Friday, 30 September 2011

Conditions, responsibility and welfare reform: a democratic deficit

What is the point of sanctions when failure to comply may always be due to the condition?....These…..have been designed by fit people and show no understanding of what it is like to try to find and keep work with a long-term disability. (Carer Watch's Blog: Letter to Professor Harrington)

Most western governments have increased the conditions and sanctions applied to the receipt of out of work benefits in recent years, with the aim of bringing down the number of claimants.  In Britain, conditionality has been extended to more and more groups of people, with the latest being those who qualify for Employment and Support Allowance because of illness or impairment and who are placed in the Work Related Activity Group.

There are four stories that are being spun in support of conditionality, by all political parties.  They are:

1.  That a large number of those who claimed Incapacity Benefit are ‘the hidden unemployed’ – mostly men who lost their jobs in the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s. 

While Conservative governments’ policies did undoubtedly help create this phenomenon in the past, this group has been reducing steadily in number and proportion of those claiming IB (mainly as they reach retirement age), as Declan Gaffney has illustrated

Over half of those now in receipt of IB/ESA also receive Disability Living Allowance and, although DLA is not an out of work benefit, most recipients experience significant levels of impairment, with nine out of ten having two or more impairments, over half four or more.

2.  That work is good for people’s health and well-being and therefore it is in their long-term interests to be pressurised into taking up employment of any kind.

Politicians of all parties have made much of the findings of a review of research carried out by Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton, published by the Department of Work and Pensions in 2006, which concluded:  “There is a strong evidence base showing that work is generally good for physical and mental well-being” and that, conversely, “Worklessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health and well-being”. 

However, the politicians who have relied on this research review fail to also quote the qualification highlighted by the authors that “account must be taken of the nature and quality of work and its social context; jobs should be safe and accommodating”.  Waddell and Burton emphasise three caveats: that, while on average work is good for health and well-being, a minority may experience poor health as a result of work; beneficial health effects depend on the nature and quality of work; the social context must also be taken into account.

There is no room in the ‘work is good for you’ story, spun by the current welfare reform agenda, of the evidence of the increasing number of jobs characterized by ‘high effort,low discretion’, characteristics which have been shown to lead to high stress and health problems

There is no recognition of the impact on health of the increasing number of insecure, temporary, low waged jobs – the rise of what Guy Standing has called the‘precariat’. Waddell and Burton’s finding that “Job insecurity has an adverse effect on health” has been steadfastly ignored. 

3. That it is people’s attitudes and motivation which are the key barrier to moving off benefits and into employment

This assumption is held so strongly that it permeates not just political pronouncements but sometimes researchers’ interpretation of their results.  DWP commissioned research by the Institute for Employment Studies, published last month, on people claiming Employment and Support Allowance. The report highlights a finding that “Among claimants who were in work before their claim, the belief that work improves health was associated with a higher likelihood of work resumption”.  Amongst those who were not in work immediately prior to their claim there is no such association (and, incidentally, the overall return to work within 12 -18 months is very low: amongst those who were in work prior to their claim 26% got a job, for those who were not in work it was only 9%). 

The assumption is made – from the way the findings are presented - that it is the attitude itself which increases likelihood of return to work. Thus one of the conclusions drawn by the authors is that “as the belief that work improves health was found to be important, encouraging people in this belief may positively influence work entry rates”.   

This excludes the possibility that people’s belief about whether work improved their health was based on their previous experience of whether work did improve their health or whether it was in fact detrimental – rather the belief is assumed to be entirely ideologically constructed.  This helps to legitimise the assumption that the state (in the form of the people doing the Work Capability Assessment, setting the conditions and applying the sanctions) knows what is best for the particular individual – change your beliefs about your state of health and of course you’ll be able to get a job.

Suppose an individual with ME, or someone with bi-polar disorder, knows, from past experience, that doing certain things leads to a deterioration in their physical or mental health.  The system of assessment and sanctions privileges the judgement of the assessor and personal advisor over that of the individual concerned. Yet I am not aware of any research on the validity of such judgements versus those of the individuals being assessed or sanctioned.

Which leads us to the final part of the story:

4.  That the welfare benefit reforms are about encouraging individual responsibility and reducing dependency.

Politicians from all parties are fond of talking about the way that applying conditions to the receipt of out of work benefits will encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own destiny.

In fact the application of conditions and sanctions increases the power of the state. Far from promoting individual responsibility, conditionality creates paternalism and a loss of autonomy/self-determination. In doing so, it “allows an encroachment of discretionary power by the state” and the welfare benefits system is characterised by a democratic deficit in that “the groups subject to the policy have little or no say in the design or about how it is run, or how they are treated” (1).

Over the last thirty years or so, we’ve seen an increase in some groups of people demanding, and politicians recognising, the need for them to be involved in the key policy and service delivery decisions which affect their lives – the disabled people’s and survivors’ movements, tenants’ and residents’ organisations, and so on.  Similarly, in the 60s and 70s there were embryonic demands that unemployed people should have a say in how Labour Exchanges (as Job Centres were called) were run and how benefits should be delivered.  Where is the voice of those on out of work benefits in the development of government and opposition policies over the last 10 years, which so affect their lives? Where is the research, involving and informed by the experiences of its participants, that would truly examine the complex barriers to employment?

Far from encouraging individual responsibility, current policies create a situation where people in receipt of out of work benefits are considered to have no right of influence or autonomy.  Instead the state decrees that access to self-determination is only to be achieved by being in paid employment – and thus this key aspect of full citizenship is placed out of reach for those who are unlucky enough to be too ill to work; discriminated against by employers because of impairment; and/or live in an area where there are too many people chasing too few jobs.

(1) Standing, G. 2011. Behavioural conditionality: why the nudges must be stopped - an opinion piece. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 19 (1), pp. 27-38.


  1. Hi Jenny

    This research by Richard Berthoud is very interesting:

    He found that: 'It is commonly
    assumed that most of the changes in prevalence and in employment prospects
    have affected people with relatively minor impairments – but the research shows,
    on the contrary, that people with severely disadvantaging sets of health conditions
    have been more, not less, affected by the trends.'

  2. Thanks Neil. I've used Richard Berthoud's research - and that very quote - in my earlier blog and in the report to be published by JRF next months. His research is very useful isn't it?