The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

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UNICEF’s reports have consistently put the UK at the bottom of the child well-being league table. See also: UNICEF criticises UK’s failure to tackle child inequality as gap grows.

pie-wealthSource: The Equality Trust 

The still face paradigm and inequality

Before Christmas I read an excellent and insightful article by Michael Bader called The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics, which was about Edward Tronick’s Still Face experiment in part. Tronick is an American developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His studies illuminate the importance of trusting relationships and consistent human responses in children’s development and learning.

Tronick’s experimental design was very simple: mothers were asked to play as they usually would with their six-month-old infants. The mothers were then instructed to suddenly blank their face: to make their facial expression flat and neutral – completely “still”  – and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity.  Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.”

The study demonstrated that when the connection between an infant and caregiver is broken, the infant tries to re-engage the caregiver, and then, if there is no response, the infant withdraws – first physically and then emotionally. Recent studies have found that four-month-old infants, when re-exposed to the “Still Face” two weeks after the first time, show rapid physiological changes that were not present when they were exposed to it the first time.

Tronick said: “It speaks to the incredible emotional capacities [of] the infant — to pick up on the fact that the mother’s not reacting emotionally the way she normally does. The baby has not only this ability to process what’s [happening], but [also] the capacity to respond in a really appropriate way — that is, they try to get the mother’s attention, and then when they fail, they give up, with a sense of their own helplessness. They may be angry and then they become sad.”

Tronick also emphasised the impact of parenting practices embedded in the sociocultural and ecological environment of the infant.

Bader’s inspiring article draws on Tronick’s experimental findings, which he then applies to citizen’s life experiences in the US, in the face of dehumanising encounters with bureacracy, increasingly depopulated policies and a profoundly alienating sociopolitical system. He goes on to discuss how “the pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.”

He says: “People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests.  They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare.  And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services […] and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles.  Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent. 

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under condition of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study [The Spirit Level] by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy.  Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies.  Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.”

The still face of the neoliberal state

It’s impossible to fail to recognise the parallels with citizen’s experiences here in Britain. We have ideological and socioeconomic commonality with the US, especially as both the UK and US are neoliberal states. Neoliberalism is an ongoing, totalising ideological and political-economic project of a resurgent political right that gained ascendancy in the US under Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.   

Bader says: “As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government. And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness.  Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.”

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I agree that the growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create psychological trauma and profound material and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to an economic Darwinism: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, wellbeing and social conditions.  

However, citizens are seen and are being politically defined in isolation from the broader political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape individual experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. This also places responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making, whilst at the same time, the state is steadily abdicating responsibility for the welfare of ordinary citizens. 

Geographer David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.  

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship. 

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive. It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices. 

This serves to desensitise the public to the circumstances of marginalised social groups. Outgroups serve to de-empathise society and dehumanise stigmatised others.

This political and cultural process legitimises neoliberal “small state” policies, such as the systematic withdrawal of state support for those adversely affected by neoliberalism, and it also justifies inequality. By stigmatising the poorest citizens, a “default setting” is established regarding how the public ought to perceive and behave towards politically demarcated outgroups. That default setting is indifference to the plight of others.

Authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, say “The truth is that human beings have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.”

Neoliberalism and the myth of meritocracy

How does inequality and social injustice become acceptable?  And why do we, as a society, permit the political construction of scapegoats and outgroups?

Neoliberalism is premised on the assumption that the market place can somehow replace the state as the ultimate arbiter of cultural logic and value. Relationships between people are mediated by the depersonalising market place.

It is fundamentally Hobbesian in character, neoliberalism  privatises citizen’s experiences, who are valued for economic productivity and are therefore only responsible for themselves. 

Bader says: “The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.” 

He goes on to tell us how our social brains seek a collective experience – of “we” rather than “I” – and often do so by creating a fantasy of an “us” versus “them” that we can devalue and fight.

Tribalism draws on our need for sociability and interconnectedness but it can also be used to pervert it. Rejected by government, employers and wider society, some citizens then go on to reject and demean others. It’s a coping strategy: they are trying to cope with the pain, powerlessness, and lack of empathy that they experience in their social lives. And we must we also recognise the play of hidden ideologies and the influence of dog whistle politicking. This is a state tactic which manipulates our fundamental human need for a sense of belonging. It’s also about the creation of scapegoats and diversion from the real problem: neoliberalism and the inequality and increasing precarity that it extends and perpetuates. 

Neoliberalism also extends a myth that citizens are autonomous and free to make choices, however, this ignores the well-researched reality that those without resources have few or no choices. Neoliberalism is an ideology that manufactures consent to inequalities by offering the myth of meritocracy: the false promise that everyone will eventually benefit by working hard to earn merit, status and wealth. However, it isn’t logically possible for equal opportunities to exist in a highly unequal society. 

This myth undermines the principles of social and economic rights and discredits solidarity, collective responsibility and contravenes our human need for belonging. Success, according to the meritocrats, is shaped by your IQ and individual talents, hard work and personal effort. Yet at least a third of those touting this myth are millionaires who simply inherited their wealth.   

The ideology of meritocracy conceals the fact that class privileges are institutionalised, and are reinforced through the education system, for example. The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality – and carried a strong suggestion that the UK Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. In June last year, following its investigation, the United Nations committee on the rights of the child called on ministers to act regarding austerity, the benefit cap and tax credit cuts, which are undermining children’s rights to an adequate standard of living. The government were also urged to do more to ensure children’s rights to adequate health, housing and education are met, too. 

The government, however, have claimed that welfare cuts reduce poverty by “incentivising” people to work. Meanwhile, over half of those families queuing at food banks are in work, and nearly two thirds of children in poverty live in working families. “Making work pay” is nothing more than a Conservative euphemism for the incremental dismantling of the welfare state, which they intend to continue regardless of the social consequences. 

Neoliberalism is sustained by ideologues employed by governments, in think tanks, PR companies and as individual consultants, that invent technical justifications for small state neoliberal policies on the grounds of: “efficiencies”, savings, democracy, economic growth, and more recently “fairness” and “social justice.” The latter two especially are founded on the myth of meritocracy, in this context. 

The Nudge Unit is one example of a technocratic think tank, which is embedded in the Cabinet Office. The neoliberal Reform think tank and the Adam Smith Institution are others. There is a raft of contemporary academics who are also fueling ideological justifications of neoliberal policies – the likes of Adam Perkins, Richard Layard, Mansel Aylward and Simon Wessley, for example, each in their respective academic fields have each presented “studies” that endorse “small state” antiwelfarism and enforce notions of personal responsibility and competitive individualism. Public interests are steadily being aligned with economic outcomes, driven by private interests. 

Status and rewards in society do not go “naturally” to those who are best “performers” or those who “earn” their privilege: the hierarchy of wealth and power is being purposefully shaped by the state.

Stigma and the just world fallacy

Sociologist Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University, says “[…] the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented across academic disciplines.”

Tyler’s ongoing work – The Stigma Doctrine, is focused on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.” 

Her explicit focus is on “stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.” The project is focussing in particular on welfare “reform”, the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, poverty, work and dis/abilities.

At a basic level, stigma is seen as a mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstances, qualities, or persons. However, it has a fundamental normative dimension, which is culturally and historically specific. 

We tend to make assumptions about people, based on what their circumstances or characteristics are. Central to these assumptions lies a basic moral dichotomy founded on the binary notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. 

Everyone has heard “what goes around comes around” before, or maybe you’ve seen a person “get what was coming to them” and thought, “that’s karma for you.” These are all shades of the just world fallacy. But in reality, we don’t always “reap what we sow.”

In social psychology, just world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to – or expect consequences as the result of – a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of destiny, cosmic justice, or divine providence. 

It is very common in fiction for the villains to lose and the virtuous folk to win. It is a reflection of how we would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe that this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive error: the just world is a fallacy. 

Many people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and fair place, where people simply get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important role in our lives – in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences.

Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we act to restore justice by helping victims or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred.  We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person without a job is simply lazy, the homeless person is irresponsible, and the ill person made the “wrong” lifestyle choices. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, popular fiction, comics, TV, the mainstream media, current political rhetoric and other morality tales of our culture, including the great myth of meritocracy, embedded in neoliberal narrative, in which “good” is always rewarded and “evil” punished.

Deep down, we all would probably like to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, quite often we simply edit the world to match those expectations.

 

Social psychologist, Melvin Lerner documents people’s eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. Lerner observed that when one of two men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, that somehow caused him to be more favourably evaluated by observers, even when the observers had been informed that the recipient of the reward was chosen at random. (Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051).

Existing social psychological theories, including cognitive dissonance, do not fully explain these phenomena.

In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague recorded a simulated “learning” experiment in which it appeared that the “participants” were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these “victimised” participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of “martyr” by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience. Lerner concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe, its uncertainties and our own precarity, it would not be a matter of great concern for human rights activists, ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner’s just world hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may well seriously undermine a commitment to social justice.

So, the just world fallacy is founded on a massive misconception: that we always get what we “deserve”. We like to think that people who are not doing well in their lives must have done something to deserve it. Yet we also know that the beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and people doing harmful deeds often get away with their actions without consequences.

Lerner’s research extended, to some extent, on Stanley Milgram‘s research on social conformity and obedience. Lerner was curious as to how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering manage to maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

Lerner’s direction of inquiry was influenced by his frequent witnessing of the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering, particularly during his clinical training as a psychologist, when he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be basically kind, educated people, they often blamed patients for the patients’ own suffering. Lerner also describes his surprise at hearing his students derogate disadvantaged people, believing that poor people somehow caused their own poverty, whilst being seemingly oblivious to the social, political and economic (structural) forces that contribute significantly to poverty. 

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of the UCLA conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more Conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes and and hold prejudices toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but nonetheless significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

It’s ironic that the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice

In the murky waters of real life, evil people often prosper whilst harming others, and quite often never face justice and retribution.

Social reality isn’t founded on some intrinsic and fair principle or quality of the universe. Social justice is something that we must construct and re-construct our selves. 

As a society, we make our own “karma”. We participate in, shape and distribute social justice. That affects those around us. We do need to think about what kind of world we live in, how we ought to live and how that affects our families, friends, neighbours and strangers. A measure of civilisation may be observed in how we behave towards those people we don’t know.

In our society, over the past 6 years, some (previously protected) social groups have become politically defined strangers and economic exiles. If you think that’s okay, it’s worth bearing in mind that sooner or later, someone you know well, perhaps one of your loved ones, will be affected by this ongoing process.

When one group are targeted with injustice and inequality, it affects everyone, and other groups soon follow. Historically, we learned that tyrants don’t stick with targeting and persecuting the group you don’t like. You don’t get a choice ultimately. Prejudice tends to multitask very well, and tyrants remain tyrants no matter who you are.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality is a challenge for us to ensure that redistribution is the main focus of our political programme. Their research very clearly shows us that if we work towards greater equality, we can ameliorate a wide range of human suffering. Because neoliberal ideology ultimately disconnects us from each other, we really must work hard to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what American sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, calls the “empathy wall” to reach out, communicate to them that “we not only feel their pain, but we share it, and that, in the end, we are all in this together.”

 Hochschild’s work has often described the various ways in which we each  becomes a “shock absorber” of larger social, economic and political forces.  She explores the “deep story” of American citizens – a metaphorical expression of the emotions they live by. She recognised that the people she studied may not vote in favour their economic self-interest,  but they often voted for what they felt was their emotional self-interest as members of a group which feels marginalised, scorned  and betrayed by the establishment. This sense of betrayal was utilised by the right, who readily draw on and manipulate the role of emotion in politics.

How much more of the current political-economic just world narrative will people permit to remain largely unchallenged before we all say “enough”?

In democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is crucial to social organisation, yet it seems the moment we become distracted, less attentive and permit inequality to fundamentally divide our society, the essential details and defining features of democracy seem to melt into air. 

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, all citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that 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 become increasingly depopulated; detached from public interests and needs.

Democracy is not something we have: it’s something we have to DO.

My hope for 2017 is that enough of us will recognise that democratic participation is essential, and that injustice directed against one is injustice ultimately directed against all. 

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All the best for the new year. 

In solidarity.

 

Related  

The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics – Michael Bader

Who Believes in a Just World? –  Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau 

The Stigma Project – Imogen Tyler

The Spirit Level authors: why society is more unequal than ever – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

 


 

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Critique of the ‘Origins of Happiness’ study. Psychologists Against Austerity respond

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Clinical psychologists have widely criticised Labour peer and economist, Richard Layard, over research he led that claims failed relationships and physical and mental illness were bigger causes of misery than poverty. 

“Happiness scholars” and authors of the study report, Andrew Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee and George Ward say:

“Understanding the key determinants of people’s life satisfaction will suggest policies for how best to reduce misery and promote wellbeing. This column discusses evidence from survey data on Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US which indicate that the things that matter most are people’s social relationships and their mental and physical health; and that the best predictor of an adult’s life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child.”

In the their study, the Origins of Happiness, the authors call for a new focus for public policy: not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation.'”

The authors say: “Most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness. Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% while eliminating poverty would reduce it by 5%. And on top of that, reducing mental illness would involve no net cost to the public purse.” 

So the authors propose the delivery of more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), whilst income redistribution and social justice perspectives are considered trivial and insignificant because they are deemed too costly. Layard in particular enthusiastically endorses CBT, which he regards as the modern evidence-based psychological therapy of choice. Layard was one of the key signatories of The Depression Report, and one of the main campaigners, along with David Clark, for the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which has entailed the mass provision of CBT.

CBT is a cheap, short-term, goal-oriented treatment that practitioners claim takes a “hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving.” Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behaviour that are claimed to be behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel about their circumstances. However, I have critiqued this approach more than once. 

I’ve also critiqued the use of quantitative methodology and survey methods more generally in policy-making, as such methods frequently fail to pay due regard to authenticity, reliability and validity, inclusion and full participation: quantitative methods tend to be used non-prefiguratively. (See for example: The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)

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Happiness is a neoliberal warm gun: depopulating policy

CBT is of course premised on the assumption that interpreting situations “negatively” is a bad thing, and that thinking positively about bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt by perceiving their circumstances in a stoical and purely “rational” way. CBT is primarily about self-governance techniques.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the authors are expecting people to accept stoically. Socioeconomic inequality? Absolute poverty? Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets? Starvation and destitution? Political authoritarianism? The end of democracy?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? It seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of draconian government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such narrow, politically defined and specific economic outcomes, which extend and perpetuate inequality. In this context, CBT becomes state “therapy” used only as an ideological prop for neoliberalism.

CBT is too often founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, it is currently assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than sociopolitical, and that particular assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework, which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty” in some way. The deeply flawed political/economic system that entrenches inequality isn’t challenged at all: its victims are discredited and stigmatised instead.

Yet historically (and empirically), it has been widely accepted that poverty significantly increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill health. Mental health is shaped by the wide-ranging characteristics and circumstances (including inequalities) of the social, economic and physical environments in which people live. Successfully supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people living in poverty, and reducing the number of people with mental health problems experiencing poverty, requires engagement with this complexity. (See: Elliott, I. (June 2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation).

In the social sciences there is a longstanding and unresolved debate over the primacy of structure or agency in shaping human behaviour. Structure is the recurrent patterned social, economic and political arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available to citizens. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act autonomously and independently of “outside forces” to make their own free choices. 

Layard et al. dismiss the importance of context on human behaviours, cognitions, perceptions, attitudes and states of mind, and the study is premised and proceeds as if this controversy has been resolved. It hasn’t. 

Such an approach crucially overlooks conflict, the impacts of political decision-making, economic arrangements, social structure, prevailing cultural norms and ideologies, for example.

Rather predictably, Layard’s approach to research (for he’s an economist, not a psychologist, hence his approach shares more in common with the behavioural economists from the cost-cutting, antidemocratic Nudge Unit) conflates human needs and wellbeing with narrow ideological (antiwelfarist, “small state” neoliberal) outcomes, by removing any consideration of the complex interactions, constraints and impacts of the economic, social, cultural and political context on human happiness. Layard’s neuroliberal approach therefore may be read as an endorsement of existing socioeconomic inequalities. 

Furthermore, definitions of “happiness” are culturally specific. They are susceptible to culturally (and politically defined) dominant moral judgements. The happiness imperative may be regarded as an artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature of the human condition. Across cultures and time, happiness has most frequently been defined as “good luck” and arising because of favourable external conditions. Some definitions place notions of a virtuous life and “hard work” as essential and central qualities of happiness. It’s worth noting that from 1997 to 2001, Layard was an adviser to New Labour and one of the key architects of the “New Deal” and “Welfare to Work” policies. He certainly has clearly defined ideological inclinations.

In those countries with a dominant ideology that is founded on competitive individualism, such as the US and the UK, the definitions of happiness and wellbeing based on chance and context were replaced by definitions focused on favourable internal feelings and states. In other words, happiness came to be regarded as an inner state that we have some personal control over. The significant rise in the availability and popularity of “self help” literature in the western world is a testament of this view that the happiness of citizens is a personal responsibility, and not a political one.

A central theme in this individualist approach is a relentless optimism about the capacity of individuals to improve their own mental health, and accept things as they are in order to bask in earned and fully deserved human happiness and fulfilment. The starting point of the self help perspective, (dating back to Samuel Smiles and his moralising, conservative disquisitions on Thrift and Self help: the austerity ideologue of mid Victorian laissez faire) is that the world is basically okay, the problems arising at an individual level are simply because of how we choose to perceive it – this is reflected in an emphasis on the necessity of changing the way you see and think about the world, particularly in neoliberal economies. It’s very clear why CBT is so appealing to the UK Conservative government. It doesn’t challenge the status quo at all. 

Establishing happiness as a metric is only meant to serve a political end. Indeed, it may even be regarded as a form of political gaslighting. I’m not alone in my concern that “happiness” research could be used to advance authoritarian aims. Studies show that in European elections since 1970, the subjective “life satisfaction” of citizens is the best predictor of whether the government gets re-elected  – this apparently is much more important than economic growth, social conditions, unemployment or inflation.

CBT is the modern descendant of the discredited, ever so quantitative behaviourist tradition, spearheaded by B.F. Skinner, who views persons as nothing more than empty and simple mediators between behaviour and the environment. Integral to this perspective of behaviourism is the concept of behaviour modification through rewards or “consequences.” This has been politically translated into a reductionist economic language of incentives and outcomes. (Stimulus => response.)

This is paralleled with the growth of nudge, which is a technocratic behaviourist solution and ideological prop in the form of behavioural economics, which is also all about generating public policies that aim to quantifiably change the perceptions and behaviours of citizens, aligning them with narrow neoliberal outcomes.

Even the likes of Oliver James (author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, among other works) critique the symptoms of neoliberal policies rather than the disease: neoliberalism itself.

This is precisely why independent research findings consistently highlight the value of adopting less idiomatic and more value neutral historical, political, cultural and linguistic perspective in the study of public happiness.

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I think it’s fair to say that mental illness is not caused by just one thing. Poverty can be one factor or trigger that interacts with a complexity of other events, such as adverse life events, genetic predisposition, poor physical health or substance abuse. But so far, the strongest evidence suggests that poverty can lead to mental illness, especially disorders such as depression.

Living in poverty causes chronic distress and struggle. Failure to meet basic human needs certainly has an impact on human and social potential – Abraham Maslow explored how our cognitive priorities are reduced when our physiological needs are not met or our survival is threatened. Struggle and distress may have an ultimate biological impact on brain function. According to one controversial hypothesis, schizophrenia is the result of chronic experience of social adversity and defeat, which disturbs the dopamine level and function in the brain, for example.

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A report published by the World Health Organization this year strongly suggests that poor individuals are twice as affected by mental health conditions compared to rich individuals. The report concludes: “Whilst the relationship between poverty and mental health is complicated, individual measures taken to reduce global poverty are likely to have positive impacts on mental health issues in underprivileged populations.”

Regardless, a society may be judged on how it treats its most disadvantaged citizens. The harrowing problems of poverty, as described in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and social rehabilitation, or lack of it, as portrayed by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, sadly remain as pressing today.

The statement from Psychologists Against Austerity

The Origins of happiness study overlooked the social and political context of mental health, say campaign group Psychologists Against Austerity. This lets politicians and the architects of austerity off the hook.

The London School of Economics (LSE) study, led by Layard, was published in early December. The report claims that eliminating depression and anxiety would be a cheap way to reduce misery by 20 per cent, while eliminating poverty would be more difficult – and, besides, it would only reduce unhappiness by 5 per cent.

Psychologists against austerity (PAA) have condemned the stark and simplistic dichotomy presented in the report between income and mental illness as predictors of life satisfaction.

In a response published online, the group, which is made up of practising mental health professionals, highlighted the fact “some media reports have gone further, apparently taking the results to imply that there is no causal relationship between poverty and mental illness”, and blamed the researchers for not making the complex relationship between poverty and mental health clearer. According to the psychologists, the two things “are related in a complex variety of ways, with both causally influencing the other”.

The group of psychologists said it was easy for the researchers to downplay the link in their findings, because the relationship is not as simple as happiness being dependent on income alone.

“Living in poverty is more stressful, with fewer buffers, so challenges are more likely to be catastrophic,” their statement said. “People living in poverty have less agency and control over their lives, and live with lower status, often accompanied by stigma, powerlessness and shame.”

Layard’s emphasised that as UK average incomes have increased, the country has not got happier. But PAA point out that in addition to becoming richer, Britain has also become a profoundly more unequal society since the 1980s.

The original study states that relative poverty is more important than absolute poverty in mental health terms, but does discuss this in detail.

Decades of previous research supports PAA’s statement, and many individual psychologists and academics agree with the anti-austerity group’s statement. 

The study “lets politicians off the hook, it lets austerity off the hook” by treating mental illness as if it exists in a void and is not intrinsically linked to societal factors, director of clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, Dr Anne Cooke, told the Guardian:

“It says that all that doesn’t matter, making a better society doesn’t matter, just offering technical treatments,” she said. “I am one of the people that offers technical treatments and I think they can be extremely helpful to some people but that argument is being stretched beyond the point at which it applies.”

Dr Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, has said he welcomed Lord Layard’s call for a focus on national wellbeing through investment in mental health services. But he added, speaking to the Guardian, that he had misgivings about how the study had treated mental illness as a distinct variable from human misery.

Layard’s work has previously led to David Cameron’s adoption of national “wellbeing” statistics, and he was also a driving force behind the adoption of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

That latter policy was particularly controversial because it established finding work as an outcome of psychological treatment, which critics said may not be a suitable outcome for some and encouraged a policy of forcing people into work which may not be appropriate for them. PAA and other campaign groups have previously called aspects of the scheme’s implementation “profoundly disturbing”, attacking 2015 plans by then-chancellor George Osborne to link welfare and therapy by placing IAPT therapists in job centres. Layard, who is an economist rather than a psychologist, is now calling for a “new role for the state” that “swaps wealth creation for wellbeing creation” through targeted mental health interventions.

The LSE study has worried psychologists because Layard is highly influential with policymakers. The Labour peer’s recommendations previously led David Cameron to adopt national wellbeing statistics, and Lord Layard was also a driving force behind the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) scheme to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist, told the Guardian Layard’s call “negates decades worth of data linking mental health to poverty”.

“It’s ripe for misuse … in the current political climate,” she added.

Dr Anne Cooke said there were better ways to improve wellbeing than by focusing on isolated mental health interventions. Policy should take a more holistic public health approach, she proposed.

“Cholera wasn’t eradicated by developing new treatments, it was eradicated by improving drains back in pre-Victorian times.

What [Layard] neglects is the people at the bottom of the pile who are really, really struggling, and in current circumstances there are a lot of them. People who you see at food banks for example, who are in incredible distress and certainly would – most of them or a lot of them – meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or depression,” she said.

But it’s largely a response to their circumstances. If we do something about that, rates of mental illness in the population are going to come down a lot more effectively than providing a lot more therapy.”

Meanwhile, PAA suggested that rather than doing nothing to help the most disadvantaged people, the study could actually contribute to perpetuating poverty.

“Discussions of mental health that leave out a thorough analysis of poverty and income inequality may be used uphold policies that maintain disadvantage and oppression in society,” the group said.

You can read PAA’s full response here

 

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Adults in the poorest fifth are much more likely to be at risk of developing a mental illness as those on average incomes: around 24% compared with 14%.

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Related

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

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

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

 


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Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

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Abbie and her late father, James Harrison.

Julia Savage is a manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre in Liverpool. She wrote a letter addressed to a GP regarding a seriously ill patient. It said:

“We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.

“This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.

“You may need to again if their condition worsens significantly, or they have a new medical condition.” 

The patient, James Harrison, had been declared “fit for work” and the letter stated that he should not get further medical certificates. 

However, 10 months after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contacted his doctor without telling him, James died, aged 55, the Daily Record has reported.

He was clearly not fit for work.

His grieving daughter, Abbie, said: “It’s a disgrace that managers at the Jobcentre, who know nothing about medicine, should interfere in any way in the relationship between a doctor and a patient.

“They have no place at all telling a doctor what they should or shouldn’t give a patient. It has nothing to do with them.

“When the Jobcentre starts to get involved in telling doctors about the health of their patients, that’s a really slippery slope.”

Abbie said James had worked since leaving school at a community centre near his home. But his already poor health went downhill after the centre was shut down because of austerity cuts.

James had a serious lung condition and a hernia before the centre closed, and also developed depression and anxiety afterwards.

Abbie said: “He’d worked all his life. He wasn’t the kind of guy who knew anything about benefits.

“But as his health deteriorated, there wasn’t any chance he could do a job. He applied for employment and support allowance.”

James received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but only at the low rate of £70 a week, the same amount as jobseekers’ allowance. He was then sent to attend one of the DWP’s controversial Work Capability Assessments – and declared fit for work.

Despite that decision, Abbie said James remained in constant need of medical help and had to visit his doctor regularly.

However, the GP concerned repeatedly refused to give him a sick note, and James began to suspect the Jobcentre were to blame for this.

Abbie said: “He really needed a note. He was too ill to go to the constant appointments at the Jobcentre and he didn’t want to be sanctioned.

“He became convinced the DWP had been talking to his doctor behind his back.”

Although Abbie felt her father was confused, and didn’t think his explanation was right at the time, she later asked to see her father’s medical records. She found the letter in his file from Julia Savage, the manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre, in James’s home city of Liverpool.

The letter was addressed to James’s GP.

Context: Government claims that work is a “health outcome”

James Harrison was very worried that his ill health interfered with his obligation to comply with the inflexible and constant conditions attached to his eligibility for welfare support, and that this would lead to sanctions – the withdrawal of his lifeline support, which was calculated to meet basic survival needs only.

The GP should have provided evidence that this was the case. The doctor was advised not to provide further fit notes by the DWP, however, unless James appealed. Yet the circumstances warranted that the GP provide a fit note. 

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Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions issued an ideologically directed new guidance to GPs regarding when they should issue a Fit Note. This was updated in December 2016.

In the document, doctors are warned of the dangers of “worklessness” and told they must consider “the vital role that work can play in your patient’s health”.  According to the department, “the evidence is clear that patients benefit from being in some kind of regular work”.

The biopsychosocial model, with a current political emphasis on the psychological element, has become a disingenuous euphemism for psychosomatic illness, which has been exploited by successive governments (and rogue insurance companies) to limit or deny access to social security, medical and social care.

Nobody would deny that illness has biological, psychological and social dimensions, however, the model has been adapted to fit a neoliberal “small state” ideology – one that rests almost entirely on Conservative individualist notions of citizen responsibility, as opposed to a rights-based approach and provision of publicly funded state support.

This approach to disability and ill health has been used by the government to purposefully question the extent to which people claiming social security bear personal responsibility for their own health status, rehabilitation and prompt return to work. It also leads to the alleged concern that a welfare system which was originally designed to provide a livable income to those with disabling health problems, may provide “perverse incentives” for perverse behaviours, entrenching “worklessness” and a “culture of dependency”. It’s worth pointing out at this point that there has never been any empirical evidence to support the Conservative notion of welfare “dependency”. 

Instead of being viewed as a way of diversifying risk and supporting those who have suffered misfortune and ill health, social and private insurance systems are to be understood as perverse incentives that pay people, absurdly, to remain ill and keep them from being economically productive.

The idea that people remain ill deliberately to avoid returning to work  – what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron have termed “the sickness benefit culture” – is not only absurd, it’s very offensive. This is a government that not only disregards the professional judgements of doctors, it also disregards the judgements of sick and disabled people. However, we have learned over the last decade that political “management” of people’s medical conditions does not make people healthier or suddenly able to work. Government policies, designed to “change behaviours” of sick and disabled people have resulted in harm, distress and sometimes, in premature deaths

The government have made it clear that there are plans to merge health and employment services. In a move that is both unethical and likely to present significant risk of harm to many patients, health professionals are being tasked to deliver benefit cuts for the DWP. This involves measures to support the imposition of work cures, including setting employment as a clinical outcome and allowing medically unqualified job coaches to directly update a patient’s medical record.

The Conservatives (and the Reform think tank) have also proposed mandatory treatment for people with long term conditions (which was first flagged up in the Conservative Party Manifesto) and this is currently under review, including whether benefit entitlements should be linked to “accepting appropriate treatments or support/taking reasonable steps towards “rehabilitation”.  The work, health and disability green paper and consultation suggests that people with the most severe illnesses in the support group may be subjected to welfare conditionality and sanctions.

Many campaigners have raised concerns about the DWP interfering with people’s medical care and accessing their medical files. I wrote an article last year about how the government plans to merge health and employment services and are now attempting to redefine work as a clinical outcome. I raised concerns about the fact that unemployment has been stigmatised and politically redefined as a psychological disorder, and that the government claims, somewhat incoherently, that the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

In a critical analysis of the recent work, health and disability green paper, I said: 

“And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

It seems likely, then, that a new “independent” assessment and some multinational private company will most likely very soon have a lucrative role to ensure the government get the “right” results.”

The medical specialists are to be replaced by another profiteering corporate giant who will enforce a political agenda in return for big bucks from the public purse. Health care specialists are seeing their roles being incrementally and systematically  de-professionalised. That means more atrocious and highly irrational attempts from an increasingly authoritarian government at imposing an ideological “cure” – entailing the withdrawal of any support and imposing punitive “behavioural incentives” – on people with medical conditions and disabilities. Doctors, who are clever enough to recognise, diagnose and treat illness, are suddenly deemed by this government to be insufficiently clever to judge if patients are fit for work.

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

“De-medicalising” illness is also a part of that process:

“Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

Waddell and Burton are cited frequently by the DWP as providing “evidence” that their policies are “evidence based.” Yet the DWP have selectively funded their research, which unfortunately frames and constrains the theoretical starting point, research processes and the outcomes with a heavy ideological bias. 

This framing simply shifts the focus from the medical conditions that cause illness and disability to the “incentives”, behaviours and perceptions of patients and ultimately, to neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and self-sufficient citizenship in a context of a night watchman, non-welfare state. 

Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – the remedies to illness – are being appallingly redefined as “perverse incentives” for ill health, yet the symptoms necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian renamed (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties. Notions of “rehabilitation” and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement – which the authors seem to have confused with punishment – will “cure” ill health. 

People cannot simply be “incentivised” into not being ill. 

The political use of the biopsychosocial model to cut costs at the expense of people who are ill will undoubtedly have further extremely serious implications. Such an approach, which draws on behaviourism and punishment (such as the threat and implementation of sanctions) is extremely unethical and makes the issue of consent to medical treatment very problematic if it is linked to the loss of lifeline support or the fear of loss of benefits.

This is clearly the direction that government policy is moving in and this represents a serious threat to the health, welfare, wellbeing and human rights of patients and the political independence of health professionals.

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Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow comes to Newcastle

Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Rutherford and Debbie Abrahams, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, at the launch of Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow. She is talking to people across the country about what disabled people want to see in Labour’s next manifesto. If you’re a Labour Party member keep an eye on updates from the National Policy Forum for more opportunity to get involved.

The Labour Party’s Disability Equality Roadshow was launched in Manchester in November and is set to go nationwide over the coming months. This democratic engagement process is the vitally important first step in developing policies which will address the structural  (social, cultural, political and economic) issues affecting disabled people and their carers across the UK, as well as the challenges we all face in building a fairer, more equal society.

At the launch, Paul Rutherford said: “This initiative will enable Labour to develop real policies which will properly support disabled people, not punish and harm them, making their often difficult lives harder, which is what this government’s policies are doing.”

Debbie Abrahams added: “The roadshow will draw on the experiences and expertise of disabled people themselves who have been particularly affected by this Tory Government’s changes to social security.”

After six years of Conservative policies that have not involved any genuine consultation and engagement with disabled people in political decision-making processes, we have witnessed a raft of increasingly punitive measures and cuts that have been imposed on us, supposedly to “incentivise” the poorest citizens – presumably to be less poor – by imposing financial punishments and stigma on them. Invisible bootstraps were included in the government’s basic incentives package.

The phrase “behavioural change” has become a euphemism for traditional Conservative prejudice, blaming individuals for structural barriers and politically constructed problems. “Incentivising” is another euphemism for discrimination and punitive state behaviour modification policies, such as benefit sanctions, for the poorest people. It’s also a fundamental part of a justification narrative to advance the dismantling of the welfare state in stages, a cut at a time.

The wealthiest people, however, have been presented with the deluxe package of Conservative “incentives”, which entail generous handouts in the form of tax cuts and endorsed exemptions. Such policies, which take lifeline income from the poorest citizens, including those in low paid or part-time work, and award it to the very wealthiest cannot fail to extend and accentuate growing inequalities and increase social and economic exclusion.

This topical comment was very welcomed on Saturday: 

“Tax justice means that supporting disabled people IS sustainable. This is our flag in the sand”. Grahame Morris, Labour MP, on Labour Party priorities at the Disability Equality Roadshow, Newcastle.

Debbie said: Firstly, an inclusive labour market is one that finds the right job for those who can work. The Tory government has focused solely on getting people ‘off-flow’, forcing them into any job to bring down claimant numbers, or none, for example, as a result of sanctions.

I believe there is a fairer way; a more holistic, person-centred approach that looks at people’s strengths and barriers to work whether this relates to skills or housing issues. We need to provide them with the best possible employment support but also opportunities to work.”

And on support for disabled people in work: “Ensuring that proper workplace adjustments are made to retain disabled people who are in work is a vital part of an inclusive labour market. These adjustments could be in the form of more flexible leave arrangements as well as extending Access to Work which currently only supports a tiny minority of disabled people, approximately 36,500 out of 3.7 million in work.”

The Roadshow is part of Labour’s commitment to transform our social security system, ensuring that, like our NHS, it is fit for purpose; there for us all in our time of need.

The Disability Equality Roadshow is using the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons as a framework to help develop a wide array of policies, not just those concerning social security, but also embedding the convention articles in education, health and social care, justice policies and many others.

The Labour Party has already pledged to scrap the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. Debbie Abrahams announced at Labour Party Conference that a Labour government will also scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment. Debbie said she wants to replace it with “a system based on personalised, holistic support; one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.”

Debbie has asked for our help in exploring how this might be achieved.

Many of us welcomed the announcement from Debbie that a Labour government will get rid of this Government’s punitive sanctions too. As Debbie pointed out: “This will mean Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.”

She also discussed the need for a culture change regarding the prejudiced attitudes of many regarding people with disabilities and those out of work.

The event on Saturday was hosted at Unite the Union.

Saturday 3 December was also the International Day for Disabled People.

dis-eq-roadshow Democracy and inclusion in action: discussing social security

Some of the issues that we discussed:

  • We raised individual cases that demonstrated the terrible distress caused by the work capability assessment (WCA) and the serious impact that being told wrongly they are fit for work has on people who are very ill. Labour will scrap the WCA. We said that the evidence that should be considered in claims for disability related benefit should always be medical – presented by qualified doctors and specialists, not from “functional assessment” carried out by non-specialised occupational therapists and nurses employed by private companies hired to cut benefits and make a massive profit at our expense.
  • We must also move away from any process of assessment that is intimidating and distressing. People generally felt that the DLA system was much fairer, with provision for life long awards for chronic and progressive conditions.
  • Increasingly, private companies are taking up money from the social security budget, whilst those that the budget is meant to assist are seeing their support cut and their standard of living plummet. Many are now unable to meet their most basic needs – such as having sufficient income to meet the costs for food and fuel.  It was suggested that benefit levels are set by a specialised  committee, ensuring that the costs of basic needs can be met.
  • As benefits were originally calculated to meet only basic needs, the additional costs of housing and council tax were not included in the benefit level when it was originally calculated. It was assumed that people would remain exempt from paying any additional rent and council tax. That needs to be addressed, since benefits do not cover these or the bedroom tax (though Labour intend to scrap the bedroom tax).
  • The new in-work conditionality is likely to impact on disabled people, many of who may need to work part-time. Shorter and flexible working hours are a reasonable adjustment. Some of us have to also manage hospital appointments with more than one specialist and hospital based treatment regimes. The threat and use of sanctions aimed at part-time and low paid workers is incompatible with the aim of “halving the disability employment gap.”
  • We suggested that employers should fined for not employing a quota of disabled people, rather than being rewarded, as suggested in the government Green Paper, for employing disabled people, given that disabled people have a right to socioeconomic inclusion, including the right to work, without discrimination.
  • The Equality Act was not implemented in full by the Coalition. This limits redress for disabled people regarding:  
    • Dual discrimination: the government decided not to bring this into force as a way of reducing the cost of regulation to business. 
    • Socioeconomic inequalities under the Public Sector Equality Duty 
    • Provisions relating to auxiliary aids in schools
    • Diversity reporting by political parties
    • Provisions about taxi accessibility among other things. These omissions need to be remedied. 
  • Accessibility issues were also raised, ranging from the lack of provision and accessibility for disabled users of public transport and taxis to the lack of large print ESA forms available for people with visual impairments and barriers regarding the availability of home visits for assessments.
  • Run-on benefits for people starting work need to be reinstated, since people usually work a month at least before being paid a wage. Previously, housing benefit, council tax and other benefits were payable for the first month of employment.
  • We discussed the need for culture change to address prejudice, and the now commonly held negative perceptions and attitudes towards disabled people and those out of work.

There were three other task groups, some worked on addressing barriers to access to justice, others worked on disability and barriers at work, among other topics, all of who raised many other issues, which were also fed back. 

It was a very productive and positive event: an excellent opportunity for democratic inclusion in the decision-making process and to contribute positively towards progressive Labour policies.

Of course that process doesn’t stop with the Roadshow events, but in the coming months, if you can get to the Roadshow when it comes to your area, it’s recommended you do. If you’re a Labour Party member you can follow updates from the National Policy Forum, which also provides further opportunity to get involved.

“Nothing about us without us,” as Gail Ward summarised on the day. 

Debbie has asked if I would contribute in a collaborative response to the government’s recent consultation and green paper on work, health and disability, which I’ve agreed to do. 

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, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. It’s very reassuring to know that the Labour party recognise this, especially in a context of an increasingly authoritarian government that isn’t interested in first-hand witness accounts concerning the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Any consideration of future policy and its impacts must surely engage citizens in dialogue, on a democratic, equal basis and ensure participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and government.

The Labour Party recognise that democracy is not something we have: it’s something we  must DO, and that process includes all of us. 

One final point that needs raising is that the progressive left – particularly Labour – do not find any favour with the mainstream corporate media, generally speaking. It is therefore down to all of us to bypass the constraints of media neoliberal framing, to ensure that news of Labour policies and events like this are shared widely. Otherwise genuine alternative narratives to the current socioeconomic paradigm and order will continue to be systematically stifled, at a time when there has never been a greater need for alternatives.

Upwards and onwards. 

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With Alex Cunningham, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward on Saturday at the Disability Equality Roadshow 

I’d like to thank Debbie Abrahams, Grahame Morris, Alex Cunningham, Ian Lavery, Ian Mearns, Emma Lewell-Buck, Richard Williams, Dave Allen, Labour North, Unite the Union, and every one who came on Saturday for an excellent and very productive, hope-inspiring event.

The government’s in-work sanctions are incompatible with ‘halving the disability employment gap’ (and other ideological problems)

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The government have introduced in-work sanctioning for low paid and part-time workers to “incentivise” them to “progress” in work. Historically, wages and employment conditions were raised, and hours were often negotiated by Trade Unions. Now those decisions are entirely down to the executive decisions of employers not employees. Sanctioning employees is grossly unfair, because they have very little negotiating and bargaining power (especially since the raft of Conservative anti-collectivist and anti-Trade Union legislation) to improve their lot.

There is also a significant growing body of empirical evidence that informs us sanctions do not work as the government claim.

It’s not as if employees’ behaviour is at fault or that they would ever actually want poor pay, fewer rights and adverse working conditions – that’s down to exploitative employers who are primarily profit driven. It’s hardly fair to punish workers for the motivations and behaviour of their employers.

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. 

Clearly, the weight of favour in policy-making is heavily towards big business profiteering. Implying that the behaviours of workers are a problem in this context is simply another way justification is presented for the further erosion of state responsibility and support and ultimately, the long term plan is to remove such support completely.

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 primarily with consideration of the value and benefit for big business and the labour market. They want a cheap labour  force 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 Act – the principle of less eligibility – also 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 spiraled 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 peers in the House of Lords have been paying attention to the game.

Sanctioning people in work flies in the face of the government’s previous “hard working families” mantra. But it also flies in the face of their aim to “help” disabled people into work. Many of disabled people would have to work part-time: reduced and flexible hours are also a reasonable adaptation, especially for people who are ill. Many of us also have to accommodate hospital appointments, often with a variety of specialists, as well as hospital based treatment regimes. All of which probably makes us much more likely to face in-work sanctioning in the future.

How does this address the “disability employment gap”? 

The government propose tax cuts and other rewards for employers who employ disabled people in their recent consultation on work, health and disability. However, it is against the law to treat someone less favourably than someone else because of a personal characteristic, such as being disabled.

Furthermore, disabled people have a legal RIGHT to work and to be included in the economy, and I think in light of this, employers should be fined for not employing a quota of disabled people instead. “Disability Confident” is supposed to be about supporting disabled people, not providing publicly funded handouts to employers, whilst at the same time, financially punishing the very people that the policy is supposedly designed to “support.”

There was some very worrying discussion in the recent work health and disability green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” disabled Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation.” Apparently these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Teamthe controversial Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office and Nesta. 

It’s very evident that “disabled people’s organisations” were not major contributors to the design. It’s especially telling that those people to be targeted by this “intervention” were completely excluded from the conversation. Sick and disabled people are reduced to objects of public policy, rather than being seen as citizens and democratic subjects capable of rational dialogue.

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter. In fact sanctioning people make it less likely that they will find work.

Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous. State imposed sanctions on sick and disabled people are known to have very harmful consequences. In fact sanctions create significant difficulties and distress for everyone subjected to them. (See also An example of in-work conditionality: when work doesn’t pay).

In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.

In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being systematically reduced by increasing conditionally; by linking support to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will ultimately reduce every service to nothing more than a state behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers of an ideology  which is perpetuating and accentuating socioeconomic problems in the first place.

Work is not a “health” outcome

The Government is intending to “signpost the importance of employment as a health outcome in mandates, outcomes frameworks, and interactions with Clinical Commissioning Groups.”

A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

It was decided that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming ESA by “encouraging” them into work. Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”.

For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to fulfill their broader aim of dismantling social security and to uphold their ideological commitment to supply-side policy.

From the document: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

The government made a political and a particularly partisan decision, rather than one that has any an evidence base, to promote the cost-cutting and unverified, irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome.

Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually potentially downright harmful and dangerous.

The government’s Work and Health programme involves a plan to integrate health and employment services, aligning the outcome frameworks of health services, Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT), Jobcentre Plus and the Work programme.

2020health – Working Together is a report from 2012 that promotes the absurd notion of work as a health outcome. This is a central theme amongst the ideas that are driving the fit for work and the work and health and programme. Developing this idea further, Dame Carol Black and David Frost’s Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence was aimed at reviewing ways of “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.”

Seems that the central aim of the review wasn’t a genuine focus on sick and disabled people’s wellbeing and “health outcomes,” then. Black and Frost advocated changing sickness certification to further reduce the influence of GPs in “deciding entitlement to out-of-work sickness benefits.”

The subsequent “fit notes” that replaced GP sick notes (a semantic shift of Orwellian proportions) were designed to substantially limit the sick role and reduce recovery periods, and to “encourage” GPs to disclose what work-related tasks patients may still be able to perform. The idea that employers could provide reasonable adjustments that allowed people who are on sick leave to return to work earlier, however, hasn’t happened in reality.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has been highly critical of the language used by the government when describing the fit for work service. The association said it was “misleading” to claim that fit for work was offering “occupational health advice and support” when the emphasis was on sickness absence management and providing a focused return to work.

The idea that work is a “health” outcome is founded on an absurd and circular Conservative logic: it’s an incorrect inference based on the fact that people in work are healthier than those out of work. It’s true that they are, however, the government have yet again confused causes with effects. Work does not make people healthier: it’s simply that healthy people can work and do. People who have long term or chronic illnesses most often can’t work. It has been historically  and empirically established that poverty is closely correlated with disproportionate levels of ill health, and it’s most probable that targeted austerity, leading to increasingly inadequate welfare provision, has made a significant contribution to poorer health outcomes, too.

The government’s main objection to sick leave and illness more generally, is that it costs businesses money. The government remain committed to a supply-side labour market model. However, as inconvenient as it may be, politically and economically, it isn’t ever going to be possible to cure people of serious illnesses by cruelly coercing them into work.The government’s aim to prompt public services to “speak with one voice” is founded on questionable ethics. This proposed multi-agency approach is reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive provision.

This is psychopolitics. It’s all about (re)defining the experience and reality of a social group to justify dismantling public services (especially welfare), and that is form of gaslighting intended to extend oppressive political control and micromanagement. In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. It will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

However, unsatisfactory employment – low-paid, insecure and unfulfiling work – can result in a decline in health and wellbeing, indicating that poverty and growing inequality, rather than unemployment, increases the risk of experiencing poor mental and physical health.

People are experiencing poverty both in work and out of work. Moreover, in countries with an adequate social safety net, poor employment (low pay, short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. There is ample medical evidence to challenge the current political dogma, and to support this account. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example. The understanding that food deprivation in particular dramatically alters cognitive capacity, emotions, motivation, personality, and that malnutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.)

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter.Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs.

The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous.In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net.

Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being reduced by conditionally; by linking it to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will reduce every service to nothing more than a political semaphore and service provision to a behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers. 

I have pointed out previously that there has never been any research that demonstrates unemployment is a direct cause of ill health or that employment directly improves health, and the existing studies support the the idea that the assumed causality between unemployment and health may actually run in the opposite direction.It’s not that unemployment is causing higher ill health, but that ill health and discrimination are causing higher unemployment. If it were unemployment causing ill health, at a time when the government assures us that employment rates are currently “the highest on record,” why are more people becoming sick?

The answer is that inequality and poverty have increased, and these social conditions, created by government policies, have long been established by research as having a correlational relationship with increasing mental and physical health inequalities. For an excellent, clearly written and focused development of these points, the problem of “hidden” variables and political misinterpretation, see Jonathan Hulme’s Work won’t set us

– childhood immunisation
– antibiotics
– access to education, and particularly, improving female literacy
– increasing social equality

Given that, as statistics sadly show, the health of the poorest in the UK is again declining despite the first four factors mainly still being accessible to even the UK’s very poorest, one can only point at the worsening inequalities and social injustices as a significant cause. The Marmot review pretty much concludes the same. “

Addressing these issues is not consistent with the ideological thrust of Conservative policies, unfortunately, since the government insist that social problems such as poverty and ill health (the biopsychosocial model, with an emphasis on the “psychosocial” elements) are due to individual “behaviours.” Their approach to date has been to level punitive policies with an embedded core of behaviour modification techniques which usually entails the punitive removal of lifeline income at the poorest citizens – casually called “incentivising” and “supporting” – whilst addressing the behaviours of the wealthy with a system of publicly funded financial reward. This simply recreates, deepens, perpetuates and accentuates existing inequalities.

Empirical research published two years ago demonstrated the high a cost the country paid in terms of health and wellbeing for the Thatcher administration’s neoliberal economic and social policies. The study, which examined at material from existing research and data from the Office for National Statistics, illustrates that Thatcherism resulted in the unnecessary and unjust premature deaths of British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and a widespread degradation of wellbeing.

Co-author and researcher Professor Clare Bambra from the Wolfson Research Institute of Health and Wellbeing said that deaths from violence and suicide all increased substantially during the Thatcher era in comparison with other countries. Regional inequalities in life expectancy between north and south were also exacerbated, as were health inequalities between the richest and poorest in British society.

Professor Bambra also says that the welfare cuts implemented by Thatcher’s governments led to a rise in poverty rates from 6.7% in 1975 to 12% by 1985; poverty is well known to be one of the major causes of ill health and mortality. Income inequality also increased in the Thatcher period, as the richest 0.01% of society had 28 times the mean national average income in 1978 but 70 times the average by 1990. Other research (The Spirit Level) indicates that income inequality is internationally associated with higher mortality and morbidity.

Yet earlier this year, the welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, refused to monitor the number of people who take their own lives as a result of the £120-a-month cut planned for those people in the work related activity group (WRAG), claiming employment and support allowance from April 2017. Concerns were raised in the House of Lords, when Baroness Meacher, amongst others, warned that for the most vulnerable citizens, the cut was “terrifying” and bound to lead to increased debt.

Condemning the truly callous and terrible actions of the Treasury, she urged ministers to monitor the number of suicides in the year after the change comes in, adding: “I am certain there will be people who cannot face the debt and the loss of their home, who will take their lives.”

Many people have died as a consequence of the welfare “reforms.”

Not only have the government failed to carry out an impact assessment regarding the cuts, Lord Freud said that the impact, potential increase in deaths and suicides won’t be monitored, apart from “privately” because individual details can’t be shared and because that isn’t a “useful approach”.

He went on to say “We have recently produced a large analysis on this, which I will send to the noble Baroness. That analysis makes it absolutely clear that you cannot make these causal links between the likelihood of dying – however you die – and the fact that someone is claiming benefit.”

However, a political refusal to investigate an established correlation between the welfare “reforms” and an increase in the mortality statistics of those hit the hardest by the cuts – sick and disabled people – is not the same thing as there being no causal link. Often, correlation implies causality and therefore such established links require further investigation. It is not possible to disprove a causal link without further investigation.

Whilst the government continue to deny there is a “causal link” between their punitive welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, they cannot deny there is a clear correlation , which warrants further research and political accountability.

We have a government that provides disproportionate and growing returns to the already wealthy, whilst imposing austerity cuts on the very poorest. How the government possibly claim that inequality is falling, when inequality is so fundamental a prop to their ideology and when social inequalities are extended and perpetuated by all of their policies? It seems an Orwellian re-writing of language about inequality is being used to mislead us into thinking that the economy is far more “inclusive’ than it is. The number of vulture private businesses payrolled by the government to deliver increasingly ideologically biased and punitive welfare, health and social care “services” has risen dramatically this past six years, all of which has cost the UK taxpayer billions.

Meanwhile, those people who need essential supportive public services are facing severe cuts to their lifeline provision. Many of the multinationals contracted by the government are paid to cut the costs of public services, but are costing the public far more than they save.far more than they save. This brand of neoliberal crony capitalist is an entrenched mindset that needs to radically change, because the only beneficiaries are big businesses, and at the expense of those people with the highest level of need. The government’s policies are harming our most vulnerable citizens.

It seems that for wealthy people, “incentives” are always financial rewards, and for poor people, “incentives” simply involve grossly unfair financial punishments, which have too often challenged people’s  capacity to meet basic survival needs.

It’s time to challenge the class-based prejudice and blatant discrimination that is embedded in Conservative policies, which ultimately may only serve to deepen existing wealth and health inequality and increase social and economic division.

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Government welfare policies are ‘historically obsolete’ say researchers

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Historical research shows that the National Health Service (NHS) and welfare state are fundamental to a healthy, productive economy.

The government has been accused of following a “historically obsolete” welfare strategy by a team of Cambridge University researchers.  

Research by Simon Szreter, Ann Louise Kinmonth, Natasha M Kriznik, and Michael P Kelly also supports the work of campaigners, charities and other academics raising their concerns about the harmful social and economic impacts of the Conservatives’ austerity measures. These include the draconian welfare “reforms” and the consequences of the increasing privatisation of and political under-investment in the NHS from 2012 onwards. 

In an article published on Friday in The Lancet, titled  Health and welfare as a burden on the state? The dangers of forgetting history, the group of academics criticised Conservative austerity policies, which were instituted by David Cameron and George Osborne’s and continued by Theresa May and her chancellor Philip Hammond. The researchers point out that investment in welfare has always been crucial for Britain’s economic success.

The Conservatives have frequently claimed that welfare provision isn’t “sustainable”. Welfare support has been reduced so much that many people have been unable to meet even their most basic needs. Food and fuel poverty have significantly increased over the past four years, for example. We have witnessed the return of absolute poverty in the UK, something we haven’t seen since before the inception of the welfare state, until now. Social security is also harshly conditional, with punishment regimes and psycho-compulsion embedded in the diminishing “support” being offered. The emphasis has shifted from “support” to managing and enforcing poor citizen’s compliance and conformity.

Crucially, the researchers, who are based at St John’s College are opposing the idea that welfare and health spending is a “burden” on the country’s economy, arguing instead that economic prosperity is intrinsically tied to an adequate level of welfare provision.

Simon Szreter is a Professor of History and Public Policy at Cambridge’s Faculty of History. He writes: “The interests of the poor and the wealthy are not mutually opposed in a zero-sum game. Investment in policies that develop human and social capital will underpin economic opportunities and security for the whole population.”

The report also states: “The narrow view that spending on the National Health Service and social care is largely a burden on the economy is blind to the large national return to prosperity that comes from all citizens benefiting from a true sense of social security.”

The authors continue: “There are signs that Theresa May subscribes to the same historically obsolete view.

Despite her inaugural statement as Prime Minister, her Chancellor’s autumn statement signals continuing austerity with further cuts inflicted on the poor and their children, the vulnerable, and infirm older people.””

To support their position, the researchers point to the period of economic growth the UK experienced following the post-war settlement – including the development of the welfare state and the NHS, something which they argue also brought about greater equality, with the rich-poor divide falling to an all-time low during the 1970s.

Drawing on recent historical research, they also trace the origins of the British welfare state to reforms to the Poor Laws introduced under Elizabeth I in 1598 and 1601, and claim that investment in supporting the poorest citizens has always gone hand in hand with economic growth.

The report establishes an interesting and useful historical context, following the effect of welfare provision on the nation’s economic prosperity prior to the creation of the modern health and welfare apparatus and institutions that we are familiar with today, arguing that the concept of a British welfare state can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I. There are also parallels drawn in the report between the perceived problem of the “idle poor” during the Victorian era and the contemporary political narratives that intentionally label benefit claimants as “scroungers” who allegedly benefit unduly at the expense of “hard-working families”.

Many of us have drawn the same parallels over the past four years. In my  some of my own work, three years ago, I also compared the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act – particularly the principle of less eligibility with the Conservative’s recent punitive and regressive approach to “making work pay”, which is about reducing social security provision, rather than raising national wages. Basically the idea behind both ideas is that any support given to people out of work needs to be punitive, and much less than the poorest wages of those in the lowest paid employment. That tends to drive wages down, as people who are desperate to survive have little bargaining power, and are more likely to be forced to work for much less, because employers can exploit a desperate reserve army of labour.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 is largely remembered through its connection to the punitive workhouses that were infamously instituted across Victorian Britain.

The researchers argue that, though the 1834 Act was passed out of “concerns” that the welfare system was being abused and was an unduly heavy burden on taxpayers, there isn’t any evidence that it had much an economic benefit. They also point out that Britain’s growth actually fell behind that of rival nations after 1870, only recovering in the 1950s, following the post-war settlement

Simon Szreter said: “We are arguing from history that there needs to be an end to this idea of setting economic growth in opposition to the goal of welfare provision. A healthy society needs both, and the suggestion of history is that they seem to feed each other.”

 

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Rogue company Unum had a profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

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I wrote an extensive critique of the recent government green paper on work, health and disability. I mentioned that a government advisor, who is a specialist in labour economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) sickness and disability benefits.

Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group.

I also said: “Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.” 

And: “I’m sure the private company Unum (formerly UnumProvident) would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the notorious company systematically denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states.

The settlement related to Unum’s “mishandling” of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions.””

The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. In the US, it has been regarded as one of the two most unscrupulous insurance companies. The rogue company was also accused of cheating thousands of people out of welfare payments in the US. By coincidence, the company has been involved in the design of the UK government’s controversial 2012 Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right?

Of course the vulture capitalist company Unum continues to “mishandle” claims both in the US, in violation of the US Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and here in the UK, denying people incapacity benefit, under employer’s group income protection policy. 

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits, and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out-of-work benefits and to reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.  

The members of the neoliberal think tank propose that the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance receive. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessment have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again in the foreseeable future. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut, given the additional needs that disabled people have, which is historically recognised, and empirically verified by research.

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.” However, people on sickness benefits don’t move into work because they are too sick to work. Their own doctors and the state (via the work capability assessment) have already established that. Forcing them to work is outrageous.

The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – Personal Independence Payment (PIP). However the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into work.

Policy change can often be explained by reference to changes in background ideas about the state, society and the individual, held and promoted by influential individuals, groups, political parties and … multinational companies.  

It turns out that you can predict such a lot by simply watching the way the wind blows.

The crib sheet  

Theresa May’s new director of policy, John Godfrey, is a keen advocate of what in his last job, at financial services giant Legal and General, he called “Beveridge 2.0”: using technology to introduce new forms of “social insurance”.

Godfrey told a campaigning group, the Financial Inclusion Commission, last year that the systems used to deliver “auto-enrolment”, the scheme that ensures all low-income workers have a pension, could also be used to help the public insure themselves against “unexpected events”.

“There is a clear lesson from auto-enrolment that if you have a plumbing network or an infrastructure that works, that auto-enrolment infrastructure could be used for other things which would encourage financial inclusion: things like, for example, life cover, income protection and effective and very genuine personal contributory benefits for things like unemployment and sickness,” he said. “They can be delivered at good value if there is mass participation through either soft compulsion or good behavioural economics.”

Note the context shift in the use of the term “inclusion”, which was originally deemed a democratic right, now it’s being discussed narrowly in terms of soft compulsion and individual responsibility. And an exchange of money. Subtext: inclusion is only for those who can pay for it. 

report published by the Adam Smith Institute as far back as 1995 – The Fortune Account – also sets out proposals to replace “state welfare” with an insurance system “operated by financial institutions within the private sector”. 

Mo Stewart has spent eight years researching the toxic and all-pervasive influence of the US insurance giant Unum over successive UK governments, and how it led to the introduction of the “totally bogus” and non-medical work capability assessment (WCA), which she says was designed to make it very much more difficult for sick and disabled people to claim out-of-work disability and sickness benefits.

Stewart’s excellent bookCash Not Care: The Planned Demolition Of The UK Welfare State, was published in September. She states that the assessment was modeled on methods used by the controversial company Unum to deny protection to sick and disabled people in the US who had taken out income protection policies.

She goes on to say that the WCA was “designed to remove as many as possible from access to [employment and support allowance] on route to the demolition of the welfare state”, with out-of-work disability benefits to be replaced by insurance policies provided by private companies like Unum.

Stewart warns us that the UK is now close to adopting a US-style model.

She’s absolutely right.

Our public services are being privately auctionedThe multinational corporations are queuing up for the sale of the century in the UK. The public are picking up the tab.

 Rogue and antisocial corporations are writing public policies

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Corporate lobbyists are primarily interested in a tactical investment. Whether facing down a threat to profits from a corporate tax raise, or pushing for market opportunities – such as government privatisations – lobbying has become simply another way of making a lot of money for a few people. Lobbyist messages are very carefully crafted and spun, especially in the media. The ultimate corporate goal is sheer self-interested profit-making, but this will always be dressed up to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means a collective chanting of the “economic growth”, supply side “productivity”, implied trickle down, “jobs” and “personal responsibility” neoliberal mantra.

Corporations buy their credibility and utilise seemingly independent people such as academics with a mutual interest to carry their message for them. Some think tanks – especially free-market advocates like Reform or leading neoliberal think  tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs – will also provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, meetings with politicians. The extensive Public Relations (PR) industry are paid to brand, market, engineer a following, build trust and credibility and generally sell the practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organisation (such as a business, government agency, the media) and the public.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens’ campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

You can see how the revolving door of mutually exclusive political and corporate favour operates: it just keeps on spinning.

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Edelman Intelligence and Westbourne, for example, are engaged in rebuttal campaigns and multimedia astroturfing projects to protect corporate interests:

“Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.” From The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government

Edelman Intelligence is the world’s largest PR company and have been quietly visiting my own WordPress site over this last year, the link shows they were referred to my site from their own social media monitoring command centre. I’ve contacted the company to ask why, but have yet to receive a response. I’m not a paying client so it’s highly unlikely that the visits are in connection with promoting my best interests. Paying clients include the likes of Rupert Murdoch. (See footnote).

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Unum’s long standing toxic influence on policy-making

In a recent press release, the delighted vulture capitalists at Unum say that they welcome the government’s recent Green Paper’s focus on Group Income Protection. The press release also says:

“Unum has welcomed the government’s recognition in a new Green Paper that “Group Income Protection policies have a much greater role to play in supporting employers” help people with health problems to stay in or return to work.

The proposals were set out in Improving Lives: the Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, launched by the Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health, yesterday, 31 October 2016. As part of its efforts to enable “more people with long term conditions to reap the benefits of work and improve their health”, the Paper includes a number of proposals to prevent people falling out of work for health reasons and to make employers feel more confident about supporting disabled employees. In particular, it includes a number of specific policy ideas to increase the number of British workers with Group Income Protection (GIP).

Through GIP, Unum has enabled thousands of people to return to work after long term sickness absences caused by mental health and musculoskeletal problems and other serious health conditions, including cancer and multiple sclerosis. Unum also provides training, support and advice to employers and line managers on how to look after employees with health problems and help them stay in or return to work.

To increase the number of workers who benefit from GIP coverage, Unum is calling on the government to consider a temporary tax break for employers that buy GIP for their staff. This would reduce the number of people who fall out of work for health reasons, protect the finances of those who are unable to work and boost the productivity of UK businesses.”

In my critical analysis of the work, health and disability green paper, I said: 

“And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

So, a new “independent” assessment and some multinational private company will most likely very soon have a lucrative role to ensure the government get the “right” results.”

The medical specialists are to be replaced by another profiteering corporate giant who will enforce a political agenda in return for big bucks from the public purse. Health care specialists are seeing their roles being incrementally and systematically  de-professionalised. That means more atrocious and highly irrational attempts from an increasingly authoritarian government at imposing an ideological “cure” – entailing the withdrawal of any support and imposing punitive “behavioural incentives” – on people with medical conditions and disabilities. Doctors, who are clever enough to recognise, diagnose and treat illness, are suddenly deemed by this government to be not clever enough to judge if patients are fit for work. It seems that the Conservatives don’t like competent witnesses who may challenge their droning ideologically driven neoliberal psychobabbling.

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

De-medicalising illness is also a part of that process:

“Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – remedies to illness – are being redefined as “perverse incentives” for ill health, yet the symptoms necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties. Notions of “rehabilitation” and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement, which the authors seem to have confused with punishment, will “cure” ill health.

This is the same kind of thinking that lies behind welfare sanctions, which are state punishments entailing the cruel removal of lifeline income for “non-compliance” in narrowly and rigidly defined “job seeking behaviours.” Sanctions are also described as a “behavioural incentive” to “help” and “encourage”people into work. People who are ill, it is proposed, should be sanctioned, too, which would entail having their lifeline basic health care removed.

Many qualitative accounts from first hand witnesses, extensive research and empirical evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that welfare sanctions make it less likely that people will find employment: taking essential support from people with very limited resources profoundly demotivates, distresses and harms people, rather than “incentivising” them to find work. (See also: Benefits sanctions: a policy based on zeal, not evidence and The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists.)

The darker meaning of David Cameron’s comment about “ending a culture of entitlement”  back in 2010 has become clearer. He wasn’t only talking about perceived attitudes and referencing erroneous, unverified and unfounded notions of “welfare dependency”: his party’s aim was and still is about reducing public expectations of a supportive and rights-based relationship with the publicly-funded state – one that has evolved from the post-war settlement to ensure that everyone in the UK can meet their basic human needs.

Poor and ill people cannot be simply punished (or “nudged”) out of being poor or ill. 

Sanctions are a callous, profoundly antidemocratic, dysfunctional and extremely regressive form of economic terrorism, founded entirely on traditional Conservative prejudices about poor people and rigid ideological assumptions. It is absolutely unacceptable that a government treats some people, including some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens, in such horrifically cruel and dispensable way, in  a very wealthy, so-called civilised, first-world liberal democracy.

Unum also have a longstanding reputation for trying to reduce physical illness to “subjective states” and “faulty behaviours”, too. (See also: evidence submitted to the the select health committee by Professor Malcolm Hooper and Subjective symptom disability claims: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia and Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome for example).

Even public policies that are supposed to address fundamental human needs arising from sickness and disability are tainted by a neoliberal idée fixe. The leitmotif is a total corporacratic commodification of human needs and relationships; building hierarchies of human worth within the closed and entropic context of a competitive market place, where resources are “scarce” and people are being herded; where the only holding principle that operates is profit over human need.

“In defiance of the substantial biomedical evidence submitted to its Guideline Development Group (GDG), NICE is recommending an inappropriate and potentially dangerous behavioural modification regime as the only management strategy for those with ME/CFS. NICE’s recommended management regime is promoted by a group (mainly psychiatrists) who have undeclared but undeniable competing financial interests.”  Malcolm Hooper

It’s mind over matter and quids in

Behavioural medicine was partly influenced by Talcott Parsons’ The Social System, 1951, and his work regarding the sick role, which he analysed in a framework of citizen’s roles, social obligations, reciprocities and behaviours within a wider capitalist society, with an analysis of rights and obligations during sick leave. From this perspective, the sick role is considered to be sanctioned deviancewhich disturbs the function of society. (It’s worth comparing that the government are currently focused on economic function and enhancing the supply side of the labour market.)

Behavioural medicine more generally arose from a view of illness and sick role behaviours as characteristics of individuals, and these concepts were imported from sociological and sociopsychological theories.

However, it should be pointed out that there is a distinction between the academic social science disciplines, which include critical perspectives of conflict and power, for example, and the recent technocratic “behavioural insights” approach to public policy, which is a monologue that doesn’t include critical analysis, and serves as prop for neoliberalism, conflating citizen’s needs and interests with narrow, politically defined economic outcomes.

We have a government that has regularly misused concepts from psychology and sociology, distorting them to fit a distinct framework of ideology, and justification narratives for draconian policies. Parsons’ work has generally been defined as sociological functionalism, and functionalism tends to embody very conservative ideas. From this perspective, sick people are not productive members of society; therefore this deviation from the norm must be policed. This, according to Parsons, is the role of the medical profession. More recently we have witnessed the rapid extension of this role to include extensive State policing of sick and disabled people.

It seems many of the psychosocial advocates have ignored the rise of chronic illnesses and the increasing pathologisation of everyday behaviours in health promotion. Parson’s sick role came to be seen as a negative referent (Shilling, 2002: 625) rather than as a useful interpretative tool. Parsons’ starting point is his understanding of illness as deviance. Illness is the breakdown of the general “capacity for the effective performance of valued tasks” (Parsons, 1964: 262). Losing this capacity disrupts “loyalty” to particular commitments in specific contexts such as the workplace.

Theories of the social construction of disability also provide an example of the cultural meaning of certain health conditions. The roots of this anti-essentialist approach are found in Stigma by Erving Goffman (1963), in which he highlights the social meaning physical impairment comes to acquire via social interactions. The social model of disability tends to conceptually distinguish impairment (the attribute) from disability (the social experience and meaning of impairment). Disability cannot be reduced to a mere biological problem located in an individual’s body  (Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare, 1999). Rather than a “personal tragedy” that should be fixed to conform to medically determined standards of “normality” (Zola, 1982), disability becomes politicised. The issues we then need to confront are about the obstacles that may limit the opportunities for individuals with impairments, and about how those social barriers may be removed.

From a social constructionist perspective, emphasis is placed on how certain illnesses come to have cultural meanings that are not reducible to or determined by biology, and these cultural meanings further burden the afflicted (as opposed to burdening “the tax payer” , the health services, those with profit seeking motives, or the state.)

So to clarify, it is wider society and governments that need a shift in disabling attitudes, perceptions and behaviours, not disabled people.

The insights that arose from the social construction of disability approach are embodied in policies, which include the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which included an employers’ duty to ensure reasonable adjustments/adaptations; the more recent Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides an important tool for disabled people to use to challenge discrimination, violations to their human rights and unacceptable treatment.

In contrast, Parsons invokes a social contract in which society’s “gift of life” is repaid by continued contributions and conformity to (apparently unchanging, non-progressive) social expectations. For Parsons, this is more than just a matter of symbolic interaction, it has far more concrete, material implications: “honour” (deserving) and “shame” (undeserving) which accompany conformity and deviance, have consequences for the allocation of resources, for notions of citizenship, civil rights and social status.

Parsons never managed to accommodate and reflect social change, suffering and distress, poverty, deprivation and conflict in his functionalist perspective. His view of citizens as oversocialised and subjugated in normative conformity was an essentially Conservative one. Furthermore, his systems theory was heavily positivistic, anti-voluntaristic and profoundly dehumanising. His mechanistic and unilinear evolutionary theory reads like an instruction manual for the capitalist state.

Parsons thought that social practices should be seen in terms of their function in maintaining order and social structure. You can see why his core ideas would appeal to Conservative neoliberals and rogue multinational companies. Conservatives have always been very attached to tautological explanations (insofar that they tend to present circular arguments. One question raised in this functional approach is how do we determine what is functional and what is not, and for whom each of these activities and institutions are functional. If there is no method to sort functional from non-functional aspects of society, the functional model is tautological – without any explanatory power to why any activity is regarded as “functional.” The causes are simply explained in terms of perceived effects, and conversely, the effects are explained in terms of perceived causes). 

Because of the highly gendered division of labour in the 1950s, the body in Parsons’ sick role is a male one, defined as controlled by a rational, purposive mind and oriented by it towards an income-generating performance. For Parsons, most illness could be considered to be psychosomatic.

The “mind over matter” dogma is not benign; there are billions of pounds and dollars at stake for the global insurance industry, which is set to profit massively to the detriment of sick and disabled people. The eulogised psychosocial approach is evident throughout the highly publicised UK PACE Trial on treatment regimes that entail Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and graded exercise. By curious coincidence, that trial was also significantly about de-medicalising illnesses. Another curious coincidence is that Mansel Aylward sat on the PACE Trial steering group. 

Here is further evidence that government policy is not founded on empirical evidence, but rather, it is often founded on deceitful contrivance. A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

It was decided that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming ESA by “encouraging” them into work. Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”. For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to fulfill their broader aim of dismantling social security and to uphold their ideological commitment to supply-side policy.

From the document: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

Rather than make a link between manual work, lack of reasonable adjustments in the work place and the impact this may have on longer term ill health, the government chose instead to promote the cost-cutting and unverified, irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome. Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually downright dangerous.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are politically stigmatised and outgrouped.

Nudging, Unum and the behaviourist turn in medicine. 

The history of medicine and definitions of illness and disability are being re-written for the insurance industry, by neoliberal “small state” ideologues and anti-welfarist governments.

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit), which is a part of the Cabinet Office, is made up of people such as David Halpern, who co-authored the Cabinet Office report: Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psychobabble of decontextualised words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It’s all just a stock of  inane managementspeak. Neoliberal psychobabbling and strategies of psycho-complulsion.

The report addresses the needs of policy-makers.  Not the public. The behaviourist educational function made explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on citizens, the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives.

The increasing focus on social control and conformity in public policy design and governing has been dubbed “neuroliberalism”, reflecting something of a behaviourist turn. It draws on social marketing as a policy tool, in which principles from private marketing and advertising are applied to the definition and promotion of “good” behaviours. Deviance (“bad” behaviour) is defined politically through the intentional and systematic stigmatisation of already marginalised social groups, leading to the creation of folk devils and moral panic which is amplified and perpetuated by the media. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices. 

This serves to desensitise the public to the circumstances of marginalised social groups and legitimises neoliberal “small state” policies, such as the systematic withdrawal of state support for those adversely affected by neoliberalism, and it also justifies inequality. By stigmatising the poorest citizens, a “default setting” is established regarding how the public ought to perceive and behave towards defined outgroups. 

Policies directed at the poorest and some of the most vulnerable citizens are being used to extend behaviour modification techniques, based on methodological behaviourism. This is a psychocratic approach to administration: the government are delivering public policies that have an expressed design and aim to act upon individuals, with an implicit set of instructions that inform citizens how they should be.  

Aversives and punishment protocols are being used on the public. Coercive and harshly conditional welfare policies are one example of this.

The origin of active welfare (the idea that the social security system should reflect that the habitually “idle poor” need coercing into work), founded on the idea that poor people are the cause of their own poverty because of their cognitive and behavioural flaws – they fail to take advantage of the opportunities “available” to them – lies with the US neoliberal right.

Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead clearly made an impact on the international policy debate in the 1980s, partly due to the legitimisation that they received from the support of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations for their central claims. They were particularly influential in the growth of work fare and a welfare system based on punishment and psycho-compulsion. Murray claimed the underclass of poor people avoid work because of the “overgenerous” nature of welfare benefits. Mead argued that a “culture of poverty” meant that workfare policies are required to “reintegrate” and “incentivise” the unemployed poor. 

In the UK, James Purnell, one of the work and pensions secretaries for New Labour, said: “For those who play by the rules, there is a world of opportunity. But for those who don’t, there will be clear consequences from their behaviour”.

He sounds rather like an authoritarian Victorian headmaster.

So what exactly are “the rules”, and who has made them?

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 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: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

Illness is all in the mind: conforming to roles and academically constructed stereotypes

“Diagnosis elicits the belief the patient has a serious disease, leading to symptom focusing that becomes self-validating and self-reinforcing and that renders worse outcomes, a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the label is a biomedical one like ME. Diagnosis leads to transgression into the sick role, the act of becoming a patient even if complaints do not call for it, the development of an illness identity and the experience of victimization”. Simon Wessely and Marcus S.J. Huibers: The act of diagnosis: pros and cons of labelling chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychological Medicine 2006: 36

In 1993, Mansel Aylward invited psychiatrist Simon Wessely to give a presentation on his biopsychosocial approach to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome before the then Minister for Social Security. Wessely claimed: “As regards benefits:- it is important to avoid anything that suggests that disability is permanent, progressive or unchanging. Benefits can often make patients worse.” 

Benefits can often make patients worse.” I think he meant the patient’s illness is made worse. Despite there being little empirical evidence for these claims, the Minister for Social Security was looking to cut spending, so self-styled “experts” were more useful to an expedient government than rigorous research. I think it would be true to say that without social security, many people who are disabled because of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) would experience MUCH worse symptoms, as indeed people with other chronic illnesses would, and some would undoubtedly die without lifeline support to enable them to meet their basic survival needs. 

ME action UK say that on  May 17, 1995, Wessely was one of  the main speakers at a Unum-supported symposium held in London entitled “Occupational Health Issue for Employers” (where ME was described as “the malingerers’ charter”) at which they advised employers how to deal with employees who were on long-term sickness absence with “CFS”.  Moreover, in UNUM’s “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Management Plan”, ME/CFS is described as “Neurosis with a new banner” and the same document states  “UNUM stands to lose millions if we do not move quickly to address this increasing problem”. 

Unum have been advising UK governments since at least 1994, when the  Conservative government hired John LoCascio, second vice-president of giant and scandalous US disability insurance company, Unum, to advise on reducing the numbers successfully claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB). He joined the “medical evaluation group”.

Another key figure in the group was Mansel Aylward. The group devised a stringent “all work test”. Approved doctors were trained in Unum’s approach to “claims management”. That’s basically  managing not to pay people what they are entitled to. The rise in IB claimants came to a halt. However, it did not reduce the rising numbers of claimants with mental health problems.

Supporters of the behaviourist “non-medical” model of disability and illness include Mansel Aylward, Dame Carol Black, Lord Freud and Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (the chairman of the Unum customer advisory panel, whilst he was also Chair of the UK parliament’s work and pensions select committee).

Of course there is the lowest common denominator for highest possible private profits in operation in the US and UK. Some names keep recurring, like the proverbial bad penny for bad thoughts. The controversial PACE trial is just another small variation of the leitmotif. Recently an information tribunal rejected a university’s £200,000 attempt to prevent release of data from the controversial medical trial, that was the first to receive Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) funding.

The PACE trial mirrors Unum’s previous systematic and wholly non scientific de-medicalisation and subsequent trivialisation of serious illnesses such as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Fibromyalgia in the US, and has led to the growth and standardisation of “behavioural” medical treatment regimes, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which is often used to reduce the use of pharmacological pain relief in a wide range of chronic illnesses, including connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The World Health Organisation classified these illnesses as physical diseases, now they are being reconstructed as “psychosocial” phenonena, with recovery supposedly being dependent on the sick person’s attitude and mindset, by greedy crony capitalists and ideologically expedient neoliberal “small state” anti-welfarist governments.

This current psychosocial approach to medical conditions is about addressing a perceived need for cognitive and behavioural change: it allegedly addresses patient’s “attitudes and perceptions” of their condition, their “coping mechanisms” or lack of them, and perceptions of pain and its “management”. None of this affects the underlying disease activity or the damage that disease processes cause to the body.  It’s speculative nonsense.

The trial assessed the value of “biopsychosocial” interventions at the same time as the DWP was using the biopsychosocial model of disability to help justify cuts to disability spending. 

The absurd consequences of permitting a vulture capitalist insurance multinational to write sickness and disability public policies

It’s an interesting observation that Mansel Aylward, who was a key architect of the last decade’s welfare “reforms”, had helped to secure funding for the PACE Trial and sat as an “observer” on the trial’s steering committee. The DWP co-funded the trial. The failure to release the results for the pre-specified analyses laid out in the PACE trial’s protocol is of concern as it had already been noted that there was a likely ideological bias of the trial’s three principal investigators.

All three investgators have invested in developing careers founded on the development of biopsychosocial interventions for CFS, and the two who had been part of the Chief Medical Officer’s CFS working group both resigned because the active biopsychosocial approaches of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) were not endorsed over “pacing” in the way that they had wanted. (See Chronic fatigue report delayed as row breaks out over content. The British Medical Journal, 2002, and Power-sharing, not a take-over, 2002.)

All three principal investigators also reported conflicts of interest involving the insurance industry. There has long been concern about private insurance companies influencing changes to undermine the UK welfare state, a system of social insurance that they currently compete against. (See Comparison of adaptive pacing therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, graded exercise therapy, and specialist medical care for chronic fatigue syndrome (PACE): a randomised trial, 2011 and “In the Expectation of Recovery” MISLEADING MEDICAL RESEARCH AND WELFARE REFORM, George Faulkner, 2016).

“Back in 1995 a Unum report on CFS stated that they could “lose millions if we do not move quickly to address this increasing problem”. It was argued that CFS claims should be managed “more aggressively and in a proactive rather than a reactive fashion” while attempting to present CFS as “neurosis with a new banner”. Emphasising the importance of psychosocial factors and classing CFS as a mental health problem could bring immediate financial benefits to insurance companies when policies limit payouts for mental health problems.

One of the PACE trial’s principal investigators gave a presentation on the results of the PACE trial to Swiss Re insurance. Swiss Re’s report of his talk detailed the potential use of mental health exclusions to cut payments, while a 2013 Swiss Re presentation on their approaches to mental health problems describes their use of specific exclusions for CFS and ME. During the Swiss Re presentation on PACE no mention seems to have been made of the fact that PACE found neither CBT nor GET were associated with improved employment outcomes, and instead Swiss Re’s claims managers continued to be encouraged to believe that promoting these active rehabilitative approaches would assist return to work. There has been concern about insurance companies pushing some patients with CFS to take part in CBT and GET against their wishes. A response to the paper which published the PACE trial’s data on employment outcomes was titled Coercive practices by insurance companies and others should stop following the publication of these results, but has yet to receive a response from the PACE team.” George Faulkner, 2016

From 1996 to April 2005 Mansel Aylward was chief medical adviser, medical director and chief scientist of the UK Department for Work and Pensions and chief medical adviser and head of profession at the veteran’s agency, Ministry of Defence. He was involved in the establishment of the new Work Capability Assessment. When he left the department, he headed the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, at Cardiff University. (The centre has since been renamed and Unum claim they no longer provides any funding – no doubt because of the claims that academic integrity could be called into question by its influence.)

The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits by Gordon Waddell and Mansel Aylward, followed by the 2006 report: Is work good for your health and well-being by Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton, were both very influential reports that were commissioned by the DWP and so inclined towards ideologically biased outcomes from the start. Both reports were produced when Aylward and Waddell were sponsored by UnumProvident – Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research ( at Cardiff  University) – with funding of course from Unum Provident, from 2004-2009.

In January 2003, an influential book, Malingering and illness deception was published as a very large hymn crib sheet that was to inform political rhetoric, media justification narratives and the subsequent welfare “reforms.” It was also funded by the DWP, with telltale dogma and schematic contributions from Gordon Waddell, John LoCascio of UNUM Provident Insurance Company, and of course there is this telling acknowledgment:

The meeting which formed the basis for this book would not have been possible had it not been for the enthusiastic support of Professor Mansel Aylward and funding from the Department for Work and Pensions.” 

The book has political agenda-setting chapter sub-headings such as: Investigating benefit fraud and illness deception in the United Kingdom, Malingering, insurance medicine, and the medicalization of fraud and Wilful deception as illness behaviour. 

Unum insidiously built up credibility and influence in Britain. The company appointed Mansel Aylward as director of their Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, following his retirement from the DWP. The launch event was attended by Archie Kirkwood, who was appointed chair of the House of Commons select committee on work and pensions. Malcolm Wicks, minister of state in the DWP, gave a speech praising the “partnership between industry and the university.”

The whole aim of the centre was to transform the ideological paradigm of welfare from one based on a rights-based post- war collectivism to one increasingly enclosed by a responsibility-based individualism and so help develop the market for Unum’s products. In 2005, the centre produced The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits (TSO, 2005) written by Aylward and colleague Gordon Waddell. It provided the conceptual framework for the 2006 welfare reform bill.

Of course the more recent widespread criticism of “Atos” assessments in the UK has been beneficial to Unum as it undermines confidence in state provision of disability benefits. Such a profound loss of confidence makes it much easier to sell alternatives: private insurance. 

Its methodology is the same one that informs Unum’s approach. Is work good for your health and well-being by Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton was also a very influential report, both were also commissioned by the DWP and so inclined towards ideologically biased outcomes from the start. Just to be clear, both reports were produced when Aylward and Waddell were sponsored by UnumProvident – Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research (the Centre) at Cardiff  University, with funding by Unum Provident, from 2004-2009.

Among the spurious ideas used to justify cutting lifeline social security support is that disabled and ill people are not working because of an “internalisation of the sick or “patient” role as the dominant feature of their lives,” and that “work is good for health.” 

In a memorandum submitted to the House of Commons select committee on work and pensions, Unum define their method of working: “Our extended experience […] has shown us that the correct model to apply when helping people to return to work is a biopsychosocial one.”

The emphasis is on the “psychosocial”. This shifts the focus from the medical conditions that cause disability and illness to the behaviours and perceptions of patients and ultimately, to neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and self-sufficient citizenship in a context of a night watchman, non-welfare state. 

Waddell and Aylward adopted the same arguments in their monograph. Disease is the only form of objective, medically diagnosable pathology. Sickness is a temporary phenomenon. Illness is a behaviour. Incapacity Benefit trends are a social phenomenon rather than a health problem. The solution is not to cure the sick, but a “fundamental transformation in the way society deals with sickness and disabilities” (p123). The goal and outcome of treatment is work, because work is therapeutic. Worklessness is a serious risk to life. It is “one of the greatest known risks to public health: the risk is equivalent to smoking 10 packets of cigarettes per day” (p17). And: No-one who is ill should have a straightforward right to incapacity benefit.

David Freud adopts the same spurious psychosocial approach in a report that formed a review of the government’s Welfare to Work strategy. He cites Waddell and Burton: “Work is good for health.”  (From “Is Work Good for your Health and Well-Being”, 2006)

Aylward has been widely criticised for giving “academic” credibility to the biopsychosocial model which was said to be the basis of the Cameron government’s disability benefits “reforms”. Aylward prepared reports that were quoting “illness belief” as being a supposedly more likely cause for many “common mental health conditions” or “musculoskeletal conditions”. There were repeated references made in some of his and Gordon Waddell’s research to alleged “malingering” by patients.

“Obstacles to recovery and return to work are primarily personal, psychological and social rather than health-related “medical” problems.”

“Beliefs, perceptions and personal responses lie at the heart of the problem [of worklessness through ill health].”  Worklessness and Health: A Symposium – Mansel Aylward.

It’s worth noting that the “musculoskeletal conditions” include backache, pulled ligaments and muscles, injured tendons, prolapsed spinal discs, sciatica – all of which a person may fully recover from. This category of conditions also includes osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and more serious and chronic illnesses caused by connective tissue disease – most people do not recover from these, and the biological damage that this family of diseases cause is not just confined to the musculoskeletal system. By using such a broad category of wide-ranging conditions, this effectively trivialises the most serious and often progressive diseases in the category.

This is why I visit my doctor, and not the government or a “researcher” with a vested interest, when I am unwell. I don’t believe anyone was ever cured by ideology. Nor do I believe work is a “health” outcome. If the protestant work ethic is such an effective cure for disease, the Victorian era “trial” certainly didn’t provide any empirical evidence of that in premature mortality rates. In fact both men and women were debilitated by the age of forty. Poor nutrition, long hours and premature full-time employment all contributed to a short life expectancy. (Daily Life in Victorian Britain, Sally Mitchell, 1996.)

Although life span slowly increased within the Victorian age, notably as treatment became more advanced, surgery more effective, and medical knowledge more extensive, the average life span in 1840, in the Whitechapel district of London, was 45 years for the upper class and 27 years for tradesman. Laborers and servants lived only 22 years on average. (Victorian Britain Encyclopedia, Sally Mitchell, 1988.)  

Aylward claims that the principal negative influences on return to work are: Personal / psychological: Catastrophising pain (even minor degrees). Low Self-Efficacy. Social: Lone parenthood / unstable relationships – being a “Victim” of modern society in rented or social housing. General Affect: Being sad or low most of the time: Pervasive thoughts about personal illness. Cognitive: Minimal health literacy. Self-monitoring (symptoms). False beliefs. Economic: Availability of alternative sources of income / support (such as the availability of health care and welfare. (Pages 15-16).

“Catastrophising pain” is a phrase that crops up in a lot of biopsychosocial texts. It’s another of those made up words and phrases, like “worklessness”, “making work pay” and “culture of dependency” which are just ideological signposts to neoliberal notions of competitive individualism, anti-welfarism and personal responsibility, without any reference to reality. And if you make a claim that sickness and pain are “subjective”, surely attempts to describe how other people subjectively experience sickness and pain is even more subjective.

And accusing someone else of holding false beliefs regarding their own state?  Really? You can’t get further away from empirically verifiable statements than that.

The UK government and the Reform think tank claim that the availability of social security serves as a “disincentive” for ill and disabled people to return to work. The cuts to essential lifeline support for people who are ill and disabled that have been embedded in the systemic welfare “reforms” are all about “promoting economic self-sufficiency.”  

However, that is precisely what public national insurance contributions are about. The idea originally was that social provision should be designed to protect people from the ravages of absolute poverty and capitalism – it was intended to support poor citizens  – and to speculate that such support actually makes people poor is simply incoherent and derisory political posturing from the “private” state neoliberals.

Aylward highlights more than once on his writing a perceived tension between “disability rights” and state notions of “benefit dependency.” (for example, on Page 8 of  Worklessness and Health: A Symposium). 

Yet Unum say:  “And contrary to popular belief, if your employees are aware of benefits – such as private health insurance or Income Protection – they are not likely to take more time off sick. Cass’ research shows that communicating about a wide range of employee benefits actually builds employee engagement and a more loyal workforce that takes less time off sick.”  Unum: How to communicate your employee benefits package.

However, there are conflicting messages to employers on this issue: “Sick-pay provisions may also encourage or discourage absence, and it is important that an organisation monitors and analyses its absence recording systems in order to pick up any perverse behaviours being driven by the sick-pay schemes. For example, it is not uncommon to see spikes of return to work when an absent employee moves to half pay or no pay.”

The cure for sick leave is work and other gems of wishdom

The biopsychosocial model has become a disingenuous euphemism for psychosomatic illness, which has been exploited by medical insurance companies and by governments keen to limit or deny access to social security, medical and social care.

This approach to disability and ill health has been used to purposefully question the extent to which people claiming social security bear personal responsibility for their own health status, rehabilitation and prompt return to work. It also leads to the alleged concern that a welfare system which provides a livable income to those with disabling health problems may provide “perverse incentives” for perverse behaviours, entrenching “worklessness” and a “culture of dependency”. It’s worth pointing out at this point that there has never been any empirical evidence of welfare “dependency”.

Instead of being viewed as a way of diversifying risk and supporting those who have suffered misfortune, social and private insurance systems are to be understood as perverse incentives that pay people to remain ill and keep them from being economically productive.

The government have made it clear that there are plans to merge health and employment services. In a move that is both unethical and likely to present significant risk of harm to many patients, health professionals are being tasked to deliver benefit cuts for the DWP. This involves measures to support the imposition of work cures, including setting employment as a clinical outcome and allowing medically unqualified job coaches to directly update a patient’s medical record.

The Conservatives (and the Reform think tank) have proposed mandatory treatment for people with long term conditions (which was first flagged up in the Conservative Party Manifesto) and this is currently under review, including whether benefit entitlements should be linked to “accepting appropriate treatments or support/taking reasonable steps towards “rehabilitation”.  The work, health and disability green paper and consultation suggests that people with the most severe illnesses in the support group may be subjected to welfare conditionality and sanctions.

Such a move would have extremely serious implications. It would be extremely unethical and makes the issue of consent to medical treatment very problematic if it is linked to the loss of lifeline support or the fear of loss of benefits. However this is clearly the direction that government policy is moving in and represents a serious threat to the human rights of patients and the independence of health professionals.

Behavioural medicine is prevalent in the United States, where many health problems are primarily viewed as behavioural in nature, as opposed to medical. The biopsychosocial model of illness has encouraged unsubstantiated claims that “positive attitude” or “fighting spirit” can help slow cancer and other progressive diseases, which may be very harmful to the patients themselves. Patients may come to believe that a poor prognosis or their poor progress results from “not having the right attitude”, when in fact it is most likely through no fault of their own.

Increasingly, insurers, policy makers and employers are pressing for policies that would redistribute expenses resulting from what they regard to be “voluntary” health risks to those who “choose” to take such risks.

Of course the long term aim of the Conservatives is to dismantle social security and the National Health Service (NHS) – free health care provision – entirely. Access to health care in the UK is currently being rationed because of the government’s systematic cuts to the NHS budget, and payments for some treatments have been introduced by stealth.  

Unum say:The Green Paper also calls for proposals to overhaul sickness certification and GPs’ approach to Fit Note. Unum has been calling for reform of Fit Notes so more people are able to access the right support to return to work as soon as possible.”

By that phrase “the right support” the predatory private company are simply singing from the same crib sheet as the government. Lots of mutual back patting and private handshakes have sealed the deal of doom for the welfare state long ago. The “right support” simply entails removing any support at all for ill and disabled people so that they are forced to work or starve and become destitute.

Unum’s modus operandi in the US was based on the unscrupulous practice of putting profit over human health. A 2004 investigation determined the practice began as early as 1994, and a CBS 60 Minutes report revealed the company established a quota for denied claims and actually offered incentives to employees who denied valid claims from policyholders. The company also delayed claims to make profit.

Unum was forced by state regulators to re-open 290,000 disability insurance claims that had been rejected, including a case where “Unum insisted that a man who had quintuple bypass surgery was fit to go back to his job at a stock brokerage firm, even though his doctors said the stress might kill him” and also, where Unum “refused benefits to a man who had had multiple heart attacks”

An investigation in California found that Unum systematically violated state insurance regulations and fraudulently denied claims using phony medical reports, policy misrepresentations, and biased investigations. The rogue company admitted to only reviewing 10 percent of the eligible cases for reopening under the terms of their legal settlement reached three years earlier.

Unum’s callous profiteering and illegal behaviour led California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi to state that “UnumProvident is an outlaw company. It is a company that for years has operated in an illegal fashion.” A Yale University research paper commented that, with regards to Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and other cases, Unum was “engaged in a program of deliberate bad faith denial of meritorious claims.” 

Yet this is the company admired and unscrupulously hired by UK governments as a “leader” in dealing unscrupulously with disability claims, and violating the human rights of disabled people.

The cooperation between the UK government and Unum stems entirely from a community of mutually vested interests between them, with both the corporate vultures and their allies in government wishing to reduce the amount of people who are able to claim disability through sickness; the government so it can pay less and less of our money in social security to people who need to draw on their national insurance for support and the insurance company so it can profitably contest or refuse more insurance claims. 

So, after the systematic cuts to social security have been persistently justified by an alleged need to “change the behaviours” of poor people and to “incentivise” them into work, we now have behavioural change treatments becoming more prominent in health care and medicine. In the same way that poor people are held responsible for poverty, ill people are held responsible for illness. Just as ministers claim that poor people are a “burden” on public services and tax payers, now they are saying ill people are a burden on the NHS and tax payers… just take a moment think that through.

The Conservatives came up with an idea that will kill two birds with one stone, as it were. They decided to demand that poor people think work is good for health. They plan to combine the goals of job centres and GP surgeries. Job coaches are the new health care professionals, apparently. Of course that anti-welfare and anti-health care strategy won’t change a thing, except to make people who are ill and out of work even more miserable, poor and ill.

Political authoritarianism, neoliberalism and façade democracy present a tragicomedy that creates the ultimate experimental théâtre de l’absurde, transforming lucrative big business propositions of crony capitalism into Schadenfreude; groaning clichés and stereotypes, political scapegoats and outgroups. Irrational, anecdotal populist “common sense” soundbites become incoherent, cognitive dissonance-inducing justification narratives. For ordinary citizens this fanfares increasingly irrational and draconian policies – the “science” of imaginary solutions to fictitious citizen “behavioural” problems in a Théâtre de la Cruauté (cruelty) – because of a strong motivation to control, rule and empty the public purse into private bank accounts (usually offshore), rather than recognise public needs and interests, and include the masses in democratic decision-making and the economy.

The government think that social justice is actually about “incentivising” those at the wrong end of politically constructed socioeconomic problems with punishments. I’m surprised we haven’t seen the reintroduction of public thrashings, flogging and the ducking stool. Meanwhile the people responsible for hoarding all the wealth and causing poverty for others – and to a considerable degree, contributing to health inequalities too – well they get the deluxe package of privileged incentives – tax cuts, high esteem, status and a pat on the head just for being sanctimonious, greedy, grasping, antisocial money hoarders, enforcing the equivalent of an economic enclosure act. They also have a lot of power and freedom, and so get to write a lot of policies that help them make profits and thus hoard even more of what was once our public wealth.

It’s curious how ministers claim that throwing money at a problem doesn’t change it. They’re right: the very worst of the hoarding and wealthy elite remain the biggest socioeconomic problem with faulty behaviours that we face as a society.

But poor people are poor because of a lack of money. Taking more money from them that they don’t have won’t cure poverty. You can’t thrash wealth into someone. You can’t thrash poverty out of someone. I really should not have to explain that like a patient parent explains the way things work to a toddler. But the Conservatives have a form of arrested development, and cling to their reductionist rituals of ontological security. They refuse to learn. The government are too busy telling us how they think society ought to be, they never have time or an inclination to listen to mere citizens. Big businesses take up every shred of their attention.

We know from recent history that once the Conservatives start to hold people responsible for problems that are not their fault, the public institutions that support people facing social difficulties are in peril – usually through the increasing privatisation of services, and ultimately, through the dismantling and transformation of publicly funded social support mechanisms to purely private profit generating mechanisms for the crony vulture capitalists. The only people set to gain in the long term from all of this political destruction and mis-spending from the public purse are the big vulture capitalist insurance companies, who have also had a hand in the construction of narratives of “personal responsibility” economic self sufficiency, thrift and self help. Perhaps Neoliberal governments should develop a policy of providing invisible bootstraps for citizens to pull themselves up from the damage being inflicted on them from a great height. 

When you hear the same incoherent crib sheet responses over and over, and see the intentional political stigmatisation of social groups, you come to recognise the pattern of preemptive justificationism and the malicious and greedy intent behind the draconian policies.

It’s goodbye to the welfare state, the NHS and democracy, and hello to the new wealth care. 

The ministry of plenty say that private interest is public interest.

All hail the corporatocracy.

 

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Footnote

(Update: I shared this article in a few Facebook groups last night with no problem. Some 12 hours later, I just tried to share this article in one group on Facebook and received a ban from posting in groups immediately, with no reason provided for the restriction on my account. I can’t share posts for a week and suspect the content of the article is what has triggered the ban. I certainly haven’t violated any of Facebook’s community rules or posted this in a way that could have been construed as “spamming”. I appealed Facebook’s  seemingly random decision and have had no response at all. I posted this article and asked my friends to share it. After posting that request, my account restrictions have been extended by a further two hours, with no reason provided by Facebook.

Facebook are a client of Edelman Intelligence. Someone should tell both companies that if you insist on censoring information, it tends to ensure it gets shared much more widely  than it would have done ordinarily)

Related

Unum welcomes Green Paper focus on Group Income Protection – Unum

MUTUAL BENEFITS  Private Eye

A Tale of two Models: Disabled People vs Unum, Atos, Government and Disability Charities – Debbie Jolly

Two Apparent Irregularities Involving UNUM, ATOS, And DWP – George K Berger

FROM THE BRITISH WELFARE STATE TO ANOTHER AMERICAN STATE – Mo Stewart

MAGICAL MEDICINE: HOW TO MAKE A DISEASE DISAPPEAR – ME Action UK

Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence – Carol Black and David Frost

Trust Law as Regulatory Law: The Unum/Provident Scandal and Judicial Review of Benefit Denials under ERISA  John H. Langbein 

TRIAL BY ERROR: The Troubling Case of the PACE Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Study – David Tuller

Major breakthrough on PACE trialMajor breakthrough on PACE trial – George Faulkner

Fit for Work: a quick guide for General Practitioners – The government: our armchair doctors and shrinks

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

Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

 


 

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