Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Policy Exchange: Smearing the poor from the safety of a spreadsheet.

This week's Policy Exchange report on sanctions has won plaudits after seeming to add to the criticism of the government’s regime of benefit conditionality.
I have to say I’m not really convinced by what some might think is a mea culpa by the think tank. Afterall, they practically wrote the policy on sanctions in the first place.
But before I go into the detail of the report, I want to draw attention to how Policy Exchange has managed to ‘frame’ its report in the media and on Twitter. The spin is that 70,000 * people have been wrongly sanctioned. The media has duly reported this line in a way that implies PE is critical of sanctions, when implacably it is not. This is misleading (a) because on it's own terms the figure is probably wrong, see DPAK here (although the actual number could turn out to be lower) and (b) it's a daft figure as it only represents the number of so-called first time 'offenders' subjected to low level sanctions. Why just focus on them? It's also totally misleading of PE to imply that these 70,000 people represent the totality of wrongly sanctioned claimants, as PE's website does. The true number of people wrongly sanctioned is much higher, perhaps as high as 144,000 a year, if you only include successful appeals. But even that figure is probably an underestimate, because not everyone appeals. 
A common tactic employed by think tanks these days, is to engage elements of the media that ought, in principle, to be opposed to their own ideological position. It is the kind of ruse that saw the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) whip up a media storm in the Telegraph last year over proposals to remove unemployment benefits from the under 25s. It later saw IPPR's media team go into rebuttal mode, this time with more conventional media allies, after the Telegraph got first bite.  
Similarly right now there is 'heat' in the sanctions story. It’s a good opportunity for a think tank like Policy Exchange to intervene in the public discourse and trail other ideas such as the introduction of smart card benefit payments. By initially framing its intervention within the controversy about the number of people wrongly sanctioned, it gets a good bite at the cherry in the liberal left media. The fact this appears to be a stance that is critical of the government’s policy of sanctions is enough to get the Guardian, Mirror and assorted left-liberal commentators on-board. But it will be worth keeping an eye out for a mini backlash from the Telegraph, Spectator et al focussing on the more controversial, authoritarian recommendations being made in this report.
Anyway, I digress.
Let’s not forget that this is a politically committed think tank. It is 100% in favour of benefit conditionality and sanctions, indeed, the present government’s policy was practically written by Policy Exchange. If you want more evidence of the symbiotic relation between PE ideas and government policy, one could also cite Matthew Oakley. Oakley is the "independent” economist appointed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to review the way sanctions are communicated to claimants. Oakley used to work for Policy Exchange (quelle surprise!!) and was the author of two Policy Exchange reports on conditionality / sanctions back in 2011! (Donkey passim).
Furthermore, read the report itself. It’s a brilliant example of a what I understand to be a ‘supply side’ approach to unemployment: a cold, abstract, economistic approach to benefit ‘reform’ penned from the safety of a spreadsheet.
Most crucially, in a report full of sleight of hand, mendacity and cynicism, there is something completely missing from it: people. The people left destitute, angry and broken by a policy that Policy Exchange itself dreamed up.  Not a single sanctioned claimant is interviewed in the report. Not a single unemployed claimant has been spoken to. They are merely numbers. People reduced to abstraction.
Work conducted in this kind of bubble makes for bad policy. It also leaves the report author feeling confident enough to smear claimants.
I think Page 27 is particularly snarky, I will quote it at length:
‘One of the main post-sanction issues is the financial hardship which can result from sanctions being imposed. There are two sides to this argument. On the one hand there are claims that the loss of JSA can cause hardship for families, with the marginal amount lost being problematic if alternative sources of finance are not found. On the other, there are at least some reports of the sanction forming a small enough portion of income that the claimant did not notice it being imposed.’ (my italics).
I had to read that passage several times before I could bring myself to believe the author had committed it to paper. I doubt any of the claimants left without food or money to pay their bills would view the sanctions they received as ‘marginal’. And I think most sanctioned claimants would rightly consider it a smear to allege that they don't even notice they've been sanctioned (the ‘evidence’ for this smear is based on the author’s particular interpretation of a study of the effects of sanctions on lone parents published in 2008 in a completely different economic, social and policy world).
But the most glaring problem with this report, and it is related to the problem of social distance alluded to in the section quoted above, is its inconsistency. The report’s premise is that sanctions are necessary. But the report author keeps bumping up against the uncomfortable fact that sanctions do not work in anything like a sustainable or reasonable way.
At best, in the report’s view, sanctions ‘discipline’ people:
‘… sanctions are to some extent fulfilling their purpose as the ‘enforcement’ arm of a conditionality regime, with the emphasis being on compliance with requirements related to directly seeking work.’
 And there's evidence sanctions tend to drive people off benefits:
‘In Delaware “controlling for other factors... clients under sanction in a given month were twice as likely as non-sanctioned clients to leave the rolls in the following month. The effect of sanctions on welfare exit increased exponentially with each additional month the sanctions continued.”’
But sanctions don’t lead to sustainable employment outcomes:
‘Many of the conclusions on sanctions relate to compliance or exit rather than finding secure and stable employment. Indeed, as the Delaware study warned:“After receiving sanctions, many more clients left welfare than cured their sanctions.”’
Sanctions deliver poor social outcomes:
‘The fact that conditionality runs the risk of both worsening the position of the most vulnerable and reinforcing disadvantage, is evidently an issue.’
So, what is to be done? Well, it’s easy… sanction more people. The report recommends that the DWP should:
  • Threaten the 70,000 wrongly sanctioned claimants by issuing them with a ‘yellow card’ warning them that they will be at risk of being sanctioned in future.
  •  Restrict the spending choices of the 70,000 wrongly sanctioned claimants by giving them ‘benefit cards’ that limit what they can buy, instead of sanctioning them.
  • Exponentially increase the length of sanctions.
  • Make people sign-in every day
  • Try to find out why so many people leave the benefit system after being sanctioned.
  • Ensure that in-work conditionality is applied (in other words, dock housing benefit, see my story for Inside Housing here.)

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

'Unjust and Uncaring': Live Tweeting a report about benefit sanctions

Over the course of three days this week I have been ‘live tweeting’ a devastating report into sanctions by the Citizens Advice Bureau in West Dunbartonshire.
Citzens Advice centres around the UK have been doing an excellent job of covering the issue of sanctions, but this report struck me as different and I wanted to make sure it was widely shared.
The ‘factional’ live tweets of @immigrant_X @immigrantY and @immigrant_Z in recent weeks have made me think about the creative potential using Twitter to challenge ideological beliefs through fiction.
And, when he first started up, I was riveted by @peterjukes use of the medium to reproduce the drama of the ‘Hacking Trial.’
So I was moved to try something different from the traditional link-to-story approach that I generally use on Twitter. There are so many demands on people’s attention, that I doubt many get to engage with a full report like this.
I wanted to get people to engage with the report’s subject matter over the course of 100 or so 149 character tweets.
I cut and pasted a good selection of the report, not just the best bits, but enough to give the full picture without losing readers. I think it was a success.
Anyway, here's a link to the Twitter feed.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

That moment when...The Wesminster bubble is spiked by reality.

One thing that struck me about this exchange on Channel 4 News yesterday (11 Feb) was its unwitting illustration of the social distance characterized by the metaphor of the ‘Westminster bubble’.
For me the journalists doing the best work on social policy right now are those who are able to pop this bubble, and in doing so, throw abstract policy into stark relief to the lived reality of those on the receiving end.
The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman is brilliant at this kind of reporting, as is Dawn Foster. Their work stands out because people are central to their stories. The ‘human interest’ angles they concoct attempt to bridge the social distance that exists between policy and reality.
Poppy Noor's exchange with Work and Pensions Select Committee Member, Nigel Mills MP, had the same effect. It brought the government’s plan to strip young people of their right to housing benefit up against reality.
Furthermore, it's worth noting Mr Mill’s ‘caught-in-a-headlight’ response:
'Well… this is just an idea… Er, we haven’t done all the detail on this yet.'
The implication being that, at some point, all the detail will be done.
But the idea of stripping benefit from the under-25s isn’t a new one is it? In fact, the Conservatives have been ‘flying a flag’ for this particular idea since at least summer 2012. I know this because, during that very same summer, I attended a lobby of parliament organized by a group of young homeless people from Essex whose foyer home will become unaffordable should a future government decide to cut housing benefit for the under-25s.
At that event, two summers ago, I listened to another Tory MP make the same (at that point credible) excuse for the policy: 
'Er… it’s just an idea… Er, we haven’t done the detail on this yet.'
It begs the questions: At what point will the detail be done? Isn’t it incumbent on a lawmaker who sits on the Work and Pensions Select Committee to get informed about the concrete effects such a policy is likely to have?
Once again we are back to the yawning gap between the political class and society at large. To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with MPs. I’ve witnessed the same chasm between abstract policy and lived reality at most of the think tank events I’ve attended. I’ve felt it in conversations I’ve had with some charities, I’ve seen it at select committees, at the job centre etc.
It was vividly illustrated recently by the Department for Work and Pensions' decision to appoint a former Policy Exchange economist, Matthew Oakley, as the person best placed to carry out a review of the way benefit sanctions are enforced (or, to be exact, the way the sanctions are “communicated” to unemployed people).
Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that Oakley was himself influential in convincing the DWP to adopt harsher rules on benefit conditionality in the first place (See ‘No Rights Without Responsibility’ – Oakley & Saunders 2011 and ‘Something for Nothing’ - Doctor & Oakley 2011)*. And ignore, if you will, the fact that the conditionality rules themselves are not up for discussion as part of this supposed 'review of sanctions'.  Instead, consider Oakley’s CV and judge for yourself whether he is likely to understand the reality of the impact his abstract policy prescriptions have on people’s lives or employment prospects.
Dr David Webster of Glasgow University, makes the point vividly in his response to the ‘Oakley Review’

'The reviewer [Matthew Oakley] appointed in September 2013 apparently has some twelve years of work experience, exclusively in backroom roles, split between the Treasury and a politically committed ‘think tank’ (Policy Exchange).  His recent appointment to the Social Security Advisory Committee (January 2013) and move to Which? in October 2013 will as yet have done little to broaden this experience. Contrast, for instance, the case of William Beveridge, who prior to attempting to influence national policy went at the age of 24 to work at the Toynbee Hall settlement in the east end of London, where he found out a great deal about unemployment and unemployed people at first hand.'
FFffffffffffffffffffffrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttt *makes sound of Westminster bubble deflating*

*I'm indebted to Dr Webster for these references.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Stuff I've read and watched recently that's well worth checking out.

1 – ‘Why a War on the Poor.’ This blog from Autumn 2013 by US-based philosopher Dan Little is an eye opener for those wanting an explanation of the mendacity that right wingers have towards the poor.
The US-focused piece covers the well-trodden ideological elements of the argument, but it also points to sociological evidence such as the social distance that exists in unequal societies between lawmakers, civil servants and ‘real’ poor people (echoes of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ metaphor). One could also quite easily include journalists, think tankers and some charities in that equation too. Race is also covered.
I think the value of this blog piece is the fact that Little is pointing to multidisciplinary research that could be of use to campaigners and organisers working in this field. I also intuitively feel that the US's relentlessly right-wards lurch is accelerating in the UK too.
He finishes the blog with a question that is becoming ever more germane to the UK: 'Why aren’t poor people able to fight back against this right wing assault? He links to this.

2 - Relatedly, and again from last year, this Crisis / Fabians report: ‘Home Truths’, is a good piece of research and ‘focus groupery’ that can inform ideas about public attitudes to poverty, including lay attitudes to justice and fairness. Worth a read.

3 – I enjoyed this critique of Osbornomics by Tony Yates in the Guardian this week. Part of the ongoing debate between austerians and Keynsians over which plan (A? B? or C?) the chancellor is currently lauding.

4 - In the week that London Underground workers brought London to a standstill, I was prompted by Twitter to re-read this excellent piece on ‘bullshit jobs’ by David Graeber

 5 – Finally, watch this amazing, surreal footage by a courageous (crazy) Ukranian reporter during the recent riots (trigger warning, scenes of violence).

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

New sanctions figures out on in February

The number of unemployed people in Brighton being punished for not finding a job is going up, despite the number of people out of work going down, figures uncovered by Hit the Donkey, can reveal.

Job Centre staff across Sussex ordered the removal of people’s benefits on more than 7,000 occasions between October 2012 and June 2013, the latest period for which figures are available from the Department for Work and Pensions.

(Ed - Up-to-date figures are due to be released by the DWP in February. Watch this space for an update).

The department’s increased focus on attaching ‘conditions’ to people’s unemployment benefit resulted in the number of sanctions dished out, by Brighton Job Centre, leap by more than 400% in a single month between October and November 2012. Similar increases occurred at job centres elsewhere in the area and the level of sanctions has stayed roughly stable ever since, the figures show.

Brighton Pavillion MP, Caroline Lucas, has previously called on the coalition and
Labour opposition, who are both committed to sanctions, to agree to a proper review after listening to residents detail a catalogue of bizarre and often callous justifications for issuing sanctions in the first place.

Speaking in Parliament in March last year she told the story of a 58-year-old female constituent, who had been unemployed for seven months and told me she would be sanctioned because she could not afford the cost of a 21-mile round trip to work for a charity shop in Worthing. The woman offered to work in the same shop in Brighton, but the Job Centre would not allow it.

Lesley Ashley (Donkey passim), 27, a Chef who lives between Brighton and London, was sanctioned at Christmas last year (2012). As a consequence of his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) being cut, his housing benefit was cut as well. The job centre did not inform him that the sanction could affect his housing benefit too.

In and out of zero-hours contract work Leslie was sanctioned after he didn’t receive a letter from his Work Programme provider A4E and, as a result, missed an appointment.
After six weeks the job centre agreed to overturn the sanction, he got his housing benefit restored and had his arrears cleared.

He said: “The sanction had been applied wrongly, which I told them, but although it was not my fault I was warned ‘don’t to do it again’.”