The Human Catastrophe: Personal Independence Payment and Necropolitical Governance

Rebecca Porter

The aim of my research is to explore disabled people’s experiences of claiming Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The current Conservative government are engaging in necropolitics at the expense of disabled peoples’ human rights, affecting their quality of life.

Who counts as disabled in the U.K? This is question has been asked in different ways by successive governments when deciding who deserves financial help through the country’s welfare state. Disability is a significantly diverse category. Recent political discourse has sought to position welfare as in need of substantial overhaul; the narrative goes that welfare was costing the country too much, and disabled people were made scapegoats, demonised by the government (Ryan, 2019 for analysis).

The most recent iteration of disability benefit is PIP, a benefit designed to cover the extra economic costs associated with disability (these range from for care needs to provisioning of specialist equipment). By 2017, the United Nations had condemned the UK government for its implementation of PIP, describing such as a ‘human catastrophe’ (Degner, 2017, quoted in Kernish, 2017). This made the UK the first country to be found to be breaking the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD), which is designed to protect disabled people’s human rights.

Introducing PIP as part of a welfare system reform has not only  been condemned by the United Nations, but has been subject to vast domestic criticism.  Although ostensibly designed to cover the extra cost of being disabled, additionally PIP can provide a crucial lifeline to help alleviate poverty. However,  the process is extremely distressing and dehumanising. As this is done using standardised assessments of cost often resulting  denying genuinely disabled people the funds they need.

What is Necropolitics?

Necropolitics is a postcolonial theory, drawing our attention to how – in the conduct of their operations – governments in effect control how some people can live but others must die. This does not always equate to physical death, but rather, involving some oppressed groups become metaphorically living dead, with citizens exposed to conditions such as slavery or apartheid. This means those in the oppressed group experiences “death-in-life” (Mbembe, 2003, pg.21) because of the conditions the state has deliberately created.

The theory is often associated with biopolitics, where the state manages its population through social control, setting the standard of the ‘norm’ as a benchmark. Mbembe builds on this, arguing Necropolitics is the next step, as it involves governing death, instead of life (Mbembe, 2019). Necropolitics has been used to analyse the violence LGBTQ+ communities face (Azuria, 2014), necropolitical inaction to the refugee crisis in Europe (Davies et al, 2017, 2019), femicide in Mexico in the country’s war on drugs (Wright, 2011), and, the state welfare payments refugees receive in the U.K (Mayblin et al, 2019).

Necropolitics is an extremely useful theory that could be successfully integrated into disability studies. As Mbembe states: ‘What connects terror, death and freedom is an ecstatic notion of temporality and politics’ (Mbembe, 2003, pg. 39). Since poverty and austerity measures are political choices, what disabled people face under the welfare state can be theorised as deliberate political violence against their human rights.

The oppression disabled people experience is also an example of necropolitical governance.

As a disabled welfare claimant in the U.K, experiences a life not lived to its full potential, because of political violence. One mechanism through which the government socially controls the death of disabled people is through the welfare state. This is recognised as the violence of austerity policies that harm society’s most impoverished groups (Cooper and Whyte, 2017). Ryan (2019) followed the lives of several disabled people for her book. One of the participants is Sue. Sue is an extremely ill wheelchair user, who has a prosthetic leg. She was granted a rare home visit to be assessed for PIP and was rejected. After being a Disability Living allowance claimant for over 10 years, this meant her specially adapted car was removed. This left her housebound. She is not alone: by 2018, 75,000 people had their; cars, mobility scooters, or power wheelchairs taken away when moving from DLA to PIP, which equates to 40% of the mobility schemes customers (Ryan, 2019). Consequently, the benefit has left disabled people extremely isolated, and some struggle to feed themselves or heat their homes (Ryan, 2019).

This is one way how disabled people experience necropolitical governance of their lives. Including those who receive the benefit, they are under continual  reassessment, throughout their lives, and once again having to prove they are disabled, to hold onto the income PIP provides them with.

My Research

Against this backdrop in my PhD research, using qualitative online interviews (via video or audio call) I will be asking disabled people about their experiences of claiming PIP. I will ask them about their feelings about the process, any distress it caused, whether they felt they were made to feel lesser, and their opinions of the process as a whole. This research aims to tell the ‘other side’ of this story of data that the Department for Work and Pensions uses to produce their traditional protocols or means to encourage applicant to apply, by putting human stories and experiences at the forefront, that hide behind faceless, statistical data.

Rebecca Louise Porter is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, based in the centre for disability studies. Supervised by Dr Alison Sheldon, Dr Tom Campbell, and Dr Ana Manzano (temporary), Rebecca’s PhD examines the experiences of disabled people who have claimed, or have tried to claim, Personal Independence Payment, and how this may be deemed necropolitical governance of disabled people’s lives in the U.K.

One thought on “The Human Catastrophe: Personal Independence Payment and Necropolitical Governance”

  1. Hiya Rebecca,
    I am currently going through this process and would really like to share my experience with you if you are still looking for participants in your research

    All the best

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