Ahead of the IdeaSpace event in Glasgow this week, Dr Sarah Glynn of the Scottish Unemployed Workers' Network says people should beware the Tory rhetoric around the 'work cure'
THE new secretary of state for work and pensions has just reconfirmed to the Conservative conference his party’s mantra that work is good for you, and renewed the party's commitment to use the combined forces of the DWP and department of health to ensure more sick and disabled people benefit from its therapeutic qualities.
Of course we recognise that there are many people with mental and physical health problems who would welcome helpful adjustments to allow them to find and do a paid job, but this natural desire for equality and acceptance has been distorted by government policy makers and turned into a stick with which to beat all sick and disabled benefit claimants.
For anyone with an independent head on their shoulders, it should be obvious that this vision of a work cure is both simplistic and dangerous. In a society that fetishises work and defines people by their job, it is inevitable that lack of work will affect self esteem and social engagement; and when benefits are also cripplingly low, those without work can be starved of the necessities for basic subsistence, never mind social engagement.
For anyone with an independent head on their shoulders, it should be obvious that this vision of a work cure is both simplistic and dangerous.
However, these impacts are not the result of lack of work, but of the place given to paid work in our social system. And, on top of this, even research commissioned by the DWP acknowledges that "beneficial health effects depend on the nature and quality of work".
Of course they do – and yet this self-evident truth has been brushed aside by a system that seems determined to push people into work – any work – as soon as possible and at any cost.
This approach is implicit in the work capability assessment that determines whether people are eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the benefit for those unable to work; and it is built into UK Government guidance for GPs on the new 'fit notes' that, in true Orwellian fashion, have replaced the old sick notes.
It is the product of a long collaboration between successive Tory and New Labour governments and US-based health insurance company, Unum, which had experience in dismissing individual claims as just in the mind, and who made no secret of their ambition to sign those who no longer expected state benefits onto their private insurance scheme.
In a society that fetishises work and defines people by their job, it is inevitable that lack of work will affect self esteem and social engagement.
Unum has embedded itself firmly in the UK establishment, even sponsoring a sympathetic research centre at Cardiff University. Their argument that many problems can be solved by changing people’s attitude has become engrained in the system, and the replacement of welfare with private insurance is the underlying logic of welfare 'reform' as a whole.
The extent to which these ideas have become the new orthodoxy has become truly frightening. Even the Royal Society of Psychiatrists has taken on this upbeat approach, with a webpage headed by a Maori proverb, "work brings health".
Perhaps they could look instead at recent research from Australia that showed how retired people were able to develop healthier lifestyles by using the time not spent working.
Work as a health cure sits easily within a wider benefit system that regards unemployment not as a product of socioeconomic forces and a lack of jobs, but as a product of individual failure and lack of the appropriate attitude.
And when benefits are also cripplingly low, those without work can be starved of the necessities for basic subsistence, never mind social engagement.
The problem is presented not as lack of employment, but lack of employability, which itself is regarded as a problem of mental health. Health professionals are getting sucked into the system – at the expense of their independence, their relationship with their patients and their professional ethics.
In England we have already seen examples of cognative behaviour therapists in jobcentres, and a pilot introduction of DWP 'job coaches' in GP surgeries. Even if therapies, or supposedly therapeutic work advice, are nominally voluntary, the atmosphere in which they are delivered, with the ever-present fear of sanctions, will make it difficult for people to exercise their right to say 'no'.
The Scottish Government is about to find itself in charge of 15 per cent of the Scottish welfare budget and has made it clear that in the small part where it will be responsible it will demonstrate a different approach.
If it wants to make a real difference, then this new approach will have to be taken on by every part of the Scottish Government. It will also need to ensure that Scottish health services and other social and community services are kept completely independent of any DWP schemes that pressure people to apply for jobs, and so do not find themselves drawn into the DWP’s disciplinary regime, and that Police Scotland does not allow itself to be used as the unquestioning protectors of DWP enforcers when they come into conflict with benefit claimants.
However, these impacts are not the result of lack of work, but of the place given to paid work in our social system.
Sarah Glynn from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network (SUWN) will be speaking on these issues as part of the Common Weal IdeaSpace in a joint session with Oxfam, which has been looking at what makes decent work.
At the same time, SUWN will be launching its book, Righting Welfare Wrongs: Dispatches and Analysis from the Front Line of the Fight against Austerity, published by Common Print.
As part of its response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the devolved welfare powers, SUWN has put together five key points in the form of a petition, which you can find online here.
Picture courtesy of Andrew_Writer
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