Sanctions can be incurred by things like “rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview”. Photo: Getty
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Immoral or incompetent? With the DWP, it’s no longer a choice

What do they think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months?

Immorality or incompetence? There’s no need for the choice, anymore. It’s been a long time since the Department for Work and Pensions – lest we forget, the governmental department that is actually responsible for work and those out of it – has been anything other than a cruel joke. The joke would be funny if people weren’t starving. But no worry, there’s food banks for that. Almost £3m of public money is now being spent on them, Panorama reported this week. Need is spreading. The line between the state and charity is blurring.

“Food banks are an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound,” Professor Liz Dowler, one of the authors of a recent government report about food banks says. “They do not solve the problems. And that they should be enshrined as an inadequate solution is deeply immoral.”

We crossed immoral a long time ago. The sort of immorality that positions itself as the moral one: judging, punishing, and starving.

Around 68,000 people are having their benefits stopped unfairly, leading them to have to use food banks, a Policy Exchange report found this week. These are people who have their benefits taken away for the first time, only to later successfully appeal against the decision (that’s about a third of all those sanctioned for the first time each year).

Take a look at the Tumblr “Stupid Sanctions” if you need an insight into the decision-making that is being used to justify removing the money people need to live. Rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview. A family member dying. Not filling in your job search evidence for jobs advertised on Christmas Day. Failing to complete your assessment because you had a heart attack in the middle of it. Four weeks, thirteen weeks…  These are just numbers when humans are figures. What does anyone think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months? That it’s often happening because of incompetence just adds a further bad taste to the mouth.

“The welfare system must have a sharp set of teeth. That is why the sanctions regime is so important,” Guy Miscampbell, the author of this week’s report says.

“Issuing first time offenders, who may or may not have been fairly sanctioned, with a ‘yellow card’ in the form of a benefits card would be a more compassionate way of trying to help people back into work.”

This is what compassion looks like now. “A sharp set of teeth?” I wouldn’t trust this system to know where to bite.  

It was only last week that Personal Independence Payments (PIP) was found to be causing “distress and financial difficulties” due to mismanagement and outsourcing. The National Audit Office found PIP, the new disability benefit for people with extra care or mobility needs, will cost almost three and a half times more to administer than Disability Living Allowance – the benefit the government deemed it necessary to replace – and take double the amount of time to process (even after early failings had forced the DWP to stagger its national roll-out). Employment and Support Allowance, meanwhile, prized with the title of the DWP’s original disaster, has had all repeat assessments paused indefinitely due to Atos’s backlog. A temporary reprieve. This, for many, is something to be grateful for at this point.

There is rarely a reprieve from life and the effects are starting to show. More than three-quarters of mental health social workers say mental health is worsening in the communities they work in, according to a survey by Mind and The College of Social Work released today. Benefit cuts and unemployment are seeing people become “overwhelmed by life circumstances” at the same time as cuts in care budgets mean there’s often nowhere for them to go. Almost three-quarters of those affected are people needing help for the first time, the survey found. It can happen to anyone and nowadays it is.

Mark Wood, another face and another figure, struggled with complex mental health needs but was found fit for work. The 44 year old’s doctor had written to the job centre telling them that he was “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever” but he was left, as people are, to try and survive on £40 a week. Mark died a few months later, weighing 5st 8lbs. His family spoke out last week, calling for the system to treat people better. Treating claimants as people – desperate, scared, hungry – would be a start.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.