Until a few years ago, if a patient with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia told you that they were being watched by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), most mental health practitioners would presume this to be a sign of illness. This is not the case today.
The level of scrutiny all benefits claimants feel under is so brutalthat it is no surprise that supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has a policy to share CCTV “where we are asked to do so by a public or regulatory authority such as the police or the Department for Work and Pensions”. Gym memberships, airport footage and surveillance video from public buildings are now used to build cases against claimants, with posts from social media used to suggest people are lying about their disabilities. More and more private companies are being asked to send in footage. The atmosphere is one of pervasive suspicion, fuelled by TV programmes such as Benefits Street and successive governments’ mentality of “strivers v skivers”.
The DWP argues that video and social media footage is only used in extreme circumstances, and some are happy to brush this off as no big deal. But that ignores a key psychological truth. One does not need to have done anything wrong to feel that one has done something wrong. You know that feeling one has of getting caught out when going through airport security? That need to “perform” innocence, even though you know that you don’t have a kilo of cocaine in your hand luggage? It is this, a thousand times worse, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for claimants, whose homes and leisure time are being invaded in unprecedented ways.
To make sense of this, it can be useful to think of the metaphor of the panopticon. The social reformer Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon in the 18th century as a building with a tower surrounded by cells which allowed a watchman to observe occupants – workers, prisoners or children – from above without them being aware if they were being watched or not. The shining light from the tower was so bright that people had to act as if they are always under observation, permanently exposed, isolated and paralysed under the gaze of potential judgment (for how could they know if there was a watchman there). The philosopher Michel Foucault took up this metaphor in Discipline and Punish to describe how disciplinary power functions, as people internalise the idea that they are being watched, monitoring their behaviours accordingly and shaping their sense of themselves. This produces what Foucault called a compulsory visibility. “It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen,” Foucault wrote, “that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.”
Claimants today live this subjection, this sense of visibility and targeted surveillance, with devastating effects on their mental and physical health. They often feel unable to go out, attempt voluntary work or enjoy time with family and friends for fear this will be used as evidence against them. The atmosphere is so hateful, so degrading, so ill-informed about the vicissitudes of energy and ability with regard to mental and physical disabilities, that they become imprisoned in their homes, or in a mental state wherein they feel they are constantly being accused of being fraudulent or worthless.
There is little escape from this environment, as speaking freely on social media has become increasingly dangerous for claimants, and society at large has internalised many of the messages transmitted by the government and the rightwing press – the citizen-watchman on every street corner. Half of Britons now believe that out-of-work benefit claims have risen in the past 15 years, when they have fallen remarkably. Hate crimes against people on benefits have increased, with 15% of them – 800,000 people – having experienced verbal abuse, and 4% physical abuse.
Cuts in welfare are presented as necessary evils by the government, undesirable but unavoidable. Yet the figures do not back this argument. The number of benefits investigators has increased substantially in recent years, from 2,600 to 3,700 from 2015 to 2016, while only 700 people investigate the super-rich. This is despite the fact benefits fraud costs the government around £1.3bn a year compared to around £34bn for tax evasion. Yet the propaganda from government has been such that a survey showed Britons believe 24% of benefits claims are fraudulent – 34 times higher than the official estimate of 0.7%.
Nearly everyone that I come across on benefits now lives in a climate of such fear that life often seems unbearable. Attempted suicide rates for disabled claimants doubled between 2007 and 2014 as a result of changes to the welfare state, with universal credit only likely to make things worse given the claimant commitment people are required to sign.
“Hostile environment” would be too kind a phrase to describe what the Tories have done and are doing to claimants. It is worse than that: it is the post-apocalyptic bleakness of poverty combined with the persecution and terror of constantly feeling watched and accused. It is the government who should be ashamed, not those who need benefits.
- Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and senior lecturer. She tweets as @shrink_at_large
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