The Work Capability Assessment (WCA), introduced in 2007 by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) under the last Labour government, is likely to form a key component in the current Conservative government’s commitment to reducing the UK welfare bill by £12 billion pounds over the next parliament. Critics of the WCA and it’s deployment by the DWP claim that it reflects an extension of ‘austerity politics’ which seeks to use the cloak of a financial crisis to shrink the size of the state and recalibrate the social contract embedded in the welfare state since the end of the second world war.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) recently published a Briefing Paper in response to growing concern about the fitness for purpose of the current WCA. The BPS assert that the WCA means people will be at risk of having their difficulties inadequately and inaccurately assessed (they identify people with mental health problems, a learning disability or an acquired brain injury as being particularly at risk) The BPS criticise the current mode of WCA for not being sensitive enough to the issues faced by these groups of people.
The BPS paper continues, arguing that the current WCA lacks reliability and validity and needs to be replaced by a new assessment that is constructed, supervised and administered by appropriately qualified assessors. There is little doubting the sincerity of their attempt to humanise what is at present a harsh and frightening experience for many people, but there is also an issue of professional self-interest, in that the BPS is implicitly suggesting that psychologists would be well placed to take charge of the WCA. However while we do not see the BPS response as ill intentioned we do consider it as seriously misguided in its breadth of view on the issue. At the heart of the BPS position is a belief that if we could only inform the DWP of how to measure the nature and extent of people’s disability more accurately then this will lead to a better, fairer system. This view assumes that the DWP agenda is driven by a desire to follow best evidence based practice. However, the history of disability benefits reforms in the UK is not one guided by evidence based policy but by political expediency and a free market ideology. By attempting to refine the ways that entitlements to these benefits are assessed we argue (as BPS members) that our organization is fundamentally missing the point. A cursory historical review of the way that disability benefits have been used by successive Conservative and Labour governments for political and ideological ends renders the BPS perspective at best dangerously naïve and at worst complicit in the further demonization of disadvantaged members of our society.
Consider the historical context. Employment and Support Allowance replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2007 which itself was a replacement for Invalidity Benefit. The cost of Invalidity Benefit both in terms of share of the total social security bill and in real terms rose sharply in the 1980s. Many commentators, including importantly Chancellor George Osborne, have agued that this was a political strategy deployed the Thatcher government to mask unemployment figures that were soaring as result of the coal pit closures that devastated communities in the North of England. In this instance the underlying political drive for the ‘creation’ of whole communities of newly disabled people was to hide the consequences of a concerted policy to eradicate the labour movements capacity to resist the structural reform of UK industry.
What we are seeing now in 2015, is that having historically rendered people incapable of work due to the dismantling of industry, a new Conservative government is attempting to make these claimants go back to work by undermining the legitimacy of their disability. In short the current government is pursuing policies intended to radically reduce the number of people claiming these benefits by any means necessary. This policy agenda is already well underway with devastating consequences for many claimants.
A current in vogue construct within applied psychology is ‘mentalization’. At it’s simplest it refers to the capacity to conceptualise what might be going on in the minds of other people. It is our argument that when thinking about the motivation of Iain Duncan Smith and other DWP ministers we spend less time imaging them to be driven by a desire to get a closer approximation of objective truth through the use of carefully controlled scientific method. Instead we suggest that what drives this agenda is a deeply held ideological belief that the state should not be responsible for the ill, disadvantaged and disabled amongst us. The well-intentioned BPS response to the array of indignities visited upon those who have found themselves prey to the WCA apparatus is one that is ultimately hamstrung by the wholly false premise that the institutions addressing worklessness are underpinned by an enlightenment logic. That is, that rational thinking, supported by the learnings of science will allow social progress. The BPS should be congratulated from moving from its default position of silence but there needs to be an understanding that the opposition to which they write their briefing paper is not an array of confused bureaucrats seeking enlightenment through evidence but an ideological mission to return Britain to the iniquitous days of Victorian squalor.
Once we get the BPS to this realization, psychologists working with other social scientists can invest more time in theorizing methods to resist and challenge this position rather than merely trying to ameliorate it. It will also allow us to move away from trying to speak for, albeit with good intentions, people who are currently struggling with these welfare reforms to standing in solidarity alongside them in our refusal to be complicit with or profit from it.
About the Authors: Danny Taggart is a Clinical Psychologist based jointly at the Priory Children’s Centre in Great Yarmouth and as a Lecturer in the School of Health and Human Sciences, University of Essex. At the Priory Children’s Centre he works alongside local fathers in the Great Yarmouth Father’s Project, a Community Psychology informed intervention to improve social, emotional and material conditions for families in the local area. Carl Walker leads a European Community Psychology Association Task Force on Austerity and Mental health and is the National Health Action Party parliamentary candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham. He is also a Principal Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton.