‘The tyranny of tick boxes’
By Harvey Duke
Published 30th May 2023
I don’t see dead people. This isn’t a movie, and I’m not delusional, but I worry thatsome people who ended their own lives can see me. They stare at me, and they are shaking their heads in disappointment, because they think I didn’t do enough to help them. And then I wake up sweating, and I realise I’m not a Welfare Rights Officer anymore. And, in the recent decade when I was, I did as much as I could to help people. Men and women whose benefits were stopped one time too many, people who had gone without food once too often.
From 2010 to 2020, I fought in a war. It was a war where the bullets fired atinnocent people were in the form of benefit rules. A person could be struggling to survive on a low income: he or she may have been unemployed or sick or disabled. In some cases, cancer was destroying cells in the person’s body. And then a brown envelope arrived through aletterbox. Benefits stopped. Immediate threats: no heating, no food, and the feeling of walking over a cliff. So, the person came to see me or one of my colleagues, and we listened to some variation on a sickeningly common theme.“I’ve been left with nothing. I don’t know how I’ll survive. Why have they done this to me?”
in 2010, shortly before I started work as a Welfare Rights Officer, I was an activist, trying to set up an unemployed centre. I challenged Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith to come to Dundee and debate the likely effects of his planned benefit cuts. Rail workers leader Bob Crow,Hollywood actor Brian Cox, and disability group Black Triangle supported my debate challenge. Across Scotland and in London, I popped up on TV and radio a few times. Yet, Iain Duncan Smith declined to debate with me. Then or ever. Presumably, he felt no need to debate the tick boxes and cuts that would go on to devastate the lives of millions of people. He had instigated that war in the traditional way, through the UK Parliament. Why bother debating with some enemy foot soldier in Scotland?
Welfare Rights Officers are a peculiar breed of professional worker. We are expected to absorb a mass of specialist knowledge about complex laws and ruleswhich are frequently changed. Essentially,we try to outfox a brutal system so that the people we represent have enough income to survive, and they can avoid eviction, starvation, and other kinds of unpleasantness. We have to respond with compassion and care to many issues which can make it harder for people to navigate the world: problems reading and writing, mental health difficulties, problems with alcohol or drugs, or the kind of shell shock that comes from being under attack far too many times.
How do benefit rules destroy lives? The answer is simple: unfair rules halt the income a person needs to survive. Why would anyone design such horrible rules? The answer to that is also simple: to halt benefits for millions of people and thereby save the UK government billions of pounds. How was it done? Now, that’s the crucial question. If we answer it fully, webegin to see how – the harm done to any single person, in this war, is part of a much wider crime against humanity.
Instigators of all wars demonise the people they want to attack. The war against the poor was no different. In newspapers and on TV and radio, the idea of the ‘benefits scrounger’ was propagated. There were many stories, but one is enough to see the common theme. In July 2016, a story appeared in the Daily Star, with the sub heading: ‘Jobless benefit scroungers in the UK claim they get too much cash and spend it on gambling, flash luxury cars and boob jobs’. In the same year, well over 1 million foodbank parcels were handed outby The Trussell Trust. By 2021, it was double: 2 million food parcels. That is real life on benefits. In the ten years I worked as a Welfare Rights Officer, I spoke to thousands of anxious people and only a handful were dishonest, but none of them were the ‘scroungers’ of wartime propaganda.
Propaganda through mass media is a very powerful weapon, but it is not subtle enough to justify the kinds of detailed and twisted rules required to deprive people of benefits. The government needed to hide their own brutality beneath a special kind of babble. Millions of words were churned out in political speeches, in legislation, in academia, and in rules for benefits. And, at the core of it all, the biggest lies would be coded in special language. Nothing would be given a truthful name. Even ‘sickness notes’ from a doctor became ‘fitness notes’. ‘Invalidity’ and ‘disability’ became forbidden terms to use in the names of benefits. It was all designed and justified by a powerful gang of Right-wing British politicians, a giant American corporation called UNUM, and a handful of compliant pseudo-intellectuals.
When I was a Welfare Rights Officer, I knew that the benefit rules I fought against were unfair and damaged the lives of many people, but I did not fully understand the depths of deviousness which went into designing them. I did not know that UNUM, a corrupt American insurance company, sent a long memo in December 2002 to the New Labour government, advising them on their welfare policies which were later embraced by Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives. UNUM were very pleased that ‘Benefits (would) not be given on the basis of a certain disability or illness but on capacity assessment’. This is a reference to the brutal tests which deprived thousands of people of benefits. And UNUM also praised the replacement of Incapacity Benefit with a harder to get benefit: ‘We endorse the name of the benefit being changed to Employment and Support Allowance. We have long argued for this change as it sets the tone for how the benefit is perceived.’ This was a reference to the way people who were too ill to work would be pressurised into getting employment, leading to hundreds of thousands of benefits stopped, followed by tribunals, where I and others had to fight a system that did not care how many months of stress it caused in the lives of ill people.
Employment and Support Allowance, with it’s strict tests, was introduced in a 2007 UK law. In the same year, an article appeared in America, in the NorthwesternUniversity Law Review, detailing the crimes of UNUM, which led to large fines. The article reported: ‘evidence has come to light that for a period of some years, stretching from the mid-1990s…Unum…the largest American insurer specialising in disability insurance was engaged in a deliberate program of bad faith denial of meritorious claims.’ Thecompany which helped to design Employment and Support Allowance in the UK was guilty of deliberately failing to award benefits to people in the USA. That’s the kind of expertise which informed UK Welfare Reform.
In 2005, a book came out, full of ideas for making it much harder for sick and disabled people to claim benefits. ‘The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits’ was written by Gordon Waddell and Mansell Aylward. The two authors have long been favoured academics of government politicians. The UNUM memo to the UK government also praises Aylward. This is not surprising, as he became head of the ‘UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research’ at Cardiff University in 2004. He was previously Chief Medical Adviser to the Department of Work and Pensions. In 2010, he was knighted.
After years of the war on the poor,worsening mental health, increasing mass hunger and suicides, the UK government has announced a further round of attacks. Two measures stand out. There will be more benefit sanctions, where benefits are stopped if people are deemed to have failed to look for work. This will add to the over 2 million food parcels a year currently needed. It will also push more vulnerable people into taking their own lives. And the main test for Employment and Support Allowance will be abolished. If this had been done out of a belated recognition of the harm these tests have caused in the lives of millions of people, it would be a good step. It is not. Instead, the feared Work Capability Test will be replaced by something even worse: the kind of test currently used for another benefit – Personal Independence Payment or PIP. It is notoriously difficult to pass the PIP test, and be awarded benefits, especially if your main disability is a mental health issue. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 1 million people will be deprived of benefits because of the extension of the PIP test into assessments for ESA. The scene is being set for all the harm already done by ‘Welfare Reform’ to be added to massively.
Many people know a lot about poverty and the fact that that unfair benefit rules are a major cause. The 2016 film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, written by Paul Laverty and directed by Ken Loach did a lot to galvanise public opinion against the war on the poor. In that film, a 59-year-oldcarpenter who had a heart attack is denied Employment and Support Allowance. He fails the Work Capability Assessment. By 2016, the real assessments were run by a US company called Maximus. A French company called ATOS ran the test before that, but they had to abandon the £500 million contract in 2014, following public outrage at regular horror stories of seriously ill people being denied benefits. Yet incredibly ATOS simply changed its’ name to Independent Assessments Services and was given the contract to assesses people for the Personal Independent Payment. If Daniel Blake had been assessed under a test for that benefit, he would have failed that too. In real life, there is now a threat that ATOS may be given the contract to assess all sickness and disability claimants under a single test, from March 2024.
Unjust wars can be brought to an end if sufficient numbers in a society can be mobilised against them. A first step is to educate ourselves about the nature of the attacks faced by millions of people. Our neighbours, our brothers and sisters. Us.