Tag: Universal Credit

Select committee to investigate link between ‘survival sex’ and Universal Credit

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In February, Amber Rudd finally conceded that the increased use of food banks is partly down to problems in rolling out Universal Credit, following a long line of Conservative ministers who have persistently and loudly denied their is any link between welfare cuts and people needing food banks to make ends meet.

The work and pensions secretary said she was “absolutely clear there were challenges with the initial roll-out” of the benefit and that the difficulty in accessing money was “one of the causes” of the rise.

But she also said that the government had “made changes to help tackle food insecurity”.

Although it seemed like a “promising” acknowledgement, little has changed. Many people are still notable to meet their fundamental survival needs. Universal Credit has been plagued with multiple problems since its inception in 2010. Eight years later, and those problems remain, with a wake of often devastating consequences in those communities where this flagship failure has been rolled out. The Labour party has called for ministers to halt the roll-out “as a matter of urgency”.

Austerity has caused a surge in “survival crime” – where absolute poverty has driven people to shoplift food and to prostitution. 

Frank Field raised the issue of “survival sex” in parliament last October, telling the then work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, that some women in his Birkenhead constituency were “were taking to the red light district for the very first time” because of Universal Credit.

Relentlessly hard-faced McVey replied that job centre work coaches would be able to help the women off the streets, adding that “in the meantime” Field could “tell these ladies that now we’ve got record job vacancies – 830,000 and perhaps there are other jobs on offer”.

Now, the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee have launched an inquiry into a possible link between Universal Credit and so-called “survival sex”, after evidence has emerged that problems with the UK Government’s flagship welfare reform have resulted in some women so impoverished by universal credit or sanctions that they have turned to prostitution to pay rent, feed their families, and generally meet the costs of basic survival needs.

The Committee has opened this phase in its ongoing Universal Credit inquiry in response to reports from charities and support organisations that increasing numbers of people—overwhelmingly women—have been pushed into “survival sex” as a direct result of welfare policy ‘changes’ (cuts).

In his recent report on extreme poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described meeting people who:

Depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter.

Through its work on different elements and consequences of Universal Credit over the last two years, the Work and Pensions Select Committee has identified a number of features of the policy that may contribute to those claiming social security having difficulty meeting survival needs.

  • The wait for a first Universal Credit payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer;
  • The accumulation of debt: for example, as a result of third-party deductions to benefits or taking out an Advance Payment at the start of a claim;
  • Sanctions, which are applied at a higher rate under Universal Credit than under the system it replaces.

New Universal Credit claimants are made to wait at least five weeks before receiving an initial payment, although recent changes to the payment system mean people can ask for advances to help tide them over while they await their first payment. However, the advances must be repaid over time, which traps people in a cycle of debt.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “We have heard sufficient evidence, and are sufficiently worried, to launch this inquiry to begin to establish what lies behind the shocking reports of people being forced to exchange sex to meet survival needs.

“This is an investigation, and we do not yet know what we will uncover.

“But if the evidence points to a direct link between this kind of survival sex and the administrative failures of Universal Credit, Ministers cannot fail to act.”

Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a self-help organisation for sex workers, said there had been an increase in prostitution in the UK as a result of rising poverty and cuts to single-parent benefits.

The devastating impact of benefit cuts and sanctions on women’s incomes began before Universal Credit, which for many women, especially lone parents, she said, had the effect of making an already precarious financial situation worse.

“If you are on benefits it is already a very low level of income. If your income is then reduced, that’s when you find women going back into prostitution, or going into it for the first time,” she added.

The Select Committee wants to hear from Universal Credit claimants who have “had to exchange sex for basic living essentials, like food or somewhere to live”.

They say: “We understand that telling your story might be difficult.

“You can ask for your evidence to be anonymous (we’ll publish your story, but not your name or any personal details about you) or confidential (we’ll read your story but we won’t publish it).”

The Committee will also hear oral evidence in Parliament later in this inquiry.

 The deadline for submitting evidence is Monday 29 April 2019.

Terms of reference: Universal Credit and Survival Sex.

Evidence may be submitted through the Committee’s website.

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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 going through Universal Credit, PIP and ESA assessment, mandatory review and appeal. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Former DWP boss tells how Tory policies pushed her to quit her job

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Mhairi Doyle with her grandson Isaac supporting junior doctors at Southport Hospital. Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

A Merseyside councillor has spoken out about why she retired from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after 25 years. She says it’s because she “refused to be complicit in how the Tories treat vulnerable people.”

Mhairi Doyle, Labour councillor for Norwood ward in Southport, was also the social inclusion manager for Merseyside in the Department of Work and Pensions until 2012. She moved to Southport in 1988, having been born and raised in Edinburgh.

Doyle received an MBE for her work with disadvantaged people, especially her work with Street Sex Workers in Liverpool, and has worked at local, regional and national levels developing policy to help change lives.

She said: “I was working with heroin users, sufferers of domestic violence, people who were in and out of prison, homeless people… with some funding we managed to create networks to support people and help them out of horrendous situations.

“We were getting about 80% of people back into work.

“It took time and energy but we had a really good thing going. And then the coalition government came in and everything was cut, gone in an instant.

“Everyone was shocked when I said I was retiring; they used to joke that I’d have to be carried out, I loved my job so much. But I could not be complicit in the way the Tories think it’s acceptable to treat vulnerable people.”

Doyle said that there have been abrupt changes in the ethos of job centres since 2012. She said: “We used to be there to help and advise, but it’s gone from being a service about people to a service about numbers.

“The benefit regime is so harsh. They say people don’t have targets on benefit sanctions but it’s all semantics – there is an expectation on staff to cut benefits.

“I’m not having a go at anybody who works at job centres. It’s a difficult job and it’s not well-paid, it’s the system. Workers are expected to get people out the door quickly and get them to do it online, but not everyone is computer literate or has internet access.”

She added: “The bulk of my caseload is people struggling to get the benefits they need to live on, and a lot of these people work.”

She continued: “When I moved here I was told, as many of us were, that a vote for Labour was a wasted vote. So, to keep the Tories out I voted Lib Dem until 2010, when I voted Lib Dem and still got the Tories.

“Even worse, they took part in and enabled all the devastating cuts still affecting us today.

“I don’t think it is fair that our NHS is being sold off piece by piece or that my grandson when he gets out of university, will leave with over £50,000 of debt.

“And I don’t think it is fair that the Tories and Lib Dems have starved our local council of money, forcing them into such difficult decisions over services and amenities and then stand back and blithely criticise when they are the very reason it is happening.”

In a completely meaningless response, a DWP spokesman reading from the DWP crib sheet, said: “Finding work is the best route towards prosperity and Universal Credit is a force for good, providing tailored support for over 1.6 million people as they find jobs faster and stay working longer.

“Extra digital help and budgeting support are also available.”

The comment doesn’t address the issues raised by Doyle at all, nor do the political platitudes mitigate the hostile environment that has been engineered by successive Conservative-led governments, which is having dire consequences for many people, both in and out of work.

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Mhairi Doyle, pictured here alongside Bootle MP Peter Dowd and Southport Labour members, won her seat in 2018.  Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

 


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

this ESA round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

The three key asks of the lobby are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The most recent meeting at Portcullis House, Westminster.

 

Related

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

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

Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow comes to Newcastle

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

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


 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can make a donation if you wish and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability claims, assessments, mandatory reviews and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Amber Rudd’s masterclass in Doublespeak

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Yesterday, heartless Amber Rudd was accused of shrugging off ‘heartbreaking’ Universal Credit experiences and stories by suggesting they are about only “one or two” people. 

This is a government who tell us with a straight face that inflicting absolute poverty on the poorest citizens is somehow going to make them less poor. This ideological framework is also imposed upon people in low paid work, struggling to meet their basic living costs. So the government slogan “making work pay” is meaningless Orwellian tosh, as is the Conservative’s longstanding ‘culture of dependency’ thesis and ideological justification narrative for inflicting devastating cuts on those who can least manage to get by. 

The Work and Pensions Secretary made the outrageous comments after being confronted by the Mirror about flaws in Universal Credit.

For years many of us have published articles ranging from flaws in the social security system, affecting millions, to struggling readers who’ve been forced to food banks, as well as administrative ineptitude and bullying that has often had catastrophic consequences. The roll out of Universal Credit has caused hunger, destitution, deaths and suicides, let’s be frank and pay some attention to the empirical evidence, rather than expedient ideological soundbites.  

Amber Rudd told the Mirror: “Some of the criticisms that have come from various publications have been based on one or two particular individuals where the advice hasn’t worked for them.”

That statement flies in the face of empirical evidence. On this site alone there are MANY individual accounts of the harms arising as a result of Universal Credit. And to claim the reason for these harms is because “the advice hasn’t worked or them” is a serious and disgusting trivialisation of the psychological distress and trauma, the deaths, suicides, rising numbers of those facing hunger, hardship, and destitution that Universal Credit, combined with such systematic government denial and indifference, is causing.

She added: “But in the vast majority of cases, and I would urge everybody who hasn’t to take the opportunity to speak to work coaches, the sort of support that individuals get is a completely different approach to what they had previously.”

Yes. It’s not actually support. It’s a programme of discipline, coercion and punishment.

However it isn’t work coaches who have to live with the consequences of a system that was designed to be an increasingly standardised Conservative hostile environment. The government seem to believe that publicly funded public services should serve as a deterrent to people needing support from the public services they have paid into. 

What matters most is the accounts of citizens, which tell their experiences of the system, not of those administrating it. But citizens’ voices are being intentionally stifled, edited out and worse, their accounts are being re-written by politically expedient civil servants and government ministers. This presentation of ideological fictions and the use of gaslighting techniques is usually the preserve of totalitarian regimes, it’s not the behaviour one would expect of a democratic government in a so-called liberal society. 

Governments with such limited social intelligence don’t lie very convincingly, but they do tend to be hard faced and tenacious. The real horror is their utter indifference and lack of responsiveness: that they really don’t care. They continue to demand our suspension of belief and dizzying cognitive dissonance. The relationship between citizen and state is one of abuse, founded on gaslighting strategies.

Rudd added: “And it is delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

Sure. The kind of “professionalism, care and compassion” that leaves a terminally ill man without sufficient support to meet his most basic needs, or that leaves a pregnant mother in extreme hardship, homeless, and resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Or one that pushes people towards suicide.

There is very little empirical evidence of the “professionalism, care and compassion” that Rudd claims. Furthermore, the trivialisation and persistent denials of the harm, distress and extreme hardship that is being inflicted on people because of government policies are all utterly unacceptable behaviours from a government minister, reflecting a profound spite within policy design, a profound lack of political accountability and a profound indifference for the consequences of these behaviours on the lives of ordinary people.

In fact, former Universal Credit staff reveal call targets and ‘deflection scripts, which means staff having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

One whistleblower said that her role often felt adversarial. She said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.” That’s a very strange kind of “compassion.”

As researchers have concluded, Universal Credit is a complicated, dysfunctional and punitive’ system that makes people increasingly anxious, distressed, with some of the most vulnerable citizens in the UK being pushed to consider suicide, and it ‘simply doesn’t work.’ (See Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchersfor example).

devastating National Audit Office report last year about Universal Credit concluded that the DWP was institutionally defensive and prone to dismissing uncomfortable evidence of operational problems. Welfare secretary at the time, Esther McVey, felt the need to make a speech in July in which she promised that where problems arose in future the department would “put our hands up, [and] admit things might not be be going right”.

It’s also clear – in the words of the public accounts committee – that there is a “culture of indifference” within the DWP and wider government.

It’s time that government ministers started to listen to citizens’ voices, to service users – as well as campaigners, researchers, charities and the opposition Parties. And the United Nations – instead of presenting denials that policies are seriously harming people. But there is every indication that they won’t. 

Universal Credit’s malign effects are obvious to anyone who actually looks, and is willing to listen to the voices of those affected by this punitive, mean-spirited and fixated, theory-laden, ideologically driven, miserly provision, that was, at the end of the day, paid for by the very public who are claiming it.

Labour MP Maria Eagle flatly stated that Rudd’s comments are “not true” and are “out of touch”.

She said: “The entire design of the system puts people in debt and the benefit cuts accompanying its introduction have made it far worse.” 

Rudd was questioned by the Mirror after she said yesterday: “Maybe things that were  proposed previously weren’t effective or weren’t compassionate in the way that I want them to be.”

Mirror journalists asked if she could, ‘hand on heart’, say it was “compassionate” to double UC claimants this year, keep the two-child limit and keep the benefit freeze until 2020.

Rudd did not respond to the question, instead replying: “The overall product that is Universal Credit is absolutely compassionate.”

Product? That’s a very odd word to use for lifeline support – the public services that are our social insurance which people have paid into for those times when they need it. 

And using key words from a government strategic comms crib sheet – James Cleverly among others has also opted for the word ‘compassionate’ to describe the welfare ‘reforms’ – does not make those narratives the reality experienced by citizens who need to access support from public services. Saying it does not make it real. This is something the Conservatives seem to have overlooked – that their narratives don’t match people’s realities. That’s the problem with telling lies – the empirical evidence catches up with you sooner or later.

Starving people and leaving them in destitution is not ‘compassionate’. Using a publicly funded public service to deliver punitive and a blunt, coercive, authoritarian behavioural modification programme is not ‘compassionate’. These are the actions and narratives of a government dipping a toe into the realms of totalitarianism.

Rudd claimed that UC needs to be ‘improved’, including to make it fairer to woman, but also said it was a “vital reform delivering a fair and compassionate welfare system”, “by far the most important and crucial reform” and a “force for good”.

Yesterday, the high court concluded that the Universal Credit assessment is illegal. The first judicial review verdict of Universal Credit found that the cutting of severe disability premiums from those who had previously claimed ESA was discriminatory.  How many more legal changes will it take to make the government act with some decency and observe basic laws and human rights?

Ideological mythologies

Rudd went on to claim, somewhat incoherently, that the ‘old system’ was “broken”, “not a utopia that we should return to” and under Labour someone unemployed could receive “£100,000 housing benefit per year.”

The charity Fullfact submitted a freedom of information (FoI) request to the DWP in 2012, following the same claims from David Freud, among other Conservative minsters, that people claiming social security support were receiving £100,000 housing benefit per year. The figures in the response showed that over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total.

Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total. Previous FoI responses from the Department have suggested around five families were awarded this amount.

Ministers and the media repeatedly failed to highlight what is such a small number of the total, and printed screaming and misleading headlines that were inaccurate, without putting this into a wider context. While the evidence suggests that there are a small number of Housing Benefit claims of more than £100,000 per year –  around five – these cases are very much the exception rather than the rule. Focusing exclusively on these outliers without first putting them into context, where over 80% of claims are below £100 per week, has [intentionally] distorted the debate about welfare, aimed at de-empathising the public and providing a justification narrative for cuts.  

Other information drawn from the FoI request found that larger claims tended to come from larger families, and the average household size for people claiming over £40,000 was six. For more details, do check out the numbers in the request itself, which is available here.

People weren’t suffering profound distress, hunger, destitution, suicide ideation and dying because of the ‘old system’.

Perhaps ‘utopias’ are relative. What we are currently witnessing is not “compassionate” or a “force for the good”: it is the dystopic system of an authoritarian state inflicting punishment, discipline and coercion on our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s a state programme that dispossesses citizens, with catastrophic human costs, to fund the tax cuts demanded by a handful of powerful and wealthy vultures, who live lavishly within a culture of entitlement, while the rest of us are increasingly impoverished.

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Amber Rudd claims that Universal Credit is ‘compassionate’. She must have been taking lessons in Doublespeak again.

 

I originally published this as part of a larger article. 

 


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The DWP left a terminally ill man penniless until after he died

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Jill Fennell and her partner Mark Scholfield. She says: “The benefits system is barbaric and inhumane.” (Image: Jill Fennell/Facebook).

A man who was terminally ill with cancer was forced to spend his final days penniless as he waited for a Universal Credit payment that cruelly arrived the day after he died.

Mark Scholfield was made to endure an eight-week delay for the social security payment before he died, aged just 62, of mouth cancer.

Mark’s partner, Jill Fennell, who was with him for 23 years, said: “When you’ve been given a devastating blow, being told you have terminal cancer, money is the last thing anyone should be worrying about.

“The benefits system is barbaric and inhumane.”

Jill, also 62, said self-employed musician, Mark, was unable to work for two months before he had his diagnosis in February 2017. He was told his condition was terminal, she said, and initially, he was  encouraged to apply for fast-track Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to help him meet the costs of living and pay bills.

However, because he lived in Camberwell, South London, where the government’s controversial flagship failure – Universal Credit – was being rolled out, he was told that he did not qualify for ESA.

Instead he had to apply to Universal Credit (UC). The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) often use Credit Reference Agencies to verify the identity citizens making a claim, but Mark had never had credit, and he was told that must visit a Jobcentre with ID.

Jill said that despite his failing health and diagnosis of terminal cancer, Mark was forced by the DWP to go through a health and work assessment over the phone. She  said that she was distraught, and  left “screaming hysterically down the phone”, asking “did they realise he was dying?”

After five weeks Mark received his first payment, which just about covered rent and council tax, but left him with little to live on. But for the next eight weeks he did not receive any more money, and died on July 19, 2017.

It was only after Mark’s death that Jill discovered an ESA payment had been made a day later, as well as a UC payment.

She said: “Mark had needed the money while he was alive to live his final months in some level of comfort and dignity, but he was denied that.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Mr Scholfield’s friends and family.

“While Mr Scholfield was receiving Universal Credit, we are extremely sorry for the delay in his ESA payment which should have been fast-tracked.”

That response is simply unacceptable. Because this kind of glib, standardised apology for an apology is happening far too frequently, it to reflect any shred of sincerity, meaning, reflection or learning on the part of the DWP.  

Linguistic behaviourism: cruelty is compassion, indifference is care

Yesterday, heartless Amber Rudd was accused of shrugging off ‘heartbreaking’ Universal Credit experiences and stories by suggesting they are about only “one or two” people. 

This is a government who tell us with a straight face that inflicting absolute poverty on the poorest citizens is somehow going to make them less poor. This ideological framework is also imposed upon people in low paid work, struggling to meet their basic living costs. So the government slogan “making work pay” is meaningless Orwellian tosh, as is the Conservative’s longstanding ‘culture of dependency’ thesis and ideological justification narrative for inflicting devastating cuts on those who can least manage to get by. 

The Work and Pensions Secretary made the outrageous comments after being confronted by the Mirror about flaws in Universal Credit.

For years many of us have published articles ranging from flaws in the social security system, affecting millions, to struggling readers who’ve been forced to use food banks to survive, as well as administrative ineptitude and bullying that has often had catastrophic consequences. The roll out of Universal Credit has caused hunger, destitution, deaths and suicides, let’s be frank and pay some attention to the empirical evidence, rather than expedient ideological soundbites.  

Amber Rudd told the Mirror: “Some of the criticisms that have come from various publications have been based on one or two particular individuals where the advice hasn’t worked for them.

That statement flies in the face of empirical evidence. On this site alone there are MANY individual accounts of the harms arising as a result of Universal Credit. And to claim the reason for these harms is because “the advice hasn’t worked or them” is a serious and disgusting trivialisation of the psychological distress and trauma, the deaths, suicides, rising numbers of those facing hunger, hardship, and destitution that Universal Credit, combined with such systematic government denial and indifference, is causing.

“But in the vast majority of cases, and I would urge everybody who hasn’t to take the opportunity to speak to work coaches, the sort of support that individuals get is a completely different approach to what they had previously.”

Yes. It’s not actually support. It’s a programme of discipline, coercion and punishment.

It isn’t work coaches who have to live with the consequences of a system that was designed to be an increasingly standardised Conservative hostile environment. The government seem to believe that publicly funded public services should serve as a deterrent to people needing support from the public services they have paid into.

Work coaches don’t have to live with the direct consequences of state policies. What matters most is the accounts of citizens, which tell their raw, first hand experiences of the system, not of those administrating it. But citizens’ voices are being intentionally stifled, edited out and worse, their accounts are being re-written by politically expedient civil servants and government ministers. This presentation of ideological fictions and the use of gaslighting techniques is usually the preserve of totalitarian regimes, it’s not the behaviour one would expect of a democratic government in a so-called liberal society. 

Governments with such limited social intelligence don’t lie very convincingly, but they do tend to be hard faced and tenacious. The real horror is their utter indifference and lack of responsiveness: that they really don’t care. They continue to demand our suspension of belief and dizzying cognitive dissonance. The relationship between citizen and state is one of abuse, founded on gaslighting strategies.

There is very little empirical evidence of the “professionalism, care and compassion” that Rudd claims. Furthermore, the trivialisation and persistent denials of the harm, distress and extreme hardship that is being inflicted on people because of government policies are all utterly unacceptable behaviours from a government minister, reflecting a profound spite within policy design, a profound lack of political accountability and a profound indifference for the consequences of these behaviours on the lives of ordinary people.

Rudd added: “And it is delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

Sure. The kind of “professionalism, care and compassion” that leaves a terminally ill man without sufficient support to meet his most basic needs, or that leaves a pregnant mother in extreme hardship, homeless, and resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Or one that pushes people towards suicide.

And former Universal Credit staff reveal call targets and ‘deflection scripts, which means staff having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

One whistleblower said that her role often felt adversarial. She said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.” That’s a very strange kind of “compassion.”

As researchers have concluded, Universal Credit is a complicated, dysfunctional and punitive’ system that makes people increasingly anxious, distressed, with some of the most vulnerable citizens in the UK being pushed to consider suicide, and it ‘simply doesn’t work.’ (See Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchersfor example).

A devastating National Audit Office report last year about Universal Credit concluded that the DWP was institutionally defensive and prone to dismissing uncomfortable evidence of operational problems. Welfare secretary at the time, Esther McVey, felt the need to make a speech in July in which she promised that where problems arose in future the department would “put our hands up, [and] admit things might not be be going right”.

It’s also clear – in the words of the public accounts committee – that there is a “culture of indifference” within the DWP and wider government.

It’s time that government ministers started to listen to citizens’ voices, to service users – as well as campaigners, researchers, charities and the opposition Parties. And the United Nations – instead of presenting denials that policies are seriously harming people. But there is every indication that they won’t. 

Universal Credit’s malign effects are obvious to anyone who actually looks, and is willing to listen to the voices of those affected by this punitive, mean-spirited and fixated, theory-laden, ideologically driven, miserly provision, that was, at the end of the day, paid for by the very public who are claiming it.

Labour MP Maria Eagle flatly stated that Rudd’s comments are “not true” and are “out of touch”.

She said: “The entire design of the system puts people in debt and the benefit cuts accompanying its introduction have made it far worse.” 

Rudd was questioned by the Mirror after she said yesterday: “Maybe things that were  proposed previously weren’t effective or weren’t compassionate in the way that I want them to be.”

Mirror journalists asked if she could, ‘hand on heart’, say it was “compassionate” to double UC claimants this year, keep the two-child limit and keep the benefit freeze until 2020.

Rudd did not respond to the question, instead replying: “The overall product that is Universal Credit is absolutely compassionate.”

Product? That’s a very odd word to use for lifeline support – the public services that are our social insurance which people have paid into for those times when they need it. 

And using key words from a government strategic comms crib sheet – James Cleverly among others has also opted for the word ‘compassionate’ to describe the welfare ‘reforms’ – does not make those narratives the reality experienced by citizens who need to access support from public services. Saying it does not make it real. This is something the Conservatives seem to have overlooked – that their narratives don’t match people’s realities. That’s the problem with telling lies – the empirical evidence catches up with you sooner or later.

Starving people and leaving them in destitution is not ‘compassionate’. Using a publicly funded public service to deliver punitive and a blunt, coercive, authoritarian behavioural modification programme is not ‘compassionate’. These are the actions and narratives of a government dipping a toe into the realms of totalitarianism.

Rudd claimed that UC needs to be ‘improved’, including to make it fairer to woman, but also said it was a “vital reform delivering a fair and compassionate welfare system”, “by far the most important and crucial reform” and a “force for good”.

Yesterday, the high court concluded that the Universal Credit assessment is illegal. The first judicial review verdict of Universal Credit found that the cutting of severe disability premiums from those who had previously claimed ESA was discriminatory.  How many more legal changes will it take to make the government act with some decency and observe basic laws and human rights?

Rudd went on to claim, somewhat incoherently, that the ‘old system’ was “broken”, “not a utopia that we should return to” and under Labour someone unemployed could receive “£100,000 housing benefit per year.”

The charity Fullfact submitted a freedom of information (FoI) request to the DWP in 2012, following the same claims from David Freud, among other Conservative minsters, that people claiming social security support were receiving £100,000 housing benefit per year. The figures in the response showed that over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total.

Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total. Previous FoI responses from the Department have suggested around five families were awarded this amount.

Ministers and the media repeatedly failed to highlight what is such a small number of the total, and printed screaming and misleading headlines that were inaccurate, without putting this into a wider context. While the evidence suggests that there are a small number of Housing Benefit claims of more than £100,000 per year –  around five – these cases are very much the exception rather than the rule. Focusing exclusively on these outliers without first putting them into context, where over 80% of claims are below £100 per week, has [intentionally] distorted the debate about welfare, aimed at de-empathising the public and providing a justification narrative for cuts.  

Other information drawn from the FoI request found that larger claims tended to come from larger families, and the average household size for people claiming over £40,000 was six. For more details, do check out the numbers in the request itself, which is available here.

People weren’t suffering profound distress, hunger, destitution, suicide ideation and dying because of the ‘old system’.

Perhaps ‘utopias’ are relative. What we are currently witnessing is not “compassionate” or a “force for the good”: it is the dystopic system of an authoritarian state inflicting punishment, discipline and coercion on our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s a state programme that dispossesses citizens, with catastrophic human costs, to fund the tax cuts demanded by a handful of powerful and wealthy vultures, who live lavishly within a culture of entitlement, while the rest of us are increasingly impoverished.

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Amber Rudd claims that Universal Credit is ‘compassionate’. She must have been taking lessons in Doublespeak again.


 

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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Woman loses her baby after Universal Credit ‘error’ forced her to sleep in a car park

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Ryan Gifford and Debbie Ballard, both 23, who were made homeless just before Christmas (Image: Devon Live).

A young couple in Devon were left facing homelessness because of an error with Universal Credit rent payments which resulted in them being forced to sleeping rough. Their distressing circumstances of destitution and severe hardship resulted in Debbie Ballard, aged 23, to suffer a miscarriage.

Debbie and her partner, Ryan Gifford, were forced to spend 15 nights sheltering in a car park after a DWP error meant that an ‘automatic’ rent payment was missed.

The couple say they became homeless just before Christmas. It happened  after being moved onto Universal Credit. A rent payment was missed and their landlord subsequently evicted them.

They are now staying in emergency accommodation, but the terrible damage has already been done as they have lost their unborn child.

Debbie said: “Losing my baby makes me feel like s**t. I feel useless and worthless. And now I have lost another baby.

“I was about six weeks pregnant when we were street homeless in December. I had a miscarriage because of all the stress.

“All we want is a chance for us to be a proper family.”

Before they were evicted, the couple were living in a flat, but were switched onto the new benefits system when they had a row, and Ryan took Debbie off his claim. However, due to the change in circumstance, they were automatically switched onto Universal Credit.

Originally, their rent was paid directly to the landlord but a payment was missed in the changeover and the pair were evicted due to being in arrears.

Debbie said: “We were living in a flat. It was full of mould and rats outside and we had made complaints to the landlords.

“Our Housing Benefit was being paid direct to the landlord but when it switched over to Universal Credit he said we were in arrears and served us with a notice and said he would take us to court.”

The couple say they did not receive any notification letters about the changeover to Universal Credit, and before they realised, their housing benefit was stopped and it was too late.

Debbie said: “It’s too late now. We should have been told that before we were made homeless.

They said it was because of a change in circumstances. We were without money for eight weeks. We were literally begging and borrowing from everybody we knew.

“At the beginning of December, we had 15 days sleeping on the streets because of Universal Credit. We were sleeping in a car park on the harbour. It was really horrible.

“It was so cold at night. If you go down to the bottom car park near the Harvester pub it’s warm in there.

“But there’s an alarm that goes off every 10 minutes for 20 seconds.

“You can’t sleep but it’s warmer.

“We have to pay £20 a time to wash and dry our clothes because there’s no washing facilities in temporary accommodation. Everything is really expensive. It’s really hard.”

Ryan said: “We lost our home when we were switched over to Universal Credit. Now we are expected to live on a joint sum of £161 a month.”

“I want Universal Credit to stop. I think that now Universal Credit is coming in properly it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to be a nightmare.

“Anybody who has a drink or drug habit is going to be shoplifting to feed their habits.”

Debbie and Ryan received support from local homelessness charity People Assisting Torbay’s Homeless, where they now volunteer.

“When we were on the streets you felt like you were taking one step forward and four steps back.

“Now we are in emergency accommodation and we are expected to live on £161 a month.

“I am trying my hardest but I hit barriers everywhere I go.”

PATH chairman Kath Friedrich said: “There is nothing wrong with the theory of Universal Credit. On paper it’s fine.

“But what’s causing all these problems is that all these pre-payment, backdated loans are handed out like sweeties to people who do not have budgeting skills while they are waiting for their Universal Credits.

“Then when they finally get their money all the loans are deducted. We’ve got lots of people coming in here who are only getting £10 a week to live on.

Sometimes they are paying back old loans they didn’t even know they had.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We are working with Mr Gifford to support him with his Universal Credit claim.

“If requested we can arrange for rent to be paid directly to the landlord.”

The Department are very good at delivering ad hoc platitudes that are all to often founded on glib promises of rather too little too late, increasingly frequently with tragic consequences.


 

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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Hello: Which Service, Please?

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Joseph Cornell was an American Surrealist. Possibly less known than Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst but a significant, if invisible, contributor. Cornell worked with assemblage and collage to build tiny Wunderkammer of places he had never visited or people he had never met. Much of his life was defined by caring for his mother and disabled brother. Yet, he managed to keep in contact with international artists and produce a body of work that recycled once beautiful objects into things of beauty and wonder. Cornell worked in a cultural parallel to the creation and production of computer systems: he reused and recycled in innovative ways. He transformed the discarded into desirable objects which tell stories appealing to Art Collectors – works have been sold for $5.3m despite Cornell living in relative poverty for much of his life. Caring has always been costly. 

The Government Digital by Default Strategy seeks to emulate the kind of amplification of effort that Cornell achieved. Published in November 2012, the Strategy has fourteen illuminating action points that define what it is the Government seeks to achieve. In general, the strategic direction being taken is one of transforming government into a flat, lean, low cost, machine; of eliminating anything superfluous to the delivery of the task; of reducing spending by up to £1.8Bn a year; moving all Government Services to a single website. The entire strategy seems utterly marvellous, aspirationally wonderful and easy to achieve in 2012. By 2013 the shiny glint was gone.

Investigation had found that 18% of the population were not willing to go online at all although 6% might be persuaded. This was not deemed to be a death knell for the Strategy because Action Point Nine of the Strategy specifically states, “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

A commitment that was rolled out to the seven key Departments who handle the majority of Central Government transactions: HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Department for Transport (DFT), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Home Office. 

HMRC, being the Department that does most online transactions – and has done even before the Digital By Default Strategy – had a perfectly functional identity checking system. This system had been working and refined since before the debacle of Labour’s Identity Card. Indeed, the HMRC identity check was an aspirational blueprint for the Identity Card. When the Cameron Government came to power, the Identity Card was dumped and, immediately, private companies such as Experian, Equifax, Barclays and others were invited to become “Identity Services Providers”.

Identity Services Providers use the Electoral Register, your credit history, your outstanding debts and your payment history to determine a credit score. For people who use cash – through necessity or decision – this Credit Score is useless. For example, a person who has never had a credit card will fail to have an accurate credit score and a person who buys a house in cash will never have a good credit score. The entire industry of credit scoring is based on the idea that a company can collect all the relevant financial information about someone and be certain the information is correct. Indeed, the early Credit Scoring Industries gained exemptions from the Data Protection Act 1984 to ensure they could collect private information without penalty.

Over the decades the number of people for whom Credit Scoring Industries have accurate information has stabilised at about 30% of the population. Which means, in the shiny world of Digital By Default the Government’s privatised Identity Service Providers cannot identify 30% of the people who need to be identified in order to use Government Digital Services. This is a stark contrast to the HMRC identity checking which identified everybody who participates in the Economy with a success rate of over 97%. 

Digital By Default has a grand set of objectives. Many of them are aimed at reuse and recycling of information in order to flatten Government hierarchies – to shrink the State. Many of them are twaddle that looks good on a Management Consultant’s report but fail when exposed to reality. For example: Action 03 All departments will ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills immediately fails when the development is outsourced. Specialist skills take time to nurture and develop.

Exactly like Commercial Companies, the Government has no desire to pay to train or pay to develop those skills. Which means a rash of Contract Workers and increasingly unfair and unreasonable contract terms. Such as defining Contract Workers as being Workers and therefore to be taxed as Workers but without having any of the Rights associated with Workers because they are contractors. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor niggle. It is, however, a minor niggle that is amplified by technology. Contractors move on seeking the highest payer and leave without completing work and only complete work defined.

The debacle of the Universal Credit Computer Systems demonstrates that poor Management and unreasonable treatment of Skilled Workers ends badly. The Universal Credit System works as defined and has no flexibility to work otherwise because the desire to shrink the State and do everything cheaper overrides any design skills that exist in appropriating, reusing and recycling existing systems. 

The single biggest failing of Digital By Default is that it has been colonised by Nudge Theory. The default of digital is a policy lever that the Government can pull and magically people will be nudged to use the service and so the non-digital alternative will never be required. Which has then informed the reduction of the number of Civil Servants – regardless of practical necessity – in a masterly exemplification of the lump of labour fallacy.

The truth is that the Government has failed to genuinely engage with the Digital By Default Strategy for a wide range of ideologically driven reasons which fetishise Business Best Practice but fails to engage by following one of the stated aims of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader. 

When it came to the Northern Irish Border, the Government simply stated that there would be a technological solution in place. When the European Union asked the most basic of design questions the entire claim fell apart. Not because the European Union was seeking to frustrate anything but because the Government is profoundly ignorant of what Digital actually means. By insisting that Leadership is needed they have circumvented the precise thing that is essential to every digital strategy, public or private: delivery.

The aim of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader only works if All departments [will] ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills. Leadership without delivery is like a Shipping Line without Ships. 

Fundamentally the Digital By Default Strategy is a sales document which short changes the Civil Service and lays out a prospectus of outsourcing. The failure to build any kind of Management structure to ensure that outsourcing delivered the same services, but digitally, is nowhere more obvious than in Universal Credit. A project that has more than 100,000 transactions, according to Digital By Default, fall under Action Two: Services handling over 100,000 transactions each year will be re-designed, operated and improved by a skilled, experienced and empowered Service Manager” and need to be consistent with Action Nine: “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

The evidence is that Universal Credit achieves none of this. Universal Credit is digital only – which means Action Nine can never be achieved. However, Universal Credit can be outsourced as it becomes a “simple endpoint service”. People turn up, log on and claim. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach does not work. The approach automatically excludes that 18% of the population who are not on line and conflates the 6% who can be persuaded to go on line with the 12% who have no means or interest. The failure of the commercial Identity Service Providers to know who 30% of the adult population are raises the exclusion to somewhere between 18% and 48%.

The kind of fetish of Big Data that accompanies the “turn up, log on and claim” approach is quite particular. It is the fetish of demanding more information than is needed because the process fails with insufficient information and can filter out information.

It is normal behaviour in systems development: see what data can be gathered and then move backwards towards what is required; but in Big Data the approach is to overcollect and then see how to monetise the non-essential data. Which has been the essential business model of Credit Checking Agencies who grew out of Catalogues such as Great Universal Stores deciding to monetise their record of debts. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach needs a complete and accurate record of transactions to exist in order to work. That means an accurate record for every person of working age – for working age benefits – in order to function effectively. It is not some end point service like a credit check which simply says yes or no to a question such as does this person have a credit score greater than X? The Digital By Default approach assumes that the complexity of Universal Credit can be a simple endpoint service.

Which is exactly what technical developers sell to their managers when Big Data applications are developed. It can all be simple because a computer can do that. What is rarely discussed is the question: what happens when it goes wrong? 

Action Fourteen: Policy teams will use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public is a statement that every development project – regardless of the development methodology – proposes they will do: consult the end users. The consultation for Universal Credit has not included the Public. It has included the Think Tanks The Institute for Government – whose board of directors include Morgan Stanley Bankers, Former Bank of England Directors, Conservative Politicians and members of the House of Lords – Centre for Social Justice – whose directors include Conservative Politicians, links to American Right Wing pressure groups, a smattering of the Lords and various Right Wing Politicians.

The Consultation with Think Tanks is, in development terms, consulting with the public. But it is not consultation with the End User Community. Morgan Stanley Bankers are unlikely to need to budget to put a fiver’s credit onto the electricity meter in order to make the benefit work. It is, as Developers might say, a low probability use case scenario. 

Which leaves the entire development of Digital By Default firmly outside of the realm of the End Users and with the System Owners. In other words: Universal Credit is not broken. It does what it is designed to do because it does what the consultation discovered was a requirement. Reflect on those who were actually consulted: Right Wing Politicians and Bankers. The same people who created and sustained the 2007 Financial Collapse. Universal Credit does what it is designed to do: eliminate Government Employees, lower the cost of benefits – most frequently by delaying or refusing them – and shrink the use of Government Services in order to have “small government”.

The Digital By Default strategy documents outline the way in which the technical aspirations of the technically illiterate Government can be nudged into amplified effect so that small decisions cascade rapidly, significantly and with increased impact.

The most significant problem with the Digital By Default strategy has been appallingly naive management. From the pathological good news culture at the Department for Work and Pensions that resulted in the delay, cancellation and restarting of the Universal Credit development project to the ending of the existence of the Vehicle Levy Disc. The good news culture of the Universal Credit development project is well documented; but, the more telling is the Vehicle Levy Disc. Coincident with the abolition of the Disc, the revenue from Vehicle Excise Duty began to fall. The loss of the Disc acting as a nudge for people to not commit to payment.

The badge of good citizenship that was embodied in the historic tax disc was simply dumped because the digital service neither needed the disc nor wanted the additional cost of posting out discs. It was a money saving measure that resulted in the loss of the daily nudge: you will need to pay the car tax in three months… …two months… …the end of this month… 

The truth is that the Digital by Default strategy has resulted in services which are Dysfunctional by Default. The public that is consulted is not the End User Community but groups with an ideological, financial and career limiting interest in the outcome. When Cornell built his assemblages he did so in the kitchen, at night, after his brother and mother were safely resting. His biography tells how he would use an open oven for heat and would clear all of his work away before his family awoke. What he understood was the weaving of mythology, the evocation of symbolic exchanges from deep within his audience.

The work of Cornell illustrates that it takes significant efforts to achieve things where there are limits, barriers and powerful, inescapable, constraints in place. There are very few people who can claim the same Artistic Success as Cornell along with the limiting domestic circumstances. Many female artists have been crushed by the existence of the Domestic and there are very, very, very few significant artists with the same constraints as Cornell. 

Which is not to make broad, unsustained, claims about the History of Art but a highlighting of the very real fact that the political policies of the Government are formed and limited by their life experience. The failures of Universal Credit are illustrations that the theory of human nature and existence that underpin the approach are not really applicable to society. The truth is that Computer Systems amplify symbolic, social and political exchanges and can make social existence, literally, unbearable by enforcing political decisions and symbolic exchanges that are utterly alien.

Computer Systems are not just numerical calculation machines but also culture machines. Life is not Digital By Default and where Digital can enrich and enhance Life there is a clear divergence between Government Policy and Life. The underlying drive is to use Digital to remake Society as something that does not really exist. Something that is virtual.

A return to the Thatcherite Mantra: there is no such thing as society. Except, unlike when Thatcher was pandering to the embryonic Credit Reference Agencies, the Government is pandering to organisations who want to monetise all information about everybody. 

The truth is that, Government has ceased to have worldly experiences such as Cornell had. The result is a range of digital services designed to service an ideology which places profit and shareholder value above everything. The system design is already leading to loss of life and to significant patterns of dysfunction in society. Yet, the Digital By Default strategy remains unquestioned. It is leading to wild swings that are, systematically destabilising society and casting us all adrift into the unnatural histories of neoliberalism.

Picture: L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle, Joseph Cornell, 1940.

Article by Hubert Huzzah