Category: sanctions

62 year old woman faces losing home because of unfair and pointless welfare sanction

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A 62-year-old woman says that she’s been forced to leave her home after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctioned her – cut her benefits – for turning up late for a meeting.

Faith Hurford, from Hillesley near Stroud, who suffers with a range of medical conditions that haven’t been disclosed, says the benefit sanction means she is unable to afford the rent and has to move away from her home because of the DWP’s callous and unfair decision.

The Stroud News and Journal reports that despite her health problems, Faith had to travel a staggering 15 miles (one way) to attend a meeting about her Universal Credit claim in Stroud.

Due to heat, the sheer distance she had to cycle, as well as her chronic health issues, Faith was forced to stop and take a break at a Sainbury’s store to recover her energy, before continuing the arduous journey.

This meant that Faith turned up late for the appointment and was subsequently sanctioned for failing to turn up for the meeting on time.

Faith described the sanction as “unlawful” and tried to appeal the harsh ruling, but the loss of benefit meant she could no longer afford the rent and has to move away to Nailsworth.

“I had been a supporter of Universal Credit before – it helps you look for work and it’s simpler to use – but that sanction was unlawful.

“By the time I got to Sainsbury’s after hours of cycling I couldn’t go any further, I was completely dazed.”

Faith says that she tried to explain the reason for her lateness but her reasonable appeals fell on deaf ears.

She says that the sanction has cost her nearly £200 in lost benefit payments.

“You need to take a person’s circumstances into account. The effort I went to was not recognised in any shape or form.

“I can’t recover from a sanction like that, I’m on a shoestring. I grow my own veg, I’ve reduced my food intake. There’s nothing else I can do,” she said, adding “I’ve fallen behind on rent and I can’t afford this place now. I’ve got to move out.”

Faith is currently looking for a new place to live while waiting to hear back about an appeal lodged with the social security tribunal.

Sanctions on welfare payments which have caused thousands of claimants to fall into hardship are being handed out without evidence that they actually work. The Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t even monitor and analyse its own data, making claims that sanctions “work” from an evidence-free zone. 

There is no evidence that sanctions work as the government insists they do

A report published earlier this year by the WelCond project, led by the University of York and involving the Universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Salford, Sheffield Hallam and Heriot-Watt, analysed the effectiveness, impact and ethics of welfare conditionality from 2013 to 2018.

The findings of this report’s adds more evidence to a substantial and growing body that welfare conditionality within the social security system is largely ineffective and that benefits sanctions have severe and negative impacts on personal, financial and health outcomes, including mental health.

The report suggests that too much emphasis is being placed on negative consequences for not being engaged in job-seeking activities and not enough emphasis on more positive and individualised work-shaping activities to help people access work that they wish to be in.

In 2016 the British Psychological Society (BPS) and a range of allied organisations (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)), stated a very clear position against welfare sanctions, in response to reports of a lack of efficacy and potential harm to mental health, as outlined in their 2016 joint response

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

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

The collective organisations – BPS, BACP, BPC, BABCP and UKCP – are the UK’s leading professional associations for psychological therapies, representing over 110,000 psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who practise psychotherapy and counselling.

In 2016, even the government’s technocratic team of behavioural economists and policy gurus at the Nudge Unit did a u-turn on benefit sanctions. They said that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from neoliberal behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

It’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning – psycho-coercion – which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income which was originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people into work.” 

Commons Select Committee inquiry into sanctions 

The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report this month regarding the findings of an ongoing inquiry into welfare conditionality and sanctions. They say: 

“The human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the ‘only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated’ – appears simply too high. The evidence that it is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears ‘arbitrarily punitive’.”  

The Committee say in their report that the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim, as the NAO describes it, that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment.”

At that point, the Government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis. But six years later, Government “is [still] none the wiser.”

In their report, the select committee urge the government to reassess the sanctions regime. However, there is no evidence they ever assessed it in the first place.

Commenting on the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry, Chair Frank Field MP says:

“We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.

While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the Government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the Government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.

The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”

Yes, we must.

Related

Pointlessly cruel’ sanctions regime must be reassessed, says Commons Select Committee

New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening


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‘Pointlessly cruel’ sanctions regime must be reassessed, says Commons Select Committee

A protest in Kentish Town, north-west London, against benefit cuts and sanctions.

The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report this month regarding the findings of an ongoing inquiry into welfare conditionality and sanctions. 

The Committee says in the report:“Of all the evidence we received, none was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work.

“Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive. We recommend that the Government immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note (Fit Note) stating that they are unable to work, including those who present such a note while waiting for a Work Capability Assessment. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support.” 

The report concludes that “The human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the ‘only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated’ – appears simply too high. The evidence that it is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears ‘arbitrarily punitive’.” 

The Committee says the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim, as the NAO describes it, that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment.”

At that point, the Government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis. But six years later, Government “is none the wiser.” 

As one expert witness suggested, “if it was not for the embarrassment, the Government would have suspended Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) sanctions altogether as soon as that National Audit Office finding came out that sanctioned ESA claimants were less likely to get into work.”

Some groups ‘disproportionately vulnerable’

The report highlights that single parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition are disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by the withdrawal of their benefit. The Committee says that “until the government can show unequivocally that sanctions actually help to move these claimants into work, it cannot ‘justify these groups’ continued inclusion in the sanctions regime’.

In the meantime, and until that positive link is proven, people who are the responsible carer for a child under the age of 5, or a child with demonstrable additional needs and care costs, and care leavers under the age of 25, should only ever have a maximum of 20% of their benefit withheld.”

The report authors go on to say: “The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must urgently evaluate the effectiveness of the reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions since 2012, including their impact on people’s financial and personal well-being.

“Until the Government can point to ‘robust evidence that longer sanctions are more effective’, higher level sanctions should be reduced to 2, 4 and 6 months for first, second and subsequent failures to comply”.

The report goes on to say: “Government should also “immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note” stating they cannot work. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support for those who can get into work.”

Sanctions have no effect on in-work claimants

Randomised Controlled Trials have shown sanctions had no effect on in-work claimants’ outcomes, and work coaches are not yet equipped to get enough decisions right. Sanctioning people who are working is too great a risk for too little return. DWP should not proceed with conditionality and sanctions for in-work claimants until full roll-out of Universal Credit is complete, and even then, only introduce sanctions on the basis of robust evidence that it will be effective at driving progress in work. 

Comment from Work and Pensions Committee Chair Frank Field MP

 “We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.

While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the Government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the Government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.

The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”

The Work and Pensions Committee are currently looking into the Government’s plans for moving people who are already claiming benefits onto Universal Credit, which merges six “legacy” benefits into one, single, monthly household payment. The Government calls this “managed migration”. The Committee is also looking at the impact of the changes announced by the Government in the 2018 Budget.

Most recent evidence session: 24 Oct 2018 – Work and Pensions Committee – oral evidence | PDF version (268 KB) | Published 27 Oct 2018.

Evidence given by Steven McIntosh, Director of UK Poverty Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children, Dalia Ben-Galim, Director of Policy, Gingerbread, Joe Shalam, Researcher, Centre for Social Justice, Jonathan Broadbery, Head of Policy and External Relations, National Day Nurseries Association Gaynor Rowles, Hairdresser, Lucy Collins, Beauty technician, Vikki Waterman, Administrator, Thuto Mali, full time mum.

Watch this evidence session.

 


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New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening

 

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New research shows welfare sanctions are punitive, create perverse incentives and are potentially life-threatening

Image result for 3 year study show sanctions don't work

Two days ago I published an article about people who have been harmed by welfare  sanctions because they were chronically ill. Two of those people died as a consequence of actions taken by the Department for work and Pensions – see Welfare sanctions are killing people with chronic illnesses

Several studies over the last few years have found there no evidence that benefit sanctions ‘help’ claimants find employment, and most have concluded that sanctions have an extremely detrimental impact on people claiming welfare support.

However, the Conservatives still insist that benefit conditionality and sanctions regime is ‘helping’ people into work. 

Yesterday, an important study was published, which warned what many of us have known for a long time – that sanctions are potentially life-threatening. The authors of the study warn that sanctioning is  “ineffective” and presents “perverse and punitive incentive that are detrimental to health”.

The study – Where your mental health just disappears overnightdrew on an inclusive and democratic qualitative methodology, adding valuable insight as well as empirical evidence that verifies that sanctions are harmful, life-threatening and do not work as a positive incentive to ‘help’ people into work. The authors’ conclusions further validate the wide and growing consensus that sanctions should be completely halted.

The researchers say that benefits sanctions and conditions are simply pushing disabled people further from employment as well as damaging their health.

The research was carried out jointly by the University of Essex and Inclusion London, and it was designed to investigate the experiences of people claiming the Work Related Activity (WRAG) component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  

The authors of the report are: Ellen Clifford of Inclusion London, Jaimini Mehta, a Trainee Clinical Psychologist at the University of Essex, Dr Danny Taggart, Honorary Clinical Psychologist and Dr Ewen Speed, both from School of Health and Social Care, also at the University of Essex.

WRAG claimants are deemed suitable for some work related activity and failure to engage can lead to ESA payments being cut or ‘sanctioned’. Under Universal Credit, the ESA WRAG is being replaced by the Limited Capability for Work group (LCW). The ESA Support Group is replaced by the Limited Capability for Work Related Activity group (LCWRA). 

The research team found that all of the participants in the study experienced significantly detrimental effects on their mental health. The impact of sanctions was life threatening for some people.

For many, the underlying fear from the threat of sanctions meant living in a state of constant anxiety and fear. This chronic state of poor psychological welfare and constant sense of insecurity caused by the adverse consequences of conditionality can make it very difficult for people to engage in work related activity and was made worse by the extremely unpredictable way conditionality was applied, leaving some participants unsure of how to avoid sanctions. The researchers concluded that conditionality is an ineffective psychological intervention. It does not work as the government have claimed.

The research report and findings were launched at an event in Parliament hosted by the  cross-bench peer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

Ellen Clifford, Campaigns and Policy Manager at Inclusion London, said: “This important research adds to the growing weight of evidence that conditionality and sanctions are not only harmful to individuals causing mental and physical negative impacts, but are also counter-productive in their aim of pushing more disabled people into paid work.

“Universal Credit, which is set to affect around 7 million people with 58% of households affected containing a disabled person, will extend and entrench conditionality.

“This is yet another reason why the roll out of Universal Credit must be stopped and a new system designed based on evidence based approaches and co-produced with disabled people and benefit claimants.”

The results also showed that participants wanted to engage in work and many found meaning in vocational activity. However, the WRAG prioritised less meaningful tasks.

In addition, it was found that rather than ‘incentivising’ work related activity, conditionality meant participants were driven by a range of behaviourist “perverse and punitive incentives”, being asked to engage in activity that undermined their self-confidence and required them to understate their previous achievements.

Other themes that emerged during the study included more negative experiences of conditionality, which included feeling controlled, a lack of autonomy and work activities which participants felt were inappropriate or in conflict with their personal values.

The government have claimed that generous welfare creates ‘perverse incentives’ by making people too comfortable and disinclined to look for work. However, international research has indicated that this isn’t true. One study found that generous welfare actually creates a greater work ethic than less generous provision.

Dr Danny Taggart, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Essex, said: “Based on these findings, the psychological model of behaviour change that underpins conditionality and sanctioning is fundamentally flawed.

“The use of incentives to encourage people to engage in work related activity is empirically untested and draws on research with populations who are not faced with the complex needs of disabled people.

“The perverse and punitive incentives outlined in this study rendered participants so anxious that they were paradoxically less able to focus on engagement in vocational activity.

“More research needs to be undertaken to understand how to best support disabled people into meaningful vocational activity, something that both the government and a majority of disabled people want.

“This study adds further evidence to support any future research being undertaken in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations who are better able to understand the needs of disabled people.” 

Participants in the study commented on some of the perverse incentives: “The new payments for ESA from this year are £73 a week as opposed to £102. Well if you’re on £102 a week because you’ve been on it for longer than 6 or 12 months and you know if you go back to work and it turns out you’re not well enough to carry on then you’re coming back at the new rate of £73 per week. That’s going make you more cautious and its counter-productive and it increases the stress.” (Daniel). 

“After 13 weeks I have to go and put a new claim in. After 13 weeks if the job doesn’t last, or if I get made redundant, or if I get terminated or the contract stops, I then have to go into starting all over again. Reassessment etc. So, I’m worse off.” (Dipesh).

Another form of perverse and punitive incentive arises because qualifications are regarded as an impediment to employment, not an asset; “So when the Job Centre says to you, you should remove your degree from your CV because they don’t want you to be over qualified when you apply for the jobs they give… The impact on your feeling of self-worth… They told me to remove it and if I didn’t I would be punished and would be sanctioned… This is the way that the Job Centre chip away at your confidence and all those sorts of things.” (Charlie).

The report discusses the stark impact of sanctions, described by ‘Charlie’. The authors say: “We include a fuller narrative in this case as it incorporates a number of the themes that came up for the sample as a whole – the perverse and punitive incentives and double binds involved in the WRAG, the mental health crises caused by Conditionality and Sanctioning, and how these pushed people further away from employment.

Charlie explains: “It became a really stressful time for me… we didn’t have a foodbank that was open regularly so I didn’t have that as an option… So, what I was doing instead, because quite quickly my electricity went out… So, all my food was spoilt that was in the freezer. I managed to last for another 5-6 days of food from stuff that I had in the house. So, after that I started to go, I was on a work programme but was never called in. So, I’d go in anyway and there were oranges and apples in a fruit bowl, so I would just go in there and steal the oranges and bananas so I would have something to eat. Then they finally made a decision that I was going to be sanctioned… And there was this image which will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. 

“On Christmas day I was sat alone, at home just waiting for darkness to come so I could go to sleep and I was watching through my window all the happy families enjoying Christmas and that just blew me away. And I think I had a breakdown on that day and it was really hard to recover from and I’m still struggling with it. And it was only my aunt,
I’ve got an aunt in Scotland, every year she sends me £10 for my birthday and £10 for Christmas. And so on the Saturday after Christmas, the first postal day, I received £20 from her and so then I could buy some electricity and food. I was then promptly sick because I’d gorged myself, because I ate too quickly.” 

The authors add Charlie’s description of a meeting with the same advisor who had sanctioned him following the Christmas break and how it has affected him since: “So finally, when new year had ended and I had to go back and sign with that same woman who had sanctioned me. She said that being sanctioned had shown her that I didn’t have a work ethic. Now I’d been working pretty much solidly since I was 16 and it was only out of redundancy that I was out of work… 

“The problem I had with that was the woman who sanctioned me was in the same place and it made me extremely nervous. I now have a problem going into the Job Centre because I literally start shaking because of the damage that the benefit sanction did to me… So yeah that was part, the sanction was one of the reasons that triggered the mental health and problems I’m having now…it was awful and I ended up trying to commit suicide… to me that was the last straw and I went home and I just emptied the drawer of tablets or whatever and I ended up in A&E for a couple of days after they’d pumped my stomach out.” (Charlie).

The report also echoes a substantial part of my own work in critiquing the behaviourist thinking that underpins the idea of sanctions. The ideas of conditionality and sanctions  arose from Behavioural Economics theories. (See also my take on the hostile environment created by welfare policy and practices that are based on behaviourism and a language of neoliberal ‘incentives’ –  The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats).

The study finds “no evidence to support the use of this modified form of Behavioural Economics in relation to Disabled people”.

The report authors say: “These models of behaviour change are not applicable for Disabled People accessing benefits. The incentives offered by Conditionality and Sanctioning involve threats of removing people’s ability to access basic resources. This induces a state of anticipatory fear that negatively impacts on their mental health and renders them less able to engage in work related activity.”

The report concludes that the DWP should end sanctions for disabled people. The authors recommended that the DWP works inclusively with disabled groups to come up with a better system.

It was once a common sense view that if you remove people’s means of meeting basic survival needs – such as for food, fuel and shelter –  their lives will be placed at risk. Welfare support was originally designed to cover basic needs only, so that when people faced difficult circumstances such as losing their job, or illness, they weren’t plunged into absolute poverty. Now our social security does not adequately meet basic survival needs. It’s become acceptable for a state to use the threat and reality of hunger and destitution to coerce citizens into conformity.

Why sanctions and conditionality cannot possibly work

One fundamental reason why sanctions can never work as the government has claimed, to ‘incentivise’ people into work centres on Abraham Maslow’s groundbreaking work on human needs. Maslow highlights that people can’t fulfil their ‘higher level’ psychosocial needs when their survival needs are compromised. When people are reduced to a struggle for survival, that takes up all of their motivation and becomes their only priority. 

The Minnesota Starvation experiment verified Maslow’s theory. 


One of the uniquely important features of Britain’s welfare state was the National Insurance system, based on the principle that people establish a right to benefits by making regular contributions into a fund throughout their working lives. The contribution principle has been a part of the welfare state since its inception. A system of social security where claims are, in principle, based on entitlements established by past contributions expresses an important moral rule about how a benefits system should operate, based on reciprocity and collective responsibility, and it is a rule which attracts widespread public commitment. National Insurance is felt intuitively by most people to be a fair way of organising welfare.

The Conservative-led welfare reforms had the stated aim of ensuring that benefit claimants – redefined as an outgroup of free-riders – are entitled to a minimum income provided that they uphold responsibilities, which entail being pushed into any available work, regardless of its pay, conditions and appropriateness. The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for employment.

Conditionality for social security has been around as long as the welfare state. Eligibility criteria, for example, have always been an intrinsic part of the social security system. For example, to qualify for jobseekers allowance, a person has to be out of work, able to work, and seeking employment.

But in recent years conditionality has become conflated with severe financial penalities (sanctions), and has mutated into an ever more stringent, complex, demanding set of often arbitrary requirements, involving frequent and rigidly imposed jobcentre appointments, meeting job application targets, providing evidence of job searches and mandatory participation in workfare schemes. The emphasis of welfare provision has shifted from providing support for people seeking employment to increasing conditionality of conduct, in a paternalist attempt to enforce particular patterns of behaviour and to monitor claimant compliance.

The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application of sanctions to include previously protected social groups, such as ill and disabled people, pregnant women and lone parents.

Ethical considerations of injustice and the adverse consequences of welfare sanctions have been raised by politicians, charities, campaigners and academics. Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University’s Department of Sociology, amongst others, has found clear evidence of a link between people seeking food aid and unemployment, welfare sanctions and budget cuts, although the government has, on the whole, tried to deny a direct “causal link” between the harsh welfare “reforms” and food deprivation. However, a clear correlation has been established. 

A little more about behavioural economics and welfare policy

I’ve written extensively and critically about how Behavioural Economics and the ‘behaviourist turn’ has become embedded in welfare policies and administration. 

The use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making has expanded globally and is strongly linked to the growth in popularity of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and the New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with theory-based “interventions” also indicates discriminatory policy, reflecting traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s a very authoritarian approach to poverty and inequality which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK. 

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, sidestepping the traditional (and very real) structural explanations of social and economic problems, and political responsibility towards citizens.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are “best” for poor citizens.

Apparently, the theories and “insights” of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. No one is nudging the nudgers. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy as well as massive inequalities in power, status and wealth.

It’s interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team have more recently claimed that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be counterproductive”. Yet the idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place.

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare Reform Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have called “loss aversion.”

It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to “support right decisions” that assumed to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions. Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18:

“The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it”.

And page 46:

“Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (eg the sanctions regime)”.

The recommendation on that page:

“We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit”.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased conditionality and the extended sanctions element of the Conservative-led welfare reforms in 2012. 

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as lone parents, sick and disabled people.

Unsurprisingly, none of the groups affected by conditionality and sanctions were ever consulted, nor were they included in the design of the government’s draconian welfare policies.

The misuse of psychology by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing beliefs, attitudes and disposition. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Techniques of neutralisation

It is unlikely that the government will acknowledge the findings of the new study which presents further robust evidence that unacceptable, punitive welfare policies are causing distress, fear, anxiety, harm, and sometimes, death.

To date, we have witnessed ministers using techniques of neutralisation to express faux outrage and to dismiss legitimate concerns and valid criticism of their policies and the consequences on citizens as “scaremongering”. 

It isn’t ‘scaremongering’ to express concern about punitive policies that are targeted to reduce the income of social groups that are already struggling because of limited resources, nor is it much of an inferential leap to recognise that such punitive policies will have adverse consequences. 

Political denial is oppressive – it serves to sustain and amplify a narrow, hegemonic political narrative, stifling pluralism and excluding marginalised social groups, excluding qualitative and first hand accounts of citizen’s experiences, discrediting and negating counternarratives; it sidesteps democratic accountability; stultifies essential public debate; obscures evidence and hides politically inconvenient, exigent truths.

Research has frequently been dismissed by the Conservatives as ‘anecdotal’. The government  often claims that there is ‘no causal link’ established between policies and harm. However, denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced.

The government have no empirical evidence to verify their own claims that their ideologically-driven punitive policies do not cause harm and distress, while evidence is mounting that not only do their policies cause harm, they simply don’t work to fulfil their stated aim.

You can read the new research report from Inclusion London and the University of Essex in full here.

 

Related

DWP sanctions have now been branded ‘life-threatening’

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

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

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

Work as a health outcome, making work pay and other Conservative myths and magical thinking


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Welfare sanctions are killing people with chronic illnesses such as type 1 diabetes

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David Clapson

The sister of David Clapson, a 59-year-old ex-soldier who died in 2013 after he was sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), issued a judicial review and human rights claim in the High Court last year, challenging the refusal by the Senior Coroner for Hertfordshire to hold an inquest into her brother’s death.

Clapson, who had type 1 insulin dependent diabetes, was found dead in his home on 20 July 2013. His benefits had been stopped by Department for Work and Pensions staff who knew that he suffered from diabetes.

At the time of his death, Clapson had been unable to pay for his metered electricity as he had been rendered destitute by the sanction. His life saving insulin could not be refrigerated due to having no electricity, and he had no food available to feed himself. Clapson starved and this was aggravated by a severe drop in blood sugar. He died because he could not feed himself or refrigerate his insulin without access to lifeline State benefits. His death happened after being sanctioned for a month because he missed a single Job Centre meeting.

The coroner said that he hadn’t eaten for at least three days prior to his death. 

In 2014 Clapson’s sister, Gill Thompson started a petition with Change.org which gained over 200,000 signatures and helped to secure a Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiry in March 2015, which came up with 26 recommendations.  

However, the government rejected the Select Committee recommendation that the number of peer reviews into deaths of persons subject to a sanction be made public.   
 
The government also rejected Thompson’s calls for an Independent Review into David’s death and the deaths of others in similar circumstances and refused to create an independent body to conduct more reviews into the deaths of those in receipt of ‘working-age’ benefits. The Government response can be found here.  

The Coroner has declined to open an inquest. Further pre-action correspondence was sent, supported by reports by Diabetes UK and a leading Diabetes Consultant. Both reports confirmed that insulin-dependent diabetes is a chronic illness and that food and insulin refrigeration are of crucial importance in order to manage the condition.

Both reports expressed concern at the current Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) misleading guidance on diabetes, which states that “JSA claimants are likely to have well controlled diabetes”.

The Coroner maintained his refusal to open an inquest and, without mention of the medical reports provided, concluded that Clapson’s death was ‘not unnatural.’ The effect of the Coroner’s refusal is that no official investigation will be conducted into how it was that a vulnerable diabetic, known to the DWP and dependent on State benefits to live, came to die in his home from starvation, alone and without the means to feed himself or refrigerate his insulin in 21st century Britain.

Gill Thompson said: “The thing that continues to haunt me is that the DWP knew David was an insulin dependent diabetic yet they stated: ‘…we followed procedures and no errors were made….’
 
“Diabetes is a serious condition, which in cases such as David’s requires both food and insulin to stay healthy. I feel that the sanction resulting in my brother being left destitute and having no money to chill his insulin or to buy food, ultimately, led to his untimely death.

Going to Court is an option of last resort but I feel compelled to use every effort to ensure that the impact of the DWP imposed benefit sanction on David’s death is properly and independently investigated. I believe the DWP continue to impose sanctions on diabetic benefit claimants and not only for my brother’s sake, but also for others at risk, I hope the High Court grants me permission to challenge the Coroner’s decision. 

“All I want is for no one else to die like that, we are meant to be a civilised country.”

The government have been presented with many cases of extreme hardship, suffering and deaths because of sanctions, but they simply deny there is any “causal link” between the negative impacts, distress and deaths and their policies, despite the ever-growing and distressing evidence to the contrary. There is no evidence that there isn’t a “causal link” either. To establish such a link requires an inquiry and further investigation of an established correlation between the government’s policies and adverse impacts. If the government are so confident that their claim is right, then surely an inquiry would provide a welcomed verification of this. However, the government continues to refuse to do so.

Sanctions led to health deterioration, diabetic ulcers and leg amputation

David Boyce has diabetes. He was sanctioned for five months by the DWP, which meant he had no money whatsoever to meet his basic needs. As a result, he had to sell his belongings, but couldn’t afford to eat properly and subsequently in 2016, he had to have his leg amputated, as his medical condition spiralled out of control. A healthy diet is essential as part of the management and treatment for diabetes. 

David Boyce had to have his leg amputated when his diabetes spiralled out of control because he couldn’t afford to eat after having his benefits sanctioned

David Boyce

Boyce said that by July, 2016 complications from diabetes had already caused irreversible damage. His health deteriorated because he had no money to live on: he couldn’t control his insulin intake and was unable to follow his strict diabetic diet. 

Subsequently he suffered diabetic ulcers and was diagnosed with the flesh-eating infection, necrotizing fasciitis, and doctors were forced to amputate one of his legs.

Boyce was a photographer who used to own a business, but was forced to give up his work because of ill-health. There was a dispute with the DWP about his jobseeker’s agreement and he was sanctioned numerous times. David said that his benefits were frozen fourteen times because of “issues with paperwork.”

However, it’s clear that the sanctions happened because of a flawed decision-making process on the part of the DWP and he won an appeal which successfully overturned every sanction, with support from Salford’s Unemployed and Community Resource Centre. He was eventually awarded the money that had been wrongfully withheld from him

The government have claimed that benefit sanctions are an “incentive” to “help” people like David Boyce into work. However, David has been pushed even further away from the job market, because he’s now been left with a greater degree of disability: horrifically, the sanctions have cost him his leg.

Government denial of the impact of their punitive policies is costing people their lives 

He says he has now been kicked out of the flat he shared with Amy (Photo: Clifford Watson)

Amy Driver with her partner Clifford Watson

Amy Driver had type one diabetes and claimed Employment and Support Allowance. She was given a four-week sanction after she missed one appointment at the Job Centre due to a hospital appointment, according to her partner, Clifford Watson. Amy died because of complications of her condition caused by having no income to meet her basic needs. 

He said that the halt in their income meant Amy couldn’t afford to eat properly – which triggered hypoglycemica (a low blood sugar attack.) When the couple expressed their concerns and complained, Job Centre staff told Amy to go to a food bank. 

Clifford says Amy’s support was stopped multiple times over the last two years and in May 2017 she was sanctioned again despite showing documentation of the medical appointment she attended. He said: “We showed the evidence that she had a 94 per cent attendance rate and she was told she would get her money the next day but that didn’t happen.

“Next thing we’re told is that she had a four-week sanction and no one could explain why.” 

He added that money was tight surviving on his ESA alone and the sanction threw Amy into a depressive episode. 

Not having enough food to provide glucose for the body can cause dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) which can lead a state of ketoacidosis and if left untreated, to diabetic coma and death. Hypoglycemia is a serious condition and should be treated as a medical emergency. It requires prompt treatment, without which it may be fatal.

Amy was initially classed as being unwell enough to be placed in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) ‘support group’. People placed in this group after their assessment are considered too ill to work, paid indefinitely and don’t generally have to take part in work-related activities. However, Clifford says that in 2016 their local job centre lost her paperwork. 

“After her claim was messed up she was then having to attend classes aimed at getting her into work. She would go to the Job Centre and vomit. We kept trying to tell them that she really wasn’t well but no one would listen.” 

Clifford said that having diabetes had caused Amy’s eyesight and hearing to deteriorate and she had been discovered by himself and family members lying on the floor unconscious many times. “She would sleep and sleep – I had to make sure I was with her every four hours to make sure she had her insulin injections. She would just sleep through her alarms,” he said.

“Amy needed to follow a low sugar diet, and these foods for a specific diet aren’t cheap. I went without food to try to help her.

“It got her really down and she wouldn’t get out of bed or even watch TV. She hardly left the bedroom.

“One day I encouraged her to go visit her dad and she went to see him. When he saw her he told her she looked pale and suggested she have a lie down. Then he took a shower and after that found her body cold. 

“I was at home making her a roast dinner when her brother called me to say she’d passed away.”

Clifford, who had been Amy’s partner for eight years, said: “Amy’s diabetes made her extremely unwell. We had no food in the house at the time. She was told to go to a food bank – we called one and they said they didn’t have suitable food for diabetics.

“She was literally killed by the Government.” 

Amy was 27 years old.

Clifford said that last month he was evicted from the flat that the couple had shared in Hoxton, east London, by Hackney Council. 

“The council have taken my home away from me as it was in Amy’s name. I fought them to get a tenancy for the last 14 months but they kicked me out on the streets. I slept on park benches. 

“I’m staying with my parents now but there is no room for me there as they’re in a one-bedroom house. It’s a struggle finding landlords who will accept housing benefit and the council aren’t helping me.”

The Department for Work and Pensions and Hackney Council have been approached for comment, but have not yet responded.

More than a million benefits sanctions have been imposed on disabled people since 2010 – and last month the government quietly released a report of their own study that found there is “no evidence” that benefit sanctions work in the way that ministers have claimed. 

The DWP published the findings in the paper Universal Credit: in-work progression randomised controlled trial on the government’s website on 12 September, as MPs prepared for party conference season. There was no ministerial announcement about the results of the study.

The research, which was carried out over three years, found “no evidence” that sanctions for failing to apply for additional work, or undertake additional training “helped motivate participants to progress in work.” Rather than having the ‘beneficial effects’ the Conservatives insist they have,  sanctions “damaged the relationship between the work coach and the claimant,” the report said.

In a statement that can at best be described as utterly deplorable gaslighting, a spokesperson for the DWP said: “The ‘in work progression trials’ helped encourage claimants to increase their hours, seek out progression opportunities and take part in job-related training.”

The trials delivered positive results for many of the lowest paid people who claim Universal Credit and we are now considering the findings.” 

The Conservatives have a track record of denying empirical findings that don’t match their ideological expectations. They simply deny and dismiss any criticism of their prejudiced and discriminatory policies. Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary at the time of the UN inquiry report, famously claimed that cuts to support for disabled people did “not necessarily mean worse outcomes.”

The government uses techniques of neutralisation:

Techniques of neutralisation are strategies used to switch off the conscience when someone plans or has done something to cause harm to others. They can also be used to switch off the conscience of others by perpetrators.

The idea of techniques of neutralisation was first proposed by David Matza and Gresham Sykes during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. Matza and Sykes were working on juvenile delinquency, they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift, 1964.

They identified the following psychological techniques by which, they believed, delinquents justified their illegitimate actions, and Alexander Alverez further identified these methods used at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to “justify” the Holocaust:

1. Denial of responsibility. The perpetrator(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control.

2. Denial of harm and injury. The perpetrator insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage.

3. Denial of the victim. The perpetrator believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed. Or they may claim that there isn’t a victim.

4. Condemnation of the condemners. The perpetrator maintain that those who condemn their offence are doing so purely out of spite, ‘scaremongering’ or they are shifting the blame from themselves unfairly. 

5. Appeal to higher loyalties. The perpetrator suggests that his or her offence was for the ‘greater good’, with long term consequences that would justify their actions, such as protection of a social group/nation, or benefits to the economy/ social group/nation.

6. Disengagement and Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez
added to the techniques formulated by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust.

Nazi propaganda portrayed disabled people, Jews, and other non-Aryans as subhuman. A process of social division, scapegoating and dehumanisation was explicitly orchestrated by the government. This also very clearly parallels Gordon Allport’s work on explaining how prejudice arises, how it escalates, often advancing by almost inscrutable degrees, pushing at normative and moral boundaries until the unthinkable becomes tenable. This stage on the scale of social prejudice may ultimately result in murder and/or genocide.

Any one of these six techniques may serve to encourage violence by neutralising the norms against prejudice, aggression and violence to the extent that when they are all implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, a society can seemingly forget its normative rules, moral values and laws in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, discrimination, exclusion of citizens, hatred and ultimately, in murder.

Ministers have accused citizens and the opposition of ‘scaremongering’, the Conservatives are denying responsibility for the consequences of their policies, denying harm, denying  distress; denying the victims and condemning the condemners.

Meanwhile, for many, the government’s approach to social security has become punitive, random, controlling, dangerous and an unremitting, Orwellian trial.

Sanctions are callous, dysfunctional and regressive, founded entirely on traditional Conservative prejudices about poor people and ideological assumptions. It is absolutely unacceptable that a government treats some people, including some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens, in such horrifically cruel and dispensible way, in what was once a civilised first-world liberal democracy.

 

Related 

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

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

 

 


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Research shows that Tory ‘hostile environment’ of welfare sanctions doesn’t help people to find work

Image result for welfare sanctions

The UK’s most extensive study of welfare conditionality has found that welfare sanctions are “ineffective” at “supporting” people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or survival crime. 

Despite dogmatic claims by Conservative ministers in recent years that rigorously enforced conditionality – including mandatory 35-hour job searches – “‘incentivised’ claimants to move off benefits into work”, the research found the positive impact was negligible.

The Economic and Social Research Council-funded study of welfare conditionality was carried out between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at six universities. It included repeat qualitative interviews over two years with 481 welfare service users in England and Scotland as well as interviews with 57 policy experts and 27 focus groups.

The five-year research programme that has been following the lives of hundreds of claimants concludes that the controversial policy of cutting benefits as a punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been “little short of disastrous.”

For those people interviewed for the study who did gain employment, the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into sustained, well-paid work.

Sanctions generally delivered poor outcomes, including debt, poverty and reliance on charities such as food banks, the study found. Often imposed for trivial and seemingly cruel reasons, they frequently triggered high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The director of the study, Professor Peter Dwyer, based at the University of York, said “The outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative.” 

One research finding is that, in many cases, the threat of sanctions had the unintended effect of encouraging a “culture of counterproductive compliance and futile behaviour” among some claimants, who learned “the rules of the game” rather than becoming genuinely “engaged with work.”  This of course is through necessity, as social security payments are claimed by people who need support to meet their basic survival needs: welfare (barely) covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. 

The authors of the research paper conclude: “Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes.” 

Many campaigners, including myself, have been pointing this out for years. It’s a fundamental truth – established by Abraham Maslow, and verified by a range of comprehensive studies, including the Minnesota semi-starvation experiment – that if people cannot meet their basic survival needs, that becomes their “cognitive priority” – their primary motivation. People caught in absolute poverty cannot then higher level psychosocial needs, until their basic survival needs are met. It takes a monstrously authoritarian government to ignore these empirical facts and to continue to punish citizens by withdrawing their fundamental means of survival.

The researchers call for a review of the use of sanctions, including an immediate moratorium on benefit sanctions for disabled people who are disproportionately affected, together with an urgent “rebalancing” of the social security system to focus less on compliance and more on helping claimants into work. 

The research report says that in the “rare” cases where claimants did move off benefits into sustained work, personalised job support, not sanctions, was the key factor. With few exceptions, however, jobcentres were more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people gain employment.

“Although some examples of good practice are evident, much of the mandatory job search, training and employment support offered by Jobcentre Plus and external providers is too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work,” the report says.

It’s very worrying that the research highlighted those citizens with “chaotic lives” – who were homeless or had addictions, for example – reacted to the “inherent hassle” of the conditionality system by dropping out of the social security system altogether. In some cases, they moved into survival crime, such as drug dealing.

Low-paid workers on universal credit who were subject to so-called “in-work conditionality” – a requirement for them to work more hours or face sanctions – in some cases elected to sign off, foregoing rent support and tax credits, to avoid what they saw as constant, petty harassment from jobcentre staff.

Welfare conditionality – the notion that eligibility for benefits and services should be linked to claimants’ compliance with certain rules and behaviours – has been progressively embedded into the UK social security system since the 1990s, although the scope and severity intensified dramatically after 2012, when the Conservative-led coalition “reformed” the welfare system.

Sanctions are imposed when claimants supposedly breach stringent jobcentre rules, typically by failing to turn up for appointments on time, or at all, or for failing to apply for “enough jobs”. They are effectively fined by having their benefit payments stopped for a minimum of four weeks (about £300) and a maximum of three years. This means that money to meet their basic living requirements is cut. 

At its peak in 2013, under the then secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, there were more than a million sanctions. Between 2010 and 2015, a quarter of all people on jobseeker’s allowance were sanctioned, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) issuing £132m in sanctions penalties in 2015.

Sanctions fell to 350,000 in 2016 as a series of critical reports emerged questioning their effectiveness and calling for changes, including from the all-party work and pensions select committee, the DWP’s social security advisory committee and the National Audit Office.

fresh inquiry by MPs into sanctions is under way.

Dalia Ben-Galim, the policy director at the single parents’ charity Gingerbread, said: “Rather than threatening single parents with sanctions and widening the ‘conditionality’ agenda, it would be much more valuable to enable the conditions to support employment such as affordable childcare, access to flexible work and personalised support through job centres.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our research shows that over 70% of JSA claimants say sanctions make it more likely they will comply with reasonable and agreed requirements, and it is understandable that people meet certain expectations in return for benefits.

I wonder if this was a reference to the DWP “case studies” made up of fictitious characters and testimonies, as uncovered by Welfare Weekly ?

The DWP spokesperson continued with platitudes: “We tailor requirements to individual cases and sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases when people fail to meet their agreed requirements set out in their claimant commitment.”

Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions Margaret Greenwood said: “The current sanctions system is immoral and ineffective. It is not helping people into employment and at the same time is leaving vulnerable people on the brink of destitution, without any source of income for long periods.”

The authors of the report further conclude that the DWP’s sanctions regime:

“…compromises attempts to end child poverty. At best, current practice fails to support lone parents in the way proposed; at worst, it compounds the disadvantage they already face. The ethical legitimacy of the present system is highly questionable as a consequence.”

wrote in 2015:

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individua ones of ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘worklessness.’ The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality.

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative […] ultimately the presented political aim is to ‘mend’ Britain’s supposedly ‘broken society’ and to restore a country that ‘lives within its means’… bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on ‘economic competitiveness’ in a ‘global race.’

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter, rather than […] an inevitable feature of neoliberal […] competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise social problems, while at the same time, justifying […] changing citizens’ behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.

The government’s policies, founded on scapegoating already marginalised social groups, and creating “hostile environments” for the poorest citizens, including those with disabilities, who have been disproportionately weighed down with the burden of austerity, have caused immeasurable human suffering and untold damage to the very fabric of what was once a civilised society.

The answer to the problems generated by the politically imposed system of neoliberalism that fails the majority of citizens, according to the dogmatic government, is to apparently apply even more rigid neoliberal policies as an almost farcical sticking plaster. 

The Conservative’s answer to social problems such as inequality and poverty, which own policies createand extend, is to impose ideologically formulated “behavioural change” programmes on the poorest citizens, as a prop for dismally failing neoliberalism. All authoritarians are bullies and all bullies aim to change the behaviours of others. This technocratic and authoritarian approach to policy always entails the creation of scapegoats that the government then punish.

In 2002, as party chairwoman, Theresa May told the Conservatives that they were seen as the “nasty party”. Sixteen years later and under her premiership, that description of  an authoritarian and rigidly ideologically driven government has never been more apt.

Related

The politics of punishment and blame: in-work conditionality

Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

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

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

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

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

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

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

 


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Disabled people are sanctioned more than other people, according to research

Image result for work disabled people

A study has found that people with disabilities who claim social security support are 26-53 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than people who are not disabled. According to the research, the main reason behind this is a “culture of disbelief” among jobcentre staff, who fail to take sufficient account of the impact of people’s disabilities on their capacity to meet strict welfare conditionality criteria.

This implies that welfare conditionality has an inbuilt discrimination, as it disproportionately affects people according to their characteristics.

Such discrimination violates the Equality Act 2010:

Ahead of the release of a Demos report by Ben Baumberg Geiger on the Work Capability Assessment on Tuesday, the headline findings on benefits conditionality were featured today in the Observer: ‘More than a million benefit sanctions imposed on disabled people since 2010′.

Ben is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. The figures on benefits sanctions can be found in Ben’s 2017 paper ‘Benefits conditionality for disabled people: stylised facts from a review of international evidence and practice’ published (open access) here (p109-111), and the appendices that provide the source for the UK benefit sanctions data is here.

The article in the Guardian also briefly mentions new polling on the public’s attitudes to sanctioning disabled benefit claimants. However, full details of this will be available in the report to be released on Tuesday. 

The recent Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments highlights how disability benefits are not a ‘safe place’ for disabled people, despite ministers using language that implies it is. Warnings from Iain Duncan Smith about “up to a million people ‘languishing’ on sickness benefits, who could be ‘put back to work’ with the right ‘help’, or descriptions in policy papers of disabled people being “parked” on benefits mislead the public.

It is through such political definitions that groups become restricted, face boundaries, become oppressed. Over the last seven years, disabled people have somehow lost the right to self-determination and to express our own group identity. The Government have redefined us and radically rewritten the terms and conditions of the social contract more generally, removing state obligations and duties towards citizens. The Conservative settlement – a fusion of economic neoliberalism with state and social authoritarianism – openly demonstrates an aversion to any notion of social equality and justice.  

Sanctions – the cutting or withholding of lifeline benefits – are applied as a punishment when citizens infringe the conditions of their welfare support by, say, through missing an appointment, being late or failing to apply for enough jobs.

The sanctions regime has been championed by the Government as a means of imposing ‘behavioural change’ on claimants, as they believe that people are unemployed because they need ‘incentives to work’. However, rather than addressing low pay, insecure employment and poor working conditions, the Government has instead decided that unemployed people and welfare itself are the problem: welfare is seen as a ‘perverse incentive’ that prevents people from looking for employment.

Sanctions and wider welfare conditionality were introduced to significantly reduce the basic security and material comfort of people needing social security, in order to push them back into the labour market. This behaviourist turn has transformed a system that was designed to ensure that all citizens could meet their basic survival needs into one that punishes people for non-compliance with politically imposed conditionality criteria, comprised of what the Conservatives regard as acceptable ‘job seeking behaviours’. In this way, Conservatives claim that people are more likely to gain employment. 

However, unsurprisingly most of the experts consulted as part of the Demos project have concluded that welfare conditionality has little or no effect on improving employment  for disabled people, often having a negative impact to the point where disabled people were even less likely to find employment than if they hadn’t been subjected to state impositions. There was also widespread anecdotal evidence that the threat of sanctions can lead to anxiety and have a wider impact on peoples’ health.

Polly Mackenzie, director of Demos, said it was now clear that the benefits system isn’t working for disabled people: “Conditionality is important in any benefits system, but when disabled people are so much more likely to be sanctioned, something is going wrong. Jobcentre advisers and capability assessors too often have a culture of disbelief about disability, especially mental illness, that leads them to sanction claimants who genuinely could not do the job they are being bullied into applying for.

“We need to think again about how we assess work capability. Employers also need to be better at adapting to disabled people’s needs so that more jobs can be done by people with fluctuating conditions.”

A damning research report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2016, also found that there was no evidence that sanctions were working. It also said there was a failure to measure whether money was being saved, and that the application of sanctions varied from one jobcentre to another. 

The 2017 Demos study uncovered that more than 900,000 JSA claimants who report a disability have been sanctioned since May 2010. People who claim ESA and have been placed in a work-related activity group – which requires them to attend jobcentre interviews and complete work-related activities – can also be sanctioned. The research found that more than 110,000 ESA sanctions have been applied since May 2010.

Mark Atkinson, chief executive at disability charity Scope, said: “Punitive sanctions can be extremely harmful to disabled people, who already face the financial penalty of higher living costs. There is no clear evidence that cutting disabled people’s benefits supports them to get into and stay in work.

“Sanctions are likely to cause unnecessary stress, pushing the very people that the government aims to support into work further away from the jobs market.”

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced in part to bolster neoliberal imperatives related to the supply of labour. The political focus on these economic concerns fails to  prioritise the wellbeing of disabled people. Another reason for the introduction of the WCA was to cut costs. This intention was evident in the ‘scrounger’ and fraud’ narrative that seeped into political and media discourse. Disability welfare is portrayed as ‘unsustainable’, with the Government claiming that resources need to be ‘targeted’ at those ‘most in need’.

However, it is evident from the recent Work and Pensions inquiry into ESA and PIP assessments is that many of those most in need are being catastrophically let down by the current system.

The Guardian reports: Polling for the Demos project found that while the public often supported the imposition of sanctions for disabled people, they did not back the way in which they were applied in practice.

A majority thought that disabled people’s benefits should be cut if they do not take a job they can do, but they were less supportive of sanctioning for minor non-compliance, such as sometimes turning up late for meetings. Even those who supported sanctions preferred a much less punitive approach than the government currently imposes.

The sanctions are taking place in a context where the number of unemployed disabled people being supported with specialist help to find work has actually been halved. according to the companies running the government’s Health and Work programme.

Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association (Ersa), which represents the employment support sector, said: “The size of the new Work and Health Programme means only one in eight disabled people who want to work will have specialist help to do so. As a society, we have an obligation to ensure appropriate support is available and the report shows that we are in danger of failing disabled people and their families.” 

The analysis shows that there is to be a cut in funding from £750m in 2013-14 to less than £130m in 2017. Ersa says that the cut in funding will severely hamper the Government in its goal of securing work for more than 1.2 million more people with disabilities. It seems that the Government is relying on punitive and coercive measures such as the threat and use of sanctions, to achieve its goal. Disabled people are not permitted to have goals that don’t align with state-defined neoliberal ones. 

The collaborative Demos researchers recommend a reduction in the use of so-called “benefit conditionality” for disabled people and a strengthening of the safeguards to ensure disabled people are not unfairly punished. However, despite the growing numbers of campaigners, charity groups and academic researchers calling for the Government to introduce less aggressive sanctions, the Government remains disinclined to do so.

The theories of ‘behaviour change’ underpinning conditionality have been questioned by commentators, particularly with respect to the assumed ‘rationality’ of citzens’ responses to financial sanctions.

Concerns have been raised that welfare conditionality leads to a range of unintended effects, including distancing people from support, causing hardship and even destitution. There is also ample evidence that those social groups with complex needs, such as disabled people, young people with chaotic lifestyles and homeless people have been disproportionately affected by the intensification of welfare conditionality under successive Conservative governments. Research implies that there are differential impacts based on citizens’ characteristics. 

This observation is also consistent with international evidence, especially from the US, that the most potentially vulnerable claimants are at greatest disadvantage within highly conditional social security systems, for example, those with mental health problems, those with long term illnesses and disabled people more generally.

Welfare ensures that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival.

In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.

For disabled people, who already face additional barriers to addressing their  fundamental needs.  Welfare sanctions for disabled people has created injustices, caused fear and inflicted considerable distress and harm on disabled people.

 


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Government quietly scraps plans to introduce softer approach to benefit sanctions

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Last October, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agreed to trial a less aggressive approach to sanctions, which included the issuing of warnings instead of immediate benefit sanctions when a claimant breaches the conditions imposed on them for the first time. Iain Duncan Smith had proposed the idea in response to sustained criticism that sanctions are often applied unfairly, that they ultimately cause severe hardship, they are a barrier to employment rather than providing an incentive for work, and are costing more to administer than they actually save. 

Last year, David Gauke admitted at the Conservative’s annual conference that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can cause harm. He said he would to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people, particularly those with mental health conditions. The announcement of the trial soon afterwards seemed to demonstrate the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) commitment to learning from feedback and using evidence to make positive changes. 

However, the Department’s commitment to the trial is now being called into question, following Esther McVey’s appointment as Gauke’s successor.

Some of the widely criticised sanction decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they are ill, or had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time. In one case, a man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment.

Welfare was originally designed to safeguard people experiencing hardship from absolute poverty. Now the Government uses sanctions to create hardship as a punishment for non-compliance with rigid conditionality criteria that doesn’t permit mitigation for someone experiencing a heart attack, or for someone being late for a meeting with a job coach.

Last March, the Work and Pensions Committee called for an independent inquiry into the way that sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. The committee report at the time had warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.

In August 2015, the DWP was caught making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants” saying that sanctions had actually helped them. The Department later admitted the quotes were fabricated and withdrew the leaflet, claiming they were for “illustrative purposes only”.

This deceit came to light because of a response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Welfare Weekly which led the DWP to withdraw the leaflet featuring fictional case studies. It’s particularly damning that the Department can present no real cases studies that support the use of sanctions and their claims that they are effective and necessary. 

Sanctioning a claimant who is single and without dependants can often have implications for other family members, causing hardship for others – for example younger siblings of JSA claimants who are living in their parental home. It is under-acknowledged that when a claimant is sanctioned, the loss of benefits may affect low-income families rather than individuals alone. 

It was hoped that the change proposed by Duncan Smith and Gauke would soften some of the severe hardship caused by sanctions. Although Conservative ministers have claimed that sanctions ensure that people are compliant in their commitment to look for work, in practice a very high proportion of benefit sanctions challenged at independent appeal are overturned, because they have been unfairly or unreasonably applied. In 2014 the DWP released figures which showed that 58 per cent of people seeking to overturn sanctions were successful – up from 20 per cent before 2010.

The introduction of less aggressive sanctions – which involves a system of warnings and a period of dialogue between claimant and the DWP to ascertain reasons for possible breaches to the claimant commitment, exploring possible mitigating circumstances – was also one of five recommendations made in last February’s report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on benefits sanctions, all of which have been accepted by ministers, according to a document sent by the Treasury to the committee earlier this month.

Concerns expressed in the report are that benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. The consequences of sanctions on people can be serious so they should be used “very carefully”. However, sanctions are imposed for “honest mistakes”. Citizens Advice (CAB) highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best.

Other concerns stated in the report are that sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers, the Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions and the Department’s data systems are not good enough to provide routine understanding of what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects.  In other words, it’s a policy applied without adequate justification or evidence of its efficacy. 

This echoes much of what the National Audit Office (NAO) said in their report on benefit sanctions in 2016. Their report, which has also been cited as a source by the PAC, said the DWP is not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people on benefits, and concluded that it is likely that management focus and local work coach discretion have had a substantial influence on whether or not people are sanctioned.

The NAO report recommended that the DWP carries out a wide-ranging review of benefit sanctions, particularly as it introduces further changes to labour market support such as Universal Credit. The NAO found that the previous government increased the scope and severity of sanctions in 2012 and recognised that these changes would affect claimants’ behaviour in ways that were “difficult to predict.”

Benefits ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival. In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.

Welfare rights advisers on the rightsnet online forum, and from Buckinghamshire Disability Service have voiced their concerns that the DWP has decided not to carry out the less aggressive sanctions warning trial after all, because of “competing priorities in the Parliamentary timetable”. This government decision was included on page 139 of the latest Treasury Minutes Progress Report, published last month, which describes progress on implementing those PAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government. There was no public announcement of the governments’ intentions.

The progress report is dated 25 January, nonetheless, a DWP spokeswoman has insisted that the decision to abandon the sanctions trial had been taken before the appointment of Esther McVey as the new work and pensions secretary on 8 January.

She said: “The decision not to undertake a trial was taken at the end of 2017 – before Esther McVey took up her position as secretary of state.

“As you have read, introducing the trial through legislative change cannot be secured within a reasonable timescale.

But we are keeping the spirit of the recommendation in mind in our thinking around future sanctions policy.

“To keep the sanctions system clear, fair and effective we keep the policies and processes under continuous review.”

The decision last October to trial handing out warnings prior to implementing sanctions was welcomed by many campaigners, disabled activists, academics and anti-austerity protesters. 

It had come only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) published their inquiry report, which found that the UK government’s welfare reforms “systematically” violate the rights of disabled persons..

The UN committee recommeded that the government reviewed “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.

Gauke had previously acknowledged that sanctions cause harm, and had voiced a commitment to amend the severity of welfare sanctions. The change in direction by the Government is thought by some campaigners to be directly linked to the return of Esther McVey as a Department for Work and Pensions minister.

A PAC spokesperson said: “The committee has not yet considered its course of action.”

However, sanctions are not compatible with our human rights framework or democracy: “A legal right to a basic income necessary to live with dignity is rooted in inalienable human rights. These rights should be properly enshrined in UK constitutional laws and systems of governance. Currently the poorest 10% of families (about 6 million people) live on £40 per week after tax. It is utterly unacceptable to further reduce this tiny income to zero for any reason. As it stands [welfare] conditionality has opened the door to injustice and cruelty (Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2010).

 

Related

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

Benefit Sanctions Lead To Hunger, Debt And Destitution, Report Says

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


 

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