Arise 'Sir' Iain Duncan Smith: But Should There Be a Criminal Investigation Over His Mistreatment of Disability?
Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: Paul Dodenhoff: Bio
Published: 2020-02-02 : (Rev. 2020-03-18)
Paul Dodenhoff writes on Iain Duncan Smith being rewarded for bullying disabled people into oblivion in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's, New Year's Honours list.
Arise 'Sir' Iain Duncan Smith: But should there be a criminal investigation over his mistreatment of disability?
When you think that Britain's establishment could not possibly show any more contempt for Britain's disabled, Iain Duncan Smith gets rewarded for all his hard work bullying disabled people into oblivion in Prime Minister Boris Johnson's, New Year's Honours list. A move that has caused considerable fury and all manner of petitions against the move, with signatures reaching into the hundreds of thousands. One petition set up by Dr Mona Kamal Ahmed, a NHS psychiatrist, who is reported in one newspaper as having: "frequently witnessed people diagnosed with chronic mental illness in A&E who have been driven to panic attacks as a result of the anxiety caused by these tests and over the prospect of losing the welfare payments they rely on" (Daily Mirror 18th December 2019).
It certainly flies in the face of campaigners and health care professionals who view Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) as being one of the central figures in the deaths and suicides of highly vulnerable and sick people, often being falsely assigned as being 'fit-for-work'. Just a few weeks ago, the Disability News Service (DNS) published a 12,000-word article even calling for a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct in public office by Iain Duncan Smith and other senior Department of Works and Pensions figures. The article being the result of a five year investigation by John Pring and the DNS organisation. So, the timing of Duncan Smith's knighthood seemed a double-whammy in light of those calls. I would like to go through that report now and pick out its key findings.
- A bank of anecdotal evidence and studies, such as the Oxford and Liverpool study indicate a correlation with the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and an increase in mental distress.
- Although concerns about the Work Capability Assessment had already flagged up by disability campaigners and researchers'. In 2010, Coroner Tom Osborne first raised official concerns to the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) about the death of Stephen Carré - writing a rule 43 Report to the DWP itself. A report sent to: "a person, organisation, local authority or government department or agency where the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths".
- The DNS claim that both Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling would have most certainly seen the coroner's report in their roles as senior DWP ministers, but failed to take the appropriate actions highlighted by the order to make the WCA safe. Exposing hundreds of thousands of other disabled people to life-threatening risks.
- Iain Duncan Smith as head of the DWP had a clear legal duty to respond to Coroner Osborne's letter within 56 days. He failed to do so and did not reply until February 2016. A response claimed by the DWP to have been drafted in the autumn of 2010, but that was neither signed nor dated and only emerged publically in March 2016. The letter dismissed the coroner's concerns and insisted that the DWP was correct in the initial action of finding Stephen Carré fit-for-work - contradicting the decision of the appeal tribunal that had been concluded after his death.
- Coroner Osborne's wrote a series of a follow-up letter's to the DWP while waiting for a response to his original report. Meanwhile, Chris Grayling announced an independent review into the WCA in June 2010, undertaken by Professor Malcolm Harrington. Harrington claimed in 2015 that the Rule 43 report was not passed onto him - and that his own recommendations about the WCA were never carried out in full. The DNS argue that the DWP had also failed to pass other evidence on to Professor Harrington for consideration. Such as a number of secret internal reviews into benefit related deaths, written by DWP civil servants themselves. The DWP repeatedly denied that such reviews actually existed but when eventually forced to produce them (documents that were heavily redacted) 40 out of 49 cases were found to have been reviewed following the suicide of the claimant.
- In at least 13 of the cases, the author of the internal DWP review raised concerns about the way such 'vulnerable' people were being treated during the WCA process. From February 2012 until September 2015, the DWP admitted that it kept no record of what happened to those internal concerns and recommendations.
- In 2014, Coroner Mary Hassell also raised official concern about links between the WCA and the suicide of a benefit claimant, Michael O'Sullivan. Following the inquest, the coroner wrote a Regulation 28 report (the replacement for Rule 43 reports) on the grounds that evidence revealed during her investigations suggested that there was "a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken". That report was also sent directly to the DWP. This new report pointed out that the professional involved in the Work Capability Assessment had failed to take account of the medical evidence offered by Mr O'Sullivan.
- Other deaths point to medical advice being ignored or not sought by WCA assessors. Leading to an attempt by campaigners in 2016 to persuade the Scottish criminal justice system to launch an investigation into the failure of Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling to improve the safety of the WCA, a failure that is believed to have caused the deaths of at least three Scottish benefit claimants. The DNS claim that neither Police Scotland nor the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal (COPF), the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service were particularly enthusiastic about investigating the allegations.
- The DNS not only argue that government and DWP ministers have continually refused to act to make the WCA a safer, less damaging process. But had also failed to tone down its aggressive political rhetoric of 'scroungers, shirkers and skivers'. Iain Duncan Smith is particularly accused of not only repeatedly suggesting that a large proportion of disabled people claiming incapacity benefit (IB) claimants were cheats, but of actively creating an environment of hostility towards disabled people.
- Legal action against Iain Duncan Smith was brought by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) in 2012, arguing that the WCA discriminated against people with mental health conditions and failed to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act for people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism. Judges ruled that the WCA indeed did put people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties at a substantial disadvantage. While Duncan Smith and his lawyers appealed against the ruling and lost, it is argued that they continued to resist making the WCA safer. Sometime later, the MHRN also learned that Iain Duncan Smith and his department had withheld from court, both coroners' letters written after the deaths of Stephen Carré and Michael O'Sullivan.
- By May 2017, more than two years after ministers had promised to judges that it would both extensively study and test out improvements to the WCA process, it finally released details only after pressure from the DNS and its legal team. The details highlighted that the DWP had brought in new guidance following a small scale study of 250 claimants. However, the DNS claim that the changes were the same as argued for by Professor Harrington in 2012 and yet seemingly not implemented until 2017.
- The DNS claim that guidelines in the latest version of the DWP's WCA handbook (2019) suggest that very little has actually changed in the way the WCA operates, with little pressure on assessors to seek further medical advice and advice from other healthcare professionals.
- The DNS have also accused the DWP of a cover-up concerning the deaths of disabled people. Allegations primarily concerning the fourth and fifth independent reviews of the WCA, carried out in 2013 and 2014 by Dr Paul Litchfield. Again, there is no mention of the coroner's reports nor of the internal reviews conducted by the DWP itself. Dr Litchfield has subsequently declined to tell the DNS of whether he saw these documents or not and the DWP had been similarly reluctant to say if this information was passed on to the fourth and fifth reviews. As an aside, Dr Litchfield has subsequently awarded a CBE for 'services to wellbeing in the workplace.
- Four political parties, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens, all raised official concern to DWP ministers by letter, not only over the deaths of benefit claimants but over the fourth and fifth independent reviews into the WCA itself. Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party at the time called for an independent investigation into what had 'all the hallmarks of a deliberate cover-up'.
- In response to a freedom of information request from the DNS, the DWP refused to answer whether it had passed on the coroner's reports and internal reviews to Dr Litchfield's team of civil servants. This led to a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office which pressed the department for answers. The DWP eventually admitted that neither the reviews nor the coroners' letters were sent to Dr Litchfield. Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat shadow work and pensions spokesperson at the time, called for an inquiry into these reviews and suggested there was also a need for a criminal investigation.
- Labour's Debbie Abrahams, former shadow work and pension's secretary writes to the DWP minister, Amber Rudd and called for an inquiry into deaths linked to the government's welfare reforms. When questioned in the Commons, the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson refused to answer.
- Abrahams then writes to the Equality and Human Rights Commission with her concerns, asking the watchdog to carry out its own investigation. The EHRC is currently considering this move.
- Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions committee, secures a promise from the National Audit Office to look into links between DWP policy and the suicides of benefit claimants, following a death within his own constituency.
- Further research indicates a growing problem and the continuing deaths of vulnerable welfare claimants, together with a lack of safeguarding by DWP staff.
- The DNS claims that the DWP had acted unlawfully by destroying an internal report over its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres. The document is alleged to have been destroyed soon after the DNS found out about the report and asked to see a copy of it via a freedom of information act request.
- Many of the families involved in these tragic deaths believe that nothing has actually changed in the treatment of vulnerable people since 2010. In some cases, those families believe that the DWP has actively driven family members and other claimants to suicide.
- The DNS believe the actions of the DWP, in particular those of both Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling meet the criteria as defined by the Crown Prosecution Service for committing 'a criminal offence of misconduct in public office' - an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Both Duncan Smith and Grayling were warned of the dangers of the WCA by a coroner, not only failing to act on those warning but wilfully and consistently hid evidence and reports from independent review. Not only an abuse of public trust, but by failing to fix flaws in the WCA itself, caused the deaths of other vulnerable people.
- According to the DNS, securing a criminal conviction of Iain Duncan Smith depends very much on whether there is no clear justification for his actions. The only issue that may stop a criminal conviction according the DNS, is if the DWP made a deliberate calculation that their actions could indeed be justified. By not fixing the WCA after official concerns were first raised in April 2010, they were able to force many thousands of people off disability benefits and onto jobseeker's allowance and hopefully, the workplace. Or as a minimum, remove people from the system completely. Whether or not that counts as 'justification' is open to debate.
RESPONSE FROM THE DWP
May I first congratulate John Pring and the Disability News Network for its outstanding, investigative journalism. Despite the obvious and clear obtuseness of the DWP from 2010 onwards, they have manged not only to uncover a well of deceit and negligence taken to the max, but arguably highlighted an administration of cold-hearted callousness that has also been taken to a staggering extreme. The DNS ultimately argue that the DWP simply made a trade-off between sacrificing some vulnerable people with mental health issues, so that they could continue to remove many other sick and disabled people from the benefit system - via the Work Capability Assessment. Details of the full report can be found at the bottom of this page for anybody interested in reading it for themselves. I hope that I have done it justice in replicating many of its key points. I would also like to thank John McArdle, founder member of the Black Triangle Campaign for his tireless work in also highlighting the abuses carried out by the DWP towards disabled people. If anybody desires a knighthood for service to the public good, it's these two.
Secondly, let me summarise the above DNS investigation in my own words. In spite of the increasing numbers of deaths of welfare claimants seen in Britain since 2010, and the continuous highlighting of the problem, including reports from Coroners and the DWP's own internal reviews, very little has changed in the way the WCA operates today. The DWP has actively kept important reports and information hidden from independent reviews into the WCA, while often and repeatedly refusing to answer even the simplest of questions from campaigners and MP's. Iain Duncan Smith is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the creation not only of an hostile environment towards disabled people, but also failed in his duty of care to protect vulnerable people during his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010 to 2016. In fact, the DNS take this one step further and argue that Duncan Smith & others may have actually justified their approach as simply being a means to an end. Sacrificing some vulnerable people in order to carry on with a deliberate, hostile system that they knew could be used to remove as many other sick and disabled people from the welfare system as quickly and as simply as possible. Deaths that may arguably be considered as being little more than collateral damage in the greater good of promoting an ideology that is more about protecting the 'work ethic' than actually saving taxpayers money.
In response to the DNS report, the DWP have pointed out that:
- The DWP takes all deaths of welfare claimants seriously.
- WCA assessors are all qualified healthcare professionals.
- That there has been five independent reviews of the WCA and its recommendations implemented.
- Improvements include introducing mental health training for all staff dealing directly with claimants, appointing mental health champions to advise assessors and allowing for further evidence to be requested.
THE INFLUENCE OF IDS
Now before I start, I just want to make clear that from this point onwards these are my own personal opinions and not the views of anybody else or of any organisation. Most people will already be aware of my opinions on British welfare reform. Reforms that may have simply taken advantage of the 2008 global economic crash in order to implement 'austerity' and another round of extreme Thatcherite tinkering concerning Britain's welfare system. In other words, taking another axe to chop down as much of the remaining system as possible, regardless of the consequences. And by reducing the welfare state further, those in poverty will also have no other choice but to finally change their perceived wayward behaviour, irresponsibility and dependency. So, not just nonsensical and highly dangerous reforms for the sake of political ideology that simply wants to reduce of the size of Britain's welfare state and its public services, they are also arguably based upon a visible and tangible prejudice. A sweeping generalisation and demonization of millions of British people as simply being...... lazy, irresponsible and immoral.
Iain Duncan Smith being a key culprit in this chain of prejudiced thinking, a man who founded the laughably named Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2004 and primarily in order to tackle Britain's perceived problems of family breakdown, antisocial behaviour, irresponsibility, out-of-wedlock childbirth and dependency culture. All apparently caused by Britain's benefit system according to IDS and the CSJ boffins. Yet another 'think-tank' that may have originated in order to cast doubt into some people's minds concerning the real causes of poverty and unemployment.
Therefore, according to both IDS and the CSJ, governments or economic downturns do not cause people to become unemployed and forced subsequently into poverty - only laziness and irresponsibility does that. So much so, that in 2011 at the Conservative Party Conference our Iain even blamed the 2011 summer riots in England on family breakdown and a benefit system that has helped generate a 'growing underclass' of people living unproductive lives (as reported in the Guardian Newspaper, 3rd October 2011). The official response to the riots (riots that were actually triggered by the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham, London) had indeed viewed them as being little more than the acts of looting and criminality by wayward children running wild and the work of criminal gangs. The research that has been undertaken since, indicates a much more complex picture. Highlighting poor policing, anger over alleged brutal treatment by the police, grievances against rising inequality and cuts to public services, as being amongst the causes (Dury, Stott and Reicher 2019).
What many of us 'unproductive' folk arguably don't realise is how much Iain Duncan Smith has been influential in British political thinking from 2004 onwards, writing about social problems and promoting welfare reform before he got the chance to implement it in 2010. In fact, the Centre for Social Justice can be argued to have had much more influence on both political policy and the public consciousness then any of the UK's toxic tabloids such as the Sun, The Daily Mail and the Daily Express - or indeed its toxic editors and owners. In 'the Myth of Broken Britain (2012)' Tom Slater put forward this argument that both the Centre for Social Justice and Iain Duncan Smith indeed had enormous input and influence on David Cameron and his future government of 2010. And by primarily focusing public attention on arguments that Britain was indeed 'broken', broken by its perceived dependency culture, particularly by those at the bottom of the social ladder who were simply irresponsible, deviant and lazy. A dependency culture were over-generous welfare payments not only encouraged people not to work, but where you could earn more by being out-of-work than being in it.
As a taster of what was to come, when finally becoming Work and Pensions Secretary in the Conservative/Liberal Democratic government of 2010, Iain Duncan Smith not only quickly introduced his long thought out reforms on universal credit, but arguably also enacted the most punitive sanctions towards the poor that any British government had ever introduced. Such as:
- Disabled people forced to attend 'work preparation' programmes and expected to find work.
- Lone parents with children under five expected to attend 'keeping in-touch' interviews and to prove that they are preparing themselves to work.
- Those 'fit to work' and on Jobseekers Allowance forced to accept any available job. If none were available, then they were to be placed onto 'Mandatory Work Activity' programmes.
In a newspaper interview in 2010, Iain Duncan Smith reportedly said "The message will go across: play ball or it's going to be difficult" (The Telegraph, 6th November 2010). Something similar to when speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme in November 2010 when Duncan Smith argued that it was a 'sin' that Brits didn't take up the jobs that were available at jobcentres, and that:
"The message is clear. If you can work, then a life on benefits will no longer be an option. If people are asked to do community work they will be expected to turn up. If people are asked to apply for a job by an adviser they will be expected to put themselves forward. If people can work and they are offered work, they will be expected to take it. This is the deal. Break the deal and they will lose their unemployment benefit. Break it three times and they will lose it for three years."
Therefore, a clear signal that the perceived irresponsible behaviour of the poor was about to change - or be punished for not changing. So, in light of the five years of pain-staking research conducted by the Disability News Network, it is not hard to see how some vulnerable people may have indeed been intentionally and deliberately sacrificed in order for the Work Capability Assessment to be used under Duncan Smith and the DWP as the primary tool by which sick and disabled people could be forced off from the benefit system and into work. Or if too sick to work, then into the arms of family members that should be supporting their own - something else argued for by both IDS and the Centre of Social Justice over the years.
It is clear from my own research that those protecting the WCA knew at the very least that the focus of the assessment was on what you can still do after illness or disability strikes - not what you cannot. A test of functionality that argues that those with similar health conditions and disability may vary in what they are still able to achieve. A concept not unfair in itself, but an 'objective' assessment that is based upon a set criteria of tasks that are arguably influenced by the subjective reasoning of what the 'abled-bodied' think disabled people can still do or not. There is no evidence to suggest that sick and disabled people have ever been involved in the design of the test criteria itself. So much so, that in 2017, Disability Rights UK were still arguing that:
"Disabled people would have more confidence in the WCA if assessments were carried out by doctors or specialists who had experience of their disability or health condition."
(Disability Rights UK, 6th October 2017)
Why is the WCA resistant to change?
It is therefore not hard to see why the WCA has been largely resistant to change (despite long-standing and fierce criticism) when it is arguably still the chief weapon in the government's armoury against sickness and disability. It is the WCA that decides who is fit-for-work or not and often by reviewing cases where the medical profession has already and clearly decided that the claimant is indeed not fit-for-work. The WCA therefore can overrule medical input and sometimes years of medical involvement. A doctor may say no to working for medical reasons, but the WCA will look to see what work you can arguably still do. This is the basic logic surrounding the WCA, a policy designed and introduced by a Labour administration in 2008. And to change the WCA to a much safer system, you would need to dump that key ideological driver completely.
Yes, the DWP claim that all its assessors are medical professionals of some kind, but does that even matter when we look at the share numbers of disabled people who have been falsely assigned as being fit-for-work? That is surely the most worrying phenomenon created by a system that is designed to look primarily at your capability to do some kind of work, regardless of how ill or disabled you are. For example, statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2015 revealed that during the period December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended after being found fit-for-work. That amounts to 90 people a month not only being wrongly classified as being fit-for-work but dying after being wrongly classified as fit-for-work. Arguably, you cannot be fit for any type of work if you die soon after an assessment. But the system is so basically flawed in its design and logic that it is indeed what it is saying. You may be ill, disabled and terminally ill in many cases, but you are also fit for some kind of work in the interim (i.e., before you die). Arguably, the WCA is therefore only doing what it is designed to do.
Now whether the WCA is fair or not comes down to the moral question of whether desperately sick or severely disabled people should or should not be pressurised into working if medical opinion overwhelmingly says not? But it is also basically a question of what of what you believe the welfare system is there for. I believe it is a safety net and therefore it always should act as a safety net, particularly when people are genuinely too ill or disabled to carry on working - either as a temporary solution or a permanent one. However, if you believe that the welfare system only encourages dependency and primarily because you believe that British people are so inherently lazy that they need constant monitoring and incentivising into working or working harder, then it is unlikely that any kind of state welfare will ever be considered to be a good thing. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, if the majority of sick and disabled people are being perceived as being capable of doing some kind of work, regardless of circumstance, then just how ill or disabled do you need to be before the state absolves you of that responsibility? Arguably, never or at best, rarely.
That can be evidenced by the following UK news headlines:
"Severely disabled 19-year-old with a mental age of just five is ordered to have a fitness-to-work test despite not being able to read, write, talk or even sleep on her own" - The Mail, 26th November 2014.
"Man left with half a head after surgery following a stroke has his benefits slashed as officials tell him he is fit to work despite suffering paralysis and memory loss" - The Mail Online, 14th May 2016.
"Woman with mental age of a toddler had benefits stopped because she missed her DWP appointment" - The Echo, 29th January 2017.
"DWP tells man with incurable brain tumour he is fit for work, says GP" - The Independent, 3rd May 2018.
"Man born without arms or legs ordered to prove he can't work three times in a year" - The Daily Mirror, 7th December 2019.
I could carry on and carry on, but I think you get the picture. Therefore, welfare policy in the UK is hardly realistic and certainly not compassionate. But for the WCA, because it is designed to be strict it will always throw up black and white answers to the black question and white question of - "is this person fit for work?" If you still have the ability to throw a single sock into the washing machine despite your illness or disability, then 'tick', you may indeed be fit for some kind of work, according to the civil servant making the decision. And it's not the DWP's fault if you die two weeks later, nor if assigned as being fit-for-work simply because you have managed to throw that sock into the washing machine with your bare teeth. Then again, why not force all people to work until they drop dead? Something indicated by Iain Duncan Smith himself only last year when he suggested raising the UK retirement age to 75.
Yet another indication of not just how callous these people actually are - but how clueless. Considering that the prevalence of disability rises with age. For example, the DWP's Family Resources Survey 2013-2014, estimated that around 7% of children are disabled, compared to 16% of working age adults and 42% of adults over the current State Pension age (currently 67). So, just what is the point of raising the retirement age even further, when there is almost a 50/50 chance that those forced to work will most certainly have a disability? But perhaps IDS was so busy hounding the sick and disabled back into work that he never actually had a chance to read his own reports? Of course, nobody is saying that the welfare system should not have checks and balances, just that the same needs to be go for any British government.
While the WCA assesses and in many cases reassesses if you are indeed not fit enough to work because you have a disability or a long term health condition, welfare benefits replace some or part of the income you would have earnt if in work. Without stating the blooming obvious, lose that income and without the ability to work you therefore have no money for rent, mortgage, gas, electric & food etc. A major worry for both yourself and your family, on top of having an illness or disability that may be degenerative or obviously life threatening - obvious to all but the WCA assessor and the DWP that is. If you can't physically work, no amount of state pressure or cajoling will alter that fact. And just because you can indeed throw a sock into a washing machine with your bare teeth, very few employers will be convinced that you are actually the ideal employee for them because of it. So, the system is not just simplistic nonsense, it's a sink or swim approach of such staggering callousness and stupidity that I seriously wonder if the people who promote or protect such a system are not just unfit for public office, but actually clinically insane.
The Ideology underpinning the WCA
There is indeed a clear ideological component to these wayward assessment decisions in my opinion and it is in-built into the design of the WCA itself. An ideology that deliberately sets the bar so high that it removes welfare from even the most desperately ill and disabled, simply as a way of motivating some back into work. While hopefully deterring others from even approaching the benefit system at all. But it doesn't actually solve anything in the short term nor the long term. Most disabilities are acquired during life, with many through work itself, so getting someone to flog themselves to death just because they have unfortunately become too ill or disabled to actually work, is arguably not an incentive but punishment. You are being punished for not just your lack of work ethic but your potential immorality.
We've heard a lot over the years from British politicians and their media chums about the wayward behaviour(s) of its citizens, so why should any of this come as any surprise? In 2010, the Conservatives even formed a Behavioural Insights Team, a unit of civil servants with the remit from government to apply lessons from behavioural economics and psychology and translate that into public policy. What this unit does is to look at elements of public behaviour that the political elites indeed want to change and create policy that 'nudges' our behaviour in the right direction. However, if a British government seriously stuck in the ideology and social thinking of the 1700's wants to 'nudge' us in a direction of its choosing, we should always be wary of where we are actually heading.
Listen to Conservative politicians from 1979 onwards and we have indeed become a broken society, one where people are unproductive or simply won't work at all, dependent on welfare, irresponsibly into drugs, alcohol, gambling and prone to having children out of wedlock. A broken society where both the work ethic and the family unit has been eroded and primarily by a nanny state that automatically picks us up as soon as we fall over. Or at least that is what the political rhetoric says. And that sort of political rhetoric isn't confined to Conservative's alone but can be found also within sections of the Labour Party. Here's Tony Blair speaking in 2002, British Prime Minister in Britain from 1997 to 2007:
"In welfare, for too long, the right had let social division and chronic unemployment grow; the left argued for rights but were weak on responsibilities. We believe passionately in giving people the chance to get off benefit and into work. We have done it for 1¼ million."
"But there are hundreds of thousands more who could work, given the chance. It's right for them, for the country, for society. But with the chance, comes a responsibility on the individual - to take the chance, to make something of their lives and use their ability and potential to the full."
"That is the key to Job Centre Plus. It embodies on the one hand the enabling welfare state, spreading opportunity - and on the other our reform of public services, as a new responsive service focused on the jobless. But for it to work, it has to be founded on mutual responsibility."
"Government has a responsibility to provide real opportunities for individuals to gain skills and to get into work that pays. But individuals also have a responsibility to grasp those opportunities."
"All of our reforms have the same underlying principles - opportunity, fairness and mutual responsibility. We want to give people the chance to fulfil their potential. We want to raise people's expectations and their self-belief, by giving them the tools to help themselves."
(The Guardian, 10th June 2002)
From this short extract, yes, we can hear some thinly vailed criticism of the previous Conservative government and its record on unemployment, but there is also stinging criticism of the 'left', a left perceived as being be too weak on encouraging personal responsibility. Yes, there is a mutual responsibility concerning both state and the individual argued for, but arguably the overriding message here is that people's work ethic needs to change and that we all have a responsibility to the state to grasp our opportunities regarding employment. Of course, what is a genuine or realistic opportunity will always be subject to debate and what happens to us if we somehow fail to take up those 'opportunities' through no real fault of our own? Therefore, the WCA may have been designed to be so strict and the bar set so high at the beginning that only the very, very desperate will ever get something out of it. Not something particularly new when you look back to the days of the Victorian workhouse and see how conditions then were also made so deliberately intolerable and so hostile that it acted as a deterrent to those folks considered just to be fakers and scroungers. So, for me, there is a deep-rooted prejudice once again being displayed by the political elite towards their own citizens, especially those in poverty and those who are not working for any reason at all.
Certainly in the UK, if you become ill for any length of time, your income will drop substantially below what you could have earned if you had not taken ill. At no point in the UK's history would that have been any different. But of course, to those who see British people simply as being lazy or constantly on the look-out for something for nothing, the fact that welfare benefits don't act as a realistic nor fair exchange for poor health or disability is arguably lost upon our welfare warriors. Listen to Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice from 2004 onwards and their focus has indeed been an over generous welfare system, erosion of the work-ethic itself, benefit fraud, worklessness and irresponsibility.
Much of which is arguably aimed at shaping public opinion by creating a discussion and therefore setting the political agenda around these topics. That discussion then feeds into the public consciousness and influences public opinion, which in turn influences or supports political policy. A vicious circle of vicious political policy that simply wants us all to work hard, then work harder and harder. And of course, for families to do what many of the political elite believe families should already be doing - looking after themselves and not looking towards the state for help. Within this highly charged political and media context, it is no surprise that the British Labour party would also be tuned into a largely manufactured and public debate surrounding an eroded work ethic and family breakdown. Arguably, one culminating in the WCA that changed the ball-game completely as regards what being fit-for-work really means.
So, while it was the Labour Party that introduced the WCA and changed the game completely for sick and disabled people, it was Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives who picked up the ball and ran with it extremely enthusiastically from 2010 onwards. Despite concern over 'flaws' contained within WCA and highlighted not long after its introduction. We only have to refer back to the investigation by the Disability News Service to see that in 2010, Coroner Tom Osborne raised official concern to the DWP over the death of Stephen Carré. A report that went initially into the in-box of Yvette Cooper, the Labour Government's Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2010 - just before they lost power. A report that the DWP eventually responded to five years later in February 2016, undated and unsigned. And not long before IDS resigned.
The same Iain Duncan Smith who said at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2015, five years on from first gaining power, that sick and disabled people would have to work their way out poverty and not simply be taken out of it by state financial assistance. A conference where he also focused on family responsibilities and on individuals pulling together in order to provide for each other. So, no visible change of direction from the man after all this time, a man who would have surely known by now the problems the WCA was causing - together with the ideology and methodology underpinning the WCA. If we take a look at the Independent Review into the WCA - Year five (2014), page 8 tells us that the WCA:
"......is a functional assessment and is based on the premise that eligibility for ESA should not be determined by the description of a person's disability or health condition, but rather by how their ability to function is affected, which may vary considerably between individuals with the same diagnosis."
Compare that to previous system of assessing incapacity and the WCA indeed represented a shift towards a much more functional assessment of work capability. The previous system known as the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) was used to identify people whose level of functional limitation was such that it was unreasonable to expect them to seek work. Arguably, under the WCA, no level of functional limitation is ever expected to stop you from working. Even if you are dying, as it stands, it is 'expected' by the state that you will carry on working until you drop dead. At least, that is what DWP stats are themselves suggesting.
Comparing the WCA to previous systems
We can actually compare the PCA to the WCA by taking a brief look at a research document that was produced for the DWP by Barnes, Aston and Williams in December 2010 - to do precisely that.
"Staff felt that, compared to the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA), the WCA was a more objective functional assessment, and noted that the descriptors were improved, eliminating some duplication and dealing better with certain conditions, such as severe mental health conditions. Other conditions were viewed as somewhat more problematic to access using the WCA, as the HCPs (Health Care Professionals) felt they had less discretion. Conditions which were specifically mentioned in this respect were fluctuating conditions, some mental health conditions, and multiple sclerosis (MS). HCPs also noted that the move to the WCA represented a considerable shift in the threshold for claiming a sickness benefit. The reassessment of existing incapacity benefits customers for ESA, using the WCA, was noted as representing a considerable challenge."
For a start we can pick out 3 key differences of the WCA:
- A more objective and functional assessment
- Health Care Professionals felt that they had less discretion over fluctuating health conditions and some mental health conditions.
- A considerable shift in threshold for claiming welfare benefits.
That last point is a key one for us considering that it was now arguably more difficult from day one to claim welfare under the WCA than it was under the old PCA. Therefore, the assessment not just focuses on different criteria but is arguably a far tougher assessment to pass. So, do we really need to find a 'smoking gun' of government target setting that deliberately fails as many benefit claimants as possible, when the WCA is in fact intentionally designed to do that - and by placing the bar as high as possible? Representing a considerable challenge according to staff. Here's a quote from page 49 of the report:
"Staff who had previously worked under Incapacity Benefit (IB) recognised that the WCA was intentionally stricter than the Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) and that the threshold for benefit eligibility has risen significantly. However, in some cases, staff felt the WCA had gone too far the other way."
There you have it. Even in the early days of the WCA, staff felt that it was intentionally stricter and that it may have actually gone too far. A document that was produced for the Department of Works and Pensions itself and under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith in December 2010. So, does central government really need to setting benefit targets or sanctions targets for removing sick and disabled people from the system - something it usually denies anyway?
Target setting and sanctions
As it stands, there is indeed evidence that some jobcentres did set targets to remove benefit claimants from the welfare system. In 2011, a 'whistle-blower' told the Guardian newspaper that staff at his jobcentre were given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions, where benefits were removed for up to six months. It was argued to be part of a 'culture change' that had led to competition between advisers, teams and regional offices (The Guardian, 1st April 2011). Iain Duncan Smith later appeared on TV to claim that the story was simply 'claptrap'. However, email evidence emerged highlighting that targets were indeed being imposed to stop people's benefits, and in some cases staff claimed that they also had been threatened with sanctions themselves if they did not reach those set targets. The DWP subsequently issued a statement confirming the practice but that it had been going on in some offices only due to a 'misunderstanding' between the DWP and some jobcentre managers (The Guardian, 8th April 2011).
But even if such target setting were a genuine mistake in 2011 (and that is not a certainty) in response to a freedom of information request in 2017, the DWP duly indicated that central government had indeed been setting targets to turn down the vast majority of benefit sanction appeals. A figure set at around 80% according to the Work and Pensions Select Committee (Disability Rights UK, 14th December 2017). So, apart from DWP target setting, benefit sanctions have undoubtedly continued to cause immense problems for Britain's sick and disabled. Something a House of Commons Select Committee recognised as far back as 2015, calling for an independent review of the application of benefit sanctions. A review that has failed to materialise as far as I can trace.
Here's what the committee originally asked for:
"We recommend that DWP commission a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, in accordance with the relevant Regulations and guidance, across the Jobcentre Plus network. This review should be established and report as soon as is practicable in the next Parliament"
(Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review, 18th March 2015)
In 2018, the Department for Work and Pensions was actually accused of 'sneaking out' a report that cast complete doubt upon the effectiveness of benefit sanctions, concluding that benefit sanctions do not encourage claimants into work or increase their earnings (The independent, 10 October 2018). Then, if we needed any reminding that the DWP lacked any real understanding of the impact its own actions, in 2019 a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into welfare provision concluded:
"It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Department lacks the tools and insight fully to understand and evaluate the impact of its reforms on some of the most vulnerable people it supports"
WCA versus PIP
If we take a look at DWP figures released in December 2017, these highlight that out of a total of 947,000 claimants who were reassessed for the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) in the year up to October 2017, 22% had their benefits reduced and 25% were disallowed or withdrawn altogether. Figures that mean 443,000 people (47%) will have had their benefit claims reduced or removed in the course of one year alone. That should be a massive eye-opener for those who still doubt that benefits are being systematically removed from sick and disabled people - and solely for the sake of political ideology.
PIP is a disability benefit specifically designed to help with the additional costs of living with a disability or long term health condition. Losing that payment may therefore seriously impact upon a disabled persons independence and ability to live independently. In addition to those 443,000, figures released from the Motability charity around about the same time highlighted that 51,000 people disabled people also had their mobility cars removed after a reassessment for PIP - amounting to 45% of all cases. Cars that enabled disabled people with extreme mobility issues to enjoy an independent lifestyle - while even enabling some disabled people to travel to work. So, as we can see, problems with PIP has also impacted upon disabled people.
However, lose or weaken the WCA and the British government arguably loses its main and chief ideological weapon in removing sick and disabled people off the benefit system - and preferably into work. A weapon intentionally designed to be much stricter than the previous system. And for the real reasons why, we need to refer back to Labour's Welfare Reform Green Paper of January 2006. Where key thinking surrounding the WCA focused on:
- The right to work.
- A changing national economy.
- A rapidly aging population and a falling birth rate.
- An assessment process focusing on potential capability and capacity to engage in the labour market, rather than incapacity.
- Reform of the exempt to work category.
- Framework of both rights and responsibility. Refusing to engage in the help and support offered could see benefits progressively reduced in stages, to the level of jobseeker's allowance.
- A goal of an 80% employment rate.
- Older workers to remain in employment longer.
Arguably, even in 2006 we can see Britain's political elite showing huge concern over a shortage of labour due to an aging population and a falling birth rate. And with an employment goal set at 80% (the current rate being around 75%) the sick, the disabled and the elderly were all arguably being targeted as an alternative labour force. With a much bigger emphasis now placed upon the individual's responsibility to the state rather than the state's responsibility to the individual, there is an underlying assumption also at play here, that some of those who are not working due to ill health and disability could in fact work if they really, really wanted to. Not just a call for greater help and support for those who do want to work.
So, as we can perhaps see from the Green paper of 2006, the WCA itself was always designed to be a key player into getting sick or disabled people back to work and by a shift in thinking that now focused on what sick and disabled people can still do and not what they can't.
An eroded work ethic?
Although Britain has been argued as having almost record levels of unemployment for a number of years now - there is always a visible panic over an eroded 'work ethic' that seems completely at odds with such low levels of unemployment? However, anyone who has studied economics at a basic level will know that official definitions of 'unemployment' often disguise the true rate. For example, in August 2019 the UK's unemployment rate was officially 3.8%, only 0.4% above the UK's record low recorded in 1973. However, check that out with the National Office of Statistics and estimates of unemployment for May to July that year highlighted that 8.59 million people between the working ages of 16 to 64 years were in fact, 'economically inactive'. A rate of just under 24% in comparison. Some difference.
Of course, many of these people will be economically inactive for a very good reason, such as those with family responsibilities, those taking early retirement, students in full-time education and yes, those with long-term health conditions. While much is made by government & co of official estimates of unemployment being so low, it is these alternative numbers of 'unemployment' that actually seem to cause great concern amongst the political elites. For some reason it freaks them out completely. So much so, that they are also often used to panic the British public into thinking that there are millions of people in the UK who have never worked and simply just don't want to work - out of laziness.
For example, in 2009 both Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice were suggesting precisely that:
"Today, there are 10.4 million working-age people not working in the UK. Of these, 5.9 million are claiming out-of-work benefits." (A Policy Report from the Economic Dependency Working Group, page 15, September 2009, Centre for Social Justice).
A report where IDS actually claimed in the preface ".......we must also recognise that few of those out of work would look upon work as a moral choice". Despite there being little evidence to back up this rather sweeping generalisation that more than 10 million Brits (who are actually not working for a variety of reasons) have a problem with morality. Many of whom have also nothing to do with the benefit system at all. In fact, many, such as those mums and dads staying at home in order to look after their families, don't seem to be displaying any sign of irresponsibility nor family breakdown at all. Quite the opposite.
Yet another sign for me of the general fuzzy-minded logic and deep-rooted prejudice that the political elites in Britain seem rather keen on displaying towards their own citizens. However, with vacancies seemingly not being filled down at the jobcentre, this is arguably what politicians like Iain Duncan Smith primarily want to focus on and obsess about. Doesn't really matter to our Iain if people are not filling these vacancies because they are mums and dads busily looking after their kids or caring for their families in other ways, people retiring early because they have worked bloody hard to do so, or students trying to educate themselves for the workplace of the future. Everybody is immoral because there are vacancies still on the boards of the local jobcentre - and Iain Duncan Smith doesn't like that. In fact, as he said in 2010, it's a "sin".
So, it is no surprise to me when politicians like IDS become almost psychotically obsessed with bringing down the numbers of those considered to be 'economically inactive' and by any means, especially when there seems to be a shortage of willing labour. The economically inactive are often inactive for a very good reason and may indeed choose to become 'active' at any point. They are not actually 'unemployed'. But by singling out those with genuine, long-term health conditions and disabilities, it may simply be because they are perceived to be the easiest and most vulnerable of targets? Mums and dads are not going to find low-paid work and long hours appealing when private child-care will always cost more than what they can earn. Those retiring early with a private pension will simply stick two fingers up at any government trying to bully them into not doing. And students? They are our future doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, architects etc. Just how stupid and short-sighted can a political elite be, when they would sooner have these people filling shelves down at the local supermarket than building and preparing for their future careers?
Laziness or discrimination?
Of course, for disabled people who do want to work it is not the case that they can just walk into a job, if you pardon the expression, no matter how many vacancies there seems to be down at the local job centre. Some jobs clearly won't be suitable for certain disabilities, but disabled people may become excluded from employment only through the negative attitudes of employers themselves. For example, disabled people need to apply for 60 per cent more jobs than non-disabled jobseekers before they find work - according to research commissioned by the disability charity Scope in 2017. Prompting arguments that disabled people are being actively shut out of the jobs market.
Nothing to do with laziness nor immorality. Especially if we remind ourselves that the overall unemployment rate in 2017 held steady between 4.2% and 4.6% all year. With anything around that figure usually signalling an economy enjoying full employment. And in times when there is full employment, it is often considered easier for people to find and switch jobs if they wish. However, for disabled people it's not.
Today, the latest official unemployment rate for people with disabilities is around 6.7% compared to 3.7% for those without disabilities. With 43.3% of those with disabilities of working age being economically inactive compared to 15.6% of those without disabilities (House of Commons Briefing Paper, Number 7540, 3rdJanuary 2020). Figures which will undoubtedly still cause consternation amongst the powers that be. While not all of those 43% will realistically be capable of working, arguably there will be some disabled people desperate to work, yet unable to find a willing employer. But that seems not to matter one jot, even to those who see filling job vacancies as being by far the most important thing in the universe. It is the irresponsibility and the immorality of the person who is not working that becomes the main focus.
But the point is this, it is clear that there are many disabled people in the UK who do want to work but are actually being denied the chance through no fault of their own. Not just actively being denied jobs, but publically pillared and punished for it. And for those who do see the employer as being reluctant in employing disabled people, it is still ultimately the disabled person's fault for wanting at least, the state minimum as a wage.
Why disabled people are largely unable to find jobs can still be argued to be primarily down to a perception held amongst employers that disabled people are just not as productive as the abled-bodied, according to research undertaken by the Leonard Cheshire charity in 2018. Something that explains why disabled people indeed have to apply for 60 per cent more jobs before they find work, than non-disabled jobseekers. With the WCA in play, clearly no type of illness or disability is considered by the state as being an automatic barrier to working. However, it is also the state who decides how much 'function' you may have and therefore how much you can still do. Not a great situation if you have a bunch of Iain Duncan Smith clones in charge and where the individual involved nor the medical profession has little say in the matter. But while all the focus is on the motivation to work rather than the discriminatory actions of employers, there are arguably going to be even more and more political discussions about reducing or removing welfare benefits completely from sick and disabled people as an 'incentive' to work. Incentives (or punishments) that arguably don't work to any great extent because they are the wrong solutions brought about by politicians coming to the wrong conclusions. Yes, employees and jobseekers with disabilities are legally protected against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. On paper maybe, but that means little in the grand scheme of things when discrimination takes place primarily behind closed doors.
Arguably, one of the safest ways of getting disabled people into work is for the state to actively focus on employers themselves, encouraging employers to take on more disabled people and supporting those employers to do so. So, not just highlighting their legal obligations and properly enforcing them, but by educating employers about disability and supporting them with guidance, advice and any other help that is needed. Are disabled workers really that less productive than the abled-bodied? Where is the evidence that says so? The argument of unproductiveness becomes particularly suspect when you can hear daily from government and the media about ALL British workers being unproductive. And if abled-bodied British workers are perceived to be lazy and unproductive, then just how unproductive do employers perceive disabled people to be?
However, for years there has been evidence that disabled people can be just as productive as the abled-bodied. For example, Hindle, Noble and Phillips (1999:p5) concluded in what was argued to be the first empirical study on the subject:
"Workers with a disability were significantly longer serving. There was no difference between the measured productivity of disability and non-disability workers in attendance, task engagement, efficiency or effectiveness."
In 2008, Lengnick-Hall et al. argued that "most employers hold stereotypical beliefs not supported by research evidence" (p255). And that conclusion is probably all any government really needs to focus on. It could therefore be far more productive to educate and inform employers about disabled workers rather than simply throwing whole groups of disabled people to the wolves, as we have seemingly done since 2006. Of course, if any British government wants to cynically exploit the 'unproductiveness' argument of disabled people in order for employers to avoid paying the state minimum wage (and disabled people themselves as a potentially cheap source of labour) then the easy option will be to carry on pinning the blame for not being able to find work on disabled people themselves - rather than on discrimination.
Removing benefits increases independence?
As with the Work Capability Assessment, reducing or removing PIP also impacts negatively upon disabled people and in particular their ability to be independent and to live independently. In some cases, losing access to a mobility car also means losing access to employment. So, on the surface, it seems nonsensical making work capability assessments for disabled people so tough that they are supposed to 'incentivise' disabled people into becoming more independent by taking up jobs - while taking away the help and the tools that actually make disabled people independent. And to the point of hindering them in taking up work? On the surface that is.
But if welfare reform is ultimately about forcing sick and disabled people into work and nothing else, no matter what the circumstances actually are, then although PIP was actually introduced by Iain Duncan Smith and his cronies in 2013, it may have also become perceived as being an ideological stumbling block to promoting independence. PIP also costs a lot more to run than IDS had originally planned for, a major political embarrassment for any administration that pushes austerity policies simply as a way of saving taxpayers money. I mean, if austerity is costing more than it saves, then money-saving obviously isn't going to be the prime objective. As many of us indeed argue.
But paying people to be independent when the best way to be independent is argued to be through work itself, means that PIP may have backfired spectacularly on the ideological front. As a minimum, it arguably contradicts Conservative ideology of self-reliance and self-responsibility. No surprise then, that the DWP were looking into reforming PIP back in December 2015 and only two years after its introduction. Considering that Iain Duncan Smith was still DWP's head supremo at this time and even stated in his own resignation letter that he wasn't totally against the reform of PIP (even though he said was resigning over it). Such tinkering does seem to fit in with both Duncan Smith's and the Centre for Social Justice's social engineering ambitions. Which makes the resignation of someone who was a key player in such reform seem quite a curious one.
Interestingly in 2019, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time, Amber Rudd, announced that the Department was thinking about combining the assessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) with the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). However, there is widespread concern that merging the two assessments together will further link disability with simply being 'unemployed'. For example, the Work Capability Assessment tests how fit you are for work whereas the PIP assessment tests how your disability affects your ability to look after yourself and to get about. By linking the WCA assessment with the PIP assessment, government may arguably be generating an even tougher system that says that you are not entitled to PIP at all if you are deemed as being fit-for-work in some shape or form.
As I said previously, paying people to be independent is arguably a contradiction of both ideology and policy that perceives work as being the only route out of dependency and poverty. However, PIP still costs a fortune and if Britain has an acute labour shortage, as the Financial Times itself argued in November 2018 and particularly in Hospitality, IT, Construction, Healthcare, and Leisure, then why wouldn't any ruthless and callous government still be looking to force as many sick and disabled people back into work, regardless of the consequences? Either way, PIP itself will most certainly be targeted for future reform and arguably, done away with completely.
The WCA, a valuable stick to beat people with?
Therefore, there is an argument to be put that our politicians may still continue to view the WCA as being its most valuable tool in reducing the total numbers of sick and disabled people claiming benefits. So, why on earth would they scrap it? This is an argument also intimated by the Disability News Service when they argue that no visible or significant improvements have been made to the WCA to-date. The proof of that pudding will always be in the eating but we certainly know for a fact that there are disabled people still attempting suicide or committing suicide after coming into contact with the WCA. So, if no improvements have been made to the system since 2010, arguments made largely by people who actually use the system or advocate for those who do, then we have to seriously ask the question of why not?
Surely our politicians are not so stupid that they cannot see the folly of completely dismantling Britain's welfare system and not replacing it? Something like 14 million Brits live in poverty, many of whom are both working and receiving welfare benefits. So, despite the rhetoric of Iain Duncan Smith and others of a similar ilk, millions of people cannot be in poverty just because they are far too lazy to work? That argument doesn't make sense. For a start, working people in low paid jobs often receive top-up payments from the state in order to help take them out of poverty. Indicating that if the taxpayer is being exploited by someone, then it may be the state, together with the employer who may actually be the culprits. Where the state effectively subsidises companies to keep their wages artificially low and therefore in some cases, their profits artificially high.
However, clearly the perception amongst the political elites in Britain and often across political parties, is that the majority of those in poverty are not just lazy but that they often make the wrong choices. That it is immorality and irresponsibility, not just laziness that are the causes of poverty. So, in order to deter others from either being lazy or indeed making similar poor judgements, the welfare system needs to be made as harsh and as tough as possible so that it not only acts as punishment but acts as a deterrent to others. And if you trace Britain's treatment of poverty over the centuries, that is not a unique view.
But what about those who are indeed genuine and struggling to survive? Arguably, for David Cameron that is where his vision of the 'Big Society' came in, a belief that the welfare state could indeed be completely done away with and any bits that are actually needed, primarily replaced by a new obligation on the British citizen to volunteer and donate in order to take up the slack. Yet again an emphasis on restoring family and community responsibility. But it is sure some slack to take up when millions of Brits are now dependent on charity food-banks for survival, something argued to be caused by reducing or taking welfare benefits off those already in poverty.
The State of Hunger Report (2019) compiled by Heriot-Watt University for the Trussell Trust charity concluded that food bank use was indeed 'driven by economic need', were those dependent on food parcels were people often in poor health, suffering job loss, going through a divorce or lacked access to informal family support. A key fact considering how often welfare reform is sold to the public as not only about saving taxpayers money but about restoring the institution of family that had undermined by the welfare state. Clearly, removing welfare benefits does little to help those with no family.
Welfare reform driven by prejudice?
But listen to the powers that be, some Conservative MP's have actually claimed that foodbank use itself also encourages dependency and that foodbank users only use them because they just want something for nothing. Take a listen to some of these gems of wisdom over foodbank use, as quoted in the Metro, 27th November 2019:
"Families who were forced to use food banks only have themselves to blame because they are 'unable to manage their finances'.......people couldn't afford to feed themselves because of their 'own decisions'."
(Michael Gove 2013)
".......the only reason for the rise in their use was 'that people know that they are there'......and the former Labour government failed to inform people of their existence."
(Jacob Rees Mogg 2017)
"It's a cash flow problem"
"....families are struggling to provide for themselves because they prioritise phones over food....and that it is 'right' people are using food banks because debt acquired under Labour required 'tough' action from the government."
Now, do those comments highlight that our politicians may be completely out-of-touch with reality and the way ordinary Brits are forced to live? But do they also highlight some level of prejudice towards those in poverty? In October 2015, Iain Duncan Smith even announced to a commons select committee that job advisers had been posted in a food bank as part of a trial that was planned to be rolled out across the UK. The logic being that users could be given advice on both claiming benefits and finding work. Even though the MP's investigating benefit delivery had already indicated that it was often the long wait for benefit payments (caused by changes to the benefit system itself) that were often the single biggest cause of food bank use. Not only forcing some benefit claimants into debt but others into crime such as shoplifting.
So, are our politicians indeed simply prejudiced towards its own citizens or are they just unbelievably stupid, incompetent and constantly in denial of the facts? Arguably, not many of our politician's, past or present, seemingly have the ability to think ahead nor the ability to fully think out their ideas on welfare first before they suggest alternatives. But then again, if the plan was simply to dump as many people as possible off the welfare system regardless of sickness or disability and regardless of the consequences, then why think ahead? People are simply lazy and won't work because they can get more by claiming welfare benefits? Solution? Get rid of welfare. Easy.
Of course, unscrupulous people will always find a way to cheat the system, but the argument that millions of Brits are doing just that has never actually been proven. Certainly, government action over welfare can be viewed as being a sign of either incompetence or negligence, but it may also be argued to be a serious abuse of power. Especially when we consider how little welfare reform has saved the taxpayer. In 2014, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) highlighted that welfare spending from 2010 onwards had fallen by just £2.5bn despite reforms originally aimed at saving around £19bn. Figures that hide the fact that the brunt of welfare cuts have been disproportionally borne by the long-term sick and disabled, families with children, and young people. And we should always remember that the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) argued in 2016 that welfare reforms have led to 'grave and systematic violations' of disabled people's human rights. So, if allegations of human rights abuse fail to get British governments to change direction over welfare reform, then what will?
WHY DID IDS REALLY RESIGN?
Iain Duncan Smith unexpectedly resigned from David Cameron's cabinet on 18th March 2016 citing that he was unable to accept further cuts to disability benefits. Considering that IDS was undoubtedly the main architect of Conservative welfare reform, it seemed a little disingenuous at the time - if not completely laughable. Something that could also be said about IDS seemingly being forever on the verge of tears when interviewed over poverty and the lives of the poor, afterwards. Not such a bad chap, judging by the concern he suddenly began to show? However, considering that it was Iain Duncan Smith who failed in his legal duty as DWP Secretary of State to respond to Coroner Osborne's report written in 2010. And did not reply until February 2016, failing to both sign and date the letter (although claimed by the DWP to have been drafted in the autumn of 2010) it is interesting that Duncan Smith was to resign not long afterwards. Coincidence?
But where had this report been hiding for all those years? It is clear that Iain Duncan Smith claimed to have had a change of heart over taking even more money off sick and disabled people, but when did this change of heart occur? In an interview given to the Guardian Newspaper on 2nd Oct 2015, less than 6 months before his resignation, while IDS was contrite about the WCA and the deaths of vulnerable people, there was little indication that he had actually changed his mind over welfare reform nor that he was soon to quite over further benefit cuts for disabled people. He argued that the WCA was in fact an 'unbelievably harsh' system introduced by the last Labour government (true), but that he had listened to the independent reviews and wanted to 'soften' the system. He also accused some sick and disabled people of going through the WCA process fearful of voicing any willingness to work, in case they lost their benefits by doing so.
Bearing in mind that this interview came five years after IDS first becoming DWP supremo and there had been plenty of opportunity for him not only to soften the WCA, but to get rid of it completely if he wished. After all, Iain Duncan Smith was the main man concerning welfare reform - and the key man in charge of the department controlling both welfare and its reform. IDS was therefore in an ideal position to argue for the scrapping the WCA if he thought fit. But the interview is also contrary to the evidence presented by John Pring and the Disability News Network that there had been no such softening up of the WCA. To back that suggestion up, in my own experience nobody I have been in contact with over the last two years or so has thought that the WCA had been improved in any way, quite the opposite. These are people who have gone through the system -so they should know.
More work to do?
But let's just move on from that interview and back to the speech IDS gave at the Conservative Party Conference just four days later on 6th October 2015. Five years on from taking over from the previous Labour Government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, IDS was absolutely ecstatic that the Conservatives had now won power in their own right and arguably saw it as a green light for further welfare reform. No indication of a potential row looming over further benefit cuts for disabled people. In fact, IDS rejoices:
"We are bringing an end to Labour's 'something for nothing culture'. But the jobs not done yet, there is more to do"
"Many people who are sick and disabled want to work. We need to help them find the work they can do"
"Now we want to focus on the causes of poverty. The causes not just the symptom."
"The bedrock of a good society, and the first defence against poverty - is at its best, bigger than big business, stronger than government, and more compassionate than charities. It is the family. When families are strong, well there is no stopping us. Then children learn first-hand what grown up responsibility looks like. They understand we are dependent, not on government but on each other and that everybody has to pull their weight, but no one gets left behind.
(Iain Duncan Smith, 6th October 2015)
Fast forward a few months and a report in the Guardian newspaper from 11th March 2016 even reported that IDS was filmed the day before (on the 10th March 2016) claiming that three-quarters of benefit claimants who are sanctioned - 'helps them focus'. Focus on what? Starvation? Of course, Duncan Smith was the chief architect of welfare reform in Britain from 2010 onwards, so his overall negative view of the poor, the sick or disabled should come not as any surprise. Given that these reforms are primarily driven by a perception amongst the political establishment that benefit claimants are lazy and irresponsible. Nor that he had voted consistently in the House of Commons for cuts to welfare spending and against raising welfare benefits.
Information from the TheyWorkForYou website confirms that Iain Duncan Smith even continued to support welfare cuts all the way throughout 2016 - by voting for them in the House of Commons:
- 23 Feb 2016: IDS voted to remove the 'work-related activity component' from the Employment and Support Allowance. Changes introduced to remove any financial incentives that could discourage claimants from taking steps back to work.
- 23 Feb 2016: IDS voted to remove the 'limited capability for work' element of Universal Credit. Changes introduced to remove any financial incentives that could discourage claimants from taking steps back to work.
- 2 March 2016: IDS voted against making the removal of the work-related activity component from employment and support allowance conditional on an impact assessment and against requiring Parliament to approve details of implementing the change.
- 2 March 2016: IDS voted against making the removal of the limited capability for work element of universal credit conditional on an impact assessment and against requiring Parliament to approve details of implementing the change.
- 20 July 2016: IDS voted for cuts in housing benefit for recipients in supported housing.
- 16 November 2016: IDS voted in favour of reductions to the work allowance element of universal credit and reductions to employment and support allowance and against analysing how changes impact those on different incomes.
Ok, let's try to be fair here. The man did come through for disabled people on the 8th July 2016 when he made himself completely absent for a vote on 'Benefit Cuts for Disabled and Ill People Required to Participate in Activities Intended to Increase Their Chances of Obtaining Work.' An interesting turn of affairs when we consider that between 2011 and 2016, IDS had on 47 other occasions voted for cuts to welfare spending. Although, it also needs to be mentioned that this vote actually passed through the House of Commons, regardless of Duncan Smith's antics. So, his absence was unlikely to have made any difference
But, what happened this time? A change of conscience? Was he busy washing his hair? Well, it's not the first time he had gone missing in action, so don't get too excited. Especially if we analyse his voting behaviour on the 23th Feb and the 2nd March, when he voted in favour of policy that once again took money off both sick and disabled people. And just days before he resigned over his own department wanting to take more money off.......sick and disabled people. Now make sense of that if you can?
The cuts that IDS did support, again had a very serious and negative impact upon disabled people, and something argued as being a barrier to work itself (according to disability campaign groups and organisations). For example, Disability Rights UK have argued consistently that: "ESA-WRAG cuts hit households with a disabled person extremely hard". So, why on earth would Iain Duncan Smith vote in favour of one policy that removes money from disabled people, policy that may also act as an actual barrier to disabled people finding work, and then resign just a few days later because his department was going to take further money off disabled people? Hardly logical or consistent.
Dodgy consultations and dodgy evidence?
What we do know for certain is that IDS resigned in March 2016 because disabled people were going to be hit with further spending cuts. Or at least that is what we were officially told at the time. His resignation largely focused on changes to PIP - the Personal Independence Payment. Something introduced under IDS's leadership in 2013 to replace the older Disability Living Allowance and is meant to help with the extra costs of being disabled. It is non-means tested. PIP works by awarding points to claimants based on how their disability affects their life. The more points a person gets under the claim, the higher their payment is to help cover the costs of their disability. The row therefore centred on government planning to halve the number of points a person gets, effectively reducing the payments some disabled people need for aids and appliances. Critics of the plan argued that this would further hinder and limit the independence of disabled people. However, considering that PIP had also failed to save the taxpayer any money, it was obvious government would soon get the knives out in order to trim it back.
The plans were announced in the March budget of 2016. However, with Iain Duncan's Smith's resignation and pressure from other Tory rebels, the plans were subsequently dropped - again something we were simply told. Yet, if we trace the proposed changes via information held in the House of Commons library, we find that it was the DWP itself who launched the consultation exercise over changes to PIP in December 2015 - and launched by DWP under-Secretary at the time, Justin Tomlinson. Something rather overlooked in all the noise that followed the budget and IDS's rather proud resignation. A blusterous noise that mysteriously gave the impression that nobody at the DWP had actually made this decision nor was involved in it. It was government to blame - and more specifically the Treasury.
Yet, look at the structure of the DWP and the Secretary of State will always have overall responsibility for the department and direct responsibility for expenditure and management. In short, Iain Duncan Smith was Tomlinson's boss at the time - Tomlinson being under-Secretary of State for Disabled People from May 2015 to June 2016. And for the proof of that, all you need is to look at the document that Tomlinson launched in December 2015, one that states: Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Tomlinson therefore acted on behalf of the Secretary of State on this occasion.
If we take a look at the House of Commons briefing paper on this consultation process that begun on the 10th December 2015 (Number 7651, 8 July 2016) it states - "Responses to the consultation were overwhelmingly against the options for change put forward". Bearing in mind that the respondents were not just individuals but disability charities and organisations. But if we fast forward to page 11 & 12 of the paper we find strong criticism of both the proposals and the consultation process, criticism succinctly put forward from the Spartacus Network:
"We reject all of the options put forward by the government. We reject this consultation as inappropriate on the grounds that * The DWP does not provide adequate or robust evidence for its claims. * In particular, the DWP cites a review without permitting respondents to see the methods or results of this review. * The consultation period was too short and insufficiently promoted. * The questions and options promoted are complex, repetitive and confusing."
Despite criticisms of dodgy DWP evidence and overwhelming criticism of the reforms in general, somebody at the DWP completely ignored the lot and decided to introduce those changes anyway. If we look at the report generated by the DWP outlining the proposed changes, it was also reportedly presented to parliament by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the 11th March 2016. Although I cannot find any information on the presentation nor who actually presented it. If you take a look at page 103 on the Budget Document for March 2016, changes to PIP are duly mentioned. But who actually decided to proceed with the changes and against fierce opposition from disability groups is unknown. All I can gather is that 'government' decided. Needless to say, the reaction was explosive when the move was announced.
Scrap the WCA and scrap sanctions?
Interestingly, just before cuts to PIP were announced in the budget, on the 11th March 2016 and only seven days before IDS resigned, a report from the Social Market Foundation proposed scrapping the WCA completely. It also recommended that the DWP should abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with a chronic illness or a disability. What makes this report important is that it wasn't written by disability campaigners nor disability organisations but by Matthew Oakley, a former Treasury adviser and former head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange think-tank. Therefore a report that carried some weight and an indication that even some very senior 'Conservatives' were getting a touch jittery over welfare reforms primarily designed and promoted by Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice.
We have already mentioned that in 2014, welfare savings were also far less than expected. But it is interesting that PIP itself has cost more than it was supposed to save. In 2019, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the Treasury's independent forecasting unit, said predictions by the Department for Work and Pensions under-estimated the cost of rolling out PIP in 2013. A saving of £2bn was forecast by 2018 but that has since been revised to an overspend of around £2bn - leaving an estimated £4.2bn gap in the public finances. Arguably the main reason the DWP wanted to reform PIP, as it was costing far too much and therefore a major embarrassment when both austerity and welfare reform was being sold to the public as a necessity.
It wasn't me, says IDS
Of course, Iain Duncan Smith resigned over the matter and we should be grateful of that action at least, considering he was arguably both the brains and the brawn behind welfare reform. So, losing IDS was seen as being a major blow to government - or at least portrayed that way by Britain's media. But it is rather curious that all this 'consultation' business and the reform of PIP had been going on in Iain Duncan Smith's own department from the 10th December 2015 onwards, right under his very nose and without pretty much of a public squeak from the man himself until the 18th March 2016.
It is disingenuous to believe that the boss of the Department and Works and Pensions had no prior knowledge, no input and absolutely nothing to do with the reforms that were being pushed forward by his own department. Despite a suggestion from IDS himself that he had actually 'distanced' himself from his own department during these weeks. Especially when we consider IDS's role on reform and his voting record. Both the consultation document and the government's response to it were also produced with the official authorisation of the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions stated on the documentation. Yet, we are expected to believe, and some people have indeed believed right up until now, that IDS resigned simply because he was against money being taken out of the pockets of sick and disabled people?
So what and who cares? Well, in light of the research undertaken by the Disability News Network, it is interesting at least, to see that Iain Duncan Smith unexpectedly walked away from Government around about the same time information was coming out about him not responding to a coroner's report over the death of a vulnerable welfare claimant. Quite a serious legal charge if such inaction had indeed contributed to the deaths of other vulnerable people. But for me, it is particularly suspicious that almost immediately after resigning, the man seemed to go on a rather obvious (if not also odious) Public Relations mission to distance himself from his own reforms. Almost a case of - it wasn't me, I was only obeying orders. So, if the WCA was actually killing people off and if campaign groups were suddenly being presented with evidence of IDS's possible legal failings in the matter, why should he carry the can? After all, the Work Capability Assessment wasn't his brainchild, it was the Labour Party's. In other words, did panic set in?
That said, Iain Duncan Smith stated in his resignation letter that he was still proud of the reforms "government" had implemented, and that:
"...reforms have helped to generate record rates of employment and in particular a substantial reduction in workless households."
But notice that it was 'government' who had implemented the reforms that had such a dramatic effect not only on employment rates but workless households. With little mention of the 90 people a month dying after being falsely declared as fit-for-work via the WCA. Nor of IDS's failure in actually saving the taxpayer any money. But it is clear from the resignation letter that it was the 'government' who was entirely responsible for welfare reform, not the DWP nor IDS. Duncan Smith simply being a bit-part player of the ministerial team and only for "....the advancement of social justice". Aw shucks and pass the sick bucket. IDS also came armed with a variety of friends at this time who were suddenly jumping out of the woodwork left, right and centre in order to tell us what such a nice man he was and how actually misunderstood he is.
On the 19th March 2016, 'friends' were also quoted in the Guardian Newspaper as saying that IDS resigned from the cabinet because he was frustrated that Downing Street and the Treasury had refused to consider cuts to pensioner benefits rather than further cuts to disability:
"Friends of the former work and pension's secretary said he was fed up of being asked "again and again" for cuts to working age benefits and those for disabled people, while the money spent on older voters remained untouched. That led him to write a furious resignation letter, pointing the finger at the chancellor, George Osborne, and questioning his claim of "we are all in it together".
(The Guardian, 19th March 2016)
Something David Cameron was reported in the same article as being both "puzzled and disappointed" over, because reforms to PIP had been accepted by the Department for Work and Pensions. And that can be evidenced at least by referring to the DWP's consultation paper and response papers. However, Philippa Stroud, who co-founded the Centre for Social Justice with Duncan Smith and who had worked by his side implementing welfare reform, rushed to his defence on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme:
"It was not appropriate to be giving away tax incentives to the middle classes, freezing fuel duty and protecting universal benefits and pensioner benefits at the time that you were making cuts to disability benefits," and that ".....Duncan Smith had come into government to "deliver a social agenda ... to protect the poorest".
(The Guardian, 19th March 2016)
Rather marvellous hokum that reached a crescendo a few weeks later in April when IDS even broke down in tears on camera after recalling a meeting with a struggling single mother - for a BBC interview to Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.
But I would just like to remind ourselves that this Iain Duncan Smith is the same Iain Duncan Smith who defended welfare cuts in 2013 by bragging that he could easily live off £53 a week in benefits if he had to. Only for it to emerge soon afterwards that he once claimed £193 off the taxpayer in expenses for a one night stay in a hotel - including £39 for breakfast. The very same Iain Duncan Smith who only last year suggested that the retirement age in the UK should be raised to 75. And to put that suggestion into perspective, life expectancy for men in Blackpool is currently 74.5 years and in Glasgow it is less than 74. And no doubt it is the same Iain Duncan Smith who arguably knew from day one what damage the WCA was capable of causing. Certainly there are still signs that neither IDS nor the CSJ have taken a back-seat in wanting all of us working until we drop dead from it.
However, the man is arguably still a human being and no doubt the daily accusation of basically murdering sick and disabled people via welfare reform, could have taken some kind of psychological toil on him. By March 2016, the only people really considering welfare reform as being a roaring success were the Conservative Government, the DWP and Iain Duncan Smith himself. The rest of us not only flabbergasted by the sheer stupidity of it all, but the sheer stupidity and stubbornness of those still pushing it through.
Gone but not forgotten
Here's what IDS had to say in his resignation letter:
"I am incredibly proud of the welfare reforms that the government has delivered over the last five years. Those reforms have helped to generate record rates of employment and in particular a substantial reduction in workless households."
"I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they've been made are a compromise too far. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers. They should have instead been part of a wider process to engage others in finding the best way to better focus resources on those most in need."
"I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest. Too often my team and I have been pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working age benefit bill. There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government's vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced."
Here we find a man still proud of 'government' reform and one generally defending its proposed cuts to PIP - in principle if not in context. If we carry on reading, we find a man now kicking back at government primarily because it is largely driven by politics rather than the national interest - a policy that he argues pressurises his department into saving more and more money. But in reality, it is ideology, politics and policy that he and the Centre of Social Justice have not only pushed for from 2004 onwards but also actively created during 2010 to 2016.
So, did the man really fall on his sword simply because others were pushing his department to save even more money from the pockets of disabled people - or is there more to this? Especially when shortly afterwards, we have witnessed the man trying to subtly distance himself from the misery and chaos his own welfare reforms have actually caused - and by lumping it all on the actions of 'government'. Certainly a nod towards collective responsibility, where it is the buildings or bricks and mortar of organisations that seemingly take the poor and lousy decisions, rather than power-hungry and power-crazed individuals themselves.
But ultimately, Iain Duncan Smith may have been quickly trying to reconstruct a new public narrative for himself. That it wasn't him at all that had poorly thought out, badly designed and then brought in welfare reform, universal credit or PIP during 2004 to 2016 - it was the 'government' and if you are looking for someone to blame for the chaos, then blame them?
Of course, we can't pin the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment on IDS, but we can argue that IDS and the DWP completely ignored all the warnings that the WCA was indeed unsafe and that he carried on doing so for many years. That is something we should not forget.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
I started out at beginning outlining research undertaken by John Pring and the Disability News Network. Research that concluded Iain Duncan Smith should face a criminal investigation over the deaths of vulnerable welfare claimants during his time as Secretary of State for Works and Pensions. There is enough evidence to suggest that both Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling meet the criteria as defined by the Crown Prosecution Service for having committed 'a criminal offence of misconduct in public office'. For example, the DWP were legally warned of the dangers of the WCA by a coroner as far back as 2010, not only failing to act on such warnings but consistently kept evidence and internal reports away from independent review into the WCA. Not only an abuse of public trust but failed to fix the flaws in the WCA that arguably caused the deaths of other vulnerable people.
I have then gone off at a tangent a little and outlined my own concerns, not only over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith's from the DWP but also the timing of it. It was arguably a rather confusing decision at the time, considering that IDS was the chief architect of Conservative welfare reform, introduced some of the most brutal reforms the UK as ever seen and then resigned when his key reforms were still being rolled out. And not long after he said himself (in October 2015) that there was still work to be done?
Yes, he claims that he had some kind of change of heart over 'government' pressure to cut benefits for disabled people even further, via reform to PIP. Yet, his own department was involved in both the proposals for those new welfare cuts and the response to the consultation process. Proposals that drew instantaneous condemnation from disabled people. As head of that department, the responsibility for those proposed cuts can therefore only ever lie at the feet of Iain Duncan Smith and no-one else. But his own voting record indicates that just a few days before he resigned, he was in the House of Commons actually voting for cuts to ESA-WRAG that also impacted upon disabled people's welfare benefits.
Clearly, any change of heart from IDS only materialised after the 2nd March 2016 and before the 18th. Therefore, it is not being unreasonable to question the motives that led to the subsequent resignation on the 18th March - in light of further information. OK, critics of welfare reform have argued that such reforms have created nothing but misery and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. So, no surprise if Duncan Smith would now like us to completely forget about the role he played in the most disastrous welfare policy the UK has arguably ever introduced, together with creating a hostile environment surrounding sickness and disability. Especially, if allegations of public misconduct are being suggested.
Perhaps, IDS would much prefer to be historically remembered as a simple foot-soldier in welfare reform rather than being it's five star general. However, since 2004, Iain Duncan Smith worked tirelessly with the Centre of Social Justice to generate a myth that the UK has an overwhelming sickness and benefit culture. One that encouraged a widespread 'dependence' on the state with over-generous welfare payments, payments which pay more than work itself and a situation that eroded the motivation to work. It's a system that was said to have cost hard working families billions of pounds in taxpayer's money and simply because of the laziness and deviance of others. Chiefly, sick people, disabled people and the unemployed. None of which has actually ever been proven. Of course, both the Centre for Social Justice and the DWP will occasionally roll out this report and that report suggesting otherwise, but delve into these documents and they are often little more than hot-air and misinformation. A bit like Iain Duncan Smith himself.
So, it is important to remember the role that Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice has played in shaping public opinion, a public who have arguably absorbed the negative rhetoric a little too easily for comfort. For example, the British Social Attitudes 32nd Edition highlighted that:
"...support for increasing taxes and spending more on health, education and social benefits fell from 63% in 2002 to 32% by 2010 - and had only increased slightly to 37% by 2014."
A dramatic shift in public opinion in such a short space of time. Of course, Britain's media may have had an important role in disseminating negative news and misinformation about welfare provision. For example, a report by Turn2us released in 2013 looked at press coverage of welfare provision between 1995 and 2011, finding negative news stories varied considerably between Britain's toxic tabloids and the broadsheets, with a greater trend of negative articles in the tabloids compared to the broadsheets. The Sun newspaper being the worse of all, a newspaper that bragged in 2018 that it was Britain's most read with a readership of 9.86million. With 29.03million others accessing the newspaper online (The Sun 19th April 2018). And it needs to be mentioned, a newspaper that is specifically targeted at the working classes and the middle classes, according to Journalism Now (18th November 2011).
When we look at the difference between perception and reality over welfare spending in the UK, Britain's public often overestimate the amount of money that is being spent on welfare, particularly unemployment and the amount lost to benefit fraud (Geiger 2016). Clearly, these attitudes and perceptions have to come from somewhere and although we can thank the tabloids for much of that, Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice will most certainly have had a hand in their creation. We know for a fact that the DWP under Iain Duncan Smith were also 'inventing' fake benefit claimants for their leaflets - 'claimant's' who said that they were "really pleased" that their benefits had been cut because it had inspired them to find work (The Independent 19th March 2016). Highlighting the lengths these people will often go through in order to push forward their own prejudices and self-interest.
It is particularly galling that the public are being cynically manipulated into supporting benefit cuts to sick and disabled people, when the likes of Iain Duncan Smith were also squandering taxpayers money like there was no tomorrow. For example, as I argued earlier, welfare reform has cost more than it has saved. In 2017, £40m was also spent on legal battles in order to stop sick and disabled people receiving the financial help that they were entitled to - losing the vast majority of cases (The Independent 28th August 2017). And then there was the cuddly mascot called 'Workie', commissioned for the DWP in order to promote pension changes and costing the tax payer around £8.45 million (The Independent 19th March 2016). Not exactly an example of good economic management.
In a totally unplanned interview with the Disability News Service at Birmingham's International Conference Centre on October 6th 2016, IDS was put on the spot by questions relating to coroners reports and the deaths of vulnerable welfare claimants. However, IDS basically argued that it was not his problem because he didn't work at the DWP anymore and that his former department had actually done much to "soften" the WCA for people with mental health conditions. He also seemed to shift any blame onto former colleagues such as Chris Grayling, who was Employment Minister in 2010: "Back in 2010-11, Chris Grayling was in charge of it, he changed the nature of what we looked at."
So, it is all Mr Graylings fault now? But take a look at www.gov.uk and even the government's own website tells us that:
"....it is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that is responsible for welfare, pensions and child maintenance policy. As the UK's biggest public service department it administers the State Pension and a range of working age, disability and ill health benefits to around 20 million claimants and customers."
So, if the DWP is in charge of disability and sickness benefits, I would say that legally it is the DWP who has to take full responsibility for its actions and any actions that are carried out in its name. And ultimately the buck must always fall at the door of the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions. Duncan Smith during his time as Secretary of State may not have introduced the WCA, but he had arguably been warned time and time again about the flaws contained within the programme - and had apparently and repeatedly chose to ignore those warnings.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the buck will necessarily stop where it should. As the DNS discovered when trying to retrace the footsteps of the DWP - which seemed largely akin to knitting fog. Whenever the British establishment wants to hide any rather dubious behaviour from further scrutiny, arguably it will. And in light of that, we should always remember that the WCA is still an assessment that was deliberately designed to be intentionally tougher than the previous one. Intended to force as people as possible out of the system and into work, regardless of the consequences. That is what it was designed to do.
As such, all UK governments from 2006 onwards may have deliberately targeted sick and disabled people as simply being some kind of reserve army of labour, rather than a group of really sick and disabled people. In an economic climate where a shortage of British workers and a tighter, self-enforced restriction on immigration may increasingly impact negatively upon the British economy, British governments will arguably be even more tempted to view disabled people, especially people with learning difficulties as a cheap and flexible alternative. Of course, the proof of that pudding will also be in the eating.
But take a look at the American Labour market and the exploitation of disabled workers is already a political issue. Disabled World itself reported in 2010 how the practice of paying people with disabilities smaller wages compared to the able-bodied was actually legal practice across much of America. Campaigners have been looking to close the loophole of section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for quite some time now. This section of the law assumes that an individual's productivity is impaired due to their disability and allows an employer to obtain a certificate from the US Department of Labor that exempts such workers from federal minimum wage requirements. The Hill reported in July 2018 that around 160,000 disabled workers in the US were being exploited in such a way. Of course, many people won't see it as exploitation, especially those who make a healthy profit out of the loophole.
And here in the UK we keep coming up against similar arguments that disabled people should indeed be paid much less than able-bodied workers, an argument that is unlikely to go away. I first wrote about this for Disabled World back in 2015 but social scientists had long highlighted that disabled people were constantly considered to be 'unproductive'. As I have argued earlier, there is a bank of research that suggests otherwise. However, in 2014, it was Lord Freud, a government welfare reform minister, who was still suggesting that some disabled workers were simply 'not worth' the UK national minimum wage because of their unproductive nature. And that perhaps, such people should be paid as little as £2 an hour.
Some have argued that Lord Freud's comments were actually badly mispresented by the UK's press and taken completely out of context. For example, the Institute for Economic Affairs in October 2014 argued that:
- Lord Freud was only talking about 'some' disabled people who wanted to work and mainly to improve their quality of life - rather than earning a living wage. People with a fair degree of physical or intellectual impairment and who were not able to find work because the minimum wage simply put employers off. And the key reason being, that their condition meant that these particular people weren't considered "economically productive enough".
- Lord Freud was referring only to "some" disabled people, not all and certainly not all those with learning disabilities "as been implied".
- Lord Freud was not suggesting that vulnerable people would be living off £2 per hour - but that the state would step in to top up their wages in order to stop such people falling into "extreme deprivation".
(Ryan Bourne, the Institute for Economic Affairs, 16th October 2014)
Ryan accepts the concern around the possible exploitation of highly vulnerable workers, but argues that the more "hysterical" reactions were simply because many perceived Lord Freud's comments to be undermining the concept of the state minimum wage itself. Of course, Ryan may be right in in a way. The UK's minimum wage is still a major bugbear for many Conservative politicians who view it as an unfair barrier to market forces - and in reducing company overheads. If they could get rid of it, they undoubtedly would. If they could at least undermine it, they undoubtedly would. So, it is indeed a concern, especially for those on low incomes who would most certainly be on a much lower income if it wasn't for the protection of the state minimum wage.
But if government has to step in to 'top-up' a workers income in order to avoid "extreme deprivation", surely that is one of the key arguments of having the minimum wage in the first place. With employers legally obliged not to let their wages fall below a level that isn't considered to be acceptable anymore in the modern world. Certainly for me, if you are working full-time yet still living in extreme deprivation, there is an argument that your wages may not actually be a fair swop for your labour. We often hear of the phase, a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, but still have these immense differences of opinion and continuous arguments over what is considered to be 'fair'. However, what becomes standard practice in the Britain may have less to do with fairness and more to do with how loud your voice is? Disabled people may be perceived as being unproductive, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are unproductive - as judged by the available research.
Of course, that doesn't mean either that some disabled people will be "economically productive enough" for many employers. However, when we hear that British workers are also generally considered to be unproductive and "among the worse idlers in the world", as a group of Conservative MP's alleged in 'Britannia Unchanged' (2012). Then we really need to tread carefully before we open disabled people not only to further prejudice but potential exploitation. Not only by unscrupulous employers but by unscrupulous politicians who arguably only want a cheap and flexible workforce - and one that will slog their guts out until they drop. So much so, in 2019 Frances O'Grady, the Trade Unions Congress general argued - "We're at risk of going back to 19th-century working conditions." (The Week 5th September 2019). With millions of British (abled-bodied) workers having no control and no voice at work, stuck on low pay, zero-hours contracts, and in 'sham' self-employment. And if the abled-bodied are considered to have no control and no voice in the workplace, then just think what is happening to disabled people at this moment in time? And what will happen in the future?
Whether the UK is really that 'unproductive' compared to other nations is open to debate because that very much depends on how productivity is defined and how it is measured. Sure, UK workers are perceived as being unproductive and have been for quite a long while. In 2016, the Guardian Newspaper even posed the question of why:
"......people in the UK have been working more but achieving less. It's a puzzle: working hours are at an all-time high and more people are employed than ever before, yet productivity is collapsing - government figures show output is at its lowest level since 1991."
(The Guardian 16th August 2016)
Anybody who has worked in the UK will arguably have their own stories to tell about how they feel that they may have worked hard, working long hours without breaks, yet seemingly don't have their efforts fully rewarded nor appreciated. Not only that, but are also beaten daily with the productivity stick of target and goal setting, key performance indicators and various other methods of surveillance and monitoring. I certainly have in the past and I know many others who say the same. Perhaps, it is indeed due to a difference in perception between employer and employee over what 'fair' really means, or is it simply the case that employers may also hold a certain degree of prejudice and distrust towards their own employees? And why not, when your own government loves to tell the whole wide world just how unproductive and lazy British workers are?
But there is also an expression in the UK, 'a bad carpenter always blames his tools' and that saying may cheekily explain the difference. Certainly, Iain Duncan Smith could easily be viewed as being a very poor carpenter. However, I've traced a number of arguments surrounding productivity that suggest once again that 'laziness' may not be the problem. If Britain does suffer an unproductivity problem then amongst its causes will undoubtedly be:
- Low investment. The UK invests less in equipment and infrastructure than comparable nations. The UK ranks towards the bottom of OECD countries for capital investment in important areas of economic development (TUC report, 16th November 2016).
- Poor infrastructure, including poor transport links (FT, 4th September 2017).
- The UK spends less on Research & Development compared to many comparable countries (Business Insider, 9th December 2016).
- An unskilled and poorly trained workforce (BIS research paper 262, UK Dept. for Business Innovation and Skills. December 2015)
- A rise in temporary contracts and less on-the-job training (List & Malo 2017).
- A workforce with a lack of basic literacy & numeracy skills (BIS Research Paper 266, UK Dept. for Business Innovation and Skills. February 2016).
- Job insecurity and wage inequality, creating a lack of work motivation and a variety of health consequences (World Health Organization, 1999).
- Poor office and work area design. Poor work conditions (Forbes, January 24th 2019).
If you are indeed prejudiced against your own citizens then constantly calling people lazy and unproductive will certainly float your boat. It also conveniently hides the real problems present in the UK, such as a lack of government investment, a lack of education and training, job insecurity and wage inequality. But by constantly blaming the 'workers' it helps define what the solutions are to be, and as we keep hearing, being unproductive means you should be paid less.
If politicians through either incompetence or sheer skulduggery can deliberately and shamelessly switch the blame of Britain's 'unproductiveness' onto ordinary people rather than the actual causes - which is usually economic mismanagement and an unwillingness by government to invest and educate in its own citizens. Then how on earth can they even be trusted with anything to do with vulnerable people? Would you trust a government to protect sick and disabled from employment exploitation when their track record concerning the WCA and benefit sanctions is so appalling?
Of course, maybe employers are not morally obliged to pay its workers what can be described as a living wage or even a fair wage. But when the taxpayer has to step in to prevent 'extreme deprivation' for that employee, that arguably is a situation where the taxpayer is effectively subsidising an employer's wage bill. Surely, that shows which way the political wind is truly blowing in the UK. In short, those with a real voice get what they wish, including access to taxpayer's money, the rest of us get pushed around, bullied or cajoled into not kicking up a fuss.
What organisations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and many Conservative politicians are constantly arguing for, is that wages in the UK should reflect the market and market forces. Therefore, because disabled people are perceived to do less than the abled-bodied they cannot compete against the abled-bodied because the minimum wage acts as a barrier. However, pretty much in the same breath, we then have the same people suggesting that the state could step in to support those who are paid low wages, including those who may eventually agree to work below the minimum wage.......with welfare benefits? Good grief, Iain Duncan Smith would have an attack of the vapours if he heard that one.
Or maybe he wouldn't, because this is how woolly-minded and short-sighted these people generally are. Complaining about government 'interference' in the market one minute and then wanting government 'intervention' in the market the next - when it suits. Arguably, for some politicians, many Brits are seen as being little more than cannon fodder for the workplace, where some are to be flogged to death like a willing donkey. And if they can get them to work for peanuts, even better.
Of course, it would immensely benefit disabled people who would like to work, to work. But how do we decide who the minimum wage will subsequently apply to and who it doesn't? That is one concern I have. Lord Freud indeed only suggested that 'some' disabled people could work for as little as £2 an hour back in 2014, yet how many politicians and employers would quickly translate that into meaning 'all' disabled people? And seriously, could government be trusted to 'top-up' a disabled persons wages with welfare benefits when they have arguably removed tens of thousands of sick and disabled people from the welfare system already. For example:
- More than 1million benefit sanctions been applied to disabled people receiving state benefits since 2010.
- 17,070 disability claimants have died while waiting for decisions on their personal independence payment (PIP) claims since 2013.
- Cuts are in disability benefits such as PIP and ESA means that disability benefits will have shrunk by nearly £5bn (or by 10%) since 2010.
- And the UN's Professor Philip Alston the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty claims in May 2019, that the UK's welfare safety net has been "deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos"
We only have to look towards the US to see how legislation can be manipulated by employers into letting thousands of disabled people work for less than the state minimum wage. That is perhaps the future for disabled people in the UK, when even the UN thinks welfare in the UK has been 'deliberately removed' by government and replaced with an uncaring 'ethos'. But we also hear a lot about market forces and businesses willing to pay the going market rate etc., and paying nothing more. Yet, some businesses actively join together in order to manipulate the market concerning the wages they pay. Even Adam Smith, the darling of free market capitalism complained in the 1700's that self-interested employers often manipulated the labour market in order to drive workers' wages below their competitive level. In more recent times, in the US, Walt Disney, Sony and Blue Sky have all been the subject of law-suits over similar wage-fixing practices (Variety, January 31st 2017). With businesses in the UK constantly looking to circumvent paying the minimum wage at all. For example, in 2018, 43 employers in the UK hospitality sector alone were reportedly fined an undisclosed sum for failing to pay staff the national minimum wage (BBC 9th March 2018). In 2019, the Low Pay Commission even announced that an estimated 439,000 British people were illegally paid below the hourly minimum wage in April 2019, a record high.
According to economic theory, if employers can't get the staff they need, market forces will kick-in to dictate that wages need to increase in order to attract staff. Similarly, when there is too much competition for jobs, wages will stay low. But if some companies are finding all manner of ways to manipulate the wage market, as well as bypassing key legislation, then there is no doubt they would make disabled lives a complete misery if disabled people lost the protection of the state completely.
Clearly, if you look at the Work Capability Assessment it was designed to be a much stricter test and therefore intended to remove any number of sick and disabled people from the welfare system. But just because the state decides that you are not sick or disabled enough not to do some kind of work, that doesn't necessarily mean or prove that you can. Of course, forcing disabled people back into work by turning off the welfare tap is not a totally unsurprising move for a political establishment that has traditionally been concerned with the work ethic and immorality of its own citizens. And then complains of a shortage of workers. OK, that doesn't solve the UK's skill shortages but it may solve a few problems at the bottom end of the ladder?
Iain Duncan Smith himself even implied in October 2018 that disabled people were great for employers because they are much more exploitable than the abled-bodied. For example, "they often work longer hours" and "they forgo quite a lot of holiday because they love the idea of being in work." (Disability News Network 25th October 2018). Comments made at a fringe meeting of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. Of course, there is nothing wrong with disabled people being enthusiastic and pleased about having a job, but there was something quite dark lurking within those comments. No concern over problems with the benefit system and no real concern over discrimination, just a focus on how disabled people are willing to work longer hours than the abled bodied, even to the point of refusing to take a holiday. A good thing or a bad thing, I don't know? But surely there is a bigger story hidden within those behaviours than simply being motivated by the 'pleasure' of being in employment.
Many disabled campaigners indeed described the comments as being both exploitative and patronising, and in light of IDS's past history and callousness towards disabled people, that doesn't seem an unfair assessment. Especially when 'exploitation' is something many of us argue may be on the cards for disabled people in the not too distant future. Certainly for me, the comments at least show a side of Iain Duncan Smith that implies someone who has no real empathy with disabled people nor the lives they live. Yes, the comments could be taken as being a bit patronising, but despite severe criticism over the years and the accusation of playing a key role in the deaths of many vulnerable people, the man still doesn't seem to have given up his quest of getting sick and disabled people into work.
Arguably for Sir Iain, the only real reason we Brits are here for is for the benefit of the British government and British employers. Nothing more, nothing less. Therefore, we don't exist to have children, families, lives nor to have dreams and aspirations, all we are here for is to fill the vacancies down at the local job centre. And it will always be a 'sin' for people like Iain Duncan Smith if we don't for whatever reason that may be. But it is a view of people that is not only exploitative in essence, but one largely based upon prejudice. That we are not just lazy, irresponsible and immoral, but that we need constantly incentivising into looking for employment. And often by the big stick.
I started out this piece by asking the question of whether 'Sir' Iain Duncan Smith should be criminally investigated for his treatment of British disabled people - as argued for by the Disability News Service. I'm going to let the reader decide on that one. Clearly, IDS didn't introduce the Work Capability Assessment but he did have a hand in the creation of a hostile environment towards disabled people from 2004 onwards in which the WCA was undoubtedly conceived and implemented. And there is evidence to suggest that the WCA has not changed a great deal since 2010, despite all the warnings issued to Iain Duncan Smith himself. Britain's establishment will always protect their own when serious public misconduct is suggested, as we have undoubtedly witnessed over the years with Iraq and Hillsborough - and more recently with the 'Windrush' scandal. So, Iain Duncan Smith is highly unlikely to ever face a criminal investigation into the suicides of disabled people.
Nonetheless, if there is not a legal case for Iain Duncan Smith to answer, there certainly seems to be a moral one. Despite being one of the key players in welfare reform since 2004, IDS has somewhat tried to distance himself a little from the decisions that he now wishes us to see as simply being the decisions of 'government'. But let's hope that somebody in power eventually has the moral backbone to do what IDS failed to do in his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and that is to ditch the Work Capability Assessment completely. Before more vulnerable people die because of it. The WCA is not just an extremely harsh system, it is one where the bar is set so unbelievably and deliberately high, that it can never ever be a viable 'safety net'.
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Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
- 1 - Washington Doesn't Think Very Highly of Americans : Johns Hopkins University (2016/10/06)
- 2 - U.S. Police Officers and People with Disabilities : Thomas C. Weiss (2015/10/20)
- 3 - Arise 'Sir' Iain Duncan Smith: But Should There Be a Criminal Investigation Over His Mistreatment of Disability? : Paul Dodenhoff (2020/02/02)
- 4 - Iain Duncan-Smith: Helping Disabled Get Off Welfare? Or Just Helping Kill Them Off? : Paul Dodenhoff (2015/09/01)
- 5 - Boris Johnson Wins: But a Conservative Administration Still Pose a Considerable Existential Risk to British Disabled People : Paul Dodenhoff (2020/01/07)
- 6 - I've Got Your Back Obama Tells Disability Community : The Arc of the United States (2012/02/15)
- 7 - Ableism in America Today : Thomas C. Weiss (2014/08/17)
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