esther McVey and Neil Couling, Head of Jobcentre Plus, who also attended the meeting.

“We were constantly told ‘agitate the customer’ and that ‘any engagement with the customer is an opportunity to ­sanction’,”  he told them. 

Iain Duncan Smith and his department have repeatedly denied there are targets for sanctions.

“They don’t always call them targets, they call them ‘expectations’ that you will refer people’s benefits to the decision maker,”  the whistle-blower says. “It’s the same thing.”

He said that managers fraudulently altered claimants’ records, adding: “Managers would change people’s appointments without telling them. The appointment wouldn’t arrive in time in the post so they would miss it and have to be sanctioned. That’s fraud. The customer fails to attend. Their claim is closed. It’s called ‘off-flow’ – they come off the statistics. Unemployment has dropped. They are being stitched up.”

The Department of Work and Pensions no longer meets the needs of people requiring support to find work. Instead it serves only the requirements of an ideologically-driven, irrational and authoritarian government.

 

Related

The Government are under fire for massaging employment statistics

A letter of complaint to Andrew Dilnot regarding Coalition lies about employment statistics

544840_330826693653532_892366209_nPictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone