Tag: Universal Credit

Amber Rudd’s masterclass in Doublespeak

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Yesterday, heartless Amber Rudd was accused of shrugging off ‘heartbreaking’ Universal Credit experiences and stories by suggesting they are about only “one or two” people. 

This is a government who tell us with a straight face that inflicting absolute poverty on the poorest citizens is somehow going to make them less poor. This ideological framework is also imposed upon people in low paid work, struggling to meet their basic living costs. So the government slogan “making work pay” is meaningless Orwellian tosh, as is the Conservative’s longstanding ‘culture of dependency’ thesis and ideological justification narrative for inflicting devastating cuts on those who can least manage to get by. 

The Work and Pensions Secretary made the outrageous comments after being confronted by the Mirror about flaws in Universal Credit.

For years many of us have published articles ranging from flaws in the social security system, affecting millions, to struggling readers who’ve been forced to food banks, as well as administrative ineptitude and bullying that has often had catastrophic consequences. The roll out of Universal Credit has caused hunger, destitution, deaths and suicides, let’s be frank and pay some attention to the empirical evidence, rather than expedient ideological soundbites.  

Amber Rudd told the Mirror: “Some of the criticisms that have come from various publications have been based on one or two particular individuals where the advice hasn’t worked for them.”

That statement flies in the face of empirical evidence. On this site alone there are MANY individual accounts of the harms arising as a result of Universal Credit. And to claim the reason for these harms is because “the advice hasn’t worked or them” is a serious and disgusting trivialisation of the psychological distress and trauma, the deaths, suicides, rising numbers of those facing hunger, hardship, and destitution that Universal Credit, combined with such systematic government denial and indifference, is causing.

She added: “But in the vast majority of cases, and I would urge everybody who hasn’t to take the opportunity to speak to work coaches, the sort of support that individuals get is a completely different approach to what they had previously.”

Yes. It’s not actually support. It’s a programme of discipline, coercion and punishment.

However it isn’t work coaches who have to live with the consequences of a system that was designed to be an increasingly standardised Conservative hostile environment. The government seem to believe that publicly funded public services should serve as a deterrent to people needing support from the public services they have paid into. 

What matters most is the accounts of citizens, which tell their experiences of the system, not of those administrating it. But citizens’ voices are being intentionally stifled, edited out and worse, their accounts are being re-written by politically expedient civil servants and government ministers. This presentation of ideological fictions and the use of gaslighting techniques is usually the preserve of totalitarian regimes, it’s not the behaviour one would expect of a democratic government in a so-called liberal society. 

Governments with such limited social intelligence don’t lie very convincingly, but they do tend to be hard faced and tenacious. The real horror is their utter indifference and lack of responsiveness: that they really don’t care. They continue to demand our suspension of belief and dizzying cognitive dissonance. The relationship between citizen and state is one of abuse, founded on gaslighting strategies.

Rudd added: “And it is delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

Sure. The kind of “professionalism, care and compassion” that leaves a terminally ill man without sufficient support to meet his most basic needs, or that leaves a pregnant mother in extreme hardship, homeless, and resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Or one that pushes people towards suicide.

There is very little empirical evidence of the “professionalism, care and compassion” that Rudd claims. Furthermore, the trivialisation and persistent denials of the harm, distress and extreme hardship that is being inflicted on people because of government policies are all utterly unacceptable behaviours from a government minister, reflecting a profound spite within policy design, a profound lack of political accountability and a profound indifference for the consequences of these behaviours on the lives of ordinary people.

In fact, former Universal Credit staff reveal call targets and ‘deflection scripts, which means staff having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

One whistleblower said that her role often felt adversarial. She said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.” That’s a very strange kind of “compassion.”

As researchers have concluded, Universal Credit is a complicated, dysfunctional and punitive’ system that makes people increasingly anxious, distressed, with some of the most vulnerable citizens in the UK being pushed to consider suicide, and it ‘simply doesn’t work.’ (See Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchersfor example).

devastating National Audit Office report last year about Universal Credit concluded that the DWP was institutionally defensive and prone to dismissing uncomfortable evidence of operational problems. Welfare secretary at the time, Esther McVey, felt the need to make a speech in July in which she promised that where problems arose in future the department would “put our hands up, [and] admit things might not be be going right”.

It’s also clear – in the words of the public accounts committee – that there is a “culture of indifference” within the DWP and wider government.

It’s time that government ministers started to listen to citizens’ voices, to service users – as well as campaigners, researchers, charities and the opposition Parties. And the United Nations – instead of presenting denials that policies are seriously harming people. But there is every indication that they won’t. 

Universal Credit’s malign effects are obvious to anyone who actually looks, and is willing to listen to the voices of those affected by this punitive, mean-spirited and fixated, theory-laden, ideologically driven, miserly provision, that was, at the end of the day, paid for by the very public who are claiming it.

Labour MP Maria Eagle flatly stated that Rudd’s comments are “not true” and are “out of touch”.

She said: “The entire design of the system puts people in debt and the benefit cuts accompanying its introduction have made it far worse.” 

Rudd was questioned by the Mirror after she said yesterday: “Maybe things that were  proposed previously weren’t effective or weren’t compassionate in the way that I want them to be.”

Mirror journalists asked if she could, ‘hand on heart’, say it was “compassionate” to double UC claimants this year, keep the two-child limit and keep the benefit freeze until 2020.

Rudd did not respond to the question, instead replying: “The overall product that is Universal Credit is absolutely compassionate.”

Product? That’s a very odd word to use for lifeline support – the public services that are our social insurance which people have paid into for those times when they need it. 

And using key words from a government strategic comms crib sheet – James Cleverly among others has also opted for the word ‘compassionate’ to describe the welfare ‘reforms’ – does not make those narratives the reality experienced by citizens who need to access support from public services. Saying it does not make it real. This is something the Conservatives seem to have overlooked – that their narratives don’t match people’s realities. That’s the problem with telling lies – the empirical evidence catches up with you sooner or later.

Starving people and leaving them in destitution is not ‘compassionate’. Using a publicly funded public service to deliver punitive and a blunt, coercive, authoritarian behavioural modification programme is not ‘compassionate’. These are the actions and narratives of a government dipping a toe into the realms of totalitarianism.

Rudd claimed that UC needs to be ‘improved’, including to make it fairer to woman, but also said it was a “vital reform delivering a fair and compassionate welfare system”, “by far the most important and crucial reform” and a “force for good”.

Yesterday, the high court concluded that the Universal Credit assessment is illegal. The first judicial review verdict of Universal Credit found that the cutting of severe disability premiums from those who had previously claimed ESA was discriminatory.  How many more legal changes will it take to make the government act with some decency and observe basic laws and human rights?

Ideological mythologies

Rudd went on to claim, somewhat incoherently, that the ‘old system’ was “broken”, “not a utopia that we should return to” and under Labour someone unemployed could receive “£100,000 housing benefit per year.”

The charity Fullfact submitted a freedom of information (FoI) request to the DWP in 2012, following the same claims from David Freud, among other Conservative minsters, that people claiming social security support were receiving £100,000 housing benefit per year. The figures in the response showed that over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total.

Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total. Previous FoI responses from the Department have suggested around five families were awarded this amount.

Ministers and the media repeatedly failed to highlight what is such a small number of the total, and printed screaming and misleading headlines that were inaccurate, without putting this into a wider context. While the evidence suggests that there are a small number of Housing Benefit claims of more than £100,000 per year –  around five – these cases are very much the exception rather than the rule. Focusing exclusively on these outliers without first putting them into context, where over 80% of claims are below £100 per week, has [intentionally] distorted the debate about welfare, aimed at de-empathising the public and providing a justification narrative for cuts.  

Other information drawn from the FoI request found that larger claims tended to come from larger families, and the average household size for people claiming over £40,000 was six. For more details, do check out the numbers in the request itself, which is available here.

People weren’t suffering profound distress, hunger, destitution, suicide ideation and dying because of the ‘old system’.

Perhaps ‘utopias’ are relative. What we are currently witnessing is not “compassionate” or a “force for the good”: it is the dystopic system of an authoritarian state inflicting punishment, discipline and coercion on our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s a state programme that dispossesses citizens, with catastrophic human costs, to fund the tax cuts demanded by a handful of powerful and wealthy vultures, who live lavishly within a culture of entitlement, while the rest of us are increasingly impoverished.

facade-welfare

Amber Rudd claims that Universal Credit is ‘compassionate’. She must have been taking lessons in Doublespeak again.

 

I originally published this as part of a larger article. 

 


My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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The DWP left a terminally ill man penniless until after he died

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Jill Fennell and her partner Mark Scholfield. She says: “The benefits system is barbaric and inhumane.” (Image: Jill Fennell/Facebook).

A man who was terminally ill with cancer was forced to spend his final days penniless as he waited for a Universal Credit payment that cruelly arrived the day after he died.

Mark Scholfield was made to endure an eight-week delay for the social security payment before he died, aged just 62, of mouth cancer.

Mark’s partner, Jill Fennell, who was with him for 23 years, said: “When you’ve been given a devastating blow, being told you have terminal cancer, money is the last thing anyone should be worrying about.

“The benefits system is barbaric and inhumane.”

Jill, also 62, said self-employed musician, Mark, was unable to work for two months before he had his diagnosis in February 2017. He was told his condition was terminal, she said, and initially, he was  encouraged to apply for fast-track Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to help him meet the costs of living and pay bills.

However, because he lived in Camberwell, South London, where the government’s controversial flagship failure – Universal Credit – was being rolled out, he was told that he did not qualify for ESA.

Instead he had to apply to Universal Credit (UC). The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) often use Credit Reference Agencies to verify the identity citizens making a claim, but Mark had never had credit, and he was told that must visit a Jobcentre with ID.

Jill said that despite his failing health and diagnosis of terminal cancer, Mark was forced by the DWP to go through a health and work assessment over the phone. She  said that she was distraught, and  left “screaming hysterically down the phone”, asking “did they realise he was dying?”

After five weeks Mark received his first payment, which just about covered rent and council tax, but left him with little to live on. But for the next eight weeks he did not receive any more money, and died on July 19, 2017.

It was only after Mark’s death that Jill discovered an ESA payment had been made a day later, as well as a UC payment.

She said: “Mark had needed the money while he was alive to live his final months in some level of comfort and dignity, but he was denied that.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Mr Scholfield’s friends and family.

“While Mr Scholfield was receiving Universal Credit, we are extremely sorry for the delay in his ESA payment which should have been fast-tracked.”

That response is simply unacceptable. Because this kind of glib, standardised apology for an apology is happening far too frequently, it to reflect any shred of sincerity, meaning, reflection or learning on the part of the DWP.  

Linguistic behaviourism: cruelty is compassion, indifference is care

Yesterday, heartless Amber Rudd was accused of shrugging off ‘heartbreaking’ Universal Credit experiences and stories by suggesting they are about only “one or two” people. 

This is a government who tell us with a straight face that inflicting absolute poverty on the poorest citizens is somehow going to make them less poor. This ideological framework is also imposed upon people in low paid work, struggling to meet their basic living costs. So the government slogan “making work pay” is meaningless Orwellian tosh, as is the Conservative’s longstanding ‘culture of dependency’ thesis and ideological justification narrative for inflicting devastating cuts on those who can least manage to get by. 

The Work and Pensions Secretary made the outrageous comments after being confronted by the Mirror about flaws in Universal Credit.

For years many of us have published articles ranging from flaws in the social security system, affecting millions, to struggling readers who’ve been forced to food banks, as well as administrative ineptitude and bullying that has often had catastrophic consequences. The roll out of Universal Credit has caused hunger, destitution, deaths and suicides, let’s be frank and pay some attention to the empirical evidence, rather than expedient ideological soundbites.  

Amber Rudd told the Mirror: “Some of the criticisms that have come from various publications have been based on one or two particular individuals where the advice hasn’t worked for them.

That statement flies in the face of empirical evidence. On this site alone there are MANY individual accounts of the harms arising as a result of Universal Credit. And to claim the reason for these harms is because “the advice hasn’t worked or them” is a serious and disgusting trivialisation of the psychological distress and trauma, the deaths, suicides, rising numbers of those facing hunger, hardship, and destitution that Universal Credit, combined with such systematic government denial and indifference, is causing.

“But in the vast majority of cases, and I would urge everybody who hasn’t to take the opportunity to speak to work coaches, the sort of support that individuals get is a completely different approach to what they had previously.”

Yes. It’s not actually support. It’s a programme of discipline, coercion and punishment.

However it isn’t work coaches who have to live with the consequences of a system that was designed to be an increasingly standardised Conservative hostile environment. The government seem to believe that publicly funded public services should serve as a deterrent to people needing support from the public services they have paid into. 

What matters most is the accounts of citizens, which tell their experiences of the system, not of those administrating it. But citizens’ voices are being intentionally stifled, edited out and worse, their accounts are being re-written by politically expedient civil servants and government ministers. This presentation of ideological fictions and the use of gaslighting techniques is usually the preserve of totalitarian regimes, it’s not the behaviour one would expect of a democratic government in a so-called liberal society. 

Governments with such limited social intelligence don’t lie very convincingly, but they do tend to be hard faced and tenacious. The real horror is their utter indifference and lack of responsiveness: that they really don’t care. They continue to demand our suspension of belief and dizzying cognitive dissonance. The relationship between citizen and state is one of abuse, founded on gaslighting strategies.

There is very little empirical evidence of the “professionalism, care and compassion” that Rudd claims. Furthermore, the trivialisation and persistent denials of the harm, distress and extreme hardship that is being inflicted on people because of government policies are all utterly unacceptable behaviours from a government minister, reflecting a profound spite within policy design, a profound lack of political accountability and a profound indifference for the consequences of these behaviours on the lives of ordinary people.

Rudd added: “And it is delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

Sure. The kind of “professionalism, care and compassion” that leaves a terminally ill man without sufficient support to meet his most basic needs, or that leaves a pregnant mother in extreme hardship, homeless, and resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Or one that pushes people towards suicide.

And former Universal Credit staff reveal call targets and ‘deflection scripts, which means staff having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

One whistleblower said that her role often felt adversarial. She said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.” That’s a very strange kind of “compassion.”

As researchers have concluded, Universal Credit is a complicated, dysfunctional and punitive’ system that makes people increasingly anxious, distressed, with some of the most vulnerable citizens in the UK being pushed to consider suicide, and it ‘simply doesn’t work.’ (See Universal Credit is a ‘serious threat to public health’ say public health researchersfor example).

A devastating National Audit Office report last year about Universal Credit concluded that the DWP was institutionally defensive and prone to dismissing uncomfortable evidence of operational problems. Welfare secretary at the time, Esther McVey, felt the need to make a speech in July in which she promised that where problems arose in future the department would “put our hands up, [and] admit things might not be be going right”.

It’s also clear – in the words of the public accounts committee – that there is a “culture of indifference” within the DWP and wider government.

It’s time that government ministers started to listen to citizens’ voices, to service users – as well as campaigners, researchers, charities and the opposition Parties. And the United Nations – instead of presenting denials that policies are seriously harming people. But there is every indication that they won’t. 

Universal Credit’s malign effects are obvious to anyone who actually looks, and is willing to listen to the voices of those affected by this punitive, mean-spirited and fixated, theory-laden, ideologically driven, miserly provision, that was, at the end of the day, paid for by the very public who are claiming it.

Labour MP Maria Eagle flatly stated that Rudd’s comments are “not true” and are “out of touch”.

She said: “The entire design of the system puts people in debt and the benefit cuts accompanying its introduction have made it far worse.” 

Rudd was questioned by the Mirror after she said yesterday: “Maybe things that were  proposed previously weren’t effective or weren’t compassionate in the way that I want them to be.”

Mirror journalists asked if she could, ‘hand on heart’, say it was “compassionate” to double UC claimants this year, keep the two-child limit and keep the benefit freeze until 2020.

Rudd did not respond to the question, instead replying: “The overall product that is Universal Credit is absolutely compassionate.”

Product? That’s a very odd word to use for lifeline support – the public services that are our social insurance which people have paid into for those times when they need it. 

And using key words from a government strategic comms crib sheet – James Cleverly among others has also opted for the word ‘compassionate’ to describe the welfare ‘reforms’ – does not make those narratives the reality experienced by citizens who need to access support from public services. Saying it does not make it real. This is something the Conservatives seem to have overlooked – that their narratives don’t match people’s realities. That’s the problem with telling lies – the empirical evidence catches up with you sooner or later.

Starving people and leaving them in destitution is not ‘compassionate’. Using a publicly funded public service to deliver punitive and a blunt, coercive, authoritarian behavioural modification programme is not ‘compassionate’. These are the actions and narratives of a government dipping a toe into the realms of totalitarianism.

Rudd claimed that UC needs to be ‘improved’, including to make it fairer to woman, but also said it was a “vital reform delivering a fair and compassionate welfare system”, “by far the most important and crucial reform” and a “force for good”.

Yesterday, the high court concluded that the Universal Credit assessment is illegal. The first judicial review verdict of Universal Credit found that the cutting of severe disability premiums from those who had previously claimed ESA was discriminatory.  How many more legal changes will it take to make the government act with some decency and observe basic laws and human rights?

Rudd went on to claim, somewhat incoherently, that the ‘old system’ was “broken”, “not a utopia that we should return to” and under Labour someone unemployed could receive “£100,000 housing benefit per year.”

The charity Fullfact submitted a freedom of information (FoI) request to the DWP in 2012, following the same claims from David Freud, among other Conservative minsters, that people claiming social security support were receiving £100,000 housing benefit per year. The figures in the response showed that over four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week (the equivalent of £5,200 per year) according to the September 2010 figures, while only 70 out of over 4.5 million recipients claimed over £1000 per week, around 0.001% of the total.

Even this is likely to overstate the number claiming £100,000 per year however, as a family would need to claim over £1,900 per week to hit this total. Previous FoI responses from the Department have suggested around five families were awarded this amount.

Ministers and the media repeatedly failed to highlight what is such a small number of the total, and printed screaming and misleading headlines that were inaccurate, without putting this into a wider context. While the evidence suggests that there are a small number of Housing Benefit claims of more than £100,000 per year –  around five – these cases are very much the exception rather than the rule. Focusing exclusively on these outliers without first putting them into context, where over 80% of claims are below £100 per week, has [intentionally] distorted the debate about welfare, aimed at de-empathising the public and providing a justification narrative for cuts.  

Other information drawn from the FoI request found that larger claims tended to come from larger families, and the average household size for people claiming over £40,000 was six. For more details, do check out the numbers in the request itself, which is available here.

People weren’t suffering profound distress, hunger, destitution, suicide ideation and dying because of the ‘old system’.

Perhaps ‘utopias’ are relative. What we are currently witnessing is not “compassionate” or a “force for the good”: it is the dystopic system of an authoritarian state inflicting punishment, discipline and coercion on our most vulnerable citizens.

It’s a state programme that dispossesses citizens, with catastrophic human costs, to fund the tax cuts demanded by a handful of powerful and wealthy vultures, who live lavishly within a culture of entitlement, while the rest of us are increasingly impoverished.

facade-welfare

Amber Rudd claims that Universal Credit is ‘compassionate’. She must have been taking lessons in Doublespeak again.


 

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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Woman loses her baby after Universal Credit ‘error’ forced her to sleep in a car park

misccariage _homeless_couple_01

Ryan Gifford and Debbie Ballard, both 23, who were made homeless just before Christmas (Image: Devon Live).

A young couple in Devon were left facing homelessness because of an error with Universal Credit rent payments which resulted in them being forced to sleeping rough. Their distressing circumstances of destitution and severe hardship resulted in Debbie Ballard, aged 23, to suffer a miscarriage.

Debbie and her partner, Ryan Gifford, were forced to spend 15 nights sheltering in a car park after a DWP error meant that an ‘automatic’ rent payment was missed.

The couple say they became homeless just before Christmas. It happened  after being moved onto Universal Credit. A rent payment was missed and their landlord subsequently evicted them.

They are now staying in emergency accommodation, but the terrible damage has already been done as they have lost their unborn child.

Debbie said: “Losing my baby makes me feel like s**t. I feel useless and worthless. And now I have lost another baby.

“I was about six weeks pregnant when we were street homeless in December. I had a miscarriage because of all the stress.

“All we want is a chance for us to be a proper family.”

Before they were evicted, the couple were living in a flat, but were switched onto the new benefits system when they had a row, and Ryan took Debbie off his claim. However, due to the change in circumstance, they were automatically switched onto Universal Credit.

Originally, their rent was paid directly to the landlord but a payment was missed in the changeover and the pair were evicted due to being in arrears.

Debbie said: “We were living in a flat. It was full of mould and rats outside and we had made complaints to the landlords.

“Our Housing Benefit was being paid direct to the landlord but when it switched over to Universal Credit he said we were in arrears and served us with a notice and said he would take us to court.”

The couple say they did not receive any notification letters about the changeover to Universal Credit, and before they realised, their housing benefit was stopped and it was too late.

Debbie said: “It’s too late now. We should have been told that before we were made homeless.

They said it was because of a change in circumstances. We were without money for eight weeks. We were literally begging and borrowing from everybody we knew.

“At the beginning of December, we had 15 days sleeping on the streets because of Universal Credit. We were sleeping in a car park on the harbour. It was really horrible.

“It was so cold at night. If you go down to the bottom car park near the Harvester pub it’s warm in there.

“But there’s an alarm that goes off every 10 minutes for 20 seconds.

“You can’t sleep but it’s warmer.

“We have to pay £20 a time to wash and dry our clothes because there’s no washing facilities in temporary accommodation. Everything is really expensive. It’s really hard.”

Ryan said: “We lost our home when we were switched over to Universal Credit. Now we are expected to live on a joint sum of £161 a month.”

“I want Universal Credit to stop. I think that now Universal Credit is coming in properly it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to be a nightmare.

“Anybody who has a drink or drug habit is going to be shoplifting to feed their habits.”

Debbie and Ryan received support from local homelessness charity People Assisting Torbay’s Homeless, where they now volunteer.

“When we were on the streets you felt like you were taking one step forward and four steps back.

“Now we are in emergency accommodation and we are expected to live on £161 a month.

“I am trying my hardest but I hit barriers everywhere I go.”

PATH chairman Kath Friedrich said: “There is nothing wrong with the theory of Universal Credit. On paper it’s fine.

“But what’s causing all these problems is that all these pre-payment, backdated loans are handed out like sweeties to people who do not have budgeting skills while they are waiting for their Universal Credits.

“Then when they finally get their money all the loans are deducted. We’ve got lots of people coming in here who are only getting £10 a week to live on.

Sometimes they are paying back old loans they didn’t even know they had.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We are working with Mr Gifford to support him with his Universal Credit claim.

“If requested we can arrange for rent to be paid directly to the landlord.”

The Department are very good at delivering ad hoc platitudes that are all to often founded on glib promises of rather too little too late, increasingly frequently with tragic consequences.


 

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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Hello: Which Service, Please?

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Joseph Cornell was an American Surrealist. Possibly less known than Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst but a significant, if invisible, contributor. Cornell worked with assemblage and collage to build tiny Wunderkammer of places he had never visited or people he had never met. Much of his life was defined by caring for his mother and disabled brother. Yet, he managed to keep in contact with international artists and produce a body of work that recycled once beautiful objects into things of beauty and wonder. Cornell worked in a cultural parallel to the creation and production of computer systems: he reused and recycled in innovative ways. He transformed the discarded into desirable objects which tell stories appealing to Art Collectors – works have been sold for $5.3m despite Cornell living in relative poverty for much of his life. Caring has always been costly. 

The Government Digital by Default Strategy seeks to emulate the kind of amplification of effort that Cornell achieved. Published in November 2012, the Strategy has fourteen illuminating action points that define what it is the Government seeks to achieve. In general, the strategic direction being taken is one of transforming government into a flat, lean, low cost, machine; of eliminating anything superfluous to the delivery of the task; of reducing spending by up to £1.8Bn a year; moving all Government Services to a single website. The entire strategy seems utterly marvellous, aspirationally wonderful and easy to achieve in 2012. By 2013 the shiny glint was gone.

Investigation had found that 18% of the population were not willing to go online at all although 6% might be persuaded. This was not deemed to be a death knell for the Strategy because Action Point Nine of the Strategy specifically states, “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

A commitment that was rolled out to the seven key Departments who handle the majority of Central Government transactions: HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Department for Transport (DFT), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Home Office. 

HMRC, being the Department that does most online transactions – and has done even before the Digital By Default Strategy – had a perfectly functional identity checking system. This system had been working and refined since before the debacle of Labour’s Identity Card. Indeed, the HMRC identity check was an aspirational blueprint for the Identity Card. When the Cameron Government came to power, the Identity Card was dumped and, immediately, private companies such as Experian, Equifax, Barclays and others were invited to become “Identity Services Providers”.

Identity Services Providers use the Electoral Register, your credit history, your outstanding debts and your payment history to determine a credit score. For people who use cash – through necessity or decision – this Credit Score is useless. For example, a person who has never had a credit card will fail to have an accurate credit score and a person who buys a house in cash will never have a good credit score. The entire industry of credit scoring is based on the idea that a company can collect all the relevant financial information about someone and be certain the information is correct. Indeed, the early Credit Scoring Industries gained exemptions from the Data Protection Act 1984 to ensure they could collect private information without penalty.

Over the decades the number of people for whom Credit Scoring Industries have accurate information has stabilised at about 30% of the population. Which means, in the shiny world of Digital By Default the Government’s privatised Identity Service Providers cannot identify 30% of the people who need to be identified in order to use Government Digital Services. This is a stark contrast to the HMRC identity checking which identified everybody who participates in the Economy with a success rate of over 97%. 

Digital By Default has a grand set of objectives. Many of them are aimed at reuse and recycling of information in order to flatten Government hierarchies – to shrink the State. Many of them are twaddle that looks good on a Management Consultant’s report but fail when exposed to reality. For example: Action 03 All departments will ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills immediately fails when the development is outsourced. Specialist skills take time to nurture and develop.

Exactly like Commercial Companies, the Government has no desire to pay to train or pay to develop those skills. Which means a rash of Contract Workers and increasingly unfair and unreasonable contract terms. Such as defining Contract Workers as being Workers and therefore to be taxed as Workers but without having any of the Rights associated with Workers because they are contractors. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor niggle. It is, however, a minor niggle that is amplified by technology. Contractors move on seeking the highest payer and leave without completing work and only complete work defined.

The debacle of the Universal Credit Computer Systems demonstrates that poor Management and unreasonable treatment of Skilled Workers ends badly. The Universal Credit System works as defined and has no flexibility to work otherwise because the desire to shrink the State and do everything cheaper overrides any design skills that exist in appropriating, reusing and recycling existing systems. 

The single biggest failing of Digital By Default is that it has been colonised by Nudge Theory. The default of digital is a policy lever that the Government can pull and magically people will be nudged to use the service and so the non-digital alternative will never be required. Which has then informed the reduction of the number of Civil Servants – regardless of practical necessity – in a masterly exemplification of the lump of labour fallacy.

The truth is that the Government has failed to genuinely engage with the Digital By Default Strategy for a wide range of ideologically driven reasons which fetishise Business Best Practice but fails to engage by following one of the stated aims of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader. 

When it came to the Northern Irish Border, the Government simply stated that there would be a technological solution in place. When the European Union asked the most basic of design questions the entire claim fell apart. Not because the European Union was seeking to frustrate anything but because the Government is profoundly ignorant of what Digital actually means. By insisting that Leadership is needed they have circumvented the precise thing that is essential to every digital strategy, public or private: delivery.

The aim of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader only works if All departments [will] ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills. Leadership without delivery is like a Shipping Line without Ships. 

Fundamentally the Digital By Default Strategy is a sales document which short changes the Civil Service and lays out a prospectus of outsourcing. The failure to build any kind of Management structure to ensure that outsourcing delivered the same services, but digitally, is nowhere more obvious than in Universal Credit. A project that has more than 100,000 transactions, according to Digital By Default, fall under Action Two: Services handling over 100,000 transactions each year will be re-designed, operated and improved by a skilled, experienced and empowered Service Manager” and need to be consistent with Action Nine: “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

The evidence is that Universal Credit achieves none of this. Universal Credit is digital only – which means Action Nine can never be achieved. However, Universal Credit can be outsourced as it becomes a “simple endpoint service”. People turn up, log on and claim. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach does not work. The approach automatically excludes that 18% of the population who are not on line and conflates the 6% who can be persuaded to go on line with the 12% who have no means or interest. The failure of the commercial Identity Service Providers to know who 30% of the adult population are raises the exclusion to somewhere between 18% and 48%.

The kind of fetish of Big Data that accompanies the “turn up, log on and claim” approach is quite particular. It is the fetish of demanding more information than is needed because the process fails with insufficient information and can filter out information.

It is normal behaviour in systems development: see what data can be gathered and then move backwards towards what is required; but in Big Data the approach is to overcollect and then see how to monetise the non-essential data. Which has been the essential business model of Credit Checking Agencies who grew out of Catalogues such as Great Universal Stores deciding to monetise their record of debts. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach needs a complete and accurate record of transactions to exist in order to work. That means an accurate record for every person of working age – for working age benefits – in order to function effectively. It is not some end point service like a credit check which simply says yes or no to a question such as does this person have a credit score greater than X? The Digital By Default approach assumes that the complexity of Universal Credit can be a simple endpoint service.

Which is exactly what technical developers sell to their managers when Big Data applications are developed. It can all be simple because a computer can do that. What is rarely discussed is the question: what happens when it goes wrong? 

Action Fourteen: Policy teams will use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public is a statement that every development project – regardless of the development methodology – proposes they will do: consult the end users. The consultation for Universal Credit has not included the Public. It has included the Think Tanks The Institute for Government – whose board of directors include Morgan Stanley Bankers, Former Bank of England Directors, Conservative Politicians and members of the House of Lords – Centre for Social Justice – whose directors include Conservative Politicians, links to American Right Wing pressure groups, a smattering of the Lords and various Right Wing Politicians.

The Consultation with Think Tanks is, in development terms, consulting with the public. But it is not consultation with the End User Community. Morgan Stanley Bankers are unlikely to need to budget to put a fiver’s credit onto the electricity meter in order to make the benefit work. It is, as Developers might say, a low probability use case scenario. 

Which leaves the entire development of Digital By Default firmly outside of the realm of the End Users and with the System Owners. In other words: Universal Credit is not broken. It does what it is designed to do because it does what the consultation discovered was a requirement. Reflect on those who were actually consulted: Right Wing Politicians and Bankers. The same people who created and sustained the 2007 Financial Collapse. Universal Credit does what it is designed to do: eliminate Government Employees, lower the cost of benefits – most frequently by delaying or refusing them – and shrink the use of Government Services in order to have “small government”.

The Digital By Default strategy documents outline the way in which the technical aspirations of the technically illiterate Government can be nudged into amplified effect so that small decisions cascade rapidly, significantly and with increased impact.

The most significant problem with the Digital By Default strategy has been appallingly naive management. From the pathological good news culture at the Department for Work and Pensions that resulted in the delay, cancellation and restarting of the Universal Credit development project to the ending of the existence of the Vehicle Levy Disc. The good news culture of the Universal Credit development project is well documented; but, the more telling is the Vehicle Levy Disc. Coincident with the abolition of the Disc, the revenue from Vehicle Excise Duty began to fall. The loss of the Disc acting as a nudge for people to not commit to payment.

The badge of good citizenship that was embodied in the historic tax disc was simply dumped because the digital service neither needed the disc nor wanted the additional cost of posting out discs. It was a money saving measure that resulted in the loss of the daily nudge: you will need to pay the car tax in three months… …two months… …the end of this month… 

The truth is that the Digital by Default strategy has resulted in services which are Dysfunctional by Default. The public that is consulted is not the End User Community but groups with an ideological, financial and career limiting interest in the outcome. When Cornell built his assemblages he did so in the kitchen, at night, after his brother and mother were safely resting. His biography tells how he would use an open oven for heat and would clear all of his work away before his family awoke. What he understood was the weaving of mythology, the evocation of symbolic exchanges from deep within his audience.

The work of Cornell illustrates that it takes significant efforts to achieve things where there are limits, barriers and powerful, inescapable, constraints in place. There are very few people who can claim the same Artistic Success as Cornell along with the limiting domestic circumstances. Many female artists have been crushed by the existence of the Domestic and there are very, very, very few significant artists with the same constraints as Cornell. 

Which is not to make broad, unsustained, claims about the History of Art but a highlighting of the very real fact that the political policies of the Government are formed and limited by their life experience. The failures of Universal Credit are illustrations that the theory of human nature and existence that underpin the approach are not really applicable to society. The truth is that Computer Systems amplify symbolic, social and political exchanges and can make social existence, literally, unbearable by enforcing political decisions and symbolic exchanges that are utterly alien.

Computer Systems are not just numerical calculation machines but also culture machines. Life is not Digital By Default and where Digital can enrich and enhance Life there is a clear divergence between Government Policy and Life. The underlying drive is to use Digital to remake Society as something that does not really exist. Something that is virtual.

A return to the Thatcherite Mantra: there is no such thing as society. Except, unlike when Thatcher was pandering to the embryonic Credit Reference Agencies, the Government is pandering to organisations who want to monetise all information about everybody. 

The truth is that, Government has ceased to have worldly experiences such as Cornell had. The result is a range of digital services designed to service an ideology which places profit and shareholder value above everything. The system design is already leading to loss of life and to significant patterns of dysfunction in society. Yet, the Digital By Default strategy remains unquestioned. It is leading to wild swings that are, systematically destabilising society and casting us all adrift into the unnatural histories of neoliberalism.

Picture: L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle, Joseph Cornell, 1940.

Article by Hubert Huzzah

The budget will not alleviate inequality, poverty and hardship that government policies have created

Watch Jeremy Corbyn’s excellent response to the budget, while facing the braying, sneering, smirking government. 

Hammond is economical with copies of the Budget 

The Labour party have accused the chancellor Philip Hammond of breaking the ministerial code after opposition parties were not given a copy of the budget in advance. The code states that when a minister makes a statement to MPs in the Commons “a copy of the text of an oral statement should usually be shown to the opposition shortly before it is made”. The rules are that 15 copies and associated documents should be sent to the chief whip’s office at least 45 minutes before a statement. The government have frequently flouted these rules, prefering to follow the rampant authoritarianism protocol of avoiding scrutiny, transparency and above all, democratic accountability

However, a Treasury source claims that there was ‘no official rule’ that other parties should get an early look at budget measures. “We did not do anything differently from what we have been doing for the past 20 years,” the source said. I half expected him to add that the Ministerial Code isn’t really a code, but more a kind of ‘loose guideline’. 

The opposition is said to be considering a formal complaint. 

Austerity has not ended

Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of a U-turn on Theresa May’s party conference pledge that austerity was over. Hammond told MPs that austerity was “coming to an end”. The Labour leader replied: “The prime minister pledged austerity is over. This is a broken promises budget. What we’ve heard today are half measures and quick fixes while austerity grinds on.”

The Labour party also criticised income tax cuts, which it said would favour the better off and said there were no guarantees that government departments would not face further cuts. The Resolution Foundation have also concluded the same. 

Government rattles the Office for Budget Responsibility

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), whose role, unsuprisingly, is to scrutinise the budget are also disgruntled because the government only handed over the final Budget policy measures on 25 October, a day late. This means the OBR hasn’t been able to check that the government’s sums actually add up.

The precise changes to universal credit came too late for the OBR to assess them properly, too. The budget red book says that the roll-out of universal credit is now scheduled to end in December 2023. It says:

In response to feedback on universal credit, the implementation schedule has been updated: it will begin in July 2019, as planned, but will end in December 2023.

But until recently, as this House of Commons library briefing (pdf) reveals, the roll-out was due to end in March 2023.

Officially the government says that, if the UK had to leave the EU with no deal, it could manage. But the OBR doesn’t share this view:

A disorderly one [Brexit] could have severe short-term implications for the economy, the exchange rate, asset prices and the public finances. The scale would be very hard to predict, given the lack of precedent.

The Press Association (PA) reports that the Labour leader said eight years of austerity has “damaged our economy” and delayed the recovery, adding the government has not abandoned the policy despite the chancellor’s latest spending pledges. The PA says:

Leading the response to the budget, Corbyn also said the proposals announced will “not undo the damage done” by the squeeze on spending.

He told the Commons: “The prime minister pledged austerity was over – this is a broken promise budget.

“What we’ve heard today are half measures and quick fixes while austerity grinds on.

“And far from people’s hard work and sacrifices having paid off, as the chancellor claims, this government has frittered it away in ideological tax cuts to the richest in our society.”

Corbyn added: “The government claims austerity has worked so now they can end it.

“That is absolutely the opposite of the truth – austerity needs to end because it has failed.”

Corbyn later said the “precious” NHS is a “thermometer of the wellbeing of our society”, adding: “But the illness is austerity – cuts to social care, failure to invest in housing and slashing of real social security.

“It has one inevitable consequence – people’s health has got worse and demands on the National Health Service have increased.”

Corbyn also condemned the “horrific and vile antisemitic and racist attack” in Pittsburgh, noting: “We stand together with those under threat from the far-right, wherever it may be, anywhere on this planet.”

The Labour leader criticised pay levels for public sector workers, adding: “Every public sector worker deserves a decent pay rise, but 60% of teachers are not getting it – neither are the police nor the Government’s own civil service workers.”

The economy is also being damaged by a “shambolic Brexit”, Corbyn added.”

Elements of the budget have revealed a Conservative party in ideological retreat. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievements as leader of the opposition is the undermining of the neoliberal hegemony and his presentation of an alternative narrative and economic strategy. Personally I am glad that neocon neoliberal Francis Fukuyama didn’t get the last word after all. 

Over the last couple of years, the government have imported policy ideas and adopted rhetoric from the Labour party to use as strategic window dressing. Hammond announced an end to the government signing off on much-loathed private finance initiative contracts – something Corbyn had already promised. As a former Treasury advisor noted:

Originally introduced by John Major, and continued under New Labour, PFIs are essentially a way for the state to finance and then look after new infrastructure. The traditional way for the government to build a new piece of infrastructure, such as a hospital, a school, or a new road bypass, was to raise the money in taxes, or borrow it from the bond markets, and then pay builders to deliver the project. After that, the public sector would own the asset. 

The theoretical justification for Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) is that the private sector is more efficient at delivering and managing infrastructure projects than civil servants. PFI also supposedly transfers the financial risk of a construction project over-running from the public to the private sector. However earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO), released a new report which highlighted a lack of evidence that PFIs offer value for money for taxpayers.

The report followed the collapse of the construction and services firm Carillion which has shone a bright spotlight on the flawed process of  state contracting and outsourcing.

According to the Treasury data there are 716  PFI projects (of which 686 are operational) with a capital value of just under £60bn. Of this total the Department of Health was responsible for £13bn, the Ministry of Defence £9.5bn and the Department of Education £8.6bn.

Hammond pledged a tax crackdown with a UK “digital services tax”, aimed only at multimillion companies rather than startup businesses. On universal credit, the government attempted to neutralise the toxic issues with an extra £1bn to ‘ease issues with its rollout.’

But Hammond’s generous tax cuts to the very wealthiest households indicate that this is still very much a government for the few, not the many. 

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, commented:

The work allowance increase is unequivocally good news for families receiving universal credit but a bigger salvage operation is still needed for the benefit. And bringing forward higher tax allowances – which will cost much more than the universal credit change – will mainly benefit the richest half of the population. We look forward to hearing more detail on how the secretary of state will use the extra £1bn to ease the migration of people on existing benefits to universal credit.

This is crunch time for universal credit. We hope the chancellor’s positive announcements on work allowances will be followed by a pause in the roll-out to allow for a fundamental review of its design and, crucially, for a commitment to restoring all the money that’s been taken out of universal credit.

Final comment:

 


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PMQs showcases a government that is spiteful and Conservative with the truth


In a very wealthy so-called liberal democracy, from 2016 to last year, these are the reasons why people were referred to food banks. The highest number of referals are among the low earners, demonstrating the government’s slogan ‘making work pay’ is a myth. Work does not pay for many. However, the government chooses to gaslight the population about consequences of it’s policies.

Today in Prime Minister’s Questions: 

As my local Labour MP, Kevan Jones quipped: “the Conservatives will be celebrating re-opening workhouses next.”

The spite and malice on the Prime Minister’s face as she responds to the opposition, using blatant and snide playground gestures to intimidate never fails to anger me. It’s disgraceful that the government reduce serious political issues to immature ‘win or lose’ game playing and PR tactics.

The truth is that Universal Credit is not just failing our ‘relative’ contemporary standards of poverty but those of William Beveridge in the 1940s. Conservatives accuse Labour of ‘taking us back to the seventies’, but May’s government have taken us back to the 1940s, and to absolute poverty levels that existed before there was a welfare state. Absolute poverty is when people cannot meet their basic survival needs: food, fuel and shelter. The UK’s publicly funded social security system is no longer an adequate provision for people to meet the costs of their most fundamental and universal human needs. 

This is a government that has demanded the most from those citizens with the very least under the guise of austerity, while handing out public funds to the private banks accounts of the wealthiest.

Theresa May also selectively and maliciously quoted a section of a book – Economics For The Many  – which was edited by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, declaring Labour’s costed manifesto “doesn’t add up”. the Prime Minister went on it to claim the Labour party would “wreck the economy”, but as usual she was being Conservative with the facts.

She attempted to make it look like Professor Simon Wren-Lewis was criticising Labour’s economic strategy, but he wasn’t. The quote mining – a frequently used Conservative strategy to present lies and to mislead parliament and the public – referred to a book chapter May referred to by Wren Lewis , an economist and member of Labour’s Economic Advisory Committee.  Basically the chapter says that Labour will ensure: 

  • The Government is spending less than it takes in in tax within five years
  • Government debt is falling within five years
  • Labour will only borrow for investment and infrastructure, not for day-to-day spending.

Wren Lewis never said that Labour’s manifesto didn’t ‘add up’. He said that other people claimed it didn’t add up. And he said that it didn’t matter.

Wren Lewis notes in the chapter that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)claimed it ‘doesn’t add up’ – which is a very different thing. And actually, the IFS didn’t really say that either. It said that it was “hard to say” whether Labour’s pledge to reduce debt was compatible with their promises of a wave of nationalisations of water and energy.

The IFS said essentially that because the Labour party would transform the economy so radically, it would be impossible to say whether their manifesto costings would be accurate.

It’s a priceless cheek, as well as a malicious attack, especially considering that the Conservatives did not bother to cost their own manifesto at all.

The blatant lie also shows the prime minister’s utter contempt for democracy.

Finally, a word about the Conservative’s crowing regarding ‘their’ employment levels. 

The ‘high employment’ narrative does not benefit citizens, who face zero hour contracts, little employment security and more than half of those people needing to claim welfare support are in work. The Conservative’s definition of ‘employment’ includes people who work as little as one hour a week. It includes carers. It also includes people who have been sanctioned.

Now there is a perverse incentive to furnish a hostile environment of Department for Work and Pensions’ administrative practices in action.

When the Conservatives took office in 2010, on average citizens earned £467 a week. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that we now take home £460 a week. In other words, average wages have gone down in real terms during the eight years of Conservative-Lib Dem and Conservative governments, while the cost of living has risen substantially. It’s a misleading to make these claims at all when weekly earnings are actually 1.3 per cent lower now in real terms than they were when the Conservatives took office in 2010.

Furthermore, the ONS also produced household data suggesting that the true rate of unemployment is 4 times greater than the government’s preferred statistic.

The Conservative’s official definition of unemployment disguises the true rate, of course. In reality, about 21.5% of all working-age people (defined as ages 16 to 64) are without jobs, or 8.83 million people, according to the Office for National Statistics. I know whose statistics I believe, given the Conservative’s track record of abusing figures and telling lies.

Here is more data here on the effect of chronic underemployment of the unemployment rate, and the depressing Conservative reality of the ‘business friendly’ gig economy.

Conservatives being conservative with the truth as ever.

And spiteful.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why sanctions and conditionality cannot possibly work

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

The Minnesota Starvation experiment verified Maslow’s theory. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

A little more about behavioural economics and welfare policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this on page 18:

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

And page 46:

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

The recommendation on that page:

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

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

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

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

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

Techniques of neutralisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related

DWP sanctions have now been branded ‘life-threatening’

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

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

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

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

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

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


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