Pauper management by G4S, Serco and Atos is inspired by a punitive past

'The prescriptions today's warriors against the poor offer have been tendered at least since the Poor Law of 1601.' Photograph: Hulton Archive
‘The prescriptions today’s warriors against the poor offer have been tendered at least since the Poor Law of 1601.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive


Related: ‘From Malthus to Ian Duncan Smith’ : On the the bicentennial of the birth of Dickens – A New Poor Law Posted on March 24, 2012

Powered by article titled “Pauper management by G4S, Serco and Atos is inspired by a punitive past” was written by Jeremy Seabrook, for The Guardian on Monday 25th November 2013 21.00 Europe/London

When the powerful invoke “fairness”, and represent the privileged as victims of exploitation by the powerless, it is usually the prelude to some spectacular act of injustice towards minorities, the excluded and the poor.

The singular achievement of the present government has been to appoint new “overseers of the poor”, although it forbears from using this term, which dates from the 16th century, when it designated the administrators and distributors of poor relief. These new overseers are far from the flinty and ignorant officials of the Old Poor Law, as they are – and not for the first time – commercial entities. The poor have often been eyed covetously by enterprise, as they represent an apparently enduring group in society, out of whom it must surely be possible, in one way or another, to make a profit, the word David Cameron has cleansed of any association with dirt – perhaps prematurely, as G4S and Serco demonstrated, when they charged the government for tagging prisoners who did not exist.

Atos, tasked with the judgment of whether individuals are fit for employment, finds itself the inheritor of an ancient debate about the “deserving” and “undeserving”.

The fate of the most vulnerable people – in children’s homes, prisons, care homes, rehabilitation centres, adult care homes and probation services – is increasingly in the hands of private providers, just as they were when known as orphans, felons, the lame and the halt, and the aged, who have “borne the heat and burthen of the day“. This government’s use of private companies – a policy re-affirmed last week by Francis Maude – in the improvement of pauper management has its antecedents in the 18th century, when the task was widely outsourced to willing providers. Far from being an “innovative” approach to poverty, the present government looks deep into a punitive past for inspiration.

Perhaps these modern Conservatives hark back to the Poor Law Relief Act of 1723, when local justices of the peace were allowed to contract the administration of relief out to those who would feed, clothe and house the poor. Relief was given according to a prescribed quantity of labour, and was calculated to put an end to the “false and frivolous pretences” under which many people were believed to have found relief. The poor were to be managed by the contractor at so much a head, or maintained for a lump sum agreed in advance. In the first case, it served the contractor to cram as many people into the workhouse as possible; in the second, it was in his interest to keep them out. This was achieved by the payment of pensions that cost less than the paupers’ upkeep in the workhouse. The standard inside was so low that people willingly accepted miserable payments as “out-relief”. The poor rates duly declined. Everything that could be was contracted out – physicians for medical services, carpenters for making coffins, shifts for living paupers and shrouds for dead ones.

Of course, the rhetoric has changed: the oratory of the 18th century has decayed, and is now inflected by a show of caring: we shall not neglect you or abandon you to worklessness, says George Osborne, but his embrace of the excluded is as uncharitable as it ever was, as he also declares that the “something-for-nothing culture” is at an end. The indolent and the workshy, identified during half a millennium of Poor Laws, are impervious to threats and exhortations. Those who suffer will be people whose lives have already been blighted, and many of whom were born to an inheritance, not of “hard-working strivers”, but of despair. They are, for the most part, highly vulnerable and, if among them foxy cheats dissimulate themselves, these should not be used to inspire terror in the weak and wounded of society.

What useful purpose is served by compelling the injured and humiliated of the world to sign on daily, to clear litter from the streets, to work for charities for nothing? Picking oakum looks, by contrast, like a positively purposeful activity.

What triumph lies in compulsion intended for the defeated and the demoralised, the unloved and abused, the frightened and the mentally infirm, the under-endowed and the psychologically damaged (often with invisible handicaps), people immobilised by depression or detached, not from society, but from life itself?

It is one thing to boast of hard work and achievement, but in the presence of the shut-ins and the frightened, the twilight world of the addict and the obsessive, these heroics are tainted. This is why it is ignoble to attack those predestined to lose all the rewards and prizes with which the rich and capable have so effortlessly made off.

If there is a ghostly quality in the language of today’s warriors against the poor, it is because the prescriptions they offer have been tendered at least since the consolidation of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.

When Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Frank Field and former archbishops give their prescriptions, it is like being at some cosmic seance, as they are enunciating a wisdom from beyond the grave.

In 1798, Jeremy Bentham published Pauper Management Improved. He proposed institutions for regulating the poor and, to facilitate this, he drew up a map of what he called Pauperland. This was an inventory of “that part of the natural livestock which has no feathers and walks on two legs”. He meant those who labour. In his opinion, “Not one person in a hundred is incapable of all employment. Not the motion of a finger, not a step, not a wink, not a whisper, but ought to be turned to account in the way of profit.”

Bentham’s cheeseparing scheme for the poor inspired generations of administrators: he would make hats brimless so as not to waste material; bedcovers would be fastened by clips to save on superfluous fabric. What an inspiration to the tax on those in social housing with a spare room, even if it holds necessary aids that enable disabled people to participate in society.

Meanwhile, turning the “wink and the whisper” of the sick to profit is admirably pursued by Atos, which has deemed fit for work people with terminal illness, some of whom have indeed died within days of being declared employable.

The 18th century would have approved of entrusting the disappearance from sight of the poor, the afflicted, the workless, the seeker of asylum and the criminal, to new superintendents of the poor, including A4E, Capita and Serco.

The charge is not one of parsimony, nor even of the elevation of efficiency over humanity. It is that the richest societies in the world are still ready to impose punitive sanctions upon the least defended.

If anthropologists wish to examine life and labour in a savage society, they no longer need seek out rare, uncontacted peoples in the Amazon or Polynesia; all they require is an airline ticket to contemporary Britain. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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11 thoughts on “Pauper management by G4S, Serco and Atos is inspired by a punitive past

  1. jed goodright says:

    Well, speaking from what increasingly looks like ‘pingback city’ I think this is a remarkably timely piece from Wheatcroft – he does have a habit for this! We have all known what was happening even if we could not all put it into the historic perspective advocated here. The Labour Party could do with this analysis in an effort for them to remember their history – something they continually fail to do.
    The only way out of this mess for the ‘dispossesed’ is – civil war – nothing less will bring about the fundemental changes necessary to even begin any process/ means of realignment – and it will be an uphill struggle – all the way

    1. Ian says:

      Its sad but civil war is seemingly the only way to try to make this country an even playing field,the current system of voting is skewed towards the monied,our rights are removed daily and there seems no alternative.


    Dear Mr Kay,

    Thank you for your Freedom of Information request of 19 November 2013. You asked:

    How many people in the UK are suffering from starvation since the crisis loan system was
    scrapped and have had to be hospitalized as a result?
    How many people have been referred to food banks since the crisis loan system was

    We do not collect the information you have requested on Crisis loans and Food Banks and
    therefore are unable to provide it.
    Jobcentre Plus offices do have the freedom to make local arrangements to signpost claimants
    to food banks or other locally available support based on the needs of their claimants. We do
    not keep any figures on how often they do this or how claimants use the information provided.


    Of course ATOS kills………

    The dual role of this organisation is inextricably linked to the DWP and form the most up to date, disability denial, killing machine that has ever been unleashed on the British public…………
    I am one of the persons who was robbed of my benefits by a cold calculating nurse called Emma Brodrick.

    She sought to fulfil her dream of making as much money as possible, whilst cooperating in a scheme that has brought misery to millions, whilst hiding behind the title of Health Care Professional.

    Professional, they aint! far from it……………

    They have been carefully instructed to utilise Biopsychosocial software called LIma, to misrepresent as many medical examinations as possible, hence the governments cover up of the contents of the actual contract.
    Contracts are only hidden from public scrutiny for one reason, to cover up the alarming death rate that was expected to follow.

    When my medical report came back i was stunned, to say the least.
    The first sentences say i was able to move, with the aid of my stick, from a waiting area and managed without any problems to use a door handle.

    The whole report is totally devoid of the condition of the patient and any discomfort they may be facing as a result of their actions.
    I was seen to sit in a chair and rise from it. This is a blatant lie as i refused to sit at all. My report stated my back was examined, how could it be?, i was wearing a girdle with metal rods in the back!
    Having bad hearing and severe tinnitus, i kept asking the nurse to repeat herself, she reported my hearing was ok.

    My hands and one arm was badly cut from falling off a bus, my report never mentioned the bad cuts but reported i was fit to use public transport.
    The duration of my medical was around thirty five minutes, the nurse was typing answers into a laptop for 28 minutes before a quick examination.

    My report stated that i succesfully sat and rose from a chair, was examined on a couch and declined to do seventy five movements that i was asked to perform.

    Strangely the report also states that i was observed to stand in one place for the whole duration of the examination.

    My hands were examined to see if i could grip properly using my thumb and forefinger, obviously i can’t with having rheumatoid arthritis and a cut tendon in one hand. It was reported as client declined.

    A good friend, who i met through an internet disability site, asked me for a copy of my report, which i duly sent her.

    She was astonished at why my report said i “HAD DECLINED” to do movements on seventy five occasions………………

    My friend advised me that the use of the wording, ” HAD DECLINED”, was not an option that was available on the software that the nurse had used, she should have ticked a box on the software that stated the “CLAIMANT WAS UNABLE TO PERFORM THE TASK”

    To follow this up, my friend sent a freedom of information request to the DWP, asking why the ATOS nurse had used the expression, ” CLIENT DECLINED”, instead of using the tick box that was available.

    This is a link to the request;

    The use of the term was plainly obvious, it was used to discredit the claimant in making out that he or she had refused to do something, when in fact the claimant was not able to perform the task that was required……………………………….

    Obviously, i was awarded zero points, having previously been awarded a disability for life and being in receipt of industrial Accident Benefit.

    My medical report stated i would be fit for work in three months and my benefit was stopped……………………..

    ATOS are pure evil and will cross any boundary to achieve the governments wishes………………………….



    this is no coincidence………………………………………

    UNUM Provident developed a special list of “independent” medical examination physicians whom it believed would be willing to write reports denying the existence of disability. As part of this plan, Provident made agreements with outside vendors to provide referrals to IME physicians that they believed would be willing to write medical reports supporting the denial of benefits.


    Thought i would give you an update of my condition since the joint theft of my subsistence by EMMA BRODRICK, a lying HCP, working for ATOS, and CHARLOTTE TRUSLER of Blackpool DWP

    BRODRICK’S lies took away my Incapacity Benefit and TRUSLER’S, my Disability Living Allowance……………………

    Notwithstanding, the government keep telling claimants that £71.20 is the amount of money needed to live on, yet i do not even receive this and was declared disabled for life after an accident at work…………….

    My hands are riddled with rheumatoid arthritis and i have problems wiping my backside. I wear disposable pads that hide the fact i cannot hold my bladder sometimes when rising from a sitting position.
    I purchase the pads and any medication i need from my own pocket, finding it cheaper than expensive prescriptions.

    Since my DLA has been stopped i cannot afford these “luxuries”, and have been stuffing old newspapers down the front of my pants.
    As a result of this i have become sore and developed thrush around my genitals. The tops of my legs have become red raw and a sickly sweet smell is evident.
    Behind my foreskin is also red raw and i am discharging liquid. When i urinate i get a burning sensation in my penis.
    I am not sure if the infection on my genitals is connected to having an ability to wipe my bottom properly, it could be a cross contamination of some kind.

    i have developed bad gumboils in my mouth. I am not sure if it is to do with my genital infection or eating bad foods.
    There are many fantastic adverts on our tv sets showing the finest of christmas cuisine, but this is a luxury that me and my family will never be able to afford. Todays menu will be the same as yesterday, an onion ring sandwich, and out of date at that…………………….
    The physical abuse that is being directed at persons with a handicap is no joke. The biggest perpetrators are our own DWP. It seems to have developed into a national sport where the criteria seems to include, who can do the most evil to someone in dire circumstances.

    No doubt there will be people just waiting to ridicule what i write, these are the people who sit back and poke fun at those in the weakest position, those not able to fight back.

    Please feel free to ridicule, as it is you, and not i, who needs help badly. You have succumbed to the lowest base possible……………………….


    1. Norma Roberts says:


      I am so sorry you are having to go through this, I hope you are appealing their decision, for both ESA and DLA?

      I “failed” my first Atos assessment (ESA) with 0 points. I asked for a copy of the report and, like yourself, was stunned at it’s content. It was full of assumptions, omissions and downright lies. I appealed, and complained directly to Atos. Atos later admitted the report was not fit for purpose (their speak for full of cra*!) and the DWP overturned their original decision.

      I had my second assessment recorded and the ensuing report was more accurate as to what was said, it was, however, not too accurate on what took place. For example it stated I was carrying two small bags, one in each hand, the only bag I had was a small shoulder bag! I still qualified for ESA, but got it because the report implied I was depressed, when in actual fact I suffer with panic attacks and agoraphobia! My arthritis in my spine hardly got a mention!

      These assessments are a cruel sham, they can no more detect whether someone is capable of doing “some” work than I could by gazing into a crystal ball! All Atos do is lie and make everything sound trivial.

      I do hope you will go to see your GP as it sounds as if you have a nasty infection. I also hope that you are appealing both decisions and wish you luck with those. In the meantime old, clean pieces of sheets or towels etc will be better than newspaper. Newspapers will be full of bacteria, and the ink could aggravate your sensitive areas! Would you be able to fill a container with warm water and rinse your bum instead of wiping? Would that help or be possible at all? What an awful situation for you, I hate Iain Duncan Smith!

      Hope you soon feel better and that you get your DLA etc reinstated.

      Best wishes

  6. Stepping Razor says:

    Disability means testing is worked out as scamming the disabled to be on Income Surport to finally scrapping any disability benefits & call it Income Surport. Another loop hole to be manipilated by the DWP fraudsters. Take a look within the DWP for DWP fraud it is very rife.


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