The psychological manipulation of Jobseekers

By Bernadette Meaden
June 24, 2015

Is the JobCentre an appropriate setting for psychological assessment and treatment? Is therapy entered into under any form of coercion, real or perceived, likely to be legitimate or ethical? These are the questions we need to ask as the government puts therapists into JobCentres, and asks claimants to undergo online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Any talk of coercion will no doubt be dismissed as 'scaremongering' by the government. This now seems to be the standard response to concerns raised, particularly when they involve disadvantaged groups. But the Conservative Party manifesto itself gave rise to this concern, when it stated, “People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.”

This alarmed many professionals, including Peter Kinderman, Head of the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society He wrote,"This suggestion undermines a fundamental principle of medical and psychological healthcare, namely that of informed consent: a person who is capable of giving their consent has the right to refuse to receive care or services.

"It is wholly inappropriate to threaten the withdrawal of benefits in order to influence that decision. This is particularly true in mental health care, where there is considerable controversy about the overall benefits of many available treatments, including psychiatric medications, and where therapy based on coercion simply will not work."

Whilst the DWP has stated that claimants' participation in the therapy provided under these new arrangements will be entirely voluntary, it is alleged that the dubious use of psychology has been an integral part of welfare reform from the outset.

Earlier this month Dr. Felicity Callard of the University of Durham wrote,
"Psychological coercion and manipulation are part of the day-to-day experience of claiming benefits. It is time the profession took a stand against them."

She continued, "assessing 'employability' and enforcing activities said to increase it is now a central function of workfare, stimulating the growth of a state-sanctioned, state-contracted industry heavily influenced by – and reliant upon – psychological 'magic'" .

An important paper by Lynne Friedli and Robert Stear, published in the British Medical Journal, "considers the role of psychology in formulating, gaining consent for and delivering neoliberal welfare reform, and the ethical and political issues this raises. It focuses on the coercive uses of psychology in UK government workfare programmes: as an explanation for unemployment (people are unemployed because they have the wrong attitude or outlook) and as a means to achieve employability or ‘job readiness’ (possessing work-appropriate attitudes and beliefs). The discourse of psychological deficit has become an established feature of the UK policy literature on unemployment and social security and informs the growth of ‘psychological conditionality’—the requirement to demonstrate certain attitudes or attributes in order to receive benefits or other support, notably food."

It continues, "deficits in attitude and motivation can and do trigger sanctions. Psycho-coercion of this kind is directly contributing to the escalation of the number of sanctions being applied, forcing people off benefits and plunging growing numbers into poverty: eligibility for both out-of-work and in-work benefits is contingent not only on certain behaviours but also on possession of positive affect; conditionality is linked to the ‘employability’ mindset. For example, one of the criteria for being sent on Community Work Placements (unpaid work for 30 hours per week, for 26 weeks) is 'lack of motivation', although this is never defined."

The paper draws on the experience of claimants;"I duly attended the offices of A4e and (along with six other 'customers”' was treated to INSPIRE. This turned out to be a session on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) run by an outside company claiming to be 'Master Practitioners in NLP'. I was 'mandated' to attend under threat of loss of benefits and was effectively unable to leave the session because of the same ever present threat."

Neuro Linguistic Programming was invented in California in the 1970s and is "a method of influencing brain behaviour... through the use of language ... and other types of communication to enable a person to 'recode' the way the brain responds to stimuli and manifest new and better behaviours. Neuro-Linguistic Programming often incorporates hypnosis and self-hypnosis to help achieve the change (or 'programming') that is wanted."

Anyone can become an NLP practitioner by taking an eight day course.

Much emphasis is placed on a claimant's attitude. If they are deemed to be negative, pessimistic, introverted, or anything else which an employer may find undesirable, they can be deemed to have an attitude problem, which must be fixed. The fact that they may be living in poverty and have any number of real, practical problems to cope with, and which may be the natural, understandable cause of their 'attitude', is an inconvenient truth. Their attitude must be corrected.

"My ‘advisor’ said I needed to see a psychologist because I was tearful and anxious after having my JSA cut for 4 weeks despite having a young child to look after by myself. When I said I did not trust anyone who finds it acceptable to starve others as a punishment, he told me that I was paranoid and again, needed to see a psychologist."

There is growing alarm amongst psychologists that their discipline is being used in this way, and increasing resistance.

On Friday 26 June, there will be a march to Streatham Jobcentre, the first of 10 pilot sites to bring CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) into Jobcentres. Details of the march are here.

And let's be clear, this is about poverty and class. Nobody with enough money to survive would need to tolerate this. It is becoming the case that only people who have no other means of survival claim Jobseeker's Allowance or Employment Support Allowance. The experience of claiming can be so stressful and degrading, that anyone who can afford to survive without claiming benefits will do so.

Some people may think that this is as it should be – claiming benefits should be a last resort. But it means that those who do need to claim are by definition the most disadvantaged people in society. To treat them in a way that no financially secure person would tolerate looks like bullying.

We have reached the stage that if you are prosperous, you can be quirky, sensitive, introverted, pessimistic, or anything else you feel like being. But if you are claiming out of work benefits, these characteristics are seen as undesirable and must be eliminated, on pain of hunger or further humiliation.

At a time when mental health services are at breaking point, and people cannot get the help and support they need when they seek it, to link mental health treatment with benefits for the most disadvantaged is rather cynical. Mental health treatment belongs in a healthcare setting, with no real or perceived pressure to co-operate, and no financial penalty for 'failure'.

And perhaps finally, we should ask, what is the justification for all this – the constant assertion that the welfare budget has "spiralled out of control"? But look at this graph. As a percentage of GDP, out of work benefits have risen during recessions and then fallen again. We have not got a problem with soaring out of work benefits. Or look at this graph, which shows how much more is spent on tax credits than on Jobseeker's Allowance. An aging population, low pay and a dysfunctional housing market are the main drivers of welfare spending. There is no ethical justification for the psychological manipulation of benefit claimants, and no economic one either.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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