Workfare coercion in the UK: an assault on persons with disabilities and their human rights
Anne-Laure Donskoy_Survivor researcher, UK
While there is a lot of focus on coercion organised and implemented in psychiatry, less attention is being paid to state engineered welfare measures based on libertarian paternalism1, which have coercive practices at their core. Among them are policies that strongly support behavioural change using positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy. Freidli and Stearn (2015)2 call this “psychocompulsion”. These policies and measures are increasingly used to ambush and coerce persons with disabilities and the long term sick into adopting new ways of being and living conditions under the constant threat of sanctions and which have driven many to attempt to their lives. This paper builds on the work of Friedli and Stearn3 as an attempt to highlight current coercive welfare policies, including forcing ‘therapy’ on individuals, as human rights violation of the CRPD.
Background: Psychocompulsion as state sponsored human rights violations
Psychocompulsion, the use of psychological strategies to “nudge” individuals to make “life changes” that fit a political ideology or programme, is not entirely new to the UK. Already in the 1970s, some long term job claimants would be sent for a medical examination, on the premise that if people were not physically ill then they should be able to find and take up work, any work. This had all the flavours of Victorian paternalism written all over it. The ‘mentally disordered’ and the ‘mentally handicapped’ experienced a particular brand of paternalism, hidden away from society and from consciousness in specialist homes and services, often suffering physical and mental abuse or used in rehabilitation work with little or no protection.
Today, psychocompulsion in the UK has been promoted by the Behavioural Insights Team (nicknamed the “Nudge Unit”), now in private hands as a social purpose company but still working closely with the Cabinet Office4, thereby guaranteeing prime influence on policy making. It is clear that psychocompulsion is being used to lock individuals, including the long term unemployed, the sick and persons with disabilities, into back-to-work schemes as a conditionality of welfare. In recent months and weeks, voices of dissent have arisen mostly from social movements, denouncing the use of coercion which put people’s lives at risk5.
As Friedli and Stearn’s paper show, this finger wagging attitude has taken on a far more sinister slant.
First, it turns on its head the idea that unemployment is the product of a failing economy by strongly suggesting that it is a state of mind, worse still a ‘mental illness’ that can be corrected by changing the psychology of claimants, thus placing the onus of responsibility for success, for betterment, for choice etc. on the individuals themselves. This totally ignores issues of social (in-)justice.
Second, it widens the scope by netting in the most vulnerable people in society, specifically the long term sick and those with disabilities, including psychosocial disabilities. This strategy narrowly avoids attracting full-on accusations of discrimination by putting these individuals on par with the long term unemployed and by stressing ad nauseam that the policy is about helping people which should be achieved through (any type of paid) employment. Paid employment becomes the embodiment and the “pinnacle of human experience”.6
Third, the underlying premise that ‘work is good for you’ ignores those dissenting voices which argue that without strong provisos (taking into account the complexity of individual circumstances, choice, timeliness, appropriateness as much as the quality of support and work on offer) the argument is both unhelpful and counterproductive7, and can have devastating consequences for those concerned.
Finally, the stance of the policy totally fits within the libertarian paternalism agenda which moves away from collective to total individual (libertarian) responsibility, slowly realising Ayn Rand’s vision for a permanently productive (and permanently disposable/replaceable) workforce serving an elite. In this scheme, all coercive strategies acquire a legitimacy that the psychiatric survivor movement rejects.
Being ill or disabled, and on welfare benefits: state coercion and the CRPD
The Welfare Reform Act 2012 introduced a wide range of reforms to the benefits and tax credits system. The stated aim was to reduce the financial burden of the cost of welfare. This is being achieved by introducing ever drastic and punitive policies under the guises of a responsibilisation agenda, underpinned with an intense authoritarian ideology not seen or experienced since Victorian times. The Tory manifesto of the 2015 general elections claimed it aimed to help people with mental health issues back in to work. The reality is very different and people with mental health issues clearly face discriminations which other groups do not.
Article 4: The rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities are violated under the social security scrutiny regime:
When people with mental health issues are on welfare benefits, they find themselves the object of intense, intrusive and inappropriate scrutiny by the system, notably through the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which has consistently failed these claimants as it is totally unsuited to their singular predicaments and experiences. As a result, more and more people are placed on the Work Related Activity Group of the Employment and Support Allowance which comes with strict conditionalities. Also affected are those under the new Universal Credit (UC) system which is being rolled out for all benefits claimants which places yet another layer of scrutiny on individuals, possibly more so those in work.
Article 1-5: Discrimination
A judicial review in 2013 found that the WCA process actively discriminates against people with mental health issues. Since then very little has been done to change the process and the status quo remains.
The Centre for Welfare reform, in its recent report A Fair Society?, also shows that persons with disabilities are targeted the most despite the fact that they have the greatest and often most complex needs.
Article 10: Right to life: “States Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others”.
A poll of over 1,000 GPs commissioned by Rethink Mental Illness in 2015, found that over 20% have patients who have felt suicidal due to the WCA8.
In a report sent to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the senior coroner for inner north London, Mary Hassell, said “the trigger” for the suicide was the man being found fit for work by the department”9.
[A Freedom of Information request has] revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has investigated decisions, via peer reviews, about the welfare payments of 60 claimants following their deaths. A peer review, according to the DWP guidance for employees, must be undertaken when suicide is associated with DWP activity to ensure that any DWP action or involvement with the person was appropriate and procedurally correct.10
Article 13: Access to justice: 13.1: “States Parties shall ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate accommodations, in order to facilitate their effective role as direct and indirect participants, including as witnesses, in all legal proceedings, including at investigative and other preliminary stages.”
Benefit claimants who wish to appeal a decision need access to justice. This represents an expense they can ill afford (if at all) therefore need access to legal aid. However, the Ministry of Justice has removed welfare benefits matters from the scope of legal aid funding, thereby denying access to justice and discriminating against the most vulnerable and poorest, among whom people with mental health issues:
In order to challenge a decision of a First-tier Tribunal (FtT) the appellant needs to identify an error of law in the FtT’s decision and then request permission to appeal to the Upper Tribunal (UT). The process of appealing on a point of law to the UT has two stages, but, for the reasons set out below, the legal aid contract only covers the second stage … The absence of any legal aid at Stage One of an appeal to a UT on a point of law represents a major flaw in the current scheme as it is simply unrealistic to expect an appellant to draft an appeal on a point of law without any assistance.11
In the future, social security claimants who find themselves faced with an incorrect Upper Tribunal decision, or who win their case at the Upper Tribunal but find themselves on the receiving end of an appeal by the DWP12, HMRC13 or a local authority, could be facing the courts and the costs risks attached on their own or not at all.14
In practice, benefit claimants who wish to appeal decisions have to resort to charitable organisations to support them through the process. However these are seeing their funding cut, or they are not coping with increasing number of calls for help.15 There has also been some criticism from within the legal system with regard to persons with intellectual disabilities on matters of legal representation regarding privation of liberty; the same issues also apply to persons with psychosocial disabilities:
The Law Society, which represents solicitors throughout England and Wales, intervened [in a particular case]. Its president, Jonathan Smithers, said: “When a vulnerable person doesn’t have friends or family to represent them during a decision to restrict their liberty, it is vital that person is able to participate in the decision-making process . . . If this is not possible then they must have a legal representative to protect their rights as well as their health and general welfare. Those who are least able to defend themselves should not be sacrificed on the altar of austerity.” 16
Actively changing the narrative of workfare and welfare benefits
The narrative of welfare is changing drastically. As Friedi says, we are moving from a “what people have to do [to find work] to what they have to be [demonstrating the right attitude to be employable]17. This is exemplified through the new ‘Work and Health Programme’ planned to be rolled out in England and Wales.
This programme has many strands, including:
− Embedding psychological services within Job Centres
− Placing ‘job coaches’ within GP surgeries for people with certain conditions (specifically people with mental health issues): the ‘Working Better’ pilot scheme is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions and the coaches will be provided by welfare to work agency, Remploy (a welfare-to-work subsidiary of the Maximus).
This programme blurs the boundary between health and welfare, health and work domains, in a way that has not happened before. This is a coordinated move to effectively bring in the benefits system within NHS care: joblessness, being unemployed becomes an illness, specifically a mental illness which needs to and care be cured through psychological therapies.
It will not only extend benefit conditionality into the NHS but also compromise clinical independence and clinical ethics. In practice, people who display the wrong attitude to work, to work placements or who have been unemployed for a long time will be referred to psychologists and given forced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and be sent many motivational emails and text messages throughout the week; or they will be prescribed referrals to an in-house ‘job coach’. Failure to comply with these forced prescriptions will trigger an immediate sanction regime. This will inevitably threaten if not destroy that first quality that patients place in their doctor, trust. People may become reluctant to say anything whether it is about their situation or their health for fear of being forced into the schemes.
Articles 1-5: (equality, choice, autonomy, capacity)
Persons with disabilities are specifically targeted by the new measures
Article 25 (Right to health):
Currently both schemes are in the early stages of being rolled out (pilot stage) and the official line claims that they are voluntary. However, as the Tory manifesto stated “We will help you back into work if you have a long-term yet treatable condition”, this is set to become compulsory: “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.”(p. 28). However, being forced to receive “therapy” for a “treatable condition” is not the same thing as being offered support, which would imply that the individual is free to choose to take it up or not. Most observers agree that what is currently taking place on a voluntary basis as part of the pilot projects will become compulsory, which would only follow the UK Government’s own stance of applying any means to get people “back to work”18.
This means that people with mental health problems will no longer be able to freely choose to consent, or withhold their consent, to ‘treatment’. There is also a high risk that people will feel intimidated into consenting to undergo these ‘therapies’. This is very similar to what happens in psychiatry whereby the right to health is invoked to forcibly treat people for their own good, “in their best interest” … but as their only option. To decline a recommended treatment or to fail to comply to the letter with the injunctions and expectations of the system will result in benefits sanctions.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the approach chosen by the Government is highly controversial and does not suit everybody. Therefore a one-fits-all approach, whether it is applied forcibly or not, will be counterproductive as it may make some people feel worse (counter to their right to health) and shows the total lack of understanding of the often complex and singular situations of persons with disabilities.
Art 10: (Right to life)
Any Government that uses coercion and sanctions as a means to a political end must take full responsibility for the consequences of its actions. As with the Work Capability Assessment, people being coerced into receiving behavioural or any therapy they did not fully consent to, may experience adverse effects (making people even more unwell by making them even poorer and forcing them to live in a constant state of anxiety, making them suicidal).
It also denies the person as an autonomous individual able to make their own choices (Art 12, Equal recognition before the law; Art 16, Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse and threatens their integrity (Art 17)).
It also contradicts the Government’s own claims that it is doing everything to make UK domestic law compliant with the CRPD:
The Convention is not legally binding in domestic law in the UK but is given effect through the comprehensive range of existing and developing legislation, policies and programmes that are collectively delivering the Government’s vision of equality.19
Article 17 (Protecting the integrity of the person): The issue of coercion goes beyond “designating work as a cure for unemployment and poverty”20 as Friedli puts it; this is also about changing people’s societal status and identity. In the new narrative, there are productive and unproductive individuals, therefore there is no such thing as a long-term sick or disabled person (all disabilities included). These notions pretty much disappear in the name of inclusiveness and fairness (in relation to so-called “hard working people”21 who are deserving of help and will do their utmost not to rely on the state for their individual needs).
Language is indeed important in this context, and language is shifting. As many have observed, ‘sick notes’ have become ‘fit notes’, the term ‘disability’ too is being erased as ‘Disability Living Allowance’ becomes ‘Personal Individual Payment’. This speaks to a simplistic but powerful narrative of ‘can-do-no-matter-what’ supported by having a compulsory ‘right attitude, which is where psychocompulsion comes in. Nudging then forcing people into having the ‘right attitude’.
Forcing people back to work by reducing their welfare benefits
Persons with disabilities are clearly targeted over and above other categories of individuals (Art 1-5 equality, discrimination, choice, autonomy). Indeed, another form of coercion has emerged through a recent drastic to the ESA in weekly support from £103 to £73, contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. It will apply to new ESA claimants in the work-related activity group. This vote, pushed through Parliament on 7 March 201622, is meant to “incentivise disabled people to find work quicker”. This (purely ideological) decision will not only strip them of financial security but also reinforce the idea, by bringing the rate into line with Jobseeker’s Allowance, that disability no longer exists, that anyone can and should work, that there are only productive (deserving) and unproductive (undeserving) people.
An unethical social experiment
It has come to light that these new programmes are also the subject of ‘research’. The new Work and Health Programme is currently at a research and trialing stage23. As Kitty Jones writes,
Part of the experimental nudge element of this research entails enlisting GPs to “prescribe” job coaches, and to participate in constructing “a health and work passport to collate employment and health information.24
However, this ‘research’ (if one can call it so), has been heavily criticised because it is not sanctioned according to the usual robust ethical guidelines. Research that adheres to robust ethical guidelines would absolutely seek not to cause harm to its participants, and would seek their informed consent beforehand25. This is not the case here where claimants are the participants are the involuntary and ‘unconsented’ participants of an experiment they know nothing about.
There are a wide range of legal and Human Rights implications connected with experimentation and research trials conducted on social groups and human subjects.26
A spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), talked of the UN CRPD Committee’s visit to the UK and described the situation thus:
It means the UN will examine the vicious and punitive attacks on disabled people’s independent living as well as the cuts which have seen so many placed in inhuman circumstances and has led to unnecessary deaths.27
Articles 1-5: discrimination against persons with disabilities who are targeted through this programme.
Article 9: right to communication: The existence of this experiment and the format of its conduct has not been communicated with the claimants (the participants).
Article 10 (Right to Life): when coercion brings people to the brink of suicide or they succeed in killing themselves (one court case at least has pronounced on the clear link between benefits sanctions and reasons for suicide):
Research from the Black Triangle campaign group found more than 80 cases of suicide directly linked to billions of pounds in benefit cuts. John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “The Dept of Work and Pensions refuses to reveal the findings of their own peer reviews of suicides linked to the sanctions so we will never know the truth in those cases. . . He said the Work Capability Assessment regime applied to all sick and disabled people, without adequate risk assessment ‘built into the system’28
Mortality rates bring their own tales of woe:
[The government] published or, rather, was forced to after several Freedom of Information requests – that show more than 80 people a month are dying after being declared “fit for work”. These are complex figures but early analysis points to two notable facts. First that
2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 shortly after being judged “fit for work” and rejected for the sickness and disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). We also now know that 7,200 claimants died after being awarded ESA and being placed in the work-related activity group – by definition, people whom the government had judged were able to “prepare” to get back to work.29
Articles 12, 17, 19: Coercive measures embedded in all aspects of the Work and Health Programme and its various tools and strategies run counter to the premise that the person is free and able to make choices for themselves, and considerably threatens their right to independent living when they are forced into poverty.
Nothing seems to shift the current UK Government’s assault on people with disabilities or long term sickness, and on their human rights. Not the many Freedom of Information requests which have revealed that the DWP did look into the death of 60 benefits claimants but sat on the findings; nor a Commons Select Committee inquiry into benefits sanctions in April 2015, nor the visit by the UN CRPD committee at the request of a disability group (DPAC) in the late autumn of 2015, nor a coroner’s report clearly linking a claimant’s suicide to the stress caused by the Work Capability Assessment. The UK is effectively engineering and encouraging coercive and punitive policies that specifically target people with disabilities and the long term sick, putting their lives and their future at high risk. Many have observed that ‘austerity’ was only ever an excuse to establish and implement ideological policies. This is not about saving money in hard times; this is about the willful annihilation of the disabled, either through language or deeds.
1https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/the-goverments-reductive-positivistic-approach-to-social-research- is-a-nudge-back-to-the-nineteenth-century/– The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”
2 Friedli L, et al. Med Humanit 2015;41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622
3 See also this short film: https://vimeo.com/157125824
6Cole M. Sociology contra government? The contest for the meaning of unemployment in UK policy debates. Work Employment Soc 2008;22(1):27–43.
7 Even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) who are driving these policies, acknowledged in a 2006 study have put forth provisos that “account must be taken of the nature and quality of work and its social context” and that, for sick and disabled people, “there is little direct reference or linkage to scientific evidence on the physical or mental health benefits of (early) (return to) work for sick or disabled people.” 8https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/is-work-good-for-your-health-and-well-being
9 See note 3
12 Department of Works and Pensions
13 Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs
18 A side point has been made by Friedli and others about the questionable ethics of those clinical psychologists who accept to take part in such initiatives and about the rapid expansion of the back-to-work industry.
19 Office for Disability Issues, UK Initial Report On the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, May 2011,
21 An expression used as a constant leitmotiv by the UK government.
22 Ministers claimed “financial privilege” to assert the Commons’ right to have the final say on budgetary measures
26 See note 15