This special Welfare Rights feature was inspired by discussions with people attempting to navigate the welfare system and has been developed by co-editor Ria Dylan and I. It presents a series of articles that reﬂect the despair, illness and worse that people have suﬀered as a result of the unprecedented governmental attack upon disabled people in the UK in the previous decade.
It also documents examples of how this bureaucratic onslaught has been, and continues to be, resisted by disabled people, their communities and allies. The state of the welfare system in the UK has deteriorated rapidly since the coalition government in 2010, but any history of welfare reform needs to start much earlier to trace the rot.
The Beveridge Report originally called for a “Social Insurance fully implemented (that) may provide income security; it is an attack upon want.” It resisted means testing in most cases and while the ‘abolition of want’ was aimed for, Beveridge recognized the importance, in the relationship between the state and the individual, of leaving “room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual…”
From the two testimonials in this magazine, little can be inferred from current government policy that would suggest any form of voluntary participation on the part of disabled people in the welfare system. As the pieces by Maria Pike, and Miriam Bender on behalf of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) make painfully clear, current UK policy in the provision of social security for disabled people renders us powerless in the face of nonsensical assessment procedures and unpredictable punitive measures that can leave us without the most basic forms of food and shelter.
Maria’s article – “Fear of the Brown envelope” – illuminates what it is like to live in a constant state of fear and highlights the paradoxical impact this has on health, for while the welfare reform agenda is supposed to get people back to work, it actually renders many less capable. Deploying humor through her description of the “Grim Creeper”, as she calls her mobility scooter, Miriam skillfully documents how an apparently minor policy change at a public level, in this case the removal of her entitlement to a social care provided through a wheelchair referral scheme, can have a profound impact on her daily existence.
This includes her ability to participate in forms of social activism: the indirect silencing of people’s voices, by starving them of access to the resources they need in order to speak, could not be starker. As co-editor of this special feature, Ria Dylan oﬀers a personal insight into the experience of challenging the DWP which has relevance for other people going through a PIP assessment. The piece brings to life one of the thorniest subjects in social science and psychology: how external, macro level policy impacts on individuals and their experience of the world.
Psychology has too often assumed the ingredients that drive people to suicidal despair are internal and can be unlocked by focusing on cognition. Ria places her struggles squarely in the social realm with the hostility she felt towards herself an internal extension of how she was being treated by wounding policy reforms. It is instructive for both claimants and their allies to do the best they can to resist the constant, implicit implication in the welfare reform agenda that it must somehow be our fault, and that we are to blame for our destitution.
What strikes me is the parallel with the ‘hostile environment’ towards long-settled Commonwealth migrants that has attracted so much attention in recent months. As the sociologist Will Davies observes of the government’s enactment of this hostile environment policy, there was a form of “weaponised paperwork” that was “intended as a way of destroying (people’s) ability to build normal lives.” The use of the Work Capability Assessment and PIP assessements to systematically confuse claimants, and to conﬂate their ability to engage in everyday functional activities with a readiness to engage in a precarious labor market, is a form of weaponised assessment that renders the claimant feeling fraudulent.
In this I hear echoes of what the Glaswegian political activist Cathy McCormack has named the “War without Bullets”; the sustained structural violence of the state against oppressed communities through the deployment of impoverishing and delegitimizing social and economic policies. The impact on lives described here is heartbreaking and would be more dispiriting were it not for the fact that both pieces have been written by victims of this hostile environment, who have told their stories, despite attempts to silence them.
The Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF) is an attempt by a group of British psychologists, with the assistance of a range of stakeholders including service asylum users, welfare experts and welfare claimants, to develop an alternative approach to the dominant biomedical model of mental health. This is a paradigm shift away from the medicalization of distress that has been one focus of service user activism for decades, and a struggle which has been documented extensively in the pages of this magazine.
However, an anonymous service user presents some limitations of the PTMF in the context of austerity and welfare reform. They suggest that any shift away from a diagnostic model risks playing into the DWPs hands by deconstructing the reality of mental illness. There is already evidence that people with mental health problems are discriminated against in the Work Capability Assessment, and the DWPs version of the biopsychosocial model of illness can be seen as an explicit attempt to delegitimize the embodied experience of extreme distress.
This contributor asks challenging questions of those of us working towards what we like to think of as progressive change for people with mental health problems. Not least of these is: how do we end the long-term hegemony of the biomedical model of human distress without jeopardizing the lives of people now? Writing about a collaborative project with myself and others, Ellen Cliﬀord from Inclusion London oﬀers an alternative model of research practice in the area of welfare reform.
Ellen describes the large numbers of research requests her member groups receive to participate in other people’s research but how few oﬀer opportunities for a more equal form of engagement. Ellen sees her role on this project as co-supervisor, as oﬀering an opportunity to set the agenda regarding research on welfare reform and to ensure that Disabled people’s voices are central to each stage of the research process. This argument is at the heart of survivor led and genuinely co-produced research in the fields of mental health and disability studies more generally.
One pioneer in the area, the survivor academic Peter Beresford, has called for those with ‘close by’, experiential expertise in research areas to be given parity of participation in a more inclusive form of research. I can say from my vantage point of co-supervisor with Ellen that she was able to detect detail in research transcripts that would have passed me by and to frame the analysis in the wider context of Disabled people’s communities that as an outside academic I simply have not got access to.
All this added up to making Ellen’s involvement not an ‘add on’ but an essential component of the project’s scientific integrity. Psychologist Jay Watts’s ‘cut out and keep’ piece was written with help from Winvisible and Recovery in the Bin for professionals. It oﬀers a practical guide for advice on how to best support claimants, making particular note of the importance of not privileging emotional over practical support. Given that welfare reform initiatives have relied heavily on psychological theories of behavioral change drawn from positive psychology and behavioral economics that are designed to ‘nudge’ claimants towards employment, it is refreshing to hear a contrasting psychological view.
These initiatives are forms of what Lynne Friedli has called ‘psychocompulsion’, attempts to explain social processes such as disability and unemployment through the use of individual psychological mechanisms. Jay’s piece resists this reductionism but still attends to the psychological harm resulting from engagement in the welfare system, advocating for claimants to be helped to manage their shame and fear through relationships based on partnership and practical solidarity, rather than changing how claimants think.
For professionals working in mental health settings, and those of us tasked with training them, it oﬀers a stern rebuke for the relative lack of training for professionals in this area and cries out to be pinned to mental health team office boards or introduced into professional training program’s curricula. No Asylum magazine would be complete without a Dolly Sen cartoon, which helpfully reminds us that ridicule can often oﬀer the strongest form of resistance.
The detail of the ‘Piss on Pity’ t-shirt nicely subverts the idea that claimants are in need of paternalistic emotions, but need to be respected as equals. This, coupled with Rachel Rowan Olive’s cover image, a terrifyingly accurate portrayal of the state as a multi-headed beast, reminds us that arts-based commentaries can oﬀer forms of resistance that can both educate and entertain. Finally, I want to draw readers’ attention to the Tweet below that we were given permission to quote anonymously.
This has been one of the central lessons of compiling this special feature, that in some cases it can be difficult to articulate what it is like to be in the welfare system as the experience itself renders us speechless. This is reminiscent of trauma survivors who ‘can’t find the words’ to relay their experiences.
This speechlessness has impacted on the process here with a number of contributors simply being too worn down to put pen to paper. It is lesser for their absence and I would like to dedicate this editorial to my co-editor and the contributing authors; the authors who withdrew; and our fellow citizens who have been rendered speechless by the weaponised assessments of welfare reform. I hope that this edition of Asylum can oﬀer some assurances that while they may currently feel silenced, there are many who hear them, and that through speaking together we can be stronger in our resistance.
- Introduction to Welfare Rights Special Feature Danny Taggart
- Dead and Dying Miriam Bender
- The Terror of the Brown Envelope Maria Pike, Disabled People Against the Cuts
- The Life and Times of a Modern Day Mental Ria Dylan
- Case Studies No Longer Ellen Cliﬀord, Inclusion London
- Will the Power Threat Meaning Framework Help Survivors on Welfare? A Service User
- Supporting Claimants: a practical guide Jay Watts
- Pursuing Choice, Not Truth: debates around diagnosis in mental health Akiko Hart
- Is the NHS a Cash Cow? Liam Kirk
- Letters Liam Kirk and Andrew Baxter
- Creative Writing Joanna Marsh, Roy Hayde, Oliver Swingler and Irene Flack
- Working Together for Change Patrick Wood
- Campaign To End Mechanical Restraint in Spain
- News and Reports