Politics is, at the best of times, something of an inexact science given the many forces and events that are exerted upon it. Who, for instance, would have foreseen Jeremy Corbyn as being the favourite to replace Ed Milliband just a few months ago? This is perhaps because politics, in a broad sense, works through the agency of human action and, ultimately, has a significant impact on all of us.
This would suggest that it is difficult to predict what the future has in store for us, and how a government and the vested interests that support it will shape that future. I would argue that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) offers an unrivaled insight into what the future may hold.
This is because the DWP is at the heart of the social engineering that appears to be happening before our very eyes in mapping out what for many is a society that lacks that very humanity that makes politics so unpredictable.
The DWP is being hit hard by funding cuts from the Treasury as part of the government’s wider austerity programme. Yet we do not see DWP Secretary Ian Duncan Smith cutting a figure of despondency as he sees his department shrink, rather we have seen what I have previously referred to as ‘one of the least edifying political spectacles for many a year‘ as Duncan Smith reacted to Osborne’s July 2015 budget speech with jubilation.
This is not about a programme of austerity to revive a flagging post-crash economy; rather it is about reducing government. It is about pushing through an ideology that finds a rationale for removing benefits from the vulnerable in order to lower the overall amount needed by government to operate, thereby leaving the markets freer to find their level.
Yet the markets are much less reliant on human agency, particularly since the ‘big bang’ in the late 1980s. They are more reliant on pure data, and it is down this road that the DWP has also travelled, and in many ways it is how it has also lost its humanity, perhaps with devastating effect.
In the run up to the last general election nothing touched me more and made me more angry than a list of case studies of people who had had their lives destroyed after they had been declared fit for work after a work capability assessment (WCA), and the subsequent removal of their employment and support allowance benefit (ESA). A process outsourced to the French-based IT consultants ATOS.
Here was had a market response to a human issue, using a system that did not take into consideration the conditions of those claiming ESA, but rather seemed to rely just on data to make life changing decisions…decisions that will have had fatal consequences for a number of very vulnerable people driven beyond the point of desperation as they became embroiled in a Kafkaesque system.
This is something that may well have been highlighted by the extremely reluctant release of figures by the DWP this week which, rather crudely, shows that on average between 2011 and 2014 around 80 people per month died shortly after being declared fit for work.
However, due to the nature of these statistics, it is not possible to establish a causal relationship between the two. But surely data never can, because each one of these eighty people per month is an individual with individual needs and individual issues. Individuals who are corralled into a system which strips out individuality. It is only the anecdotal evidence, as opposed to the ‘case studies’ that DWP staff made up to evidence how ‘happy’ people can be after having their benefits removed, that gets to the heart of the difficulties that former claimants are facing…but anecdotal evidence is not good enough as the DWP hand more and more analysis over to often flawed computer systems on which it has wasted the equivalent of many thousands of people’s benefits over the past few years.
Data cannot replace humanity, we saw that in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal, yet it forms the basis of much of political decision-making, and is used by politicians in crude ways to measure success of failure, education being a further case in point with its testing regimes that are pegged to political expedients. At the DWP it is not only being used to drive a cynical agenda which increasingly places the emphasis on very ill people having to prove their incapacity against an inflexible set of criteria, but the ineptitude with which it had been introduced and operated is also nothing short of scandalous. Something which surely underlines the dogmatic nature of the policies.
As such we see people losing benefits, 40% of whom win them back on appeal, but in the meantime have to go through the stress of that appeal; while a significant number do not live to see the appeal through, and even though there finally, after five reviews of the ESA, seems to be an end in sight disability campaigners are not hugely encouraged by what might come in its place given the cuts accepted by IDS for his department. The sort of slight of hand that Osborne sought to achieve with the so-called Living Wage perhaps?
It is this cynicism in the policies of the DWP that make it stand out as a model department in this (and the last) government. A cynicism that has little compassion if not utter contempt for the people whom it serves but also for those whom it employs in the getting rid of nearly 4000 permanent staff, only to then take on thousands of people on temporary contracts.
This is hardly going to improve the quality of the DWP’s work, but that does not seem to matter as long as targets are met, any other consequences are merely collateral damage.