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John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

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Financial Appeal

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Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme - They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state

 

 

7. They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state

‘Services for poor people are poor services’ is a commonplace of social studies and has been true enough since the inception of the welfare state. What is happening under the Coalition’s reforms however goes above and beyond anything that went before.

Bureaucratic indifference was the characteristic emotional mode of the post 1945 welfare state, alternating with conservative moralising especially for single women with children. Benefit provision and personal social services were closely integrated under the original National Assistance scheme of 1948 so that claiming state support meant agreeing to moral supervision by the state. Children were still being transported to Canada and Australia by the British welfare state up to 1970. Mother and Baby Homes were widely used and children who escaped forced emigration faced equally forced adoption by middle class families, a process which reached a peak of 16,164 adoption orders made in 1968. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of disabled people were incarcerated in asylums, long stay hospitals and homes run by Leonard Cheshire and similar charities - all lingering memories of the workhouses of the 19th century.

The Thatcherite welfare system that emerged from the 1980’s dispensed with most of these encumbrances, in favour of purely cash transactions. Hospitals, asylums, old peoples’ homes, were closed down and replaced with private sector residential provision, funded through Income Support (introduced 1988) and Housing Benefit. The Children Act (1990) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) represented major, genuinely liberalising, reforms introduced by Tory governments of the time; but they were also strategic withdrawals by the state in favour of market provision and monetised transactions. The introduction of Disability Living Allowance (1992, bringing together the existing Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance, with some loosening of conditions) similarly represented both a popular reform, responding to the demands of the disabled peoples movement (and DLA remains a genuinely popular benefit, pending its abolition) and a precursor to the extensive privatisation of care services which were to be funded to a large extent through DLA and Income Support.

Most fundamentally, it was the Thatcher governments that did away with the paternalistic exercise of discretion, left over from Poor Law days, in favour of a comprehensive, legalistic, code of entitlements - a change accomplished by the abolition of supplementary benefit in 1988 and its replacement by Income Support. This shift wrong footed most oppositional welfare rights organisations, formed in imitation of the much larger US movement for whom the establishment of legal rights and the enforcement of due process were central and continually contested objectives. But in a UK context the formalisation of welfare arrangements had multiple advantages for an emerging neoliberal state: it removed any scope for discretion by individual benefit officers, which might be influenced in its exercise by local political campaigns; it began the process of training claimants in the requirements of a neoliberal bureaucracy; and it enabled, in due course, the increasing automation and depersonalisation of welfare administration.

Blair and Brown left this modernised welfare largely untouched, with the addition of Tax Credits and Pension Credit. Their major contribution was to use what ideological credibility they had, as supposed heirs to and guardians of the post war welfare settlement, to popularise a neoliberal account of welfare. They began the promotion of work - any work - as the solution to all ills - and they could do so without raising hollow laughter because they were not saddled with Thatcher’s legacy of having recreated mass unemployment. They identified benefit dependency as a central ‘problem’ - meaning an opportunity to make political gains from attacking the poor - Frank Field was bemoaning the existence of a dependent underclass as early as 1989. They introduced ATOS and the work capability assessment to restrict the scope of sickness benefits in 2008. At the same time they introduced local housing allowance to the private rented sector - a necessary move in the development of the bedroom tax. They pioneered the involvement of the private sector ‘welfare to work industry’ in disciplining unemployed people. And they ‘modernised’ the Department of Work and Pensions. This meant cutting tens of thousands of jobs, introducing features like call centres and the closure of local benefit offices. By 2010 it was already the case that it was impossible to see a DWP employee in person about your benefit claim, all transactions being handled by phone or in writing. The Coalition introduced new perversions to this already depersonalised system. Labour still occasionally used the language of customer service and satisfaction; the Tories pioneered the new concept of deliberately appalling customer service on the grounds that the customers were all worthless (the flip side of all those advertisements which urge a luxury service on you “because you’re worth it” - to which the only appropriate response is “how do you know?”).

Postal communication with the DWP is now a lottery which routinely takes weeks - all post being handled, or lost, by the giant West Midlands Mail Centre (1, Sun Street, Wolverhampton, is its rather extraordinary geographical address) and arriving at its destination, a Benefits Delivery Centre by unknown means. Since mail is never logged until it is acted upon any query you make about a claim, a letter, a sick note is invariably answered by the bland statement that the communication has not been received which is usually untrue but might just be the case so you have to send another … Naturally the DWP is promoting electronic communication - with the exception of e-mail. There are no e-mail facilities at all open to claimants to make enquiries about their claims. You can of course phone, if you can wait 20-30 minutes, when your call can be routed to a call centre anywhere in the country - and you have to pay for the call, only the initial claim being on a freephone number (which isn’t free on many mobiles). However the facility which formerly existed in Jobcentres to phone a benefit office was withdrawn from every Job Centre in the land in February 2014 for no reason at all except that it was a nasty thing to do. (Jobcentres are moving to an assisted service model and providing digital access to job search and benefit applications. As a consequence, we are removing warm phones from local jobcentres. Claimants who are vulnerable or unable to access our services in other ways will be assisted at their local office to resolve any queries that they have. Esther Mcvey, Hansard, 10.2.14.)

And it goes on. Mandatory reconsideration, a procedure designed to prevent people appealing was going to take 2-4 weeks. It takes double or more and it is succeeding in its aim - appeal numbers have been cut drastically with the result that there is now no effective check on DWP decision making and maladministration. DLA claims were processed in 2-4 months - PIP claims take twice that or longer, as a side effect of the chaos surrounding ATOS. Short term benefit advances (STBA’s) proposed as the solution to delays, are next to impossible to obtain (just £3.3 million paid out in six months) with claimants being referred to non-existent local authority services or food banks to sort out DWP delays. This is administration as an open expression of class contempt.

If payment is so wayward as to be almost a punishment, what of provisions that are actually intended to be punitive? The effects of almost a million sanctions a year are fairly well known. Less noted are a series of lesser punitive measures:

  • penalties: If you are paid too much benefit for almost any reason, you do not merely have to repay the overpayment you receive a £50 spot fine as well. So you get a job, and not wanting to take an hour or more off work, you don’t phone the DWP until a few days later. You’re quite happy to pay back any overpayment - but you’re fined as well - in effect fined for finding work.
  • overpayments: At present you only have to repay overpaid benefit if, loosely, you are responsible for the overpayment occurring. If it’s an official error you don’t have to repay it. When Tax Credits were introduced, with overpayments guaranteed however scrupulous you were about notifying them, the Brown government decreed that all overpayments would be recovered, subject only to an official mercy provision. Universal Credit adopts the Tax Credit rule.
  • benefit fraud can now be punished not only by a criminal sentence (now with extended sentences) and not only by having to repay any overpaid benefit (both of which have always happened) but also by a three year ban on claiming any other benefits and total recovery of any assets (house, car) under the Proceedings of Crime Act (POCA).

The neoliberal welfare state, then, sees punishment as a central purpose, not as an adjunct to good administration or an incentive to good behaviour. The boundaries of punitive welfare furthermore extend well beyond the DWP. Local authority Social Services Departments are increasingly called upon to exercise punitive measures from repatriation to the removal of children. Both the Tories and Labour have plans to extend this role and deepen local authority involvement in the discipline of ‘feckless’ or ‘troubled’ families.

This poses a problem for socialists and trade unionists working within the welfare system. There comes a point when the ability to moderate the system from inside no longer seems adequate compensation for the cruelties that you are required to participate in. This is not an easy judgment to make. There has always been a tendency within state bureaucracies, and many other institutions to develop a contemptuous attitude to the punters, tempered perhaps by a recognition of their necessity. And of course there is no shortage of annoying and obnoxious claimants. However the sharper grows the contradiction between, say, the PCS’s official, very civilised, stance against welfare reform and the behaviour required of its members, and the longer unions put off any effective opposition to the transformation of the social content of their members’ work, on the spurious grounds that they are concerned only with the terms and conditions of that work, the more difficult it becomes to justify continued participation in a state campaign of enforced hunger and petty tyranny. Effective sabotage then becomes the minimum requirement of an active conscience and obstruction of the system a central campaigning objective for socialists both inside and outside the neoliberal welfare system.