Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Saturday I clean public toilets (though of course my colleagues are unaware of my situation)

A sobering blog on street homelessness from a woman who works a 6 day week.

‘My landlord asked me to move so he could sell,’ writes Aibaihe, 35. ‘I wanted to take advantage of the notice period but he preferred a shorter timeframe. After numerous threats, he simply changed the locks, stealing anything of value and throwing the rest into the street.
‘The police said I could be arrested if I tried to force my way back in. The council refused to assist because I wasn’t on benefits. The solicitor wanted £4,000 to sue him. I lived on a campsite for eight months and then moved onto the streets because free was all I could afford and, having slept rough as a teenager, I knew I could manage.
‘My salary is taken up entirely on a foreign mortgage where my family live. My income has been halved in the recession. All current housing options for the homeless are aimed at those who don’t work and are outrageously expensive.’

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Happiness Index

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Government have, conveniently in the middle of a recession, decided that happiness can be measured in more than GDP. The Gross Domestic Product is the value of goods and services that a country produces annually and has been used to calculate how happy (because rich=happy, right?) a nation might be. In the UK our GDP has been growing steadily since 1948 and we are even now the 6th wealthiest nation in the world. Yet very far from the 6th happiest, we come a fairly miserable 74th. There is a distinct link between misery and financial prosperity, with China and India’s growing unhappiness linked to their increasing economic success.

Lord Layard in a government report back in 2005 suggested that

A network of 250 treatment centers staffed by 10,000 therapists are needed urgently to tackle the epidemic of unhappiness that is Britain's "biggest social problem.

Whilst many therapists understand happiness to be elusive at best and philosophically difficult to determine we’re still steering clients towards ways of being that we find acceptable as if acceptability equals wellbeing. It’s become an unthinking cliché that wellbeing and employment walk hand in hand, something that a majority of counsellors swallow carelessly and repeat in all kinds of unthinking manners with each other and with clients, one which just happens to suit the values of a politics which calculates happiness via the GDP i.e. gives extreme worth to employment and opprobrium to its opposite.

In fact, being employed can be profoundly disturbing to and unhealthy for many people. It’s where most adults experience bullying – 1 in 4 employees are currently experiencing it.

Where competition and comparison are part of personal and professional development people are under enormous pressure to ‘perform’ that is, to do stuff that they’ve been trained like monkeys to do, which may be entirely unnatural to them, and which determines their entire system of self worth and personal values. It is positively bad for ones health, for instance, to travel in conditions that are illegal for transporting cattle but which many commuters submit to twice daily.

Individual people - you, me, our friends, colleagues and clients – are only acceptable when we’re producing stuff that has an economic value. Artists are only artists when they sell their products at a profit that allows them to lead a ‘normal’ life: those that don’t are fantasists or otherwise deluded. They can also be a genuine financial drain on their partners and families, another pressure to reject what can be fundamental to their wellbeing to become a respectable, tax paying consumer member of society.

Respectability is a severely powerful force. Counsellors want to be respectable and accepted by our peers only rocking the boat, if at all, in an acceptable manner, perhaps by producing some unthreatening research. Knowing that people are more than machine parts seems obvious and worthy, but to propose that being employed is exactly that for a great many people is threatening and revolutionary for many counsellors. Too many of us grind our way through the BACP accreditation process knowing that most complaints are made against accredited counsellors and not caring because employment as a counsellor is increasingly dependent on being accredited.

For a nuanced understanding of the role of employment in happiness take a look at

Work, Happiness and Unhappiness
Peter Warr
Psychology Press

and imagine if those 250 centers employing 10,000 thoughtful counsellors genuinely empowered individuals to seek what authentically brought them pleasure.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Benefits and Work

Take some time to browse the Benefits and Work site. Join their mailing list. You'll get a couple of emails a month with fascinating links that will help you understand the experience of people who are feeling under threat from all sides, in a fundamental way.

Here's a copy of the mail I received today. From time to time we might ask clients if they'd be interested in knowing about of sources of information and support: this is one that empowers the individual in properly meaningful ways.

£4,000 backdated disability living allowance for ME

"Just wanted to thank benefits and work for all the advice on the site. I won my appeal for DLA and went from being awarded nothing to getting lower rate care and higher rate mobility (for severe ME)!
"The DWP wanted to start my claim from December, but somehow the tribunal put the date as August. I've just spoken to someone who has confirmed back-dated payment of over £4000 - a good day!"
More good news from members at the end of this email

Disabled claimants to be starved into obedience

The welfare reform white paper published today is not just about the new universal credit.  It is also about imposing a harsh new regime of sanctions on existing employment and support allowance claimants before the new benefit is even introduced.

Under the new regime, claimants in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (ESA), and the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled claimants being forced onto JSA by increasingly harsh medical tests, face potentially indefinite 100% cuts in their benefit for minor ‘offences’.

Members can find out more about the coalition’s plans for a ‘fairer’ system of
starving claimants into submission  (Members only) now and we’ll be doing a full write up of the universal credit in the near future.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling angry about the cuts then do bear in mind that according to the minister for disabled people the plan to kick one in five claimants off DLA is in order to stop the media attacking claimants and branding them as workshy scroungers.  Oh and she also says that it’s ‘not particularly helpful’ to blame the government for anti-claimant propoganda when
it’s really all the fault of the media.

Elsewhere, we have the news that the
Youreable benefits forum has reopened after almost a year.  But we’re wondering if their threats of huge financial penalties and criminal prosecution for people who repeatedly misuse the site will put off more genuine claimants than troublemakers?

We also have news of a
brand new website which allows private tenants to find out how much benefit they may lose under the coalition’s plans to cut housing benefit.

And it’s not just the DWP and local authorities who are after your money. We’ve heard from the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group that incapacity benefit claimants may soon be receiving demands for underpaid tax from HMRC.  Find out what to do
if the taxman comes after you.

One bit of good news, however, is the announcement by the DWP that they are
abandoning plans to introduce lie detectors for benefits claimants after discovering that they don’t work.

And finally, as always, we’re sharing some good news from our forums.

Higher rate mobility and middle rate care DLA indefinitely

Higher rate mobility and middle rate care DLA in just 4 weeks

ESA up from 6 to 15 points

ESA medical success before incapacity benefit appeal

ESA appeal success on review

Thank you – even though I’ve no idea of the result!

Good luck,
Steve Donnison

Monday, 8 November 2010

Empathy as an economic tool

The long-term unemployed are likely to be pushed into 4 weeks full time voluntary work or lose their entire income for 3 months. The Arch Bishop of Canterbury believes, "It can make people who start feeling vulnerable feel more vulnerable.”

Like so much of our public discourse the arguments are presented out of context and we’re encouraged to polarise, so it may be worth some analysis of this situation.

Many unemployed people already volunteer. This is recognised by the Department for Work and Pensions who limit the number of hours that an unemployed person can volunteer to 16 per week so that it doesn’t get in the way of job seeking. How this squares with 35 hours of full time voluntary work isn't addressed by the new proposal.

Those of us who are angry with people who live on benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ may be interested in the following and the comments afterwards.

The DWP’s own research offers some insight into unemployed people’s perception of voluntary work, one of the most important things to note is that people who are unemployed are also very bored.

For some people this boredom is a spur to action, for others it is the beginning of a decent into depression, mental illness and crime. Being unemployed means that you can’t afford to do anything much. Things that employed people on a decent wage take for granted – taking public transport to a free gallery or museum or a beautiful park – become nearly impossible for the unemployed. Normal social life becomes restricted – you can’t buy a round in the pub, or go on shopping trips or other recreational events with friends. Holidays are out of the question. Children’s normal growth becomes a crisis – a £20 pair of shoes is a quarter of a week’s income for a single parent with one child. (Who are these families with 10 children rolling around in cash in a million pound house? No actual figures are available, which suggests they’re a useful aberration for the right wing media and people who need to whip up hatred.)

Young unemployed men in particular seem to be vulnerable to depression which may have something to do with their parallel poor achievement at school. Prisons are heaving with people who simply cannot read. Please read this report:

Literacy problems in the prison population are often compounded by a wide range of emotional, learning, and/or attention deficits, including:

Child abuse and neglect, linguistic impoverishment in the childhood home, low verbal ability, uncorrected visual and hearing impairments in childhood, unskilled teaching in the junior school and the mistaken conjecture about literacy practice, closed head injury and substance misuse, low non-verbal ability, childhood hyperactivity-impulsivity and inattention, impairments in empathy and social cognition, current anxiety and depression, and – often as a default and catch-all explanation – developmental dyslexia (Rice and Brooks 2004:4).

Those unemployed people who are not already doing some kind of formal or informal voluntary work are, I propose, unlikely to be able move instantly from a long term existence of extreme boredom to a 35 hour week. When they don’t they will lose all their income. Consider what that really means. I know we’re supposed to not think for ourselves and to absorb what we’re told about feckless spongers living a life that many of us envy but it’s not true. It’s not true. When you lose benefits you lose your home. There are not enough hostel places. Begging and street or hidden homelessness or prison will be obvious outcomes. Consider the effects of that on a person. If that's too wishy washy, consider the effects on the economy.

The premise behind these proposals is not a bad one. Getting into a positive daily rhythm, increased physical activity and social interaction are good for all of us. I trust that IDS has offered this proposal based on sound empirical evidence, but it lacks understanding and it lacks empathy. No one involved in this proposal has one pair of worn out trainers and one and a half tracksuits with some ancient underwear as their entire wardrobe. What is this persons self esteem likely to be like? What about their internal locus of evaluation? If this person is the best authority on their life, what might this suggest about their life? How is their self-concept expressed? How much denial and distortion are they indulging in and how much are we?

Rowan Williams is more likely to be correct in his analysis of how increasing compulsion and surveillance may affect the long term unemployed, simply because he starts from an attempt at empathy. Empathy doesn’t have a role in pubic policy and that's one reason why we have so many long-term unemployed people.


In the current furore about making voluntary work compulsory I wonder if counsellors might have any thoughts on the subject? Counselling has a long, unthinking history with voluntary work. We are compelled to volunteer in order to train, something that has never been questioned. ‘Compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ are two ends of a spectrum and various principals support each description. It’s the difference between volunteering to join the army and being conscripted: the motivations and outcomes for each are going to be very different.

Organisations in the voluntary sector – other than counselling organisations – have long recognised this:

But if you force someone to volunteer, it's not volunteering.
John Ramsey, head of volunteering at Age Concern England, 2007

Any future legislation would need to address the distinction between volunteer service that is willingly undertaken and can be completed at will, and community service that is the fruitful engagement of those who may face consequences if they fail to show up.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of volunteering charity CSV, 2007

The Police Service had a brief struggle with this issue too when it became clear that in order to join the Service two years of voluntary work as a Special Constable had become a prerequisite. This was purely because of funding issues i.e. police were needed but the money wasn’t available to pay for them and so civilians were taking on a policing role. There are obvious and historically appalling problems with this, rather summed up in the police recruitment puff reassuring potential volunteers that they will

Whichever Service is doing the recruiting; having the same uniform as real police officers is offered as the primary benefit of volunteering. That this hasn’t resulted in massive objections from every corner of the educated land suggests that our understanding of history and basic civic participation is dead; being part of a society that unthinkingly consumes everything it's fed, perhaps counsellors can't be expected to do or think or consume anything different from the rest of that society. Catherine Bennett offers some analysis of the police and other compulsory voluntary work.

I don’t know what the answers might be to counselling’s current sleepwalking through the voluntary process but a first step might be: Wake Up. There’s no questioning at all of the principals behind the foundations of who we are and what we do: people with good intentions jump through hoops, people with good intentions set the hoops up and we all know what the road to hell is paved with.