Down With the Terrorists at the DWP

December 11, 2008

Our savior, James Purnell

Our savior, James Purnell

“Welfare Reform” is back on the agenda in the UK – and it’s causing quite a stir. After a Welfare Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech early in December, the government has released details of its White Paper, which will form the basis of legislation. Both the right and the left, broadly speaking, have been aroused – making for interesting reading.

But the substance of the proposals is potentially devastating to huge numbers of people, making it essential that we on the Left understand both their details and potential consequences. Then we will also be in a better position to take on those who either applaud the proposals as a “step in the right direction” or see them as too timorous, and not harsh enough on Britain’s “dependency culture.”

So what are the proposals exactly?

  • Those on Jobseekers’ Allowance for two years will be expected to show evidence of “full time activity” – supposedly to develop “work habits” – in exchange for the continuation of their benefits
  • This is part of a broader idea that all of those out of work and “able” should make an agreement with the state to seek work, however long that might take
  • This means working with an adviser to formulate an employment plan, but without compulsory community work
  • Those with children over the age of one will have to look for work, or at least “prepare” for work through courses and will have to formulate an “action plan” with advisers. When their youngest child reaches the age of seven, parents will be shifted onto JA, from income support and have to seek work accordingly.
  • For those on Incapacity Benefit, the “most severely disabled will not be expected to work” – raising the question of who is defined as the most severely disabled in society.
  • For those not so defined, if they refuse to take part in work placement schemes, they will be docked benefits.
  • Those with drug or debt problems will have to sign up for counselling or courses to gain skills
  • IB will be phased out and replaced by an Employment and Support Allowance, which will include a medical assessment for all claimants.
  • Those certified as “genuinely not capable of work” will see their benefits increase, and will possibly gain the ability to manage funds used on their behalf, part of a “personalization” agenda.
  • Carers will not be expected to find full time work, yet.
  • Sanctions will apply mainly to those who repeatedly turn down work, or miss appointments with state representatives.
  • Penalties for benefit fraud will be tightened. Currently, if you are caught twice in 5 years, you can lose 13 weeks worth of benefits. If these proposals succeed, a first offence would see 4 weeks benefits lost. A second could lead to criminal prosecution.
  • Importantly, private firms will be used to get people off benefits and into jobs. Firms will be “paid by results” to process as many jobseekers as possible into the workforce. Their revenues will theoretically come out of savings in welfare payments.

This is the meat of what is being proposed. It all builds on prior work done at the behest of New Labour by the investment banker Daniel Freud and Paul Gregg, Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol. Both men have expressed a belief in the need for a radical overhaul of the welfare state.

Freud writes in the Times that “Today’s Welfare Reform White Paper represents a significant change in the approach to the welfare state, aimed at calling a halt to the build-up of a dependency culture and in tackling our pockets of obstinate poverty” while “virtually everyone will be expected to set entering the world of work as their goal, including many of the people who have languished on incapacity benefit for years.”

The private sector needs to be brought into welfare management as “a payment by results approach is likely to focus the providers on successful outcomes rather than the provision of services that can be inappropriate for many clients.” This is all in the cause of avoiding “condemning yet another generation to unfulfilled and dependent lives.”

Gregg, writing in the Guardian, is slightly less strident. He writes that his “central proposal is to create an entirely new approach for people who are not ready to take a job straight away, but who with time, support and encouragement can get themselves back to work” and also argues that “When jobs are scarce it is all the more important to help those in danger of long-term unemployment and complete disconnection from work to compete with those for whom a return to work is relatively easy.”

He believes that his “flexible,” “personalized” and patient approach will succeed in motivating the dependent, lazy poor to enter the world of work. Tellingly, he also concludes that “There are also, of course, a number of other areas in which the government must make progress: ensuring universal, affordable childcare; helping people to progress in work after job entry; and addressing problems inherent in housing benefit – plus, of course, the extremely low value of adult benefits in the UK” – which somewhat challenges his whole approach.

Both Gregg and Freud are part of a campaign to reduce the scale and availability of benefits, targeting them at the truly “deserving.” The category of deserving is to be defined by either a technocratic elite, a right-wing clique of ideologues, or poorly trained staff on the Job Centre desks – or more likely a combination of all three.

The poor are being targeted by a government which knows that the deepening recession will affect them most acutely. This is being accompanied by a demonisation of the poor as lazy. As Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell put it in the House of Commons, “when the national effort is about a global downturn, we can no more afford to waste taxpayers’ money on those who play the system…”

His subsequent quip that “most of all we cannot afford to waste a single person’s talent” is simply that, a quip. His commitment is to driving the idle and dangerous poor into the safety and discipline of work.

In reality, Purnell, Gregg and Freud’s proposals are extremelt dangerous and nasty attacks on the most vulnerable adult groups in society. Moreover, they come at a terrible juncture in the global and national economy, meaning that huge numbers of people will be sucked into uncertainty, fear, bullying and deep poverty – if the proposals succeed.

Charities have lined up to attack the proposals. As the National Autistic Society has put it in a press release, “Many people with autism want to work, but experience great difficulty in finding and staying in employment often due to inadequate support.” The NAS believes that “people with autism will be vulnerable to inappropriate sanctions due to misunderstandings related to their disability” while “The behaviour and actions of people with autism can be easily misinterpreted as a result of their social and communication difficulties and they could mistakenly be deemed to not be engaging in the job-seeking process.”

Such grey areas are utterly absent from government thinking. This is unforgiveable, as in the process to draft the White Paper, charities had strong input. MIND, for example, which works on mental health issues, compiled a damning report which has seemingly been ignored.

Its report noted that around 40 percent of those claiming Incapacity Benefit suffer from a mental health condition, and most of those reported a fluctuating condition, making adherence to employment plans difficult. Its report suggested “supported employment” – rather than pre-vocational training – as a good idea, but training is being heavily pushed by the government White Paper.

MIND also counselled that “increasing conditionality and sanctions are unlikely to be effective in enabling people with experience of mental distress to take steps towards employment at the most appropriate time and pace for them.” The substance of the proposals is greated conditionality and sanctions.

MIND also wrote that it “[was] yet to be convinced that ‘work for your benefit’ has benefits for people with mental health issues” which is what the government is seeking to impose for those on Jobseekers Allowance for two years. The charity adds that, instead of being a viable program for mass employment, “The fact that ‘work for your benefit’ does not pay the minimum wage reinforces the penal nature of this regime.”

Survey respondents with mental health problems overwhelmingly rejected “workfare” proposals. “People spoke of mental distress being exacerbated, lack of consideration for the fluctuating nature of mental distress, and fears of rehospitalisation or suicide as a consequence of a compulsory regime.”

“People wrote about mandatory activity as intimidating, a punishment for being ill or a further stigmatisation of their condition. At the same time many respondents welcomed the opportunity to make informed choices about a range of activities and would prefer to decide to participate in well supported activities as a back to work approach.”

Yet such people are being herded into the category of idle and undeserving poor. They do not, in government (and the Tories’) world, deserve “well supported activities.” Gregg accepted this in the conclusion to his Guardian piece. Left wing Labour faction Compass makes the same complaint in a press release, writing that “there is simply not enough funding proposed in the white paper.”

“Purnell has pledged an additional £1.3 billion, in addition to a few other minor increases in funding, but simultaneously is cutting Jobcentre Plus staff. Yet with unemployment expected to reach 3 million by 2010 these increases in funded will be barely enough to plug the gap, let alone provide the personalised service Purnell is promising.”

As it stands, claimants will have to deal with existing employees of the state or private firms in drawing up their “employment plans.” This may well prove catastrophic.

As MIND writes, ” the implementation of the new regime will be in the hands of advisors with a low understanding of mental health issues, and may lead to unfair sanctions decisions that put already vulnerable people at greater risk.”

One respondent stated that “My experience of DWP’s health professionals is that they are more intimidating and less sympathetic than Jobcentre staff” – while any assessments or action plans should be formulated with the help of “a health professional who is known to, and trusted by, the person.”

MIND adds that “Whilst…flexibility may seem attractive, it can only be viewed as a positive if there are guarantees around the quality of the advisers and their training.” Damningly, its report notes that “Incapacity Benefit advisers are provided with just three months training before beginning to work with claimants.”

Experiences and expectations of private sector providers is no better. A survey carried out for MIND found that only 23 percent of those using private sector employment service providers were “satisfied” by the the experience. 41 percent said the same about the DWP. Yet 68 percent reported satisfaction with voluntary providers.

This points towards a possible synthesis of democratically accountable public services and specialist voluntary organizations in executing welfare policies. Companies, MIND suggests, should not have a role to play in helping the mentally ill into work.

Unfortunately, the government believes otherwise.

On the issue of personalized budgets for welfare provision, MIND is broadly supportive, but advises against using it as an excuse to cut essential services. The complexity of individual budgeting is also troublesome. Overall, the charity argued to the government, “We also feel that this is not the most important issue in promoting independent living in mental health. Independent living should be about supporting recovery, having equal access to and a right to quality services when you need them, promoting advocacy, and eradicating discrimination.”

They were ignored.

MIND has since been joined by many other charities and campaigning groups in opposing the government’s welfare reforms. As Mencap states, “The Welfare Reform Bill is, contrary to its intentions, set to further exclude people with a learning disability from paid employment unless the government provides the appropriate, specialist support for people with a learning disability to move into work.”

The charity also writes that “We are also deeply concerned that the payment-by-results culture is likely to disadvantage disabled people with complex support needs who will take longer to make the transition to work and who may be more expensive to support.”

Drugscope writes that “We oppose the introduction of drug testing by Jobcentres and hope this proposal does not go ahead” and that while “We supported the introduction of a treatment allowance if it provided genuine additional support for people in treatment…linked with the threat of benefit sanctions it looks more like a Trojan horse for compulsion.” Moreover, it also argues that “There is no evidence that using benefit sanctions to compel problem drug users into treatment will be effective.”

Scope argues that “Disabled people who have been out of work for a long period of time need reassurance that they will be given the right level of tailored support to find work without fear of sanctions” while the Northern Ireland Poverty Network has damned the proposals as “not based in the real world.”

But they are, and they are all too real. Which is why they need resistance.

Aside from the strong argument that the welfare proposals will force millions of mentally ill and disabled people into stressful, counter-productive programs (and enhance the role of poorly trained petty bureaucrats to intimidate them), there is a second strong criticism to make.

While Daniel Freud has argued that “As we face the first recession in the adult lives of many working-age citizens, it is vital that we close the benefit trap and develop effective ways of restoring people into economic activity” this is nonsense.

Economic conditions mean that closing the so-called “benefits trap” will make zero difference to unemployment levels, but will make the experience of unemployment much more unpleasant. As Plaid Cymru’s Hywell Williams tells the BBC, “fewer than 20,000 job vacancies were advertised in Wales while there were 330,000 working age people on benefit.”

This will only get worse. Woolworths, for instance, will soon be shedding 30,000 jobs. Others will follow. This brings a harsh new light on Paul Gregg’s assertion that “When jobs are scarce it is all the more important to help those in danger of long-term unemployment and complete disconnection from work to compete with those for whom a return to work is relatively easy.”

For the mentally ill, those struggling to balance family and work commitments, for the slightly less than severely disabled, for those afflicted by drug and alcohol addictions, or those simply struggling with rising debt, and sudden unemployment, becoming “competitive” is not a simple matter.

I’m sure that Freud, Gregg, Purnell and Gordon Brown have never had to go through such a process, and would find themselves slightly less than “competitive” if placed in a similar situation. Brown in particular, who has not been elected PM, yet seeks to make us all compete for a place in the rapidly shrinking (and in any case dismally unfulfilling) “work force” has rarely seemed so toadishly hypocritical.


2 Responses to “Down With the Terrorists at the DWP”

  1. Alison Says:

    Thank you for a sane and wide-ranging overview of the latest welfare reform proposals. I have been following the debate closely over the past 6 months or so with growing alarm. I have a progressive condition which I have continued to work with for the past 10 years and am at the moment awaiting a decision re early retirement on ill-health grounds. I have experienced how difficult it is to work meaningfully with physical and mental limitations even with an enlightened public employer. The only way the reforms will work for those with an LTC/impairment is to take a holistic view of each individual across the whole sweep of government-provided help. The introduction of Personal Health Plans in the NHS needs to connect with the personalisation agenda in Social Care and with the National Service Framework for Long Term Conditions (which includes access to vocational rehab)and with welfare benefits – and all should have the quality of life of the person at its centre. Sometimes having a job would benefit the person; but for others voluntary unpaid “work” would suit better; and for others all work may be out of the question. In health there is supposed to be a new era of joint cooperation/setting of goals/responsibility between patient and doctor – if the government is serious about this then the same agenda has to be in the field of employment/benefits. There is nothing inherently wrong with having to examine one’s work capability and to take responsibility for it BUT this has to be in the context of similarly responsible and expert advisers WHO HAVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE OF THE INDIVIDUAL at heart not money incentives or targets!! I would say the reform COULD work for the “incapacitated” but only if their cases are viewed holistically as above and obviously without sanctions as these would be simply irrelevant if the whole picture of someone’s life/health were to be taken into account.

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