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.