Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why the government policies on incapacity benefits are unethical


For several years I served on NHS research ethics committees. There were key questions that concerned us in considering any research project. One of these considerations was whether the project was sufficiently robust to produce a meaningful answer to the question, or to sufficiently test the hypothesis. Was the cohort of the right size, was it sufficiently representative of the population, was the question being asked in the right way? Was it the right question?

Ill-conceived and poorly planned research is unethical. It is unethical because of its potential for harm. Policy decisions based on poor or inadequate research are also unethical; unethical because of the potential for harm; harm that could have been avoided if the research had been more robust. It means that the assumptions upon which the policy is based is likely to be wrong. Implementing policies on untested assumptions is unethical, and this is a major reason I have argued that the government's approach to incapacity benefits is unethical. It is based on assumptions that have been poorly tested if tested at all and it is doing severe harm. It is hurting people.

A utilitarian consideration might argue that a certain amount of harm is the price worth paying for a greater benefit. This is indeed the argument deployed by Mr Duncan-Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He argues that the new approach to incapacity assessment will bring fairness to benefit provision. It will he says make people on benefits 'better people' and it will save the taxpayer £2.24 billion annually. Those who could work should work he argues and it all sounds very fair. But it is based on a false and inadequately tested assumption. The assumption that as much as 30% of those claiming incapacity benefit should not be eligible and should be in work or on job-seekers allowance. I have demonstrated previously how this assumption is based on inadequate assessments in a small cohort of claimants in Aberdeen and Burnley. The assumption that 30% of claimants should be ineligible is wrong; the assumption of the policy is wrong. The harm being done based on that assumption is wrong.

But the policy is unethical also because it stigmatises those on benefits as scroungers, shirkers or skivers. It tells the public that a large proportion of those receiving these benefits are effectively 'cheats'.  This is unwarranted. It is not based on any tested figures. It is prejudicial, harmful and therefore unethical. It is unethical language. The language of 'welfare dependency' suggesting that these claimants are fickle and dependant.

It is unethical because it strategically seeks to divide the population into the virtuous and the sinners, and it seeks to turn one against the other. By branding those on benefits it makes it easier to turn on them and harm them; to make them bear the greater share of the cuts. We are all in this together but some are in it more than others.

It runs on another erroneously peddled assumption; that we cannot afford to pay these benefits. It is erroneous because it suggests, wrongly, that our financial problem stems from the welfare budget being too high. Wrong! The welfare budget is high because of failure elsewhere, because of increased unemployment and because of increasing poverty.  To make the poor pay for their poverty is unethical. Making the poor pay for the financial crisis brought on by unethical banking is not simply unethical; it is immoral.

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