Austerity and Psychocompulsion: Talk at Mental Health and Welfare Reform Conference Liverpool 5th November 2016

In this talk I want to consider four questions:


1. What is austerity?

2. Who does it affect?

3. Why?

4. How?


1. What is austerity?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines austerity as: ‘severe self discipline, moral strictness, asceticism, severe simplicity, lack of luxury or adornment, abstinence, economising’.

Here, austerity refers to a form of severe self-discipline and economising imposed by the government on the rest of us, through reduced spending on state benefits and local government.

By 2015 the government planned to reduce the level of public expenditure by 10.8%, a total of £63.4 billion. Half of these cuts affect two areas – benefits and local government[1].

Austerity is a political choice. It is a set of economic policies that are being unfairly applied to the population, unfair because they target the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

2. Who does it affect?

The Centre for Welfare Reform has analysed the cuts in government spending, how much, where they have fallen, who is most affected. It’s clear they target the very people a fair and just society should protect – people living in poverty, disabled people, people with the most severe disabilities.

“People in poverty (21% of the population) bear 39% of all cuts. Disabled people (8% of the population) bear 29% of all cuts. People with severest disabilities (2% of the whole population) bear 15% of all cuts.”

(Duffy, 2013:6)

All this has been happening while inequality in society continues to grow. While the richest 1% become even richer, the lives of people with disabilities and long-standing mental health problems, who are much more likely to be living in poverty on benefits, are being made unbearable by these targeted cuts. It’s not only cuts in benefits. Cuts in central government grants to local authorities impact directly on the social care provided by local authorities for disabled people and those with long-term health problems.

3. Why?

The attack on benefits and local government spending began over 30 years ago with the first Thatcher government. It was enthusiastically taken up by subsequent governments, including New Labour, the coalition and the Tory government elected in 2015. Many academics and political commentators see the cuts as part of what is called neoliberalism, a political ideology that aims to reduce the size of the state through legislation that forces it to withdraw from welfare and social provision, which is then privatised. This is why we see private companies like ATOS and Capita increasingly involved in welfare assessments. ATOS is a large multinational IT company with HQs in France and Germany. In 2011 it doubled in size when it bought out the IT component of the German company Siemens. Capita (which has a chequered recent history here in Liverpool) is a London-based business outsourcing company with operations across Europe, Asia and Africa. Cuts in local government funding have forced local authorities to withdraw from social care opening up the market for private companies like BUPA and Fours Season Health Care.

4. How?

Although the contraction of the state was initiated by Margaret Thatcher, the 2008 banking crisis was used by the coalition government and the present Conservative administration to justify the reinvigoration of austerity with further cuts in benefits and to local government. In 2015 the newly elected Conservative government committed itself to an addition £12 billion welfare cuts.

The most recent stage in the government’s attempts to force even more people off benefits has been described by Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn as psychocompulsion. What do they mean by this?

The work of organisations like DPAC and Black Triangle, and Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, has drawn attention to the misery and suffering that benefit sanctions causes people with disabilities and long-term health problems. Psychocompulsion involves the recruitment of clinical psychologists and therapists to work alongside DWP staff in job centres. Many of these professionals are seconded from community mental health teams, but in job centres they undertake ‘assessments’ and ‘therapy’ with people on benefits, most of whom have complex problems. These assessments and therapies are based in what is known as ‘positive psychology’. The justification for this is the neoliberal belief that long-term unemployment is actually caused by ‘faulty’ beliefs on the part of unemployed people about the reasons for their unemployment. This leads to a negative mindset that gives rise to ‘faulty’ attitudes and behaviours, such as so-called benefit dependency. In effect, it redefines unemployment as an individual psychological failing, not as a political issue. If claimants refuse to comply with these assessments and interventions, they risk being sanctioned and having their benefits stopped. In effect, this is the coercive extension of clinical psychology and other therapies into the job centre in order to force people off benefits.

5. Conclusions

All this raises many, many questions, but I’ll end by setting out just four.

i. How can we increase solidarity amongst unemployed people, people with disabilities and mental health problems, all of who are persecuted and oppressed by this vicious system.

ii. How can we best address the issue of austerity and intersectionality – the way in which cuts in social security and social care impact most heavily not just on the poor, but different groups such as black people, women, LGBT, refugees and asylum seekers, and others.

ii. What role do unions, activists, health professionals and academics have building solidarity to resist cuts?

iv. How can we challenge the culture of oppression and bullying that permeates the workplace and job centres, a culture that filters down from the highest levels of government?

Many thanks for coming and listening.

[1] Source Duffy, S. (2013) A Fair Society?: How the cuts target disabled people. The Centre for Welfare Reform on behalf of Campaign for a Fair Society