Sunday, 25 November 2012

If I Had Been Owen Jones

For the first time- ever, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was made to feel the heat. Every journalist had failed, every disabled person was evaded(except for that one encounter with Kaliya Franklin trapping him in the disabled toilet he shouldn't have been in) and when that couldn't be done, it was always off the record. The media were nowhere to be seen to film these encounters with Duncan Smith, or Grayling or Miller. Only Freud has been caught on camera being so inept, but no one in the media seemed to bother much with the committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill.

I have to say though that I do not like Owen Jones' style. On Question Time this week, he did what every other member of the media-class should have already done, rather than treating this most despicable of ministers with gentleness and regurgitating his briefings to them word for word. But I felt unsatisfied. He made Iain Duncan Smith angry and seen to be angry, as in 'lost his temper through lack of self-control' angry rather than 'righteous railing against injustice angry' which is what Jones expressed.

I would have made him scared, and seen to be scared. Or that's just my incredible ego talking. You decide.

Jones' method was to bring up a case recently reported unusually widely in the media- that of the father Brian McArdle, who was found 'fit for work' by Atos after suffering a stroke that paralysed half his body and then dying the very next day after the assessment, and of his 13-year old son Kieron who wrote a letter to Duncan Smith. The response was a template letter that was tone-deaf to the situation. I'm constantly reminded that the public remember stories, not facts and figures. Narratives have the more immediate influence and the McArdle's were a powerful enough story with the few words Jones was allowed to get out to sway at least half of the audience. But I still don't like them(narratives I mean, not the McArdles). I like something that is on an even playing field, even when the opponent keeps cheating- it makes their eventual defeat more absolute. Iain Duncan Smith is a consummate cheat and rule-breaker.

Combining statistics with narrative, he got away with his '2.6 million just parked on benefits and forgot about' again. What ever Jones could have come back with if time had not run out, it would simply have been another piece of one-upmanship, not a rebuttal. A rebuttal means Duncan Smith can never use that gambit publicly again, ever- it's been revealed to be tripe. A clever comeback just means you are showing there are 'two sides to a story' and the public thinks the reasonable ground is somewhere in between them. This however implies that both sides have gone beyond what most would consider reasonable in their public actions. The disclaimer to make is that welfare campaigners do not set policy and do not have the near-automatic access to the national media that the government and supporting think-tanks have: the burden on them should automatically be higher than it is on us.

Even still- on the facts we are consistently right and ministers like Duncan Smith are consistently wrong. The only time they are right is when they are being downright slippery. This makes us the far more trustworthy and reasonable, if we are to interpret this as being two distinct sides in a debate.

Duncan Smith thinks the welfare reforms are not going to cost more than they will save- but the government very deliberately only filled in impact assessment forms(without any evidence of actually assessing impacts) for individual proposals, not for the cumulative effects of all of them. 

Duncan Smith says that '26 thousand pounds a year is hardly impoverishing somebody'. But the government fought very hard in the House of Lords to stop benefits for children being exempted, as it more than halved the already small savings of the benefit cap. Essentially, the cap is targeted at families. Most people do not live with the costs of many children and they think that benefits are so high that each child is a net gain for the household. Rather than tackle that myth, Duncan Smith has exploited it. With both housing and the costs of raising children thrown in, 26 thousand annum is not enough given that circumstances can change rapidly. Let's also not forget that this is based on average income, not average 'earnings' like Duncan Smith stated- working families that have an income like this are usually getting some of it from working benefits themselves, hence the reason why the government exempted those on Working Tax Credits. Pointing out how little money this vindictive policy saves, intended purely to win popularity from a certain demographic and little else, would have disarmed Deborah Meaden's barely coherent point on the need to spend money wisely, without screaming 'the country is not like a company' as I might have.

Disabled people are not exempted from the cap, despite what the Secretary claimed at least three times. Duncan Smith already said that DLA claimants were exempt- this does not by a long shot equate to 'disabled people' unless everyone with a disability is now eligible for DLA. They aren't, they aren't anywhere near. Even with the changes to ESA, DLA remains the hardest benefit to win a claim for and the government intend on narrowing that further when they replace it with PIP.

 And the cherry on the top when the Secretary blew his top. Here's what he said:

"Hold on, we've heard a lot from you..."

we actually didn't, David Dimbleby constantly interrupted Jones throughout the programme.

"I didn't hear you screaming about two and a half million people, who were parked, nobody saw them for ten years, not working, with no hope and no aspiration. We are changing their lives, I'm proud of doing that, getting them off benefit is what we're going to do."

He got applause. Would he if the audience had known it was a complete lie? For most of the last decade the overall claimant count for Incapacity Benefit was around just under 2.6 million. But these were not 2.6 million people on it for a decade- most of them were actually different people. In the narrative Duncan Smith is asserting, 2.6 million people on IB for a decade is only possible if there are absolutely no on-flows, no new people claiming the benefit as well as no one leaving it. Readers of The Files will remember this graph:

No that's not it, sec:

The blue line is ESA and IB claimants combined up to May 2010. The green line is just IB claims. What I pointed out when I first posted this graph was the drop on the green line and how sudden it was beginning from Autumn 2008, when new claims for IB were stopped as ESA was introduced. That sudden drop on the green line is entirely because new claims stopped, that represents the natural off-flow for Incapacity Benefit. I kept tabs on the figures every quarter as they updated and just before the IB-ESA migration trials started, they had settled on around 1.3 million although they were still naturally falling. These aren't people 'parked' on IB, almost all of them leave it because they either go back to work or because they die of the serious illness that was why they were claiming in the first place. They were seeing doctors for treatment quite regularly.

Iain Duncan Smith has defamed millions of people. He has done this to score points and get his way, but in doing so he has rendered British society unable to understand its sick and disabled, effectively alienating them. He has undermined his own government's ability to help us in the process because they refuse to acknowledge just what challenges we actually face in getting work. If he can not represent us accurately, he can not make informed decisions about us and certainly not when he's stonewalled us like he has done.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

As The Secretary Of State Sees Fit

A solicitor has this article up on the Guardian website. This is the most striking part:
"One of the beacons of Britain's modern democracy is its advanced system of judicial review of administration. It is hard to believe now that even in the 1960s, our courts were just about as executive-minded as judges in some non-democratic states, refusing to rock the boat of public policy. If parliament conferred discretionary power on an official in wide terms (such as "to act as he sees fit", or "in the public interest"), then the courts would interpret such a power as the grant of an infinite authority, with which they could not properly interfere."
In case anyone needs reminding, language exactly like this features in the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

The words 'as the Secretary Of State sees fit' now governs eligibility for all income-based benefits within Universal Credit, rather than statutory entitlement.

David Cameron is laying the groundwork to scrap 'redtape', among it the Equality Act 2010. Why? Because the ability of an official to have legally infinite power, restrained only in broadness but not in depth by their office, really is archaic in Britain and is the preserve of less democratic countries in the 21st century. The Welfare Reform Act grants Iain Duncan-Smith that kind of power. The only thing standing in his way is this question: Is it legal?
Almost certainly not, hence the Prime Minister wants to make it legal. I want to highlight that two years ago before I started writing these Files I thought the mission was lost before it had even begun as whilst opposition to the current political consensus on public spending was at first formidable(the Conservative Party in particular managed to decimate their 17 point poll lead in 2009 when they began advertising their economic plan), the distinct groups forming organised public opposition were somewhat distasteful and didn't in my view know what they were doing. I still dislike these 'weekend warriors' and even though hardly anyone would notice a gesture from a tiny blog like mine, I publicly renounced my support for one. One of the more irritating things were the ill-conceived and historically illiterate comparison with the Third Reich that were frequently used.

Two weeks ago, Sue Marsh made this post on her blog. Read it, it makes a comparison with the Third Reich and the current situation facing sick and disabled people in Britain. But there is something in it which is very different from the hysterical comparisons of internet comments. Namely, Sue does not use a broad-brush and still has the insight to understand this is still a generalisation. But it's a very specific one- the comparison is specific and it can be supported or refuted on a very limited number of points without hair-splitting.

When it became clear to me that Pat's petition to halt all changes to benefits for sick and disabled people until after a thorough review of them was going to fail to hit the target before the deadline, even I began making very specific comparisons. At that point there was nothing to lose and the Nazi comparison when done carefully is an effective rhetorical device which says to detractors- "When you have the benefit of hindsight, you will find that we were right".

So here is another comparison: the Prime Minister in numerous speeches and in briefings to journalists has expressed his desire to move the country onto a militaristic footing, in order to secure it's future prosperity and lift it out of a depression. He has called for a change in national attitudes, norms and institutions so that they behave as if the country were in a war against an existential threat. He has successfully kept himself from being implicated in almost anything his government and supporters are criticised for. He has used scapegoats and blamed the nation's problems on them, they have limited means of fighting back. Scores of people are to be forced to work for less than they can survive on, some of them indefinitely. The business-class are carefully courted for support. High-ranking officials are given executive powers which they can exercise as they see fit.

Remind you of any other industrialised western democracy from the last century?

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Record Has A Pro-Welfare Bias

There are two posts I wish to make(doesn't mean I'll succeed) and they are partly a response to events over the weekend. 

Yesterday an interview with the former Families Minister Sarah Teather was published in the Observer. The significant parts of this interview were in regards to her statements about welfare reforms, particularly the benefit cap. The way the mainstream media has treated it would make it seem like a non-event. The way others have treated it suggests otherwise. The main Observer piece online was flooded with comments, a disproportionately large number of which were critical of her. Some were critical of her apparent hypocrisy- she had voiced concerns but very quietly about welfare reform whilst in government. She then abstained from the crucial Commons votes, without actually making it clear whether this was deliberate and even suggesting unconvincingly that there were just scheduling conflicts. These votes were subject to so-called 'three-line whips' where ambitious MPs have their rise threatened and serving ministers almost invariably lose their jobs if they fail to vote with their party. Ministers with seniority even as high as Iain Duncan-Smith are forced to vote against their publicly sworn views on matters when a government risks their reputation on the parliamentary equivalent of an 'all-in' gamble.
Rockets and robots, one might be better, but both is 'all-in' and hedges all resources on a single success

However, an apparently greater number of 'spontaneous' online responses were critical of her for expressing such views at all. Leaving aside the suspicious online response resembling orchestration(basically only one of the articles on the website was flooded with comments, showing a link was being followed and these were not from people who were just browsing the Guardian/Observer website), the response from a 'spokesman for Iain Duncan-Smith'(note it was not reported as a 'DWP spokesman' but the Secretary directly) repeated a familiar talking point:
"The criticisms Sarah Teather is levelling against the government's welfare reforms are hugely misinformed and therefore result in needless scaremongering. It's not fair or right that benefits claimants receive higher incomes than hard-working families who are striving to get on in life. Our reforms bring fairness back to the system while ensuring we support the most vulnerable."
The spokesman does nothing to actually point out what Teather was factually incorrect about. In fact, this statement implies factual inaccuracy without actually accusing her of it. This is a familiar thing for me and it will be familiar also to other Spartacus contributors, researchers, writers and campaigners from other groups. It's familiar to us because this message is not intended for Sarah Teather nor is it intended for the public.

What passive-aggression looks like
It's intended for us. It's meant to bully us, quite intentionally. Ministers aren't the slightest bit scared of the likes of Sarah Teather who are easily dealt with by the rent-a-mobs that have responded online. The most significant political damage has been done by people who's daily lives are often decided by when and where they poo. To be beaten by the best is one thing, you can bow out gracefully. But to be badly beaten and then only to win on technicality, time and time again, by the likes of us who fall to pieces with the slightest upset; it's terrible. Politicians can survive being hated, they rarely survive being made to look ridiculous and that is what the real opposition to government welfare plans have done. So the government responds with constant passive-aggression, dog-whistles and defamation of critics. Assertions, which seem to turn normality upside down, accusations that the victim is to blame.

In this case the assertions are:

1. The fearful are scaremongering.
2. The fact-users are misinformed.
3. The needy are unfair.

These are outrageous, but it is the narrative that is repeated no matter what critics do. It's ministers way of telling us 'We can say whatever we like, you can argue what you like and pile up how ever many mountains of evidence- no one will question us and no one will listen to you until it is too late'. They started doing it around the time that they realised that even if they lost the fight in Parliament over the Welfare Reform Bill, they could win on technicality by citing the arcane and rarely used function of 'financial privilege' despite it being rather questionable that it was primarily a finance bill. Considering the weight politically they put on the benefits cap which was a very small part of it, and wouldn't save much money at all, it's incredible that they got away with it and they never stop rubbing our faces in it.

The record always has the final say
I'm resigned to the despair that it will be far too late before it is widely accepted what the government has actually done, knowing full-well what the consequences would be. The record however still stands. Declan Gaffney pointed out yesterday that the central factual assertion in the spokesman's response is an utter distortion of reality. The re-occurring theme is that almost every claim, argument and prediction made by critics of the welfare reforms has been right even when the evidence was unclear or it was too early for all but the most careless of pundits to make a call. Each and every time the response from the government, directly or indirectly, has been to repeat the same thing- the fearful are scaremongering, the fact-users are misinformed and the needy are unfair to everyone else. They don't change and they don't cough up the contrary evidence, even when they have the means to cherry-pick and skew research.

This week I'll try to bring together some examples. If anyone has any, feel free to share them below.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Remember, Remember....

Today on the Fifth of November I received the provisional rulings regarding the initial 11 points of complaint considered by the Editorial Complaints Unit in regards to The Future State Of Welfare. It's a stinking pile of concentrated ruin, an aborted foetus of reason. Here's a summary of how it came to this.

It's been a point I've raised repeatedly with Andrew Bell. The more errors in a programme, the more the system protects it from complaints. The system works like this:

Stage 1: You make a complaint, a response is made by the complaints department completely denying there is a problem whilst giving a non-apology('we are sorry YOU feel this way'). This becomes the template for stock responses to all versions of that complaint sent in by other viewers. Most complaints were about bias- but there are no clear guidelines on what constitutes bias(the guidelines for impartiality are utterly meaningless and contradictory) meaning it's impossible for this complaint to ever have any hope of redress. Systematic failure to address overtly problematic programmes #1

Stage 1a: Procedure says that substantial complaints must get a response from the programme-makers, however even substantial complaints like mine were subjected to the stock template responses. Procedure as far as I can see was not followed, on the grounds that I had not given my complaint in full- something which would have been impossible because of the enormity of errors and mandatory time and word-limit for complainants. Systematic failure to address overtly problematic programmes #2

Stage 2: If the response from a programme's makers is unsatisfactory(even though as I have been informed, such responses all must be approved by the relevant BBC Exec, in this case it was the Current Affairs head Fiona Campbell) the complaint can now be referred to the Editorial Complaints Unit. Only then will a complainant be informed that complaints can only be considered if they take the form of 'specific points only'. The sheer volume of errors in the programme meant I had to summarise my complaint in it's entirety as 'a lack of factual rigour'. This complaint was not considered at all, instead 11 examples of errors which I had cited previously were considered. Systematic to address overtly problematic programmes #3

Despite this and despite Andrew Bell being quite aware of my difficulties, he said he could 'see no special reason' to deviate from the procedures the system demanded despite my requests. I made an appeal to the Trust...

Appeal: I write my reasons for appealing, highlight the parts of my correspondence so far which are relevant to my case, receive the BBC Trust's interpretation of it and make a comment about what is and isn't accurate. The ECU is allowed to see this, I am not told. They are allowed to make comment on it, I am not told. They are able to shape the Trust's understanding of the matter, I am not. I am given a single opportunity to give input after the decision has been made. It changes only the way in which the decision is presented when released to the public on the complaints website, not the decision itself. My protest about the unreasonableness of still requiring specific points of complaint rather than considering the programme's 'lack of factual rigour' which could easily be investigated by demanding Matchlight's record of research which the charter requires them to make during production. This is not addressed at all- the ECU actually managed to change the parameters of the appeal because they had secret input which I didn't.

This year the complaints website has been re-designed and a review into complaints procedure finish, including in it a desire for complainants and the BBC to be on an equal footing. I was precluded from an equal footing at all times. Systematic failure to address an overtly problematic programme #4

Obligations: I fulfilled my part of the deal under the terms of the Trust ruling and provided the ECU(and it was specified that it would be the ECU) with all the additional points of complaint I could think of. This required a request for more time, a transcript and copy of the programme, which was obliged- the first time that anyone at the BBC had made any accommodations for me as required by the Equality Act. The procedures however don't appear to require this to be followed- where procedures conflict with the Equality Act, the procedures take precedence. Systematic failure to address an overtly problematic programme #5 for anyone who requires reasonable adjustments on disability or sickness grounds.

But it wouldn't have been possible if I had not already been working on a full rebuttal of the programme as a separate project. I had to use vast chunks of text from that. I had also been reassured that I would not need to provide absolute debunkings with full citations of evidence because 'the ECU is very thorough' and can be trusted to do that.

Stage 1??: They did specify that I should send these to the ECU. However, the ECU had been allowed to lobby the Trust in secret to change the parameters that I had very carefully specified as being the basis of my complaint. I was making a protest about the 'specific points only' rule being..

1. Secretive and revealed only after the fact once a complaint advanced to stage 2, despite generally-worded complaints being responded to in stage 1.

2. The Complaints Director's decision that there 'was no special or exceptional case' to deviate from procedures, despite it being made plainly clear that no one person could ever list all the errors in the programme in the time limit following broadcast for complaints to be submitted.

The ECU changed this to being a request to supply further specific points of complaint outside of the time-limit and within a new one. So it was treated as an entirely separate matter. I'd only realised they'd done this when Andrew Bell contacted me to ask if I wanted the original 11 points to be investigated. I shat bricks and then went back to look at the Trust decision and spotted that the ECU had been making arguments which were being mentioned in the Trust's summing up. But they weren't just making arguments- they were making statements in relation to points that I had only made to the Trust, not to the ECU. They had been allowed to see my appeal and make contributions which re-interpreted it to the Trust. This was a strong deviation from the interpretation that I had authorised the Trust to consider.

Being told to send the work I had done to the ECU implied very strongly to me that it was still being treated as a stage 2 complaint. The ECU's manoeuvring allowed them to 'follow procedure' and send it back to stage 1 for a response from the programme-makers. Incidentally, despite me being just one person with complicated issue and them being a production company with it's own legal team, they were given A LOT more time to read and reply to the points than I had initially been granted to research and write it. They still went over their allotted time by one working week, blaming me for providing an e-mail address that they couldn't send their response to; an address I did not ever provide them with and which I had been corresponding with Andrew Bell and Fiona Campbell just fine.

So I instead received the response unexpectedly by post directly from Matchlight. At no point did I consent for anyone at the BBC to share my real name or home address with anyone else. The BBC had managed to give them everything Data Protection forbids, except information about my disability or need for reasonable accommodations because when I asked for an electronic copy I was sent an image-based PDF rather than text-based. If I were Blind, there would be no means for accessibility features to read-out image-based documents to me and I have a similar need for text-based document that I can copy-paste and reformat. Come to think of it, at no point in the complaints process is there any assumption that some will need to utilise accessibility functions. Systematic failure to address an overtly problematic programme #6, applying for anyone with special needs.

Stage 2a: I had repeatedly requested that my complaint be handled by someone other than Mr Bell on the grounds that I believed he was unfit by this time. This was not taken seriously- I made noises about wanting to have contact details about where to send complaints about handling of complaints as Mr Bell was completely unresponsive or dismissive about distress and his virtually transparent attempts to simply get the complaint dropped. Someone from the BBC Trust contacted me and made reassuring noises to drown out my bleating. I responded that Mr Bell had in fact refused flat-out any request to make reasonable accommodations. The response was to abruptly cease correspondence with me, a return to business-as-usual after BBC Trust staff had previously been the only ones to make any accommodations. In the meantime I had panicked about Mr Bell's request as to whether I would want his entirely contrived 11 points investigating.

I feared that Mr Bell was aware I would have difficulty multi-tasking and by splitting these 11 complaints from the 55 I slogged out following the Trust ruling would mean the confusion would finally make me just give up. If I said yes then it would cement his perverse manipulation of my appeal and overburden me with information all at once. If I said no, he might fudge the matter and intentionally 'misinterpret' this to also mean the larger 55 points. My opinion of him was as low as it was ever going to get, so I would put nothing past him. Saying yes meant I could still fight, saying no carried the risk of it all ending- the consequence either way being a bullet in the mouth before Christmas.

In any case, pursuing a proper complaint about Mr Bell and all others meant going back to the BBC Trust. Mr Bell had been able to unduly influence them before just as the programme-makers have been allowed to unduly influence the supposedly 'constitutionally independent' Editorial Complaints Unit now. I had already agreed to the ECU investigating the 11 points of complaint separately when this came up and determined that I would definitely not be able to juggle three separate branches of over-lapping complaints with the BBC and Andrew Bell knew it. Having previously stonewalled on complaints about him, he only referred it to someone at the BBC Trust when I already had too much on my plate.

During the investigation Mr Bell got back to me about the timescale and dropped that the programme-makers were being asked things about the points. I objected because obviously this rendered their stage 1 responses and thus my rejection of them redundant. I pointed out that the recent review into the complaints process had expressed a desire to make sure complainants and the BBC were on an equal footing throughout- I was not being given the same say in matters as the programme-makers who had already fluffed repeated opportunities to make their case. Mr Bell responded that the programme-makers have no avenue of appeal whilst I did. The irony hanged thick in the air. Every 'next step' I had taken in the process had disadvantaged me, it had drained me, my points were interpreted through the harshest and most dismissive lens whilst they(Matchlight) were given the benefit of the doubt and the broadest doors at every turn.

The ECU also don't get an avenue to appeal, it didn't stop them utterly distorting it so that even when I won, I still lost. Mr Bell has repeatedly cited procedure but there is nowhere a member of the public can actually see the procedure beforehand- you only know it's there and what it does after it's been slipped into your bum. Like an ice cream scoop. I would only get my say once the investigation was over. The decisions would be provisional but it didn't matter- the investigation at this point is over. One reason I had agreed to it was because I wanted an outlier, a canary to warn me what lies ahead when the investigation into the larger points of complaint is concluded.

The future's bright: it's a bonfire of the Truth. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Our Survey Says...Autism

Back in August the DWP released a small but significant piece of internal research. It can be read here but it includes a graphic that astounded me. This is it. 

There will be some first impressions when you look at itI didn't actually read the paper properly before I spotted this, so my first impression was "Is this something about the government's invented 120,000 troubled families?". That was mainly because I was looking at the larger words first.

The study was a survey of Jobcentre staff and they were asked about clients with complex needsNamely, they were asked to list what they consider to be complex needs that they've encountered. With that information I looked at the word-wall again and reinterpreted it, but it confounded my expectations. The major words there are ones which politicians and media outlets paint as simplistic, often proscribing very simple and direct solutions. They do this with the benefit of no-experience.

Jobcentre staffburdened by actual experience and having direct contact with such people disagree. They say these are people with complex needs.

What is most personally important to me, is one of the medium-sized responses. Only about 1 in 100 people are estimated to be Autistic and still there are many adults who are not recognised. But 'autism spectrum' is there. Notice that mental health and learning difficulties are generalised- no specific diagnoses under those umbrellas is mentioned. But Autism is. There are lots of reasons why it shouldn't be, but it is. The research says it's not only punching above its weight as a sign of complex needs- it's growing.

There remains no statutory Autism-specific service provision in the United Kingdom. The discrepancy between need and support can not remain if policy-makers finally start realising vast potential is being poured away.