Against 'anti-therapeutic' austerity

442 psychotherapists, counsellors and academics condemn government plans and call on political parties to end 'profoundly disturbing' practices.

More than 400 psychologists, counsellors and academics have signed an open letter condemning the ‘profoundly disturbing’ psychological implications of the coalition government’s austerity and welfare reform measures. The group said over the past five years the types of issues causing clients distress had shifted dramatically and now include increasing inequality, outright poverty and benefits claimants being subjected to what it calls a ‘new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime’.

The signatories of the letter, published in The Guardian, express concern over chancellor George Osborne’s plans, laid out in the latest budget, to link welfare and therapy. Osborne has said the government will aim to give online CBT to 40,000 recipients of Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance from early next year. IAPT therapists will also be located in around 350 Job Centres from summer 2015. 

It also points to news that Maximus, the US company replacing Atos in work capability assessments, will also be managing the national Fit to Work programme. ‘It is time for the field’s key professional organisations to wake up to these malign developments, and unequivocally denounce such so-called “therapy” as damaging and professionally unethical,’ the letter authors commented. They comment that ‘ “Get to work therapy” is manifestly not therapy at all.’

The letter concludes by calling on all political parties, particularly Labour, to review what it calls ‘anti-therapeutic practices’ and refashion their commitment to mental health if they enter government.

David Harper (a Reader in Clinical Psychology at the University of East London), a member of the Psychologists Against Austerity group, was one of the 442 signatories. He told The Psychologist the letter was a useful intervention and said: ‘What we’re concerned about is the need for development of policies which aim to reduce inequality. We already know that social inequality is a huge contributor to mental health problems and distress.’ Dr Harper added that welfare reform and austerity measures had been significant in three main ways: through cuts to the NHS and local authority services, in the reduction of welfare and benefits to people who need it, and in the future direction such policies were taking.

Dr Harper told us: ‘In the NHS staff are being made to compete for fewer jobs and are losing their jobs which is obviously having an impact on people who use those services. The cuts being made to benefits are affecting the poorest in society and the more stringent policies mean people are being made to jump through endless hoops when they are at their most distressed.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber



I first qualified as a Counselling Psychologist in 2002. We were in the heady days of being in demand and could jump in and out of posts across the country (or maybe not). I had to pay my way through training. I was a very mature student (40+) very experienced in life, and I lived through the Thatcher years bringing up my children in poverty. Nothing could have prepared me for what I am seeing now. That poverty has reduced many to living as my grandfather did in the 1920’s turning up at the docks to see if any work was going. Zero hours contracts means you have no security and it takes us back to the days before Unions and where people were starving. This is 100 years away from those times and yet we are seeing them return to our streets now.

I was so proud to receive my membership of the BPS when I qualified and I have continued to be proud to be part of the community of psychologists. I have to ask though, just what is this society for now? I can list a few of the key points in the time I have been part of this community that seems to have led to the collapse of what I was once so proud of.

The Layard Report (2006)
Losing our right to govern ourselves and having to join the HCPC in 2009
The increase in Neo-Liberal agendas dominating ‘The New Ways of Working’ for psychologists (2011) that directly led us away from being an independent profession to becoming ‘pseudo managers’ of psychological services, supposedly disseminating our skills and knowledge to a growing myriad of less qualified professionals to carry out ‘the therapy’ work while we were supposed to supervise them. In practice this never really happened and we just got replaced by IAPT, CBT therapists, Nurse Therapists, and so on.

In our Affiliated University the training places for Clinical Psychology were cut to 10 places again this year and from years past where it was closer to 20.The course structure has changing and continues to change to meet the ‘New Ways Of Working Agenda’.

We have seen our services being cut year after year, and psychologists beginning to disappear from carrying out therapy and towards consultancy, presentation, and training. Maybe I’m being just cynical: but are we training others to replace us, because where I work it certainly feels this way? We are sprinkled across services now, trying to be effective when you spend one day in one service another in a different service and then another somewhere else. I see the stress some of my colleagues are under in knowing that the demand for therapy outstrips the resources and that those resources have been deployed elsewhere; whilst they now do other than the thing they originally trained for, which was ‘Psychological Based Therapy’.

I used to take pride in the skill of working as a therapist that could directly treat a person who needed someone that could work with their complexity. I enjoyed the challenge of seeing ever more complex cases and knowing that I made that person’s life better. I am crushingly aware that ‘therapy’ has now become everyone else’s game and that despite my expertise and many years of practice that the discipline of psychology gave me has relegated me to the fate of the dinosaurs, or maybe not.

It has been interesting to hear many of my former colleagues forced to retire in recent years doing really well out of private practice, the demand has never been higher they say. This leads me to the conclusion that if you can pay you can buy a psychologically trained therapist nowadays. You just won’t get in on the NHS.

So you see: Neo-Liberal Austerity agendas have affected us all and the services we work in. To those we used to serve the demand has never been higher but the service they get is not the same. I suppose that we shouldn’t be too precious about our roles of the past after all, nurses were replaced by nursing assistants, police were replaced by special constables, teachers by teaching assistants. Makes you wonder why we ever had these professions at all at times but I guess we shouldn’t really be surprised that someone decided that our profession needed the same treatment. Now here is an interesting thought, I have yet to see this happen to psychiatry but maybe if we wait long enough you never know. My cynicism knows no bounds when it comes to seeing that prescribing medication gets you extra brownie points in this new world and so maybe this one factor has managed to help psychiatry escape the savagery of the cuts that have befallen all the other professions.

What is clear is that there are private companies taking their share of the money for services by setting up and Siphoning off parts of the resources leaving the rest to fall on a decreasing level of service.

So again I ask, what does being part of the British Psychological Society mean when it doesn’t speak out? Doesn’t it require us to highlight the disparities in access to services at least? And who are we now, pseudo managers of services, supervisors, what happened to scientist practitioner?

Can we at least debate this now?

I would like to hear from our ‘British Psychological Society’.

Dr Wendy Scott C Psychol, CSci, AFBPsS