Why must every social security announcement feature a big threat?

Anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits” said the Chancellor, as he announced a raft of changes to the social security system. The press release riffs on old and unpleasant themes. Benefit claimants are to be treated with suspicion because they may be “taking taxpayers for a ride”, as the Work and Pensions Secretary later puts it. Taxpayers and benefit claimants are portrayed as different kinds of people set in opposition to each other – and it is the taxpayers who are having a hard time and are at risk of being exploited.

As I am sure was intended, what followed was headlines talking about how the government was going to deal with benefit claimants behaving badly. Obviously, this is without any evidence that there actually is a growing problem of bad behaviour from claimants – because such evidence doesn’t exist.

Removing NHS prescriptions from “disengaged” claimants

The policy that was briefed out to journalists first and gained most headlines was the removal of free NHS prescriptions from claimants who were “disengaged”. Until we have more details we can’t be sure who this affects – but it seems likely that it is almost no-one. This is fortunate, as it is absurd to think that taking Ventolin from asthmatics, statins from heart patients or antidepressants from those struggling with their mental health helps anyone, other than perhaps undertakers.

The real significance of this announcement is that government apparently thinks that taking medicine away from some of the least well-off people in society will be popular with the public, and they have chosen to exploit that. In my view, when one group in society wants to deny medicine to another, it indicates dangerous divisions that should be understood and resolved rather than exploited.

Reheated workfare and yet more sanctions

The next set of measures announced were about forcing some claimants to do unpaid work, and the introduction of yet more sanctions. The common thread between these policies is that they harm low-income families, and they are again apparently popular with the public. They are not popular because of the harm they do – their popularity lies in the huge gap between the public perception of benefit claimants, and the reality. Choosing to exploit that gap gets politicians easy headlines, but creates demonstrably harmful policy.

The first study I can find showing that forcing people to do unpaid labour does not improve their employment prospects is from 1931[1], and one of the most recent is the government’s own 2012[2] workfare trial. Removing choice, agency, and dignity from people, as these programmes inevitably do, lacks both moral and practical justification. Do people who feel demeaned write good job applications, perform well at interview, or work at their best? A century of research – and basic decency – tell us no. But workfare returns again.

Without repeating what we have said previously about sanctions in the benefits system, there is no evidence it works. The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own research shows no beneficial effect of sanctions and that families who receive them not only suffer immediate hardship, but have their earnings and employment prospects damaged for at least 2 years after that.

At this stage, strengthening the use of sanctions is the equivalent of discovering that dropping a brick on someone’s foot really doesn’t really help them to walk, only to try again but this time with a heavier brick.

Mental health and “intensive support”

The Chancellor says we must “address the rise in people who aren’t looking for work”. This rise is real, but as the Chancellor undoubtedly knows, the cause is increasing ill health (rather than the “coasters” he goes on to threaten in the next paragraph).

The package does include mental health provision and “intensive support”. These have real potential, but the key question is how effectively they are delivered and in whose interests? Improving mental health may improve employability, but for treatment to be effective, employability must be a welcome side effect rather than its goal.

It is notable that evaluations of the Individual Placement and Support scheme led by the NHS and local authorities, which is designed to help people experiencing mental health and addiction issues to find and retain appropriate employment, show it is trusted to act in the patient’s interests and has had some positive results. There is precious little positive evidence from multiple DWP-led mental health interventions, where the primary aim is to push people into employment as quickly as possible.

Damaging then treating claimants’ mental health

It is however worth noting that people’s experience of the benefit system is generally not positive for their wellbeing. Research has consistently shown that contact with the benefit system is often stressful and degrading, and when asked, claimants say it the single most stigmatising experience they face[3].

Government ministers choose to emphasise to wider society that people needing help from the benefit system may be the sort of people who “coast”, “take [us] for a ride”, and “refus[e] to work”. After announcing greater punishments and threats in the first half of the press release, the second half announces programmes to boost the confidence and improve the mental health of those very same benefit claimants.

While mental health treatments and “intensive support” may be helpful to claimants, Ministers may wish to reflect on why they are needed, and how the system and rhetoric they are responsible for are complicit in creating that need.

Could, for instance, announcing mass surveillance of claimant’s bank accounts[4] and a new digital tool to monitor claimants as they for search work[5], attend interviews and visit job fairs make people feel they are not trusted? Might it even feel like being tagged as if they had been  convicted of a criminal offence? Does the government believe that this has no effect on self-esteem and mental health?            

Or, to put it another way, I don’t know how many mental health appointments are needed to cancel out the effect on claimants of seeing headlines labelling them as “coasting”, “taking us for a ride” and being “workshy” – but I am confident the answer is a great deal more than one.

From a tired old approach…

This press release announced measures that push the benefit system a little further along the road it has been travelling for 40 years. The policies are rooted in the idea that the unemployed need to be punished or fixed so they can get a job, while factors outside the individual are ignored.

The UK has rising poverty and destitution, it has experienced pandemic and turmoil, and has record waiting lists for NHS treatment. Is it really a surprise that mental and physical health problems are increasing?

The Chancellor has stated he is going to make “difficult decisions on welfare”, but in reality, cuts and pressure on politically weak benefit claimants are the cheap and easy path. The hard decision would be to acknowledge the choices and trade-offs that have led us to this place and open them up to new, previously ignored people to influence.

…towards more hopeful future

That process of listening to new voices is beginning. Over the past decade, Poverty Truth Commissions, often rooted in churches, have sprung up around the country. Charities like Church Action on Poverty, Christians Against Poverty and Trussell Trust have found ways of bringing lived experience into the heart of their decision making and campaigning. Local authorities and even the Scottish Government have panels of people who experience poverty helping to develop policy and bridging that gap between the public’s understanding of poverty and the reality of poverty.

Let's End Poverty logo

Westminster politics has been much more resistant to change. The Let’s End Poverty movement, which the churches helped instigate, from its very beginning had at its heart people who experience poverty, alongside a wide range of faith and other groups. It aims to shift the urgency and reality of UK poverty into the centre of the next general election debate.

Find out more about the movement and how you can be part of bringing real hopeful change here: www.letsendpoverty.co.uk

For any media queries about this piece please contact JPIT at enquiries@jpit.uk

[1] In Search of the Scrounger: The Administration of Unemployment Insurance in Britain, 1920–1931. By Alan Deacon. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1976

[2] Bizarrely the initial headlines indicate that the trial was a success – despite the key observations that the intervention costs just under £1000 to elicit a day not claiming benefits. The idea was shelved after this report: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/evaluation-of-support-for-the-very-long-term-unemployed-trailblazer-rr824

[3] For example see “Benefits Stigma in Britian” or in the last week a coroner inquiring into a death by suicide has issued a warning to the Department about the stresses caused by the benefit system.

[4]Benefits claimants subject to bank account checks in fraud clampdown” Telegraph (paywall), non-paywalled report of article.

[5] Final point in Press release “Employment support launched for over a million people


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