Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Challenging Behaviourists

It's hard to describe other people as odd or irrational when you have no means of comparison other than your perception of yourself. If everyone in the world seems to be crazy and you feel that you are sane, you have no independent way of checking whether that is really the case. Some in this situation might feel the right response is to try and make others more like themselves and dictate their behaviour. My youngest niece is like this.

For an Autistic child it's more often a different approach; I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone. This is an entirely rational compromise, but it's always broken by non-Autistics and we show great patience in constantly tolerating it. But we still have to manage the stress of it and the effect it has on our ability to perceive and process the world around us, which quite often invites yet more unwarranted and unwelcome interference as our coping consists mainly of instinctive self-stimulation or 'stimming'.

This perspective on things is repeated by many Autistic adults who recollect their experiences as children. The participation of Autistics has driven Autism research forwards in ways that could never have happened in the days when Autistics were universally excluded from any form of meaningful participation in matters that affect us. In many places this rights-free consensus still has a tight grip and some of the foremost advocates of it are those who promote the use of Applied Behavioural Analysis in training Autistics. Some things need to be noted about behaviourists before moving on: they do not contribute to Autism research, they do not read Autism research, they are not qualified to make authoritative or sweeping statements about Autism and their research exists almost entirely to promote the use of Behavioural Analysis, not learn about the subjects it is used on. Behaviourists are also notoriously defensive, even downright legally aggressive- beware making any comment that can be construed as defamatory because you almost certainly do not have the resources to protect yourself and neither do I. On the inverse, behaviourists respond to criticism in a very extreme and atypical way, occasionally the response goes as far as being personally defamatory of the specific person who has criticised them. Stronger criticism has been made of cognitive psychologists, psycho-analysts and neurologists in their work on Autism: none of which ever respond in the manner that behaviourists do to the comparatively mild criticism they receive. That criticism is not only mild when contrasted with what exists in other fields, but also when you consider the extent of what behaviourists get away with in their blind march into Autism; things which would land anyone else in court. They get away with this because they've created a different environment for themselves with very different standards- legally, ethically and scientifically and Autism is the golden goose for them because Autistics are so marginalised within what should be their own movement for equal rights and dignity. If you are 'too Autistic' then you are said to not be capable of participation, but if you are 'mildly Autistic' you are said to be not qualified to speak meaningfully about the experience of those who are 'severely Autistic'. No explanation is ever given for why these standards are not applied to non-Autistics, who do not concern themselves with learning anything about Autism broadly. Behaviourists frequently create Autism myths and then try to explain how their craft works based on those myths; but they do not know enough about Autism to make such statements.

This was still the basis of the BBC4 programme 'Autism: Challenging Behaviour' where a false balance is presented of there being 'two sides among experts' on the issue of whether ABA is right for training Autistics. Nowhere in the programme was it mentioned that if you are an Autism expert, you are very likely to be against ABA and if you are not an Autism expert you are more likely to be uncritical of ABA. Behaviourists are very far from being Autism experts. Most of their 'understanding' repeats the words of Ivor Lovaas, who in the field of Autism research is cited by- absolutely no one, except in criticism. We're offered various pearls of wisdom about Autism from behaviourists, such as a repeat of Lovaas' canard that Autistics lack the 'skills to learn' and ABA 're-wires the brain'. The people that make these claims are not at all experts in Autism, neurology or even learning. To understand what is believed in mainstream science about how Autistics learn, I recommend this paper by actual Autism researchers.

The programme was breath-takingly kind to the behaviourists, with a single token 'villain' for us to boo at and for the nice accredited behaviourists to distance themselves from. Gunner Frederiksen however, is a mainstream behaviourist with mainstream views on Autism. That there exists behaviourists, usually running ABA schools who use a different tone and present their work and intent differently is a response to market forces and anticipation of bad publicity. It has nothing to do with scientific developments or natural ethical progression from within their field. Where these pressures do not exist, behaviourists are all Gunner Frederiksens. Even then he is gifted with a wonderfully unbalanced segment where we are introduced to his 'greatest success' in Sweden. I'd be more interested in his failures. Near the beginning some footage is shown from the early days of ABA in Autism, but it's very tame compared with the reality of what was going on and there is no exploration at all into the matter of how Autistics actually learn well. The work and legacy of Ivor Lovaas is not addressed at all, but he's the dirty skeleton in the behaviourist closet. The most successful study of ABA in Autism comes from his landmark 1987 paper and the results of this have never been replicated. They can't be replicated either because this study relied extensively on the use of punishments, but to describe it as 'punishment' puts it quite mildly. At the University of California and Berkely, Lovaas doused children in icy water, made them stand in uncomfortable positions, starved them, slapped them, blew loud noises directly into their ears, pinched them, pulled their hair, slammed them down and made them walk barefoot on an electrified floor. He tortured them.

How do behaviourists respond to Lovaas being used as a stick against them? In two ways- they deny that what they do is anything like what Lovaas did yet it took changes in the law to actually make behaviourists stop; Behavioural Analysis in Autism changes based on external pressures like this, not from any internal development. Where it is still legal- behaviourists still do things which would be illegal if done to anyone who was non-Autistic outside of an ABA setting. Again, behaviourists just insist that what they do is different from that. The second way they react is this: they then give awards to the very same groups they have distanced themselves from and never fail to provide whatever support to their colleagues who are taken to court: the Judge Rottenberg Center in Massachusetts is named after the same man who ruled that the school could stay open and deny Autistics basic human rights and dignity. The case was won because of the overwhelming support of the mainstream behavioural analysis industry reassuring Rottenberg that the practices of the school were normal, ethical(for Autistics) and mainstream, as well as parents enthusiastic about ABA.

Where they can get away with it; they do it. It makes their sentiments about 'nice ABA' utterly empty and where they are genuine in their sentiments- they do not get to choose what ABA is about. They can only choose whether they do it or don't do it; the consequences are what gets the final word, yet there is no qualitative research into adult outcomes for children who have received ABA. In fact there is very little qualitative research at all, despite it being the responsibility of research behaviourists to produce it. They instead focus their efforts on justifying the use of ABA. Looking at the literature, despite Lovaas' results never being replicated- you never notice ABA ever failing(by performing worse than the comparison controls, for subjects receiving other interventions or none at all). This is strange, it is unusual- even vaccines and antibiotics do not have success rates like this. You know what does? Alternative medicines, quackery; their proponents never produce research with mixed results. When you get qualitative research, it doesn't get acknowledged by organisations advancing the cause of ABA.

Autism: Challenging Behaviour failed to provide accurate and concise criticism of ABA. Even in the promotional articles that were put out to advertise the programme, the tone was very pro-ABA. Even with this though, behaviourists still responded quite strongly to even the idea that the programme would have content that was minimally critical. I will make one complaint to the BBC about one specific matter- that the programme failed to point out that the behaviourists featured are not Autism experts, that their assertions about Autism are not based on any scientific evidence and that the divide between those for and against ABA IS broadly speaking between people who are not Autism experts and people who are. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

What Really Happened

The other week on Twitter I read that a senior civil servant at the Department of Work and Pensions, Robert Devereux, is being set up to take the fall for the imminent and inevitable failure of the supporting infrastructure for Universal Credit. This is largely because Iain Duncan Smith has been dodging scheduled appearances before the Work and Pensions and Public Accounts select committees: Devereux has been the only one showing up to take the heat. (Whilst writing this post it has now been reported that Devereux will resign if he's directly criticised by the PAC in their report published in a few weeks)

Iain Duncan Smith behaved impeccably at conference, leading me to predict that he would not be removed in a reshuffle though not because he was strong but because whilst he is much weaker than before, he is still needed. The current Prime Minister has made extensive use of scapegoats to shield himself from media scrutiny, which has been extraordinarily light-touch, enabling him to lose a historical vote on military intervention and carry on like nothing happened where this would have been a resigning matter for any of his predecessors- including Blair in 2003. He is well-practised and un-sentimentally callous in his scape-goating. Smith is no longer safe, the option of allowing himself to be removed and then pinning the blame for the disasters happening on the very act of his removal is now closed and it's the only defence he had against Cameron.
Smith's ideas are entirely belief-based

His legacy is in shreds, even if his belief in it has been cut only at the furthest margins. To cling on until 2015 he's resorting to something that will appease his boss and he thinks will get him off the hook. But for this to work, it is not enough to pin the blame on Robert Devereux; already David Freud the Minister For Welfare Reform is being scape-goated *publicly* as one official after another responds to criticism of unpopular policies by "it was Lord Freud's idea". That won't be enough either; they will run out of patsies, even if they make Smith one of them. The man-made crisis they are responsible for is that large and now not even the most complacent in the mainstream media can ignore it now. Given how politicians do demonstrate some foresight when it's a matter of self-preservation, this will ultimately come down to their success in re-writing very recent history. The worst thing about this is that it could work; the public and media have very short memories that are easy to manipulate. If they don't want to know something, they usually manage to re-arrange their recollection to satisfy that.

Not this time. It has to stop now because politicians should not be able to get away with things like shutting care homes and then pretending they don't know why invalid and disability benefits shoot up, or means-testing benefits that then lose public support, absolving themselves of direct responsibility for employment levels whilst imposing ever harsher conditionality on the unemployed, saying they'll help but ignoring the evidence of what works and introducing measures designed to kick a certain number of claimants off benefits no matter what and saying that this is about 'fairness'. Each and every time- they have failed and each and every time they have failed, they have been allowed to make astonishing revisions of the record.

They're going to ramp that up. Right-wing figures in Britain believe Smith to be popular- he isn't; acting tough on benefit claimants is popular. He just comes decorated with a superficial righteous cherry-on-top and once the public kind of grasp that he's incompetent, they will look to someone else to deliver the same policies but with a 'hard-thinking realist' decoration. Newspapers like the Guardian and Independent are only just starting to behave how they should have been two years ago when they were warned well in advance of the looming disaster. Their only interest is in selling newspapers and if the government's historical revisions(and those of Labour, who still will not come clean about their actual 1997-2010 record) do that, then journalists will play right along.
Mainstream media: Too little fact-checking, too much delay
Be prepared to go right back to the source materials and reports that were being circulated two and three years ago- the story running up to the 2015 election will be a complete fabrication that directly contradicts the evidence. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The One Quiet Man The Chancellor Can Outmanoeuvre

The dead horse that George Osborne is supposed to be a skilled political strategist hasn't been beaten recently. It's been a while now since I was poking my face in frustration that almost every mention of him by supposedly informed and well-connected political editors included this characterisation. I don't know if it was my repeated bleating on many websites that a single piece of evidence should be presented by journalists to support it, but the fact that he actually turned up to the Paralympics to present a medal when anyone could have foreseen what would happen probably did more.

But there is another indicator of Osborne's lack of talent and influence which also gets overlooked and not just that thing about Mandelson on the billionaire's yacht; it's his powerlessness to get rid of Iain Duncan Smith.

Political commentators in the media expressed or feigned shock when there was a reshuffle and Smith refused to be moved. That shouldn't have been the case as he has stated quite clearly that his current job would be the last he ever does in politics. He wants that welfare reform legacy to match Beveridge.

Why is the name of this intellectual liberal so misused when Smith is the precise opposite of him? It's not the goals or ideals Smith wants to inherit, just the prominence in history. Unlike many others in the Cabinet, Smith's future is not based on getting a job with one of the companies that benefit so richly from the policies of the government, chasing another portfolio to hand over more of the country to oligarchs isn't on the table for him. He does not care about austerity, just a shift in culture which is why time and time again the policies he's sponsored have often not saved money at all. The one thing we can guarantee has saved money is the change in how benefits are uprated, initially an idea by David Freud, but it was Osborne who then unilaterally decided to put a 1% cap on it every year until at least 2015 after he looked at the numbers.

He wasn't going willingly, so what about unwillingly? That wasn't going to happen either for one very strange quirk of how politics works in Britain: Iain Duncan Smith for most of the last three years has been more powerful in domestic politics than anyone else in the Cabinet, including the Chancellor and Prime Minister. That has suited his vanity very well but no one else gets such a free-ride; even David Cameron who gets kid glove treatment is still frequently pictured on holiday(as he frequently takes holidays) in unflattering photos. Forcing Smith out by a reshuffle would have led to him resigning and then pinning the blame for the incoming failures on Osborne's interference. Considering the unacknowledged fortunes that social security saves the country, the cost of those failures would derail the Coalition's stated economic goals and then secure absolute election defeat. As Smith's stated goals can only be tested against utterly intangible measures like 'cultural change' rather than explicit money saving, there's always an extremely long delay between the problems emerging and the media paying any attention to it. That would stop the moment Smith is gone.

But now Osborne has smelled blood in the water; Smith has screwed up too many times in just a few months and has started to visibly strain over the pressure in public, hence he has repeatedly delayed his scheduled appearance before the Work and Pensions Select Committee over his misuse of statistics. Unfortunately he's delayed it until this month of all months and Osborne is at his strongest around this time of year because of conference and his Autumn statement. With so many unfortunate things lining up against Smith, this it seems is Osborne's moment to get rid of him. In the coming days and weeks Smith is going to weather the most intense attacks on his conduct and character he's ever had to deal with and most of it is clearly orchestrated from within his own government. A book reveals what everyone knew but no one talks about; that Smith is considered unintelligent by others and especially Osborne. The Chancellor yesterday made announcements of policies which directly contradict Smith's own plans for reforms. Whilst that speech was going on, the Guardian reported on leaked DWP documents casting Smith in a light that was extremely against the image he has carefully cultivated for a decade now.

These are too many coincidences. Today it will be the Secretary's turn to give his speech at conference. His response will tell me just how strong he is against Osborne now.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Malevolent By Default

Tomorrow Labour will announce the stuff they've announced tonight, don't ask me how that works. I am holding off for 24 hours before criticising it because I am promised that there is much more flesh on them bones.

That being said, my optimism remains non-optimal. Sue Marsh says this is cynicism, but to me it is no more cynical than a weatherman predicting rain- it's looking at the best information which is there and drawing a conclusion. Politicians are malevolent by default. No, that's not the conclusion- that's the best available information; the conclusion comes later. But it's not fair to advance that statement as a point without doing what Liam Bryne has not yet done: put flesh on the bones.

The rotting pus-strewn meat of the issue is that these things always begin with high ideals. They always start out as progressive-sounding announcements by the would-be Gandhi's, the hopeful Beverege's, the promising heir's of Martin Jesus F Kennedy Robin Luther Hood Tolstoy Christ: the bestest and most noble man who ever aided the sick and defended the poor. Every horrific thing ever done, with the fig-leaf of legitimacy, to the weak and vulnerable started out like this. That is the crushing weight of history and not even Atlas, Hercules and Hulk Hogan combined could move that.

What happens as soon as these people get within smelling distance of power is a subtle change of tone too quiet for anyone to notice before a sudden ratchet of rhetoric steam-rollering it's way through sanity and reason too fast for anyone to stop it. A significant number of non-working disabled people say they want to work; this is confirmed by repeated surveys done by charities. This is the kind of stuff politicians latch onto for credibility, to show that they are 'in touch' when they want support for their latest enlightened proposal to help disabled people who want to work. But when things start moving, real stuff that actually affects the real world, people who want to work are the last thing on their minds. They are forgotten and the focus turns to those who do not want to work. There are lots of reasons why someone does not want to work: they have a condition which could be made worse, they want to look after their children, they want to study something, but what gets focused on is 'work-shyness' and it's weasel word twin 'the system trapping people on benefits'.

So what began as the next big idea to help those who want to work turns into the latest 'crackdown' on those who don't want to work. I am predicting that what Labour will do if they come back into office in 2015 will repeat the same story as last time, and the time before that, and before that, and before that. The Coalition strategy for social security has been basically this all the way through and Labour have been impotent in their ability to criticise this because it's exactly what they did in the New Labour years and exactly what they will do the next time they are given another chance to get it completely wrong. They have already delivered frequent tone-deaf messages which appeal to the basest predatory instincts of public opinion; we can guess accurately what disposition towards benefit claimants, including the disabled, they would prefer.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

If There Was A Genuine Case..

..They would not have to resort to things like this, where reality can't touch them.

It's still a curiosity why the 'Taxpayer's Alliance' organisation only ever seems to be looking out for the interests of certain sections of taxpayer; those who most closely align with the demographics who support the Conservative Party. The majority who do not fit into that bracket are often ignored if not outright targeted.

Today they have released a report authored by one Chris Philips, a London businessman and councillor. He has a 1st class degree in Physics from Oxford, but then David Cameron also has a 1st in History, Politics and Economics- so I'm adding this to report to the growing list of anti-adverts for Oxford. Really, the report is heavy on statistical misuse and Mr Philips education does not allow for this to be interpreted as incompetence. Unless my joking about Oxford is disappointingly true but it will be a while before I entertain that thought seriously.

I'm not simply slinging mud here and I'm keen to have this covered before gets to it, so on to the specifics.

In The Executive Summary

He wastes no time..

1. Over the past 50 years, welfare spending has relentlessly grown and now consumes 28 per cent of all government spending. 57 per cent of this goes on benefits for working age people.

In reality: He has made this judgement by looking at pensions spending and then assuming anything that is not pensions must be working-age expenditure. It's a sign that he began with his conclusion and then went looking for the evidence to support it, rather than searching for the whole expenditure and seeing what was spent on what. The latest DWP Benefit Expenditure Tables show what Philips has left out- all the non-state pension benefits that go to pension-age claimants. Most social security expenditure is on those of pension-age. The working-age group receives about £90 billion(£50 billion if we exclude HRMC-administered Tax Credits) compared with £110 billion for pension-age claimants.

2. 5.6 million working age people are currently not working and reliant on benefits, a number that has remained stubbornly high even when the economy has grown (it has been over 5 million for more than a decade).

In reality: This is from the DWP Statistical Summary, which is audited for quality by the National Statistics Authority, which unfortunately can't audit their misuse beyond that. The problem I have here is not with the figure but with Philips' assertion that the people he's talking about are 'not working'. They include carer's and lone parents on income support, people signed onto JSA who may not be receiving anything because they are doing declared paid work, people doing the mandatory work placements that Philips and the TPA think don't exist. Others are sick and disabled. I should note that the figure here is not static, it is merely a total- these are not the same people all the time. So why would Philips expect a growing economy to shrink this figure?

I want to note something really annoying at this point: Blogger has a feature in post writing to 'remove formatting' meaning something copy-pasted from a document can have all changes made to it by a word processor taken out. This leaves only user-specific inputs, done by a human. Whether Mr Philips typed the final document itself or someone from the TPA did; they don't seem to realise you don't have to manually press the Enter key at the end of each line. I'm having to reverse this every time I lift text from it because the remove-format button doesn't work on human changes.

3. Claimants typically each claim several benefits, and in many cases the value of these benefits taken together adds up to £15,000 to £25,000 per year –about the same as a low-skilled worker earns and often more than the minimum wage.

In reality: If he's still talking about the same 5.6 million out of work claimants, then he really should be supporting this with evidence. But he can't because when you factor in that most low wage workers also receive benefits, comparing like with like rarely produces a situation where more money is received when out of work. Use of Tax-Benefit models to show how much better someone is when in work have been used in Jobcentres and Citizens Advice Bureaux for decades now. You'll notice Philips fails to show any of his working out of this.

4. This costs our country money we can ill afford and is deeply socially corrosive. One in four children now grow up in a household where no one works.

In reality: Half-myth, half-weasel words. Do one in four children grow up in such a household or do one in four children live in a household where no one is currently in work? It's the latter: covered this a year ago and ONS data comes up with 15%, not 25. It's possible Philips has found figures for workless families rather than households, but that would expose the problem in his argument- that question of the ratio of children to workless households they are living in is significantly influence by demographics, not work ethic.

5. Some people argue that the jobs simply aren’t there, particularly with the difficult economic situation. However, the analysis in section 3 below shows that 3.5 million new jobs have been created since 1997, and that employment today stands at a higher level than at any time in UK history.

In reality: The employment level is irrelevant, it has always grown even during previous downturns in modern times. The number of people looking for work is also always growing. The curious thing here though is the second bit about '3.5 million new jobs' being created. I zoomed forward to section 3 and saw Philips' problem is that he's conflating jobs with vacancies. Create all the jobs you want, but if they're not vacancies, they won't be filled and Philips' still does not acknowledge that parents do not abandon their children nor carer's their sick and disabled relatives to go get a job just because it's there.

6. As 2.5 million jobs were created since 2000, out-of-work welfare claimant rolls stayed about the same. UK welfare claimants were not moving into work as jobs were created.

In reality: JSA claims fell to a historical low. Long-term JSA claims went from 50,000 to almost 4,000. Philips wants to gloss over why sick, disabled, lone parents and carers do not behave like JSA claimants and lump them together.

7. 68 per cent of the jobs created were taken by immigrants prepared to work hard rather than rely on benefits. Many of the UK population on out-of-work benefits evidently weren’t interested in the new jobs.

In reality: Demographics again. In the time it takes to birth, educate and grow an annual cohort of human beings ready to work, about 16 others will have finished the process- but they are less in number than the immigrants who are already grown up and finished school. There aren't actually any figures for immigrants taking jobs- this is non-UK born, which includes UK citizens, not people who have come here specifically to work in recent times.

8. The current Government is trying to remedy the situation, and their policies are moving in the right direction. From 2013, benefits will only go up by 1 per cent each year–hopefully lower than wage inflation–thereby tipping the balance back a little in favour of working. However, it will take some time to outweigh the regrettable 5.2 per cent blanket benefit increase put through in 2012.

In reality: All of the uprating changes implemented by the government, including the 1% cap, mostly affect benefit expenditure for those who are in work. Most benefit working-age benefit expenditure is directed at those in work. Also, the 5.2% uprating in 2012 is more than compensated by loss of value in benefits for the unemployed since 1979 when the uprating was changed from being pegged to average wage to being pegged to inflation- which was to save money. 

The summary then goes on to propose a 'Work for Dole' scheme that is pretty much what Universal Credit is going to do anyway. Most people didn't bother reading the Welfare Reform Act or the final draft regulations, so I'm halfway believing that this is the TPA testing the water for an idea that the government wants some plausible deniability on. He relies on citing the US reforms pushed through in the Timely Assistance for Needy Families bill: the results of which no one actually knows because so many people just simply disappeared. It's apologists do what Philips does: point to the reduction in claims, because they don't have any figures for actual success. Other projects from Canada and the UK are references, I looked at the UK one(Project Work Pilot 1996-97), which was a change in proscribed regulations to the 1995 Jobseekers Act. The regulations for JSA have been made considerably tougher after that: in the period when Philips thinks people have been shirking work because benefits are apparently too generous.

"Welfare Spending Is High And Generous"

9. Over the past 50 years, total welfare spending in the UK has increased relentlessly. Having risen from 4 per cent of GDP in 1948 up to around 13 per cent of GDP today, welfare spending now consumes 28 per cent of all government spending.

In reality:  He wants to say this is unsustainable. He has said this is unsustainable. But in order for him to make that connection he has to have some solid explanation for the growth in expenditure. He would prefer that we simply believed that claimant counts grew and this was because greedy scroungers come to take as much free money as they could get. Pensions and changes in social care provision explain most of the rise by GDP over that time; people are living much longer and also healthier- keeping their independence means they are less likely to be put in a care home. A reduction in one budget leads to an increase in social security but an overall net saving. Note that where he was at least attempting to specify working-age expenditure before, he now chooses not to when it doesn't serve his argument. Also he uses a graph that shows the flat-period of per GDP spending before the recession, where he wants to assert the myth that social security loose. So he comes out with this..

10. Despite fifteen years of continuous economic growth between 1993 and 2008, total
welfare spending nonetheless continued to rise rapidly in real pound terms.

In reality: Given the chart he uses, you have to wonder if he's been reading FullFact.og's guide for 'how to make bad charts' because the Y axis starts at 120,000 and X at 1993/94. He's cherry-picked the period of 1993-2008 but doesn't want to draw attention to the bigger picture. As such it makes the rise very exaggerated. The start of the graph has been averaged in a way so that it stays below 130,000 until 1999, but again the Benefit Expenditure Tables for 2012 show it was over 130,000 in 1995. As to the rise in spending: real-terms(2013 prices) for DWP working-age benefit expenditure was  £51 billion. In 1997 it was £52 billion. Then by 2005, DWP benefit spending on working-age claimants was £44 billion. Tax Credits had been rolled out by this time and did increase working-age expenditure to a total of £67 billion if we include the elements of it directed at children. For those out of work, working-age expenditure fell. So all of the rise where not driven by inflation, an ageing population and demographics was part of a strategy for reducing child poverty which would have cost much more in the long-term. By the time the recession started in 2008, DWP working-age spending was back at £47 billion.

11. Of total welfare spending of around £200 billion in the last fiscal year, 43per cent(or £85 billion) was spent on retired people. This is outside the scope of this paper. 

In reality: Not when it suits Mr Philips to include it, whether it's to inflate the growth in spending or pretend that only the state pension is pension-age spending. He goes on to show a simplistic breakdown of spending on individual benefits, neatly including all of the pension-age claims and expenditure, whilst repeating his comparison of someone out of work on benefits to someone in low paid work apparently not receiving benefits. He does stumble on the fact that most claimants are in work but manages to ignore it.

12. For example..

I won't print the hypothetical example Philips uses in full: it's too long and I'm having to manually correct every single line abused by the Enter button. This is what it describes- he uses a government website to calculate what his hypothetical claimant would get, the claimant has two young children, a partner, no income, few savings and lives in rented accommodation. Ok so this is not about a single claimant but a household- yet Philips chooses to focus just on the claimant and tries to force a point out of the fact that changing between whether or not they are looking for work or not doesn't change the amount they get, just whether it is JSA or Income Support. Again though- this is a household, what about the partner? Only one of them can claim Income Support because of the young children, the other must look for work or they lose out. If that partner chooses to simply claim JSA but is not serious about work, they lose the more generous Working Tax Credit element. He continues with some ignorant tirade about the system supposed not demanding anything from claimants in return. Almost every previous claim is repeated in some form. One thing he can't demonstrate is that Britain's social security is unsustainable and has been growing for the reason he asserts.

I'll wait and see what others are writing about this before continuing.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Overlapping Concerns

My mother has had skin Cancer, thankfully non-malignant and easily treatable. But she also has an undiagnosed/diagnosed lung condition; I don't know for sure, she won't say anything about it. Her coughing keeps me awake in the early hours, like now while I'm writing this post. My brother has anxiety and periodic delusions, stemming from a history of Schizophrenia which doctors did nothing about and could not because his case was unusual as a child; he did not lack awareness of his delusions and was embarrassed about them. My sister has Depression. Her fiance has a form of Motor Neurone Disease, which ended his cherished competitive kick-boxing career. She worries that my eldest niece, her daughter, is at risk of developing an eating disorder and I'm inclined to agree. I fear that the most healthy and stable family member I have is my youngest niece, who this week proudly declared "I know how to kill bad guys now because I'm four".

For most people, knowing someone with a diagnose of something, a disability or illness, is considered a matter of chance. It isn't. That I exist in a cluster of people with such circumstances is chance. It tells me that for most people, knowing someone living with a life-limiting condition, at least one, is a definite. If people think these things are rare just because they don't know anyone like that, then the greatest likelihood is that at least one close friend or family member has been keeping a secret from them. Sick and disabled people downplay their struggles and where their pride and esteem overrides their trust, they hide it first and most from the people they really value. You can tell people forever that these things do not discriminate, they are not non-disabled or healthy but simply 'not-yet-disabled' and 'temporarily healthy', but it doesn't give because that's a maybe. You tell a smoker that 1 in 5 smokers will die prematurely of something related to smoking and they will actually consider this new information to be greatly improved odds on the ones they've previously reckoned on and continued it anyway; a total backfire. Ask a single individual to try to imagine the struggle they would face if they had to feed themselves on not much more than two pounds a day; they'll always come up with a budget for the same semi-nutritious meal that they can stand to eat every day for a whole week.

The whole world individually becomes 'I'm all right Jacks', something brainless and somewhat less than human. But would they still be happy with their children smoking? What would they do if their children refused to eat beans and rice? Let starvation take over as a parent and teach them to eat any meal? Like that would cause no long-term damage.

So as welfare reforms begin rolling out between this year and 2016(on a timetable very stretched out from originally planned as everything the critics said turns out to be right), most people will not notice. The people they don't know to have life-limiting illness and disability will not peep, they'll try even more desperately to keep it under wraps. People will not know what this government has done until long past it being too late; when that season finally rolls in and millions of them discover that all this time they were not trusted enough to be given some crucial facts by their secretly sick and disabled friends. They'll ask themselves if it was them, if their relationship had problems which they ignored, if it was the political environment in the country, or if it was their own media-cultivated politics they were courageously opinionated about.

They don't know who is targeted by welfare reform, but they do care- they care because they think it's the kind of people they imagine some of their neighbours to be, the kind of people weekly paraded in the national press. Even the Guardian has now given up any pretence of ethics on that one and has joined in. If they find out it's their own, their friends, their family, they don't stop caring. They are forced to confront their own misplaced concerns. When this happens there is no 'we told you so' and I feel there will be considerably less of us to make that point by then. The rest of us will be too busy doing basic survival to be idealists.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

My Lack Of Principle

It will come back and when it does it will haunt the Shadow Chancellor, but for now- his speech and the briefing to the media released the day before it that contained a pledge to end Winter Fuel Allowances for some wealthy pensioners is already off the News agenda today. It will be forgotten for some time.

Ed Balls has surrendered ground on fundamental keystones of social security which will have lasting consequences, in return for very brief and insubstantial publicity and political advantage. I have written about the Prime Minister, I have written about the Leader of the Official Opposition and to a lesser extent about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Soon the time will come to write about Edward Balls, because the first purpose of this blog is to probe all the possible reasons for why official policy on social security in Britain is decided. For now though, this announcement started some debate which may have already ended but if it doesn't then I want to be in the middle of it slapping people with a wet fish. These debates have a tendency to be of very low quality, so I don't see how this could be bringing down the tone. Typically they are about 'what is right' or 'what is fair' or 'what gets popular support' as if these things immediately matter.

The first thing that immediately matters but gets overlooked in each of them: 'what is'.

Universalism in social security, like Starfleet's Prime Directive is not just 'a principle' or 'an ideal'. Unlike the Monarchy, they both serve an actual tangible function. The Prime Directive prevents exploitation, particularly covert or complex systems of exploitation. Universalism means that an ill-informed, ambitious or unscrupulous politician can not immediately do terrible malevolent things. I'd rather defend a castle designed like a maze than one that makes sense. However it is by invoking the things that don't make sense that politicians justify their attack on social security- which is why it is so important people understand this maze, what they are defending and use reason and evidence in doing so. The Labour leadership has abandoned reason and evidence. They will likely not confront their real record on social security from their time in government.

The mistake people are going to make is to defend universalism 'on principle' or by appealing to the 'popular support' it encourages. But these are not Facts, they are very difficult to demonstrate with evidence and why are our sincerely and long-held principles superior to the ones which Ed Balls will discard as soon as it is expedient? Obvious, but can it be proven with evidence that can't be disputed?

'What is' is that politicians enable themselves to be worse. Parliament can not bind it's successors, but must still follow the laws it doesn't repeal. Those are hurdles they have to navigate first, warning careful observers well in advance of what could be at stake. What Ed Balls has done is commit his party to a tiny budget saving, but if this happens then the statutory instrument for it will be created and it will still be there after X number of upper income pensioners have Y amount of money taken from them. So what happens later when a politician decides they want to make a bigger saving? There are then way fewer checks and balances.

Most of the complexity in social security is not in the primary legislation but in the regulations and guidelines, which primary legislation proscribes what they can do. The Coalition has used this complexity to justify making changes but really they've just expanded what is proscribed so there will be more complexity, not less because the statutory instruments have had their role expanded. Ed Balls is wanting to do the same damn thing with Winter Fuel Allowance- introduce the statutory instrument that enable real abuse later.

This is not the same as making a 'slippery slope' argument: I am not saying that A always leads to C, but that C requires B which requires A meaning that C requires A. We could not have had £9,000 annual tuition fees imposed on students by this government without tuition fees being imposed in the first place by the previous one. Without the Personal Capability Assessment there would be no Work Capability Assessment. Without the New Deals, there would be no Work Programme. Universal Benefit claimants will lose all statutory rights because despite the claims of politicians, JSA claimants have always been at the mercy of the legally-binding Jobseekers Agreement since the 90s. Having realised that despite this being the case for ages, the public hasn't noticed so they were able to get away with massively expanding this abusive power of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the Welfare Reform Act so it includes every claimant even if they are in work.

They could not have done any of these terrible things without first overcoming the initial massive hurdles to implement tiny insignificant policies, only to later use the statutory framework developed after the fact to do much worse. What will Ed Balls do when someone decides to expand the scope of who is affected? Will he say "I never thought that would happened" or will he be the one himself who does it?

Universalism is not negotiable. That is not a statement of principle. It's my cynical survival reflex.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

How To Explain

You go to the local shop. You walk instead of running. Why?

Was it a concious decision, with explainable reasons? The benefits of running for most people are clear, so the only reason not to is because there is a reason not to. Perhaps what you are getting from the shop requires you have the energy to make use of it when you arrive back home. But it doesn't seem that people think like this at all. A child might always run to the shop, just by themselves and they run for the same reason most adults opt to walk: it's simply their nature and no one questions it. Questions about such things seem awkward and pointless, it's just what you do- you don't need to explain yourself. Unless you are Autistic.

It feels like most things I do are questioned and it used to be that I just didn't have answers because I didn't think about them. Being constantly questioned forces a person to think and look inside for answers. I sometimes wonder if myself and others I know are naturally high on self-reflection or if it is a common experience that makes it so. Asked "why do you pull faces at random?" I have to enquire about what faces I am pulling, unaware that I have done so. The first instinct: say something socially acceptable even if wrong. It takes a while to resist believing it myself, so I can then start questioning it. I don't get 'stiffness', I don't have a 'tic' and it isn't hay-fever. It is a stim, I do it because I am distracted, annoyed and expressing a reflex like any non-verbal body language, except mine is shaped by my individual experience of my sensory input.

When I am a twelve year old asked that for the first time by another boy, even if I knew it I could not explain it. There would be consequences which I will carry for years and they will have forgotten a week later. Like other alienated adolescents, I imagined the day would come when I grew into a supremely able adult who could smack every such person to a sorry weeping heap and face no consequences. A reflection on the wrongs received, how they were perceived and experienced. That might seem an overreaction but children are not inherently virtuous: knowing that questions were awkward for me just meant they would ask them incessantly for fun, to see the reaction.

Even when something can be explained, finding the right listener is a factor in being understood and that unfortunately makes it pointless trying to explain anything to some people. There's no common ground on which they can relate.

There was probably once a time where an Autistic would be just as likely to run someone through with a spear as answer a question about what they are doing. Not for gain, or for fun or defence- but because it works as an explanation. The alarm, the pain, the dread of what happens next, that sense of unfairness and that there was no way you could have known. Experience shared has a unique clarity to it. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013


Sometimes subtle aftershocks are more sensitive than the initial quake. It begins in this case with Iain Duncan Smith being caught out telling tales about the effect of the benefit cap on behaviour, which in turn caused the UK Statistics Authority to eventually get round to expressing a view on it. But that itself has opened a fault that will grow into something bigger and as usual, journalists will ignore it. I only spotted it carried in the article for the Independent:
Oxfam's Katherine Trebeck, policy and advocacy manager for the charity's UK poverty programme, said: ”Not content with using rhetoric to stigmatise poor people, the Government has now been caught misrepresenting the figures. This is beyond the pale.“
Unfortunately this is a political intervention made on behalf of Oxfam, a registered charity. If they were asked to look into it, the Charity Commission would probably find it to be at fault according to the obligations that are placed on charities to not be political. What has limited the ability of charitable status organisations to assist grassroot campaigners may now be exploited to punish Oxfam unless it distances itself from Katherine Trebeck. I do not at all think the government and their SpAds are above being this vindictive. They have engaged in similar dirty tricks before, briefing against a charity who's representative had resigned from their advisory role on welfare reform because it was obvious they were being used as a fig leaf. The DWP press office said they had actually been 'fired' because they can't advise on reforms whilst at the same time campaigning against it. Remember it is the government who accuse campaigners of not being constructive.

Closest thing I had to a Tremors film pic
Either Katherine Trebuck or Oxfam will be made to pay. It won't make News until it is already old.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

How To Create Targets

There's been a segment on Channel 4 News about crimes against Autistics, citing the case of Adrian Palmer who was allegedly raped and later killed in a separate incident. His case is said to be extreme but all cases are extreme when allowed to run to their inevitable conclusion. Before it gets to that, it's a constant unending stream of 'low level' abuse that doesn't seem to warrant reporting and that is what the police say when they are called.

One of the infuriating aspects is the reason given by the CPS for why they did not take the rape allegation seriously: ""He was not a credible witness due to his mental health issues".
There is nothing to suggest Adrian was ever diagnosed with any mental health condition. His diagnoses was Asperger's Syndrome, which is no more a mental health condition than Diabetes is an eating disorder. The same applies to other conditions he had- ADHD, Dyspraxia and Raynaud's Syndrome. There doesn't appear to be any ethical of professional obligation on the part of the CPS to explain their reasons for making the extraordinary conclusions about Adrian that they do. Given that both the CPS and the IPCC couldn't even be bothered to check the correct spelling of Raynaud's sometimes, I'm presuming a lack of rigour even after the fact. Having been handed a flawed case file, I'm not criticising them for their decision not to prosecute- that seems to be correct. But in that decision they include unsupported claims about Adrian.

A further read of the IPCC report reveals that the CPS cited the ruling that Adrian was unfit to enter a plea in court when being prosecuted for vehicle theft, which was based on a psychologist's report. The IPCC notes:
The investigation into West Mercia Police’s investigation into
Adrian’s allegation began by obtaining a copy of the file submitted to
the Crown Prosecution Service. The file contained a number of
It then lists the documents. They do not include the psychologist's report. An attempt was made, but they did not see it. They made generalisations about someone's health and mental faculties without ever reading a clinical opinion on it, only a legal opinion based on one.

Throughout, a familiar theme is presented- an Autistic is someone who does random things at random times and for no reason that can be communicated and understood. In a report which is supposed to be one of those 'learning lessons' exercises, it makes damn well sure to unethically represent an Autistic person(and by proxy all Autistic people) in a light that makes them not only a target, but seemingly a justifiable target.

Monday, 8 April 2013

In The Land Of The Bland

John Bird in The Times was the final insult. A short piece, ranting about 'the poverty industry' which at first I thought he meant welfare to work contractors, payday lenders etc. But no, Mr Bird made it explicit even if he didn't actually name anyone: charities, churches and welfare campaigners. Apparently it should be us rather than Iain Duncan Smith who should try living on benefits of £53 a week. Even then, Bird was not supportive of the government but he betrayed a startling ignorance about where the main opposition to their policies comes from. I can't really blame him; we're not frequently given public platforms to access a nationwide audience in order to put our case across. The few times we are, it is in overtly hostile circumstances- see Sue Marsh's appearance on Newsnight with the then Employment Minister Chris Grayling and the presenter Emily Maitlis.

This post starts with Bird at the end of the mid-week. Since I started writing it there have been more developments, some pustule-seeping in their ugliness- but begins with Iain Duncan Smith last weekend. The majority of the measures enshrined in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 became active on Monday. The backlash came slightly early and the government was unprepared and to my eyes it is very clear they were unprepared. They'd already 'won'(after losing and then cheating to get their way by misusing financial privilege which I'll come back to later) so no longer had to pro-actively fight. Miller and Grayling could be safely promoted and two people who are even less capable of being coherent without a script were brought in to fill their portfolios. The problem is that incompetence will destroy this government and social security is the prime danger area. Whilst fighting for the Welfare Reform Act the pattern of minister was to make a ridiculous claim, look at how it was responded to and then slightly adjust that claim incrementally each time so it seemed like they were always sticking to the same message whilst they had actually been forced to change it drastically as the Facts disagreed with them. First DLA claimants had never been re-assessed, then there was no re-assessment process, then there was no regular systematic re-assessment process, then most claimants had their decisions based on a form alone with no assessment of further medical evidence. Each time one was debunked with facts, a new version of it popped up. Where there was no new version, they never repeated the claim again and it was forgotten about. However they could still rely on the complacent media still circulating the original version without ever checking it.

But the activity of ministers this week has not resembled that.

They panicked, they did not expect it would be 'a thing' and so they've had to go back to their original scripts. The problem is they appear to have gone to the first page because they're using the original, ridiculous and extremely easy to respond to claims they started out with in 2010. Only the British media could let supposedly accountable politicians get away with deception on this scale and such incompetence.

The week begins with Iain Duncan Smith being asked if he could live on £53 a week, what the questioner thought the current rate of Jobseekers Allowance is. Smith's response was unfortunate and damage-limitation was in place just hours later, ready for the newspapers going to print. Now this is all immaterial- it doesn't affect any of the actual Facts about benefits or the absurd justifications for welfare reforms, but it is a very good indicator of the character of the Secretary of State. The message in this attempted recovery of the agenda was that Smith had been unemployed and claiming benefit twice, with the repeated phrase that he 'knows what it is like to be on the breadline'. Just a problem: the first time he was unemployed was after leaving the armed forces in 1981 where being a former officer he was going to be receiving help after six years of service. In that same year had married his wife, a very wealthy heiress and they moved into the family manor together. Breadline. In 1992 he was made redundant and has described the three months that he was looking for work whilst claiming Income Support as an unemployed person. What people found odd was his description of using his Amstrad computer to look for work. We know he was wealthy but at that time the world wide web had much lower connectivity than it does now; there were no commercial ISPs serving the general public until around 1995. This isn't a detail Smith needed to give, but he gave it and it can't possibly be true. People who lie take a measured risk and say as little as possible. Only habitual liars tell lies that they don't need to because they're just very comfortable with it. That is our Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The night before though, the Conservative Party chairman made a tweet that wouldn't be News until Monday, only the Press Association carried it at first. It would be optimistic to say it waited that long to be thoroughly discredited though as it had already been so when he first made the claim.

Grant Schapps, Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Declan Gaffney has the measure of Schapps' factual void. In summary, the DWP has looked at the reasons for why claims were stopped during this phase and found them to be the opposite of what he implies. This isn't simply a matter of Schapps just being ignorant; he can not possibly be unaware that the figure is not even for Incapacity Benefit but for Employment Support Allowance. Anyone would think he was talking about people on IB who are being migrated to ESA, but this is really just new ESA claimants and of course- many get better within that period because it's consistent with the off-flows for short term claimants. 

George Osborne, Chancellor of The Exchequer.

A speech at a depot timed to coincide with the policies coming into effect. Widely-reported. Under-scrutinised, outside of the blogosphere. I'll ignore his use of rhetoric because it is immaterial and depends on a degree of trust in what he said that would evaporate if his audience knew his specific factual claims were intentional falsehoods. A comment he makes about 'taking the argument to them' meaning 'us' just gets a smirk- it is the Employment Minister in his government who refuses to be in the same room with 'us'. Osborne would not survive moments in an actual argument with any of the Spartacus group.
"Let’s start with the welfare system. I think people in this country understand that the welfare system needs to change. In 2010 alone, payments to working age families cost £90 billion. That means about one in every six pounds of tax that working people like you pay was going on working age benefits"
Osborne omits to mention how much of that is actually spent on out-of-work benefits considering how much his speech focuses on that. The forecast break-down from the DWP Benefit Expenditure Table for 2012/13 is:

Jobseekers Allowance- £5.1 billion.
Employment Support Allowance- £6.7 billion.
Incapacity Benefit- £3.2 billion.
Income Support- £5.3 billion.
Total- £20.3 billion

That is how much is spent on those the Chancellor spends most of the welfare portion of his speech targeting. The rest is money that could be claimed by anyone in his audience.
"The system became so complicated, and benefits so generous, that people found they were better off on the dole than they were in work."
This claim has been made many times before and again since Osborne used it last Monday. Naturally it's kind of simple to knock down and it has been frustrating to watch our media-classes fail to challenge it. This claim depends entirely on not comparing like with like. Declan Gaffney has the full explanation, here's my summary using his graph:
The Department for Work and Pensions has a 'tax-benefit model' it uses to calculate the impacts of minor changes to policy on individual claimants. They are audited National Statistics so unlike most of the figures generated by ministers themselves these are quality-assured. The calculations used by Jobcentres and Citizens Advice to show to people how much better off they are in work have their root in this system. It does not surprise me that the last version to be released was in 2009, as the information yielded by the tax-benefit model is very inconvenient for the claims used to advance Coalition welfare policy. What you see above is like for like comparisons, showing what is generally representative; the circumstance under which it is possible to be better off not working are actually very narrow.
"And the figures show what happened as a result. Even at the end of the economic boom in 2008 there were more than four million working age people on out of work benefits."
Why doesn't he mention the situation prior to 2008? Because none of the benefits he's talking about had any overall growth for more than a decade before. Here's a quick graph I made using the NOMIS figures for out-of-work benefit claims going back to 2000.

That is exactly how I would expect an all-engulfing snow-balling catastrophe to look on a chart. Really.
"And here’s the saddest fact of all."
...Because it's subject to such misrepresentation?
"We had nearly two million of our children living in families where no-one worked – the highest proportion of any country in the European Union, including countries much poorer than us."
Osborne offers no explanation for this, instead inviting the audience to jump to conclusions based on the prejudices already sown with all the innuendo the government has briefed newspapers about the issue of children in 'workless households'. Well I looked for the relevant data and this time it goes back to 1995 but unfortunately stops in 2007. No doubt there are figures somewhere though. How does the number of children in households with no one working look in a time series graph?

If Osborne had to acknowledge history he would have phrased his assertion without including the bit about children in non-working families being 'nearly two million' in 2010: it reveals that since 2007 the figure had dropped even further despite the recession. It also confirms my memory that more recent figures are out there, they just haven't turned up in my research for this post, done under a deadline which at this point I've missed by almost 90 hours.
"And governments of all colours let too many unemployed people get parked on disability benefits, and told they’d never work again. Why? Because people on disability benefits don’t get counted in unemployment figures that could embarrass politicians."
Despite it being a frequent claim, the evidence that there has ever been a policy to hide unemployment by putting people on Invalidity and Incapacity Benefit hasn't materialised. Observe this graph from the first Harrington report:
In the newspapers, the claim depends on no one questioning its supporting factual assertion: that claims have risen 'over thirty years' to the point they are at now. Nothing of the sort: almost the entire rise happens in a short period coinciding with the introduction of Care in the Community. More claimants become female. More primary affecting conditions become mental health, cognitive and psychiatric diagnoses. The on-flows were not structural changes but a one-off rise caused by changes of who was eligible. People in care homes and psychiatric units are not, so when there were less people in them, there were more eligible. Substantial demographic changes consistent with this rise support that. It costs less to pay someone these benefits than it does to have them in a residential setting: there is no overall net cost to this rise.
"When I took this job, I discovered there were some people who got £100,000 a year in Housing Benefit. £100,000 a year in benefit. No family on an ordinary income could ever dream of affording a rent like that."
The Chancellor doesn't say what he considers 'an ordinary income to be', but most people earn below the median and plenty of those are eligible for Housing Benefit for their rent. The claim anyway is ancient and has nothing to do with when he came into office. were told by the DWP that information about this figure was unavailable. That was after the DWP press office had repeatedly referred their researchers to the Sun and Daily Mail archives for examples of this supposedly happening. The DWP were scrambling for some evidence to justify the claims of ministers in government. This was at the time the first sign that press office had been politicised. In any case, it wasn't even possible to claim that much at the time the claim was being asserted: Housing Benefit claims were limited by Local Housing Allowance claims and they could never be £100,000 a year until June 2010. Osborne first made the claim in his emergency budget in June 2010, but the data from local authorities wasn't available to central government until September.

Some actual figures did eventually come out of the DWP after FullFact made a FOI request, as did the important technical notes When it was revealed, it was widely misreported as 'just 5 cases' claiming more than £100,000 a year in Housing Benefit. The real figure though was 'less than 5'. So isn't it still outrageous that anyone, even if it is less than five claimants can have so much spent on them for Housing Benefit? Well the figure has to be interpreted in light of the technical notes and here's what people need to know:
  1. The figure is rounded to the nearest 10.
  2. The figure is only those claiming the equivalent of £100,000 a year.
  3. It assumes that they are claiming that for a whole year.
So if the figure was zero, there was no way it would show up as zero. Considering the rounding is to the nearest 10, there is almost certainty to be inferred here that the figure actually is zero. Osborne makes more claims of Fact but as they're not specifically about welfare, they're best left out. At a glance- they're still misleading.

This was originally going to be two mega-posts, but with the time it has taken and the speed of developments, it's going to have to be three or four smaller ones, so I'll end it here. Next up is Esther McVey's car crash on Channel 4 News. Today is now Monday and last week has been called 'the government's best week in politics ever'. That is unfortunate as it is also the week in which almost every lie they told over a period of two years was concentrated into just a few days and these are extremely thin pieces of cardboard to blow down. In the Land of the Bland, the few actually blowing are only waiting for their moment and when it happens, ministers will find themselves grossly under-prepared.

To an extent they realise this, which is why Mark Hoban would not meet with Spartacus, George Osborne would not debate with Baroness Grey-Thompson and no one dares appear on radio or television opposite Sue Marsh to argue welfare. Those are all reasonable people, who they refuse to be reasonable with. One day they'll wish they did.

EDIT: Apologies but events have moved on and it's just not going to be possible to get out another post like this in good time. I had expected last week to be a short one-off burst of bullshit but then 'you know what happened' and somehow ministers have been emboldened to ramp up rather than tone down the extravagant claims. As I write this, Iain Duncan Smith has just been caught out for the second time distorting DWP statistics by claiming less households are going to be affected by the benefit cap because it has already changed their behaviour. In reality, less people are going to be affected mainly because of changes to the policy since it's last impact assessment.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Before I Turn The Cannon Back On Welfare-Reactionaries...

My view of the future is that campaigners have done all they can in regards to the policies of the current government. Now it is the explicit intent and values of who will be in office in 2015 that matters(likely to be a Labour majority or Labour-led coalition), that represents our best chance of reversing unprecedented national catastrophe. To that end I was turning my focus towards the future and the possibility of continuing The Files beyond this year. Then this week happened and I couldn't ignore it. The Coalition and their supporters in the national press and 'think'-tanks have come out spamming supposed defences of their policies; apparently working on the principle that if you lie often and lie big it will just stick.

Looks legit
People of middle-age and older tend to agree that successive governments starting with Margaret Thatcher's cabinet had an active policy on using certain benefits to hide unemployment, namely benefits for those too sick and disabled to be expected to look for work.

It is true because 'everyone just knows', so it must be. The thing is that there isn't a shred of evidence for it. It didn't stop George Osborne invoking it this week, without at all being challenged. Likewise in fifteen years it will be taken as truth 'because everyone knows it' that a third of Incapacity Benefit claimants dropped their claim rather than face an assessment. That goes further from being a claim without evidence to being a claim which is an overt lie, of which the government has the evidence to the precise contrary. It's also not even a figure for existing Incapacity Benefit claimants, but new Employment Support Allowance claimants and it is entirely consistent with the off-flows for short-term claimants.

Ministers must be made to answer for the lies they have pushed this week, but not now, because they won't be adequately challenged until those with the national platforms to do so get a grip. I have no idea what 'get a grip' means, but what I'm hoping is that they do not leave themselves open to the argument that they are surrendering in the battle of reason and facts by focusing on human interest and the impact of policy. Because quite frankly welfare campaigners won that battle so utterly that the Minister for Employment understandably does not want to be in the same room as us, the best there is: Spartacus.

The victories won by Spartacus did not come about from focusing on personal anecdotes- we had them but they are not the backstop, just the context on which the Evidence-based argument is asserted. Much Comment, Editorial and News articles featuring in the parts of the media nominally critical of welfare reform do not at all resemble this. Journalists are obsessed with treating the subject matter as human interest rather than serious current affairs with far-reaching implications on many things. The exception are those supporting welfare reforms, who identify that the Facts matter and therefore they make a concerted effort to misinform on matters of Fact. That is what has happened this week and the well-resourced, mainstream critics have failed to make an adequate response as a result.

Zoe Williams had an article up today stating:
"We won't eradicate this vitriol against the poor with reason or facts or fury of our own; only greater equality can rebuild normal trust in one another. Or, in other words – don't get mad, get even."
I don't think I could possibly disagree more: this is in effect another way of spreading the myth that the benefits system is complicated, so it's not worth discussing all the gritty details that would debunk overnight every myth pushed without developing a human interest counter-narrative to each one. There is a good reason why welfare reform supporters spend so much time and energy inventing or cherry-picking Facts to suit their case: they are all that actually matters in the long-term. It's why Spartacus, Black Triangle and DPAC's efforts have been so successful. Look at recent history, look at the evidence- Reason and Evidence works.

It is with Reason and Evidence I will respond to the falsehoods the welfare-reactionaries have pushed earlier this week and then the garbage they've come out with today and will come out with tomorrow. I'll try to have posts up for Thursday and Friday. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

I Am A Welfarist

The modern concept of social security in Britain is a genius invention. But despite a lot of windy talk about William Beveridge, no one actually invented it. It just sort of happened. His idea is described as a system of social insurance; people pay in, they get the protection provided if they need it. People seem to paint this as being better than it was and come up with creative and tellingly short explanations for why it no longer applies in our comprehensive universal system. It's not because anyone came along and had a better idea, or because politicians were trying to bribe votes and create a client state. It's because no matter how well a system is designed, how radical or brilliant the creator- it eventually has to bare contact with the real world over the long-term.

The British welfare state began as a radical programme but it has become a conservative one moulded by the aggregation of fine tuned adjustments. Almost all of the actual problems come from the ill-thought out and drastic, radical political interferences with it. Self-described conservatives don't like it because it holds up a mirror. The brilliance of the system is that it fills in the cracks in social organisation; it's less a safety net and more a glue to keep the fragile and neglected parts of crucial infrastructure from collapsing. Politicians work themselves into a froth about apparent contradictions and absurdities, whilst having at their beck and call the briefing material explaining exactly how those things came to be and what their importance is. Such was the case with the plan to blanketly remove DLA-Mobility from care home residents: the review the government commissioned found that the country was a patchwork of provision and funding for it, where DLA was being used to fund placements. Ministers tried to assert that this was creating 'overlap' in funding, but that's not something they could actually demonstrate because that money is being spent on something useful. That is money which if taken away would have to be found elsewhere or people were going to be prevented from ever going out.

A functional system creates ambiguity, because the world is ambiguous; idealist systems do not survive long-term contact with what actually happens. Idealist systems are not built to last. So ideals must be compromised, it's which ones you choose to compromise that decides what kind of society you wish to have. Is it fair that someone goes out to work and their disabled neighbour goes to the pub when they eventually get up? No. Is it fairer that the neighbour is expected to live like a monk or be threatened with hunger and homelessness? No advantage to them and no advantage to the working person- just cruelty being fostered as national policy. You can not resolve this with some radical idea, even one based on the best available evidence, let alone those based on prejudice and political expediency. You can choose the best possible outcome and that's it. Thirty years ago it was decided that most residential care units were inhumane and that the costs of making them humane to the point of meeting modern standards of decency was a huge cost for an overall small gain. Care in the Community was introduced and there were warnings it would fail. Tabloids printed rubbish about 'psychos on the loose' and it just wasn't possible for people with complex needs to manage their own care without a lot of help.

So either by pure coincidence, or by deliberate planning which is not widely publicised, the social security system was fine-tuned again, to meet the needs of the huge increase in sick and disabled people who would need it to live independently in the community. Eligibility for Invalidity Pensions were relaxed, Mobility and Attendance Allowing for working-aged people were abolished and replaced with Disability Living Allowance. That didn't need to happen, it was done in order to implement some radical and therefore likely wrong changes to what otherwise a minimalist and conservative fine-tuning. The current government are doing it again by making a lot of changes to DLA which don't require an entirely new benefit, but to make a few radical changes they need to impede the application of DLA case law history by abolishing it and replacing it with Personal Independence Payment.

DLA in essence has been a cost-saving benefit. The idea which came as a surprise at first is repeated across the spectrum of benefits: not a safety-net, not an insurance policy, but a glue in the cracks of social and national organisation which can never be eliminated and would be a disproportionate cost to fix permanently. We have Jobseekers Allowance because the world is producing more than it could ever consume- we don't need more people working to produce more, just so they can afford to buy it. We have tax credits because even if the poor paid no taxes, they wouldn't get enough to live. Child benefits mean children are less likely to suffer needlessly the mistakes of adults. The Housing Benefit bill, the only working-age benefit to rise disproportionately, has done so because of the failure of markets and politics to provide for growing housing needs. This is a fire alarm being blamed for fires, whilst fire-starters in property speculation and fire-fighters in Parliament shout denials or sit on their hands respectively.

There is no fault in social security which is not at its core a fault in the organisation of society. The welfare state is a crystal ball for the free-market of consequences. That is why I am a Welfarist. Almost every conceivable problem the world is facing for the next century will find a solution in Welfarism. Like the rights to life, liberty and freedom of the person- it must apply to everybody.

For most of our history, most people have been servants obeying masters. What little equity came with the natural assumed rights to settle and provide for ones self- to make use of the Common. There is no Common now, so the only provision in its place is that which is controlled by the most powerful- hardly an improvement on feudalism. The closest we have now is our sovereign currency; we should be entitled to a set sum of for the same reason our ancestors were entitled to live on the land- because it is there. Without welfare provision for all, leaving those outside naked and unprotected against future challenges, we are adopting the values of the sociopath. That we will to do to survive and unfortunately the sociopath is a parasite- they depend on the goodwill of others to take advantage of. When that runs out, when there are only the self-interested of Ayn Rand's disturbed dreams left, the inevitable consequence is a legalist dictatorship because no one trusts anyone who they don't have leverage over. Worse still, if we became that, we'd deserve it.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Scandal Within Scandal

I am not overall impressed with the Guardian's political correspondents. The social correspondents are hit and miss, but sometimes give me feelings of hope. Now the senior political correspondent has done something quite impressive and uplifting, with rather excellent reporting of the DWP sanctions targets that ministers have persistently denied exist, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Most of that evidence is publicly available, but now the Guardian has been sent what is as close as you can get to a smoking gun- a scorecard, laid out like a league table. Notice red arrows for when a Jobcentre is dropping and green arrows for when it is rising. There can be no argument about what managers are being encouraged to achieve with here. This is not some basic administrative document; this is something that the DWP have deliberately tried to hide.

The indicator of this are the words in block-capitals 'RESTRICTED COMMERCIAL'. Everything the DWP produces and handles is subject to Freedom Of Information requests, unless it falls in one of the clauses of exemption. Some of these have close oversight and some don't. Commercial relationships the government has with private contractors is one of them and that is the excuse used here for giving the document protected status. It's not the first restricted-commercial document to be leaked, but all that have been that I have seen have all been DWP ones. This is a culture of secrecy, and dishonesty. There is no commercial interest being protected here, this label has been used because it can only be challenged if it is challenged and that can only happen if it is exposed. As they don't expect them to be leaked when they abuse this label, they WILL use it to hide information that should be public.

The misuse of FOI protected labels by the DWP is a scandal in itself and I hope I'm not going to be a lone screaming voice on this.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Semi-skimmed Fact

I've taken issue with FullFact's article on the figures for the extent of cuts directed at sick and disabled people and have been asked to e-mail Federica. This was the message I sent.

When problems with this were first brought to my attention, I had not read the "A Fair Society?" report from where the figures are drawn; what I saw was responses by Ben Baumberg to FullFact on Twitter, which were:

"@FullFact are usually a great source, but Factcheck on disabled ppl & austerity is terrible (  ). It's like you they..."

"...didn't read the CWR report that contains the figure! E.g. @FullFact ignore that disabled ppl subject to BOTH dis-specific & wider cuts..."

"...It's not that the figures are perfect - they're not - but unusually @FullFact is not a helpful guide to the validity of these figures"

I frequently warn other welfare campaigners(and receive important corrections myself) about careless use of statistics for rhetorical effect and wrote this piece back in January explaining why benefit spending on the unemployed is not 3% and they should stop claiming it is. In FullFact's article I can see them making a similar mistake, loosely described by Ben Baumberg: spending targeted at a group is not all spending on that group. That group not only overlaps with other claimant and service receiving groups, but some disabled people won't receive any disability-specific provision at all but be relying on other sources of public funded income and support. This alone means the FullFact piece requires significant change, to fully account for the provision disabled people rely on, most of which are under pressure from the government to reduce costs even further and to better explain the conclusion FullFact ends up with. FullFact did not respond to the replies on Twitter and the item was not changed. When they re-tweeted the article again today(note: I started writing this a few days ago and got back to it), it still had not been changed and it made me rather angry.

FullFact do acknowledge in the article that not all disabled people are in receipt of the specific benefits and support provision, but there appears to be a lack of understanding about how some of the ways the government is allowed to get away with things. For example, by counter-balancing losses for some with rises for others- this makes it easy for people only looking at the raw numbers to fall into the trap of only considering the aggregate net total of spending and they ignore what thousands of people will lose. If you think about it in these terms then you miss the point(as virtually every Coalition-supporting news outlet and commentator manages to). If you instead focus on the recipients of support to begin with and what they then lose, you see the effects. The report notes that by 2011 78% of councils had stopped supporting those with 'low' or 'moderate' needs(3.1); if you focus only on how those councils reduced overall spending on social care rather than on the total sum lost by those no longer eligible for support or only reduced support, you would not see the damage done even in terms of the financial hit to the losers. Most of the losers would be in a blind-spot. It's possible FullFact's impartiality could be part of the problem; it does not occur to staff that cuts are ideological and not in fact intended to make significant overall savings. So nothing that points that way is considered.

For all its faults, the A Fairy Society report does explain how it arrives at many of the estimates it gives. It is not clear how FullFact improves on this. It neither works to rebut the content within the report nor provide an equally comprehensive analysis to see if the same conclusions are drawn. As I finish this, Scope has just released a report they commissioned from Demos and it arrives at very similar conclusions to A Fair Society. As far as I am aware, that report is completely independent of the other one.