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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

'Not so smart': Dr David Webster responds to Policy Exchange

David Webster, a leading authority on UK benefit sanction statistics, has responded to last month’s report by the Policy Exchange think tank (Smarter Sanctions: Sorting out the system).
A copy of Webster’s report can be found at the website of Conditionality *here (you have to scroll down to the bottom of the blog entry for the link).
Webster has consistently rejected sanctions, but in his latest report he also draws attention to the criminalising language increasingly used when referring to claimants by organisations like Policy Exchange (PE).
He highlights the way PE frames the debate through words like:
‘offences’, ‘failures’, transgressions’
He points to their use of 'throw away' phrases about sanctioned claimants such as 
 ‘serial and deliberate breach’ or ‘failure to meet their responsibilities,’ 
It is important that Webster emphatically refuses to accept this way of framing the debate. In doing so he shows how this kind of language has come to define the debate about benefit conditionality, sanctions, welfare reform and unemployment more generally.
Obviously you should read Webster’s response in full at Conditionality
But below is a smattering of quotes from it.

On Policy Exchange's uncritical use of criminalising language about claimants
‘The Coalition has changed the official language used in referring to sanctions in such a way as to imply that sanctioned claimants are in effect a type of criminal… Thus we read of ‘offences’, ‘failures’, transgressions’, ‘serial and deliberate breach’, ‘failure to meet their responsibilities’, and the like. The Policy Exchange report adopts this language uncritically, and adds to it… In what follows it has not been possible to avoid using the language of ‘offence’ and ‘punishment’ in reporting what the Policy Exchange has said, but it is important to bear the above points in mind.’
On PE's dodgy decision to focus on the 68,000 wrongly sanctioned for the first time
‘[Policy Exchange’s] identification of first-time ‘lower-level’ ‘offenders’ as the only claimants who should be treated less harshly is odd’
 Because it leaves out:
·      'second and subsequent time lower level ‘offenders’ including successful appellants
·      all intermediate and higher level ‘offenders’, whether first-time or not and whether successfully appealing or not.'
‘There is no justification for the [sic] Policy Exchange proposal to treat these groups less favourably… Repeat ‘offenders’ are just as likely as first-timers to be wrongly sanctioned. Wrongly sanctioned people with a previous ‘offence’ should not be treated less favourably than wrongly sanctioned first timers. The report does not attempt to justify this discrimination, which presumably arises from an implicit assumption that an‘offence’ renders a claimant ‘undeserving’ and that as a result they should forfeit their right to justice.’ 
‘The report does not offer any justification for treating ‘higher’ and ‘intermediate’ ‘offenders’ less favourably than ‘lower’ offenders. It appears simply to have accepted these distinctions uncritically at face value. But this categorization did not exist until
October 2012.’

On PE's failure to engage with sanctioned claimants or the qualitative research about them
It is striking that the Policy Exchange report makes very little reference to the British literature on the difficulties of sanctioned claimants. Instead, references are mainly to US literature on ‘workfare’, revealing the Policy Exchange’s political preferences and connections. A reading of the British literature would show that there are considerable objections to both of the proposed more ‘compassionate’ penalties.’
I'll add that the voice of sanctioned claimants was totally absent from Policy Exchange's report. Not a single claimant was interviewed for it. How can sensible policy be made at such social distance?

On the idea that a ‘yellow card’ be issued to people wrongly sanctioned for the first time
This proposal is modelled on the ‘Azure card’ issued to asylum seekers denied leave to remain. The British Red Cross is calling for this to be abolished, a fact of which the Policy Exchange appears unaware. The implied withdrawal of full citizenship recalls the overt removal of citizenship rights introduced for workhouse inmates by the 1834 Poor Law. The report itself states (pp.6, 33, 36) that the card would work partly through ‘social pressure’, in other words sanctioned claimants would be publicly shamed, even when they are subsequently found to have done nothing wrong at all… Given the shame involved in using the card, it seems likely that only claimants in dire need of money would opt to pick it up, and for many, there would thus be a reduced incentive to ‘re-engage’. The report itself (p.10, note 17) references a case where a teacher was wrongfully sanctioned for attending a job interview which took place at the same time as her signing-in time. An offer of a ‘yellow card’ would not only make such a person justifiably very angry; it would also most likely be rejected.’
Daily signing-on is an issue in the news this week, it is an integral part of the DWP’s so-called ‘Help to Work’ initiative. Aside from the cost in time and money of making people sign-on daily, Webster says the idea: 
has a strong resemblance to the oakum-picking of the nineteenth-century workhouse – a deliberately purposeless activity, designed to depress and humiliate.'
 ‘Again, the [sic] Policy Exchange proposes that this penalty should be applied to people who are blameless.' 
On punishment

Here I think we get to the nub of what conditionality and sanctions are all about, especially when considered alongside the criminalising language already referred to. There is no evidence that sanctions lead to sustainable non-precarious employment. What is certain is that sanctions are effective at disciplining people.
But a central strand of PE’s argument was that sanctions simply are not strong enough.
'The report does not cite any empirical evidence in support of its proposal to add further progression of penalties beyond 13 weeks for a third or subsequent lower level ‘failure’. It says (pp. 10-11) that ‘more needs to be done to prevent this group of individuals’ – a ‘hard core of claimants’ – ‘consistently wasting time and resources’. Sanctions should be ‘more punitive for those who are repeatedly attempting to avoid the conditionality regime’ (p.7). The harsher progression ‘would increasingly shift the most troublesome cases onto more punitive sanctions’ and ‘should help provide a more extensive punishment for those who consistently abuse this system’ (p.37).'

But, counters Webster:
‘The evidence shows that the great majority of claimants are doing their best to find work, and that Jobcentres contribute little of value to their search. For them, what the sanctions system often does is to enforce contrived and pointless actions which bring no actual benefit to anyone.’

‘The report is quite open about its belief in punishment: sanctions’ ‘purpose is twofold; attempting to ensure compliance with the conditionality regime, and’ (emphasis added) ‘punishing noncompliant behaviour’ (p.6). This position is clearly different from that of more moderate advocates of sanctions, such as Gregg (2008), whose report does not mention the words ‘punishment’ or ‘punish’ at all.’

‘There appears to be no evidence that heavy sanctions are more efficacious than mild ones.’

In conclusion:

'the obvious solution is not the report’s proposal to treat wrongly sanctioned people supposedly less harshly, but to ensure that sanctions are not wrongly applied in the first place…

‘Added to the pre-existing problems, there is now a deliberate policy on the part of ministers to drive up the level of sanctions to previously unheard-of levels.'
‘Sanctions should simply be abolished.’

*Conditionality is a project attached to York University, part funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that is at the start of an ambitious round of qualitative research into ‘Conditionality’).

Teachable moments: the Greens and 'framing' (urgh)

Greens are annoyed that UKIP gets so much media coverage, but are there questions to ask about the party’s own record of missed PR opportunities?
First off, this piece is intended to be comradely. I have criticisms to make about the Green Party, but I have no interest in smearing it or its members. I am lucky enough to live in Caroline Lucas MP’s constituency and will vote for her in 2015.
But I think the party has a problem getting its message out and I want to warn against a purely defensive posture of crying ‘journalistic bias’ for the failure to cut through in the media.
For me, this piece by Matt Hawkins and Clare Phipps in theEcologist illustrated just such an approach. I’d also cite Natalie Bennett’s comments in this interview with Novara Media.
In the interview she explains the reasoning behind the Green’s tactical decision not to visit flooded areas, such as Somerset, earlier this year to explain the party’s policies on extreme weather and climate change. Finally, I want to flag up commentsmade by Neal Lawson of Compass, again to Novara Media, which I think give a tiny (though I can’t judge how well-informed) insight into things going on behind the scenes Green Party HQ during the floods. I cite Neal’s comments because I wonder if they highlight an organisational weakness of the party in reacting to breaking news whilst simultaneously campaigning for re-election. 
First off, let me caveat that I think our media strongly manifests the social relations latent in a developed, western capitalist society, its norms and ethics etc. In addition, I think it is true that as the primary gatekeeper to public opinion, the BBC reflects the same norms and ethics and, to compound matters, is more open to the established parties of power.
In these circumstances it is inevitable that a party with a critique of capitalism at its root, and which is not considered a party of power, will struggle to influence the media agenda.
In response, the Greens have to be opportunistic and savvy.
Last winter significant parts of the UK were flooded. In response, politicians (including UKIP) and the world’s media flocked to places like Somerset to witness whole villages underwater, homes ruined by the deluge, lives turned upside down by extreme weather.
The coverage was emotionally affecting and it engaged many people. The pictures, interviews and words helped people like me (safe and sound in Brighton) to empathise with the plight of those affected. You would need a heart of stone not to feel something when confronted with such footage.
Now, this is what the media is spectacularly good at: knocking on doors, finding human-interest stories and re-telling them to a wide audience (a few excellent reporters are able to go further and transform ‘topics’ into stories as well).
But the coverage also prompted me (and presumably many others) to think more abstractly about what might have caused the floods in the first place and to consider ‘what needs to be done’ to stop them happening again.
In short, the coverage provided an opportunity to ‘frame’ the debate about climate change. There… I said it, that horribly vogue-ish liberal word: ‘framing’. Now, before I go on, I’ll put on record my hunch that ‘framing’ is a bit overplayed in some quarters. It is a PR tactic, nothing more, it is not a grand theory of political communication or change, it is a tool. It is based on the very simple idea that if you want to explain something to a person (or audience), you must do it in a way they can relate to ‘start where they are’. Framing provides for a ‘teachable moment’, if you will.
People often talk about the value of ‘story telling’ as a component of framing. But it’s really the mechanics of story telling that enable an idea to be framed, the metaphors, analogies and similes intrinsic to story telling that allow an abstract argument to come to life.
Remember sitting on the rug in class at infant school? Remember how the teacher would often end by rhetorically asking: ‘and the moral of that story is…?’
Well… that.
Now, all adults (apart from the malignant narcissists and psychopaths among us) can relate emotionally to the experience of a family flooded out of their home. We have a sense of what it would be like for us if, by bad luck, we were faced with the same situation. This emotional engagement can provide a bridge to more abstract knowledge, for example, it can help us to relate the science of climate change to actual, concrete social events.
When a parent lays out Smarties in order to teach a kid to count, they are framing. They are using something the child understands and can relate to (food they enjoy eating) as a stepping stone to something more abstract, in this case, mathematics (See my clever use of metaphor there?)
This is not rocket science (heh heh) just a sensible, empathic way of teaching (heh  heh heh heh).
So why, when all the word’s media and its dog, was in Somerset filming the deluge, did the Green Party stay in London? Why opt for a press conference at the Thames barrier when the teachable moment was in a Somerset field? Was the Thames barrier a better device for framing than the visceral depiction of flooding’s concrete impact on actual human lives?
The Green Party has no right to own climate change as a campaign issue, but it has a better claim to being authentic on this issue than any other party. And whilst it is crucial to have a well-argued and rational set of policies about flooding, this is not enough. People need to find their own way to connect with policy, they don’t always connect on the basis of a rational and well argued proposition, although, in principle, I they can. To avoid losing such people, you need a teachable moment: every policy should have a metaphor, a simile, some ‘Smarties’ that will allow people to make their own connections between it and their own, concrete, lived reality.
Infographics do this job, they provide a visual metaphor for abstract statistical facts. Human-interest stories in the media do the same job, that’s why any campaigning charity worth its salt maintains a network of people (aka ‘case studies’) to advocate for and illustrate their research.
Sadly, as Neal Lawson points out, it is likely that the intensification of climate change will lead to many more ‘teachable moments’ like the Somerset floods. I hope the Green Party plans to be chief lecturer next time around.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The rot at the root of the Mail's anti-foodbank campaign must be challenged

‘Foodbank’ is a word now synonymous with economic recovery in the UK.
So it was only a matter of time before the Mail on Sunday decided to do a hatchet job on one. It was heartening to see a strong backlash against the story.
But aside from this, what is it in our collective psyche that makes it possible to believe that there really are people out their vying to rip off foodbanks?
I have a feeling that it is this assumption that the Mail and poverty porn producers like 'Love Productions' feed on. 
The following exchange I had with a well-meaning Labour councillor in Brighton illustrates what I mean.
(NB - Emma seems to be a decent and compassionate politician who has done a lot to support foodbanks in Brighton and to highlight the issues surrounding them).
Has anyone ever ripped off a foodbank? If they have, does it matter? If we don't question this assumption then, notwithstanding the backlash, the Mail wins.
At this level it has successfully ensured the continued stigmatisation of social security claimants and poor people generally by fuelling the notion that foodbank users contain amongst their users individuals who will rip off charities for material gain.
The Mail is like a malignantly narcissistic abuser, it excels at projecting the evil at its own heart onto everything around it. 
David Wearing puts it into ideological context. 
It's not enough to condemn what the Mail did, we also need to contest the malignancy at the root of it.  The widely held notion that people are fundamentally dishonest, selfish free-riders is what drives the Mail’s reporting and strikes a chord with readers. This has to be challenged.