Category: Psychopolitics

Protest at the 10th annual New Savoy conference – Mental Wealth Alliance

 

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        Map of venue here 

Find out more about the Mental Wealth Alliance and the background to this New Savoy action here

Source: the free psychotherapy network

“As the links between mental health and DWP benefits policies have developed (see this Government catalogue of Work and Health reports between 2005 and 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/health-work-and-wellbeing-evidence-and-research ) so has the link between Psy Professional bodies and the DWP.

New Savoy has welcomed this marriage of workfare and IAPT/psychological well-being support. See their statement on welfare reform here – http://www.newsavoypartnership.org/joint-pledge-on-welfare.htm 

For several years New Savoy invited DWP and DoH ministers to open their conferences (e.g. Lord Freud and Norman Lamb).

The Kitty Jones blog is very informative on the developing use of psychological coercion within the workfare system (e.g. https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/the-government-plan-to-nudge-sick-and-disabled-people-into-work/) as is the Friedli and Stearn paper – http://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40.full

It was in the spring of 2015, when Osborne’s budget proposed co-locating IAPT workers in Jobcentres, that a number of Alliance and PCSR therapists contacted MH activist groups like the Mental Health Resistance Network and DPAC to see if we could work together to oppose the use of psychological therapy to get people off benefits and back to work.

The issue for us, of course, was the abuse of therapeutic ethics and practice through its application to support the goals and culture of DWP workfare – a policy direction based on political ideology, not clinical need.

We see a shared cause between MH claimants on the receiving end of these policies and the unethical and demeaning working conditions of practitioners/workers providing the services. On the latter, see for example – https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2016/feb/17/were-not-surprised-half-our-psychologist-colleagues-are-depressed

The Mental Wealth Alliance (formerly MW Foundation) was born out of subsequent meetings between MH activists, professionals and welfare campaigners. It is an umbrella for 18 organisations concerned with MH, therapy and welfare:

Mental Health Resistance Network; Disabled People Against Cuts; Recovery in the Bin; Boycott Workfare; The Survivors Trust; Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy; College of Psychoanalysts; Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility; Psychologists Against Austerity; Free Psychotherapy Network; Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union; Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network; Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter); National Unemployed Workers Combine; Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils; Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network; National Health Action Party; Making Waves

In April 2015 the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy organised a Guardian letter signed by over 400 psy professionals on the consequences for people’s mental health of the Governments austerity cuts, and in particular the plans to expand the use of therapists to ‘encourage’ MH benefits claimants into work – https://freepsychotherapynetwork.com/mwa-response-to-the-psy-professional-bodies-statement-on-benefit-sanctions-and-mental-health-301116/

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/17/austerity-and-a-malign-benefits-regime-are-profoundly-damaging-mental-health

At the same time, the MWA began an exchange of letters with the five main psy professional organisations, expressing  our outrage at their support for and participation in DWP workfare programmes. The latest contribution from MWA to this exchange is the response to their statement on sanctions which can be found here – https://freepsychotherapynetwork.com/mwa-response-to-the-psy-professional-bodies-statement-on-benefit-sanctions-and-mental-health-301116/.    

The earlier exchanges can be found here – https://allianceblogs.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/mwf_letters_2/ 

The only organisation that has responded to our request to meet and talk about the issues is BABCP who we met in November last year, shortly before the recent statement on sanctions.

Members of the MWA have campaigned together against the co-location of IAPT, psychological support services in Jobcentres in June 2015 – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/26/mental-health-protest-clinic-jobcentre-streatham 

The locating of DWP work counsellors in GP practices in March 2016 – http://islingtonnow.co.uk/2016/03/07/putting-job-advisers-in-doctors-surgeries-will-harm-patients-say-protesters/

New Savoy partnership July 2016 – http://dpac.uk.net/2016/06/protest-against-work-cure-therapy-5th-july-london/ and video here –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBbXK1Ac7W0 

Here is the double sided leaflet we gave out to attendees of the conference. Very relevant to the March protest – https://freepsychotherapynetwork.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/notinournamenothingaboutus-final.pdf

Associates of MWA helped organise a lobby at the BPS annual conference this January – https://freepsychotherapynetwork.com/united-against-welfare-cuts-against-reform-report-from-the-lobby-of-the-british-psychological-society-conference-18th-january-2017/

We have held two major conferences – in Bermondsey and Liverpool – on welfare reform and psycho-compulsion. Reports here – https://allianceblogs.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/welfare-coercion-conference-report-part-1/  and here – http://socialworkfuture.org/campaigns-events/529-mh-and-welfare-reform-conference-report

We have participated in the Free Psychotherapy Network’s conference and the Psychologists and the Benefits System conference in Manchester – http://www.walkthetalk2015.org/news/psychologists-and-benefits-system.”

My contribution to the latter is here – https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/welfare-conditional-citizenship-and-the-neuroliberal-state-conference-presentation/

Read more here – Some background to the MWA and the New Savoy demo and lobby Wednesday 15th March 2017

 

Tory MP says PIP should only go to ‘really disabled’ people, not those with anxiety ‘taking pills at home’

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George Freeman, MP for Norfolk and chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board, has defended the government’s decision to subvert the judicial system, by disregarding the rulings of two independent tribunals concerning Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for disabled people.

In an interview on Pienaar’s Politics, on BBC 5 Live, Freeman said: 

“These tweaks [new regulations to cut PIP eligibility] are actually about rolling back some bizarre decisions by tribunals that now mean benefits are being given to people who are taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”.

He claimed that the “bizarre” upper tribunal rulings meant that “claimants with psychological problems, who are unable to travel without help, should be treated in a similar way to those who are blind.”

He said: “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it.”

He added that both he and the Prime Minister “totally” understood anxiety, and went on to say: “We’ve set out in the mental health strategy how seriously we take it.” 

He said: “Personal Independence Payments reforms were needed to roll back the bizarre decisions of tribunals.” 

Freeman’s controversial comments about people with anxiety “at home taking pills” implies that those with mental health problems are faking their disability. He trivialises the often wide-ranging disabling consequences of mental ill health, and clearly implies that he regards mental illnesses as somehow not “real” disabilities.

His comments contradict the government’s pledge to ensure that mental health and physical health are given a parity of esteem, just months after the Prime Minister pledged to take action to tackle the stigma around mental health problems. 

Yet people with the following mental health conditions are likely to be affected by the reversal of the Independent Tribunal’s ruling on PIP mobility awards – those in particular who suffer “overwhelming psychological distress” when travelling alone:

Mood disorders – Other / type not known, Psychotic disorders – Other / type not known, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective disorder, Phobia – Social Panic disorder, Learning disability – Other / type not known, Generalized anxiety disorder, Agoraphobia, Alcohol misuse, Anxiety and depressive disorders – mixed Anxiety disorders – Other / type not known, Autism, Bipolar affective disorder (Hypomania / Mania), Cognitive disorder due to stroke, Cognitive disorders – Other / type not known, Dementia, Depressive disorder, Drug misuse, Stress reaction disorders – Other / type not known, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Phobia – Specific Personality disorder, Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Note that some of the listed conditions have known physiological causes, too, such as “Cognitive disorder due to stroke”, whereas Agoraphobia, “Stress reaction disorders”, PTDS, some anxiety and depressive disorders, substance use and PTDS, for example, most often arise because of context, circumstances, events and  experiences, whilst the aetiology of some of the other listed conditions is not yet clearly understood by medical experts.

Regardless of the cause of an illness, it is not possible or appropriate to use constructed and arbitrary taxonomies and hierarchical ranks of disability to decide in advance of an assessment how those conditions negatively impact on disabled people’s capacity to live their lives, to perform tasks, their dignity, social inclusion and independence. Freeman’s generalisation was therefore completely inappropriate.

Freeman’s comments signposted the Conservative’s “deserving” and “undeserving” narrative, implying that some disabled people are faking their illnesses. However, disabled people do not “cheat” the social security system: the system has been redesigned by the government to cheat disabled people.

Criticism

Despite some scathing comments and challenges from the opposition, Freeman maintains: “My point was that these PIP reforms are partly about rolling back some frankly bizarre decisions in tribunals which have seen money that should go to the most disabled spent on people with really much less urgent conditions.”

The chief executive of Scope, Mark Atkinson. said: “It is unhelpful to make crude distinctions between those with physical impairments and mental health issues because the kind of impairment someone has is not a good indicator of the costs they will face.

Many disabled people will be now be anxiously waiting to hear as to whether or not these tighter rules will affect their current PIP award.

The government must offer clarity and reassurance that these new measures will not negatively affect the financial support that disabled people receive now or in the future, and that they stand by their commitment to making no further changes to disability benefits in this Parliament.”

Debbie Abrahams MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary has also responded to the comments by Freeman. She said:

“Mr Freeman must immediately apologise for the comments he made regarding sick and disabled people.

Freeman dismissed the needs of people with mental health conditions saying support should go to “really disabled people” rather than those who are “taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety.

Not only does this fly in the face of the commitment to ‘parity of esteem’ for people with mental health conditions, but it directly contradicts Theresa May’s comments on mental health and two recent tribunal judgements.”

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has called on Philip Hammond not to go ahead with the £3.7bn worth of cuts to PIP which will hit 160,000 disabled people.

The announcement about the two controversial regulations to be imposed without any parliamentary scrutiny and debate, and without any democratic dialogue with disabled people, was sneaked out last week by the government. It will mean 160,000 disabled people are likely to see a loss in their income as a direct effect of the changes made by the government to how PIP is awarded.

 McDonnell said

“Theresa May has used the cover of the by-elections to sneak out this announcement hurting so many vulnerable disabled people.

His is a return to the worst politics of spin that so tarnished our politics for so long. It is an act of immense bad faith. She is degrading politics and demeaning the role of Prime Minister.

Next week the Tories will make out that the economy and the public finances are doing better, however, they are planning to go ahead with a £3.7 billion cut to the disabled.

This time last year when the economy and public finances were not doing as well, and the then Chancellor George Osborne tried to cut PIP, Labour stopped him. And in his u-turn he claimed that he could “absorb” the cost of reversing this cut.

Hammond can’t hide from these PIP cuts in his Budget. He needs to explain why he can’t absorb them like his predecessor while he is still going ahead with tax giveaways to the very wealthiest in our country.”

But cutting PIP may cost more than it will save. 

PIP is an in-work benefit as well as being accessible to disabled people out of work. Cutting PIP will invariably mean that some disabled people can no longer remain sufficiently independent to work. Many have lost their higher mobility rate component when they were reassessed for PIP after claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and as a consequence, have lost their motability vehicles – which includes wheelchairs as well as specially adapted cars –  leaving many completely housebound and unable to work. 

The Conservative claim that “the government is committed to supporting the most vulnerable” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, given the Conservative’s policy record, including cruelly scrapping the Independent Living Fund, which has had a hugely negative impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives, and the Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is also a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work.

The mental-physical illness distinction is a false dichotomy

It’s not appropriate to dichotomise mental and physical illness, as they are not clearly distinct. Most people would probably recognise that trauma, anxiety and stress can exacerbate illnesses that have a clear physiological basis. However, illnesses that have clearly defined “physical” symptoms can often also cause mental illness. Depression resulting from dealing with chronic pain and adapting to progressive illness and increasing disability is one example of the overlap between the physical and mental dimensions of illness.

I have lupus, which is an autoimmune illness that potentially progressively damages the joints, tendons, muscles, nerves, skin, eyes, blood cells, capacity to fight infections, heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach and liver. And the brain.

Most people with lupus complain of severe headaches, cognitive dysfunction, short-term memory loss and often, coordination difficulties. However, some suffer from depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of inflammatory changes in the brain, and some people also experience mood disorders.  Other forms of neuropsychiatric lupus include psychosis, seizures, stroke and vascular dementia, chorea and cerebrovascular disease. There is often no clear boundary between the mental and physical symptoms of illness.

Health and wellbeing have socioeconomic determinants

Another important consideration is the context in which people live, this also has a significant impact on health and wellbeing. There is an extremely unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK. There are also corresponding unequal distributions of opportunity, health and psychological wellbeing, inclusion, human rights and citizen freedoms more generally, such as freedom of choice and participation in democracy.

Precarity and anxiety directed by the state through targeted and discriminatory policies at the poorest citizens mediates and maintains a repressive state–citizen power relationship.

There is also an emerging and clear “cognitive” hierarchy: those in positions of power are formulating policies that are premised on a fundamental assumption that poverty happens because of something that poor people don’t do, or that they do “wrong”, and this happens because of cognitive errors and  “wrong” behaviours and attitudes. The assumption, of course, is that the policy decision-makers are more cognitively and behaviourally competent than those they are “nudging” to change their thinking and behaviour.

However, we know that an economic system founded on mythical “market forces, an even more mythical meritocracy – amongst other just-world fallacies – and competitive individualism, which sets citizen groups fighting for increasingly scarce resources, creates just a few “winners”(around 1%) and many more who are dispossessed (99%). 

Policies controversially aimed at “correcting behaviours” are increasingly punitive (benefit sanctions, increased welfare conditionality generally and restrictions on child tax credits are examples of the government’s behaviourist approach) that draw on psychosocial dynamics – imported from techniques of persuasion at the low end of the advertising industry – build and reproduce socioeconomic hierarchies, not only materially, but through dominant discursive practices, and also through inflicting precarity and perpetual anxiety on those people who have the least share of national wealth. 

It’s remarkable that a government that claims “work is beneficial to health” also fail to recognise the impact of neoliberal socioeconomic organisation, prejudiced political narratives and draconian policies, the relationship between growing inequality and increasing poverty, and how this toxic context has a detrimental effect on people’s physical health and psychological wellbeing.

The Conservatives are so busy diverting public attention, and pointing out what they think those people who need mitigation from the worst ravages of neoliberalism are “doing wrong”, they fail to recognise and acknowledge what it is that the government is doing wrong.

When people are attacked, oppressed and controlled psychologically by a so-called democratic government that embeds punishment at the heart of public policies to target the poorest citizens, it’s hardly surprising they become increasingly ill.

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I wrote a longer article about this for Scisco Media, which can be read here: Social security has been redesigned to cheat disabled people

 


 

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

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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. 

fit-note-guidance

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

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The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

“This is a round up.”

 

“Of the forehead, when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.” Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801).

 

Back in the nineteenth century, phrenology was the preferred “science” of personality and character divination. The growth in popularity of “scientific” lectures as entertainment also helped spread phrenology to the masses. It was very popular among the middle and working classes, not least because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were supportive of the liberal laissez faire individualism inherent in the dominant Victorian world view. It justified the status quo. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the charlatan George Combe to feel the bumps and read the heads of their children.

During the early 20th century, there was a revival of interest in phrenology, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (pursued by Cesare Lombroso). Some people with political causes used phrenology as a justification narrative for European superiority over other “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved.

It’s now largely regarded as an obsolete and curious amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy. However, during the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus. More recently in 2007, the US State of Michigan included phrenology (and palm reading) in a list of personal services subject to sales tax. 

Any system of belief that rests on the classification of physical characteristics is almost always used to justify prejudices, social stratifying and ranking human worth. It highlights “what” we are at the expense of the more important “who” we are. It dehumanises us.

Though the saying “you need your bumps feeling” has lived on, may the pseudoscience of phrenology rest in pieces. 

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Phrenology is dead: long live the new moralising pseudoscience

The Conservatives have simplified the art of personality and character divination. They have set up a new economic department of the mind called the Behavioural Insights Unit. This fits with the age old Conservative motif of a “broken Britain”and their obsessive fear of social “decay and disorder.” Apparently, we are always on the point of moral collapse, as a society. And apparently, it isn’t the government’s decision-making that is problematic: poor people are entirely responsible for the poor state of our country. Those who have the very least are to blame. That’s why they need such targeted austerity policies, to ensure they have even less. We can’t have the poor being rewarded with not being poor, that’s just bad for big business.

Under every Conservative government, we suddenly see the proliferation of bad sorts; cognitively biased and morally incompetent people making “the wrong choices” everywhere and and generally being inept and deficient characters. The way to diagnose these problems of character, according to the government, is to establish whether or not someone is “hard working”. This is usually determined by the casting of chicken bones, and a quick look at someone’s bank balance. If it lies offshore, you are generally considered “a good sort.”

If you need to claim social security, be it in-work or out-of-work support, then you are most definitely a “wrong sort”; a faulty person and therefore in need of some state “treatment.” Apparently, poor people are the new “criminal types.” The only cure, according to the government, is to make poor people even poorer, by a variety of methods, including a thorough, coercive nudging: a “remedial” income sanctioning and increased “conditionality” to eligibility for support; benefit cuts; increasing welfare caps and a systematic dismantling of the welfare state more generally.

Oh, and regular shaming, outgrouping, stigmatising and scapegoating in the meanstream media and political rhetoric, designed to create folk devils and moral panic.

The new benefit cap: a policy designed by the neoliberal rune casters

The new cap will save a paltry amount of money. It’s misleading of the government to claim that it will save the “tax payers” money, since most people needing to claim social security have worked and paid taxes too. VAT is also a tax, and last time I checked, people needing support because they lost their job or became sick or injured are not exempt from paying taxes. In fact the poorest families pay the highest proportion of their income in tax

We forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes
  • Bedroom tax

Of course there’s a stark contrast in the way the state coerces the poorest citizens into behaving “responsibly”, carrying the full burden of austerity, whilst there is an abject failure to rein in executive pay, or to tax the Conservative party paymasters, and recover the billions lost in revenue to the Treasury through tax havens.

Nearly a quarter of a million children from poor families will be hit by the extended household benefit cap due to be introduced this autumn, according to the government’s latest analysis of the impact of the policy. It will see an average of £60 a week taken out of the incomes of affected households that are already poor, pushing them even deeper into poverty. About 61% of those affected will be female lone parents.

The cap will damage the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children, and force already poor families to drastically cut back on the amount they spend on essential items to meet basic needs, such as food, fuel and clothing. Originally benefit rates were calculated to meet basic survival needs – covering the costs of food, fuel and shelter only. 

The new cap unjustifiably restricts the total amount an individual household can receive in benefits to £23,000 a year in London (£442 a week) and £20,000 in the rest of the UK (£385 a week). It replaces the existing cap level of £26,000.

The government claims the cap “incentivises” people to search for work, and says that 23,000 affected households have taken a job since the introduction of the first cap in 2013. However, the government uses “off flow” as a measurement of employment, which is unreliable, as studies have indicated many claimants simply vanish from record.

Worryingly, an audit in January this year found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.

It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The benefit cap restored fairness to the system by ending the days of limitless benefit claims and provides a clear incentive to move into work.”

You can see where the incremental increases in the benefit cap are leading the public. The justifications and line of reasoning presented by the Conservatives are leading us down a cul-de-sac of rationale, where the welfare state is completely dismantled, and the reason given will be that this ensures “everyone works”, regardless of labour market conditions and the availability of reasonable quality and secure jobs that pay enough to support people, meeting their basic needs and lift them out of poverty.

If these measures are intended to force people into work, this government’s self-defeating, never-ending austerity policy is hardly the ideal economic climate for job creation and growth, and where are the affordable social homes for the growing ranks of low paid workers in precarious financial situations because of increasing job insecurity and zero hour contracts?

An official evaluation of the cap by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 found the “large majority” of capped claimants did not respond by moving into work, and a DWP-backed study in Oxford published in June found that cutting benefit entitlements made it less likely that unemployed people would get a job. Not that we didn’t already know this. If people cannot meet their basic needs, then they simply struggle to survive and cannot be “incentivised” to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government need to read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the Minnesota starvation experiment.(See Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work .)

Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of the charity Z2K, said: “Our experience helping those affected by the original cap shows that many of those families will have to reduce even further the amount they spend on feeding and clothing their children, and heating their home to avoid falling into rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness.”

As Patrick Butler points out in the Guardian, the government have already been ordered to exempt carers from the cap after a judge ruled last year that it unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by capping benefits for relatives who cared for them full time. Ministers had argued that carers who looked after family members for upwards of 35 hours a week should be treated as unemployed.

A previous court ruling found that the benefit cap breached the UK’s obligations on international children’s rights because the draconian cuts to household income it produced left families unable to meet their basic needs. This is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world, and supposedly a first world liberal democracy.

The deputy president of the supreme court, Lady Hale, said in her judgment: “Claimants affected by the cap will, by definition, not receive the sums of money which the state deems necessary for them adequately to house, feed, clothe and warm themselves and their children.

As Stephen Preece from Welfare Weekly pointed out yesterday, the word vulnerable suggests that people are weak, when in fact they are only made vulnerable through the actions or inaction of those around them, including (and especially) the government. 

Ideological justification narratives and pseudoscience

I waded through the government document Welfare Reform and Work Act: Impact Assessment for the benefit cap. Basically the government use inane nudge language and their central aim is to “incentivise behavioural change” throughout the assessment. But they then claim that they can’t predict or accurately measure that. It is very difficult to measure psychobabble accurately though, it has to be said.

There are a lot of techniques of neutralisation and euphemisms peppered throughout the document. For example, taking money away from the poorest citizens is variously described as: “achieving fairness for taxpayers” (as previously stated, people claiming benefits have usually worked: they have and continue to pay taxes); “ensures there is a reasonable safety net of support for the most vulnerable” (by cutting it away further).and “strengthening work incentives”. 

For those alleged free riders claiming support because they fell on hard times, “doing the right thing” and “moving into work” is deemed to be the ultimate aim of the cap, regardless of whether or not the work is secure, appropriate, with adequate levels of pay to lift people out of poverty. Work, in other words, will set us free.

I also took the time and trouble to read the studies that the government cited as “evidence” to support their pseudoscientific claims. The government misquoted and misapplied the research they used, too. They made claims that were NOT substantiated by the scant research referenced. And there are many more studies that completely refute the outrageous and ideologically premised government claims made in this document. 

For example, Freud makes the claims that: “Children in households where neither parent is in work are much more likely to have challenging behaviour at age 5 than children in households where both parents are in paid employment. Growing up in a workless household is associated with poorer academic attainment and a higher risk of being not in education, employment and training (NEET) in late adolescence.”

The study cited was Barnes, M. et al. (2012) Intergenerational Transmission of Worklessness: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Department for Education research report 234. It says:

“Though it must be stated that much of the association between parental worklessness and these outcomes was attributable to these other risk factors facing workless families. Parental worklessness had no independent effect on a number of other outcomes, such as children’s wellbeing (not being happy at school, being bullied and bullying other children), feelings of lack of control, becoming a teen parent, and risky behaviour. This evidence provides limited support for a policy agenda targeted only at getting parents back into work. ”

It is poverty, not “worklessness” that creates poor social outcomes. That is why around half of the people queuing at food banks are those in work. The biggest proportion of welfare support paid out is in-work benefits.

Freud also states that: “A lower cap recognises that many hard working families earn less than median earnings – a lower cap provides a strong work incentive.”

Actually, raising wages in line with the cost of living would be a far better incentive, instead of punishing unemployed people for the failings of a Conservative government that always oversees an increasingly desperate reserve army of labour, and ever-falling wages. 

Perhaps one of the most outrageous claims made in the document is that the cap is consistent with “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Those sick and disabled people in the ESA work-related activity group are not protected from the cap. The government is currently being investigated by the UN for “gross and systematic” abuses of the human rights of disabled people, because of the previous welfare “reforms” (a euphemism for cuts).

This is an authoritarian government that are coercing people into any low paid and insecure work, regardless of how suitable it is. It’s about dismantling the welfare state, bit by bit. It is about ensuring people are desperate so that people’s right to turn down jobs that are unsuitable, thus reducing any kind of scope for collective bargaining to improve working conditions and pay, is removed. It’s also about bullying people into doing what the government want then to do, removing autonomy and choices. That isn’t “incentivising”, it’s plain and brutal state coercion. All bullies are behaviourists.

It’s impossible not to feel at least a degree of concern and outrage reading such incoherent, flimsy and glib rubbish from an ideologically-driven government waging a full on class war on the poorest, and then claiming that is somehow “fair” to the “taxpayer”. And it’s noteworthy that there is a harking back to the discredited and prejudiced theories of Keith Joseph – “intergenerational worklessness” – which were debunked by the theorists’ OWN research back in the Thatcher era. It is being paraded as irrefutable fact once again.

I’m expecting a government phrenology unit to be established soon.

And an announcement that the Department for Work and Pensions is to be renamed the Malleus Maleficarum.

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Two-way mirrors, hidden observers: welcome to the Department for Work and Pensions laboratory

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I regularly write to raise concerns about the current government’s misuse of psychology in public policies and research. There has been a shift towards the formulation of targeted, prejudiced, class contingent policies which have the central aim of “changing behaviours”  and enforcing “compliance” and conformity. This behaviourist approach has some profound implications for democracy. It constrains autonomy and curtails the basic liberties of targeted citizens, whilst excluding them from any political consideration of their human rights. 

On the government website, a contract finder notice for the “Provision of Research Laboratory Facilities” for the Department for Work and Pensions says:

“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) requires research to be undertaken, in a research laboratory environment, with recipients of the Carers Allowance and recipients of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

In a typical lab situation DWP shall have one DWP researcher in a room with the participant and other DWP researchers (if appropriate) and invited observers behind a two way mirror evaluating what is happening. As well as viewing the interview they can also see the activity on the web screen via monitors in their room.

The proceedings are currently recorded on MP4 for subsequent use when research findings are being reported. The participants cannot see the people in the viewing facility though they know they are there. There needs to be flexibility to be able to undertake the research in the North West and Leeds and be able to recruit for participants to attend a Government Lab set up at Aviation House in London WC2B 6NH.” 

Northern Voices T/A The Talking Shop is a Manchester based market research and public opinion polling company that has been awarded the contract in June this year. This company will be paid up to £60,000 for experimenting on sick and disabled claimants, using covert observation from behind a two-way mirror, studying eye movements, facial expressions and body language. 

Eye movement measurements are frequently used, though controversially, in criminal psychology, too, as a somewhat unreliable method of “lie detection.” Questions arise regarding precisely how eye movements, perception and cognition are related, and to date, this question hasn’t been answered by academics. 

It struck me that the experimental set up is very reminiscent of the social psychology experiments conducted in the 60s and early 70s to study social conformity and obedience to authority. However, the welfare “reforms” were specifically designed to coerce people claiming welfare into conformity – “to do the ‘right thing'”-  and compliance with a harsh “conditionality” regime and ever-shrinking eligibility criteria. It’s hardly a secret that the New Right Conservatives and neoliberals have always loathed the welfare state, and along with the other social gains of our post-war settlement, it is being systematically dismantled.

The wider context is significant, both in terms of its impact on individual citizen’s experiences and behaviours, and on the way that theory is formulated to conflate  and align citizen’s needs with neoliberal outcomes, and this is also reflected in how research is being designed and used.

Some context

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team has been testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various policy “treatments.” A lot of the actual research work is contracted out to private providers. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists and profit-driven private companies are less transparent in conducting behavioural research “interventions.” There are no ethical and safeguarding guidelines in place to protect participants.

Earlier this year I wrote about a Department for Work and Pensions Trial that was about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” A secretly released document (which said: This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.) was particularly focused on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security.

Evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”

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

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

  • Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information:

  •  A statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.
  • Purpose of the research.
  •  Procedures involved in the research.
  •  All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.
  •  Subjects’ right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.

Protection of Participants

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

Behavioural “rights” and the politics of moralising

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

Consent to a therapy or research protocol must possess a minimum of three features in order to be valid. These are: it should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject must be be adequately informed of the details.This raises some serious concerns about experimental social research, especially when it may involve people with mental health disabilities who may be highly vulnerable.

It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the nudge theory of “cognitive bias,” for example. The extended use of sanctions in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was originally advised by the Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) back in 2010. It was based on the manipulation of an alleged cognitive bias that we have – loss aversion – and designed as a method of coercing conformity to increasingly unreasonable state-imposed conditionality rules, and as punishment for the perceived “non-compliance” of unemployed people.

There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example? 

The fact that this government regards work as a “health outcome” should raise alarm bells. (Please see: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records). The government have already stigmatised unemployment, and redefined it as a psychological disorder.

Furthermore, the research models being used are framed by a profoundly undemocratic conservative positivism, which emphasises directed quantitative data collection and excludes the accounts, experiences, narratives and language of research participants. Much of the research is prejudiced, and starts from an authoritarian premise that people experiencing socioeconomic problems do so because they make the “wrong choices” and that they need to be “incentivised to change their behaviours”.

An element of the “laboratory  research environment” research went ahead in March  last year. It’s stated aim was to “to improve the Carer’s Allowance Digital Service.”  The recruitment brief specifies that:

“These self employed people shouldn’t have accounts prepared by an accountant however it’s mandatory that they bring with them details of their self-employment eg a log book or papers of incoming and outgoings. We also need these people to be looking after someone who has a disability.”

It’s become normalised that many millionaires avoid paying taxes and contributing to the society that they have gained so much from. I don’t see anyone intimidating them, demanding details of their “incoming and outgoings,” yet that would profit society far, far more.

Wouldn’t you think that if this were genuinely about supporting carers using software or accessing services online, it would be designed to be USER LED – a direct face-to-face approach would be the usual way, with an input from those service users, which is qualitative and much more reliable, authentic and useful than the account of a group of strangers hiding behind mirrored glass, observing people and applying controversial psychology techniques.

Measuring eye movements is usually coupled with other more inclusive qualitative methodologies, such as introspective verbal protocols, since used on its own, it is unreliable in that it fails to indicate specific kinds of cognitive processing or content.This, dialogic approach, however, isn’t included in the government’s research brief. (Please see The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)

The central premise of justifications for “behavioural interventions” is that the general public has numerous cognitive biases that lead to “faulty” decision-making. Current research and interventions are largely aimed at the poorest citizens, however, exposing a government bias that wealthy people are somehow cognitively competent. Yet many of this powerful, hoarding minority class want to see worker’s rights, welfare support and our public services dismantled. Not a rational or civilised class, on the whole, then.

As I have previously stated, the behavioural approach removes people from the socioeconomic and political context that they inhabit and isolates them from meaningful and impacting socio-structural events and political decision-making, placing the burden of responsibility and obligation entirely within those who are suffering the consequences of neoliberal policies. In a such an economic system of “market forces” based on competition, there are invariably winners and losers. It’s hardly rational or fair to punish those who are simply adversely affected by an intrinsically flawed and unfair system of socioeconomic organisation.

Can you imagine the government carrying out this kind of research and stigmatising, intimidating methodology on billionaires interacting with their accountants, completing their tax returns or interacting with their offshore banks? No, I thought not. 

It’s noteworthy that current Nudge Unit policy is to keep those being targeted for nudges “naive” as people tend to temporarily alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed and that skews research results. In sociology and social psychology, this is called the Hawthorne effect.

However, that approach is profoundly incompatible with established ethical research frameworks, which, as I’ve outlined, always specify a central requirement of participants’ informed consent.

Similarly, the starting premise of laboratory usability testing is that “what people say they do with products is not always what they actually do.” In other words, we cannot trust the public to tell us what they need.

Userbility testing, an American import, is designed to “target” users’ needs and preferences by observing their behaviour. However, a big part of the motivation for this kind of research is Building credibility for usability activities within an organization.” The government often use research like this to formulate justification narratives for controversial, coercive and punitive policies.

Democracy is meant to involve the election of a government that reflects on social problems objectively, recognises and serves public needs, and that designs policy in response to what citizens actually need; it’s not about governments that coerce people to “change their behaviour” in accordance to a partisan, ideological agenda. We call the kind of government that does that “totalitarian.”

I am not the only person who is very concerned about this development.  

A spokesperson for Fightback 4 Justice said:

“This is the company that has won the tender experimenting with Carers claimants using body language techniques and 2 way mirrors. If anyone gets called into one of these meetings please get in touch as I’d be happy to attend. I am very very concerned about a potential breach of a person’s human rights here particularly where mental health is one of the claimants conditions. Nothing about this “study” seems ethical in my legal opinion. A room with a 2 way mirror and capacity for 12 people studying body language and facial expressions is wrong in so many ways, DWP are giving the wrong impression that claimants are potential criminals with this latest research in my view.” Michelle (legal advocate).

The Talking Shop’s research studios

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Related

The politics of blame and in-work conditionality

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

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

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

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

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

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

 


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State-regulated cryptocurrency and micro-managing people claiming welfare

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Context

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Behavioural Insights Team (Nudge Unit), particularly with regard to its insidious and malevolent influence, manifested in a range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are being imposed on the poorest citizens. Technocracy is the “science of social engineering.” Nudge is a technocratic approach to fulfilling the requirements of neoliberalism. It’s about maintaining an established socioeconomic order, rather than advancing progressive social change.

In 1932, Howard Scott and Marion King Hubbert founded Technocracy Incorporated, and proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates. The group argued that “apolitical, rational engineers should be vested with authority to guide an economy into a thermodynamically balanced load of production and consumption, thereby doing away with unemployment and debt.” Sounds just like old school sociological Functionalism to me: it’s a systems theory  – utterly tautological and deterministic tosh. Bear with me, because there’s a couple of contemporary parallels I want to discuss.

The Conservatives prefer to do away with unemployment and debt by “incentivising behaviour change” to ensure that poor people who don’t have any money to live on are punished out of their poverty. 

Smart Cards, another antiwelfarist, technocratic imposition, entered our collective consciousness during autumn 2012, as Iain Duncan Smith declared his intention to discipline Britain’s “troubled” families. In unveiling his proposals at the Conservative Conference back in October 2012, Duncan Smith attempted to frame the cards as better value for taxpayers’ money, implying that poor people don’t pay taxes, (when the poorest actually pay proportionally more) and his rhetoric was extremely stigmatising.

He said: I am looking […] at ways in which we could ensure that money we give [benefit claimants] to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle.”  [Boldings mine.]

Then MP Alex Shelbrooke presented his private member’s bill in December 2012, providing us with yet another shuddering glimpse into the underlying Tory moral outrage, prejudice and punitive attitudes towards people claiming benefits. He argued for a “welfare cash card” to limit spending to absolute basics. Isn’t welfare provision as it is just enough to cover the absolute basics for survival? It’s calculated to meet the basic cost of food, fuel and shelter only.

Despite his scapegoating narrative about addressing “idleness”, Shelbrooke’s proposed psychocompulsion was intended to apply to those in work, who claim benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit, penalising and outgrouping those on a minimum or low wage, also. The plan was to restrict the goods that people claiming benefits could buy with their cards. Not so much offering a “nudge” or “incentive”, but rather, delivering a bludgeoning enforcement. 

A principled objection is that we should not be stigmatising or inflicting punishments on people, or reducing their freedom to spend money as they need and wish, just because they are forced to spend some time out of work, or because they aren’t paid a wage that is sufficient to live on. Such an approach is draconian.

Having been previously rejected, this is certainly not a democratically endorsed policy.

This is an authoritarian restriction on what people claiming benefits may buy, and a limiting of lifestyle choices that they are permitted. It is a particularly spitefully directed ideological move that does not make any sense in terms of the wider economy, or in terms of any notion of “supporting” people, and “fairness.” The latter two categories of reason would entail extending opportunities and freedoms, not repressing them. Financial hardship already limits choice. When people are struggling financially, budgeting isn’t the problem: low wages, benefit cuts and rising costs of essential items are. Those factors are shaped by government policies, not poor people.

No matter how this is dressed up by the Tories, poor people don’t respond to “corrective” narratives and coercive policy like Pavlov’s dogs. Yet the Tories nevertheless insist on placing  a psychopolitical variant of operant conditioning – behaviour modification – at the core of their increasingly repressive class-contingent policies. This isn’t about state “assistance” for the entitled poor, most of who have worked and contributed to the treasury, contrary to the politically expedient “economic free rider” label.  It’s about traditional Tory prejudices, state interference and coercion. It’s more blaming and punishing the casualities of neoliberalism and social conservatism. 

Having failed in introducing the punitive smart card more than once, the Conservatives are now resorting to a stealthy introduction of a variation to curtail the freedom of poor people claiming social security, using cryptocurrency, state regulation and an unprecedented, Orwellian level of state monitoring and control of what people who are struggling to make ends meet are buying. 

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Some basic (but wordy) definitions

Cryptocurrency is a medium of exchange, alternative to Fiat currencies, which uses a type of virtual currency, such as bitcoin. It uses cryptography for security and anti-counterfeiting measures. Public and private keys are often used to transfer cryptocurrency between individuals. Ownership of bitcoins, for example, implies that a user can spend bitcoins associated with a specific address. To do so, a payer must digitally sign the transaction using the corresponding private key. Without knowledge of the private key, the transaction cannot be signed and bitcoins cannot be spent. The network verifies the signature using the public key.

Bitcoin is a pseudonymous currency, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities, but rather, to bitcoin addresses. For cryptocurrency enthusiasts, the pseudoanonymity element is attractive, as it tends to empower individuals rather than institutions. Cryptocurrencies typically feature decentralised and unregulated control, and transactions are recorded in a public distributed ledger called the blockchain. Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public

The value of a cryptocurrency is determined by the market (whatever people are willing to pay for it). The welfare or state of your nation’s economy will not affect the value of your cryptocurrency. The value of a cryptocurrency is based solely on global supply and demand and functions much like a commodity on the stock market.

Cryptocurrencies are ordinarily used outside of existing banking and governmental institutions and exchanged over the Internet. They have often been seen by the establishment as a “rogue currency”, and as a potential threat to the monetary order. Because of the pseudoanonymity afforded by “virtual assets”, cryptocurrency is also sometimes used in controversial settings such as online darknet markets, like Silk Road, accessible by Tor, (free software for enabling anonymous communication, it conceals a user’s location and usage) which further minimises the risk of detection by law enforcement agencies. (See: Silk Road and Bitcoin.)

People in Russia and China have been bypassing very strict surveillance laws by using bitcoin-like cryptocurrencies in order to communicate securely. Cryptocurrencies, starting with bitcoin, have emerged and been increasingly utilised almost in parallel with revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden about mass government surveillance. 

As the sheer extent of government spying still continues to emerge, encrypted communication services become important and have surged in popularity. Tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple, have capitalised on this by adding encryption to their services. However revelations that these same companies seem complicit in the NSA’s surveillance operations have led to some reservations from users. Now it seems the UK government wants to utilise cryptocurrency, inverting the political freedom it allowed by turning it into a tool of state control. 

Government proposals: virtual food vouchers and automated nudge

Earlier this year, the government set out proposals in a report regarding how Blockchain Technologies’ distributed ledger technology which provides “efficient and transparent” digital records of cryptocurrency transactions, could be used for public services. In their report called Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond block chain, the government’s scientific advisor says:

“Distributed ledger technology (DLTs) offer significant challenges to established orthodoxy and assumptions of best practice, far beyond the recording of transactions and ledgers. These potentially revolutionary organisational structures and practices should be experimentally trialed — perhaps in the form of technical and non-technical demonstrator projects — so that practical, legal and policy implications can be explored.”

“Areas where we believe work could be taken forward include the protection of national infrastructure, reducing market friction for SMEs [Small and medium-sized enterprises] and the distribution of funds from Department for Work and Pensions and other government departments.” [Boldings mine.]

To recap, a distributed ledger is a database that can record financial, physical or electronic assets for sharing across a network through what is claimed to be entirely transparent updates of information.

Its first incarnation was Blockchain in 2008, which underpinned digital cash systems such as Bitcoin. The technology has now evolved into a variety of models that may be applied to different business problems.

Speaking at Payments Innovation Conference earlier this month, Lord Freud, one of the main architects of the welfare “reforms” said:

“Claimants are using an app on their phones through which they are receiving and spending their benefit payments. With their consent, their transactions are being recorded on a distributed ledger to support their financial management.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been working with Barclays, Npower, University College London and a UK-based distributed ledger platform startup called GovCoin to create an app which tracks people’s benefit spending

The ongoing trial which, is designed to demonstrate “the practical applications of the technology,” began in June. It’s another Conservative experiment on people claiming social security.

Jeremy Wilson, the vice chairman of corporate banking at Barclays, said: “This initiative focuses on adding an additional layer of richer data and identity onto payments, so that a deeper and more effective relationship can be established between the government and claimants.”

I wonder exactly what that “effective relationship” will entail? I bet it’s not one based on mutual respect and democratic dialogue. I also wonder if the Department for Work and Pensions will be issuing people who have no income with Smart phones. 

How will the collected information on spending be used? Are we going to see people claiming social security being named and shamed for buying Mars bars, a bottle of wine or a book? Or birthday and Christmas presents for their children? Will the state be sanctioning people that make purchases which the government deems “unnecessary”? 

He added: “We are keen to see how the positive potential of this service develops and adds to our wider efforts to explore the uses of distributed ledger technology.”

Distributed ledger technology was identified as a way of potentially “saving billions of pounds a year from welfare fraud and overpayment errors.”

Oh, that whoppingly over-inflated 0.7% of claimants again. Just imagine how many trillions we would save if we used technology to get a grip of tax avoidance. 

The technology is hoped to provide a cheap and easy way of getting welfare claimants without bank accounts into the system as well as verifying their identities, and would also provide a “transparent account of how public money was spent, transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity,” the government’s chief science adviser, Sir Mark Walport, said in a report last January. Those same words are used every time vulture capitalists are circling a public service, on the hunt for easy profits.

Walport said: “Distributed ledger technology has the potential to transform the delivery of public and private services.”  More words from the vulture capitalist crib sheet of glittering generalities.

“It has the potential to redefine the relationship between government and the citizen in terms of data sharing, transparency and trust and make a leading contribution to the government’s digital transformation plan.”

The government distributes £3.8bn in payments every day. However, there are some serious concerns over how protection of data and privacy with the technology will be “managed.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI)welcomed the findings on the whole. However, it warned that the government must be wary of the challenges involved in blockchain technology and apply it in an effective way. They say: “We agree that blockchains could be used to build confidence in government services, through public auditability, and could also be used for widely distributed data collection and publishing, such as supply chain information. Smart contracts also hold great potential; what if your train tickets were smart contracts that meant you paid less for delayed trains?” 

Smart cards and smart contracts, the more things change, the more the Tories stay the same.

Further comment from the ODI: “However, in our research we have seen cases where people are trying to bolt old, failed or impossible policy and business ideas onto the new technology or to unnecessarily reinvent things that work perfectly well.”

The institute also warned of the privacy issues raised by incorporating private data and suggested the government better develop and solve these challenges by focusing on industry specific groups such as the finance or healthcare sectors.

Some thoughts

Conservatives claim to endorse personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and deregulation, amongst other things. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservatives claim their policies generally emphasise “empowerment of the individual to solve problems”. So how does any of this tally with harsh welfare cuts, public service cuts, restrictions on the right to by certain goods, the removal of access to legal aid, limiting housing options for the poorest, bedroom tax, numerous human rights contraventions, psychocompulsion through increasingly stringent welfare “conditionality” and  the draconian sanction regime, for example?

Limiting “consumer choice” and spending flies in the face of the Tories’ own free market dogma. Furthermore, as it stands legally, the government cannot currently stipulate how people claiming benefits spend their money.

The Tory definition of “troubled family” conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Iain Duncan Smith claims to be targeting substance abusers (“drug addicts” and “alcoholics”) but it’s clear that the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled people. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re “drug addicted” would actually target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

Once again we see the disciplinarian and psychocratic Tories stigmatising the poorest people for the conditions that Tory policies have caused. If such “troubled families” existed (and the Joseph Rowntree foundation research has put paid to the myth of families with three generations unemployed ), it would not be reasonable to treat their situations as an issue of personal spending choices rather than a consequence of how our economy is run.

The Tories have, over the past five years, parodied a political process that is supposed to be about engaging the public’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs within society. The UK is not an inclusive democracy. Instead we see the employment of a behaviourist brand of psychocomplulsion, and the media are complicit in propping up an increasingly incoherent, irrational and profoundly prejudiced ideology which informs class-contingent, anti-social and deeply damaging neoliberal policies.

I’ve pointed out previously that 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. “Accountability to the taxpayer” is being used more and more by the state as a justification to exclude those needing financial support from democratic society. Yet those people claiming benefits are not the same people year by year. The “economic free-rider” myth assumes that people claiming welfare do so continuously, yet we know that most move in and out of work, being forced to undertake insecure, poorly paid work regularly. It’s hardly fair to punish people for the detrimental conditions of the wider labor market.

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 detached from public interests and needs. Instead, policy is about directing us in how to be. We are being coerced into behaving only in ways that accommodate and prop up neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism.

“Workers of the World unite. You have nothing to lose but their blockchains.” Hubert Huzzah

 —

 

“Behaviour change is one of the primary functions of government communications – helping change and save lives, helping the government run more effectively as well as save taxpayer’s money.

Our approach is to use a mix of awareness raising, persuasion, practical help and behavioural theory, to demonstrate why changes in behaviour are important and to make these changes easy for the public to adopt”.

The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change

gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1

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

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Satirical Twitter response after Welfare Weekly revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions had been using fake claimants and made-up comments to justify the use of punitive welfare sanctions

 

The government’s controversial benefit sanctions regime can cause “damage to the wellbeing of vulnerable claimants and can lead to hunger, debt and destitution”, according to a damning new report which debunks Tory myths that benefit sanctions – denying people who are already struggling the only means by which support themselves and their families – “incentivise people into work.”

In a report titled Benefit Conditionality and Sanctions in Salford – One Year on, commissioned by Salford City Council in 2014, comprised of a task force of Salford’s Financial Inclusion Practitioner’s Group (FIPG), it was concluded that far from than “incentivising” people to move into work, the sanctions regime actually serves as a barrier, preventing people from engaging in appropriate training, volunteering and demotivating employment-related activities. Furthermore, the  sudden loss of income by removing benefits by imposing punitive sanctions often damages people’s mental health, create tensions within family relationships and may cause individuals to turn to crime in order to meet their basic survival needs.

The report says: “Despite the drop in numbers in Salford receiving a benefit sanction, for those who are sanctioned the impact is devastating. 

“A ‘financial shock’ such as a sanction causes both immediate and longer term impact as most people do not have the means to save, so have no safety net. This presents an emergency need for money to buy food, pay for heating and essential travel costs.”

The report also says that the rate of people being sanctioned in the area has not reduced over the previous 12 month period. But, critically, it adds: “Register sizes are decreasing and we believe this is in part due to a growing number of “disappeared“. These are claimants who drop their benefit claim or who move off benefit but do not take up employment. The Government has refused to publish destination data.”  (See also: Government under fire for massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions from Commons Select Committee.)

The report goes on to say: “From the wide range of responses we have received from Salford agencies working with claimants, despite the fall in sanctions, the impact of sanctions both on claimants and services within the City cannot be overstated and the harsh regime will be expected to include additional groups as Universal Credit rolls out nationally this year.”

The report follows on from an interim study, published in October 2014, which predicted that sanctioning would most likely lead to extreme material hardship, mental health problems such as depression, an increasing reliance on loan sharks. The interim report was submitted as evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the impact of benefit sanctions.

Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett said: “People on benefits are already struggling to afford food, heating and essential costs. They can’t save so they have no financial safety net. They live in dread of being sanctioned  which isn’t the right frame of mind for job hunting, volunteering or going back into education.” 

Rebecca Long Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, has said that the research “shows charities are increasingly having to step in to support claimants who are thrown into crisis due to delays and sanctions”. 

She added: “As an MP, I have seen some truly horrific cases, where the effects have been severe damage to my constituents’ mental and physical health, as well as the tragic case of David Clapson, who was found dead in his flat from diabetic ketoacidosis, two weeks after his benefits were suspended. His sister discovered her brother’s body and found his electricity had been cut off, meaning the fridge where he stored his insulin was no longer working. They must know that sanctioning people with diabetes is very dangerous but the system treats people as statistics and numbers. 

This report shows where we are in Salford today, one year on from the original report. Sadly, it illustrates the devastating impact sanctions have on the lives of people who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Earlier this month, another collaborative research project, which is based at York university, also launched the first wave findings from an ongoing study on the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality. This project started in 2013 and will finish in 2018. The researchers, from a variety of universities across the UK, draws on data from interviews with 52 policy stakeholders, 27 focus groups conducted with practitioners, and 480 ‘wave a’ qualitative longitudinal interviews with with nine groups of welfare service users in England and Scotland.  The study includes 480 people living in Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Inverness, London, Peterborough, Sheffield and Warrington, and is aimed at determining what longer-term effects the sanctions and “support” are having.

Most respondents report negative experiences of conditional welfare interventions. Linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements under threat of sanction created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment among claimants. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by welfare service users as profoundly negative. Routinely, sanctions had severely detrimental financial, material, emotional and health impacts on those subject to them. There was evidence of certain individuals disengaging from services or being pushed toward “survival crime”. Harsh, disproportionate or inappropriate sanctioning created deep resentment and feelings of injustice. 

A recurring theme in peoples’ experiences was that sanctions or other enforcement measures were out of proportion to the ‘offence’, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes by Jobcentre or Work Programme staff. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and/or vulnerabilities. Many saw Jobcentre Plus in particular as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliancy with behavioural requirements, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support.

At the heart of welfare conditionality is an unfounded belief that it will change service users’ behaviour. Research to date in this first wave of findings has found very little  evidence of welfare conditionality bringing about positive behaviour change in terms of preparing for or finding paid work and/or ending what is assumed to be “irresponsible behaviour” (rather than a consequence of the realities of labour market and socioeconomic constraints.)

Many welfare service users challenged the notion that they did not want to work. Virtually all interviewees in this study expressed a desire to work in the future when, and if, their personal situations made this possible. 

If you want to take part in this study, please get in touch if you live in one of these areas: Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Inverness, London, Peterborough, Sheffield and Warrington. Your personal details will be kept confidential.

 

Related 

Exclusive: DWP Admit Using Fake Claimant’s Comments In Benefit Sanctions Leaflet

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

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

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