Dangerous drive for ‘work’ at all costs continues, despite evidence

By Savi Hensman
August 5, 2018

Social security ‘reforms’ have failed, even on their own terms. Research reports and personal testimony increasingly highlight the costs to the people affected and wider UK society. But the government is pressing ahead, despite the evidence.

To understand why the authorities are pushing ahead with such damaging and discredited policies, official explanations cannot be taken at face value. To achieve a more humane alternative is vital but will not be easy.

The damaging failure of ‘welfare’ policy

In July and early August, the parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee warned that the way Universal Credit is paid could put domestic abuse victims at risk of further harm.

“At one stroke, single payments allow perpetrators to take charge of potentially the entire household budget, leaving survivors and their children dependent on the abusive partner for all of their basic needs”, MPs warned.

The Public Accounts Committee found that “appalling underpayments” on Employment and Support Allowance were “entirely avoidable.” An estimated 70,000 sick and disabled people and their families were affected.

Meanwhile the Trussell Trust was appealing for increased donations to foodbanks to help prevent children from going hungry during school holidays.  (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/26497)

Evidence indicates that the current approach to benefits is not only cruel but also ineffective in getting people into paid work. A Welfare Conditionality project involving researchers from six universities in England and Scotland released its findings in mid-2018. They found that  “benefit sanctions in Universal Credit are damaging and can be counterproductive. They are ineffective in enabling people to find paid employment…

“In addition, the researchers criticised the conditionality applied to people already in work, saying this was illogical and damaging – and in-work progression was absent.”

This reinforced earlier findings. For instance in February 2018, a study for Demos by Ben Baumberg Geiger, from the University of Kent, found that claimants receiving jobseekers’ allowance were 26-53 per cent more likely to face sanctions if disabled.

This mentioned six earlier studies which, together, suggested that “conditionality and sanctioning may have zero or even negative impacts on work-related outcomes. Less quantitative evidence is available about the wider impacts of conditionality on disabled people, but there is widespread anecdotal evidence that conditionality and sanctions can lead to anxiety and broader ill health.”

In March, research from the charity Gingerbread indicated that benefit sanctions actually move single parents further from paid work .

Beyond facts and figures

A powerful recent account  by Alison Cameron, a mental health service user, helps to explain why approaches to ‘recovery’ based on pushing people into employment are at best misguided. She described shuttling back and forth between hospital and “unsafe squalid places where my visible vulnerability led to me to be preyed upon.”

When basic needs such as secure shelter and safety are not met, it is hard to focus on other matters and summon up energy to do more than survive. Even that can be hard, in a system that seems designed to break people down rather than provide an environment which aids healing.

The current benefit system, in which unwell or disabled people must dwell on how bad things are on their worst days or be misjudged fit to work, then face a humiliating assessment, makes matters worse.

The process “ends up costing way more as each time it causes me to relapse, and each time it falls to ever-dwindling services to help me glue the fragments together.” Its is not about rebuilding or recovery but “punishment from a system that assumes paid work is the only indicator of worth, the only indicator of one’s right to occupy a place in society.”

Myths about ‘fakers’ and ‘scroungers’ mean that those who manage to appear upbeat, even briefly, may lose much of the limited support they have. This gets in the way of gradually returning to (or entering) a space in which one can more fully share in, and contribute to, community life, whether or not this involves a job.

Numerous personal testimonies show how counterproductive, as well as brutal, the current system is, made worse by the running down of public services.

The purpose of a damaging system and how this might be changed

There is much evidence, then, that the current system does not work, even in very limited terms. And – in addition to the human cost – the economic cost of systematically damaging numerous people’s health, especially since these include children facing a lifetime’s worth of damage.

Why, then, does the government cling to this course of action? There are probably several reasons, perhaps including the following.

To begin with, scapegoating ‘skivers’, ‘foreigners’ or other minorities, and diverting concerns about fairness towards making these ‘pay their fair share’, can divert attention from the failings of the rich and powerful. And it can offer a certain sense of unity at a time of insecurity.

Again, this may play well with a section of the public. The Labour Party switched its stance from one of punishing claimants without an obvious fall-off of electoral support. However there may be certain areas where a tough stance does appeal to voters to the extent that it may win seats.

It is also likely to gain favour with many Conservative Party members, which may be significant with regard to internal power struggles.

There are influential figures too who seem to believe that few activities are worthwhile unless they offer someone an immediate profit (or can at least be measured in a similar way to actions for commercial gain). Even if other measures, such as adequate social security and public services, can create conditions which assist business in the longer term, as well as helping people, this is not enough.

Hence trying to get people into paid work can take on an almost cult-like significance. Other things humans might do, from caring for others to creating works or art or reflecting on the meaning of life and ethics, are devalued in comparison.

There is a risk today that society may seesaw between a crude appeal to profitability, leaving deep insecurity and a void in meaning, and a yearning for a different way based on nostalgia for an imagined past free of ‘outsiders’.

Faith communities, humanists and people of goodwill generally are faced with a challenge. It is important to find effective ways of challenging social security changes and policies which harm the most vulnerable and degrade society. But this is not just about proving these do not work.

The emotional appeal of programmes to make ‘scroungers’ (or, more kindly, those thought to need a boost of confidence) do their ‘fair share’ need to be taken into account. So too does the fact that people often mix with others who share similar views and get the news they trust from certain sources which are actually far from trustworthy. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/26471)

Ways to challenge without condemning, to listen as well as inform, to share human stories as well as facts and to offer an alternative vision for the future which can inspire, perhaps need to be strengthened, to prevent further harm.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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