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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.)

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