The Labour Party has revealed its plans for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). However, the party’s claims around why it will shake up the DWP actually have little grounding in evidence.
Labour and the DWP: “new thinking”?
Labour’s shadow DWP secretary Jonathan Ashworth spoke about the party’s plans for the social security system on Tuesday 10 January. It was at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) thinktank – founded by former DWP boss and architect of Universal Credit Iain Duncan Smith. In short, much like his colleague Wes Streeting’s plans for the NHS, Ashworth thinks the DWP needs reform – but he also said it needs new “thinking”. His overall thrust is that, as he said:
unemployment is never a price worth paying.
Much of what Ashworth proposed is not in the context of unemployment but of people who are classed as “economically inactive” – either due to retirement or ill health. His idea is that these people need more support to get back to work. However, this narrative – that too many people are not working due to sickness, disability or old age – is exactly the same one that the Tory government is using. But do Tory and Labour plans differ? Labour’s press account tweeted some of the key points. First, it quoted Ashworth as saying:
Being out of work is bad for health and the longer someone is out of work, the more difficult it becomes for them to return to a job.
This was the first point that Ashworth had grounded in zero evidence.
‘Work is good for your health’
Ashworth’s notion that “being out of work is bad for health” is exactly the same as successive Tory governments’ stance – an idea that was actually introduced by Tony Blair. They pushed the notion that work is a health outcome, despite little evidence to back up this claim. As sociologist and writer Sue Jones noted:
Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose and security. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”.
For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to fulfill their broader aim of dismantling social security and to uphold their ideological commitment to… [capitalist] policy.
Jones further noted regarding politicians’ claim that work is good for your health:
There is plenty of evidence that indicates government policy is not founded on empirical evidence, but rather, it is ideologically framed, and often founded on deceitful contrivance. A… [DWP] research document published back in 2011… said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.
So a political decision was made that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for their health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by “helping” them into work.
So, it seems Ashworth and Labour are set to continue this lie. Ashworth then continued aping Tory DWP policy further.
Zero evidence base
Finally, the social security system should support – not hinder – people’s journeys to work.
But too often the system disincentivises work, making even considering trying to engage in possible employment too much of a risk.
He noted that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) ‘traps’ sick and disabled people “out of the workplace”, because:
Many people with ill health simply do not want to risk having to go through the whole benefits application and assessment process again if things go wrong.
Once again, there is no evidence that sick and disabled people are not looking for work because the DWP disincentivises or traps them. On the contrary, the DWP has actively forced chronically ill, sick and disabled people back to work when it shouldn’t have done. One such trial of a back to work programme resulted in 37% of participants’ wellbeing actually getting worse. Moreover, the DWP’s aggressive policy of forcing people back to work has ultimately resulted in thousands of people dying. Ashworth is playing into this, as well as tabling co-working between the DWP and “local health services” (NHS) – again another flawed and dangerous policy. Ashworth framed this in the context of:
we know there are hundreds of thousands of people currently out of work and economically inactive who may want to participate in employment with the right support… we owe it to them and their families to give them a fair chance to participate in decent employment.
Again, there is no evidence for this.
Labour: too many benefit scroungers
Labour are clearly peddling the right-wing idea that there are chronically ill, sick and disabled people who should be working but aren’t – ‘benefit scroungers’, but without explicitly saying it. Ashworth gave the half-hearted caveat with his speech that:
I want to be clear. For people who can’t work, they deserve security with inclusion not fear or threats. A Labour government will always guarantee that.
This is not the reality of what Labour is saying, nor what would happen if they introduced the policies Ashworth has tabled. As Jones noted about the Tories, as capitalists they:
see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are politically stigmatised and outgrouped.
… the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service.
While the language may be cuddlier, Ashworth’s plans are fundamentally no different. A Labour government with an agenda of wanting more chronically ill, sick and disabled people in work – when the Tories have already wrung that sponge dry, leaving thousands dead – is perverse in the extreme.
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