Tag: Welfare sanctions

British Psychological Society reafirms its opposition to welfare sanctions

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The UK’s leading professional associations for psychological therapies have reaffirmed their opposition to welfare sanctions.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, British Psychoanalytic Council, British Psychological Society and UK Council for Psychotherapy between them represent more than 110,000 psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who practise psychotherapy and counselling.

In a joint response to the recent report of the Welfare Conditionality project, the organisations say:

“Our key concerns remain that not only is there no clear evidence that welfare sanctions are effective, but that they can have negative effects on a range of outcomes including mental health.

“We continue to call on the Government to address these concerns, investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems and consider suspending the use of sanctions subject to the outcomes of an independent review.”

The organisations reaffirmed the clear position against welfare sanctions that they took in a 2016 joint response.

Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard the British Psychological Society’s acting director of policy said:

“We are delighted to sign this joint statement. The Society has seen increasing evidence that benefit sanctions undermine people’s health and wellbeing, and that people with multiple and complex needs are disproportionately subject to them.”

I’ve written a lot of critical articles over the last few years about the government’s controversial welfare policies. The Conservatives claim that welfare sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. However, the authoritarian application of a behaviourist idea – that punishment somehow motivates people to “change their behaviour” – especially when such punishment involves the cruel and barbaric removal of people’s means of meeting their most fundamental survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – contradicts conventional wisdom and flies in the face of a substantial body of empirical evidence.

Making provision for meeting fundamental human needs so rigidly conditional is an atrociously brutal act. There is simply no justification for a government in a very wealthy democracy to behave in such an inhumane manner. 

Social security is a safety net that most people have contributed towards. It came into being to ensure that no citizen would face absolute poverty – hunger and destitution – when they experience hardships, in a civilised and civilising democracy.

Punitive welfare sanctions are an extremely regressive policy. It was widely recognised during the 1940s that absolute poverty reduces citizens’ motivation and prevents us from fulfilling our potential at an individual level and as a society. 

Click here to read the Society’s recent comment on benefit sanctions.

Click here to read the statement from the five organisations. 

I wrote about the extensive study of  welfare conditionality here: Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work.

Related

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies 

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

Psychologists Against Austerity: mobilising psychology for social change

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, accordingto research

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

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Report shows significant challenges facing the Universal Credit system

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It’s disappointing and very worrying that a published report from the Work and Pensions Committee says: “The employment support service for in-work claimants of Universal Credit (UC) holds the potential to be the most significant welfare reform since 1948, but realising this potential means a steep on-the-job learning curve, as the policy appears to be untried anywhere in the world.”

The Work and Pensions Committee recommendations in the report are:

Given there is no comprehensive evidence anywhere on how to run an effective in-work service, the DWP will be learning as it develops this innovation. The Committee says:

  • for the reform to work, it must help confront the structural or personal barriers in-work claimants face to taking on more work, such as a lack of access to childcare and limited opportunities to take on extra hours or new jobs
  • the question of applying proposed sanctions is complex: employed people self-evidently do not lack the motivation to work.  The use of financial sanctions for in-work claimants must be applied very differently to those for out-of-work claimants
  • a successful in-work service will also require partnership between JCP and employers to a degree not seen before.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee said:

“The in-work service promises progress in finally breaking the cycle of people getting stuck in low pay, low prospects employment. We congratulate the Government for developing this innovation. As far as we can tell, nothing like this has been tried anywhere else in the world. This is a very different kind of welfare, which will require developing a new kind of public servant.”

This imprudent comment from Field implies that individuals need financial punishments in order to find work with better prospects and higher pay. Yet there are profoundly conflicting differences in the interests of employers and employees. The former are generally strongly motivated to purposely keep wages as low as possible so they can generate profit and pay dividends to shareholders and the latter need their pay and working conditions to be such that they have a reasonable standard of living. It’s not as if the Conservatives have ever valued legitimate collective wage bargaining. In fact their legislative track record consistently demonstrates that they hate it, prioritising the authority of the state above all else.

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

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

It’s worth considering that in-work conditionality and sanctions may have unintended consequences for employers, too. If employees are coerced by the State to find better paid and more secure work, and employers cannot increase hours and accommodate in-work progression, who will fill those posts? Financial penalties aimed at employees will also negatively impact on the performance and reliability of the workforce, because when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, their cognitive and practical focus shifts to survival, and that doesn’t accommodate the meeting of higher level psychosocial needs and obligations, such as those of the workplace. It was because of the recognition of this, and the conventional wisdom captured in the work of social psychologists such as Abraham Maslow that provided the reasoning behind the policy of in-work benefits and provision in the first place. 

In-work conditionality reinforces a lie and locates blame within individuals for structural problems – political, economic and social – created by those who hold power. Despite being a party that claims to support “hard-working families,” the Conservatives have nonetheless made several attempts to undermine the income security of a 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.

Last month I wrote about the Department for Work and Pensions running a Trial that is about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” 

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

The document focuses on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security, and evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit. (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”

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

Owen Smith MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, commenting on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report  into ‘in-work progression’ in Universal Credit, said:

“This report shows there are significant challenges facing the new Universal Credit system, not least how to ensure work pays and people are incentivised in to jobs.  As a result, it is deeply worrying that at the early part of the rollout, huge Tory cuts to work allowances will undermine this aim, as 2.5 million working families will left over £2,100 a year worse off. 

“If Universal Credit is to be returned to its original intentions of supporting and encouraging people in to work then Stephen Crabb needs to change his mind and reverse the Tory cuts to working families urgently. 

“It’s also problematic that the committee found there is insufficient information available after a year of piloting in-work conditionality, especially given the complete mess that has been made of the existing sanctions regime.  The DWP should move quickly to make available as much information as possible, to ensure the roll out of Universal Credit is properly scrutinised.”

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Related

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

Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

It’s time to abolish “purely punitive” benefit sanctions


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

 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.

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Study of welfare sanctions – have your say

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National Audit Office (NAO) is currently undertaking a study of benefit sanctions, in order to:

“… examine whether the Department for Work and Pensions is achieving value for money from its administration of benefit sanctions. This includes how benefit sanctions fit with the intended aims and outcomes of DWP’s wider working age employment policy, whether sanctions are being implemented in line with policy and whether use of sanctions is leading to the intended outcomes for claimants.”

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

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

Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial is mandatory. There is clearly no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychopolitical approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about research ethics and codes of conduct.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits in cases where claimants are deemed to be out of compliance with  requirements.” They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence – the threat that puts a big stick behind coercive welfare programme rules and “incentivises” citizen compliance with a heavily monitoring and supervisory administration. The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

There is plenty of evidence that sanctions don’t help people to find work, and that the punitive application of severe financial penalities is having a detrimental and sometimes catastrophic impact on people’s lives. We can see from a growing body of research how sanctions are not working in the way the government claim they intended.

Sanctions, under which people lose benefit payments for between four weeks and three years for “non-compliance”, have come under fire for being unfair, punitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, causing death.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The reconceptualision of poverty makes it much more difficult to define and very difficult to measure. Such a conceptual change disconnects poverty from more than a century of detailed empirical and theoretical research, and we are witnessing an increasingly experimental approach to policy-making, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent. This turns democracy completely on its head. Policies are meant to meet public needs, rather than being used simply as tools of government to have the public meet ideologically-determined government outcomes.

This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It also places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.

It’s clear that the government intends to continue embedding sanctions in policies which were meant to provide a minimal income for people needing support. This is policy based entirely on ideology and traditional Conservative prejudice, aimed at punishing sick and disabled people, unemployed people, the poorest paid, and part-time workers, inflicting conditions of hardship, distress and absolute poverty on those social groups. Meanwhile, the collective bargaining traditionally afforded us by trade unions has been systematically undermined by successive Conservative governments, showing clearly how the social risks of the labour market are being personalised and redefined as being solely the economic responsibility of individuals rather than the government and profit-driven big business employers.

It’s important that we gather and present as much evidence as possible about the detrimental impact of welfare sanctions. The NAO study will run until the Autumn, so that gives us some time to have our say about our own experiences.

It is easy to make a submission to the study. Just go to the contact page and select welfare and benefits as the topic, and write “FAO Colin Ross” or “Max Tse” in the subject field. Alternatively,  you can email Colin Ross, the audit manager, directly at Colin.ROSS@nao.gsi.gov.uk

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. If we can’t meet our basic physiological needs, it isn’t likely that we will be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs.

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We would like to hear your stories about how the cuts have affected you and your service. We want the wider public and politicians to understand the real life costs of public sector cuts. It can be hard to speak up alone, so we are collating everyone’s stories – together we have more power and a louder voice. We all have stories of frustration, fear and anger, so please use this as a way to tell the world about how the cuts have impacted on you and/or the people you work with. We are interested in stories from everyone who works in, uses, or needs Psychology services:

Psychologists Against Austerity campaign – call for evidence

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

Sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work. Here’s why

 


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The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

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

So please share widely.

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

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

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

Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information relating to:

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

• Purpose of the research.

• Procedures involved in the research.

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

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

Protection of Participants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others.

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The media need a nudge: the government using ‘behavioural science’ to manipulate the public isn’t a recent development, nudging has been happening since 2010

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Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s Nudge Unit. The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that we are fundamentally “irrational” and that many of our choices are influenced negatively by “cognitive bias.” They go on to propose that policymakers can and ought to nudge citizens towards making choices that are supposedly in their best interests and in the best interests of society.

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

And how can human interests be so narrowly defined and measured in terms of economic outcomes, within a highly competitive, “survival of the fittest” neoliberal framework? The Nudge Unit is concerned with behavioural economics, not human happiness and wellbeing.

The welfare reforms, especially the increased application of behavioural conditionality criteria and the extended use of benefit sanctions, are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – the cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. But nudge was always going to be an attractive presentation at the top of a very slippery slope all the way down to open state coercion. Most people think that nudge is just about helping men to pee on the right spot on urinals, getting us to pay our taxes on time, or to save for our old age. It isn’t.

How can sanctioning ever be considered a rational political action –  that taking away lifeline income from people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs is somehow justifiable, or “in their best interests” or about making welfare “fair”?  The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. But there is an established body of empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that denying people the means of meeting basic needs, such as money for food and fuel, undermines their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and serves to further “disincentivise” people who are already trapped at a basic level of struggling to simply survive.

The Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment for example, provided empirical evidence and a highly detailed account regarding the negative impacts of food deprivation on human motivation, behaviour, sociability, physical and psychological health. Abraham Maslow, a humanist psychologist who studied human potential, needs and motivation, said that if a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also represented in his classic hierarchy of needs. 

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to job seek.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions. (See Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions.)

Evidently the government have more than a few whopping cognitive biases of their own.

I have previously criticised nudge because of its fundamental incompatibility with traditional democratic principles, and human rights frameworks, amongst other things. Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, policies are no longer about representing and reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

I’ve also pointed out that nudge operates to manipulate at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination.

So we really do need to ask exactly in whose “best interests” the new paternalist “economologists” are acting. Nudge is being targeted specifically at the casualties of inequality, which is itself an inevitability of neoliberalism. The premise of nudge theory is that poor people make “bad choices” rather than their circumstances being recognised as an inexorable consequence of a broader context in which political decisions and the economic Darwinism that neoliberalism entails creates “winners and losers.”

I have seen very little criticism of nudge in the mainstream media until very recently. On Monday the Independent published an article about how the Chancellor exploited our cognitive biases to secure his cuts to welfare, drawing particularly on the loss aversion theory. To reiterate, in economics decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

From the Independent article:

“Researchers have also found that people do not treat possible forgone gains resulting from a decision in the same way as equivalent potential out-of-pocket losses from that same decision. The forgone gains are much less psychologically painful to contemplate than the losses. Indeed, the gains are sometimes ignored altogether.

There was an apparent attempt to harness this particular psychological bias in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Of course the Chancellor was forced into a memorable U-turn on his wildly unpopular tax credit cuts. Millions of poor working families will now not see their benefits cut in cash terms next April. Yet the Chancellor still gets virtually all his previously targeted savings from the welfare bill by 2020.

How? Because the working age welfare system will still become much less generous in five years’ time. As research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation has shown, the typical low-income working family in 2020 will be hit just as hard as they were going to be before the Autumn Statement U-turn. The Chancellor seems to be calculating that the pain of future forgone gains will be less politically toxic than immediate cash losses.”

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It’s hardly a revelation that the Conservative government are manipulating public opinion, using scapegoating, outgrouping and the creation of folk devils in order desensitize the public to the plight of the poorest citizens and to justify dismantling the welfare state incrementally. As I’ve pointed out previously, this has been going on since 2010, hidden in plain view.

In the article, Ben Chu also goes on to say:

“Experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler also suggest that this stealth approach fits with people’s sense of fairness. They found that in a time of recession and high unemployment most people they surveyed thought a hypothetical company that cut pay in cash terms was acting unfairly, while one that merely raised it by less than inflation was behaving fairly.

There was another exploitation of our psychological biases in the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced an increase in stamp duty for people buying residential properties to let. That underscored the fact that the Chancellor remains wedded to the stamp duty tax, despite pressure from public finance experts to shift to a more progressive and efficient annual property tax (perhaps an overhauled council tax).

But Mr Osborne, like all his recent predecessors, realises that stamp duty, for all its deficiencies, tends to be less resented as a form of taxing property. Why? Because of “anchoring”. When people buy a house they are mentally prepared to part with a huge sum, usually far bigger than any other transaction they will make in their lives. The additional stamp duty payable to the Treasury on top of this massive sum, large though it is, seems less offensive. People resent it less than they would if the tax were collected annually in the form of a property tax – even if, for most, it would actually make little difference over the longer term. Sticking with stamp duty is the path of least resistance.”

There is another economologist “experiment” that seems to have slipped under the radar of the media – an experiment to nudge sick and disabled people into work, attempting to utilise GPs in a blatant overextension of the intrusive and coercive arm of the state. It is aimed at ensuring sick and disabled people don’t claim benefits. I don’t recall any mention of behaviourist social experiments on the public in the Conservative manifesto.

When I am ill, I visit a doctor. I expect professional and expert support. I wouldn’t consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith about my medical conditions. Or the government more generally. There are very good reasons for that. I’m sure that Iain Duncan Smith has Dunning–Kruger syndrome. He thinks he knows better than doctors and unreliably informs us that work can set you free, it can help prevent and cure illness.  Yet I’ve never heard of a single case of work curing blindness, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer or even so much as a migraine. I’ve also yet to hear of a person’s missing limbs miraculously growing back. The Conservative “medical intervention” entails a single prescription: a work coach from the job centre. State medicine – a single dose to be taken daily: Conservative ideology, traditional prejudice and some patronising and extremely coercive paternalism. The blue pill.

I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ben Chu draws in his article. Whilst he acknowledges that:

“The Government has a Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) whose objective is to exploit the public’s psychological biases,” he goes on to say that it’s merely “to push progressive policies, such as getting us to save more for retirement and helping us make “better choices”, perhaps by counteracting the negative impact of loss aversion. But, as we’ve seen, the Chancellor is not above exploiting our biases in a cynical fashion too.” 

Progressive policies? The draconian welfare “reforms” aren’t remotely “progressive.” In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical (and nudge-driven) normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of such policies.

There is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and that person’s actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a technocratic fad that is overhyped, theoretically trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of its capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

At worst, the rise of this new form of psychopolitical behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

But for the record, when a government attempts to micromanage and manipulate the behaviour of citizens, we call that “totalitarianism” not “nudge.” 

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Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Benefit Sanctions and the Rule of Law – Michael Adler

In this paper, Michael Adler, Emeritus Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh, highlights the enormous growth in the severity, the scope and the incidence of benefit sanctions in the UK since the turn of the century, and assesses the compatibility of the current sanctions regime with the ‘rule of law’. 

This blog is based on a paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Law Society of Scotland, held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 2nd October 2015. The author is very grateful to David Webster, Jeff King and Colm O’Cinneide for their help.

Few people have written as clearly on the ‘rule of law’ as Tom Bingham, formerly Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and Senior Law Lord in the UK Supreme Court, and I use his analysis as my starting point. According to Tom Bingham,[1] the ‘rule of law’ comprises eight principles. These are set out in Table 1 below:

Table 1: The eight principles of the Rule of Law

1. The law must be accessible and, so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.
2. Questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of the law and not of discretion.
3. The laws of the land should apply equally to all, save to the extent that objective differences justify differentiation.
4. Ministers and public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably.
5. The law must offer adequate protection of fundamental human rights.
6. Means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve.
7. Adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair.
8. The rule of law requires compliance by the state of its obligations in international law as in national law.

Since few members of the audience will have any personal experience of sanctions and most of you will probably only be dimly aware of their existence, the paper starts with an account of recent changes in the sanctions regime.

The origins of benefit sanctions

There is nothing new about benefit sanctions. When unemployment insurance was introduced in the UK under the National Insurance Act 1911, claimants could be disqualified from benefit for periods of up to six weeks for a limited number of reasons (mainly for having left work voluntarily, lost their job as a result of ‘misconduct’ or not being available for work). What is new is the striking increase in their scope and severity, and in their incidence. Most of these changes can be traced back to the Jobseeker’s Act 1995, which inserted the principle of ‘activation’ into social security for those deemed capable of work (or of progression towards it), made the receipt of benefit conditional on claimants’ job-seeking behaviour, required claimants to undertake training and job-search, and introduced sanctions for non-compliance.

THE increasing scope and severity of benefit sanctions

Benefit sanctions are now very much wider in scope (in that they are applied to more misdemeanours), greater in severity (in that they apply for longer periods) and more extensive in application (in that they apply to more people) than was formerly the case.

The main changes in the scope and severity of benefit sanctions since the 1980s are summarised in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Benefit Sanctions Then and Now

 THEN (pre-activation)  NOW (post-activation)
only passive ‒ mainly for ex-ante offences e.g. leaving work voluntarily, losing their job as a result of ‘misconduct’ or not being available for work also active ‒ mainly for ex-post offences, e.g. not ‘actively seeking work’, failure to participate in a training or employment scheme and missing an interview
applied to unemployed also apply to single parents and long-term sick and disabled people
applied to applicants for insurance benefits apply to applicants for all the main out-of-work benefits
applied for up to 6 weeks (1911-1986), 13 weeks (1986-1988) or 26 weeks (1988 onwards) now apply for up to 156 weeks (three years)
sanctioned claimants had a right to claim means-tested social assistance (at a reduced rate) immediately sanctioned claimants can apply for discretionary ‘hardship payments’ but, in many cases, only after a two week delay

The increasing incidence of benefit sanctions

In 2001, about 300,000 sanctions and disallowances were imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on JSA claimants. This figure remained fairly static for the next five years but started to rise quite sharply in 2006 and exceeded 1 million in 2013. Thus, the increase over the period was nearly 250 per cent. The number of sanctions fell to just over 700,000 in 2014, mainly because of the decline in unemployment and the corresponding reduction in the JSA caseload, which fell by about 30 per cent. However, this is more than twice the number imposed in 2001.

In addition to JSA sanctions, 34,000 sanctions were imposed on ESA claimants in 2013. The detailed statistics for sanctions and disqualifications are set out in Table 3 below.

Table 3: JSA and ESA Sanctions and Disqualifications, 2000-2014

Year Number of JSA sanctions imposed Change since 2001 (%) [see note below] Number of ESA sanctions imposed
2000 no statistics available
2001 300,104
2002 305,080 +1.65%
2003 282,096 -6.00%
2004 258,985 -13.70%
2005 267,172 -10.93%
2006 278,827 -7.09%
2007 351,341 +17.07%
2008 380,028 +26.63%
2009 471,476 +57.10% 19,087
2010 742,030 +147.26% 30,298
2011 738,850 +146.20% 4,817
2012 904,965 +201.55% 14,361
2013 1,046,398 +248.67% 34,022
2014 702,000 +133.92% 36,808

Note: 2001 was selected as the base year for comparisons because the statistical system changed in that year.

Source: The statistics are based on the DWP’s quarterly sanctions statistics, published in Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance sanctions and available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/jobseekers-allowance-and-employment-and-support-allowance-sanctions-decisions-made-to-june-2014

Comparing benefit sanctions with court fines

To put these figures into perspective, we can compare changes in the number of benefit sanctions with changes in the number of fines imposed in the criminal courts in the period since 2000. While the incidence of benefit sanctions in Great Britain increased from about 300,000 to more than 1,000,000 over the period 2001-2013, the incidence of fines imposed in the criminal courts in England and Wales decreased from about 1,000,000 to about 800,000. Although it is not generally known, the incidence of benefit sanctions overtook the number of court fines in 2012. The gap opened up in 2013 but the number of benefit sanctions fell quite sharply in 2014, due mainly to a fall in the number of unemployed people. However, the number of benefit sanctions is still very high indeed. These changes are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The Incidence of Criminal Fines and Benefit Sanctions 2000-2014

 Figure 1

Court fines are preceded by court proceedings and these provide a reasonable level of procedural protection. They are set at ‘moderate levels’ but, because judges impose fines without inquiring into offenders’ circumstances or ability to pay, and because many offenders are unemployed and/or poor, the extent of proportionality in imposing fines is not all that high. Fine default is quite a serious problem and, although it is being tackled, a few fine defaulters still end up in prison. The imposition of court fines is not, in principle, inconsistent with justice although the justice inherent in the process could be enhanced.

Benefit sanctions are not preceded by legal proceedings. There are established reconsideration and appeal procedures although, since there are no time limits, reconsideration can take a long time and sanctions are implemented without waiting for claimants’ cases to be considered. The number of appeals to an independent tribunal increased by more than 600 per cent over the period but Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which was introduced in 2013, was designed to choke this off and appears to have done so. The number of appeals in the three month period October-December 2012 fell from 130,606 to 28,142 in the same period two years later, i.e. in 2014.

Until October 2013, when MR was introduced, claimants could either ask for the DWP’s decision to impose a sanction to be reviewed, in which case, this would be undertaken by a different decision maker, or they could appeal directly to a tribunal. Now they must first make an informal request for reconsideration (there is no form). The claimant is then telephoned by the original decision-maker and given a verbal ‘explanation’ or, on request, a written statement of reasons (WSOR), and may be given an opportunity to provide further information relevant to the decision. If the claimant accepts this explanation, the matter ends there. However, if the claimant disputes anything, the initial decision-maker will consider what they have to say, including any new evidence they present. The initial decision-maker may change his/her decision at this point but, if not, and the claimant insists, the initial decision maker (not the claimant) will request a formal Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which is undertaken by a new, remotely-located Dispute Resolution Team (DRT), and only if they are turned down at this stage can they appeal to a tribunal. Claimants who wish to appeal must submit an application to HM Courts and Tribunals Service within one month of the date on which they were given the result of Mandatory Reconsideration. It is hardly surprising that the numbers of reviews and appeals have plummeted.

Thus, the combination of internal review and external appeal procedures does not provide an acceptable level of procedural protection. Those who receive benefit sanctions are, because they were on benefit and have had their benefit stopped, among the poorest people in society and the sanctions themselves are extremely severe since they can deprive claimants of all their income for periods ranging from four weeks to three years. If the courts were to impose fines set at the level of the offender’s disposable income, and go on doing this for lengthy periods, there would be an outcry. Sanctions for a non-criminal offence that are set at 100 per cent of the alleged offender’s income and applied repeatedly are, clearly, totally lacking in proportionality.

Vulnerable claimants are most likely to be sanctioned and, despite the availability of hardship payments, many of those who are sanctioned experience enormous hardship. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them end up becoming homeless, using food banks and resorting to crime. It is hard to see how these shortcomings could be rectified and it follows that benefit sanctions, as they have developed in the UK, are incompatible with justice. salient characteristics of court fines and benefit sanctions are compared in Table 4.

Table 4. The salient characteristics of court fines and benefit sanctions

Screenshot 2015-10-08 09.07.37

We now come to the question of whether benefit sanctions are compatible with the rule of law. My conclusions, and I must stress that these are my personal conclusions and that other people may wish to take issue with them, is that they are not. The consistency of benefit sanctions with Bingham’s eight principles is summarised in Table 5 and discussed in more detail below.

Table 5: Benefit Sanctions and the eight principles of the Rule of Law

Principle Assessment  Compliance
1 unclear whether the law is either accessible or intelligible, clear and predictable doubtful
2 most decisions involve discretion, disputes are handled internally and adjudication is rare no
3 sanctions apply to everyone in receipt of benefits yes
4 sanctions are often applied unreasonably and for trivial misdemeanours no
5 the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under Art. 6, is inadequately protected no
6 appeals to tribunals have virtually disappeared no
7 MR procedures weighted against claimants no
8 international law does not apply no
  1. Although the Decision Makers’ Guide provides guidance for DWP staff who make decisions about benefits and pensions and helps them make decisions that are accurate and consistent, claimants have not been provided with any comparable account of the law which sets out when sanctions can be imposed and how they can be challenged. However, since October 2013, new jobseekers have been required to sign a ‘Jobseekers’ Agreement’, which sets out what they need to do in order to receive state support, and they will have to renew this on a regular basis. They also have to provide evidence to prove they have met the requirements in their Jobseekers’ Agreement or a Jobseekers’ Direction, which specifies exactly what they are required to do, and those who fail to do so ‘without good reason’ risk losing their benefits. Although this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there must be very real doubts about whether the first principle is satisfied.
  2. The phrase ‘good reason’ is not defined in the legislation and depends on the circumstances of the case. Most disputes involve the exercise of discretion and are handled internally while independent adjudication is only used in the very small number of cases that are appealed to a tribunal. Whether this is sufficient to satisfy the second principle is an open question.
  3. Since the sanctions regime applies to everyone in receipt of benefits, the third principle appears to be satisfied.
  4. There is an accumulating body of evidence that sanctions are often applied unreasonably and for trivial misdemeanours. In addition, the absence of comprehensive quality assurance procedures and the failure to hold individual members of staff who have acted unfairly or unreasonably to account for their decisions, even where these overturned as a result of review or appeal, raise serious doubts about whether the fourth principle is satisfied.
  5. The attenuated arrangements for challenging the imposition of sanctions, which can leave people without any income, indicate that the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under Article 6 of the ECHR, it is inadequately protected. This suggests that the fifth principle is probably not satisfied.
  6. Cost is not an issue since there are no financial barriers to challenging the DWP’s decision to impose a sanction but delay is, mainly because there are no time limits for the DWP to reconsider its decision As a result, a claimant who wishes to challenge the imposition of a sanction may have to endure a long period without any income. Under MR, so many obstacles have been put in the way of getting to an independent Tribunal that Tribunal appeals have virtually disappeared; the right of appeal has become effectively purely theoretical. This indicates that the sixth principle is also probably not satisfied.
  7. The adjudicative procedures provided by the state in tribunals that hear appeals are undoubtedly fair. However, the MR process which is now the last recourse for almost all claimants is clearly unfair as it is completely one-sided. Moreover, the difficulty that claimants experience in accessing these procedures raises doubts about the fairness of the whole set of procedures for challenging sanctions. Thus, the seventh principle is also probably not satisfied.
  8. Benefit sanctions probably violate the International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights. In addition, although Article 13 of the European Social Charter permits benefit sanctions, they must not deprive the person concerned of his/her means of subsistence. The situation in the UK is currently under review but, on these grounds, the eighth principle is also probably not satisfied.

The number of counts on which the current sanctions regime in the UK fails to satisfy the rule of law principles proposed by Lord Bingham indicate that there are serious questions about its legality ‒ in addition to its efficacy and humanity.

The most significant reform, which would undoubtedly make the sanctions regime more consistent with the rule of law, would involve giving claimants an opportunity to attend a hearing before a sanction is imposed (as is the case in in the USA) and continuing to pay benefit until the hearing has taken place. Another significant reform would involve abolition of the Mandatory Reconsideration procedure. Claimants who wished to challenge the imposition of a sanction would appeal directly to a tribunal. Cases could be reconsidered by the DWP before the hearing but, if the claimant’s case was not met in full, the appeal would then be heard by the tribunal. A further reform would involve reducing the severity of the sanctions that are imposed. In addition, some serious thought also needs to be given to reducing the scope of conditionality so that fewer sanctions are imposed in the first place. Unfortunately, given its commitment to conditionality and sanctions, it is most unlikely that any of these reforms will be accepted by the UK Government.

Minor reforms, such as issuing written statements of what claimants can expect from staff as well as what staff expect from claimants that would explain what the consequences for each party of failing to meet the expectations of the other are, and giving claimants a right to seek a review of these statements and to appeal against them to a tribunal, would help to make the administration of benefits fairer and more humane, as would strengthening the provision of hardship payments for those who are sanctioned. However, the prospect of minor reforms such as these being supported by the UK Government is, to say the least, unlikely.

In a recent Report, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2015) reiterated its previous call for a comprehensive, independent review of sanctions and for a serious attempt to resolve the conflicting demands on claimants made by DWP staff to enable them to take a common-sense view on good reasons for non-compliance. The Committee concluded that there was no evidence to support the longer sanction periods introduced in October 2012 and recommended the piloting of pre-sanction written warnings and non-financial sanctions. Sadly, these recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears and to date there has been no response from the DWP to the Report.

[1] Bingham, Tom (2010) The Rule of Law, London: Allen Lane.

You can read the original article here

For more about the origins of the extended use of sanctions, see here