Benefits System Today : It's Origin Was In The USA ! Cannot Work ? Too Bad , We'll Cut Your Rations !

All about money
Off forum work ... origin being a DWP whistleblower article ... what's already out there is hardly new ?

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/20 ... e-born-usa
How Britain's new welfare state was born in the USA.

The main themes of David Cameron's 'big society' are becoming clear – as is the influence of Republican political thinking.
The gathering was small and discreet and made no headlines at the time – but its significance for the future of our welfare state and for David Cameron's vision of a "big society" will become clear this week.

It was on a warm day in June that Professor Lawrence Mead, who inspired many of the US welfare reforms of the 1990s, strode into 10 Downing Street. The American guru had been invited by Steve Hilton, Cameron's chief strategist. Also present were senior Whitehall officials from the Treasury and other government departments. They were joined by Neil O'Brien, director of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange.

Mead was immediately struck by how eager the assembled team was to hear his ideas. "I was surprised how interested they were," he said.

Under detailed questioning, he told his inquisitors that attitudes to welfare in Britain had been characterised by a culture of "entitlement" for too long. The jobless knew they could get benefits while doing nothing in return, he warned.

In the US, attitudes had apparently moved on long ago and it was high time the UK followed suit. Welfare should no longer be seen as a "lifestyle" option. "Serious reform means ending entitlement by clearly imposing work as a requirement for aid," said Mead – and his words struck a chord. Even the disabled should be expected to work. In some cases benefits could be time-limited to help shunt people into jobs, he suggested.


This week, five months on from that meeting, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, will publish a white paper on welfare reform. It will outline plans to make jobseekers take 30-hour a week job placements for periods of four weeks.

If they refuse or fail to complete the placements, their benefits will be stopped for three months. The buzz phrase of the new system will be "conditionality" – the idea of working for benefits under a contract with the state. Ways of talking about the unemployed are already changing even before the white paper is out. Yesterday the Department for Work and Pensions said the reforms aimed to "break the habit of worklessness". A few years ago such statements from Whitehall would have been unthinkable.

Such US-inspired policy changes on welfare will be far-reaching in themselves. But after six months of the coalition government, it is now clear that they do not exist in isolation. As one Labour MP who applauds some aspects of the coalition's thinking put it: "Something far bigger is going on. It is to do with redefining personal responsibility across the range. After all the talk of cuts in spending, we are starting to see what this lot are all about in philosophical terms."

That MP and policy experts are beginning to see a consistent theme driving government policy on everything from schools to higher education, policing, prisons and the health service. It is a process that – like it or loathe it – is finally beginning to give some shape and meaning to Cameron's hitherto ill-defined big society agenda.

For years the Tory leader struggled to explain what big society meant. In opposition he initially called it "social responsibility" and flogged the idea endlessly to unenthusiastic audiences. With the product failing to sell, it was then rebranded as "the big society" before the May general election. But again MPs found no enthusiasm on the doorsteps.

Nick Seddon, deputy director of the independent thinktank Reform, says the Tories promoted the idea before fixing the detailed narrative that would frame it. But now through a blizzard of policy announcements, the theme is emerging.

Just as the welfare reforms place a responsibility on the jobless to get into the "habit of work", so the coalition is promoting ideas of personal responsibility as a way to cure society's ills as a whole. At the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, Nick Herbert is impressed by US-style policing methods. Citizens who complain about too much crime and a lack of police on the street will be given a stake in the issue through a right to elect local police commissioners. Police chiefs will answer directly to the people. Power is to be pushed outwards.

Similarly Michael Gove, the education secretary, believes parents who moan about poor state schools should be given the power to establish new ones – drawing on models in Sweden and the charter schools of the US. And in the National Health Service, GPs will be entrusted by the health secretary Andrew Lansley with the power and responsibility to commission medical services themselves, freed from central control.

The overarching theme is that the coalition believes it can free people to find their own solutions by rolling back what it sees as an interfering, bureaucratic and stifling state. That state, it argues, can anyway no longer be sustained in its present form, at a time when the £155bn deficit must be slashed. So students will no longer be funded by the state but will have to take responsibility for paying back the cost of their education later in life.

Seddon says it is an agenda on which Tories and Lib Dems in the coalition have found themselves able to unite for different reasons – but ones that suit both parties' political visions. "For the Lib Dems, spinning power outwards has always been about devolution. For the Tories it is probably more about changing and reducing the role of the state and increasing the role of individuals and communities."

As the scope and pace of the change become clearer, the arguments are beginning to rage – not just between political parties but within them. The white paper will provoke huge controversy. Labour is keen not to be seen to be against benefit reform or personal responsibility – indeed some of the ideas about conditionality build on those being developed by the last government. But some forces on the left suspect a sinister agenda. They believe the big society is just a fig leaf for an ideological mission to shrink the state and dismantle the means to protect the most vulnerable.

The June emergency budget and last month's comprehensive spending review have already been widely criticised for hitting the poor hardest. As the Observer reports today, the government has abolished the social exclusion taskforce in the Cabinet Office – a unit established to stop people ending up on the margins of society. Government documents show it has been reborn as an office called "Big Society, Policy and Analysis".

In a taste of the arguments to come, Jon Trickett, a shadow minister with responsibility for social exclusion, describes the direction in which the coalition appears to be heading as "deeply disturbing". He added: "In no civilised society does the government wash its hands of our duty to the poorest. Yet this is what these changes signify. Both ministers and the backbenchers should hang their heads in shame."

Tim Horton, research director of the Fabian Society, likens Cameron's big society to George W Bush's "compassionate conservatism". He believes elements of the Tory right are under the influence of the anti-tax, anti-state Tea Party movement that had such a profound influence on the Republican surge in last week's US midterm elections. "Tax-funded public services are perhaps the best possible example of the big society," said Horton. "But the Tories simply can't see it that way."

Even some Tories are getting worried about the combined social consequences of drastic cuts and the drive to change attitudes towards personal responsibility. When mayor of London Boris Johnson said he would resist "Kosovo-style" social cleansing in relation to housing benefit cuts, he articulated in extreme language a residual fear among many Conservatives that the vulnerable could be left behind in the whole process. Mark Field, a London Tory MP, has also voiced his worries.

There is concern among his colleagues that state-backed projects for one-to-one tuition in schools that have helped underprivileged children will wither and die under coalition reforms. There is anger too among Conservative councillors across the country about the way local authorities are being stripped of responsibility for local education policy.

Last week MPs on the cross-party public accounts committee said the headlong drive for financial savings might be unrealistic and that as a result there was "serious risk" that ministers would end up slashing frontline services even more.

Observers see inconsistencies in the big society model. Professor Alan Deacon of Leeds University, an expert on welfare policy, says there is a big contradiction at the heart of Iain Duncan Smith's reforms, because the heavy hand of the state will be required to enforce the "on yer bike" approach to benefits. "At one level there is a tension between the authoritarianism of work enforcement through the work programme and the emphasis upon personal freedom and getting government off our backs," he says.

Others point out the contradiction at the heart of Gove's approach, with local authorities being stripped of responsibilities for schools policy while increased power to manage the parent-power revolution is being placed in the hands of the secretary of state. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, also points out that there are critics of the charter school system in America. They suggest that such schools thrive because they take children from motivated backgrounds, potentially weakening other schools in their areas. Some argue that free schools in Britain could have the same effect.

As for charities – placed by Cameron at the heart of his vision of a new energetic and civic society – they too are worried. Dr Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of the ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations), said there were inconsistencies in the policy. He said the sector had doubled in size in 15 years partly because of greater delivery of public services. Public spending cuts will hit charities hard, along with the VAT increase to 20% and an expected fall in giving. The result, according to ACEVO, will be a £4.5bn funding black hole.

Kyle said government urgently need to remove obstacles facing voluntary organisations that wished to take on delivery of public services. "Otherwise when the transformation does occur, there will be no charitable sector to speak of able to rise to the challenge," he said.

In America there is still heated debate about whether the approach to welfare now being championed here really works. One of its supporters is Charles Murray, author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, and a leading voice at the highly influential conservative thinktank the American Enterprise Institute.

"In America we have got the underclass off the public agenda," he says of the impact of the welfare reforms. "Britain has a much worse time with crime, welfare dependency, single-parent mothers and men who are able but long-term unemployed. You are still in a much worse state than the US was in the 1980s and 1990s."

But there are other views. One US phenomenon that might serve as a warning is that of the so-called 99ers – people who lost their jobs and have been unable to find work for 99 weeks – the point at which their unemployment welfare is turned off. There are now upwards of 1.4 million 99ers in America facing a life with no benefits and few prospects for finding a job in a market in which companies are still not hiring.

In continental Europe, other countries are already marching in a different direction. Though time-limiting of benefits is used, providing security for individuals is seen as vital. Many have been inspired by an idea that has its root in Denmark, where the former social democrat prime minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, coined the phrase "flexicurity".

This was developed to respond to two competing pressures: the need for businesses to flexibly adapt to globalisation and new technologies, and the desire among workers for security. Flexicurity is about providing security for individuals, not jobs, and protects them as they move between employers. It works by encouraging regular training, tailored support for job seekers and equal opportunities for men and women.

Many politicians and academics in Europe believe that the principles that lie behind it are the ones we should all be following.

Back here, Horton argues that if the idea of the UK coalition government is to pare down services and the role of the state too much in the name of the big society, then it will not work. The British, he says, will not accept it.

"The Tories have long looked to the US Republicans for their inspiration. But they will struggle to import the same kind of politics to the UK. Britain was not founded on a tax revolt, and Brits are highly attached to their public services. That's why David Cameron spent the election campaign promising to protect frontline services."
Lessons from abroad.

The American dream ?

Politicians have not copied what they have witnessed in the US – but they have been inspired by it. Take welfare. George Osborne, the chancellor, has even borrowed language from his American counterparts. He has spoken of people thinking of benefits as a 'lifestyle choice'. Ideas in health and education also seem to have some roots in the US – although Scandinavia has also provided its models. Another source of inspiration has been Australia, where MPs have picked out ideas about payment by results.

Swedish schools

Much has been made of how the Conservative party has been inspired by Sweden in implementing its free-schools policy, which allows parents or other groups to set up schools. But many point to the US as well and its charter school revolution, particularly in the case of academies. Here - like there - the drive is to free up schools from government control. But a key difference is that in the US those running schools lose their contracts if they fail to make them successful.

The 99-ers

These are the people whose unemployment welfare has been turned off because they have been out of work for 99 weeks. There are upwards of 1.4m 99ers in America, perhaps driven by the fact that the country's jobless rate is lagging behind other signs of recovery. People face losing their homes and often build up huge debts as they turn to credit to survive. Many are lobbying for the Americans Want to Work Act to extend jobless benefits for a further 20 weeks.


Another classic case of to be able to understand why certain things are happening today , one has to go back to the beginning.

The " American " ideology when applied to the UK.

Yet another import that should have never made it's way through UK Customs ????

Bear in mind that during the Thatcher years , to massage the unemployment rate , hundreds of thousands of former skilled workers were literally written off by the widescale use of DLA ... off the unemployment figures and onto the benefits system ... as if said workers were to be removed from the balance sheet !

Now , with PIP replacing DLA , the chickens have come home to roost ?
Benefits system could be branded 'cruel and inhuman' by UN rapporteur.

Philip Alston has completed an audit into austerity in Britain and is preparing his report.

The United Nations’ expert on extreme poverty and human rights has said he is considering whether to brand the UK’s benefits sanctions regime “cruel and inhuman”, following a two-week audit into the impact of austerity in Britain over the last decade.

The UN rapporteur, Philip Alston, is preparing what is expected to be a hard-hitting report following a months-long investigation of poverty in Britain which ended with a 10-day tour of some of the poorest areas of the UK.

“Whether I characterise it as cruel and inhuman, I will see how I feel on Thursday night when I am finishing writing my statement,” he told an audience of fellow human rights lawyers and activists at his final public event this week. “I am aware that many of the people who have experienced those sanctions have characterised them in that way.”

Alston said he heard “some pretty horrendous stories” about how disabled people are faring under the new universal credit system, and described the poor as “easy victims”.

“Attacking the poor is easy and they as a result suffer highly disproportionately in terms of their civil and political rights,” he said.

Alston is considered one of the world’s leading legal experts in the field of economic and social rights and is expected to spell out his view on the impact of austerity, local government cuts, universal credit and the possible impact of Brexit on poverty in Britain. He will also report on automation within the benefits system, aided by new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

“If the report is weak it will disappear and sink like a stone,” he said. “Let’s see what happens in this case.”

Koldo Casla – policy director of Just Fair, which campaigns for economic and social rights in the UK – said the visit was already a success because it has “created unprecedented interest in media and civil society and, more importantly, among people with direct experience of living in poverty”.

“We are eager to read and use his final report in a few months, but the most significant contribution is that Alston has listened carefully and has been a loudspeaker for hundreds of people that are too often paid very little attention to,” he said.

Alston held meetings with government ministers in London who told him “there wasn’t austerity”, he said. He met Esther McVey, who resigned as work and pensions secretary on Thursday.

He asked what Theresa May was talking about when she said she wanted to end austerity if it didn’t exist. “I didn’t get a particularly good answer to that,” he said.

He also said he had received “very surprising responses on the part of government to food banks”.

Alston appears likely to make clear that austerity has been a political choice and highlight how Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, told him the devolved government in Edinburgh has been spending £125m to mitigate the effects of cuts.



The true effect of " Americanization " of our current benefits system.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/201 ... ns-un-says

UK austerity has inflicted " Great misery " on citizens , UN says

Poverty envoy says callous policies driven by political desire for social re-engineering.

The UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity, the United Nations poverty envoy has found.

Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, ended a two-week fact-finding mission to the UK with a stinging declaration that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”, even though the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy,

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About 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials, he said, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He highlighted predictions that child poverty could rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022, possibly up to a rate of 40%.

“It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty,” he said, adding that compassion had been abandoned during almost a decade of austerity policies that had been so profound that key elements of the postwar social contract, devised by William Beveridge more than 70 years ago, had been swept away.

In an excoriating 24-page report, which will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva next year, the eminent human rights lawyer said that in the UK “poverty is a political choice”
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He told a press conference in London :
Austerity Britain was in breach of four UN human rights agreements relating to women, children, disabled people and economic and social rights. “If you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place,” he said.

The limit on benefits payments to only the first two children in a family was “in the same ballpark” as China’s one-child policy because it punished people who had a third child.

Cuts of 50% to council budgets were slashing at Britain’s “culture of local concern” and “damaging the fabric” of society.

The middle classes would “find themselves living in an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society because community roots are being broken”.

The government said it “completely disagreed” with Alston’s analysis. A spokesperson said household incomes were at a record high, income inequality had fallen and that universal credit, which Alston attacked as “Orwellian” and “fast falling into universal discredit”, was supporting people into work faster.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it,” the spokesperson said.

Alston’s report follows similar audits of extreme poverty in China, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Mauritania and the US. Donald Trump’s White House administration launched a furious response after the US was accused of pursuing policies that deliberately forced millions of Americans into financial ruin while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy.

Charities working to alleviate poverty said the report on the UK was a “wake-up call for government”.

It is likely to crystallise growing public unease over the impact of nearly a decade of cuts to the welfare state and public services, which studies have shown have had a disproportionate effect on the poor, the disabled and women. Soaring use of food banks, increasingly visible homelessness and cuts to school budgets have widened concerns about the Conservative party’s fiscal strategy.

After visiting towns and cities including London, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast, Alston said that “obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation”.

He called for the elimination of the five-week delay in receiving benefits under the universal credit system, which has plunged many into destitution. Flaws in its design and implementation harmed claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects, and benefits sanctions were “harsh and arbitrary”. Vulnerable claimants “struggled to survive”, he said.

The ministers he met – including Esther McVey, who was the work and pensions secretary until Thursday, when she resigned over the Brexit deal – were almost entirely dismissive of criticisms of welfare changes and universal credit, he said. Instead, they described critics as political saboteurs or said they failed to understand how it worked.

He highlighted the chancellor’s decision in this month’s budget to give a tax cut to the rich rather than using that money to alleviate poverty for millions, adding: “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”

Alston said the government was in a state of denial and there was a “striking disconnect” between what ministers said and the testimonies he heard from ordinary people.


“Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the government’s benefits policy, ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan.”

He said he had met people who did not have a safe place for their children to sleep, people who had sold sex for money or shelter, young people who felt gangs were the only way out of destitution, and people with disabilities who were being told they needed to go back to work or lose support, against their doctors’ orders. He described how town hall budgets had been “gutted” in England resulting in a record sell-off of libraries and parks and closures of youth centres.

“I have also seen tremendous resilience, strength and generosity, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services,” he said.

On food banks, he said: “I was struck by how much their mobilisation resembled the sort of activity you might expect for a natural disaster or health epidemic.”

A common theme of the testimonies he heard was the impact on people’s mental health and feelings of loneliness and fear. “I was surprised by the talk of suicide, by the people I met who said they had considered suicide … There are some pretty serious mental health dimensions.”

In his conclusion, Alston called for “the legislative recognition of social rights” in the UK, a move that has long been resisted by UK governments but which is the status quo in countries such as Sweden and Germany.

Margaret Greenwood, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “The government should listen to the people being pushed into poverty by its policies. Universal credit is failing miserably, leaving families in debt, [in] rent arrears and at risk of becoming homeless. Three million children are growing up in poverty despite living in a working household.

“Labour will stop the roll-out of universal credit, end the benefit freeze and transform the social security system so that it supports people instead of punishing them.



There you have it folks ... from an independent expert.
Yes the Tory mantra that they will make work pay means in reality they will keep cutting benefits until you have to go back to work or die.

Boris wants to make the UK workplace just like China. I'm sure he'll be in number 10 soon
Frances Ryan lets loose ... the aftermath of Austerity.
Yes, there’s Brexit. But the inaction on the fit-for-work scandal is shameless.

The cold reality is there is no motivation for ministers to address the issue, and little faith that they’re up to the job.


It’s become practically a cliche of current politics to lament the way Brexit has pushed all other tasks off the agenda: leaving pressing issues like homelessness, climate change and social care to fester. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that this is hardly a new phenomenon. While the European question has undeniably derailed Britain’s domestic agenda, the political class lost sight of the key social and economic issues of our times long ago.

Few things make this clearer than “fit-for-work tests”, the linchpin of the austerity era’s pernicious “welfare reforms”. Introduced by New Labour, but accelerated dramatically by the coalition government, these assessments have falsely pushed disabled and severely ill people off benefits, and even towards suicide. A decade after one of the great modern social policy disasters first began, two particularly harrowing stories have hit the headlines.

One was the case of 52-year-old Jeff Hayward, who won his “fit for work” appeal – seven months after his death. Hayward, who struggled to walk due to a debilitating skin condition, had to spend the last 18 months of his life fighting to get his benefits back. He died of a heart attack.

A few days earlier, the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to apologise after telling 64-year-old Stephen Smith to find work, despite the fact that he can barely walk, struggles to breathe and uses a colostomy bag to go to the toilet. At one point, Smith weighed only 38kg (6st), with the Liverpool Echo publishing a now viral photo of him emaciated in a hospital bed.

It is hard to get the image of Smith’s skeletal frame out of your mind once you see it, his protruding bones more akin to a prisoner of war. But then, it takes plenty for a benefit claimant to make the papers nowadays. It is the law of fading attention: stories must get darker, illnesses more painful, deaths more disturbing.

And yet still, nothing is done about it. The cold reality is there is no motivation for ministers to address the “fit-for-work” scandal, and little faith that the current cohort at Westminster is up to the job.

What is this alternative? Last week, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, held a meeting with disability campaigners to discuss solutions to the fit-for-work tests and other social security reforms and cuts. This non-Brexit business must continue with growing urgency.

In the short-term, we urgently need to utilise measures that will reduce the damage being caused, such as creating more advocacy groups to accompany disabled people to benefit assessments and appeals, and lobbying cash-strapped councils to protect the emergency “welfare” funds designed to help people in financial crisis but being cut across the country. This will not be easy given demands on strained local budgets, but it is a necessity.

In the long-term, the only commonsense move is to scrap the work capability assessments that decide whether or not someone is fit to work. Similarly, we must end the use of private companies in assessments, which are currently inexplicably held in higher regard than a disabled person’s own medical team.

It is a warped social security system that is based on the principle of cutting the “welfare bill” rather than helping citizens in times of need. This is in part because it is factually inaccurate that such polices save money – spending on out-of-work sickness benefits rose by £3bn above anticipated levels during the coalition years alone. Moreover, it reinforces the idea that people who are too ill to work are not fellow human beings who are suffering, but in fact leeches on the public purse.

Addressing this myth requires winning over the public by shifting the “scrounger v striver” narrative that still plagues much discussion of “welfare”. This task should not be insurmountable considering polls last year showed a softening attitude towards benefit claimants among the public, as well as a growing concern that disabled people are being deprived of their rightful support.

Yet, there is a risk that the public are becoming numbed to hardships caused by welfare reforms, particularly at a time when our attention is forced elsewhere. Above anything, as politics becomes ever more frantic, they need to be kept in the public consciousness. There is a sneering attitude in some quarters that this is small fry compared with Brexit, but the welfare state is hardly an insignificant matter, not least to those whose wellbeing depends on it.

Besides, if we are to believe Britain has the skill to strike out on its own on the global stage, it is surely within its capability to create a safety net to protect its people at home. No matter what recent incarnations suggest, incompetence and indifference need not go hand in hand with government. The only other option is almost too shameful to admit: abandoning emaciated disabled people is the best Brexit Britain can do.
How Britain's welfare state has been taken over by shadowy tech consultants.

Political choices made in the rush to " Digital by default " benefits, such as universal credit, have eroded people’s rights.


Later this week in Geneva, at the UN Human Rights Council, the final report will be presented of an investigation we undertook into poverty in the UK.

A major focus is on universal credit, the welfare reform that merged six government benefits into one. While it has drawn intense scrutiny and criticism in Britain, surprisingly little attention has been given to what is likely to be its greatest and most enduring impact.

What became apparent to us after interviewing leading scholars, digital experts, welfare rights organisations and individual claimants is that universal credit is not only a massive welfare policy reform; it also represents a transformational move towards digital government.


The pioneering postwar British welfare state is rapidly being replaced by what we term a “digital welfare state”. This is presented by the government as an apolitical and technocratic fix aimed at making government more efficient and cost-effective. But in some respects it is also a politicised effort to undermine the social rights of the poorest members of British society, while making it ever more difficult to legally challenge adverse decisions.

While no one would suggest that it has been a stealth exercise, this radical transformation has taken place without fanfare and with minimum scrutiny from parliament, the media and civil society. At least the government cannot be accused of being coy about its digital ambitions. It has clearly acknowledged that universal credit is a key part of a broader digital approach to government.

Thus its 2017 Government Transformation Strategy promised the “total transformation of government” through digital technologies and boasted that it was “the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world”. What a pity so few seem to have noticed!

Universal credit is the first major government service in the UK to become “digital by default”.

That means that the application and most subsequent communication with the authorities take place online. But this approach has been deeply problematic for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in receipt of benefits. Only 47% of those living on a low income use broadband internet at home, making it much more difficult to maintain a claim online. In addition, one in five people in the UK is not digitally literate, and nearly half of all universal credit claimants need assistance to apply for their benefits online. Universal credit is building a digital barrier between some individuals and their social rights.

Another problematic dimension has been highlighted in a recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group, aptly titled Computer Says ‘No’!”. The report demonstrates that the online environment in which beneficiaries communicate with welfare authorities makes it virtually impossible to identify, understand and challenge decisions that affect one’s livelihood. There is a real risk here that the rule of law will be replaced by the rule of web design. Meanwhile, the right of welfare claimants to an effective remedy when mistakes are made is in serious jeopardy.

But digital by default universal credit is only the tip of the iceberg of Britain’s emerging digital welfare state. Much more serious changes are happening behind the walls of UK government bureaucracies.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), for example, is busily automating the machinery of the welfare state, including by developing a “fully automated risk analysis and intelligence system for fraud and error”. What that is likely to mean, although hardly anyone outside the DWP seems to know exactly, is that a great many government databases (as well as private social media accounts, apparently) will be matched and analysed by new tech tools.

It would be a mistake to think of these as isolated problems.

Many other countries are grappling with such digital issues. Commentators have warned that the Danish welfare state might accidentally die by algorithm, and in the Netherlands civil society is litigating against a government data matching system to detect benefit fraud, targeted especially at poor neighbourhoods.

While these systems of disempowerment, discriminatory targeting and arbitrary privacy intrusions are for the moment mostly affecting poorer families in the UK and elsewhere, in the end no one will be safe. Why should the government not scrutinise everyone’s social media accounts to try to detect signs of income tax fraud, and why not require everyone to communicate with their GP exclusively via a digital portal?

This is by no means to suggest that everything digital is bad, or that fraud should not be exposed. There is actually enormous positive potential for the use of digital technologies in a modern welfare state. Digital interaction with the authorities may greatly lessen administrative burdens – for example, by reducing unnecessary travel to a welfare office or by automatically reminding beneficiaries that they forgot to attach a document to their application.

But in the design of universal credit, explicit political choices have been translated into technological design, with devastating effects on individual lives. And politicisation through technology has hardly been an issue of intense public debate in the UK, in large part because of the veil of secrecy surrounding digital innovation.

Crucial new tech experiments, such as the automation of the calculation of benefits in universal credit, remain the bailiwick of civil servants, technologists and big consulting firms advising the government. This partial outsourcing has created serious transparency deficits that the current Freedom of Information Act cannot resolve. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently released a report that underlined systemic problems with uncovering even basic information about outsourcing in the area of digital government.


In a functioning democracy, political choices about the future of the digital welfare state should ultimately be made by the electorate, not by an engineer, government bureaucrat or private consultancy. But in order to reach the stage of a proper public and democratic debate about the digital welfare state, there is a desperate need for more information about what is actually happening behind the walls of government ministries. It is time for Britons to demand the truth.

• Philip Alston is UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Christiaan van Veen is special advisor on new technologies and human rights




Mere teething problems as we regress back to Uncle George's utopian " Dream " of ... 1984 ?


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