Last week I wrote about ‘Maggie‘, and the fake psychometric ‘test’ that she’d been ordered to take by the DWP under threat of losing her benefits. That series of posts has been one of the most read since I started this blog, getting picked up by a number of mainstream news sites and sparking a huge amount of comment.
The vast majority of this comment was as outraged as I was, although some didn’t see what the ‘big deal’ was, and a small number of posters (primarily on the Guardian‘s version of the article) took the line of ‘Why not? Anything you do to encourage/force people to get a job is fair game‘, which was no less depressing for being unsurprising.
One theme that came through strongly in the comments was from psychologists with experience of conducting (ethical) trials – that of how crucial it is, for any such ‘randomised control trial’ to be valid, to know your subject.
In other words, to make any trial effective and ethical, researchers need to first research the person about to undergo the trial. Very clearly, this was not the case with ‘Maggie’. With permission, I’m going to show you something that shows just how ludicrous – and cruel – it was to threaten her with the ‘sanction’ of her benefits if she failed to comply with the instruction. It makes me uncomfortable to expose someone in this way, even anonymously, but I believe it’s necessary to show just how ‘cruel and unusual’ these ‘directions’ and sanctions can be.
It will also show you how unexceptional this level of inappropriateness is.
‘Maggie’ received another ‘jobseeker’s direction’ – this one to attend an ‘NCFE Enterprise Skills Assessment‘ course, again with the warning that failing to do so could result in sanction. As part of this course, she was instructed to complete an ‘enterprise skills assessment’ form. The course, and the form – just like the online ‘My Strengths’ test – resulted in her phoning my friend (her neighbour) in distress.
Here is page one of the form, with her name removed:
The underlined section tells the person completing it to make sure they save their work regularly – even though she was given the printed form and was not completing it online. Nothing major per se, but a small example of the lack of care taken to make sure that these mandatory, threat-backed activities are not confusing to people who might have limited literacy and computer skills.
Page 2 of the form requires respondents to define the term ‘enterprise’ – something which is not easy to define even for highly-literate people with a good vocabulary. It also tells them to ‘complete an audit of your enterprise skills’. Does the DWP, or the organisation conducting this course on its behalf, really imagine that ‘complete an audit’ is a clear instruction to a lot of long-term unemployed people? And there’s that word ‘enterprise’ again.
Now page 3:
This page, which was completed as a group activity, gives a good ‘Maggie’s level of literacy – and removes any doubts that might linger about whether the fake online ‘My Strengths’ test was appropriate in any sense for someone with ‘Maggie’s level of skill with words – especially with the addition of a sanction threat for ‘failing to comply’. The serious and distressing nature of this threat should not be underestimated.
Initially, the length of sanction that could be imposed for non-compliance with a JSD was between 1 and 26 weeks – which is bad enough. The immediate, unilateral imposition of a withdrawal of income lasting 6 months is an insane cruelty that must be obvious to anyone with even a trace of compassion.
But it has become much worse. As the DWP website shows, since 22 October 2012, the maximum length of a sanction is 3 years – and the minimum length, for a first ‘offence’, is 4 weeks.
Four weeks loss of benefit if you don’t complete an unethical, bogus ‘test’, or fail to comply with any of the other ‘hoop-jumping’ we impose on you.
Is it happening?
When asked by the Guardian about the fake ‘test’, the DWP claimed that nobody would be sanctioned for failing to comply with the instruction – an obvious untruth, since my article carried a copy of the threat, in black and white, in the JSD letter.
But this is no mere threat. In the 12 months up to October 2012, no fewer than 778,000 benefit sanctions were imposed on claimants – equating to almost one in 20 unemployment benefit claimants sanctioned every month. This is three times the 2005 level and a clear indication of this government’s aim of using sanctions as a cost-cutting measure.
Around 40% of these sanctions are overturned on appeal – a level that, in itself, demonstrates that these sanctions are being applied wantonly and without due cause or process. However, the appeals process takes considerable time, and by the time benefits are reinstated many people will have run up debts with legal or illegal loan-sharks that will not be covered by back-dated benefit payments.
And some will have committed suicide, in despair at the loss of their income.
This policy not only inflicts misery, but costs lives.
In March, it was revealed – and of course denied, in spite of the evidence – that the DWP is setting Jobcentre Plus centres targets for the number of sanctions they apply, with advisors threatened with disciplinary action if they fail to meet their targets.
This must qualify as cruel and unusual treatment of the unemployed and of Jobcentre Plus workers.
Which brings us back full circle, I guess, to those commenters who thought the fake ‘test’ was no big deal, or that ‘anything goes’ when it comes to forcing ‘scroungers’ to find work.
Inflicting this kind of psychological and emotional torture on people is unethical and despicable. The threat of benefit sanction is no idle one. Sanction causes misery, fear and hardship that most of us are fortunate to find difficult to imagine – and not only to claimants but to their innocent dependents, too. It costs lives.
Threatening people with it for the sake of making them ‘jump through hoops’ is indefensible and unconscionable. Threatening them with it to scare them into taking a meaningless test that has been unethically used without permission of its owners is worse still.
And doing so without the ‘due diligence’ of making sure they’re literate and computer-literate enough to have a chance of complying is either unforgivably reckless or else betrays a ‘planned misery’ strategy of manoeuvering people into a position where they ‘fail’, specifically for the purpose of taking away their life-support.
Or, quite possibly, both.