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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).