[Originally published in the Annie Agitator Blog. We are grateful to Annie Agitator for this meticulous research and for allowing us to republish in this form]
It’s ok if you call it research. Is the DWP carrying out an unethical and coercive social experiment on people claiming tax credits?
Following the mini success in the House of Lords in October, one could be forgiven for thinking that the first battle in the war on tax credits has been won. In reality, the first battle in this war was waged back April 2015. And it’s already been lost.
In April the DWP began a research project to use sanctions to take away tax credits from the lowest earning working poor. The DWP have called this a research project, more specifically a Randomised Control Trial (RCT). An RCT is a research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (no intervention) and compared. These kinds of trials have very strict safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials given the obvious power imbalances and potentials for abuse.
As far as this trial is concerned there is limited information available and it is hard not to conclude that the DWP is deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical policies as well as using the research exemption in the FOIA 2000 to keep this work hidden from public view.
However, what is available to view is shocking. The DWP have misled parliament about the research. They have shown contempt for governmental ethical safeguards. They appear to have deliberately misinformed people about their involvement. Most alarmingly they would appear to be subjecting vulnerable groups to unnecessary harassment from the jobcentre.
The trial is called the In Work Progression Trial. Esther Mcvey and Lord Freud state that is about encouraging people on tax credits (as part of Universal Credit) to earn more either by getting more hours or a better paying job. Although McVey managed to duck the issue at the Legalisation Committee in January (an initial step in having the law changed to allow the trial to run), the trial is very clearly about ‘conditionality’ or the use of sanctions, as further FOI requests reveal. In January, McVey (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmgeneral/deleg2/150114/150114s01.htm) shamelessly downplayed the use of sanctions and the amendment passed without too much opposition.
Next stop House of Lords. Lord Freud presented it here (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldhansrd/text/150122-gc0001.htm ) and was subject to a slightly harsher grilling. Freud told the committee that ‘some of the activities we set will be mandatory’. This is not true. Underneath the rhetoric of ‘tailored interventions’ and ‘coaching’, the message is clear. The trial is about imposing mandatory activities with the use of sanctions if they are not done. Given the growing evidence on the destructive and punitive application of sanctions, it is alarming that those with a job are to be punished by the DWP for not earning enough. Freud dismissed the need to consider ethics as part of this trial as he stated conditionality is something the DWP enforce already. This disregard for ethical standards has set the precedent for how the trial has been conducted to date.
Disregarding ethical safeguards: Excluding vulnerable groups from the trial:
One of the supposed safeguards of the trial was the exclusion of certain vulnerable groups. These included the recently bereaved, recent victims of domestic violence, those with physical illness or those with caring responsibilities over a set amount of hours per week. In a typical RCT the excluding of certain people is done from the outset. This is to ensure they do not have any involvement in something that might be unhelpful or could cause them harm.
In what at best could be seen as a display of ignorance and, at worst a gross abuse of power, the DWP have eschewed this basic ethical principle. They are hauling people into the jobcentre to have a ‘challenging conversation’ about why they should be earning more, regardless of whether they fall into these groups or not. So someone who is recently bereaved, or someone simply in a position where they cannot do more hours is sent a very threatening letter and told they have to attend or lose their benefit. A FOIA response shows that people are excluded AFTER the interview with the job coach, if they happen to fall into one of these groups. But are they even told they are being assessed for a research trial. Are they given an opportunity to give the information that would have them excluded? Could they even tell the job coach about an abusive partner during this ‘challenging conversation’?
Recently released Universal Credit documents state that if someone is on Universal Credit there will be an expectation that they increase their earnings. There is no mention of a research trial. There is no mention of groups to be excluded. This is not ethical research. This is an intervention that is actively seeking to harm people (i.e. earn more or be punished by sanctions). People do not appear to be told about its status as research in any meaningful way and there seems to be very little effort made to ensure identified groups are excluded. Freud mentioned that the hope is to have 15,000 people on this trial within the year. There are already over 500 people in the intervention arm with only 125 in the control. So clearly there is a strong push to get people on the trial, suggesting that the exclusion criteria exists on paper only.
Disregarding ethical safeguards; deceiving people who are included in the trial
An FOIA request asking about how consent is discussed and obtained from participants had a telling reply. The DWP provided documents about a one off interview rather than the ongoing trial. This information says participation is voluntary and it won’t affect benefits. But it is only referring to one interview. So is this the only consent and information document that the person is sent home with? If they are given other documents about the trial and their participation, why not just provide the documents as asked in the FOIA. Why would the FOIA responder deliberately provide information that was known to be inaccurate?
This is very serious, as it suggests that the DWP is deliberately misleading people about what the trial will involve, e.g. there is no mention of mandatory activities and sanctions but there is one document that says their participation is voluntary and won’t affect tax credits. If it is the case that the DWP is wilfully deceiving people in this manner, just as they attempted in the FOI then this is a very worrying breach of research ethics and needs to be immediately reviewed by the SSAC who are according to Freud ‘monitoring the trial as it goes along’.
In summary the DWP appear to have misled parliament about this trial. They have shown utter contempt for ethical safeguards, which essentially means contempt for the respectful and humane treatment of human beings. Given the widespread condemnation of sanctions and the growing awareness of destruction they cause, it is hard to believe that the trial has been approved. What it amounts to is a punishment system for those who are already working, on the pretext of testing out a punishment that the government already know to be ineffective in its aims.
Cowering behind the label of research, the DWP refuse to disclose how many people have been sanctioned to date as part of this trial. Equally, it seems that if the DWP choose, the trial can be extended for another two years without having to revisit parliament. This raises the obvious question of whether the aim is to simply carry out an endless trial, in which the DWP has found a clause to avoid holding any public accountability for it’s unethical treatment of people and wanton abuse of the privileges of research.
Is the DWP willing to go to any lengths to push people off benefits? To push them into poverty, to destitution, to death? Anything to ensure that the DWP numbers look good?
For information including letters in the trial:
Information on how many people in the trial:
Information on consent:
Information on the content of the trial:
and here, note research is now not mentioned at all but the word regime appears to be used instead:
DWP UC document: note again no mention of research