Management guru Anthony Stafford Beer famously argued that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” While this sounds like a tautology, what he meant was that we should judge organisations by the results of their behaviour rather than the purpose stated in their PR materials: “There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.”
It is in this light that we need to evaluate the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its fast-failing Universal Credit reforms. The stated purpose is to lift people out of poverty by allowing them to keep more of the income they earn from low-paid, temporary, part-time or self-employed work without losing their claim for benefits. In reality, of course, gross underfunding by former Chancellor George Osborne so perverted the outcomes that even the architect of Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith, walked away in disgust (although not before thousands of lives had been ruined).
The real question, though, is whether the DWP has succeeded in its stated aim of lifting people out of poverty. The rise in homelessness, the massive increase in foodbank use, the growth in NHS treatment of malnutrition, and the massive death toll among Britain’s disabled people all provide a negative answer. Indeed, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey recently admitted that “all lone parents and two-thirds of working-age couples with children lose around £2,400 per year” when they switch to Universal Credit.
The treatment of Britain’s disabled is particularly pernicious because so many are unable to do anything to change their circumstances. Work Assessment Tests designed in the USA to bust insurance claims are deployed with the aim of denying people benefits. For example, people with serious medical conditions are routinely moved from Employment Support Allowance to the lower-paid and more onerous Job Seekers’ Allowance. In a similar manner, severely disabled people – many with terminal illnesses are frequently turned down for Personal Independence Payments; even though nearly three-quarters of these decisions are overturned on appeal (assuming they can live that long).
The assessment system – which was in the news last week when the former Chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Andrew McDonald, who has Parkinson’s and terminal prostate cancer, was twice denied benefits after leaving his job. McDonald, who now chairs the disability charity Scope, is perhaps more skilled at dealing with complex bureaucracy than the average disabled claimant; so if he experiences difficulties, one can only imagine the problems experienced by thousands of ordinary claimants week in week out.
According to John Ferguson at the Daily Record:
“A shocking 36 sick and disabled benefits claimants could be dying every month in Scotland after being told to prepare for employment.
“The statistic has been revealed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after a Freedom of Information request. A total of 10,950 Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants died across the UK between March 2014 to February 2017 after being placed in a Work Related Activity Group.”
Far from fulfilling its stated aim of lifting people out of poverty, the DWP has succeeded in driving hundreds of thousands of people even deeper into despair; and, in the case of the disabled and poor elderly, to a premature death.
This brings us back to Stafford Beer’s observation. The DWP has been spending nearly £3bn per year to bring about this result. Nobody continues to spend that kind of money on a system that is producing something other than the desired result. In short, the DWP is doing precisely what the government wants it to do. This, of course is borne out by the DWP remuneration data, which shows that DWP staff were rewarded with a share of £36 million in bonuses for their part in this poverty cleansing. “Blood money” might be a more accurate description.
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