British people are “indolent and unproductive”, or so claims a recent article by the Daily Mail.
The article, entitled Shocking Rise of Something for Nothing Britain, is an enraged outcry over the fact that increasing numbers of Brits are using the welfare system to survive what some are calling the worst fall in UK living standards on record.
As far as the Daily Mail is concerned, the recent rise in welfare uptake is not the result of necessity, but of plain greed.
“When the pandemic hit, we saw a surge in Universal Credit claims,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), who is quoted in the article. “Regrettably, unscrupulous fraudsters took advantage, but we are rooting them out and have already reviewed 900,000 claims.”
Like all systems involving money, the welfare state is vulnerable to fraud. The reality, however, is that fraud accounts for less than 1% of overall benefits and tax credits expenditure — meaning anyone who overstates its significance is pushing an agenda. For the Daily Mail, this agenda seems to involve blaming Britain’s underclass for our current financial crisis, enabling the country’s decision-makers to fade into the background (or capitalise on their visibility by breaking into reality TV).
The scapegoating of benefit claimants is nothing we haven’t seen before. It is arguable, in fact, that whenever the sterling takes a notable hit, the number of reports likening claimants to criminals begins to rise. Many of us will be reminded of the 2007-2009 recession, during which work and pensions secretary James Purnell vowed to toughen up on “scroungers,” while investment banker David Freud told the Daily Telegraph that less than a third of disability benefit claims are genuine.
In the 2000s, the negative reporting of benefit claimants was a means to justify punitive changes to the welfare system, including the ramping up of sanctions and the introduction of a new eligibility assessment for disability benefits, designed to fail 50% of test participants. At the point when the welfare system was most desperately needed, the Government and tabloids (when it comes to welfare coverage, one is rarely without the other) were at their most determined to take it away.
The picture today is much the same. While denigrating benefit claimants out in the open, the DWP is also working behind closed doors to make the process of accessing benefits as challenging and demoralising as possible.
The intensive work search regime
Last month, the Government announced the launch of a new pilot scheme that makes it compulsory for Universal Credit claimants who have been claiming the benefit for thirteen weeks to visit a jobcentre every weekday for a fortnight to receive “intensive support.” A missed appointment could lead to sanctions, where benefits are reduced or removed for up to six months. Claimants in the light touch category — who earn enough to avoid regular contact with the jobcentre — are exempt from the scheme, as are those who have been assessed unfit for work due to ill health or disability.
Jake, who wished to remain anonymous, is among the claimants who may have to participate in the programme if it passes its pilot phase. Jake was recently moved from the light touch category to the intensive work search regime, which means he could be sanctioned if he fails to spend 35 hours per week either working or actively looking for work.
“It’s difficult to get your foot in the door for a lot of places unless you do agency work…and then you’re pretty much on a zero-hours contract,” said Jake, whose background is in factory work. “People are struggling in this economy where there’s no manufacturing,” Jake continued. ”Employers are looking for a specific set of people and we don’t meet their criteria.”
The target-driven world of the jobcentre does not allow for nuance. As far as the system is concerned, there is no such thing as a mismatch of skills or a lack of suitable options; anyone who fails to find consistent work does so intentionally.
“They start to look down on you,” Jake said, describing the way jobcentre staff responded when he told them he was unable to find employment outside of agency work. “It’s stressing me out more than anything. When you’re being told you’re not doing enough to find work, when you’re doing everything you can, and you can be sanctioned if we so deem it…it’s really quite worrying.”
Sadly, Jake is right to be worried. A recent study suggests the number of claimants to receive a sanction in the last quarter was 250% higher than in the three months before the pandemic.
Under the pilot scheme, claimants will have to jump through an even higher set of hoops to keep hold of the payments they rely on to live. And for those like Jake who do work — just not often enough or gainfully enough for the DWP’s liking — the 14-day requirement could mean a significant loss in earnings, and that’s without the cost of travelling to a jobcentre every day.
Another worrying feature of the pilot is the use of £250 bonuses to reward jobcentre staff who “exceed aspirational targets.” The DWP is yet to reveal exactly what these targets involve. Previous reports of jobcentres setting sanction targets, with one whistleblower revealing they had to sanction three claimants per week, make this lack of clarification particularly menacing.
Even if we assume the bonuses are for getting people into work only, this incentive comes with its own set of problems. Already, the DWP’s any-job-will-do approach has pushed high numbers of claimants into low-paid, insecure work. If the bonus scheme passes its pilot, staff will be more inclined than ever to coerce claimants into taking the first low-paid role that comes their way.
Matt, who wished to remain anonymous, is living proof that the any-job approach often does more harm than good.
“One of the (many) work coaches I have seen suggested that I apply for a recently-opened Taco Bell outlet,” said Matt. “To provide some context; I am a cyber-security project manager.”
Matt’s work coaches were so focused on pushing him into hospitality that they failed to provide support when he needed it. “I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Matt said. “But persistent failures to respond to my journal entries (asking to be referred to a foodbank is a good example) has led me to a feeling of exhaustion and despondency.” Eventually, his work coaches did refer Matt to a foodbank, but they failed to mention he would need support for more than a week. “So I’ve had no help from the foodbank for three weeks and my cupboards are increasingly bare,” said Matt.
Never mind the fact that pushing people into low-paid, inconsistent work is damaging to their mental health. Or the fact people in such work are often still entitled to claim in-work benefits. Most disturbing of all is the way the system discourages staff from caring about claimant welfare — a problem that can only worsen if we start incentivising the view that claimants are numbers rather than people.
The pilot scheme is not the only welfare shake up to be ushered in by the Government in recent weeks. Just two days ago, Jeremy Hunt announced the launch of his “back-to-work Budget,” which involves plans to raise the Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET) to the equivalent of 18 hours at the National Living Wage. Anyone whose weekly income is below this amount will move from the light touch category into the punitive intensive work search regime. Like Jake, they’ll have to follow a strict set of rules or risk losing out on benefits. The new budget also includes plans for sanctions to be applied “more rigorously” for those who do not undertake specific work search requirements or take up reasonable job offers.
Behind each of these reforms is the implication that a person claiming benefits is a problem to be fixed quickly, efficiently and in a manner just demoralising enough to prevent them from ever asking for help again. Perhaps not all are so brash as to call benefit claimants fraudsters. But the powers that be seem more determined than ever to put punishment and deterrent at the heart of the jobcentre.
When asked for his view on the renewed effort to toughen up on Universal Credit claimants, Jake said: “I think it’s wrong they’re trying to demonise people on welfare as not wanting to work. We want to work but we want fair pay and conditions, just like the strikers.”
The Work Capability Assessment
If the singular aim of the welfare state is to get claimants into work, where does that leave the 10 million or so Brits who can’t work due to ill health or disability? In a country that cannot tolerate economic inactivity, the answer is simple: they must be faking it.
The number of reports accusing disability benefit claimants of fraud was at an all-time high during the recession. Over the same period, Labour’s work and pensions secretary Peter Hain introduced measures to “rip up sick note Britain.’‘ In order to access disability benefits, claimants would have to prove they were unfit to work by taking the new Work Capability Assessment. Having already out-sourced the medical assessment to private companies, the Labour Government next revoked the need to have a doctor present during assessments. The private companies, already being paid as much as £500 million to help progress the government’s anti-welfare agenda, could now override a person’s doctor in pronouncing them fit to work.
Such a targeted attack on disability benefit claimants is only justified if we believe most claimants are simply pretending to be unfit for work. This is the ideology that drove Hain’s reforms, and if the recent Daily Mail article is anything to go by, it remains a governing ideology within the DWP today. The trickle down consequences are severe; according to 2019 DWP figures, around 1,600 people with disabilities are dying (either through illness, starvation or suicide) each year after having their benefit claim rejected.
I spoke with Nick Wilde, who as a former DWP employee and current Universal Credit claimant is uniquely positioned to understand the system’s hypocrisy in full.
Nick has severe heart failure. Back in 2009, when the current Work Capability Assessment had only recently been introduced, he underwent an examination with one of the private companies contracted to perform the assessments. The assessment was to ascertain whether he was fit to continue in his role at a London jobcentre.
“I had to go to the assessment building, which was round the corner to the shop where I worked, and I was told ‘you can’t work for the DWP because you’re not well enough’,” Nick explained.
Three weeks later, Nick underwent the Work Capability Assessment again, this time to determine his eligibility for disability benefits.
“I went to the same building as a customer, and I was assessed and they went ‘oh yeah, you’re not too ill to work’,” he said.
So Nick’s claim was rejected, even though the same assessors had pronounced him unfit to work just three weeks prior. Fortunately, the rejection was overturned when Nick appealed it at tribunal, but not before causing him months of undue worry.
Data from 2022 shows that 55% of rejections for Universal Credit and 58% of rejections for Employment and Support Allowance (an older form of disability benefit) are overturned at tribunal, suggesting work capability assessors are getting it wrong over 50% of the time. As a former employee, Nick is one of the few who can prove the system’s corruption, but these statistics give us insight into the scale of the problem.
Nick was confronted with the irrationality of the DWP again this year when a work coach suggested he ought to be working full-time despite his heart condition. As far as the work coach was concerned, the fact Nick works remotely as a mentor for three or four hours per week means he is capable of spending the remaining 32 hours working or searching for work.
Nick only works a limited amount each week because every hour of paid employment takes him many more in preparation and recovery. He often experiences shortness of breath during and after the sessions, and his frequent back pain makes it a challenge just to get dressed beforehand.
“I’m struggling to do the hours I am doing,” he explained. “If I was doing a 35-hour week it probably would kill me. It’s not hyperbole — it probably would.”
Although his doctor agrees Nick could not possibly increase his hours, it is at the whim of jobcentre staff and privatised assessment centres to determine which work-related requirements he must follow in order to avoid facing sanctions. This imbalance of power causes him great distress.
He said: “As far as Universal Credit and benefits are concerned, I’m constantly fearful, and I know that’s a common theme for people with disabilities. I get angina when I get a letter from the DWP. I get chest pain. It’s like, ‘what are they going to do to me next?”
The same question must have been on the minds of many claimants with disabilities and health conditions this week, as Hunt revealed that his “back to work budget” will involve scrapping the Work Capability Assessment. Instead of assessing what claimants can’t do, the new assessment will ask them to demonstrate what jobs they may be able to perform, prompting disability equality charity Scope to warn that “disabled people shouldn’t be forced into unsuitable work.”
Whether the new assessment will be more or less punitive than the last remains to be seen. But the parallel to the recession years is eerily clear. Then and now, a period of economic instability led to the denigration of benefit claimants in the media. Then and now, the Government announced plans to increase the use of sanctions and change how work capability is assessed. For the sake of the 1,600 who are dying each year, let’s hope the similarities end there.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, as we don’t have the details of the cases outlined, we’re unable to look into them and verify the claims made.
“Our priority is to help people to find and stay in work and the latest figures show the majority of sanctions were applied due to claimants failing to attend mandatory appointments with their work coach. People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions they agree, and emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants. If a claimant disagrees with a sanction, they can ask for this to be reconsidered and can appeal to an independent tribunal.
“We support millions of people with disabilities and long-term health conditions each year and our priority is they get the benefits they are entitled to promptly and receive a supportive, compassionate service. We have made improvements to our decision-making process and in the majority of cases make the right decision. Our disability assessors are all qualified health professionals and decisions are made using all the information available to us at the time, but if someone disagrees with that decision they have the right to ask for a review.”