Socialist Worker

Cruel firms tell benefit claimants to get therapy or lose cash

Workfare contractors’ proposals to bring ‘positive thinking’ into job centres is about blaming unemployed people for their own plight, writes Dave Sewell

Issue No. 2459

outside a job centre

A cruel new benefit scheme is being trialled in south London (Pic: JJ Ellison)

Struggling to find work during a crisis? Then you need to get your head examined.

That’s the sick message the Tories’ workfare contractors are forcing on benefit claimants. And a new scheme being trialled in Streatham, south London, could make it central to how every job centre works.

Unemployed people will be forced into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or have their benefits stopped. 

Benefit sanctions, which stop benefits, are already used to force people into unpaid work placements or “courses” run by firms. 

Many of these already focus on telling people that they’re unemployed because of problems in their own mind. And they claim the solution lies in “positive thinking”.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal by researchers Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn paints a vivid picture of this psychological coercion. 

One woman said, “My ‘advisor’ said I needed to see a psychologist because I was tearful and 

anxious after having my Job Seekers’ Allowance cut for four weeks despite having a young child to look after by myself. 

“When I said I did not trust anyone who finds it acceptable to starve others as a punishment, he told me that I was paranoid and needed to see a psychologist.”

Friedli and Stearn argue that the government’s expectations of workfare are shifting from the “hard” outcome of getting people into work to “soft” ones about changing attitudes.


But the enforcement is harder than ever as the use of benefit sanctions increases (see below).

This shifts the blame for unemployment from the bosses and the 

government onto those suffering its effects. It can also have a devastating effect on the people it is supposedly there to help.

One claimant said her time with contractor Seetec was “destroying my soul”.

“I feel there is no place in society for a quiet, shy, creative person like me,” she wrote. “And now I feel I don’t even deserve to call myself creative, because I don’t even do that anymore, because I am too depressed.”

The obsession with “positive thinking” is also about making people choke down the anger that could lead them to challenge the real problems.

One mandatory course run by contractor Ingeus tells claimants to “accept the cold hard reality of injustice and uncertainty”.

Friedli and Stearn say this “positive psychology” reinforces “the core mythologies of neoliberalism” and weakens “solidarity, collectivity and interdependence”.

Anger at workfare has already forced some major companies to back out. The government says it has to keep the list of participants secret or the whole scheme would collapse.

But solidarity between unemployed people and workers could wreck the Tories’ austerity agenda.

No wonder they are so keen to shove their victim-blaming positivity down even more people’s throats.

Be ‘motivated’ or starve

People can be sanctioned for refusing to go on courses that have been shown to provide no help in finding them work.

These include pseudosciences such as as “Neuro-linguistic Programming”. It’s a discipline so made-up that one BBC journalist managed to get his cat certified to practice it. 

People can be sanctioned if the quacks running these courses decide they have been “non-compliant”.

And they can be sanctioned even while doing mandatory unpaid work if their bosses report their “attitude” or “motivation” is lacking. 

One man in Edinburgh rated as having a poor attitude told campaign group Boycott Workfare, “I was willing to work. I travelled by train every day then walked a long walk from Edinburgh station to the store for four weeks and done everything asked plus more.”

The recently opened “Community Shop” in south London, selling food cheap to benefit claimants, agrees claimants need “motivation”. 

It will turn people away unless they “are motivated to make positive change in their lives”.

Protest greets plan’s pilot

Campaigners were set to march on Streatham job centre on Friday of this week against the plan to bring in psychotherapists.

The protest was called by Mental Health Resistance Network (MHNR) and backed by Disabled People Against Cuts.

Therapists are starting there this month in the first of ten planned pilot schemes. It could be rolled out nationally by January 2016.

CBT has become the government’s preferred form of therapy, partly because it can be done very cheaply. 

It also focuses on changing someone’s thought patterns—and can fit into their attempt to turn social problems into individual ones.

CBT can sometimes be helpful to people who pursue it by choice.

But therapists and professional bodies agree that it can do no good to people forced into it.

MHNR points out, “Experts agree that CBT does not work for everyone; that psychological therapies are ineffective if they are forced on people; and that they need to take place in safe, unthreatening environments.

“We do not think making people have CBT at job centres will make anyone magically fit for work.”

Protest assembles at 1.30pm, Streatham Memorial Gardens, Streatham High Rd, London SW16

Letting bosses off the hook 

 Workfare is heavily privatised. The government doesn’t even hire most of the companies providing it—larger contractors such as A4e and G4S do that.

This lets them get away with a range of practices that do nothing to help claimants. 

But this would be the first time psychologists were brought directly into the job centre. It would almost certainly mean an increase in sanctions.

Professionals slam the plans

 the UK Council for Psychotherapy and the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) have slammed the plan. 

BACP chair Andrew Reeves (pictured) said, “We oppose the mandatory use of psychological therapies in workfare programmes

“Benefit claimants shouldn’t be expected to have therapy under the threat of their benefits being stopped.”

Sanctioned for being low paid

The Tories’ Universal Credit scheme to merge benefits means that even people in low paid work can be sanctioned. 

Their housing benefit can be reduced for not doing enough to get higher paid work.

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