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 (http://fullfact.org/factchecks/disabled_austerity_cuts-28822  ). 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.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

How To Feel

Sensory issues are not one of the features of the diagnostic criteria for Autism, but they are frequently reported and clinicians specialising in Autism diagnosis rarely discount them. It's not certain if sensations are actually different for Autistics than for non-Autistics; there's no way of really telling, but it appears that Autistics process input differently. So no super-hearing or bloodhound sense of smell, it's just that whilst Autistic senses pick up exactly the same stuff as anyone else, a different set of filters are applied to it.



This demo of an educational game about Autism has been doing the rounds. I can't endorse it but I'm reluctant to criticise it. Do I say "It's accurate/inaccurate"? Do I say "It works as a metaphor"? I can't be sure of any of those, but when I watched it my feeling was "This seems familiar". And it is- it is how I remember the school playground. I can't be sure if it is definitely how I experienced it back then, but it is familiar with that time and place. That leaves one explanation for my uncertainty about it; it isn't a complete view on 'my world'. It is not just crowds being sensory hazards, with no feeling of life to them. The scene plays out in a way that explains the overriding primary concern to seek safety but not what the experience is like when that is achieved other than the absence of distressing input. Maybe part of the problem is that the player controlling here isn't 'behaving autistically'; they stay at the edges and get away from people, but there is no exploration. An Autistic child will self-stimulate(stim), they'll look at how they can manipulate their vision, how things lose shape and colours change; all observations that can only be made in the first-person. An Autistic child on their own can seem indistinguishable from others, but when they are near other children they might not choose to escape but to explore these things and that's when they really stand out.

Some people literally 'see' colours or 'hear' smells and when this happens it's called synaesthesia. Vincent Van Gogh is rumoured to have experienced this, giving things he saw a 'feeling' of texture that he attempted to convey in his painting. He is not often speculated to have been Autistic though; synaesthesia is not exclusive to Autism. But even for Autistics that do not literally get senses crossing over, there is an experience of texture for things that are being seen. It could be an exaggerated form of association: hard things have a distinctive noise when impacted, bouncy things tend to make two sounds close together, so it could be that the extra details that get through an Autistic person's sensory filters lead to more associations.

These are frequently wonderful. The other day there was snow during sunset, the clouds dropping it from directly above whilst the sun was between the cloud and horizon with the blue sky behind it. I felt I was absorbing all of it- contrasts both stark and subtle, the way they changed, snow creating shimmering shafts of light and it being blown along the ground, up walls and over roofs like it was a river of smoke. When a simulator is able to convey that as well as what's in the video, then Autism will be understood. Mostly.

I can't even begin to explain how this all affects my emotions without any external input at all.




Thursday, 7 March 2013

How To Understand

If we begin as a blank slate then the outcome of us as a person is either wholly or mostly determined by direct experience. Even extrapolated ideas and complex emotional states are things that require more basic building blocks. It's supported by some evidence that we make decisions before we are consciously aware of it and any hesitation or deliberation before we outwardly commit is just going through the motions- it will not affect what we choose in any way except to provide a slightly opportunity for any consequential new information that rarely shows up. Does this make decisive or impulsive dispositions ideal? I'd say no; we do take some control and shape ourselves and what we will do in the future whenever we reflect and we do this more than we realise. When we read, when we play, when we listen and when we regret. Conscientious people ultimately have more free-will. That is my opinion.

Frequent praise I hear about Autistic people is the lack of malice, prejudice and a surplus of curiosity and sincerity. There are some semantics at work here; another perspective is that it's naivety. Both are valid but they can't both be right: if the former is right then Autistics are more conscientious, if the latter then Autistics are not learning from direct experience. Here we hit the limitations of language: there is no word to describe a person who is both stupid and smart, lazy and active, blank and filled in. Or the idea of a person starting as a blank slate is wrong, completely wrong, not just slightly. This isn't an exception that proves the rule- it's an unmovable obstacle. The only resort is to cheat and say "it's just their nature". The problem with the blank slate is that it is itself a blank slate- it doesn't say anything about what the human condition. Naturally it ran into problems and this is what led to all the modern theories about 'human nature' that plague us to this day- that people are by default selfish and can only cooperate or behave altruistically when it serves them to do so. But whilst social darwinism in the late 19th century was simply these ideas dressed up in the clothes of actual science, the branches of modern philosophy from the 18th century were themselves trojan horses for those of the 17th and 16th century. They weren't new: they were the same root idea that has always sought to justify rather terrible behaviour. I could sympathise if they just wanted to be left alone, it's what happens when such people are left alone long enough to cultivate power, connections and assets; they don't reciprocate to everyone else.

I suppose it informs my politics, which I now know to be 'left-wing' but I don't find myself being socialist or liberal, so not 'far left' or 'centre-left' as these positions are described. I never intended for The Files to be political: it was supposed to be ethics, Autism, data and standards in public life when applied to social security in Britain. When I went to London in March 2011 to lobby MPs with the National Autistic Society, others attending weren't political either. But they mainly parents and carers of Autistic adults and most were older than 50 years: not loud-mouthed opinion spewers and not word mincing diplomats. Grey, stern and grim-jawed. It was a relief, but I never would have even got there without extensive help and support. The NAS picked up the bill for train tickets, the support group charity lent someone familiar with both myself and London. I receive DLA Mobility because I can't cope in an unfamiliar place without assistance. I will not be eligible for PIP. I refuse to accept that my MP and the government do not understand this. Knowing what others are capable of understanding is a crucial component of trust and too much has happened for myself and others to trust them any more. There are extremely few people who have ever succeeded in making me feel this way about them.

I didn't go with my mum because I didn't tell my mum. She wouldn't understand.