Monday, 28 January 2013

The BBC Trips Over A Blackbox, Carries On

Sometimes the mainstream media inadvertently do something significant, but because they did so inadvertently and without a proper grasp of the subject they don't follow through. Back in 2011 I covered the matter of Welfare to Work shenanigans, but since then I have kept the hell away from writing about the Welfare to Work industry unless it is something that has already been covered in the press as I simply don't have the means to defend myself nor any contributors below the line from speculative libel action and this industry has shown itself to play downright dirty in this respect.

So the last 'scoop' I had was on A4e telling the then Employment Minister Chris Grayling that the Citizens Advice Bureau was going to sub-contract for them on the Work Programme. Without checking with CAB first, Grayling then cited their supposed involvement as a 'big boost to the Big Society'(on April 1st, so I couldn't be certain it was not a prank until later) not once but twice in DWP press releases- as part of the ever on-going misuse of departmental resources for partisan political purposes. I told of what had actually happened, how I told my boss at my CAB placement about the first press release and what she told me unequivocally that no Bureaux were involved with the Work Programme and A4e had jumped the gun quite intentionally. I quote: "If there was little chance of working with A4e before, there is not a dog-shit's chance in Hell of us working with them now".

From there I began warning people against criticising charities for supposed involvement in the Work Programme unless those charities themselves confirmed they actually were. We could not take the word of the Coalition or the prime contractors- there was no reason to trust them on anything. But why then were charities not speaking out, protesting against widely publicised government announcements as being part of the Work Programme? The same reason I've stayed away from covering the Welfare to Work industry- they can't afford the consequences they are frequently but quietly threatened with. Charities have a duty to not be primarily political, but whilst certain Right-wing think-tanks and lobbying organisations get away completely free, charities that exist for the public good are under constant pressure. The truth is successfully surpressed along with any opportunity to speak it. There's more than one 'blackbox' being used by the Coalition- charities virtually have a wall made out of them to keep them in line.

Then an anonymous poll comes along to save the day, courtesy of the BBC- the mainstream media outlet who have now done something useful by mistake and if they realise it will quickly try to unrealise it. They treat the human interest part of this story as significant, but it's the details that matter and the poll throws out the bombshell:
40% of those which responded said they were not actually part of the Work Programme, therefore should not be on the DWP's list
Let's be honest about the 'blackbox' design of the WP contracts; it's simply a means by which Ministers can avoid any responsibility for what happens on the Work Programme, but they couldn't even get that right. The sub-contractor list they have is not blackboxed, they could have checked it any time by simply asking the organisations listed on it if they had an agreement with any prime contractors. They chose not to and the blackbox system does not give them the excuses they sought. This was worse than the controversial 'bid candy' practice revealed loudly in the press last year; those sub contractors knew they were in the Work Programme and were expecting referrals that never came.

Many 'sub contractors' did not agree to anything
 The 40% of respondents to the BBC survey weren't, CAB only found out it was listed as a sub contractor after the DWP press release, so it's safe to bet that a good number of the rest have only found out about their 'participation' from the BBC survey. Those are just the respondents too: 348 organisations listed as sub contractors were sent the survey but just 184 answered. How many of the non-respondents did not reply because they believed their responses were irrelevant because they're not actually sub contractors?

Why is this important? Because it reveals something about the nature of the prime contractors on the Work Programme- a substantial number of them were prepared to lie to secure contracts and these weren't small lies but legally compromising ones, they get away with them because of politics. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Benefit Spending On The Unemployed Is NOT 3%(Probably)

I get annoyed, extremely annoyed, when I see careless assertions that distort the data or ones which are easily misinterpreted so that people then go on to unwittingly believe something that isn't true.

I've sat with my head in my hands this past week, reading and listening to people who should know better fluff this time and time again. This is the Guardian datablog on the subject. This is the graph it produces.

3% of the DWP expenditure in 2011 went on Jobseekers Allowance, the benefit for the unemployed. So that is '3% of the budget is spent on the benefit for the unemployed'. This morphed into a monster because widespread ignorance of the benefits system has been so successful in how it has been propagated by opportunist politicians and irresponsible journalists that it has even affected people who support the social security system. It should be noted that the percentage is less if you include the HRMC-administered tax credits, it gets closer to 2.2%. Whether tax credits should actually be considered benefits is a debate politicians of all sides do their very best to avoid; both Labour and Conservatives have introduced payments specifically dubbed 'credits' and 'allowances' so to decouple their targeted demographics from being 'claimants'.

Some unemployed people only get JSA because they aren't eligible for anything else due to complex circumstances the system doesn't recognise. I myself only get JSA and DLA and am not eligible for anything else. But many are eligible for other benefits which are not specifically targeted at unemployment, but on anyone with a low income, of which the unemployed have the very lowest. These are means-tested benefits, with the exception of Child Tax Credits(correction: they are means-tested). As the benefit uprating cap affects virtually every working-age claimant, the calculations used by the IFS and others to determine who gets hit is a rough measure how many households(important: there are no equivalent figures for individual claimants) receiving benefits/credits are in work. The figures vary between 60-68%.

That leaves the remainder that is made up of the unemployed, the sick and disabled and lone parents. The average rate for JSA claims in 2011 was: 1,451,025. The average rate for Lone Parent Income Support claims was: 593,592. For Incapacity Benefit and ESA it was: 2,391,750. JSA makes 32% of those affected among the non-working proportion then, which is somewhere between 10% to 12%. Be warned that these workings are rough, but people should stop being so careless as to claim '3% of benefit spending goes on the unemployed'. It's three or four times more.

The issue is that is still a low proportion of the overall expenditure. People have to really decide if they want the social security system to only be a circumstantial safety net or to be a comprehensive means of redistribution to prevent those circumstances from happening in the first place. Some might feel that should be determined by utilitarian cost:benefit, usually prevention is less expensive in the long-term than crisis management. Others may feel that the morals of it matter more; people should support themselves where possible and employers must pay wages people can live on.
 
For me, simply sticking with data and correcting errors who ever makes them is all I feel I can do most of the time. Treat the figures here with caution though- I've had to use information that is both for households and individual claims together and there is bound to be parts which don't square if they were combed over. This was done in a hurry, but I believe the basic premise is true. 

Monday, 7 January 2013

Reason Is A Chain, Not A Hammer

Tomorrow the House of Commons will vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill. This is actually its second reading in the house- it is normal for bills tabled by government to not be opposed in their first reading. No consultation has taken place and the impact assessment is only going to be out in the morning, just in time for MPs to see it before voting. This will not feature any assessment of cumulative impacts of the policy on top of all the others. Given how the impact assessment forms for welfare policies have been filled in without any evidence of any actual assessment being done, there's no reason to believe this will be any different.

The parliamentary Labour Party have already made it clear they are going to vote against. They have been making an effort in the media to promote their position. When this first became a news item I wrote the blog-post 'The Soft Paper Wall' to argue the case that Edward Miliband once won triumphantly in the house before when the issue was benefits and he adhered closely to the Reason and Evidence. This led to the Prime Minister looking like a fool to the extent that an almost universally supportive mainstream media had no choice but to pretend the exchange never happened. Mr Miliband can repeat this, except that this time the Chancellor has made it such an issue that this is going to be about a vote and it is going to have media outlets making a big deal out of it. The perception being that because welfare has been their most popular policy area, that this automatically translates into success. Unfortunately welfare has also been arguably their most incompetent policy area, hidden in part because of widespread public ignorance and because the media feeds it. That won't last, so what Miliband and his party say now matters because once it starts getting obvious that the government don't know what they're talking about, they'll want to hear coherent points from the other side of the house. I had a list of the key points to make, they were:

1. Most of those affected are not even out of work.

2. The disabled are not protected. The WRAG are not 'fit for work', they are sick and disabled.

3. Of those who are out of work- most have worked before, want to work again and the data says that even in a recession they will. 

4. The IMF has had to adjust their fiscal multipliers for austerity, why hasn't the government or even the supposedly 'independent' Office of Budget Responsibility? This could be a measure that costs more than it saves because it sucks demand out of the economy. 

5. There is a repeated logical inconsistency in the government's arguments. Either you believe benefits are a basic safety net or you don't. If they are a subsistence-only net, then it is always immoral to cut them. If they are above subsistence, then you'd believe in cutting them anyway on moral grounds, but this precludes the financial 'need for austerity' argument.

6. If there was a Moral or Reasonable case for their welfare policies, they wouldn't need to lie and distort constantly. 

It is important that all or most of these are used: none of them make sense or have an impact by themselves. They are a chain of reasoning and most chains get their power through the cumulative weight of all the links; tip just a few of them and they drag all the others inevitably with them where they go, effortlessly. That said, these are key points and are not exhaustive- there are many arguments that are just as effective and added to these they would also add weight. So how has the official opposition done over the past few weeks building up to this? Well they started off with "Most of those affected are in work" which is good. Then "60% of those affected by people in work", right but what about the- "This is a striver's tax, it hits those in work" - I'm noticing a pattern here.

This isn't a chain, it's a hammer: a single point being banged on again and again. You know what? It's also not working. The TUC released the results last Friday of some polling they commissioned in regards to public perceptions about benefits, indicating a correlation between support for government policies in this area and ignorance of it. I have some issues with the conclusions drawn by the TUC, but my concern right now is that the work was done on the 11th and 12th of December, just days after George Osborne announced the uprating plan in the Autumn statement. Most people polled believed then that most people affected were the unemployed, even though the Institute for Fiscal Studies and numerous critics had already hit back and pointed out that it was mostly employed people taking the hit. I doubt repeating the real statistic over and over again will have changed that since, not without something to build on it. Labour have tried building on a 'striver's tax' narrative- it's another version of their successful granny/pasty tax theme. I don't think it's taken hold with the public and I don't think it deserves to; Labour have seen the figure and will have extrapolated the relevant issues from it as everyone else else, like in the points I've listed. The problem is that following them to their conclusion would mean Labour could not behave towards benefit claimants as they did do when they were in power from 1997-2010.

That they've dithered and tried making a rhetorical argument instead of a principled stand on Reason and Evidence reflects ill on them.