Tag: Brexit

Amber Rudd seems confused about the difference between ‘compassion’ and ‘conscious cruelty’

rudd

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Last week, Amber Rudd made the claim that Universal Credit is “delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

However, it is clear – in the words of the public accounts committee, last year – that there is a very real “culture of indifference” within the Department for Work and Pensions and wider government.

Quite often, that “indifference” spills over into conscious cruelty – the term coined by  filmmaker Ken Loach for the UK social security system, during the filming of I, Daniel Blake.

In December, Amber Rudd appeared to strike a conciliatory tone, in in her first appearance before the work and pensions select committee, saying she was enthusiastic about Universal Credit but would not rush the rollout of the new system simply to meet ‘arbitrary timetables.’ Although she acknowledged concerns about the often devastating impact of the social security cuts on the most vulnerable citizens, she said her aim was to ‘restore public confidence’ in Universal Credit.

The problem is that ministers such as Amber Rudd are rather more concerned that Universal Credit has proved politically toxic for the government as a result of policy and design flaws, such as a five-week wait for an initial payment that have left thousands of people in debt, suffering from depression, and reliant on food banks, rather than the devastating impacts an chaos it is wreaking on citizens.

The government is in a weakened position, and is looking to secure support from the opposition for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The PM has even recently phoned  union leaders to try and garner their support, which is an unprecedented move for a Conservative leader. So it’s unlikely that the ‘conciliatory’ tone is sincere or likely to last beyond the threats to power that the government currently faces. 

Rudd was responding to MPs’ concerns that up to 1 million ill and disabled claimants are at risk of destitution and isolation when they are transferred on to universal credit over the next three years, at the time.

Let’s not forget that last November, Rudd has used her first appearance in the House of Commons as work and pensions secretary to condemn an independent UN inquiry into poverty in the UK, over what she claimed was the “extraordinary political nature” of its language. Her response was about damage limitation to the government’s reputation rather than about engaging with the empirical evidence and recommendations presented in Philip Alston’s report.

The UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said the government had inflicted poverty on people through austerity and called levels of child poverty “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. He also heavily criticised Universal Credit, which had been beset by ‘problems’ since its inception.

Asked about the tone of the UN report, May’s spokesman said: “We strongly disagree with the analysis.” However, it was a meticulously evidenced ‘analysis.’ The evidence for the report was provided by many people who have been adversely affected – and some people’s lives have been utterly devastated –  by austerity and the Conservative’s welfare ‘reforms’.

However, Rudd has nonetheless publicly promised to deliver “a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system”, claiming that it has “good intentions” at its heart. 

What ‘good intentions are those?’

Dr Heather Wetherell, a GP, posted the following on Twitter last year:

Dear @DWP,

When a distraught mother has lost her young daughter, please can you tell me why you wont accept “grief reaction” as a sick note diagnosis? Telling a grieving mum this is not an illness is extremely insensitive. You have also wasted NHS time.

She added: “3 days after her daughter died, she got call from the DWP saying did she realise she couldn’t claim Attendance Allowance anymore & had to sign on Job Seekers. Mother panicked & found herself at a job interview the following week – at which she broke down in tears.

“She phoned me in a state on way home from the interview. I was horrified they had put her through this. I’m so upset by it all.”

Wetherell says that when her patient informed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of her bereavement and she was told,  “that’s not an illness… You need to go to your doctor and get a proper/better diagnosis” (she can’t recall exactly which word they used, but remembers feeling totally humiliated and felt they thought she was a fraud.)

Last year, Kirsty Scott told how her 19-year-old son and husband died within 18 months of each other. However, despite suffering physical and mental health conditions with a severely disabled son to look after, she was refused Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

She said: “Getting into the workhouse would have been an easier option.

“When my letter was sent to refuse me ESA it did not reflect what had gone on in the assessment.

“The language used was disgusting – things like ‘it is a lifestyle choice not to get out of bed’ or ‘the death of two close family members did not impact on my life enough’.

“I had lost my son and my husband, I was caring for a disabled son. Half of my family gone and they thought it was ok to say these things to me?

“I can’t tell you what it felt like when I got that letter, the desperation. It was like they thought I lied.

“There was no humanity in it whatsoever. My mental health went downhill.”

Clearly, the UK’s social security system does not facilitate people’s human rights, nor does it protect their dignity. DWP staff don’t practice safeguarding or even recognise a trauma informed approach to protect vulnerable citizens. It seems that callousness and cruelty have become habituated within the administrative structure, entrenched in policy designs within an ideological framework that has normalised the intended ‘hostile environment’.

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is to be organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified and implemented is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies.

Furthermore, Conservative policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

Over the last 8 years, the Conservatives have coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, from the pinnacle of supremicism, self-appointed authority and from behind their fact proof ideological screen. They have historically cast the poorest and the most vulnerable citizens as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

There has never been a clearer contrast between the values and approach of the two main political parties: the Conservatives are authoritarian, they plainly imply that some people’s lives don’t matter – the food bank debate and the bedroom tax debate are further examples of cruelty, and of how Conservatives have reduced human subjects to objects of derision.

While Labour MPs spoke out in the debates about the terrible difficulties that vulnerable families in their constituencies are facing, we were faced with the unedifying spectacle of Tory MPs laughing, jeering and shouting their spiteful glee at the plight of those people that this government have intentionally impoverished – after all, policies are plain and legislated statements of intent.

By contrast, the Labour Party have fostered a counter-narrative that is decent, democratic, inclusive and centralises the fundamental equal worth of each human life. Labour’s policies are intentionally founded on a strong commitment to human rights – without which there can be no meaningful social justice and democracy.

The Conservatives have always been stunted in their vision for society by their own elitism and  preoccupation with the superficial characteristics and taxonomic ranking of human beings – the emphasis being on “what” we are  rather than the rather more important “who” we are. Because of this lack of social intelligence, the government has undermined our progress as a society, stifled human potential and failed to value human diversity and failed to recognise the equal worth of every citizen’s life, because of their own assembled fantasy of corrosive, elitist ideological myths.

I would like to thank Tom Pride for his article DWP tells grieving mother to find job 3 days after death of young child: “grief is not an illness”, which has informed some of this one. 


 

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The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security

Image result for demolition of welfare state UK kittysjones

I’ve written two lengthy pieces about the new report and submission this month to the UNCRPD – UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (published October 2018 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission) – which provides an independent assessment of the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) on the “disappointing” lack of progress by the UK governments to implement the UN’s recommendations since August 2017. You can access the articles here and here

The UKIM report says that the government “has not taken appropriate measures to combat negative and discriminatory stereotypes or prejudice against persons with disabilities in public and the media, including the government’s own claims that ‘dependency’ on benefits is in itself a disincentive of employment.” 

This is important because it shows just how embedded traditional Conservative prejudice is in policy design and within the practices that social security administration has come to entail. 

Image result for welfare state UK

The idea that welfare somehow creates the problems it was designed to alleviate, such as poverty and inequality, has become almost ‘common sense’ and because of that, it’s a narrative that remains largely unchallenged. The Conservatives believe that generous welfare provision creates ‘perverse incentives’. Yet international research has shown that generous welfare provision leads to more, better quality and sustainable employment. 

Moreover, this ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemes.

The idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The governenment have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision.

However, most of the public have already contributed to social security, those needing support tend to move in and out of work. Very few people remain out of work on a permanent basis. The Conservatives have created a corrosive and divisive myth that there are two discrete groups in society: tax payers and ‘scroungers’ – a class of economic free riders.

This intentionally divisive narrative of course is not true, since people claiming welfare support also pay taxes, such as VAT and council tax, and most have already worked and will work again, given the opportunity to do so. For those who are too ill to work, as a so-called civilised society, we should not hesitate to support them.

The government’s mindset is very disciplinarian. In their view, everyone else needs ‘corrective treatment’ to ensure that society is shaped and ruled the way they think it ought to be. The government believes that rather than addressing social problems – many of which are created and perpetuated by their own policies, such as growing inequality and absolute poverty – can be addressed by ‘incentivising’ people to ‘behave’ differently. In other words, they believe that people can be punished out of poverty, being ill, being out of work, and from being less “competitive”, cost effective citizens, letting down the Conservative’s constructed, overarching neoliberal state.

The ’round table’ report from the Centre for Social Justice 

Public policies that are supposed to address fundamental human needs arising from sickness and disability are tainted by a neoliberal idée fixe. The leitmotif is a total corporacratic commodification of human needs and relationships. This has entailed the government permitting private companies to build toll gates to essential support services, building hierarchies of human worth within the closed and entropic context of a competitive market place, where resources are “scarce” and people are being herded; where the only holding principle that operates is profit over human need.

In a report from the Centre for Social Justice (an Orwellian title if ever there was one) called REFORMING CONTRIBUTORY BENEFITS (2016), David Cameron is quoted in the introduction: 

“We have already come a long way in the last 5 years. In the last Parliament we created Universal Credit so that work would always pay. We capped benefits so we struck the right balance between incentivising work and supporting the most vulnerable. And we set up the largest programme to get people into work since the 1930s with over a million people coming off the main out of work benefits and over 2 million getting into work. But when it comes to reforming, we still have further to go …” David Cameron, June 2015.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is a neoliberal right wing think tank, founded by Iain Duncan Smith. The CSJ has played an important role in the design and development of Universal Credit. 

In the opening paragraph, the report says: “William Beveridge’s original blueprint for a welfare state had personal contributions at its core. Indeed, there is widespread consensus that the contributory principle inculcates a degree of responsibility and ownership in a system that has been criticised for breeding dependency.” (My emphasis).

These are views widely held by neoliberal Conservatives, not everyone else.

As UKIM pointed out in their report, the term “welfare dependency” is itself controversial, often carrying derogatory connotations that the recipient of welfare support is unwilling to work. This narrative has diverted attention from the structural factors that cause and entrench poverty, such as government policy, labour market conditions and economic change. Instead of focusing on how to tackle the root causes of poverty, the Conservatives have focused instead on attacking the supposed poor character, morals and psychology of those needing social security support.

This narrative transforms individual experiences of social inequality and being in poverty into a personal failing, rather than a failure of the state. The ideas came from political writers such as Lawrence M. Mead. In his 1986 book Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, Mead argued that American welfare was too permissive, giving out benefit payments without demanding anything from poor people in return, particularly not requiring the recipient to work. Mead viewed this as directly linked to the higher incidence of social problems among poor Americans, more as a cause than an effect of poverty. Neoliberal governments in both the US and UK found these ideas appealing, and the government of Margaret Thatcher imported several other similar US ideas. 

Charles Murray argued that American social policy ignored people’s inherent tendency to ‘avoid hard work’ and to be ‘amoral’, and that from the ‘War on Poverty’ onward the government had given welfare recipients disincentives to work, marry, or have children in wedlock. His 1984 book Losing Ground was also highly influential in the welfare reforms of the 1980s and 90s, and remains so among neoliberal Conservatives. 

Murray exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast. Murray’s culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits; that the poor have earned their position in society; the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities, poor character and level of abilities.

Of course, this perspective also assumes that the opposite is true: wealthy and “successful” people are so because they are more talented, motivated and less lazy, and are thus more deserving. Just like the widely discredited social Darwinism of the Victorian era, proposed by the likes of Conservative sociologist Herbert Spencer, (who originally coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and not Darwin, as is widely held) these resurrected ideas have a considerable degree of popularity in upper-class and elite Conservative circles, where such perspectives provide a justification for extensive privilege. In addition, poor communities are seen as socialising environments where values such as fatalism are transmitted from generation to “workshy” generation.

Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead clearly made an impact on the international policy debate in the 1980s, partly due to the legitimisation that they received from the support of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations for their central claims. They were particularly influential in the growth of work fare and a welfare system based on punishment and psycho-compulsion. Murray claimed the underclass of poor people avoid work because of the “overgenerous” nature of welfare benefits. Mead argued that a “culture of poverty” meant that workfare policies are required to ‘reintegrate’ and ‘incentivise’ the ‘unemployed poor.’ 

This toxic brand of neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by the corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

Leaving the European Union provides an opportunity for the government to shift what is left of social security from public to private provision

The round table paper discusses the ‘further reform’ to welfare that Cameron hinted at:

One of the reasons why this has not happened so far has been the commitment to EU rules on maintaining a benefit programme that is exportable. The British Government succeeded in establishing that Universal Credit would not be exportable as long as contributory benefits were. 

Had contributory benefits been abolished whilst UK social security was bound by EU law, this would have exposed Universal Credit (the significantly larger budget) to exportability. In light of the British vote to leave the EU, however, there is now the possibility of reforming contributory benefits without breaching EU law.” 

The authors of the report say reforming welfare would mean “[a] new insurance model would also allow competition, greater diversification and, finally, the opportunity for claimants to take control over their long term financial support.” 

During the round table discussion, participants discussed a “potential solution”  put forward by private company Legal & General. The report itself carries legal & General’s logo. 

The suggestion was to replace the contributory benefits system with a low premium social insurance scheme delivered by employers through an auto-enrolment structure. This new social insurance scheme would take the form of a ‘rainy day guarantee’, where beneficiaries would make regular payments into the scheme, which would protect against the risk of “future income shocks as a result of long term sickness or unemployment.”

The target for the new social insurance scheme would initially be individuals from “the professional and skilled class who have fewer transactional experiences with Government. They are less likely to suffer a shock to income from illness or sudden unemployment and often need support  infrequently and for less than six months.”

“The infrastructure of this new social insurance scheme could replicate that of the auto-enrolment pension products that have been phased-in under the previous and current Governments. Employers could offer new employees access to a ‘social insurance product’ that could be administered by a private sector organisation, though partially facilitated by the Government.”

The authors also say: “During the roundtable discussion, a significant question emerged over whether a new social insurance product would be compulsoryor voluntary. One concern raised in discussion was that a voluntarysystem risks not gaining a critical mass that enables it to function,whereas a compulsory programme could undermine public confidence in the state welfare system.”

Yes, the one that most citizens have already contributed to. It is not ‘state’ welfare, it is publicly funded social security.

The report continues: One of the barriers to wide-spread acceptability of a private insurance model ahead of a state-contributory benefits model is the emotional reaction by claimants who have paid taxes but are no longer entitled to a benefit payment. Many trust the system to pay out – any alternative outcome could undermine trust in the state welfare system.

“Herein lies a problem: many people place a high degree of trust in the welfare system, only to be disappointed when it delivers less than they expect it to. Part of the challenge in proposing an insurance model, therefore, is to communicate the benefits compared to the state system.”

The benefits to whom, exactly? Legal & General and the wider private insurance sector ?

More of the rub: “Another challenge is the extent to which a new social insurance model could be extended to include both unemployment and sickness support currently covered by ESA and JSA contributory benefits. PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) has estimated that the annual cost of sickness absence in the UK is almost £29 billion. (Hyperlinks added by me). 

“Insurance premiums are calculated on risk and probability, such that if the risk and the probability are high,the premiums will also be high. From an insurance perspective, unemployment is seen as a greater long-term risk than sickness. Company efforts to mitigate the risk may thus mean premiums rise to an amount greater than the £11 per month previously stated.” 

Prioritising private business profit over collective human needs: the neoliberal model

In their conclusion and policy recommendations, the authors say:  

“As this report has discussed, the contributory benefits system is ripe for reform and the proposition of a social insurance model poses a potential solution. With regards to the implementation of a social insurance programme to replace contributory benefits  participants at the round table discussion made the following conclusions: 

  •  Premiums should be treated as income in the Universal Credit system, promoting use of the social insurance system.  
  • The notion of a social insurance model must be communicated correctly; Lessons can be learned from past government announcements on, for example, privately run prisons.
  • The support of business is essential, and communication must be clear as this is another product that sits alongside auto-enrolled pensions, the new lifetime ISA, and the apprenticeship levy
  • High opt-out rates risk destabilising the functionality of a voluntary model, and will therefore determine the necessity of a mandatory system or at the least an opt out model.
  • Individuals who do not draw down on their insurance pot could be offered financial recourse in the form of either a savings or pensions benefit.

“Overall, the opportunity to reform contributory benefits has arrived,the political and economic climate allows for it, and the presence of a strong alternative policy makes it possible and practical.”

You can read the full report here.

Some thoughts

The government says it believes that:

  • the current [welfare] system is too complex
  • there are insufficient incentives to encourage people on benefits to start paid work or increase their hours

The government are aiming to:

  • make the benefit system ‘fairer’ and more affordable
  • reduce poverty, ‘worklessness’ and welfare dependency
  • reduce levels of fraud and error. 

However,  ‘worklessness’ and ‘welfare dependency’ are contested categories based on assumptions and not empirical evidence. 

Our welfare state originally arose as a social security safety net – founded on an assurance that as a civilised and democratic society we value the well-being and health of every citizen.

There was a cross-party political consensus that such provision was in the best interests of the nation as a whole at a time when we were collectively spirited enough to ensure that no one should be homeless or starving in modern Britain.

As such, welfare is a fundamental part of the UK’s development –  our progress – the basic idea of improving people’s lives was at the heart of the welfare state and more broadly, it reflects the evolution of European democratic and rights-based societies.

Now the UK “social security” system is anything but. It has regressed to reflect the flawed and discredited philosophy underpinning the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, to become a system of punishments aimed at the poorest and most marginalised social groups. The Poor Law principle of less eligibility – which served as a deterrence to poor people claiming poor relief is embodied in the Conservative claim of Making work pay: benefits have been reduced to make the lowest paid, insecure employment a more appealing option than claiming benefits.

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of ‘worklessness’ has become common sense. Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

Therefore the very ideological premises of Conservative welfare policy is unevidenced and fundamentally flawed.

Problems with social security provision delivered through private insurance schemes

The National Insurance Scheme (NIS) provides cash benefits for sickness and disability,  unemployment, the death of a partner, retirement, and so on. Citizens already  earn entitlement to these benefits by paying National Insurance contributions;

  • The National Health Service (NHS), which provides medical, dental and optical treatment and which is normally available free of charge only to people who live in Great Britain and Northern Ireland;  
  • The child benefit and Child Tax Credit schemes, which provide cash benefits for people bringing up children;   
  • Non-contributory benefits for certain categories of disabled persons or carers;  
  • Other statutory payments made by employers to employees entitled to maternity, paternity and adoption leave.

The government’s ‘low tax low welfare view of society, coupled with a decade of very low wages and rising costs of living has created ‘tax constraints’ that conflict with the demands made on the welfare state, the government says. Substituting private insurance for tax-financed welfare provision is being touted as some kind of painless way out of those self imposed ‘constraints’.  

However, in general, switching from tax-financed social security to private insurance, where premiums are related to each individual’s risk status, will be ‘regressive’, that is, it will benefit the better-off at the expense of the less well-off. Certain citizens will not be offered cover because their level of risk is too high to make it profitable and economic for private insurance companies. This will also add to the regressive effects. Certain risks will be excluded from cover as a result of the nature of the insurance market.  

If the state still provides some kind of safety net, it may end up with all of the ‘downside risk’ but none of the ‘upside gain’: if things turn out badly and insurers are unable to meet their commitments, the state has to fill the gap created, but if things turn out well, it is the insurers who keep the surplus and profit.

In discussing the future of the welfare state, the question of whether the private sector should take on some of the insurance functions currently provided by social security has  almost inevitably arisen. However, much of this debate has a purely ideological basis.

Switching from social security to private insurance generally increases costs for those on low incomes; premium levels for products mean that those with average incomes and average risk also lose. For many insurance products, women, older people and those in poor health lose the most. 

For many with higher incomes, the role of permanent health insurance is already filled by long-term occupational sick pay while for those with lower incomes, affording enough cover to get clear of means-tested benefit entitlement is difficult. 

Uncertainty over future long-term care needs and costs makes policies virtually impossible to assess, for both consumers and providers, making reliance on private insurance a dubious proposition. The nature of the risks leads to policies which limit coverage and exclude some groups, including those without good employment records and people with disabilities.

Tax-financed provision offers not only the most equitable but also the most efficient solution, minimising costs to average-risk as well as high-risk and low-income ‘consumers’ and preserving the advantages of unified public finances.

Furthermore, it retains the integrity of the original aims of the welfare state and ensures a democratic state.

UKIM’s report to the UNCRPD raised other concerns about the potentially negative impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people, which you can read about here.

 

Related

This explores the overlapping neoliberal ideas aimed at the reform of both welfare and health care in the UK – Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame 

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A critique of benefit sanctions:  the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder


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Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

Image result for Human rights disabled people UK

Yesterday I wrote an article about the government’s shameful lack of progress on disability rights in the UK. I discussed the details of a new report and the recommendations made by the UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This is a summary of some key concerns that I only touched on in my original write up, and it also focuses on one of the important themes that emerged in the report: the potential impact of Brexit on disabled people’s rights. 

The new report and submission to the UNCRPD – UK Independent Mechanism update report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (published October 2018) – provides an independent assessment of the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) on the “disappointing” lack of progress by the UK governments to implement the UN’s recommendations since August 2017. 

A year on, there is still no comprehensive UK-wide strategy demonstrating how the UK will implement the CRPD Committee’s recommendations. There has also been “continued reluctance” from the UK Government to accept the conclusions of the CRPD Committee’s inquiry report on the impact of the UK Government’s policies on the rights of disabled people. 

Disabled people across the UK continue to face serious regression of their rights to an adequate standard of living and social protection, to live independently and to be included in the community. UKIM has reiterated that the grave and systematic violations identified by the CRPD Committee need to be addressed as a matter of urgency and that the overall approach of the UK Government towards social security protection requires a complete overhaul, so that it is informed by human rights frameworks, standards and principles, to ensure disabled people’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Despite the empirical evidence presented from a variety of researchers and the UN investigation concerning the significantly adverse effect of welfare reform on disabled people’s rights to independent living and to an adequate standard of living and social  security, the UK Government has failed to act on this evidence and to implement the CRPD Committee’s recommendations regarding these rights.

The authors of the report remain seriously concerned about the continued failure of the UK Government to conduct an assessment of the cumulative impact on disabled people  of multiple policy, cuts and law reforms in relation to living standards and social security. 

In the section about prejudice and negative attitudes, the report also cites a shameful example of rhetoric from the government that has potentially reinforced negative attitudes and the stigma surrounding mental health and disability: “This includes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, stating before a Committee of the UK Parliament: ‘It is almost certainly the case that by increasing participation in the workforce, including far higher levels of participation by marginal groups and very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people – something we should be extremely proud of – may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements.’

Many people understood this statement as indicating that the increase in disabled people in employment is partly responsible for the UK’s decreasing productivity.”

The report also says that employment rates for disabled people have actually risen only very marginally.  

Conservative prejudice is embedded in social security policy and administration

The UKIM report says that government has not taken appropriate measures to combat negative and discriminatory stereotypes or prejudice against persons with disabilities in public and the media, including the government’s own claims that ‘dependency’ on benefits is in itself a disincentive of employment. This is important because it shows just how embedded Conservative prejudice is in policies and within our social security administration.

The idea that welfare somehow creates the problems it was designed to alleviate, such as poverty and inequality, has become almost ‘common sense’ and because of that, it’s a narrative that remains largely unchallenged. Yet international research has shown that generous welfare provision leads to more, better quality and sustainable employment. 

Moreover, this ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemes.

The idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The governenment have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision.

However, most of the public have already contributed to social security, those needing support tend to move in and out of work. Very few people remain out of work on a permanent basis. The Conservatives have created a corrosive and divisive myth that there are two discrete groups in society: tax payers and ‘scroungers’ – a class of economic free riders. This of course is not true, since people claiming welfare support also pay taxes, such as VAT and council tax, and most have already worked and will work again, given the opportunity to do so. For those who are too ill to work, as a so-called civilise society, we should not hesitate to support them.

In the recommendations, the authors say the government should implement broad mass media campaigns, in consultation with organisations representing persons with disabilities, particularly those affected by the welfare reform, to promote them as full rights holders, in accordance with the Convention; and adopt measures to address complaints of harassment and hate crime by persons with disabilities, promptly investigate those allegations, hold the perpetrators accountable and provide fair and appropriate compensation to victims.

As a society we take tend to take human rights for granted. We seldom think about rights because much of the time, there is no need to. It’s not until we directly experience discrimination and oppression that we recognise the value of having a universal human rights framework. Our rights define the relationship between citizen and state, and ensure that there is no abuse of power. However, we no longer have equal access to justice and redress for human rights breaches and discrimination. 

The high demand for advice on disability benefits since the government’s welfare reform means that the almost complete removal of welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid has had a disproportionate impact on disabled people or those with a long-term health condition.

People entitled to disability benefits relied on legal aid to support appeals of incorrect decisions and to provide a valuable check on decision-making concerning eligibility for welfare support. The revisions to the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid have had a disproportionate impact on various groups including disabled people, women, children and migrants. This is because of the restrictions that the government placed on legal aid accessibility with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

There has been a 99% decrease in support provided by the Legal Aid Agency for clients with disability-related welfare benefits issues, compared with pre-LASPO levels, and the total number of such claims has plummeted from 29,801 in 2011/12 to 308 in 2016/17.

The government has failed to ensure access to justice, removing appropriate legal advice and support, including through reasonable and procedural accommodation for disabled people seeking redress and reparation for the violation of their rights, as covered in the  report.

It’s difficult to imagine that this wasn’t a coordinated effort on the part of the government to restrict citizen freedoms, support and access to justice for precisely those who need justice and remedies the most.

Human rights don’t often seem as though they matter, until they do. But by then, it may be too late. 

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people

In 2016, I wrote an article about concerns raised regarding the rights of disabled people following Brexit. Earlier this year, I wrote another article about my concerns that the European fundamental rights charter was excluded in the European Union (EU) withdrawal Bill, including protection from eugenic policy.

The result of the EU referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and forthcoming withdrawal, carries some obvious and very worrying implications for the protection of citizens rights and freedoms in the UK. Historically the UK Conservative government has strongly opposed much of Europe’s social rights agenda.

So it was very concerning that the House of Commons voted down a Labour amendment to ensure that our basic human rights are protected after Brexit, as set out in the European Union Charter. 

The EU Withdrawal Bill threatened to significantly reduce existing human rights protections. It excluded both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (in its entirety) and the right of action for violations of EU General Principles from domestic law after the UK’s withdrawal. It also handed sweeping powers to ministers to alter legislation without appropriate parliamentary scrutiny, placing current rights and equality laws at risk.

Worryingly, Suella Fernandes, who was promoted to the Brexit department earlier this year warned in November last year that transposing the ‘flabby’ charter into British law would give UK citizens additional protections on issues such as “biomedicine, eugenics, personal data and collective bargaining.”

However, the very fact that anyone at all in government objects to retaining these fundamental rights and protections indicates that we do very clearly need them.

It should be inconceivable that a democratic legislature would vote to take away citizens rights. The regressive step means the loss of the Charter goes rights that simply don’t exist in the Human Rights Act or in our common law. Gone is the enforceable right to human dignity. Gone are our rights to data protection, comprehensive protection for the rights of the child, a free-standing right to non-discrimination, protection of a child’s best interests and the right to human dignity, refugee rights, the right to conscientious objection, academic freedom and wide-ranging fair trial rights to name but a few. Then there are the losses of economic and social rights. Gone too, are the right to a private life, freedom of speech, equality provisions and employment rights governing how workers are treated. These are all laws that protect us all from abuses of power. 

A group of more than 20 organisations and human rights legal experts, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, signed an open letter on the importance of the Charter of Fundamental Rights ahead of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returning to Parliament on 16 January this year. The letter was published in the Observer.

Trevor Tayleur, an associate professor at the University of Law, explained that the charter, although narrower in focus than the Human Rights Act, offers a far more robust defence of fundamental rights.

“At present, the main means of protecting human rights in the UK is the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) ,” he said. “This incorporates the bulk of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European convention on human rights into UK law and thereby enables individuals to enforce their convention rights in the UK courts. However, there is a significant limitation to the protection afforded by the HRA because it does not override acts of parliament.

“In contrast, the protection afforded by the EU charter of fundamental rights is much stronger because where there is a conflict between basic rights contained in the charter and an act of the Westminster parliament, the charter will prevail over the act.” 

Under the HRA, only an individual who is a “victim” of a rights violation can bring a claim, whereas anyone with “sufficient interest” can apply for judicial review based on the Charter (see this briefing at p 11)

In their report, UKIM say:  “There are fears that the significant uncertainty in relation to Brexit will lead to a further deterioration of disabled people’s rights.

“The lack of a devolved government in Northern Ireland is also a specific concern to that jurisdiction, because it is significantly inhibiting the relevant departments from taking the required steps. Without a clear and coordinated plan for how the UK and devolved governments will address the UN recommendations systematically, the limited steps taken so far are unlikely to be enough to address the concerns raised by the CRPD Committee.”

The report goes on to say: “Following the European Union (EU) referendum in June 2016, there continues to be significant uncertainty regarding the future applicability of  existing human rights protections in the UK that derive from EU law. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was excluded from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, meaning that from ‘exit day’ it will no longer apply in domestic law. 

“As a result, domestic protections are more vulnerable to repeal. The Charter goes further than the non-discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 or the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 26 of the Charter, in particular, is a useful interpretive tool to support disabled people’s right to independence and integration and participation in the community. 

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 also leaves human rights protections at risk of being changed through the use of wide-ranging delegated powers. This means that changes to fundamental rights currently protected by EU law can be made by ministers through secondary legislation [statutory instruments, usually reserved for ‘non-controversial policy amendments] without being subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.

The EU is itself a party to the CRPD. Under EU law, international treaties to which the EU is party have a different status than they do under UK law. For example, EU law (unlike UK law) must be interpreted consistently with the CRPD. To ensure there is no regression, and that disabled people in the UK benefit from future progress driven by the CRPD, the UK Government should ensure these protections are incorporated into UK law, for example by giving enhanced status to the CRPD. 

The Conservatives have used secondary legslation to try and quietly push through several very controversial policies over recent years, such as £4bn-worth of cuts to family tax credits, and the removal of maintenance grants from around half a million of the poorest students in England. The changes mainly hit disabled, ethnic minority and older students.

The government have introduced swathes of significant new laws covering everything from fracking to fox hunting and benefit cuts without debate and scrutiny on the floor of the House of Commons. Many of these policies were not included in the Conservatives’ election manifesto and were nodded through by obscure Commons committees without the substance of the change being debated.

Image result for use of statutory instruments kittysjones

After the House of Lords successfully challenged the tax credit instrument, the Government then proposed limiting peers rights to reject statutory instruments. This would mean if one was rejected by the Lords, the ministers would simply have to retable it and it would pass automatically.  All of this should be seen alongside other Conservative proposals – including limits on freedom of information, changes to constituency boundaries and electoral registration, attempts to choke the opposition of funding within the Trade Union Bill, and the Lobbying Act. 

In light of this repressive pattern of behaviour, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve entered the realms of constitutional gerrymandering, with an authoritarian executive waging war on the institutions that hold them to account. With its fear of opposition and loathing of challenge, the government wants to stifle debate, shut down opposition and block proper scruting and democratic accountability. 

It is within this authoritarian political context that many of us have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled citizens.

I’m always concerned that language use sometimes reinforces prejudices against disabled people by focusing on us as a group as ‘vulnerable’ and as ‘those in need’, as opposed to citizens and rights holders. However, grave and systematic violations of disabled peoples’ human right inevitably increases our vulnerability to further political abuse. 

The Yogyakarta Principles, one of the international human rights instruments use the term “vulnerability” as such potential to abuse and/or social and economic exclusion. Social vulnerability is created through the interaction of social forces and multiple “stressors”, and resolved through social (as opposed to individual) means. 

Social vulnerability is the product of social inequalities. It arises through social, cultural, political and economic processes. 

While some individuals within a socially vulnerable context may break free from the hierarchical order, social vulnerability itself persists because of structural – social, cultural economical and political – influences that continue to reinforce vulnerability. Some campaigners are very critical of the use of the word ‘vulnerability’, because they feel it leads to attitudes and perceptions of disabled people as passive victims

Since 2010, no social group has organised, campaigned and protested more than disabled people. Many of us have lived through harrowing times under this government and the last, when our very existence has become so precarious because of targeted and cruel Conservative policies and disproportionate cuts to our lifeline support. Yet we have remained strong.in our resolve. Despite this, some of our dear friends and comrades  have been tragically lost – they have not survived, yet many of them were very strong in their resolve to challenge discrimination and oppression.

In one of the wealthiest democratic nations on earth, no group of people should have to fight for their survival. Vulnerability is rather more about the potential for some social groups being subjected to political abuse than it is about individual qualities. Disabled people currently  are and have been. This is empirically verified by the report and conclusions drawn from the United Nations inquiry into the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights here in the UK, by a so-called democratic government. 

The government’s ‘paternalism’ is authoritarian gaslighting

Over recent years, Conservative policies have become increasingly ‘paternalist’, also reflecting the authoritarian turn, in that they are designed to act upon us, to ‘change’ our behaviours through the use of negative reinforcement (‘incentives’), while we are completely excluded from policy design and aims. Our behaviours are being aligned with neoliberal outcomes, conflating our needs and interests with the private financial profit of the powerful. 

As one of the instigators of the United Nations investigation, to which I regularly submitted evidence regarding the government’s systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people, and as a person with disability, I don’t care for being  described by Damian Green as “patronising” or being told that disabled people – the witnesses of the investigation – presented an “outdated view” of disability in the UK. This is a government minister attempting to discredit and re-write our accounts and experiences while ignoring the empirical evidence we have presented. Such actions are profoundly oppressive.

The only opportunity disabled people have been presented with to effectively express our fears, experiences and concerns about increasingly punitive and discriminatory policies, to voice a democratic opinion more generally and to be heard, has been in dialogue with an international human rights organisation, and still this government refuse to hear what we have to say. Nor are we consulted with, democratically included or invited to participate in the executive’s decision-making that directly affects us. As UKIM note: 

“There is a continued lack of action from the UK and devolved governments on the CRPD Committee’s recommendations. This includes setting up systems that will  ensure that disabled people and their organisations are involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of legislation, policy or programmes that affect their lives. It remains unclear how the new Inter-Ministerial Group on Disability and Society will work with disabled people and their organisations, and UKIM, to promote and monitor implementation of UN CRPD. 

“It is particularly concerning that the UN CRPD’s requirement to effectively involve disabled people and their organisations is not specifically reflected in the inter-ministerial group’s terms of reference. Nor do the terms of reference refer to the CRPD or the CRPD Committee’s recommendations.”

Oppression always involves the objectification of those being dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity and experiences of the oppressed.

This is very evident in the government’s approach to designing policies that act upon us.  The government has consistently failed to actively consult, engage with and include disabled people, our representative organisations and give due consideration to our views in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of any legislation, policy or programme action related to our rights. Furthermore, the current Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton, has refused to meet with disabled people and allied organisations. (See also I’m a disabled person and Sarah Newton is an outrageous, gaslighting liar.)

Last year, Theresia Degener, who leads the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), said the UK Government has “totally neglected” disabled people, during a two day meeting with UK government officials in Geneva.

Degener told them: “Evidence before us now and in our inquiry procedure as published in our 2016 report reveals that social cut policies have led to a human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in.” 

The Government’s welfare cuts have resulted in “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people – a claim opposed by ministers but supported by UK courts.

For example, Judges have ruled that three of the government’s flagship welfare policies are illegal because of the impact they have on disabled people and single parents. In January 2016, the Court of Appeal declared the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ unlawful because of its consequences for disabled children, as well as victims of domestic violence. 

Sanctions imposed on people who refused to or could not take part in the Department for Work and Pension’s ‘back to work’ schemes were also thrown out by Court of Appeal judges in April 2016. In June 2017 the High Court said the government’s benefit cap is unlawful and causes “real misery for no good purpose”.  This year, a High Court ruling found that the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) policy had discriminated against people with mental health conditions. 

Between 2011 and 2017 the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) underpaid more than £450,000,000 in means-tested benefits, due to its mishandling of the process by which claimants were moved from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance.

When announcing its plans to remedy those underpayments on 14th December 2017, the DWP claimed the law ‘barred’ it from paying claimants any underpayments arising before 21st October 2014. That would have had two serious effects: first, up to £150,000,000 of the underpaid benefit would have been kept by the Government instead of passed to citizens who were deprived of it through no fault of their own; and second, any arrears which were paid to disabled people could after 52 weeks have been treated as ‘capital’, and reduced or stopped their ongoing entitlement to benefit.

In March 2018 the Child Poverty Action Group, acting for one affected claimant, brought judicial review proceedings in R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions JR/1249/2018 arguing that the DWP’s position was unlawful. The DWP accepted that it ‘got the law wrong’. The DWP said it will now start making those payments. It was necessary to take legal action against the Government because it said it had no legal power to fully remedy the consequences of a major error it had made in transferring claimants from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance.

Ministers have also accused by the UN of misleading the public about the impact of Government policies by refusing to answer questions and using statistics in an “unclear way.”

Gaslighting.

The CRPD Committee has requested that the State party (the government) disseminate the concluding observations of their inquiry widely, including to non-governmental organisations and organisations of persons with disabilities, and to disabled people themselves and members of their families, in national and minority languages, including sign language, and in accessible formats, including Easy Read, and to make them available on the government website on human rights. 

That hasn’t happened and is unlikely to do so in the future. So please do share this article, The government’s shameful lack of progress on disability rights in the UK – new report update and submission to the UNCRPD Committee, and the UKIM update and shadow report widely.

 

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I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I co-run a group online that helps people with ESA and PIP claim, assessment, mandatory review and appeal, increasingly providing one to one emotional support, too.

The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Brexit, law firms, PR, lobbying and the communication ‘dark arts’ political hires

influence

Media Intelligence Partners’ lobbying aims.

Dark arts.” “Peddling.” “Salacious.” These are just a handful of terms the media has used to describe campaign, ‘corporate research’ and ‘strategic communications’. Even the lighter description “opposition” doesn’t quite capture what companies like Cambridge Analytica do. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has highlighted that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a handful of very wealthy individuals – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing, as democracies are increasingly being stage-managed by those who can afford the props and scripts. In a way, it was inevitable that sooner or later, politics would be reduced to branding and ‘market competition’, and that political outcomes would become aligned with neoliberal outcomes. 

Surveillance strategies and targeted marketing also include the use of biometrics. The private company Endless gain, for example, use biometrics and psychology and “to understand human emotions and behaviour, and Psychology to optimise human emotions and behaviour. Our way helps our clients convert more customers, keep them for longer, and have them spend more.” 

Endless Gain claim on their site to “optimise conversions” in the same way that behavioural economists at the Nudge Unit claim to “optimise decision-making”, in their quest to align citizens’ choices with neoliberal outcomes.

The company uses eyetracking, facial expression recognitiongalvanic skin response,  EEG and pupil dilation – biometrics, in addition to conventional psychological research, “bringing together biometric research with findings from decades of academic psychology –particularly on emotional decision-making and the psychology of persuasion – to make changes to your site that increase both revenue and conversions.”  

Other companies, such as the hugely influential Crimson Hexagonuse AI.  The company is based in Boston, Massachusetts and has also a European division in London. Edelman Intelligence, a massive PR company, are a client of this company, as are TwitterThe company’s online data library consists of over 1 trillion posts, and includes documents from social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as well as blogs, forums, and news sites. The company’s ForSight platform is a Twitter Certified Product. (See also: The anti-social public relations of the PR industry, which details the intrusive ‘360 degree’ social media ‘listening’ and monitoring posts used by companies to gather data and intelligence and to formulate ‘strategic communications’ to discredit critics)

This level of surveillance and persuasion is deeply intrusive form of commodification and control that effectively exiles citizens from their own characteristics, perceptions, behaviours and choices, while producing lucrative markets aimed at data mining, behavioural analysis, prediction and modification.

Furthermore, the data collection, analysis and profiling is likely to build in discrimination, reflecting and reinforcing material and power inequalities. Credit reference agencies, insurance companies and the financial sector have previously demonstrated this point only too well. 

The data mining, analytics and persuasion market exists because large corporations and governments want to micromanage and psychoregulate citizens. However, such intrusive surveillance and micromanagement poses fundamental challenges to our democratic norms and personal autonomy.  

Tailored and targeted ‘strategic communications’ and persuasions are based on behaviour modelling and presupposed preferences, which may or may not be accurate or comprehensive. However, such an approach forecloses the possibility of citizens seeing alternative choices and developing new preferences: of accessing a full range of choices, learning and developing. It reduces citizens, commodifying their biology, psychology and decision-making, and transforming human nature into profits for big businesses and maintaining the power of the establishment.

Carole Cadwalladr, writing for the Guardian and Observer, revealed how the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state have been laid in the US and how British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire, Robert Mercer. And how we are in the midst of a massive land and power grab by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested, analysed, profiled and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights the erosion of democracy because governments are paying to use these sophisticated techniques of persuasion to unduly influence voters and to maintain a hegemony, amplifying and normalising dominant political narratives that justify neoliberal policies. ‘Behavioural science’ is used on every level of our society, from many policy programmes – it’s become embedded in our institutions – to forms of “expertise”, and through the state’s influence on the mass media, and other social and cultural systems.

It also operates at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives. Repetition is an old propaganda technique that sometimes works. The ‘Strong and Stable’ ideological motif of the government, however, was a tad overused, and led to ridicule because it became so visible as a ill-conceived technique of persuasion. But what about all of the psycholinguistic cues that remain opaque?

The debate should not be about whether or not these methods of citizen ‘conversion’ are wholly effective, because that distracts us from the corrupt intentions behind the use of them, and especially, the implications for citizen autonomy, civil rights and democracy.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie has said that British voters in the lead up to the referendum to exit the European Union were duped by the Leave campaign. Speaking to MPs on Tuesday 27 March, the former Cambridge Analytica employee described how pro-Brexit groups like BeLeave used Canadian firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ) to profile and target online voters with psychologically tailored “strategic communications”, using personal data allegedly gleaned from Facebook. 

“I think it is completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome of the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating,” he said. The revelations and accusations came almost exactly one year before the UK leaves the EU on 29 March, 2019.

Wylie said AIQ was subcontracted through Cambridge Analytica, a political data company which also stands accused of manipulating voter behaviour to help Donald Trump win the US presidential election. The comments follow separate accusations that the Leave campaign may have also broken electoral laws on spending thresholds, which are capped at £7m. The Leave campaign spent £6.77m but then allegedly received a £625,000 donation from BeLeave, a youth Brexit group. The donation was then spent on AIQ services, in breach of the £7m limit on campaign spending. Wylie also described the spending breach as part of a “common plan” coordinated by the pro-Brexit campaign.

Cambridge Analytica is by no means the only private company that has hugely profited from corrupt methodologies, abominable politicking and the run-up to Brexit. The company is a pioneer in ‘behavioural microtargeting’ – using online data to build up a sophisticated psychological profile of voters, then targeting those individuals with ‘bespoke’ psychologically tailored messages, and the media, with carefully curated narratives that indulge group tendencies – drawn from social psychology and in-depth knowledge of social science –  and social norms to influence political outcomes.

The UK Policy Group

There are many other similar companies which are quietly raising substantial antitrust concerns.

The UK Policy Group, for example, is the UK branch of a notorious US political organisation – Definers Public Affairs – which has worked for Donald Trump’s administration and has aggressively targeted his critics. The company boasts: “What sets us apart is our focus on political-style research, war room media monitoring, political due diligence and rapid response communications.

“We help our clients navigate public affairs challenges, influence media narratives and make informed decisions to disrupt crowded markets.

“The global political, policy and corporate communications landscapes are evolving rapidly. Decision makers need high quality research to make informed decisions and need relevant content to drive the court of public opinion and provide context to shape decisions by policymakers.

“With affiliates in Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley, UK Policy Group employs some of the best communicators, researchers and media analysts as part of our team.”

Former government officials are advising this highly controversial company. The UK company’s vice president is Andrew Goodfellow, who was the Conservative Party’s director of policy and research. 

Ameet Gill, who was the former director of strategy Number 10 and founder of lobbying company Hanbury Strategyis providing consultancy to the firm. Official documents reveal that David Cameron ’s former director of strategy, Gill, was given permission by parliamentary authorities to accept a contract advising the firm through his political strategy company Hanbury Strategy. Pelham Groom, a company director, was previously head of ‘media monitoring’ for the Conservative Party. Chris Brannigan, Theresa May’s former Director of Government Relations is also a member of the group’s advisory board. Rhiannon Glover is an analyst, formerly, the late duty press officer for the Conservative Party and researcher in the office of Nick Hurd.

The company is also partnered with Trygve Olson, of Viking Strategies, who advised the European People’s Party in the 2009 EU elections and worked as a consultant to the Republican Party in the US.

The company says: “We offer our clients an end-to-end system of research on issues and opponents, monitoring the news cycles, and shaping narratives via rapid rebuttal communications.

UKPG provides our clients with unparalleled campaign-style research as the foundation of driving informed decisions that allow them to shape public opinion, and impact outcomes.”

The company employs people to find damaging information on political rivals. Scrutinising the personal histories, online videos and posts of Labour Party candidates, the company collects dossiers of potential discrediting and smear material to be handed to the Conservative Party. It’s understood that the information is then handed to right-wing websites and newspapers to construct narratives and add a veneer of evidence to negative articles.

The company expansion by US-based company Definers Public Affairs came at a time when US lobbying firms were eyeing UK expansion “in anticipation of flood of Brexit-related work, using their capacity to influence the national news cycle’ and as a ‘master of opposition research”. 

Ian Lavery MP, Labour Party Chair, said: “I am disappointed but not surprised to hear that in an attempt to deflect from their total lack of direction and policy, the Tories are reduced to digging low and dragging British politics through the gutter, in the desperate hope that they may find some salacious morsel.

“This kind of base mudslinging has no place in British democratic debate, and deflects from the real issues facing people today. It is time that Theresa May stops spending money and effort on these tactics and focuses on policies to improve the lives of those who have suffered because of her government’s heartless policies.”

Brexit

There is a clear danger that the UK, having “taken back control” will simply hand enormous power over to corporate lobbyists who see Brexit as “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to influence the way the UK is governed. Those companies that can influence policies and regulations – such as trade policies, labour laws and environmental regulations – stand to profit hugely.

For those who are worried they won’t, well there are a huge number of think tanks, consultancies and PR companies ready to lobby on their behalf and guide them through the Brexit fallout, all for a hefty sum of post-Brexit private profits. 

In the wake of the EU referendum, many law firms have also created stand alone ‘Brexit’ teams in order to cope with the increasing demand from clients asking how leaving the EU will impact them. Just after the referendum, companies are bringing together existing partners to build out their Brexit teams, mainly composed of individuals with EU/competition, trade and regulatory backgrounds. 

Former government lawyers can earn significantly more money in the private sector. In return, law firms get people with not just the relevant legal skills, but also insider knowledge and connections: people with “a unique understanding of the administrative and political processes across Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels”.

Law firms are hiring politicians, government lawyers and other officials in a bid to position themselves as the go-to people for such advice.

Some of the notable recent moves of government ministers through the revolving  door to private profiteering, are:

Paul Hardy, House of Lords → DLA Piper Senior Director Competition law, International Trade

Andrew Hood, Foreign and Commonwealth Office → Dechert Senior Director International Trade, Government Regulation

Francis Maude, Government → Covington & Burling Senior Advisor International Trade, Regulation

Anthony Parry, HM Treasury → Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Consultant EU Law, International Trade.

Here is a list of ‘go-to’ private companies that are profiting from handing out Brexit advice and lobbying on behalf of big business:

Media Intelligence Partners

Conservative hack Nick Wood, who was once Iain Duncan Smith’s former press aide, set up his own PR consultancy, Media Intelligence Partners in 2004. From 1998 until 2004 he was the Media director for Conservative Party.

However, a break from the Conservatives was absolutely not on the cards for this die-hard Thatcherite. Wood, axed by Michael Howard in 2004, went on to represent Iain Duncan Smith’s think-tank and advised selected Tory parliamentary candidates on PR in the run-up to subsesquent election in 2005.

Wood, who held senior political roles at The Times and Daily Express during a 20-year journalistic career, served under both Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague during one of the most internecine periods in Tory history. 

He has worked with around 50 clients including “prestigious” international think- tanks like the Heritage Foundation and some of the “thought-leaders in UK public policy,” such as the Centre for Social Justice. MIP worked with pro-Brexit Leave means Leave and Economists for Free Trade, formerly called Economists for Brexit. This group has a powerful influence on the media.

Advisors for Economists for Free Trade include Tim Montgomerie, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Owen Paterson, Viscount Ridley and John Longworth, Former Director British Chambers of Commerce, Co-Chairman of Leave Means Leave.

Wood has also worked with major private sector clients including HSBC Bank and eBay. In 2008 he also established the media training and presentation company Pitch-Perfect with Jonathan Haslam, a former Downing Street Press Secretary. 

Media Intelligence Partners (MIP, sometimes MIPPR)) is a London-based PR and lobbying company. The Telegraph reported in 2009 that four Conservative MPs had claimed more than £66,000 in expenses for services provided by the company. Commons rules state that “advice for individual members on self-promotion or PR for individuals or political parties” is banned. However, that didn’t stop Iain Duncan Smith claiming more than £11,000 on his office expense account for services between June 2005 and December 2007. 

Andrew Mitchell, the shadow international development secretary, billed the taxpayer for £18,800 for “research and secretarial services” between April 2006 and July 2008. 

Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, claimed almost £20,000 in office expenses for “research” from the consultancy between November 2006 and May last year, while Philip Dunne, another backbencher, claimed for £17,000 for “research and secretarial services”.  

MIP provides services to a number of Brexit lobby groups. As well as being heavily involved in the campaign leading up to the referendum, and Brexit campaigns since, MIP also sells consultancy services to clients.

It says of its ‘Brexit Consultancy’: “MIP is ideally placed to help business leaders navigate this challenging period of change. We help our clients reduce risk and grasp the opportunities of the UK’s exit from the EU. Our insight and expertise on the negotiations and the likely outcomes are invaluable to business leaders in all sectors.”

The company says that during the EU referendum campaign, it “worked closely with current and former cabinet ministers”, including the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox. It says it ‘remains at the forefront of the campaign to secure the best possible deal for Britain.”

MIP were behind the launch Conservatives for Britain, the organisation that lead the Conservative campaign to leave the European Union. The launch appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 7 June 2015. Conservatives for Britain was founded by MP Steve Baker and MEP David Campbell Bannerman and went on to attract the support of over 100 Conservative Party MPs.

Grassroots Out

MIP ran the ‘communications and strategy’ campaign forGrassroots Out in the four months prior to the June 2016 referendum. Four senior MIP employees were seconded to the campaign, directing the press office and providing ‘high-level strategic advice’ to the campaign’s key spokespeople. MIP also managed a nationwide Grassroots Out tour, featuring speeches from Chris GraylingOwen Paterson and Liam Fox. Founded by Conservative MPs Peter BoneTom Pursglove and the Labour MP Kate HoeyGrassroots Out claimed cross-party support, including from MIP, the Brexit Secretary David Davis and Nigel Farage, the ex-leader of UKIP.

Leave Means Leave

Since the EU referendum, MIP has been working with Leave Means Leave “to make sure the instructions of the British people are acted upon”. This has involved MIP communicating with ministers on Leave Means Leave‘s behalf. 

Other Brexit-related work includes MIP undertaking media work for the launch of a joint Centre for Social Justice and Legatum Institute report called 48:52 Healing a Divided Britain in September 2016.

The MIP site says: “We devise effective and strategic media outreach, implementing bespoke public relations campaigns. We help our clients achieve their goals across both traditional platforms and more modern online and social media.

“We have unrivalled experience of the media landscape, from Fleet Street to broadcasters and online media. Our staff have worked at the highest levels of national newspapers and international broadcast organisations and have in-depth knowledge of the media’s editorial processes.”

Wood set up MIP with then former Central Office staffer Penny Mordaunt and Nick Longworth, the broadcast PR specialist also axed in the PR Officers’ cull that ended Wood’s five-plus years running Tory media operations.

Edgar Johnson is a Senior Account Executive at MIP and works on a variety projects ranging from new product and company launches to “bespoke political campaigns.” He also assists with MIP’s digital communications and research services.

Prior to joining MIP, Johnson worked as a researcher for Mark Harper MP in the UK Parliament.

He has “valuable campaigning experience from the 2015 General Election where he wrote election literature, devised social media content and campaigned on the front line across several key marginal seats. This helped to return a full brace of Conservative MPs across his region for the first time in nearly 30 years.”

He was also part of MIP’s team providing communications and strategy for the cross-party Grassroots Out campaign during the 2016 EU referendum. During the campaign, he co-ordinated successful events across the country and managed one of Grassroots Out’s largest rallies featuring current Secretary of State for International Trade, Rt. Hon Liam Fox MP. MIP were paid a total of £42,828.00 for their services.

Brexit Consultancy: the result of years of lobbying for vested interests

MIP say: “The United Kingdom’s historic decision to leave the European Union represents a period of uncertainty and opportunity for Britain’s business community. The consequences for legislation, regulation, tariffs and trade rules are huge – and will affect UK firms operating domestically and internationally.

“MIP is ideally placed to help business leaders navigate this challenging period of change. We help our clients reduce risk and grasp the opportunities of the UK’s exit from the EU. Our insight and expertise on the negotiations and the likely outcomes are invaluable to business leaders in all sectors.

“Our Brexit advisory service is headed up by our Chief Executive, Nick Wood. Before founding MIP in 2004, Nick served as Director of Communications to the Conservative Party, having previously been Chief Political Correspondent for The Times newspaper.

“Nick and our MIP staff were at the heart of a Leave campaign that upset the odds, winning the support of 17.4 million people in the largest democratic exercise in the nation’s history.

“We worked with politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as senior business people and campaigning organisations, to bring about the referendum over a number of years. We then worked intensively for four months of the campaign itself to win a historic victory. 

“During this time, we advised and worked closely with current and former cabinet ministers, including the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox. We remain at the forefront of the campaign to secure the best possible deal for Britain.” (My emphasis)

It then says: “To learn more about how we can help your business capitalise on the opportunities of Brexit, please get in touch.”

In February 2017, the Electoral Commission launched an investigation into referendum spending by Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe. Taking a lead from a series of articles, particularly by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer, the Commission began looking at the role of AggregateIQ in the referendum campaign.

The Electoral Commission wrote to Darren Grimes, this time asking him to “please explain why you chose to commission AggregateIQ in particular to undertake the work you reported in your spending return, rather than another company.”

Replying on March 3, Grimes told the Electoral Commission that he decided to spend more than £675,000 with AggregateIQ after volunteering with Vote Leave and watching the US presidential election process. “I attended some Vote Leave Ltd events during the campaign as a volunteer activist and socialised with some members of staff. I asked and was told that AIQ was running Vote Leave’s digital campaign and I also became aware that AIQ had worked on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, that I was greatly impressed by. I was therefore confident that they could assist us in putting the proposed donation to effect in the time available,” Grimes said in emails to the Electoral Commission.

On 11 May 2018, the Electoral Commission found against Leave.EU, which ran a separate campaign to the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, following its investigations into alleged irregularities during the referendum campaign. It found that Leave.EU had unlawfully overspent at least £77,380 – 10% more than the statutory spending limit – though the real figure “may well have been considerably higher”. 

Additionally, its investigations found that Leave.EU inaccurately reported three loans it had received, including “a lack of transparency and incorrect reporting around who provided the loans, the dates the loans were entered into, the repayment date and the interest rate.” Finally, Leave.EU had also failed to provide the required invoice or receipt for “97 payments of over £200, totalling £80,224.”

The Electoral Commission’s director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel complained that the £70,000 fine he was permitted to impose on Leave.EU did not meet the severity of the offences committed by a “key player in the EU referendum”. Further he announced that there was ample evidence of criminal activity from the group campaign chief, Liz Bilney, and that she “knowingly or recklessly signed a false declaration accompanying the Leave.EU referendum spending return”. The Electoral Commission has referred the matter to the police.

Leave.EU’s co-founder, Aaron Banks, has stated that he rejects the outcome of the investigation and will be challenging it in court.

In January 2018, the UK government’s own Brexit analysis was leaked; it showed that UK economic growth would be stunted by 2%-8% for at least 15 years following secession from the EU, depending on the leave scenario. 

The UK continues to learn the hard way that democracy and journalism is in danger of being overwhelmed by rogue politics and a communications industry revolution that accelerates the spread of pro-establishment lies, misinformation and dubious claims, commonly called ‘briefings’.

Many observers point to the two major events – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – that signal moments of peril for democracy and the press. Both of these events are linked by a handful of people – Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer, for example.

The lobbying industry shapes policies that suit big business and a minority of the population. PR and communications companies are often involved in the circulation of malicious, pro-Conservative ‘strategic communications’ on behalf of those powerful and wealthy enough to benefit from spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on private companies every time there is an election or referendum, the resilience of populist propaganda, racism and sexism and the emergence of the so-called post-truth era erodes the fundamental foundations of democracy and corrupts what was once the cornerstone of ethical journalism. 

Conservative donor Robert Mercer invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica, where his daughter Rebekah is a board member. Credit Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images.

 

Related

Conservatives for hire: cashing in on Brexit

The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign

Calibrating Academy- Hubert Huzzah

The revelations about Cambridge Analytica indicate clearly that western governments are subverting democracy

Cambridge Analytica try to dismiss Chris Wylie’s evidence as ‘conspiracy theories’ and ‘false evidence’

 


 

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Cambridge Analytica, the commodification of voter decision making and marketisation of democracy

CA data

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of profiles. And built models to exploit that and target their inner demons”. Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower, Christopher Wylie.

Neuroliberalism 

It’s been a longstanding major area of concern, of course, that neurotechnologies and ‘behavioural change’ techniques may be used to redirect citizen decision making without their explicit permission. After all, neuromarketing – the idea that the brain, behaviours, emotions and preferences can reveal hidden and profitable truths – is founded on the development of strategies of persuasion in order to profit.

This doesn’t just raise ethical concerns in the market place, since neuromarketing strategies are being used in wider contexts, such as in shaping political narratives and communications, election campaigning, policy making and within the media. The motive for employing these techniques is nonetheless about gaining a profit, if not financially, then certainly in terms of advantage and power. 

I have criticised behavioural economics extensively and frquently on previous occasions, for precisely the same reasons. Since 2010, it has somehow become acceptable for governments to exercise an influence on the decision-making and behaviours of citizens. Libertarian paternalism, under the guise of ‘behavioural science’, has normalised a manipulative, authoritarian approach for state micro-management of the perceptions, decisions and behaviours of populations. However, being a political doctrine itself, libertarian paternalism is not value-neutral or ‘objective’.   

Behavioural economics is a flagrant political misuse of psychology, a form of manipulation without the publics’ knowledge and consent. This of course has profound implications for democracy, as the state is ‘acting upon’ citizens in ways that they won’t recognise to change their behaviours and to manipulate their decision-making. In fact the government’s use of behavioural economics turns democracy completely on its head.

It’s accepted uncritically that people can pay companies and organisations to change people’s minds and persuade them to change their decisions and behaviours, be it simply aimed politically at individuals’ perceived ‘faulty’ decision-making, allegedly involved in their circumstances of poverty, claiming welfare support, or voting for a party that hasn’t paid a PR company to manipulate your voting decision.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, (co-author of “Nudge” and one of the founders of behavioural economics), wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was  named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

Back in 2014, GCHQ documents released from the Edward Snowden archive by Glenn Greenwald, were the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. The ultimate aim, of course, is to shape public perceptions, decisions and behaviours.

Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies and misinformation on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends. The Snowden archive outlines how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is, as I’ve discussed, the political misuse of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds.

Glenn Greenwald’s published document on the Intercept touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption.” Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”.

It’s not such a big inferential leap to conclude that governments are attempting to manage legitimate criticism and opposition while stage-managing our democracy.

I don’t differentiate a great deal between the behavioural insights team at the heart of the Conservative cabinet office, and the dark world of PR and  ‘big data’ and ‘strategic communications’ companies like Cambridge Analytica. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”. 

However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, because the bottom line is that it is all about influencing people’s perceptions and decisions, using psychological warfare strategies

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about some of these issues, including discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in data mining and the political ‘dark’ advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients. This is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time. 

About Cambridge Analytica: political psyops approach verified by a whistleblower

Controversy has arisen concerning Cambridge Analytica‘s use of personal information acquired by an external researcher, who claimed to be collecting it for “academic purposes”. The use of personal data collected without knowledge or permission to establish sophisticated models of user’s personalities raises ethical and privacy issues.

In a somewhat late response, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform. The Guardian has further reported that Facebook had known about this security breach for two years, but did nothing to protect its millions of users.

It is well-known that Cambridge Analytica (CA) collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer activity and internet activity, among other public and private sources. It has been reported that the company is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge. In short, the company operates using political voter surveillance and strategies of psychological manipulation.

The data analytics firm is a private company that offers services to businesses and political parties who want to “change audience behaviour”. CA combines data mining and data analysis with ‘strategic communication’ for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, to participate in US politics. 

The company claims to use “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing  “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company is known to use the ‘big five’ OCEAN scale of personality traits, among other methods of psychographic profiling. 

The company also claims to use “behavioural microtargeting” and indicates that it can predict ‘needs’ of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.”

CA, who worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign, has harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the technological giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to psychologically profile, predict and influence citizens’ voting choices. The managing director of CA’s controversial political division is Mark Turnbull, who spent 18 years at the communications firm Bell Pottinger before joining Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), which is a British ‘behavioural science’ company.

The SCL Group, that once advised Nato on so-called ‘psy-ops’, is a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company. The company describes itself as “global election management agency”.  SCL’s approach to propaganda is based upon a methodology developed by the associated Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI). 

Nigel Oakes founded the latter and also set up SCL and using the new methodology from BDI, ran election campaigns and national  communications campaigns for a broad variety of international governments.

BDI say: “The goal of the BDI is to establish Behavioural Dynamics as a discipline for the study of group behaviour change.”

There isn’t much information around about BDI’s connection with military operations, though links with NATO are well-established – see Countering propaganda: NATO spearheads use of behavioural change science, for example. From the article: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL on the other hand, has a clearly defined defence and military division who: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL has different ‘verticals’ in politics, military and commercial operations. All of those operations are based on the same methodology (Target Audience Analysis) and, as far as can be discerned from the outside, SCL and affiliates have very obscure corporate structures with confusing ownership.

In the United States, SCL has gained public recognition mainly though its affiliated corporation Cambridge Analytica. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company (the SCL Group,) to participate in US politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races.

Their site says: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will or respect on the right when it comes to the publics’ privacy, autonomy in decision making, citizens’ agency and civil liberties.   

The current controversy

Working with a whistleblower and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica, the Observer and Guardian have seen documents and gathered eyewitness reports that lift the lid on the data analytics company that helped Donald Trump to victory. The company is currently being investigated on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is a key subject in two inquiries in the UK – by the Electoral Commission, into the company’s possible role in the EU referendum and the Information Commissioner’s Office, into data analytics for political purposes – and one in the US, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion.

Previous articles by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, respectively published in February and May 2017, speculated in detail that CA had influenced both the Brexit/Vote Leave option in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum and Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign with Robert Mercer’s backing of Donald Trump being key. They also discuss the legality of using the social data farmed. CA says it is pursuing legal action over the claims made in Cadwalladr’s articles.

The whistleblower, Chris Wylie, claims that the 50 million mostly American, profiles were harvested in one of Facebook’s biggest data breaches has caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, with lawmakers in both the UK and America, and a state attorney general calling for greater accountability and regulation. The profiles were harvested by a UK-based academic, Aleksandre Kogan, and his company, Global Science Research (GSR).

Wylie said the personal information mined was used to build a system to influence voters. The Canadian, who previously worked for Cambridge Analyticahas lifted the lid on this and other practices at the company, which he describes as a “full-service propaganda machine”.

Shortly before the story broke, Facebook’s external lawyers warned the Observer that it was making “false and defamatory” allegations and reserved Facebook’s legal position. Facebook denies the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by CA, working with Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and his firm GSR, was a data breach. 

While Facebook insists that it wasn’t a data breach, claiming it was a violation by a third party app that abused user data, this responsibility offloading speaks volumes about Facebook’s approach to its users’ privacy.  

Private companies benefit from a lack of transparency over how profits are made from our personal data. Their priority seems to be to silo and hoard our data, prioritising its more commercial uses. Yet we need to think about data differently, moving away from ideas of data as a commodity to be bought and sold, and used to generate profit for a few people – be it financial or political profit.

The internet, and later the World Wide Web, was originally intended to be a democratising force, accessible to all and without walls or ownership. But the reality today is rather different. The inequalities in wealth and power inherent in neoliberalism have seeped online, marketising and commodifying our personal details, choices, views, dispositions, likes and dislikes.  

Personal data has become the driving force of the online economy, yet the economic and social value which can be generated from data is not remotely fairly distributed. In fact it isn’t being redistributed at all.

Facebook shoot the messenger

Facebook have also suspended the whistleblower Chris Wylie from the platform “pending further information” over misuse of data, along with his former employer, CA and its affiliates, and the academic they worked with, Aleksandr Kogan.

The public attack on Wylie came after he had approached Facebook about the data breach, offering to help investigate. He described it as a “chilling attack” on someone acting in the public interest.

“They acknowledged my offer but then turned around and shot the messenger. I’m trying to make amends for my mistakes and so should Facebook,” he told the Guardian.

“Facebook has known about this for at least two years and did almost nothing to fix it. This is not new. And it’s only by coming forward that Facebook is now taking action. People need to know this kind of profiling is happening.”

Kogan assembled the harvested information through an app on the site – it collected details of American citizens who were paid to take a personality test, but also gathered data on those people’s Facebook friends.

Kogan apparently had a deal to share this information with CA. But according to Wylie, most of this personal information had been taken without authorisation. He said Cambridge Analytica used it to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

Last month, both Facebook and CA CEO Alexander Nix told the parliamentary inquiry into fake news that the company did not have or use private Facebook data, or any data from Kogan’s firm, GSR.

But in its statement on Friday night, explaining why it had suspended CA and Wylie, Facebook said it had known in 2015 that profiles were passed to Nix’s company. 

“In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our platform policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica,the statement said.

CA is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. I’ve mentioned Mercer in a previous article about the right’s undue influence on the media and on voting behaviour. Mercer made his money as a pioneer in the field of Computational Linguistics.

The company was headed by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon. CA used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with ‘personalised’ persuasive  political ‘advertisements’.

It’s scandalous that documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by the Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the Facebook had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale and failed to alert users, taking only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

Last year, Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Information commissioners Office’s recent decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely. He said:

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”

He goes on to say: ”They were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”

The head of the parliamentary committee investigating fake news has accused CA and Facebook of misleading MPs in their testimony. 

After Wylie detailed the harvesting of more than 50 million Facebook profiles for CA, Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said he would be calling on the Facebook boss, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify before the committee.

He said the company appeared to have previously sent executives able to avoid difficult questions who had “claimed not to know the answers”.

Collins also said he would be recalling the CA’s CEO, Alexander Nix, to give further testimony. “Nix denied to the committee last month that his company had received any data from [his firm] GSR,” he said. “We will be contacting Alexander Nix next week asking him to explain his comments.”

Collins has attacked Facebook for appearing to have been “deliberately avoiding answering straight questions” in to the committee.

“It is now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns,” Collins said. “Facebook knew about this, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with it.”

CA claimed that its contract with GSR stipulated that Kogan should seek “informed consent” for data collection and it had no reason to believe he would not. 

GSR was “led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections”, a company spokesman said.

The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of CA, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing Facebook data. CA spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool for the right. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to ‘resonate’.

“The ultimate product of the training set is creating a ‘gold standard’ of understanding personality from Facebook profile information,” the contract specifies. It promises to create a database of 2 million ‘matched’ profiles, identifiable and tied to electoral registers, across 11 states, but with room to expand much further.

CA responded to the Observer story on Twitter before Collins had said Nix would be recalled. “We refute(s) these mischaracterizations and false allegations,” it said:

“Reality Check: Cambridge Analytica uses client and commercially and publicly available data; we don’t use or hold any Facebook data,” the company said. “When we learned GSR sold us Facebook data that it shouldn’t have done, we deleted it all – system wide audit to verify.”

CA

CA not coercive

In response to the series of  defensive Tweets put out by CA, I quoted several claims from CA’s own site, which I had cited in an article last year. 

For example, the company offers to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

And boasts:Leveraging CA’s massive team of data scientists and academics, CA is able to provide optimal audience segments based on big data and psychographic modeling. Then, using a sophisticated electronic data delivery system, CA is able to provide TV advertising campaign data that may be used to inform media buyers about shows that have the highest concentrations of target audiences and the least amount of waste; all of which leading to higher media ROI [return on investment] and more voter conversions.”

“Psychographic Modeling”? “Conversions”?  “[…] specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate” ?

That language doesn’t sound like “advertising” to me. It sounds like microsurveilance and psychological manipulation, using the vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to all kinds of manipulations, including the intentional manipulations performed by the political machinery of our culture.

If CA genuinely thought “people are smarter than that”, then their boasts about their service of psychographic modeling, behavioural science; “understandings of the electorates’ behaviour”, “changing voter behaviours” and increasing “conversions”, “driving” voters to the polls to win campaigns and so on is nothing more than an eloborate  scam. Why bother attempting to manipulate people you think are not susceptible to manipulation?

Either way, this company has transgressed ethical boundaries, either as snake oil merchants, or as peddlers of snake oil on behalf of governments and other clients, while exploiting our personal data.

CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.”

“With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.”

And offers to help to: “More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of owning the decision making regarding our own lives and experiences, including evaluating and deciding our own political preferences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

When David Cameron said that “knowledge of human behaviour” was part of his vision for a “new age of government” I was one of a few who didn’t see behavioural economics as the great breakthrough in social policy-making that it was being hailed as. Even the name ‘behavioural insights team’ suggests secrecy, surveilance and manipulation. It was only a matter of time before libertarian paternalism morphed into authoritarianism, hidden in plain view. 

We are being told what our ‘best interests’ are by a small group of powerful people whose interests are that want to stay powerful, despite being dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. Despite the fact that they need specialists in techniques of persuasion, rather than rational and democratic engagement, to appear credible to the electorate.  

CA pivotal role
It seems that the overarching logic of New Right neoliberalism has led to the privatisation of citizens’ decision making and behaviour and a new form of exploiting the population by misuse of their trust and their personal information.

Also, it seems democracy has been commodified and marketised.

Update

Cambridge Analytica are trying to stop the broadcast of an undercover Channel 4 News report in which its chief executive talks unguardedly about its practices. Channel 4 reporters posed as prospective clients and had a series of meetings with Cambridge Analytica that they secretly filmed — including at least one with Alexander Nix, its chief executive.

Channel 4 declined to comment. Cambridge Analytica’s spokesman also declined to comment on the undercover Channel 4 report. The company is under mounting pressure over how it uses personal data in political and election campaign work. It was banned by Facebook on Friday, which claimed it had violated the social network’s rules by failing to delete Facebook user data collected by an app supposedly for ‘research purposes’.

Facebook is now investigating ties between one of its current employees and Cambridge Analytica. Joseph Chancellor, currently a researcher at Facebook, was a director of Global Science Research, a company that provided data to Cambridge Analytica.

The nature of Chancellor’s role as a director of Global Science Research and his knowledge of Kogan’s data collection practices are not clear. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said “there was no recollection of any interactions or emails with” Chancellor.

Facebook didn’t mention Global Science Research. But Cambridge Analytica said on Saturday that it contracted the company in 2014 to “undertake a large scale research project in the United States.”

Global Science Research was incorporated in May 2014 and listed Kogan and Chancellor as directors, according to UK government records. (The records show that Global Science Research was dissolved in October 2017.) 

Channel 4 News went ahead to broadcast the Cambridge Analytica exposé despite the legal threat.

From Channel 4Revealed: Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians 

Watch Channel 4′s excellent undercover documentary.

Related 

Cambridge Analytica questioned on fake news  – UK parliament

Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St Petersburg university

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

The anti-social public relations of the PR industry

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman


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Osborne criticises the government’s manifesto, while charities are silenced by ‘gagging act’

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George Osborne, the architect of many an omnishambolic budget, has called the Conservative manifesto “the most disastrous in recent history” in a suprisingly critical editorial

The London Evening Standard derided the Tories’ campaign attempt to launch a “personality cult” around the prime minister. Osborne attacked Theresa May’s handling of Brexit as marred by “high-handed British arrogance”.  He said the campaign had “meandered from an abortive attempt to launch a personality cult around May to the self-inflicted wound of the most disastrous manifesto in recent history”.

He has already mocked May’s net migration target as “economically illiterate” and branded Brexit a “historic mistake” since becoming the London paper’s editor.

The editorial then mockingly suggested the current conversation among Downing Street aides would likely be along the lines of: “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.”

The Evening Standard has also criticised the government’s manifesto meltdown over the  highly unpopular “dementia tax”, saying: “Just four days after the Conservative manifesto proposals on social care were announced, Theresa May has performed an astonishing U-turn, and bowed in the face of a major Tory revolt over plans to increase the amount that elderly homeowners and savers will pay towards their care in old age. 

There will now be a cap on the total care costs that any one individual faces. The details are still sketchy but it is not encouraging that the original proposals were so badly thought through.” 

In another article titled U-turn on social care is neither strong nor stable”, it says: “Current Tory leaders should have been ready to defend their approach. Instead we had a weekend of wobbles that presumably prompted today’s U-turn. The Pensions Secretary Damian Green was unable to answer basic questions in a TV interview about who will lose their fuel payments, and how much extra money will go into social care.

“Either the Government is prepared to remove these payments from millions of pensioners who are not in poverty, and don’t receive pension credit, and spend their substantial savings on social care; or they chicken out, target the tiny percentage of pensioners who are on higher tax rates, save paltry sums and accept the whole manoeuvre is a gimmick. Certainly, if the savings are to pay for a new care cap, then many pensioners will lose their winter fuel payment. This isn’t for consultation after an election — it’s an issue of honesty before an election.”

With the Tories’ poll lead diminishing, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has warned that the proposed “dementia tax” would become May’s version of the poll tax which led to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

Whilst Osborne is free to speak his mind, it’s an irony that many charities have complained they have been silenced from criticising the Conservative social care plans despite the fact they will be hugely damaging to elderly and disabled people across the country.

One chief executive of a major charity in the social care sector has told the Guardian that they felt “muzzled” by the Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – a controversial legislation introduced in 2014  which heavily restricts organisations from intervening on policy during an election period.

The charity said May’s decision to means test winter fuel allowance would “inadvertently” result in some of the poorest pensioners in the country losing the support, adding that “will literally cost lives”.

The charity also claimed that the so-called “dementia tax” on social care in the home would stop people who need support from seeking it.

“We are ready to speak out at one minute past midnight on 9 June,” the charity leader added, but stressed they were too afraid to do so now.

Sir Stephen Bubb, who runs the Charity Futures thinktank but previously led Acevo, an umbrella organisation for voluntary organisations, said it was notable how quiet his sector had been about the policy.

He went on to say: “The social care proposals strike at the heart of what charities do but they should be up in arms about them but it hasn’t happened. It is two problems: there is the problem of the so-called “gagging act”, but also the general climate of hostility towards charities means there is a lot of self censorship.” 

“Charities that once would have spoken out are keeping quiet and doing a disservice to their beneficiaries. They need to get a bit of a grip.” 

He cited the example of the Prime Minister hitting out at the British Red Cross after its chief executive claimed his organisation was responding to a “humanitarian crisis” in hospitals and ambulance services.

May accused the organisation of making comments that were “irresponsible and overblown”.

It’s not the only time the Conservatives have tried to gag charities for highlighting the dire impacts of Tory policies. In 2014, MPs reported Oxfam to the Charity Watchdog for campaigning against poverty. I guess the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had better watch it, too. What next, will they be reporting the NSPCC for campaigning for children’s welfare?

'Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm - and it's forcing more and more people into poverty' tweeted Oxfam
Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm – and it’s forcing more and more people into poverty.

The Oxfam campaign that sent the Conservatives into an indignant rage and to the charity watchdog to complain was an appeal to ALL political parties to address growing poverty. Oxfam cited some of the causes of growing poverty in the UK, identified through research (above).

Tory MP Priti Patel must have felt that the Conservatives are exempt from this appeal, due to being the architects of the policies that have led to a growth in poverty and inequality, when she said: “With this Tweet they have shown their true colours and are now nothing more than a mouthpiece for left wing propaganda.”

I’m wondering when concern for poverty and the welfare of citizens become the sole concern of “the left wing”. That comment alone speaks volumes about the attitudes and prejudices of the Conservatives.

Bubb said: “That was a warning shot. So many charity leaders do feel that if they do speak out there will be some form of comeback on them. The Charity Commission has been notably absent in defending charity rights to campaign – the climate has been hostile to the charity voice.” 

There is some fear that charities face a permanent “chilling effect” after the Electoral Commission said they must declare any work that could be deemed political over the past 12 months to ensure they are not in breach of the Lobbying Act. 

Another senior figure also said charities were too afraid to speak out on the social care proposals. “We are all scared of the lobbying act and thus most of us are not saying much during the election. There was the same problem in the EU referendum – if you criticise the government then you are being “political”.

During the referendum a row broke out after the Charity Commission
issued guidelines that some charities interpreted as preventing them from making pro-EU arguments. 

Head of the organisation, William Shawcross, dismissed the charge by Margaret Hodge MP that his Euroscepticism was to blame for the issuing of the advice from the commission on when charities could intervene on the issue.

Steve Reed, shadow minister for civil society, said the Labour party would scrap the lobbying act because it had “effectively gagged” charities.