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.