The Social Security system is ‘A shadow penal system’ where human rights are increasingly absent.

That was the chilling message from disability rights campaigner Rick Burgess of Disabled People Against Cuts at ‘Suspect Communities’ - a panel discussion in Belfast on 7 August 2019 which was reported on in The Guardian and the Irish Times shortly afterwards.

The event was organised by the Right to Work, Right to Welfare (R2W) campaign, to shine a light on the surveillance practices of the Department for Communities and the Home Office.

Right to Work, Right to Welfare activists gather at CIty Hall in June 2019 to demand implementation of the People's Proposal

It followed a protest by campaigners and elected representatives at Belfast City Hall, calling on Tracy Meharg, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communties, to immediately implement the #PeoplesProposal human rights checklist for social security decision makers - a call that has been backed by all 11 councils and every trade union and political party, with the exception of the DUP.

In a message sent to Participation and the Practice of Rights ahead of the Suspect Communities event the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston said;

“The tragedy is that most people will assume that the ever-more intrusive surveillance by the UK welfare state is only aimed at the bad guys.  It’s not, it will soon affect everyone and leave the society much worse off.  Everyone needs to pay attention and insist on decent limits.”

Panellists explored the parallels between the criminalisation of entire communities during the conflict and how the sick, disabled, unemployed, refugees and asylum seekers are treated today.

The discussion was chaired by Andrée Murphy of Relatives for Justice, who support families bereaved during the conflict. Andrée explained how the families RFJ support are impacted by discovering that they had been the subject of state surveillance before the loss of their loved ones:

"It is not easy - trying to find out the policies of surveillance. The policies of counter-insurgency that were in place at a given time, and in a given place are often the subject of intense court proceedings."

"Now we find ourselves in a place where there are policies of surveillance and counter-insurgency around ourselves, as we live in what's meant to be a non-militarised, non-conflict era." 

Daniel Holder, from the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), explained the current capacity of the state to carry out widespread surveillance and the checks and balances that should have been put in place to protect people:

"Whatever's happened in the past, obviously the digital age takes this to a completely different level, because there is so much information about an individual that can now be tracked."

"A lot of us very helpfully carry mobile phones around with us in our pocket. That's gathering a lot of information about what you read and your location."

"We are in a really frightening place in relation to the digital world, in that state can build up a really detailed picture of individual movements."

Liz McLellan from R2W described the experience of people being subjected to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) social security assessments by the private company CAPITA and how R2W has been providing support by acting as human rights monitors during assessments:

"When you go for a PIP assessment, before you go into that building, you're outside, and they've got cameras on you."

"You feel like a criminal, because you feel judged and watched from the minute you put that claim in."

For people with already poor mental health, this has serious consequences.

"Their paranoia goes through the roof. Their mental health is affected more by the process of this."

Sipho Sibanda, from the Housing4All campaign described how asylum seekers (who are banned from working to earn money) can only receive their allowance of £37 per week on a prepaid debit card - the Aspen Card, which is routinely monitored by the Home Office:

"There's so much surveillance on the card. They can actually see what people are buying."

"If you shop in Tesco, that's normal. But if I started buying ice cream at M&S, it's seen as wasting money."

The Aspen Card is used to track movements. Asylum Seekers have been questioned about where they travel and why by Home Office officials who are monitoring their spending patterns. Sipho explained how the system impacts on the already strained mental health of asylum seekers who are often suffering from trauma.

"If you're constantly being watched, it creates a kind of anxiety, and it really makes people paranoid. People are not free to live normal lives like everybody else."

Rick Burgess from Disabled People Against Cuts explained how police officers were reporting protestors who are disabled to social security agencies during anti-fracking protests in Lancashire:

"The police there were looking at the disabled protestors and passing on their details to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It was a deliberate tactic to frighten people into not protesting."

"Dr David Webster from Glasgow University has called it a 'Shadow penal system,' but without all the protections that you'd get in the criminal justice system."

Rick went on to explain the impact on disabled people who are afraid to be seen in public for fear of having their social security cut.

"Can I be out enjoying myself? Can I be a visibly disabled person having a good life?"

Sara Boyce presented evidence obtained under Freedom of Information legislation and spoke about the increase in fear described by people between 2015 and 2018 during R2W surveys at social security offices:

"People were much more fearful to engage. This was a human rights group monitoring experiences of social security and people were afraid to approach the table."

"People were afraid to be seen - just that sense that someone was looking out the window from the Bru at them."

Sara explained how disproportionately the social system was weighted toward ‘benefit fraud’

"Fraud is a tiny bit of the social security budget, but all you see when you go onto the Department for Communities website is, "Benefit Fraud Weekly Review."

The result stigmatises everyone who relies on social security support to afford rent, food and the cost of living in a society where poor health, low pay, precarious work and long term unemployment is widespread.

"They're creating a culture where if you're looking for benefits you need - which is your right - then you're workshy, you're a shirker, and you're a scrounger."

"That is the ideology that is underpinning all of this - to dismantle the welfare state."

Please support the People's Proposal.

The #PeoplesProposal is supported by all 11 councils, all trade unions and all political parties with the exception of the DUP and calls on Tracy Meharg, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities, to introduce a human rights checklist for social security decision makers.