Tag: sanctions

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

 


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

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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.

 


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

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

Image result for skinner lab rat

I’m currently writing an article about the intimacy between neoliberalism and behavioural economics, following Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel award. While I was researching, I came across an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) document about Nudge from 2012Tax and benefit policy: insights from behavioural economics, which suggested the introduction of “ordeals” into the social security system. The authors claim it would “deter fraud”. Although the IFS didn’t quite commit to calling for the idea to be implemented formally via policy, they did present the idea as an incontrovertible fact. Yet it is a controversial opinion, which is not supported by empirical evidence.

Introducing ordeals to social security also deters our most vulnerable citizens from claiming the support they need in order to live. Because of this, it wouldn’t be possible to determine the number of people who were intending to make a fraudulent claim. Prior to the welfare “reforms”, social security fraud was estimated at around 0.7 %. However, this very low figure also included bureaucratic and administrative errors, which resulted in overpayments. 

Image result for welfare fraud vs tax fraud

At the least, this comment reflected something of the mindset and taken-for-granted assumptions behind the Conservative welfare “reforms”, and the statement indicates that the “problems” with and subsequent hardships caused by Universal Credit and other forms of welfare support are intended.

The problems we are witnessing with Universal Credit, Employment Support and Allowance and Personal Independent Payment are arising, not because of unintended consequences, or bureaucratic ineptitude, but because of the governments’ “calculated cruelty”, rather than “gross incompetence”.

The idea of intentionally designed environmental “ordeals” indicates the political (misuse) of behaviourism a perspective that underpins libertarian paternalism  – which is the ideological basis of behavioural economics. The claim is that libertarian paternalism is designed to “help” people who behave irrationally and so are not advancing their own “interests” to behave in ways that self-appointed “choice architects” deem beneficial to themselves and society, while interfering only minimally with people who behave rationally.

Public policy over the last 7 years indicates that the poorest citizens are considered cognitively “faulty”, whereas wealthy people are seen as being cognitively competent precisely because they are wealthy. No-one seems to be challenging this fait accompli approach to public policy and ultimately, to altering public perceptions, experimenting on people without their consent, using armchair psychology and techniques of persuasion, and behavioural engineering on the basis of socioeconomic status.

Image result for blaming the poor for their poverty

Richard Thaler once said that if everyone were rational, we would all invest in the stock market. That’s a pretty limited definition of “rational” behaviour. He also believes that poor people actually choose borrowing money and credit at the highest interest rates. This is the problem with having such a narrow ideological view and focus. It skews, limits and reduces perspective because you miss the impact of real and complex social interactions, of inequality; the influence of power relations on social outcomes; exploitation; the consequences of political decision-making and institutionalised class-based attitudes and prejudices on social behaviours, for example. There are structural constraints to consider, and a host of other crucial interconnections that shape outcomes in our highly complex social world.

Behavioural economics tends to focus on the quantification of human experiences, while framing social problems as simply arising due to incompetence of individuals’ decision making and behaviours. In doing so, it’s scope is so limited and it fails to generate meaningful explanations and promote understanding of those experiences. 

Thaler doesn’t discuss the irrational behaviours of very wealthy people who harm the economy by exploiting workers, by tax evasion or offshore banking. Or the finance industry, who never lend money to people who actually desperately need it. Banks and money lenders generally tend to consider any loan or credit for people with little money as “risky” investment and so, with impeccable logic, they hike up the interest rates. It’s not easy to see how that works out any better in terms of the risk of defaults on payments. Poor people pay much more for their credit because of the credit-scoring, profiteering and institutionalised discrimination and behaviours of the finance industry. 

Thaler doesn’t seem to provide much insight into the context and interdependencies of  behaviours. He simply believes that poverty happens because poor people make “poor choices”. However, being poor means having limited choices in a capitalist society, because it is wealth that creates choice and power, and because complex social and political barriers and institutionalised behaviours compound poverty by closing off possibilities for the poorest to gain an adequate income. It costs a lot more to poor than it costs to be wealthy.

Then of course there are the legal and exploitative loan sharks that are circling people who live in poverty. Provident is one of the largest companies in the UK unsecured lending market. This market targets people for whom banks and credit cards are out of reach – mainly the low paid and people with poor credit histories – and it offers them short-term credit, with a typical APR of 272%. These companies make money by locking people into cycles of debt, interest on debt, late payment charges and interest on late payment charges. The Conservatives talk about “cycles of poverty” as if it’s a matter of poor people’s lifestyle choice. It’s not poor people who create poverty and inequality. It’s the exploitative rich. 

Payday lenders such as Wonga, which sprang up during the financial crash of 2007-08, have more recently counted teachers, nurses and vets among their customers. Payday lenders ratchet up eye-watering interest the longer customers take to repay a loan.

Adrian Beecroft

Vulture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, a major investor in payday lender Wonga, and someone who likes to write draconian emloyment policy for the Conservatives, gave the Conservatives a £50,000 pre-election donation in the week to 6 June. Photograph: Catherine Benson/Reuters

However Thaler shows no interest in the social problems created by immoral greed, exploitation and profiteering of wealthy businesses, who rake in huge amounts of interest because a borrower happens to be poor. Instead he blames the poor for the consequences of those apparently normalised behaviours of the wealthy.

It’s easy to see why Thaler’s work made such an impact on the Conservatives. He’s an academic that provides a justification narrative for Conservative prejudices and draconian policies. He is a free market market advocate and so endorses neoliberalism.  This of course exposes the ideological basis of behavioural economics.

The finance industry’s collective risky behaviours caused a global economic crash, yet Thaler remains supremely unconcerned that his work is being used as a series of techniques of persuasion to enforce public conformity, to impose austerity on the poorest, making them pay for the sins of the wealthy; to politically micromanage and enforce social control within a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, but actually harming many citizens, while leaving the wealthy to continue as they were.

Behavioural economics is therefore a prop for a failing neoliberal system and the status quo. It’s just an extention of a totalising ideology. Neoliberal policies contributed to the global crash, and they are also the key reason why so many people’s standard of living is falling. 

It isn’t therefore in the majority’s best interests to have their “best interests” decided for them.

Conservative scroogenomics: punishing poor people by reducing their lifeline income will miraculously cure their poverty

One technique of persuasion used widely in behavioural economics is framing, which is based on the idea that how choices are presented to citizens affects both behavioural and economic outcomes. The environment in which decisions are made can be shaped to provide “cues” to favour particular choices – “nudges” towards [politically determined] “desirable” behavioural and economic outcomes.

Of course nudge is used disproportionately on poor people, and this asymmetry in the distribution of its use is based on an assumption that people who are poor and need social security support are cognitively “incompetent”, lack mental sophistication, all of which leads to “faulty” and politically undesirable non-neoliberal behaviours.

I’m irresistibly reminded of  B.F Skinner’s draconian laboratory-based rat experiments in operant conditioning, using behavioural reinforcement. We have Skinner to thank for the formal conclusion that punishment can be used to reduce “undesirable” behaviours, though despots and tyrants everywhere had always known this to be so.

All types of bullies, from politics to the playground, are crude behaviourists, after all.

Skinner demonstrated how negative reinforcement works by placing rats in his specially designed operant conditioning chamber, called theSkinner box and then subjected them to an electric shock. As the poor rat moved about the box it was trapped in, by chance it would eventually knock a lever that was purposefully placed. Immediately that it did so, the electric current would be switched off.

The rats quickly “learned” to go straight to the lever after being put in Skinner’s torture chamber a few times. The relief of “escaping” the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action again and again. Skinner subsequently added a reward of food when the lever was pressed.

The Skinner Box represents the environment created within our social security system. It’s enclosed. We don’t enter it by choice. Pressing the lever represents fulfilling welfare conditionality criteria and ultimately, it also represents “work”. The “reward”, once you have figured out what the randomly placed set of conditions are and escaped the ordeal of electrocution, is simply provision for one of your most essential and basic living requirements – food. 

In order to eat, the lab rats first have to navigate through the ordeal, designed by the experimenter. 

Punishment can work either by directly applying a painful or unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially “rewarding” stimulus, for instance, such as food in the Skinner Box.

Or by deducting someone’s lifeline income to punish “undesirable behaviours” such as non-compliance with increasingly draconian and irrational welfare conditionality, aimed at “helping people into work”, by the imposition of hunger and the threat of destitution.

Which of course cannot possibly help anyone into work.  It’s not possible to look for work when you are struggling to meet your basic survival needs. Didn’t Abraham Maslow explain this clearly enough?

Food is essential to survival, surely it should never be provided conditionally, or seen as a reward for navigating an intentionally inflicted ordeal simply to elicit narrow political definitions of compliance and conformity. 

The privatisation of choice. No-one is nudging the choice architects

Of course the government’s explanation of the need for welfare sanctions (“making work pay”) doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, especially once in-work sanctions were introduced. Those on the poorest wages are also punished financially for not “progressing” in work. Yet the fact that work isn’t paying for many people shows that this line of justification for the welfare cuts is utter nonsense.

In-work poverty is a much larger drain on the welfare system than unemployment or disability, and it is created by exploitative employers, executive decision-making and government labor-market deregulation. It not due to any failure of those being paid a pittance for their work. Most of the provision that helped disabled people get back to work has been cut, too. The government is not providing support for people to find work: they are withdrawing it.

The reason that the welfare “reforms” happened is purely about ideological preference, reflecting traditional Tory prejudices. The ultimate aim is to remove social security completely.

Welfare has nothing to do with “rewarding work”. It’s came about to ensure no-one is left unable to meet their basic needs for food, fuel and shelter. How work is rewarded tends to be decided discretely in boardrooms. 

Social security has been redesigned to deter anyone from actually accessing it, because needing such support is deemed “undesirable behaviour”. However, the national insurance scheme was put in place precisely because it was deemed inevitable that at some point in their lives, most citizens would need some support from public services to ensure their welfare, and that their basic survival needs are met.

International research over recent years has indicated that generous welfare systems tend to increase the numbers of people finding work, rather than “disincentivising” them. That a government in a first-world so called liberal democracy considers, and has framed, the provision for fulfilment of basic and essential human survival needs as a “perverse incentive” is frankly terrifying.

Social security was originally designed to ensure that everyone was protected from the worst ravages of unfettered capitalism. To say that we have regressed as a society since then is an understatement. 

Behavioural economics is a technocratic solution to essentially politically created problems. It addresses social problems by simply shifting the blame and responsibility from state to individual. Nudge is increasingly being used to ensure citizens behaviours are compatible with neoliberal ideology.

I also think that the punitive policies being directed at the poorest citizens reflect traditional class-based Conservative prejudices. Labour MP, Laura Pidcock, memorably pointed out the absurdities of the current system, and the relationship between those in power and those being stigmatised, held in contempt, punished and systematically disempowered. (See There Are Fines And Punishments Associated With Most Aspects Of Working Class Life.) 

There are many problems with using punishment as a political instrument of “behavioural change”, such as:

  • Punished behaviour is not forgotten or “unlearned”: it’s  simply suppressed – behaviour may simply revert when punishment is no longer present.
  • Ethical problems as punishments most often entail inflicting a psychological or physical violence on others, without their consent. 
  • There’s a difference between political “persuasion” and state coercion. The path from the former to the latter takes us down a rapidly descending, very slippery slope. Persuasion usually presents opportunity for some dialogue, coercion does not. 
  • No cognitive development or learning opportunities are presented, and so people may well be very confused about why they are being punished. Nudge works only when people are unaware they are being nudged. This requirement for subject naivety forecloses the possibility of informative or instructive dialogue, facilitating development, realising individual potential and of promoting even basic understanding.
  • Causes increased aggression – demonstrates that aggression towards individuals and social groups is an acceptable way to cope with societal problems. It reinforces political authoritarianism. (See Skinner’s frightfully dystopic book: Walden Two, which is a treatise for positivism as much as it is for authoritarianism).
  • It has unintended and harmful consequences. For example, it creates fear that can influence other generalised “undesirable” behaviours.
  • Does not guide toward desired behaviour – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.
  • Who defines what are deviant or “undesirable behaviours”? Who decides what is an appropriate action to take to discourage such behaviours?  How do we prevent unethical solutions? How do we prevent state actions from simply becoming expressions of political authoritarianism and manifestations of a gross abuse of power? Or expressions of eugenic ideologies and policies? 

We ought to have learned through the history of human atrocities that it’s never a good omen when an already politically marginalised social group is singled out for scapegoating, punishment and dehumanisation by a government. 

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Manipulating social behaviour with antisocial motives

Another key technique of persuasion in behavioural economics is the use of “social preferences”. Individuals are inclined to care not just about their own outcomes but also about those of others. The behavioural “insight” (ironically) is that people derive value from fairness, cooperation and/or from conforming to social norms. These motivations may be [and are] used to give intrinsic “incentives” to make particular choices that accommodate neoliberal outcomes.

So the irony is that people’s tendency towards collectivity, cooperation and fairness may be manipulated by choice architects in order to prop up a system that extends competitive individualism, unfairness and inequality from its very core, in order to ensure politically desirable behaviours that support specific socioeconomic outcomes. 

Social norms may be subjected to political “default setting” which manipulates people’s inclination towards social conformity. For example, it has become “common sense” that poor people are poor because of their own behaviours, rather than because of political decision-making and policy impacting on economic conditions and labour market conditions (deregulation, for example).

In the UK, social security recipients have been transformed into folk devils in order to generate moral panic, to legitimise harsh and punitive welfare cuts and to de-empathise and desensitise the public to the awful consequences of this process. This default has been reset using the bombardment of political and media “norm” narratives. To the point where those claiming any support are quite widely considered as deviant and psychologically pathological.

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“Ordeals” have been introduced to the social security system, and can be clearly identified. This isn’t “nudging”, it is a political clobbering. The endless re-assessments and withdrawals of support for disabled people; the introduction of heavily bureaucratic mandatory reviews, designed to deter appeals; the withdrawal of support and the long periods people are being left without any means of meeting even basic needs; the constant threat of and increased use of much harsher welfare sanctions and so on.

Then there are the unofficial, undeclared and non-legislative means that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) frequently use to try at every opportunity to end claims. For example, it’s fairly common for the DWP to try to end ESA claims because a disabled person has been awarded PIP – a non means-tested income to support day-to-day independence and meet the costs of the additional needs arising because of disabilities. The DWP often try to claim that this is “standard” process when someone has “another award.” But PIP does not affect your eligibility for ESA at all.

The tactic is designed to force disabled people to go through the thoroughly demoralisng, anxiety-provoking and punitive claim process all over again – which means a reduction in income because they will then only be eligible for the basic rate ESA. This also means there will be another long wait for another harrowing assessment, which presents a further opportunity for the withdrawal of disability support, and so on. This kind of tactic was probably also designed to ensure that people never feel secure while needing support – a kind of informal Poor Law-styled “deterrence”.

Such irrational and government-created ordeals are absolutely intentional. There are even targets for reducing the number of disability support awards built into the private service providers’ contracts for delivering the assessments.  (See also Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective).

The Conservatives are all on the same page in the Orwellian handbook

I was forced to leave a profession I loved because I became too ill to continue working. My GP had to provide me with a “FIT” note explaining I was NOT fit for work. It’s worth noting the psycholinguistic framing being used here, as the word “fit” at the very least implies that a medical condition is trivial, it will be transient, and won’t be a long-term barrier to work. However, my illness is chronic, progressive and often life-threatening. 

It’s the Conservatves’ post-truth Orwellian approach to political narrative, a tactic that has emerged with the behaviourist turn. Punishment becomes “support”, social control becomes “welfare”, coercion becomes “behavioural economics”, authoritarianism becomes “nudge”, meeting basic survival needs becomes “incentivisation”.

“Employment and Support Allowance” is another example of state psycholinguistic framing and default setting. Despite the fact that ESA is only awarded to sick and disabled people whose doctors and the state (through the privately contracted assessments) have deemed not capable of work, the name suggests that the award is contingent upon people who are too ill to work nonetheless becoming employed.

I was eventually assessed by the state contracted private company Atos and found to be “fit for work”. By this time I was seriously ill. My doctor was outraged at this, and offered his support, so I appealed and won my case. I was placed in Work Related Activity Group (more psycholinguistics in that title, too).

The key message here is that work is the ONLY option for survival. Any work, regardless of whether or not the wage is sufficient to support your living needs. It does not matter if you are ill and disabled, because the government have pared back support and ultimately aim to remove it completely. 

The DWP said I couldn’t have the money I was owed in ESA back pay, following the Tribunal, because, they claimed, I owed them money. And of course I didn’t. It felt like some form of psychological manipulation, like a bullies’ projection technique. This was most definitely intentional, no explanation was ever given for the claim.

It’s almost as if there are some nudge measures in place to ensure that people lower their expectations in terms of the support that the state is obliged to provide with our taxes and national insurance contributions. Why, it’s as if nudge has become a part of a totalising neoliberal ideology. 

It’s as if the government ultimately aims to completely dismantle our social security system. One of the necessary stages along the way to fulfilling that aim is to make sure people no longer feel “secure” in their right to support. Part of that stage is to normalise the steady reduction in supportive provision, one cut at a time. Another prerequisite is the desensitisation of the public to the plight of those being abandoned by the state, by using norm setting and stigmatisation. Finally, it’s necessary to ensure that all routes of  challenge and redress are blocked by, say, coordinating the removal of public services with abolishing legal aid, restricting access to justice and simply ignoring protective legislations such as the Equality and Human Rights Act, dimissing them publicly as a “bureaucratic burden”.

 I did get the back pay soon after several phone calls and a demand for evidence of the “debt”. It was yet another pointless and designed “ordeal”. I was not provided with any explanation of the “error” regarding the non-existent debt.

However, just 3 months after winning the appeal, I received an appointment from the DWP for another ESA assessment. My illness is lifelong, chronic and progressive. The reassessment was of course another ordeal. This is a fairly standard tactic from the DWP, and I am far from alone in experiencing this particular ordeal.

I’m too ill to work, yet the government tell me that “work is the only route out of poverty”. They also tell me that the assessments and other barriers to my support are to ensure that “those most in need” are targeted, and to “protect the public purse”. The fact that there are people dying because they weren’t assessed as being in the “greatest need” of support illustrates very painfully that these politically expedient comments are untrue. 

The government is spending millions of pounds of our money on private profit-seeking companies to administer a system of “incentives” (punishments and ordeals) to coerce our most vulnerable citizens to somehow work or starve and face destitution.

My GP, my consultants, a Tribunal panel, and at the last assessment, Atos, have all said I am not well enough to work. The ordeals that the state has added to my “support” has exacerbated my illness, moving me further, not nearer, to any employment I may have found had I been supported rather than made to face state manufactured ordeal after ordeal.

There is no economic need or justification for welfare cuts. Nor does the systematic scaling back of the welfare state, and the Skinnerian punitive approach, come cheap. 

The political misuse of psychology costs a lot to plan, coordinate and administrate, in terms of costs for government advisors, willing academics, rogue multinationals and thinktanks, to create justification narratives, superficially feasible theoretical frameworks, and creating a technocratic lexicon that draws on pseudoscience, psychobabble, managementspeak and “common sense”. Those employed to do the administrative dirty work also require a salary. The motivation is entirely ideological.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has already indicated that the welfare “reforms” have cost far more money to implement than they have actually saved. (See Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.”)

For some of us, the Conservatives “long term economic plan” is the road to hell. “Economic competence” has come to mean simply stealing money from the poorest citizens, disdainful moralising about why people are poor and making sick and disabled people suffer. We have witnesed our public funds being handed out to a very wealthy minority in generous tax cuts, who take that money out of the economy and hoard it in private bank accounts.

The rich have their discrete creature comforts, a life of looking the other way, a culture of entitlement, offshore money trees, and a dialogue with the government. The poor have rent arrears, huge debts, eviction notices, hunger and a maximum of 3 visits a year to food banks, if they are referred by a professional. The government doesn’t engage with us, it simply acts upon us as if we were lab rats.

Handing out our public wealth to greedy vulture capitalists isn’t good economics, it’s corruption. It’s not good management of our resources or the economy. 

Being poor is itself an ordeal. 

Yet the government say they expect the use of financial deprivation (sanctions and austerity cuts) to work as a way of “incentivising” people not to be poor. If that actually worked, poor people would have already learned not to be poor. 

Taking money from poor people as a punishment for being poor will simply deepen their poverty and further limit their potential to increase their income, since struggling to survive is pretty time and effort consuming.  Meeting basic survival needs becomes the sole cognitive priority when people are deprived of the means of doing so.

So, you can’t simply punish someone into not being ill or poor. Yet the UK government continues to attempt to do so. This is a particularly irrational approach, reflecting a monstrous form of tyranny. 

Being poor, sick and disabled in the UK under a Conservative government is rather like being married to multiple abusive and gaslighting partners from whom there is absolutely no escape, ever.

It’s a relentless ordeal.

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How political ideology informs “science”. Graphic From Test, Learn, Adapt, a paper by the British government’s Behavioural Insights Team. Photo: Supplied

The simplistic, reductive design of a “behavioural” randomised controlled trial, shown with a test of a new “back to work” programme. There is no category that includes those who cannot work because they are too ill. Or any account of socioeconomic and political factors that may influence labor market conditions or individual circumstances. There is no scope for examining the quality, security and income that work provides (or doesn’t). It’s a very reductionist and deterministic “cause and effect” approach to public policy. Work fare is simply expected to somehow put people into work, and that is the only “route out of poverty”. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

The graphic illustrating the nudge “Intervention” and “Control” groups is itself a nudge – it also has a nudge built into it. There are more green “found work” graphics in the “intervention” – which implies that the “intervention” always works. In a genuine Randomised Control Trial (RCT) there is no guarantee that the experimental “intervention” will work – hence the need for a trial. 

There is no potential for dialogue, qualitative feedback, consideration or measure of citizens’ complexity, dignity or wellbeing. It is simply assumed that any work is the only possible outcome. The government work programme presents an imposing, rigid and restrictive choice architecture – there are just two options. Work or face severe, punitive sanctions. There is no opt out opportunity. There are significant ethical considerations raised because subjects are not participating on the basis of informed consent.

There are also implications for democracy. We don’t elect governments to change our perceptions and behaviours by stealth to suit their ideological agendas. In a first world democracy, it is expected that governments ensure all citizens can meet their basic survival needs. The Conservatives are failing to fulfil that function.

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

 


 

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

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Woman was too scared to leave job centre during a heart attack as she feared being sanctioned

Salena Hannah (Photo: Adam Sorenson)

A woman who suffered a heart attack during a job centre in-work progression interview has said she was too scared to get up and leave to get medical help as she was afraid of ­losing her benefits. Salena Hannah, who works part-time, says that she had the attack during her appointment, but was ignored by the “callous” job centre interviewer.

She explained: “I had been suffering with chest pains for about two weeks and took a couple of sprays of GTN spray, to help with my angina, before I walked in to meet my interviewer.

“My job is under 16 hours, so I am forced to attend regular meetings, or my benefits might be stopped.

“I was feeling some really bad pains in my chest and I told her at least two or three times that I was in agony, but she was just so callous, she just kept ignoring me.

“I said I needed to go to the NHS walk-in centre immediately, but it fell on deaf ears. I was living in fear of being sanctioned and just felt trapped. I didn’t think I could leave or I would be sanctioned.”

Salena says she was forced to endure a 40-minute interview, while sweating profusely and suffering chest pains.

As soon as she left the interview, she went straight to a nearby NHS walk-in centre, where medics immediately called an ambulance and took her to hospital.

Blood tests revealed she had suffered a heart attack and she had to have surgery to have two stents inserted into her arteries.

Although Salina was discharged after three days in hospital, she suffered serious chest pains an hour after she got home, and had to return to hospital, where doctors inserted three more stents.

Salina is now recovering at home but is struggling for breath and feels constantly weak.

She said: “I was just dreading getting sanctioned. I just would not be able to afford to live if that happened, so pain or no pain, I had to endure that meeting.

“It is unbelievable how cruel the sanction scheme can be to people like me. It is almost like they are trained to be unfeeling.

Is that what Britain is coming to these days under a Tory Government?”

Salena, a mum of four, is bringing up her two grandsons aged 14 and 10 on her own. Had she been sanctioned, she would not have been able to provide for their basic needs.

At the time of her heart attack, she was working in a chip shop and was in receipt of JSA and housing benefit.

Last year, the The National Audit Office launched a scathing attack on the benefit sanctions system, saying that punishing people for “non-compliance” with welfare conditionality does more harm than good and costs more to enforce than it saves. There is no evidence that the pointlessly cruel welfare sanctions work at all. 

The report said that withholding benefits, which is now very commonplace, plunges claimants into hardship, hunger and depression. It also seriously jeopardises their health, since sanctions leave people without the means to meet the costs of food, fuel and often, shelter – and these are fundamental survival needs.

Dr Wanda Wyporska, director of The Equality Trust, said: “It’s disgusting to see how some of the most vulnerable people in society are treated.

“Our social security system is being slowly eroded and further cuts will see the poorest families hit even harder.”

Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB, said: “You have to wonder if all compassion has been completely ripped from our system by continued austerity and cuts to frontline services.”

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said: “We would always encourage claimants who suddenly fall ill to seek medical attention, or to speak to a member of staff for assistance.”

The Department, however, is not focused not on helping individuals but on cutting welfare expenditure while hitting targets for doing so. 

In February, employer relationship manager at Jobcentre Plus in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, who is based at the branch featured in the film I, Daniel Blake, said: “I, Daniel Blake is a representation … I hope people don’t think the film is a documentary, because it’s a story that doesn’t represent the reality we work in.”

“My team and I try to treat people as individuals, and we care about the work we do,” he told the Guardian. “There will be times when we get it wrong, but I don’t believe we are ever as wrong as how we are portrayed in this film.

“I remember talking about the film in the canteen. We were concerned about how it might affect our relationship with the people we were trying to help find work. How would they react to it?”

Ken Loach, however, defended the authenticity and realism of the film’s content. “I challenge anyone to find a single word in that film that isn’t true,” he said.

I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a joiner who has had a heart attack, and is no longer able to work. However, he becomes caught up in the nightmare bureacracy of the welfare state, is passed as “fit for work” at his work capability assessment, and is told he has to look for work. He suffers a second fatal heart attack just before his tribunal, as a consequence of the sustained psychological distress and strain he experiences because of the punitive Conservative welfare “reforms”. 

Damian Green, the work and pensions secretary, said the film was “monstrously unfair” – though he added he had not seen it. 

I wonder if Green considers his department’s lies “monstrously unfair”. For example, in August 2015, the DWP admitted to using fictional stories from made-up claimants on leaflets, despicably advertising the “positive impact” of benefit sanctions, following a Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly, claiming that they were for “illustrative purposes only” and admitting that it was “quite wrong” to pass these off as genuine quotes.

Later that month figures were released which showed that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,650 people died shortly after their Work Capability Assessment told them that they should be finding workThe DWP had fought hard for the figures not to be released, with chief minister Iain Duncan Smith at one point telling Parliament that they did not exist.

Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health by Oxford University and Liverpool University, showed there were an additional 590 suicides between 2010 and 2013 in areas where Work Capability Assessments (WCA) were carried out. The researchers say that the DWP had introduced the policy of moving people off benefits without understanding the consequences. The research showed a correlation between worsening mental health and the assessments. The DWP of course denied the evidenced correlation between suicides and the WCA. 

I, Daniel Blake has been criticised by some media commentators, such as Toby Young (the Daily Mail) and the Sunday Times film critic Camilla Long who said it did not “ring true”. However, Hayley Squires, who plays a single mother in the film, said it showed “the absolute truth of what’s happening to millions of British people in this country” and accused Young and Long of “irresponsible journalism”.

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 to support themselves and their families – “incentivise people into work.”

In a report titled Benefit Conditionality and Sanctions in Salford – One Year on, it was concluded that, far from than “incentivising” people to move into work, the sanctions regime actually serves as a demotivator and barrier, preventing people from engaging in appropriate training, volunteering and employment-related activities.

Furthermore, the sudden loss of income caused by removing benefits – through the imposition of a punitive sanctions regime – often damages people’s mental health, creates tensions within family relationships and may cause individuals to turn to crime in order to meet their basic survival needs.

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.” Or for looking for more hours of work.

The cruel and inhumane way that Salena Hannah was treated by a job centre “advisor”, and the fear and dread that she felt at the prospect of being sanctioned, is real.

Susan Roberts’ despair following her PIP application being refused, which led to her suicide, was real.

David Clapson’s awful death, which was the result of grotesque government policies, is real.

David Sugg, who was so afraid of the catastrophic health impacts that the strain of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) may have had on him, left a letter for the local coroner, to be opened in the event of his sudden death. He feared the assessment would kill him. That is real.

George Vranjkovic’s extreme anxiety, agitation and fear facing the WCA, which he knows is designed to try and cut costs and take lifeline support from sick and disabled people, is real. He lost his lifeline support for six months previously. His panic attack the night before the WCA is real. 

A man who was forced to give up work with heart problems had his benefits stopped for failing to complete a WCA – after suffering a heart attack during the examination. That is real.

Sheila Holt, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was sectioned after being taken off Income Support. Days later she had a heart attack and fell into the coma. Nonetheless, she was sent a letter by Atos to ask why she was not working. That really happened. 

I co-run a support group on Facebook for sick and disabled people claiming disability benefits. I know from the accounts and everyday experience of many others just how stressful the assessment process is. It’s a terrible and shameful state of affairs when people who are already struggling with severe health problems are made even more vulnerable because of callous cost-cutting government policies. That is real.

It needs to change. That is real.

We are all, potentially, Daniel Blakes. That is real.

Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake. (Mongrel Media)


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. The budget didn’t do me any favours at all.

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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Woman sanctioned after miscarriage was left in poverty and suicidal

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A woman was left with just £24 each week of her social security to live on after suffering a miscarriage and being sanctioned. She has told the Daily Record how she considered suicide after being left with barely anything to buy food and pay bills.

Lyndsey Turnbull told of her ordeal as the Scottish Government formally launched their new welfare-to-work programmes.

Lyndsey from Midlothian, said: “I wanted to get into work but the whole thing seemed geared up to punish those who wanted to get off benefits.”

She was on approximately £140 a fortnight Employment and Support Allowance when she missed an appointment after having a miscarriage around nine weeks into a pregnancy.

She said: “I was in a bad place and couldn’t talk to anyone about it.”

Lyndsey was sanctioned because was too distressed to disclose the reason for missing the appointment, which is absolutely understandable. However, the punitive sanctions framework does not accommodate people’s circumstances and situations when they may be very vulnerable.

Having to face a stern and unsupportive bureaucrat, whose role is to discipline and punish people who cannot comply with rigid welfare conditionality, to discuss deeply personal and distressing circumstances – and such a traumatic event as miscarriage – is the very last thing anyone needs. 

She added: “I went down to £24. I had no food, nothing to pay bills. It was awful.

“I really thought suicide might be the only option – and I wondered how many people would be just like me.”

Fortunately, Lyndsey eventually found someone to talk to at welfare service group Working Links, who helped her to get a second sanction reduced.

She later found a job at a petrol station and she said the new system’s voluntary focus will make it easier for people to get off benefits.

Lyndsey courageously contributed to a group meeting with Scottish National Party (SNP) Employability Minister Jamie Hepburn, to explain the problems she faced with the UK Department for Work and Pension sanctions regime.

Holyrood has no control over major benefits policy. However the new Scottish programmes will be voluntary – with no financial penalties attached – in a bid to get better results.

In other words, they will be genuinely supportive, rather than punitive and mandatory.

Around 4,800 people with disabilities and health conditions will get some help into work, the Daily Record reports.

Employment support is one of the first powers devolved through the Scotland Act 2016, made possible by the Vow of more powers before the independence vote.

Work First Scotland will help 3300 disabled people while Work Able Scotland will focus on 1500 people with long-term health conditions.

The Record revealed last year that the SNP would block any bid by Westminster to impose a sanctions system on the new programmes.

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Batul Hassan, 49, who also met Hepburn yesterday, was made redundant after 11 years at a local authority and was helped into work by Remploy.

She has dyslexia, dyspraxia and hearing problems and said her previous employer struggled to understand her needs.

Batul, from Edinburgh, added: “The new system has the potential to be a good thing.

“Two contracts mean people can move at the right pace, not lumped together.”

Hepburn said: “The devolved services will have fairness, dignity and respect at their core.

“We believe people will see them as an opportunity to gain new skills through supportive training and coaching.”

The Conservatives have clearly changed the meaning of words such as “fairness”, “support” and “respect”, in order to persuade the public that their punitive policies are somehow acceptable, and to deny the negative consequences they have on people who need the most support.

They are not acceptable.

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. 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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Mental Wealth Alliance response to the psy professional bodies’ statement on benefit sanctions and mental health

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The British Psychological Society (BPS) has responded jointly with other psychological bodies to call on the UK Government to suspend its cruel and degrading benefit sanctions regime.

The BPS say that the government should suspend its benefit sanctions system as it fails to get people back to work and damages their mental health. s

The professional bodies highlight evidence that sanctions, or the threat of sanctions (benefit cuts following a claimant’s failure to comply with jobcentre conditions, e.g. missing an appointment with their work coach) can result in destitution, hardship, widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.

The call came in a joint response to the Government’s consultation, ‘Improving Lives’, from the British Psychological Society, the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Psychoanalytic Council, the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies and the UK Council for Psychotherapy.

Findings from the National Audit Office  show that there is limited evidence the sanctions system actually works, or is cost effective. The bodies argue that the Government needs to change focus from trying to make unemployment less attractive, to trying to make employment more attractive.

BPS President Professor Peter Kinderman said:

“We call for the benefits sanctions regime to be suspended until the completion of an independent review of their impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing

While there is evidence that the sanctions process is undermining mental health and wellbeing, there is no clear evidence that it leads to increased employment.  Vulnerable people with specific multiple and complex needs are being disproportionately affected by the increased use of sanctions.”

In order to improve mental health, the bodies have also called for:

  • Jobcentres to care about the quality of work they provide – citing evidence that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.
  • The development of statutory support for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.
  • Increased mental health awareness training for jobcentre staff.
  • Review and reform of the work capability assessment (WCA), which may be psychologically damaging, and lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness. 

The Mental Wealth Alliance have written a response to the collective statement on benefit sanctions and mental health:

Source: the free psychotherapy network

From:

Mental Wealth Alliance [1]

 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; Social Work Action Network (Mental Health Charter); National Unemployed Workers Combine; Merseyside County Association of Trades Union Councils; Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network; Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network; National Health Action Party.

To:

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

British Psychoanalytic Council

British Psychological Society

United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy

30th January 2017

MWA response to the psy professional bodies’ statement on benefit sanctions and mental health  30th November 2016

We welcome the call from the psychological therapy bodies for the government to suspend the use of sanctions by the DWP subject to the outcomes of an independent review of its welfare policies and their potential damage to the mental health of benefit claimants. Given the accumulation of evidence over many years of the material and psychological suffering inflicted on benefit claimants by workfare-based conditionality[2], it has been frankly shocking that the professional bodies directly concerned with the mental health of the nation have preferred to welcome and participate in workfare policies rather than publicly and vociferously dissociate themselves.

The timing of the statement is given to be the recent report on sanctions by the National Audit Office. Welcome as its report is, the NAO’s perspective on government policy is primarily monetary, not one of health, ethics and social justice. Its “vision is to help the nation spend wisely”.  The choice of this timing represents realpolitik on the part of the professional bodies no doubt, as perhaps is the intention of the conditional statement: “The sanctions process may be detrimental to people’s mental health and wellbeing”. But surely as psychotherapists and counsellors we can do better to represent the overwhelming evidence of personal suffering on such a scale than point to poor returns on expenditure and an ambivalent proposal that sanctions may be detrimental to people’s mental health.

Sanctions are only one dimension, albeit at the sharp end, of a welfare regime based on the political assertion that people need to be coerced off benefits and “nudged” into work. The psychological pressure of WCA and PIP assessments, job search rules, work programmes on “good employee” behaviours and the regular cuts to welfare benefits generally are part and parcel of the psycho-compulsion of the DWP benefits regime.[3]

We dispute the government’s premise that work is a therapeutic priority for people suffering from mental health difficulties. The marshalling of evidence for this modern-day workhouse mentality lacks both substance and integrity. Work has become the ideological mantra for neoliberal welfare policies.

Obviously where people want to work and where employment possibilities exist that will support and nourish people’s mental health, then encouragement, training and professional support should be available. But why is there no acknowledgement of the hundreds of thousands of claimants with mental health difficulties who cannot work, whether they want to or not?[4] Where is the evidence that people with mental health difficulties are actually benefiting from what is now two decades of workfare conditionality in the UK? Where is the evidence that in our current labour market decent jobs exist that will nourish people’s mental health? And where is the evidence that psychological therapy for benefit claimants with long-term mental health disabilities succeeds in supporting them into decent jobs they want, can survive and maintain?

When the professional bodies say, “an estimated 86-90% of people with mental health conditions that are not in employment want to work”, they are supporting the proposition that getting into work is an overwhelmingly important and efficacious goal for this group of benefit claimants. It is not clear where this figure comes from and what it means.

A similar figure is quoted by The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report on Mental Health and Work (2013)[5], making use of a Sheffield study by J. Secker and others (2001)[6]. In fact, Secker finds that of their sample of 149 unemployed service users, when asked if they were interested in work of any kind – including voluntary and supported work –  “around half (47%) responded positively, and almost the same proportion (43%) had a tentative interest. Only 15 people (10%) had no interest in work”. At the same time, only 25% of respondents saw full-time employment as a long-term goal. 71% said that their preferred vocational assistance would be “help for mental health/keep current service”.[7]

This study does not translate into “86-90% of people with mental health conditions that are not in employment want to work”.[8] What it points to is the complex texture of attitudes, desires and fears around waged work that are the common experience of service users, alongside the harsh realities of the current labour market, the socio-economic environment generally, and the dire state of mental health services of all kinds more particularly.[9]

From our point of view, the professional bodies’ statement is a step in the right direction. It is a step that must now be followed through with active political pressure on the DWP and the Dept of Health to suspend sanctions and set up an independent review of their use, including the damage they inflict on people’s mental health.  Parliament has already called for such a review.[10]

But more than this, the remit of such a review should include all aspects of conditionality in a benefits system that deploy psycho-compulsion through mandatory rules or through the more subtle imposition of behavioural norms which aim to override the claimant’s voice.

We again suggest that the psy professional bodies would benefit by widening their own conversations to include service users and the rank and file of their membership. They would also win more credibility as organisations with ethical and social values independent of the government’s policies of dismantlement of social security and the welfare state if they were willing to make transparent their currently private conversations with DWP.

 


 

[1] Mental Wealth Alliance (MWA), formerly the Mental Wealth Foundation, is a broad, inclusive coalition of professional, grassroots, academic and survivor campaigns and movements. We bear collective witness and support collective action in response to the destructive impact of the new paradigm in health, social care, welfare and employment. We oppose the individualisation and medicalisation of the social, political and material causes of hardship and distress, which are increasing as a result of austerity cuts to services and welfare and the unjust shift of responsibility onto people on low incomes and welfare benefits. Our recent conference focused on Welfare Reforms and Mental Health, Resisting the Impact of Sanctions, Assessments and Psychological Coercion.

[2] Parliamentary committees, the national press, endless reports from charities, service user organisations, people with disabilities, claimants unions and workfare campaigners have been reporting the physical and psychological damage of ‘welfare reform’ and its tragic outcomes for a decade.

[3] On psycho-compulsion and the benefits system see Friedli and Stearn http://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40.full and https://vimeo.com/157125824

[4] In February 2015 over a million people claiming ESA under a MH diagnosis were in either the Support Group or WRAG. Over 70% of new applicants for ESA are found unfit for work

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470545/3307-2015.pdf

[5]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/212266/hwwb-mental-health-and-work.pdf p.17

[6] Secker, J., Grove, B. & Seebohm, P. (2001) Challenging barriers to employment, training and education for mental health service users. The service users’ perspective. London: Institute for Applied Health & Social Policy, King’s College London.

[7] Ibid, pp. 397-399

[8] Compare a DWP survey of disabled working age benefit claimants in 2013. 56% of 1,349 respondents agreed that they wanted to work. Only 15% agreed that they were currently able to work. Only 23% agreed that having a job would be beneficial for their health. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/224543/ihr_16_v2.pdf

[9] For example, some of this complexity is flagged by Blank, Harries and Reynolds (2012) The meaning and experience of work in the context of severe and enduring mental health problems: An interpretative phenomenological analysis Work: 47 45(3)    “Stigma, the disclosure of a mental health problem and the symptoms of the mental health problem are frequently described, as well as feelings of hopelessness, seeing recovery as uncertain, and feeling a lack of encouragement from services. Difficulties in accessing occupational health services, having a disjointed work history, lack of work experience, age, lack of motivation and fears about competency, as well as the social benefits system and caring commitments, are also experienced as barriers to accessing employment for people with mental health problems.”

[10] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news/benefit-sanctions-report

 


 

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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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