Tag: inequality

Tory MP David Morris denies citizens accounts of the devastating impact of Tory policies

This is part of the second of two special reports. ITV Granada Correspondent Daniel Hewitt investigates the rise of in-work poverty in the North West of England. You can watch the first report here.

The Conservatives have, on more than one occasion, tried to pass off evidence regarding the negative impacts of their policies as ‘anecdotal’ or as politically ‘biased’.  

Conservative MP David Morris has attempted to deny the accounts of rickets and  children going hungry because of poverty, saying claims are from schools ‘with links to leftwing group Momentum.’

Of course this approach also entails attempting to discredit dedicated public servants and constituents who dare to criticise government policies that are causing harm. 

A report by ITV earlier this week showed teachers at more than one school explaining that they had to wash their pupils’ uniforms because their families couldn’t afford to pay the electricity bills. The report was very widely shared on social media.  

West End primary school reported that teachers sometimes gave coats and shoes to pupils whose parents could not provide them.

Meanwhile, a local GP spoke of treating children for rickets, a condition not seen commonly in the UK since before the development of the welfare state.

It’s clear that welfare provision is no longer adequate in alleviating absolute poverty, which is usually seen in only in developing countries. The welfare ‘reforms’ have systematically reduced the amounts provided for people to meet their basic living costs, such as for food, fuel, clothing and shelter. 

However, Morris, who is the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, responded to the reports by posting a call for social services to investigate on Facebook. He wrote: “These claims are not those being experienced by myself or the jobcentre in the area and I would urge anyone affected to book an appointment with the staff at Morecambe jobcentre to assess if they are receiving all of the benefits they are entitled to.” 

Morris added that the claims “always seem to emanate from the same primary schools and Ash Trees surgery in Carnforth”.

Dr David Wrigley of Ash Trees Surgery issued this comment on Twitter: 

“As a senior GP partner at Ash Trees Surgery (mentioned by my own MP Mr Morris in his statement) I can categorically state we have NO links to Momentum as he has stated. I would ask Mr Morris to provide solid evidence of this accusation or withdraw his remark.”

The Morecambe and Lunesdale Labour party said in a statement that Morris “does not see what is happening on his own watch because on the rare occasions he is here, he refuses to engage with the community and attacks teachers and doctors for being ‘politicised’.”

A spokeswoman for the party said: “In the age of the internet, MPs should use social media to establish meaningful dialogues with their constituents.

“For a long time now, Morris has blocked and banned from his Facebook page those who voice their concerns regarding things that happen in our constituency and speak out about the government’s policies, which he supports. However, Mr Morris has gone beyond blocking and banning his aggrieved constituents and now frequently accuses those who criticise him of being trolls or part of coordinated campaigns against him, often using parliamentary privilege to do so.”

The spokeswoman added that Morris was “yet to provide a shred of evidence to back up his accusations and continues to refuse to acknowledge the genuine concerns of his constituents”.

Morris later told ITV: “I’ve not got issues with the report that you’ve run, I’m just questioning the validity of it … [the schools featured] have very strong links to Momentum, and to be quite frank, all the indicators from Ofsted say that the child poverty at that school is absolutely no different to any other in the country.”

Actually, that last part should worry him, because it indicates a widespread problem at a national level. 

As for ‘questioning the validity of it’, well the Conservatives do that with every single piece of research that shows their policy in an unfavorable light. Yet study after study have found pretty much the same thing: that people don’t have enough money to meet their most fundamental needs, including many of those in work

The Conservatives have closed many Sure Start centres, despite the fact that the Sure Start programme was a groundbreaking success. A commitment to supporting families in the early years of their children’s development shouldn’t have been revolutionary, but it was. When the Labour government announced Sure Start in 1998, the programme was targeted at the poorest 20% of wards in England. From there it grew into a network of 4,000 children’s centres across the country, each dedicated to improving the life chances of young children and the wellbeing of families. 

The children’s centres offered employment support, health advice, childcare, parenting help – unified service delivery designed to prevent isolation and, ultimately, to reduce the gaps between rich and poor children which, as a growing body of evidence shows, often go on to define lives.

Now, after almost 7 years of Tory government, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like were a prime minister to announce a new, universal service designed to reduce poverty and inequality. Instead, the current government seems happy to reverse the social progress made by the Sure Start programme.

By April of last year, nearly a quarter of all Sure Start children’s centres had closed; 156 centres closed in 2015 – almost twice as many as in the previous year. This is unforgivable and tragic because Sure Start worked. A study by Oxford University revealed by the Department for Education just before Christmas was the most detailed ever conducted on the impact of children’s centres – and it found the centres benefited parents and families who regularly attended classes in poorer areas, contributing to less disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health, and improved social skills among children and adults.

Just 4 months ago, Learndirect, the UK’s largest adult training provider, blamed the government’s austerity programme for its failure to meet the education regulator’s minimum quality standards.

Morris claims that “all the indicators from Ofsted say that the child poverty at that school is absolutely no different to any other in the country.” However, Ofsted don’t provide evidence of variations in levels of poverty in their annual report at all. The only comment made by Ofsted relating to poverty was an acknowledgement that schools under-performed and had some difficulty improving their educational standards in areas with acknowledged high levels of deprivation.

It was noted that there is a correlation between high levels of deprivation and educational under-performance, but there was no comparison undertaken between the levels of deprivation in each Local Authority area. So Morris’s reasoning there is fundamentally flawed.

In fact the National Education Union commented on the latest Ofsted report – produced this month – saying: “[…] Ofsted as the Chief Inspector of Education should take Government to task over this. Teachers can do what they can do within schools but it is Government that is missing child poverty reduction targets, presiding over increases in  poverty and failing to produce a decent industrial strategy. 

Conservative ministers wanted to remove a statutory duty to publish levels of UK household income as part of the welfare reform, since 2013, but have been forced to accept, after a battle last year with the House of Lords, that the material deprivation measures should remain protected. The Conservatives had cynically argued for changing the criteria of childhood poverty targets in a way that did not relate to family income. However, poverty IS related to a lack of income that is necessary to meet basic needs.

The government wanted assessments which reflected traditional Conservative prejudices. They wanted to include ‘the number of households with parents in long-term relationships and households where parents were addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling for example.’ Yet research shows that substance misuse is not correlated with poverty.

The government suffered a defeat in the Lords after peers pushed through an amendment forcing the Conservatives to retain four established indicators, including income, which use official statistics to track and monitor relative and absolute poverty.

It’s difficult not to see the Conservatives’ original proposed changes to what was an anticipation of worsening child poverty figures as a cynical move. It was at the time widely perceived as an attempt to mask the impact of equally widely anticipated cuts to tax credits and to other forms of essential welfare support. 

Poverty and social exclusion: social immobility 

The government has attempted to defend its commitment to improving social mobility for the most disadvantaged people, despite the recent resignation of the entire social mobility commission board, but when pressed, Conservative ministers struggled to name any proposals recommended by the body that had been adopted in the past year. The Conservatives have consistently failed to acknowledge, despite all their rhetoric about ‘meritocracy’, that social mobility is a product of favorable and accommodating economic and social structures. The austerity programme that was aimed disproportionately at the poorest citizens has not facilitated social mobility. Instead it has extended inequality of opportunities, as well as widening material inequality.

In his resignation letter, Alan Milburn says:

“The need for political leadership in this area [social mobility] has never been more pressing. Social mobility is one of the biggest challenges facing our country today. It is not just the poorest in society who are losing out. Whole communities and parts of Britain are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. The growing sense that we have become an “us and them” society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation. As the commission’s work has demonstrated, the 20th-century expectation that each generation would do better than the last is no longer being met. At a time when more and more people are feeling that Britain is becoming more unfair, rather than less, social mobility matters more than ever.

While the government seems unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda, I have been heartened that others in civil society – from local councils to major employers – are actively embracing it. So I will be establishing a new social mobility institute, independent of the government and political parties, to take forward the practical work that is needed to make a reality of my belief in a fairer, more open, more mobile society in Britain.”

As an emblem of this government’s antipathy to genuinely improving opportunity, it is forecast that record levels of  child poverty will be reached on its watch; the inevitable product of savage cuts in support for low-income working families by around a thousands of pounds a year and those cuts made to people out of work, including disabled people – the cuts that are funding expensive tax cuts which benefit the most affluent.

Many charities have complained they have been silenced from criticising Conservative social policy despite the fact they are hugely damaging. 

Increasing authoritarianism

The Transparency of Lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill – a controversial legislation introduced in 2014 – heavily restricts charities and other organisations from intervening on policy during an election period. However, the legislation has been used to effectively stifle legitimate criticism of damaging policies.

Earlier this year, for example, the Prime Minister launched an attack at the British Red Cross after its chief executive claimed his organisation was responding to a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in hospitals and ambulance services. Theresa May accused the organisation of making comments that were ‘irresponsible and overblown.’ Yet the British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing and Royal College of Physicians and Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, had all issued warnings about the increasing pressures on health services.

It’s not the only time the Conservatives have tried to gag charities for highlighting the dire impacts of their policies. In 2014, Conservative 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?

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 meticulous research.

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

The Oxfam poster that caused a storm among the Conservatives

Conservative 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 became the sole concern of ‘the left-wing’. That comment alone speaks volumes about the indifference and prejudices of the Conservatives. 

Another  Conservative, MP, Charlie Elphicke, branded the campaign post as a: “shameful abuse of taxpayers’ money,” while Priti Patel went on to accuse Oxfam of “behaving disgracefully.

Therese Coffey, used a favorite Conservative response and accused Oxfam of using: “anecdote to create alarmist generalisations.” Since when is empirical evidence ‘anecdotal’? The increasingly remote Conservative government also label everyone who challenges their ideology and spin on policy as ‘scaremongers’.  

It’s impossible to discuss poverty without reference to its root cause, and that invariably involves reference to government policies. 

Ben Phillips, Oxfam campaigns and policy director, responded:

“Oxfam is a resolutely non-party political organisation – we have a duty to draw attention to the hardship suffered by poor people we work with in the UK.

Fighting poverty should not be a party political issue – successive governments have presided over a tide of rising inequality and created a situation where food banks and other providers provided 20 million meals last year to people who could not afford to feed themselves.”

“This is an unacceptable situation in one of the world’s largest economies and politicians of all stripes have a responsibility to tackle it.”

Oxfam are far from alone in their concern about the rise of absolute poverty in the UK. Around the same time, medical experts wrote an open letter to David Cameron condemning the rise in food poverty under this government, stating that families “are not earning enough money to meet their most basic nutritional needs” and that “the welfare system is increasingly failing to provide a robust line of defence against hunger.” There have been further cuts to welfare, including both in-work and out-of-work support since 2014, which means that the situation can only have got worse.

Many charities have said that the UK government has violated the Human Right to food.  Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing. The UK has signed and ratified the Covenant, and in so doing is legally bound by the ICESCR, in particular, the human right to adequate food.

According to the Just Fair Consortium report, welfare reforms, benefit delays and the cost of living crisis have pushed an unprecedented number of people into a state of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK.

Further research by Oxfam has revealed the extent of poverty among British children, with poor families taking drastic measures to survive. What kind of government is concerned only about stifling critical discussion of its policies, and not about the plight of the citizens it is meant to serve? This is a government that attempts to discredit the accounts of people’s experience of the suffering that is directly caused by this government.

By blaming the casualities of government policy, by imposing coercive ‘behavioural change’ programmes on the poorest citizens – which indicates the government has loaded the responsibility for poverty on individual citizens – and by trying to discredit anyone that champions the rights of the most vulnerable people, the government has abdicated its responsibility to ensure citizens can meet their basic living needs. Their survival needs

Malnutrition is becoming commonplace

In 2014, I wrote an article about the rise in hospital admissions relating to malnutrition. Diseases associated with poverty, which were common during the Victorian era had almost vanished with the advent of the welfare state. Now we are seeing them again. 

NHS statistics indicated that the number of cases of infectious illnesses such as cholera, whooping cough and scarlet fever have almost doubled within five years, with a rise in other illnesses which indicate severe malnutrition such as scurvy, rickets. People are more susceptible to infectious illness if they are under-nourished.

Scurvy is a disease associated with pirates who have been stuck at sea for long periods – it has increased by 31 per cent in England since 2010. This is caused by a lack of vitamin C and is usually due to an inadequate diet without enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

Figures from January 2014 from the NHS indicate that there were 833 hospital admissions for children suffering from Rickets – a condition which is caused by a lack of Vitamin D, from 2012-13. Ten years ago, the figure was just 190. 

The disease, which causes softening of the bones and permanent deformities, was common in 19th century Britain but was almost eradicated by improvements in nutrition. The body produces vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun, but it’s clear that adequate diet plays an important role, too, since the decline of Rickets happened at a time when we saw an improvement in the diets of the nation as a whole.

It is thought that malnutrition is the main cause, children are most at risk if their diet doesn’t include sufficient levels of vitamin D.

Low incomes, unemployment and benefit delays have combined to trigger increased demand for food banks among the UK’s poorest families, according to a report commissioned by the government and released in 2014.

The report directly contradicts the claim from a government minister that the rise in the use of food banks is linked to the fact that there are now more of them. It says people turn to charity food as a last resort following a crisis such as the loss of a job, or problems accessing social security benefits, or through benefit sanctions.

The review emerged as the government comes under pressure from church leaders and charities to address increasing prevalence of food poverty caused by welfare cuts. 

The report was written by food policy experts from the University of Warwick, and it was passed to ministers in June 2013 but had remained undisclosed until February 2014, creating reasonable speculation that the government suppressed its findings.

Examining the effect of welfare changes on food bank use was not a specific part of its remit, and the report is understood to have undergone a number of revisions since early summer, ordered by the Department for Food and Agriculture and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The researchers found that a combination of rising food prices, ever-shrinking incomes, low pay, increasing personal debt, and benefit payment problems meant an increasing number of families could not afford to buy sufficient food.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of Government policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be urgently monitored.

The group of academics and professionals said that the surge in the number of people requiring emergency food aid, a decrease in the amount of calories consumed by British families, and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals represent “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action”.

The health specialists also said:“Access to an adequate food supply is the most basic of human needs and rights”.

The authors of the letter, who include Dr David Taylor-Robinson and Professor Margaret Whitehead of Liverpool University’s Department of Public Health, say that they have serious concerns that malnutrition can have a long-lasting impact on health, particularly among children.

Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July 2014, putting the UK recovery in doubt at the time. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicates that many consumers evidently had not felt the benefit of the so-called recovery.

Yet Conservative ministers have repeatedly insisted that there is no “robust link” between the welfare reforms and rising food bank use, while the welfare minister at the time, David Freud, claimed the rise in food bank use was because there were more food banks and because the food was free.

The Department of Health figures showed that the number of ‘bed days’ accounted for by someone with a primary or secondary diagnosis of malnutrition rose from 128,361 in 2010-11, the year the coalition came to power, to 184,528 last year – a 61% rise over five years.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence classes someone as malnourished if they have a body mass index of less than 18.5, have suffered the unintentional loss of more than 10% of their weight over the last three to six months, or if they have a BMI under 20 and have unintentionally seen their weight drop by more than 5% over the previous three to six months.

Worryingly, four out of five people who needed inpatient hospital care because of malnutrition were admitted as an emergency, which suggests their health had deteriorated significantly in the days before they were taken into hospital.

Not enough health and social care professionals have the time or knowledge to correctly identify malnutrition.

Stephen Dalton, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, said: “Our members take malnutrition seriously. Good nutrition is a fundamental human right our citizens can expect, and vulnerable, particularly older, people are most at risk of serious consequences if denied basic compassionate care. At a time of unprecedented demand on health and social care we need to be alert and will take seriously any reliable evidence of basic care not being delivered.”

Time and time again, when challenged and confronted with overwhelming empirical evidence of the terrible harm that their austerity policies and welfare ‘reforms’ are inflicting on citizens, the government simply deny any ‘causal link’. They say that the increase in absolute poverty, malnutrition and hunger, deaths and distress are unrelated to their policies, which they also quite ludicrously claim to be ‘working’. Anyone who tries to raise debate on the matter is labeled a ‘scaremonger’ or a ‘marxist’.

With no sign that the government are going to emerge from behind their basic defence mechanism of collective denial – nor are the Conservatives remotely interested in investigating a clear correlation between their blatant attacks on the poorest citizens via their draconian policies and the terrible hardships people are suffering –  we do have to wonder what the real intention is underpinning their intentionally targeted austerity programme. 

In a very wealthy first-world  democracy, it is absolutely unacceptable that anyone is left hungry, malnourished and in absolute poverty. 

Increasing numbers of people are living in absolute poverty. This is because of the governments’ austerity programme, depressed wages and the steep rise in the cost of living over the last few years.

Disgraceful Conservative MPs that continue to deny this in the face of consistent and overwhelming empirical evidence from a wide array of sources for the past five years at least, are not fit to represent their constituents, nor are the Conservatives, with their crib sheet strategies of denial and dismissal, and techniques of neutralisation, fit to run this country. 

If the government refuse to listen to citizens and to prioritise the basic living conditions and needs of the public, it really is time for it to go. 

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Austerity is the unfavourable treatment of protected social groups, leading to unfair disadvantage

Image result for political discrimination uk

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said an analysis of all the changes to tax, social security and public spending since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 showed the poorest citizens have been hit hardest by tax, social security and public spending reforms and are set to lose at least 10% of their income.

Ahead of next week’s budget, the Commission has published its independent report on the impact that changes to all tax, social security and public spending reforms from 2010 to 2017 will have on people by 2022.

Undertaken as a “cumulative impact assessment”, the Commission’s report, which looks at the impact the reforms have had on various groups across society, highlights that those political decisions will affect some groups more than others:

  • black households will face a 5% loss of income (more than double the loss for white households)
  • families with a disabled adult will see a £2,500 reduction of income per year (this is £1,000 for non-disabled families
  • families with a disabled adult and a disabled child will face a £5,500 reduction of income per year (again, compared to £1,000 for non-disabled families)
  • lone parents will struggle with a 15% loss of income (the losses for all other family groups are between 0 and 8%)
  • and women will suffer a £940 annual loss (more than double the loss for men)
  • the biggest average losses by age group, across men and women, are experienced by the 65 to 74 age group (average losses of around £1,450 per year) and the 35 to 44 age group (average losses of around £1,250 per year).

The government have persistently claimed that conducting a cumulative impact assessment of their “reforms” is “too difficult”.

David Isaac, of the EHRC, says: “We have encouraged the government to carry out this work for some time, but sadly they’ve refused. We have shown that it is possible.” 

Previously, the Women’s Budget Group estimated that by 2020 women will shoulder 85% of the burden of the government’s changes to the tax and benefits system – with low-income black and Asian women paying the highest price

The Centre for Welfare Reform calculated that disabled people are being hit nine harder than the rest of the population. These organisations managed to carry out cumulative impact assessments, and without the generous funding that the government has at their disposal. This demonstrates that there is a difference between finding something “difficult” to undertake, and not actually wanting to undertake the task, while making glib excuses to avoid doing so. 

Public policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. Governments generally monitor the impact of their policies. The Conservatives have refused to monitor the impact of their draconian welfare policies because they knew in advance that they are discriminatory. 

Austerity policies target already economically marginalised groups, cutting their incomes further. It’s not plausible that ministers were unaware that this would lead to further economic disadvantage of those groups, while widening social inequality and increasing poverty.  

While the poorest citizens are set to lose nearly 10% of their incomes, a minority of the wealthiest citizens will lose barely 1%, yet the government claim that inequality has “reduced.” Despite the claims that “We’re all in it together” and “we want to help tjose people “just about managing”, it’s clear that Conservative policies are completely detached from public interests and needs. Conservative austerity policies are designed and intended to intentionally discriminate aginst the very poorest citizens. 

It is against the law to discriminate against socially protected groups  – including on the grounds of ethnicity, gender, age and disability. The government’s traditional ideological prejudices, which have been clearly expressed in their socioeconomic policies, have brought about:

  • the less favourable treatment of groups with protected characteristics 
  • the targeting of some social groups disproportionately with austerity policies that extend direct discrimination, leaving people with protected characteristics at an unfair disadvantage

Prices, as measured by official inflation figures, are nearly 14% higher now than they were in 2010, although Unison say that between the start of 2010 and the close of 2015, the cost of living, as measured by the Retail Prices Index, rose by a total of 19.5%. This creates even further hardship for those people already targeted by Conservative austerity cuts.

Image result for Tory prejudices UK sexism


Image result for Tory prejudices UK disabled people
Traditional Conservative prejudices, which have ultimately led to economic marginalisation, disadvantage and stigmatisation of some social groups

David Isaac, the Chair of the EHRC, which is responsible for making recommendations to government on the compatibility of policy and legislation with equality and human rights standards, warned of a “bleak future”.

Isaac said: “The Government can’t claim to be working for everyone if its policies actually make the most disadvantaged people in society financially worse off. We have encouraged the Government to carry out this work for some time, but sadly they have refused. We have shown that it is possible to carry out cumulative impact assessments and we call on them to do this ahead of the 2018 budget.

 

“If we want a prosperous and, in line with the Prime Minister’s vision, a fair Britain that works for everyone, the Government must come clean and provide a full and cumulative impact analysis of all current and future tax and social security policies. It is not enough to look at the impact of individual policy changes. If this doesn’t happen those most in need will face an extremely bleak future.”

 

The Commission is calling on the Government to:

  • commit to undertaking cumulative impact assessments of all tax and social security policies ahead of the 2018 budget
  • reconsider existing policies that are contributing to negative financial impacts for those who are most disadvantaged
  • implement the socio-economic duty from the Equality Act 2010 so public authorities must consider how to reduce the impact of socio-economic disadvantage of people’s life chances (the Conservatives edited the Labour party’s original version of Equality Act and removed this duty before implementing it).

The assessment undertaken by the EHRC considered changes to income tax, national insurance contributions, indirect taxes (VAT and excise duties), means-tested and non-means-tested social security benefits, tax credits, universal credit, national minimal wage and national living wage.

 

See also:

Austerity is “economic murder” says Cambridge researcher

The Paradise Papers, austerity and the privatisation of wealth, human rights and democracy

From 2013 – Follow the Money: Tory ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor

 


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. I don’t have a plasma TV or Sky. I do eat a lot of porridge, though. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you. 

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The Paradise Papers, austerity and the privatisation of wealth, human rights and democracy

351-burden-cuts-by-population

Outdated Conservative ideology has long framed the social safety net as an obstacle to national prosperity, the government claims that welfare somehow depresses economic growth and job creation. Indeed, Conservative efforts to dismantle the welfare state have been a constant in UK national politics. However, the truth is that as income inequality increases, the potential for economic growth is constrained. Seven years of austerity aimed at the poorest citizens have provided empirical evidence that does not verify the government’s claims.

The Conservatives also claim that welfare creates “perverse incentives” and “moral hazards” – it produces negative “unintended consequences,” as people who are eligible for support don’t have a job. Welfare is therefore reduced to ensure that people are not comfortable in claiming financial support, in order to “make work pay”. The problem with that, however, is that many people who work are also struggling to make ends meet. Work doesn’t pay because a miserly state provides perverse incentives for unscrupulous profit-driven employers to pay miserly wages that are well below average living costs. There has also been a marked loss of job security, too, over the last seven years.

All of this reflects a troubling reality of the labour market – that without government regulations and collective bargaining – the government have a history of legislating to undermine trade unions and traditionally loathe collective bargaining – employers are able to use “competition” to reduce wages. This state of affairs is clearly attributable to political decisions. It can be traced back over decades of policies favouring businesses at the expense of established employee rights. 

In the free market, all that matters is how many people are capable of doing your job. Competition matters, at least on paper. It doesn’t matter what qualities and skills you have. Workers are not paid according to their skills, they’re paid according to what they can negotiate with their employers. The more people there are in the labour market, the less bargaining power they have. The steady reduction of the support offered by the welfare state creates desperation, and also significantly reduces peoples’ choices regarding employment. It creates a race to the bottom, where wages are depressed and stagnating, and “efficiency” rules, along with the profit motive.

Furthermore, some employers are discriminatory, and pay workers different wages on the grounds of disability, age, race, or gender.

Changing policies to include a progressive tax structure would enhance economic growth and see a structural lowering in the unemployment, underemployment and low pay rates, with the other very valuable benefit of being ethical, fair, decent and compassionate. There are several excellent macro-economic reasons for substantially raising wages AND raising welfare. Notably, it could boost consumption, reduce inequality as well enhance economic growth.

In 2014, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report that stated income inequality actually stifles economic growth in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, whilst the redistribution of wealth via progressive taxation and benefits encourages growth.

The report from the OECD, a global think tank, shows basically that what creates and reverses growth is the exact opposite of what the current neoliberal government are telling us. It highlights that the Conservative austerity programme is purely ideologically driven, and not about effectively managing the economy at all. However, many of us already knew this was so. The Conservatives have managed to narrate neoliberal ideology effectively, it became naturalised, and established as an “intuitive” and common sense kind of justification system for crass inequality, (accumulation by the wealthy through the dispossession of the poor) while its very design was to fragment the truth and disjoint rationality. This is precisely how dominant ideologies operate. 

Austerity was never about what works for the economy. Austerity is simply a front for policies that are entirely founded on ideology, which is all about “handouts” to the wealthy that are funded by the poor

If we provide support for those on low incomes, there will inevitably be higher aggregate spending, more jobs and a stronger economy. And if the income distribution continues to include those on low incomes, rather than the current redistribution to the wealthiest, there will be a lift in the growth potential of the economy. Unemployment would be structurally lower and there would be a self-supporting cycle of stronger economic activity as a result.

The Paradise Papers and the privatised magic money tree

Tax havens are one of the key engines of the rise in global inequality. I started writing this article just as the Paradise Papers leak hit the media, following information that was garnered by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung – which also received the Panama Papers last year – and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

Conservatives argue that economic inequality is essential to a healthy economy to generate the financial incentives for individuals to remain in further and higher education, to work hard and to invest their savings in productive enterprises, all of which will result in faster economic growth and rising average living standards. Wealthy people create jobs, and so the poorest citizens will benefit indirectly from economic inequality as some of the benefits of faster economic growth “trickle down” to them. The Conservatives claim that wealthy people are essential to the economy because they “create jobs” and more wealth. 

However, regardless of the plausibility of the debate about competition, meritocracy,  equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome – and the debate around wealth redistribution, the world’s super-wealthy have taken advantage of lax tax rules to siphon off at trillions of pounds, from their home countries’ economies and hoard it abroad – and the offshore drain involves a sum larger than the entire American economy. The sheer scale of hidden assets held by the super-wealthy also strongly suggests that standard measures of inequality, which tend to rely on surveys of household income or wealth in individual countries, radically underestimate the true level of inequality – the gap between rich and poor. 

Wealth doesn’t “trickle down”: it’s hidden away offshore. It’s hoarded. If you are remotely concerned about fairness and inequalities of wealth and power, you really must be concerned about the very existence of tax havens, and the significant impact this has on national economies. The Conservatives prize the idea of private property, and that impacts on their decision-making. Rather than address the issue that would have had a larger positive impact on our economy – tax avoidance and hoarding – they chose instead to impose austerity on the poorest citizens in the UK, they made “difficult choices” to dismantle the welfare state and raid our public funds, damaging our services and eroding our post war social safeguards. Wealth doesn’t “trickle down”, it trickles away offshore. Furthermore, it’s not feasible that the government was unaware of this. They have chosen to focus on supply side labor policies, and blaming the poorest for the big hole in the economy, some of which followed the banking crisis. They have chosen to regard our public services as “unsustainable” to prop up the immoral financial habits of a wealthy and powerful elite.

At the centre of the Paradise leak is Appleby, a law firm with outposts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. The project has been called the Paradise Papers. It reveals (courtesy of the Guardian):

Graphic showing who is hiding their cash

The disclosures will certainly put pressure on world leaders, including Trump and the prime minister, Theresa May, who have both paid lip service to the idea of curbing aggressive tax avoidance schemes. 

The publication of this investigation, for which more than 380 journalists have spent a year combing through data that stretches back 70 years, comes at a time of growing global income inequality.

In the UK, the ideologically driven austerity programme has also contributed significantly to the redistribution of public funds from the poorest citizens to the wealthiest. I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again: 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. But for the past seven years, the government have been completely disengaged with the public, and have failed to listen to accounts of the detrimental impacts of their public policies on marginalised social groups.

In the UK, the way that policies are justified 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, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

The justification offered by the government for its draconian policies aimed at society’s most marginalised (and protected) social groups is that welfare and other supportive public services are “unsustainable”. The government claims that “difficult decisions” have to be made, which invariably entail cuts to essential services and provisions, because we don’t have enough money.

In truth, the government simply has other plans for the money available, and prioritises the desires of the very wealthy, at the expense of meeting the needs of the poor. 

Other justifications reflect the behaviourist turn, which perpetuates the “culture of poverty” myth and embeds behaviourist theories regarding the presumed attitudes and “cognitive incompetence” of the poorest citizens in policies, which extend a disciplinarian and “correctional” element. However, such narratives and policies indicate a government of evidence-free fanatics. In policy, everything is something you decide to do, and there is nothing that you have to do. There are always alternative choices to consider regarding how our economy is managed.

Few things demonstrate the Conservatives’ wake of glib lies than their record on welfare spending – an area in which they have overseen a culture of waste. Just look at disability benefits. We’re told repeatedly that spending on “welfare” for disabled people is “out of control”, yet earlier this year it emerged that the Department for Work and Pensions has gone nearly £200m over budget, in paying two private companies from the public purse to run the personal independence payments (PIP) assessment system.

Then there is the Work Capability Assessment scandal. The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. In their audit report last year, the NAO concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments themselves than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill. It would be cheaper, and of course much more ethical to simply pay people what they were previously entitled to, based on their own doctors’ professional judgement.

The NAO report reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. People are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus is serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government. The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions, and other plans for our public funds.

The Conservatives have now spent at least £700m in taxpayers’ money on these contracts with multinationals alone, despite the fact that the process they use is so flawed that one charity reported that as many as four out of five rejections for PIP that were appealed against were overturned. That indicates, at the very least, the use of a severely flawed assessment process. PIP assessments are purposefully designed to ensure that people are less likely to be found eligible for the support in meeting the additional costs of being disabled. Then there is the massive cost of tribunals to add to the cost of administrating the “cuts”. 

Meanwhile, multinational companies are shifting a growing share of profits offshore – €600bn in the last year alone – the leading economist Gabriel Zucman will reveal in a study to be published later this week. That money leaves a hole in our economy, which is refilled at the expense of those with the very least to contribute to paying off the “national debt” – another Conservative obsession and justification for their austerity programme. 

The human costs of a “business friendly” neoliberal economy

The government have long claimed that they are “helping” sick and disabled people into work. This “support” entails putting disabled people through systematic ordeals, and constantly moving ever-shrinking goalposts – the claimed objective of which is “targeting” resources to “those most in need”.

The Conservatives use glib, patronising, ridiculous and baffling phrases in their rhetoric, guidelines and policy papers, saying things like they don’t want disabled people to “fall out of employment”, for example. Yet PIP, which is a non means tested payment, quite often supports people in employment, as did the now abolished Independent Living Fund. But PIP is very difficult to qualify for. At my own assessment, my previous post (which ended seven years ago, with social services) was actually used as “evidence” that I don’t have significant cognitive difficulties. However I was forced to give up that post when I became too ill to work. PIP certainly doesn’t seem to be about supporting disabled people in maintaining independence, despite its title.

If it were, then we wouldn’t be witnessing so many losing their award as they are transferred from Disability Living Allowance, or seeing it reduced. Many disabled people are losing their mobility award and consequently, their motability vehicles, which inevitably means that some in this group won’t be able to continue working.

The government has targeted disabled people in order to cut their support and to make savings by reducing the availability of lifeline support that was once accessible to those of us unlucky enough to be disabled, to become ill or have an accident, leaving us unable to earn an income. You know, those provisions that our national insurance pays for.

There is no reason whatsoever to presume that disabled people are “frauds”. The ordeals that have been introduced into the welfare system to deter fraud are not justifiable, since prior to the “reforms”, welfare fraud stood at just 0.7%/. Some of that tiny percentage was actually down to bureaucratic error, too, as administrative errors are included in the statistic. 

The claim that the ordeals incorporated into the system are to “protect the public purse” from fraud is utter rubbish. The ordeals deter most people from claiming, unless they absolutely have no choice. I’ve put off claiming PIP since 2012, when I was advised to by my doctor. Who wants to suffer the utter loss of dignity and punishment that the system meters out unless they really REALLY have to.

Some perspective:

People don’t “fall” out of their jobs: they become too ill to work or they lose their jobs because they are disabled. Every person facing an assessment is in that position because both they and their doctor have concluded that they are unfit for work – too unwell or unable. But the government refuses to accept first hand accounts and the professional opinion of professionals.

The government isn’t “helping” disabled people; it is making it as difficult as possible for people to claim support. The Conservatives are actually trying to coerce sick and disabled people who cannot work to work. Let’s have it straight. Because the whole process is so difficult, and because you are assessed and reassessed constantly, often having to go through mandatory review then appeal, which takes months and months on end, people with chronic illnesses especially experience worsening health because of the terrible stress and strain they are placed under by the state, and are therefore even LESS likely to “move closer” to employment.

In looking to make savings on disability benefits, the government is inflicting unacceptable harm and damage on disabled people. The system damages people’s health, wellbeing and more generally, their lives, because they have to struggle endlessly for a little basic support that most civilised societies would deem essential and  unproblematic.

All of this is because of the insulting assumption the Conservatives make that people who have illnesses or are disabled for other reasons are using their circumstances to wriggle out of their obligations to work, and of course, to fulfil their duty towards national production and the economy. Unfortunately, disability and medical conditions often restrain people from full participation in society, whether they like that or not. Cutting support will simply make inclusion and participation even less likely. 

How assessments are weighted towards the miserly state

The government has justified cuts to welfare more generally by making claims about the characters, attitudes and cognitive capacities of people claiming social security more generally. However, regardless of the front of blame-mongering rhetoric, both ESA and PIP were never intended to be easily accessible support mechanisms for disabled people. The very design of the assessments indicates this.

The Work Capability Assessment is a “norm-referenced” system, not a criterion-referenced system. These terms refer to different ways in which the evidence gathered from an assessment process is used. Criteria-referenced systems are considered to be objective and consider each case individually and on its own terms. Norm-referencing is designed to compare and rank assessments in relation to one another, rather than in relation to objective criteria. Norm-reference assessments score better or worse against a hypothetical standard,  which is determined by comparing scores against the overall performance results of a statistically selected group (a cohort). 

All of which is a sophisticated way of saying that there are in-built targets. To receive ESA, someone must score the required number of points and fall within the proportion of people the system will actually permit.  In practice, this means there is a finite number of people who can be awarded benefit, and that’s regardless of the number of people who actually meet the eligibility criteria. A serious limitation of norm-reference assessments is that the reference group – the cohort – may not represent the current population of those being assessed. Norm-referencing does not ensure that an  assessment is valid, either (i.e. that it measures the construct it is intended to measure). There is nothing to stop a government from using a very biased sample of the population, when they select a cohort.

In 2007, Conservative MP Timothy Boswell warned (9 Jan 2007 : Column 169): “I can imagine circumstances […] in which a future minister […] might wish to say: ‘We will introduce a norm. We are not going to have, by definition, more than 1.5 million people on employment and support allowance,’ and the tests will, in effect, be geared to deliver that result.”

The reassessment of everyone claiming Incapacity Benefit and all disabled people claiming Income Support became a major Conservative crusade that was, we were told, to save billions of pounds a year from the welfare budget, in the Conservative age of austerity. 

Similarly PIP assessments were developed to fit with a pre-conceived idea of how many people ought to qualify for support. The assessment is designed to allocate as few points as possible, by ignoring the real barriers people face in their daily living and assessing a person’s ability to “function” by using the most trivial  and non comparable descriptors.  Esther McVey disclosed in 2012 that she anticipated 300,000 disabled people would have their disability support cut or ended during the change over from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to PIP. That statement came before a single assessment had taken place. If that isn’t a declaration of the real intention behind the introduction of PIP, and that the assessment itself is pretty arbitrary, then I don’t know what is. It does strongly suggest the assessments are not being conducted fairly and “objectively”. 

In 2012, a GP posed as a trainee Atos assessor and recorded undercover video footage that was later broadcast by Channel 4’s investigative current affairs programme Dispatches. In the film, trainers warned the NHS doctor that if, on average, he were to recommend more than one claimant per day for the Support Group (out of the eight he would be expected to see each day) he would be subject to an increased level of management scrutiny through a mechanism known as “targeted audit”. The undercover doctor was told:

“If it’s more than I think 12% or 13%, you will be fed back ‘your rate is too high’.”

An assessor under “targeted audit” would have all of their reports scrutinised before they were sent to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and would no longer be allowed to recommend any claimants for the Support Group without asking for permission first. When the doctor asked an experienced assessor where these rules had come from, she replied: “The DWP”.

Both the DWP and Atos categorically denied ever having had any target for getting claimants off sickness benefits. However, both eventually admitted that Support Group “norms” were being used nationwide, though they both denied that the purpose of “targeted audit” was to limit the number of claimants placed in the Support Group.

Atos said that the audit process triggered by the breach of a “norm” was intended to ensure consistency across the firm’s UK team: if the assessor’s reports met the DWP’s expectations, the healthcare professional would not be asked to change their recommendations.

The decision-making process for awards certainly do not command public confidence, they depend on assessments of “functional impact” that are far from a precise science. In fact it isn’t “science” at all. There is a continuing widespread misperception that PIP is a medical test rather than an assessment of functional capacity, not helped by the fact that assessors are refered to as “Health Professionals”, and Atos claims to be a “medical Service”, while Maximus claims it conducts a “health assessment” rather than a work capability assessment. 

Last November, a United Nations (UN) committee published a scathing report on the consequences of the austerity policies pursued by the UK government in welfare and social care, which it described as “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities. Many of us have raised our concerns and fears with the UK government about the harsh impacts of austerity on disabled people, following the publication of the welfare “reform” bill in 2012, but we were ignored. 

The members of the House of Lords, opposition ministers, the Work and Pensions committee, disabled people’s organisations, charities and support groups and many individuals all tried to engage the government, but to no avail. We were excluded from any democratic dialogue, with accusations of “scaremongering”, and then silenced with false statistics and dishonest claims from Conservative ministers, who presented to us nothing but their own prejudice and contempt. 

We meticulously presented cases to ministers that demonstrated the hardship, harm, distress, loss of independence and dignity, and sometimes, the deaths, that correlate with the reforms and cuts. However, the first hand accounts of our experiences of Conservative policies, as disabled people, were loudly dismissed as “anecdotal evidence”. Over and over we were told by ministers that there was no “proven causal link” established between the policies and the frightening events that we were experiencing and reporting. The fact that the government refused to listen to us and were so uncompromising added another dimension and depth to the fears we experienced.

Many of us raised felt we had no choice but to raise our concerns and fears with the United Nations using the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a side-agreement to the Convention which allows its parties to recognise the competence of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to consider complaints from individuals. Many of us have been documenting and submitting evidence to the UN since 2012. There followed an inquiry, more evidence was gathered. The government dismissed the UN report as “patronising and offensive”. However, given that the government is well aware that disabled people and disability organisations were responsible for the complaints that initiated the inquiry, the  patronising and offensive bluster and attitude is descending from Whitehall. 

A recent report from the UN expressed grave concern regarding care and treatment policies, which were described as insufficient to the extent of being “inconsistent with the right to life of persons with disabilities as equal and contributing members of society”.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary said “The UN committee has found that this Tory government is still failing sick and disabled people. Their damning report highlights what many disabled people already know to be true: that they are being forced to bear the brunt of failed Tory austerity policies.”

Before 2010, the very idea of cutting disability support was unthinkable. The Conservative behaviourist turn is a cruel front for inexcusably squeezing a few pounds more from disabled peopleso that wealthy people can avoid paying tax.

Thatcher’s government was fond of perpetuating the “culture of poverty” myth, but the current government has taken that to a new low, and has implemented costly big state policies which aim at “recifying” behaviours considered “not in our best interests”. The only beneficiaries are the private companies and multinationals who make a profit from administering the punitive cuts. The cuts which are costing more to implement than they can possibly save, in a “business friendly” political climate. One where the government tells us that we need to “incentivise” wealthy people to create jobs and contribute to the economy by giving them more money, while poor people are “incentivised” by not having enough money to meet their basic survival needs. Accumulation by the wealthy by dispossession of the poorest.

Welfare has incorporated a Conservative moral crusade aimed at coercing conformity and compliance to draconian state-determined conditions.

Meanwhile, some very wealthy people are making massive profits from the governments’ austerity programme, particularly the welfare “reforms”. 

Conservatism is synonymous with social and economic inequality – with handouts for the rich and subsequently, much less money for the poor. 

In the UK, democracy, human rights, independence, wellbeing, security, freedom and wealth have been privatised. Only 1% of the population can afford them these days, and they tend to bank offshore.  

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Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

Image result for Nudge critical

The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. 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.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

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The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

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

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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It’s time the government took some lessons in the ethical use of power and influence amid the discussion about abuse

 

Image result for Daily Mail Jo Cox Image result for Daily Mail Jo CoxImage result for This is for britainImage result for Daily Mail Jo Cox

Image result for Daily Mail Jo Cox

Irresponsible racist scapegoating discourse and an utter incapacity to join the dots in the media. When Jo Cox was murdered, her killer shouted “Britain First” – the name of the political party formed by former BNP members, which has over 1.5m likes on Facebook. The Daily Mail buried the news of his conviction for murdering a sitting MP on page 30, almost as if the Mail thought it was somehow unimportant.

Minority groups are demonised and denigrated as a matter of routine and tradition – at what point does our feigning ignorance of this process turn into complicity with it? The problems we face as a society are not caused by immigration, but by socioeconomic inequality, with widespread, growing poverty, exclusion and youth unemployment faced by working class people of all ethnic backgrounds. Pointing the finger at immigrants is an attempt to mask how current government policy is actually exacerbating inequality.

The rise in targeted abuse of MPs of all stripes

It’s quite remarkable that Conservative MP, Simon Hart, claims: “Abuse of candidates and activists is “driving people away from politics,” and it’s also entirely predictable that he almost exclusively blames left wing campaigners. However, we do need to tread carefully when using labels such as “bullying” and “abuse”. We need to be careful not to allow politicians to lump reasonable opposition, challenges, legitimate democratic dialogue and action into the same category as examples of abuse.  

This is a government, after all, that has sneeringly labelled those reasonably calling for an end to austerity, adequate funding for our public services and adequate social security protection for disabled people as “unrepentant Marxists”, “Trots”, “the Hard Left”, “the Loony Left”,  and who ran almost all of their election campaign as a strategic, pointed, deeply personal smear attack on Corbyn and some of the shadow cabinet. 

The Conservatives ran an election campaign that was almost entirely about character assassinations and smearing the opposition, rather than offered policies. It was also about telling the electorate who they must and must not vote for. They seem to have forgotten that it is the public who decide who is “fit” to run the country, not the increasingly authoritarian incumbent government. We live in a democracy, after all, not a one-party state.

Hart told HuffPost UK that “silence” from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour grassroots campaign organisation Momentum had meant the intimidation of candidates had increased. Labour immediately responded, expressing “deep dismay and concern at the vitriolic personal attacks” carried out and financed by the Conservative Party.

A spokesperson for Momentum dismissed Hart’s criticism as a “ludicrous smear”. I’m inclined to agree. Many of the right wing tabloids have predictably tried to blame Jeremy Corbyn entirely for political attacks.

Yet the same tabloids have printed horrifically dishonest, abusive articles about Corbyn, and historically, against the Labour Party  more generally.

Image result for Labour zinoviev letter Daily Mail

One of the great political scandals of the 20th century. Shortly before the 1924 general election, a letter purporting to be from Grigory Zinoviev at the Comintern in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain appeared in the Daily Mail, along with “concerns” about a proletariat revolution.  The Conservative landslide victory four days later was in part attributed to the fake letter, which is now known to have been a forgery.

Corbyn has previously revealed that the abuse thrown at him over the course of the Labour leadership campaign has been “deeply hurtful” to his family and close friends. Yet he has consistently said: “We’re not responding in any way; we don’t do that kind of [abusive] politics.”

Hart, the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said the “general thuggishness” of the election campaign was “deterring” people from getting involved politics. 

I agree. Right wing thuggishness is writ large in screaming headlines, smear campaigns and slanderous columns. The Conservative approach to election campaigns has normalised abuse.  The nasty party probably think that positive role modelling involves the fashioning of voodoo dolls of the opposition out of plasticine to stick their malicious and vindictive pins into.

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It becomes obvious with a little scrutiny who is actually doing the attacking on a very personal level. Debate and political criticism are one thing: personal commentaries, character assassinations, attacks, threats, bullying, abuse and harassment are another. I have seen that quite often, abusive tactics include manipulating people’s perceptions and diverting attention to portray themselves as the injured party, with their target being portrayed as the villain. 

The danger of portraying democratic opposition as “abuse”

The Conservatives seem to be outraged at the very idea of political opposition, to the extent that the Conservatives’ rhetoric and practices are now bordering on political totalitarianism. 

The Conservatives have a habit of stifling legitimate criticism, personalising public issues and frequently labelling the opposition’s concerns with negative terms such as “scaremongering” , “grandstanding” and “crying wolf” in what ought to be democratic debate.

This kind of discrediting  and dismissive language, and unwillingness to engage in a genuine dialogue, sidestepping accountability and transparency, sends a wider message out to the public. Cameron’s “one nation” politics has extended more of a one party state message, creating an illusion of a national consensus bandwaggon that does not exist. 

In a letter to Conservative party chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, Labour’s Ian Lavery and voter engagement spokesman Cat Smith wrote: “The Conservatives ran a negative, nasty campaign, propagating personal attacks, smears and untruths, particularly aimed at one of the most prominent women MPs, and indeed the first black woman MP, Diane Abbott.

“Such attacks on politicians, the consequent intimidating and abusive language and threats of violence towards them online, deter many people from entering politics. Parties and politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom we strongly disagree. The Conservative Party has instead promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national campaign.

“Abuse against candidates on social media is completely unacceptable. The Conservative Party perpetrated this on an industrial scale by spending millions of pounds to post highly personalised and nasty attack adverts on voters’ Facebook timelines without their permission.”

They say that the Labour party “fought a positive, hopeful campaign” and insisted that all its MPs ran campaigns based on its policies rather than personal attacks.

All of this is certainly verified by the televised debates and media coverage of the election campaigns.Image result for Jeremy Corbyn's positive election campaign

On Monday, Theresa May asked whether Jeremy Corbyn was “doing enough in response to complaints of intimidation” and said she was “surprised at any party leader who’s not willing to condemn that”. Yet Corbyn has publicly condemned personal abuse many times.

May has ordered a review of the law after saying she had been shocked at the number of colleagues who had talked to her about intimidation and harassment during the campaign. It’s notable and telling, however, that the mainstream media’s role in the general election campaigns won’t be included in the remit of this inquiry.

I deeply suspect that this inquiry will be about the hijacking of abuse from the right: it won’t be about an intention to genuinely deal with cross-party cases of abuse to eliminate it, but it will  be about an ambition to weaponise abuse, using it as a political prop to attack the left and silence criticism.  

By emphasising online abuse only, and ignoring the elephant in the room – the hateful right wing media and the Conservatives’ own abusive approach to public debate – the Conservatives are attempting to paint the entire left as being defined by viciousness and hatred, intolerant of opposition, threatening even, according to this narrative  –  and that of course will be used to justify why they must be kept from power.

That’s absolute hypocrisy, indicating clearly that the Conservatives see the mainstream media as an asset, rather than as a source of aggressive and divisive right wing ideological narratives.

It may also be used to justify more repressive reform to social media. May has already pledged to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government. I can’t help wondering if that will entail a “management” of “left wing bias”. Who can forget Iain Duncan Smith’s despotic and hysterical  “monitoring” of the BBC for any “bias”.

As I write, every single right wing broadsheet has a deeply misleading published article portraying the left as being entirely responsible for abuse of (all) MPs. Yet the report was about abuse directed at BOTH Conservatives and Labour MPs.

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The Conservative Party have cheer-led the personal abuse people on the left receive. The Tories made a strategic decision to discredit, smear and delegitimise the official opposition, portraying Labour’s left supporters as “extremists”, “dangerous”, and “terrorist sympathisers”. Such an attack tactic has some very chilling and profoundly anti-democratic implications, because it leaves the left exposed as a dangerous internal enemy, which legitimises radical right wingers’ belief that the left needs to be “eliminated”.

The “abuse” accusation is one of many techniques used by the right to police the boundaries of “acceptable” political thought.

The right and the dangers of dog whistle politics

It is worth remembering that it was a Labour MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far right terrorist. This has been linked to the rhetoric employed by hardcore right wing Brexit campaign. Others, including myself, have linked it with a growth in wider social prejudiceand the social divisions which have been politically fostered, motivated and manipulated by the Conservatives. Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle racism and negative campaigning strategies have been a key feature of elections over recent years and have normalised below the radar “coded” racist messaging, with the inbuilt “safeguard” of plausible deniability.  

Dog whistling is designed to trigger previously indoctrinated prejudice, bigotry and  hatred without being recognised by outsiders as hateful speech in prejudiced communities. The legitimising of sentiment which has previously been considered inappropriate is one of Crosby’s trademarks, and this approach has steadily pushed at public moral boundaries, making hate speech and hate crime much more likely. 

The philosopher Jennifer Saul has how the linguistic drift of increasingly intolerant speech can lead to racist violence. As we become habituated to a subject of speech, our standard of what is acceptable to say (or not say) shifts, which in turn opens up possibilities for how we may act.

Of course intolerant speech is that which creates categories of outgrouped others, and this process of othering hasn’t been confined to ethnic minorities. The Conservatives have also stigmatised disabled people, social security claimants more generally, trade unions, public sector workers, among others and have systematically demonised and personally discredited critics, opposition (including charities and academics), and especially, those on the left.

The government has consistently sent out a broader message, in the form of a series of coded emotive appeals and sometimes, quite explicitly stated, that the left has/will take your taxes and give it to “undeserving” minorities. Those “minorities” are disabled people, people in low paid work, people who have lost their job, as well as asyum seekers and migrants.

As opposed to undeserving millionaires and rogue multinationals.

The Conservatives have normalised bullying and intimidation to silence dissent

Conservative MP Anna Soubry has spoken out at the Conservatives’ “bully boy tactics” employed against Mark Carney by some of her Tory colleagues. Carney came in for attacks from senior Brexiteers like Michael Gove and William Hague, while other pro-Leave campaigners have called on him to be sacked as governor of the Bank of England. In the run-up to the EU referendum, Tories accused Carney of “interfering” in the campaign by his simple and evidenced warning about the economic effects of a vote to leave.

Speaking to Sky News, former business minister Soubry said: “This is what I mean about almost bully boy tactics, this idea that you just slag people off and then you go to some of our newspapers and they join in this very unpleasant campaign which means people like Mark Carney don’t have any defence, they can’t really come out and fight their corner as they should do.

“He shouldn’t be attacked in the way that he was. He’s done a great job. He was universally recognised as being a real coup for our Bank of England, for our country. I’m just sad that he seems to be going early, but I’m delighted he’s staying.

“We all seem to have almost taken leave of our senses in this country.”

The language mirrored that used in an article for LabourList from Rebecca Long-Bailey, then the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

She wrote at the time: “That a committed public servant like Dr Carney has been the subject of briefings, on and off the record, questioning his fitness for the role – when he himself has no opportunity to respond – is an indictment of the toxic atmosphere now brewing inside the Conservative party.

Denigrating reasonable criticism and monstering campaigns for social justice

Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green criticised “irresponsible scaremongering” by Labour and insisted the Tories “will always look after the most vulnerable”, following legitimate concerns raised by the opposition about the impact of the proposed dementia tax and cuts to winter fuel payments for the elderly. The United Nations inquiry into the Conservatives’ grave and systematic abuse of disabled people’s human rights certainly doesn’t support Green’s claims. He said: “At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive. We strongly refute its findings.”

However, it is the government that hold a deeply patronisingoutdated and discriminatory view of disability, and they are the ones dismissing the concerns raised over and over by disabled people who pushed to instigate and evidence the inquiry in the first place, because the government have disgracefully and systematically marginalised us, and consistently refused to listen to our grave concerns about the harms, distress and premature deaths that Conservative welfare policies are increasingly correlated with. 

Hart says: “I wrote to every MP at the beginning of last week to say would they like to come up with examples of where this has been happening and the only examples I’ve had are of attacks by the left on the right. If there are others, I haven’t heard of them.” 

“I know a lot of Labour MPs have been subject to quite nasty abuse over a number of years now. It’s not exclusively left-wing attacking right-wing, or left-wing attacking center, but there is certainly more evidence of that than there is the contrary.”

Perhaps Hart doesn’t read the tabloids. Or listen to the malicious comments of his colleagues made frequently during election campaigns.

Try as I might, I just simply can’t imagine Jeremy Corbyn calling Boris Johnson a “mutton-headed old mugwump”, or a “benign herbivore”. Nor can I imagine him dismissing United Nations rapporteurs as “loopy Brazilian lefties” or “partisan marxists”.

Tory MP Stewart Jackson tweeted that Miss Rolnick was a ¿loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official¿

The Conservatives don’t take independent criticism of the adverse effects of their draconian policies very well. However, the UK is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means that Ms Rolnik’s independent findings should carry weight within the British justice system and prompt the government to abandon this most inhumane of policies. Rather than approach this public issue with impartiality, government ministers decided instead to launch a disgraceful personal attack on Raquel Rolnik.

Image result for Raquel Rolnik British media

I condemn personal attacks and abuse on MPs of any political stripe. However, it seems to me that the Conservatives are launching a gaslighting campaign, with the sole intention of diverting attention from their own appalling track record on systematic abuse and bullying, and to attempt to further discredit the left.  

What about the abuse directed by right wingers on social media?  Some have claimed that Corbyn supporters are a “cult”, painting a picture of Corbyn’s supporters as “blind” followers of a strange doctrine. It links us with some of the worst instances in political history and develops a narrative that positions Corbyn and his supporters as “dangerous”. It is a poisonous term that should be deployed with caution. But sadly, that hasn’t stopped Corbyn’s opponents.

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This tweet has now been deleted. It’s from Financial Times’ political columnist Janan Ganesh, who seems to have realised his is a difficult narrative to push, as the likes of Stephen Hawkings, Noam Chomsky and much of the academic world explicitly endorse Corbyn’s project.

The Telegraph has patronisingly declared that young people who voted Labour are “deluded about Jeremy Corbyn, and about much else besides”. With the likes of Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen complaining: “The BBC will do everything they can to get their hero Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Now with things like this year’s Glastonbury, it’s becoming ever more blatant.

“They are at the stage where if the BBC give it one more push, we will end up with a Marxist in No 10.”

 “Marxist” is used as a term of abuse here. Yet in this context, a marxist is simply someone who wants to adequately fund public services, raise our standard of living and introduce a progressive tax system  – something that the Conservatives have deemed “reckless” and only possible with the help of a magic money tree. Mind you, that same magic money tree has been supporting the millionaires in handouts for the past few years.

At the same time that George Osborne told us that we needed to make cuts, rolling out his austerity programme that targeted the poorest citizens, he awarded millionaires £107, 000 each per year in the form of a handout tax cut. 

You have to worry at this particularly authoritarian comment, too: “If the BBC feel Labour are potentially close to power, any semblance of impartiality can be disregarded because with the Left, the ends always justify the means.” 

The BBC’s coverage of the event does not indicate “bias”, it’s simply coverage of an event. In a healthy democracy, that should never even be an issue. It’s not the BBC that decides voter’s intentions. It is the voters. It is the nation that decides what is in the “national interest” not the Conservatives.

Labour’s pledge to make university education free was claimed to be “the £11 billion bribe”, according to the Daily Mail. Unlike, for instance, the £350 million “save the NHS” lie plastered on Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign bus. Or the Liberal Democrats’ giant cardboard cutout promise that tuition fees would absolutely never in a million years go up to 9K per year. Nope. Honest…

Since when was an inclusive manifesto considered “bribery”? Have we travelled so far down the road of Conservative authoritarianism, which has normalised the politics of stigma and exclusion, that reaching out and democratically engaging with politically betrayed, marginalised social groups to acknowledge and reflect their needs is considered so baffling and alien?

The language use that has been used to describe people exercising a democratic right to protest peacefully against government policies, variously described as “mobs”, a “rabble” and “thugs”.  As a disabled activist I have been called an “extremist” by the Conservatives and their supporters.

In 2015, a campaign group working to protect the NHS criticised Employment Minister Priti Patel, after she allegedly described members that gathered at her office – some of whom were elderly and others were disabled – as a “thuggish gang”.

Members of the People’s NHS gathered outside Patel’s constituency HQ in Witham, Essex, to urge her to protect the NHS against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships which they fear will lead to the health service being privatised. A photo of the protest shows around a dozen peaceful demonstrators holding a banner reading “fight for our NHS” and protecting themselves from the rain with umbrellas.   

Patel responded to the demonstration by writing to Unite union boss Len McCluskey, who she wrongly believed was heading the campaign. The letter read, according to The Sunday Mirror, that the woman who works at the Witham Conservative Association office “felt harassed, frightened and intimated” by “a thuggish gang of People’s NHS campaigners”. Patel went on to accuse the group of “intimidation and harassment”. 

However, someone in a position of power using such derogatory labels to discredit, smear and pathologise people raising legitimate criticism is intimidation, harassment and bullying. We live in a democracy, and the right to protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Whether the authoritarian Conservatives like it or not.  From the historical UK Labour movement, civil rights protesters such as Rosa Parks in 1950s America, to the 60,000 participants in Gandhi’s Salt march, people throughout history have chosen to resist injustice because, as Rosa herself said, they’re “tired of giving in”. In contemporary Britain, disabled people are fighting a battle of life and death proportions. People are dying as a consequence of draconian policies. No-one is listening, so we protest.

The Conservatives fear civil unrest, yet every Tory government prompts protest because of their grossly injust, punitive policies. Protest is what happens when governments refuse to listen. It’s what happens when policies are non-inclusive and nasty. It’s what happens when ideologies are manifested, causing people distress and harm.

Simon Hart has complained that almost half his election campaign boards were defaced, stolen or damaged, adding that he and other MPs received abuse on social media “on an almost daily basis”.

“These are things that have significant financial consequences and it’s driving people away from politics, even on the fringes, at a time when actually it’s never been more important that they’re part of politics,” he said.

The importance of practicing what you preach, and keeping your own house in order

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However, Hart seems to have forgotten all about the details of his own election campaign, and some of the issues arising because of his election boards being placed without permission on private property. In fact one of the Tory MP’s own campaigners attacked a local resident, slamming his van door on the man, and hurting his arm, before driving at him – in a row over Hart’s election boards.

John Kilcoyne, a Conservative campaigner for Hart, infuriated local Adam Morres, after he put up signs promoting Hart in a field near the local’s home in Manorbier, Wales, back in May. Morres took them down and billed the local Conservative party for rent and damages – but then caught Kilcoyne putting them back up a day later.

The video appears to show the volunteer smacking the villager in the arm with his van door – before repeatedly DRIVING his van at him along a rural road. The police arrived moments later and are now investigating the incident.

Morres said: “Normally, I would choose who to vote for based on their policies, but in this instance I will be choosing based on the party I think has employees who aren’t going to attack me.”

The furore began on Sunday, May 7, when Morres was out for a walk with his ex-partner in the fields that she rents for her horses. They spotted two blue signs supporting incumbent MP Simon Hart nailed to a fence post inside the field. Morres says that he phoned the Electoral Commission who he said told him they could be removed, so he took them down the next day.

He invoiced Camarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservatives £50 for rent and damages.

“The damages are in case out neighbours thought the signs meant we were Conservative voters,” he added sarcastically. 

He claims John Kilcoyne – named as the seconder on Mr Hart’s 2015 election nomination document, came to both his home and his partner’s house. Kilcoyne claimed he had permission of the land owner to put the signs up, and left. Moments later  spotted him back next to his ex’s field getting new “Simon Hart” signs out of his van and the two men rowed.

The video appears to show the pair arguing before the volunteer sharply pulls his van door onto Morres’ arm before mocking him, saying: “Watch out, watch out.” He denied his actions. With a smirk.

Morres phoned the police and when he stood in front of the van to record the licence plate, claims Kilcoyne repeatedly drove at him. 

The footage on the video – taken moments before police arrived – appears to show the car inching towards him as he moves away across the road before driving off.

Astonishingly, Morres woke up the next day to find the signs had been reinstated.

“The police have told us not to touch them in case they get damaged and Simon Hart claims criminal damage,” he said. 

Dyfed-Powys Police said: “The force received a report of an assault without injury at approximately 9.40am on Tuesday, May 9.

“The incident took place at Wheelers Way, Manorbier. The investigation is ongoing.”

The Welsh Conservative Party and Simon Hart refused to comment. Kilcoyne, from Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, said: “Have you spoken to Mr Hart?

“I’m in the same position as Mr Hart. There is a police officer dealing with it. I have nothing at all to add.”

Meanwhile, Wales Office minister Guto Bebb said he had also been a victim of online intimidation, and has surprisingly accused serving police officers of being among those who have abused him.

Ah yes, the sensitive Guto Bebb, who dismissed Dylan Barlow’Asperger’s syndrome as a “sob story” in a series of emails after his constituent raised questions on foreign matters.  

The MP for Aberconwy, North Wales, wrote: “If you have mental health issues then you should possibly refrain from commenting in the public domain since it might create problems for you.”

I’m disabled because of illness. I am a campaigner that supports Labour’s policies. I have had a lot of abuse, ranging from name-calling such as “leftard” , “trot”, “loony leftist”, “scrounger” , “lazy” to organised hate and smear campaigns, malicious communications that have used my social media account details and my photograph, resulting in death threats, rape threats, threats to my family and a threat from Combat 18. I involved the police at the time. I have also received very offensive comments calling for disabled people to be shot.  

disability hate speech

Conservative rhetoric, policy practices and in particular, their anti-welfare campaign which has been amplified by the media, has systematically dehumanised and scapegoated disabled people and migrants, and has contributed significantly to my experiences of abuse these last few years.

Divisive rhetoric, such as Cameron’s “scroungers and strivers” dichotomy, and traditional, embedded Conservative prejudices (based on class, ableism, economic productivity, ethnicity and gender) have added to the problems of social division,  encouraging and legitimising hate speech and hate crime.

The unedifying sight of Conservative ministers’ sneering contempt and laughter when they hear accounts of people suffering hardships and harm because of their policies in parliament isn’t a rare event. The persistent denial of a “causal link” between policy, hardship and distress, and refusal to investigate an established correlation between policy and hardship – all of this sends out a negative message to the wider public.

The message is that hate speech, bullying and abuse of marginalised social groups is permitted, and by gaslighting – negating or attempting to invalidate those group’s common experiences of harm and distress – the Conservatives have othered, isolated and dehumanised them.

A major contributing factor to the increase in bullying is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices. Their policies embed a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups. This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department for work and pensions and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.

People affected by those behaviours are then encouraged to blame other marginalised groups – migrants and asylum seekers, people who are “not really” disabled, and others politically deemed “undeserving”. This creates a hierarchy of needs, when the reality is simply that people have different but equally pressing needs for basic support. Everyone, after all, needs food, fuel and shelter. Without being able to fulfil those basic needs, we cannot fulfil higher level psychosocial needs.

As authority figures and role models, the government’s behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange and mutual respect. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead she employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives wider society permission and approval to do the same.

At prime minister’s questions, Cameron found it hard to rein in his Flashman reflex. His answers were frequently ever more sneering and personal, determined to characterise his political rival as weak and useless. It was not pleasant to watch the jabbing finger and the reddened face, especially when the Tory backbenchers behind him join in with bullying jeers.

Even Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former aide has accused the political establishment of bullying Jeremy Corbyn after he was elected as Labour leader in what he described as “incredibly unattractive” behaviour.

It’s dangerous behaviour

Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. The scapegoaters’ target always experiences a terrible sense of being personally edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the bully inserted into public accounts of their character, isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.

Another tactic commonly used by Conservatives is projection – a defense mechanism used to displace responsibility of one’s negative behaviour and traits by attributing them to someone else. It ultimately acts as a diversion that avoids ownership and accountability. Simon Hart’s emphasis on “left wing bullying” is an attempt to steer us away from his own party’s entrenched prejudices, draconian policies, bullying practices and the hectoring approach to dialogue and debate.

The Conservatives have played the “blameshifting game” on many occasions over the past seven years. The objectives of the game of course are that it simplistically dichotomises issues, turning debate into often diversionary, personalised, simplistic arguments of reductive one upmanship: for the Conservatives, it’s about winning  and getting your own way, while others lose and are also blamed for everything that’s wrong with them. Ad hominem arguments have been normalised by Conservatives.

Image result for disability stigmatising messages in the newspapers

It’s time for the government to consider the impact of negative role modelling – Conservatives regularly use abusive language when challenged. Politicians have a responsibility to set an example, by treating others with dignity and respect, including those with whom they may strongly disagree. However, the Conservatives seem to regard opposition and challenges as an irritating inconvenience rather than as an essential feature of a functioning democracy.

The Conservative Party has promoted personal attacks as a core component of its national election campaigns, and has used stigma as a justification for extremely punitive policies that target marginalised groups. 

Bullying and abuse within the Conservative party

Let’s not forget poor Elliott Johnson: the young Conservative who was destroyed by the party he loved, and subsequently took his own life in 2015, aged just 21, as a result of blackmail and persistent bullying. Earlier this year, the Conservative party were accused of ­withholding evidence from police about the death of the young party activist who said he was systematically bullied. Others have since come forward – a further 13 alleged victims of Mark Clarke came forward, the so-called “Tatler Tory,” over a 20-month period, and allegations included six accusations of “sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

Clarke, who was appointed by the party to run its RoadTrip2015 election campaign, came under heavy scrutiny after Elliott Johnson, a young Tory activist, took his own life in September 2015 and named Clarke as his tormentor in a suicide note.

Then there was the Tory MP who “faked” a death threat, accused of threatening to sack a member of staff if she took four weeks off work sick – as advised by her doctor. 

Telford MP Lucy Allan was accused of launching a “vicious” verbal attack on a female staff member who phoned in sick. Allan accused the alleged bullying victim Arianne Plumbly of having an “alcohol problem,” dismissing her claims to be ill as “pathetic”. In a recording of the telephone call handed to the Evening Standard,  Allan is heard telling the alleged bullying target Arianne Plumbly: “I’m not paying you for that then; it’s ridiculous” and told her she had “pissed around on my life”. 

The Nasty Party and dehumanising language

Rosemary Carroll, a Conservative councillor, shared a post about a man asking for benefits for his pet dog, making very offensive racist comparisons.

She was Mayor of Pendle until last month but was suspended from her party after the post appeared on her account, pending an inquiry.

The post

Only last week, a Tory Brexiteer described the UK leaving the EU without a deal as a “real n****r in the woodpile” at a meeting of eurosceptics in Central London. 

Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot since 2010, made the astonishing remark while discussing what financial services deal the UK could strike with Brussels after 2019.

The phrase she used is from the nineteenth Century, and refers to slavery. It is thought the phrase arose in reference to instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood.

The origin of the phrase is from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special railroad cars. In the era of slavery, the pulpwood cars were built with an outer frame with the wood being stacked inside in rows and stacks. Given the nature of the cars, it was possible to smuggle persons in the pile itself, giving rise to the phrase.  

In July 2008, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, was urged to sack Conservative peer Lord Dixon-Smith, who said in the House of Lords that concerns about government housing legislation were “the n***er in the woodpile”. Dixon-Smith said the phrase had “slipped out without my thinking”, and that “It was common parlance when I was younger”. 

Despite using the racist term, none of Morris’s fellow panelists, including Tory MPs Bill Cash and John Redwood, reacted at the time. 

Racism isn’t the only traditional Conservative prejudice. Who could forget David Freud’s offensive comments, made when he was a Conservative Welfare Reform Minister, that some disabled people are not worth the full national minimum wage”  and that some “could only be paid £2 an hour.” Cameron claimed the disgraceful comments made by Lord Freud at the Tory conference do not represent the views of government. 

However, his government’s punitive austerity measures and the welfare “reforms” tell us a very different story. The comments came to light after they were disclosed by Ed Miliband during Prime Minister’s Questions

Freud’s comments are simply a reflection of a wider implicit and fundamental Social Darwinism underpinning Tory ideology, and even Tim Montgomerie, who founded the Conservative­Home site has conceded that: “Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism […] and has lost a sense of social justice.”  

David Freud was made to apologise for simply being a Tory in public. The Conservatives have systematically blamed poor people for their poverty rather than acknowledge that poverty arises as a consequence of political decision-making and policies that financially penalise the poorest while handing out rewards to the wealthiest

Conservative policies are not only entirely ideologically-driven, they reflect traditional Tory prejudices. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe marginalised social groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor people, unemployed people, disabled people, asylum seekers and migrants. If that isn’t bullying and abuse, I don’t know what is.

One Tory councillor, Alan Mellins – called for the “extermination of gypsies”, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. Philip Davies has also said that the national minimum wage is “more a hindrance than a help” for disabled people, and proposed that we are paid less. A Conservative deputy mayor – retired GP, Owen Lister –  said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”

Let’s not forget Boris Johnson’s grossly racist comments describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in the Telegraph in 2002. He only apologised when he first ran for London mayor in 2008.

And Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin also escaped disciplinary action after it was revealed that he had said black people have “bad moral attitudes” when he was a top adviser to Thatcher. He actually said that any government schemes to help black people would be wasted in “the disco and drugs trade.” 

In August, 201, Dover Conservative councillor Bob Frost describes rioters as “jungle bunnies.” He lost his teaching job but the Tories suspended him for just two months. In 2014, he referred to the prospective Middle Eastern buyers of Dover port as “sons of camel drivers.” No action was taken.

In January 2013, Enfield Conservative councillor Chris Joannides compared Muslim children to black bin bags in a Facebook post. In April 2014, Barnet councillor Tom Davey complained online about “benefit claiming scum”, and said that it might be easier to find a job if he were “a black female wheelchair-bound amputee who is sexually attracted to other women.” He was not disciplined by the party.  

These are NOT “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, just as long as they aren’t made in public. We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms”, the cuts aimed at disabled people s support and services – which were unthinkable before 2010 – and tresearch the consequences of austerity for the most vulnerable citizens, those with the “least broad shoulders” and the least to lose – to understand that these comments reflect accurately how Conservatives actually think

2014-02-17-BurdenoftheCuts-thumb

That any of this is considered acceptable behaviour by a government – who serve as public role models – is an indication of just how far our society has regressed in terms of human rights and our democratic ideals of equality and diversity. This is a government that has purposefully seeded and permitted social prejudice in order to gain support and power. 

The Tory creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable and protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of de-empathising the population, manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ crass neoliberal welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision, for the public, which the public have paid for via taxes and national insurance.

At the same time that austerity was imposed on the poorest citizens, the millionaires were awarded a £107,000 each per year tax cut. It seems only some of us have to “live within our means”. 

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism and behavioural economic theories), all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision. Discriminatory political practices and rhetoric send out a message to the public, and that permits wider prejudice, hate speech, hate crime and discrimination.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of  constructing deviant welfare stereotypes, folk devils and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public. 

The growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma, hermetic material and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to a socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarialand hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, wellbeing, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this. 

Neoliberal socioeconomic organisation has perpetuated hierarchies of human worth, and pitched social groups against one another in a fight for resources.

I condemn all abuse, be it from the left or right of the political spectrum.

However, it’s time the government took some lessons in the ethical use of power and influence, democratic inclusion and accountability.

pie-wealth

The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

Ken Loach Criticises BBC’s “Disgusting” Political Bias Ahead of U.K. Election

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

MPs speak out about ‘sinister’ election abuse

Death threats and daily hate: MPs recall abuse they have received

Not one day more: Tory councillor suspended for sneering racism and vindictive Tory anti-welfarism

Some of the lies politicians and the media have told about Jeremy Corbyn 

Tory attack ad misrepresents Corbyn views on IRA

A couple more lies that politicians and the media have told about Jeremy Corbyn – editing someone’s character is abusive

From the Zinoviev letter to the Labour party coup – the real enemy within

Conservatives, cruelty and the collective unconscious

 


 

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Grenfell, inequality and the Conservatives’ bonfire of red tape

Residents were trapped "screaming for their lives" as flames raged through a 27-storey tower block in Notting Hill in the early hours today

The Grenfell Tower fire reflects a colossal betrayal of working class people’s trust by the state. The Conservatives have emphasised “economic growth” at the expense of citizen’s welfare in their policies since taking office in 2010. This is a government that has rewarded the propertied class and punished the renting class (by inflicting policies such as the bedroom tax, and the welfare cap, for example). It’s a government that values and supports profiteering landlords, who have lobbied against essential safeguarding regulation, and one that has also imposed massive local authority budget cuts. 

It’s estimated that there are more than 700 tower blocks in London. These range from the brand new luxury apartments to the post-war council-owned buildings which were seen as a convenient cure to problems caused by the crumbling and unsanitary 19th Century slums.

Around 8% of Londoners now live in tower blocks. Some of the flats are bought for millions; others are relatively low-cost social housing, rented from a local council at a fraction of the private rate. Grenfell Tower itself was designed in 1967, building started in 1972 and finished in 1974.

Originally built as municipal housing as part of the slum clearances of the 1960s, it had 120 one and two-bedroom flats over 20 of its 24 storeys, and was renovated in 2016.

Grenfell House is in a neighbourhood ranked among the most deprived 10% in England.

The BBC’s Bethan Bell says

“Just two miles away – or four stops along the Circle/Hammersmith and City line – is 3 Merchant Square, a 21-storey tower that is part of a new development around Paddington Basin. The contemporary block was finished in 2016 and holds 60 apartments over 15 storeys.

It’s a different world. The penthouse apartment was sold for £7.5m. One-bedroom flats are at least £1m.

Surrounded by restaurants and bars, workers and residents can lounge on deckchairs on a newly-built floating park. Lunchtime yoga sessions are held and there’s a luxury fitness club.

There’s an enormous fountain and a bridge created by renowned designer Thomas Heatherwick, a nursery and winter garden.

But nice though these peripheries undoubtedly are, they don’t keep people safe from fire. For that, we must have a look at the specifications of the apartments in the tower. 

Once you get past the sales brochure description of 3 Merchant Square’s walnut cutlery drawer inserts and integral wine coolers, the adjustable mood lighting and heated bathroom walls, you come to the fire safety details: Every flat has not only ceiling mounted smoke detectors but sprinklers.

The International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) says that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available, and are able to make up for a wide range of other fire protection deficiencies.

There has never been a multiple loss of life from a fire developing in a building protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system. While fire sprinkler systems have been required in new high-rise residential buildings in England since 2007, it is not compulsory to retrofit them into existing buildings. So Grenfell Tower had none.”

It’s a tale of two cities.

The former chief fire officer Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue – which had recommended fitting sprinklers to buildings to save lives – has said the regulations “badly need updating” and “three successive ministers have not done it”.

“My own thinking is there was the red tape challenge and they don’t really want to put regulation on to businesses, adding a burden.

“It’s one of those that if you bring in a new regulation, you have got to give three up to get it.” 

This echoes my own comments yesterday

In 2012, David Cameron vowed to “cut back on the health and safety legislation “monster”, and to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” The Conservatives’ Cutting Red Tape programme allows Business to tell Government how it can cut red tape and reduce bureaucratic barriers to growth and productivity within their sector.” The Tories boast these “big successes” in getting rid of “unnecessary bureaucracy”: 

  • Over 2,400 regulations scrapped through the Red Tape Challenge
  • Saving home builders and councils around £100m by reducing 100s of locally applied housing standards to 5 national standards
  • £90m annual savings to business from Defra reducing environmental guidance by over 80%
  • Businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes, allowing managers to quickly get back to their day job. 

Among others.  

Apparently, “Cutting Red Tape wants to work with business, for business.” I don’t see any balanced democratic representation and reflection of public needs. Back in 2015, business Secretary Vince Cable and Business and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock announced that “better enforcement of regulation” is saving business more than £40 million every year. What that phrase actually means is not “better enforcement” – it’s deregulation. The Tories are masters of Doublespeak. 

The Focus on Enforcement review programme, which asks companies to identify poor “enforcement practices” that “hold them back”, has benefited around one million businesses and boosted growth in 9 vital sectors of the economy from coastal developments to childcare. And building. 

This “builds on government action to scrap or reform regulatory rules which has saved firms some £10 billion over this parliament.” It has also undermined health and safety legislation, consideration of which has a direct impact on the welfare of public. Conservative ideology prioritises private profit over human needs. New Right neoliberalism is all about privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and a “small state” commitment entailing reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.

The problem is that the government regards regulations as an inconvenience – as raising unnecessary obstacles to free market economics – business, growth, competition and “innovation”, while disregarding the fact that regulations actually serve important social objectives. 

The Conservatives have long argued that “red tape” impedes freedom and “damages productivity”. They have glibly assured us that the UK would be a better place with a lot of deregulation and fewer bureacratic “barriers” to business. The 2010-15 Tory Health and Safety “reforms” (that word is always a Conservative euphemism for cuts) have been motivated, for example, by a belief that: “good health and safety is important, but the burden of excessive health and safety rules and regulations on business had become too great and a damaging compensation culture was stifling innovation and growth. We want to protect people in the workplace while reducing the burden of unnecessary health and safety rules and regulations on businesses.”

The “red tape” that the Conservatives regard with such disdain consists of laws that provide essential public protections and rights that prioritise citizen’s lives. The freedoms being protected by this government are those of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit employees and the public, of landlords to exploit their tenants and, to nick a sentence from George Monbiot, of industry to use the planet as its dustbin.

2012 report by the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) concluded that fire sprinklers could be retrofitted with tenants in place at a cost of about £1,150 a flat. Since the 24-storey Grenfell Tower contained 120 flats, it would have worked out at £138,000. That’s significantly less than the £2.6m spent on the cosmetic cladding and replacement windows

Architect and fire expert Sam Webb said: “We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.

I really don’t think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government’s mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren’t good enough.”

Some of these issues were raised in a report following a fatal fire at a tower block in 2009 in Camberwell, in which six people were killed.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said his predecessor in the role had accepted the report’s recommendations and put them into action.

He said: “The coroner did not recommend new planning regulations. The coroner recommended a change in the guidance. There is a lot of information out there and it is right that it is independently looked at by a judge-led inquiry.” 

When asked whether the government would retrofit sprinkler systems to tower blocks, he said: “I don’t think we can immediately jump to the conclusion that sprinklers is the issue here. We will do whatever it takes.”

An associate pastor of Notting Hill Community Church, Danny Vance, says “the poor are constantly neglected” in the city.

He said: “The disparity between rich and poor in this city is disgusting. This would not have happened to the £5m flats around the corner” [from the Grenfell tower].

Theresa May has announced a £5 million emergency fund for the survivors of the Grenfell inferno, amid angry protests over the government’s lack of appropriate reaction to the tragedy, and what survivors see as the slow emergence of information with regard to loved ones and friends who are still missing.

It’s worth considering that the Conservatives consistently spend close to the £19m general election spending limit on their campaigns. In comparison with the funding offered to people and their families who have lost loved ones and friends, their homes, and all of their belongings, it highlights a problem with our democracy. It is one of political priority. Much more money is spent by the Conservatives on staying in power than it is on pressing social need, reflecting the somewhat corrupt priorities of this government. 

The Labour party have said that the £5 million isn’t enough. It really isn’t. 

Grenfell Tower stands as a dreadful symbol of the failings of austerity for which the Conservatives are culpable. It’s an emblem of the intentional Conservative attacks on our poorer citizens. Tory MPs have sneeringly  rejected housing regulation; they implemented cuts to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; they disregarded the coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council have regularly blocked its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxieties

For many, the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower is a terrible and tragic monument to inequality. It stands as an awful accusation. It should not be the case that society’s most disadvantaged citizens suffer most from the mistakes of the powerful. The state should protect and value citizens’ lives – each life has equal worth, it is equally precious – and not remain indifferent to people who complain that their home is potentially a death trap, neglecting their fundamental concerns and needs. We live in a society where our government values property rights over more fundamental human rights. It’s a democracy for property-owners, but not for tenants.

Danny Dorling has highlighted that black and minority ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats, to the extent that most black children in London and Birmingham are housed above the sixth floor. This is not to do with a shortage of housing, but is a reflection of the fact that not only are ethnic minorities more likely to be working-class by wage and occupation, but they experience discrimination – tacitly or blatantly – when allocated housing. Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour MPs are absolutely right to call for the use of empty homes in Kensington to rehouse locally those made homeless, and experiencing such devastating losses, by the fire. 

We live in a society where it’s become normal and somehow acceptable that the privileged class can buy their safety, their security, rights and their legal representation, while many working class people and those citizens who are vulnerable have none of these. 

Grenfell Tower is a charred and bitter testament to how our poorest citizens are placed at risk because we live in a society that values unfettered private profiteering, no matter what the cost to ordinary people, and the superficial and appearance over what really matters – people’s lives. The deadly cladding was added as cheaply as possible to improve the view for others, while the sprinklers, working alarm and fire extinguishers that would have saved lives were omitted. 

Emergency services personnel on top of Grenfell Tower in west London after the fire 
Related

Grenfell is a horrific consequence of a Conservative ‘leaner and more efficient state

The Conservatives are forced to end austerity because they face a turning tide and electoral extinction

London protests as they happened: Demonstrators demand justice for Grenfell victims after day of fury and sorrow

 


 

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Conditionality and discretionary housing payments: when paying rent is more important than buying food

gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1 - Copy

The government’s behavioural change agenda, which targets the poorest citizens, is being delivered via the increasing conditionality of social security and public service support provision. The underpinning rhetoric is that individual behaviours cause poverty, rather than government policies, which are causing a systemic unequal distribution of wealth.

Councils who are facing shortfalls in government funding to meet their statutory obligations have recently introduced behavioural conditionality to applications for awards of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Most local authorities are now saying they will only help those who will have a “positive outcome” as a result of the support. Yet they claim that this is to ensure limited funds go to only those “most in need”.

The reasoning provided by councils for only supporting those “nearest to the labour market” to encourage “financial independence” is at odds with the aim of ensuring support goes to “those most in need”. Surely those unable to work through illness and disability, who are furthest away from the labour market, actually have more need, yet will be less likely to meet conditionaility requirements and so won’t receive the support that the government tells us is supposed to be in place for us.

DHP is now much less likely to be awarded for those in greatest need precisely because of the new conditionality criteria. It specifically supports people who are more able to find work. Those who can’t are expected to go without food and fuel to meet their housing costs and potentially face destitution.

Disabled people paying for disabled people’s support

On Thursday I went to apply for DHP as I no longer have enough money to live on, partly because of now having to pay council tax and bedroom tax. Like many people, my essential outgoings are considerably greater than my income. The government have claimed that disabled people like me can claim DHP as a safeguard from the financially damaging impact of the bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people.

However, my own council have warned me in advance that they have little funding left for providing DHP support.

ESA and other benefits were originally calculated to meet the costs of food and fuel, and other essential living costs, based on an assumption that you would also get FULL housing and council tax benefit. There hasn’t been full housing benefit provision for some years now, but previously, people who are disabled were exempt from paying council tax, until recent years.  

This is leaving some people without enough money to meet the costs of their basic survival needs – food and fuel. One reason I now have to pay more council tax, according to the statement from my local authority on my bill, is to raise money to meet the costs for the government’s pledged funds for improving adult social care – the adult social care precept. That is being taken from every household, including the poorest, many of which have people with serious medical conditions and disabilities in them.

My local authority says: “The introduction of the National Living Wage and increase in population means this is an area where we have seen significant financial pressures. The 2% increase will help us to maintain our current services.”

There’s a certain horrible irony here, too.

My local authority inform me that I now have to pay council tax to fund support for:

  • older people
  • people with a learning disability
  • people with a physical disability
  • people with sensory loss
  • people with mental health needs

The never-ending need to justify need: facing the bureaucratic wall around support provision

I am a person with physical disabilities because of an illness, and my only income is my ESA, at the support group rate. I ought to have claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP) before now. However my experiences claiming ESA were pretty distressing and extremely anxiety provoking, that has deterred me. The enormous stress and anxiety of the assessments, facing a tribunal and then the reassessment almost immediately after I won my case in court exacerbated my already serious illness, and left me acutely and desperately ill for at least two years.

I’m a reasonably robust person ordinarily. I have worked most of my life, and I enjoyed my work, particularly the youth and community posts I undertook. I did a vocational part-time Master’s whilst I worked full time, and later went on to do mental health social work with young people at risk.

I was very unprepared for what followed when I suddenly became very ill with lupus. I was used to being fit, healthy and very active. I also had a good salary and a relatively comfortable standard of living. Though I was never very affluent, I had enough to cover my family’s needs, and to provide enough for my children to have stability.

I was forced to give up work as I was much too ill to fulfil my role competently and there were significant risks to my health in the workplace. My illness and some of the treatments I have also mean that I am very susceptible to infection. I caught a cold from a colleague in work and ended up with pneumonia and pleurisy more than once, for example. My illness impacted on my capacity to work for many reasons, such as an autoimmune bleeding disorder, widespread joint and tendon damage affecting my mobility, severe nerve pain, deteriorating eyesight, neurological problems and cognitive difficulties and so on. The tribunal panel (regarding my ESA eligibility) concluded that I had made the right decision to leave work because of the further serious risks to my health, after reading my medical reports from my specialists. 

My house was repossessed because my modest mortgage payments became unmanageable as I had no way of making the payments. I did approach my local housing office for help, who told me they could only offer support once I was actually homeless. That would have meant having all my family’s possessions left on the street, too.

I found a house to rent just down the street for a very reasonable amount. In fact initially there was very little shortfall between my housing benefit and actual rent. I had two boys at school, they didn’t want to leave the area as they were in their final years, and we have other family in this area. I was informed by the council that I would be eligible for housing benefit for a three bedroom house at that time. I took out a small loan for my deposit, as by then my last wage had long gone. The council were pleased I had managed to find cheap accommodation that suited my family’s needs.

I moved into the property, but I was very ill and struggled coping. My disability advisor at the job centre advised me to claim ESA at this time. By then I was having weekly chemotherapy treatment (Methotrexate) at the hospital and was considered unavailable for work, I didn’t (and couldn’t) meet thhe jobseeker’s allowance conditionality requirements, and my advisor recognised this.

Within two months of moving into the property, the law changed, and I had to pay bedroom tax for my older son’s room, as he was suddenly expected to share a room with his younger brother. There are no smaller houses locally, none with lower rents, and all of the limited number of two bedroom council flats here are inhabited. Not that moving again would have been easy for me as I was so poorly at this time. The first move down the street had affected my health, and exhausted me for months.

However, after almost a year of struggling to pay the bedroom tax, my oldest son reached 18 and my housing benefit went back up not long before he left for university.  I got almost a year of backpay when I won my ESA tribunal and that helped me get on top of my increasing debt, after months of really struggling. I also got a tax rebate from when I worked, also helped enormously. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided that they would take back an overpayment they made in 2007, whilst I was struggling on basic rate ESA, awaiting tribunal in 2011. I was also paying bedroom tax then. I had claimed income support briefly when I changed jobs, whilst I waited for social services to complete background checks that were necessary for my post. I couldn’t start the post until the checks were done. Meanwhile we had nothing to live on. The checks took three months.

I was entitled to a month of run-on benefit as a lone parent once I took up the post. However, despite the fact I had signed off, the income support payments continued another two months. I had phoned a couple of times and then written twice to inform the job centre again that I had taken up my post.

I don’t mind paying back the money I was overpaid. I did mind that the DWP also took back the run-on benefit that I was actually entitled to for the first month, and told me it was far too late to appeal that decision. The hefty deductions from my reduced ESA did cause me a lot of hardship, but at least I didn’t owe anything by the time I won the tribunal. It was claimed I did still owe money at one point and I had a letter saying my ESA back dated payment wasn’t going to be released as I owed money. I didn’t.

It’s almost as if the DWP want to keep you in a state of constant anxiety, despair and precarity, and to make sure that your life is never remotely acceptably comfortable, secure and safe. Social security is no longer a safety net, it seems to have been transformed into a bureacratic wall that exists simply to discipline poor people and ensure as few people as possible have access to any lifeline support. The letters are written in a way that intends to cause anxiety, I am sure.

I managed financially for a couple of years, though budgeting on such a limited income is difficult. But having worked for a long time, I had furniture and household items, enough clothing and when things got very bad, I had a few personal items to sell if need be. 

Of course over time, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, kettles and cookers break down.  Children grow and need clothes and shoes. I went a whole year without a washing machine when mine broke, but saved a little every month until I had enough for a second hand one. I don’t know how I managed to get by because much of the time I could barely walk or use my wrists/hands, but I had to wash clothes and bedding in the bath. It took up a lot of my time and effort. Poverty is cumulative, too. It gets much worse and more wearying as time goes by. If you are ill and disabled, the impacts of poverty are considerably greater.

Both my youngest sons are at university now. They come home out of term times. I feed them and support them as best I can, though we don’t have any money to cover their living costs. Both are at universities out of the region, they have student finance for term times, but both have struggled to meet living costs. When they come home, it’s for a couple of weeks, though considerably longer at christmas. They have never managed to find work locally to tide them over out of term time, despite trying. No-one wants to hire people for a couple of weeks.

My oldest son found a part time job in his first year at university. He didn’t have regular hours and his employer simply called him when he needed him. However, my son’s travel costs to and from work exceeded what he earned, and more than once his allocated hours coincided with his lectures, which are compulsory.

Both boys are considered as living at home as they return home out of term times and are expected to return home once they complete their studies. 

In the new year, I caught ‘flu and within a couple of days I ended up with pneumonia and sepsis. At the time I was far too ill to know I was so poorly. It was my son who realised how serious my condition was and rang the ambulance, just in time.

I was already in a critical condition with septic shock when the ambulance arrived. My illness means my immunity to infection is very low, so I’m always at risk from pneumonia, kidney infections, random abscesses and so on, but this was the first time I have ever had life-threatening and severe sepsis. I was very ill in hospital and spent a couple of days drifting in and out of a bottomless sleep and hallucinating, whilst on the lifesaving IV treatments and fluids. I needed oxygen support for five days afterwards, anticoagulant injections, and continued taking combined oral antibiotics, steroids and a course of Tamiflu for a couple of weeks after I came home. 

When I got home from hospital in late Jaunary, we had no hot water or heating as my boiler had broken. But we used fan heaters, and I managed to keep warm in my room, I focused on recovery, until the electric went off because of a fault on a circuit. My landlord lives in the US currently and I had difficulty in contacting him. I had no choice but to find somewhere else to stay as the house was so cold it was uninhabitable, and we couldn’t cook food. I was still very weak and very slowly recovering. By this time my youngest son had returned to university. My oldest son and I had to stay with a friend.

The electrical fault was fixed and I got a new boiler fitted the following week. I remained weak and my pulmonary specialist told me it would likely be at least three months before I was fully recovered. I have been diagnosed with additional lung problems since, which showed up on a scan, following more tests showing my lung function is just 40% of what it is expected to be. Some of the problems are related to lupus, which has caused a lot of inflammation in both lungs.

My son decided I needed some additional support to recover and he has taken six months out from his degree to care for me. The alternative was for me to contact social services for support.

I now have to pay bedroom tax for his room, in addition to the council tax, as he is classed as a non-dependent adult. Having no boiler for several months has also meant I used a lot more eletricity, so my bill is much bigger than usual, so my direct debit has more than doubled every fortnight. I managed to negotiate it down a bit, but it is still more than twice my ususal payment. My new boiler is a lot more efficient than the old one, luckily, but I am nonetheless struggling to make ends meet.

So I applied for DHP.

I had an interview on Thursday at our local housing benefit office. 

Rent and council tax are more important than food and fuel, apparently

The interview went as follows:

Firstly, I was asked to give an account of my income and outgoings. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for work?

Me: I am in the Employment Support and Allowance Support Group (ESA). This is because I became too ill to work and it’s been agreed by my doctors, myself and the state that I can’t work “consistently, reliably and safely” due to the severity of my illness and the substantial risks I would face if I were to return to the workplace. I have tried to find a job writing from home that pays a wage to support myself, but had no luck so far. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for cheaper accommodation?

Me: I wasn’t aware I was expected to. However, there is no cheaper accommodation in the area, unless you have any two bedroom social housing to offer me. Then I would need considerable support in moving, as my illness means I have mobility problems, severe problems with profound fatigue, other health problems that make moving risky, and I also need to be organised to accommodate a strict routine for my health care.

Housing Officer: Have you considered taking in a lodger?

Me: I have no spare room to offer a lodger as my sons occupy them out of term time and are expected to return home once they graduate. However, I would not consider taking a stranger into my home because I am disabled and ill, therefore I am potentially vulnerable and feel that this may present an unacceptable risk to my wellbeing and safety. (See for example: Mother and son who ‘gave shelter to homeless man’ stabbed to death at family home.)

Housing Officer: Your weekly shopping average looks slightly high.

Me: Well at the moment it is for two of us. On Friday my youngest son is home for the Easter break, and I will then need to feed him too.

Housing Officer: I only want details of what you spend on yourself.

Me: Do the council expect that I leave my children without food?

(No response)

Me: My weekly shop includes essential items I can no longer get on prescription, such as eye drops, because my tear film is very poor, I don’t produce tears as I have Sjogren’s – painfully dry eyes – as part of my illness. I used to get moisturising drops on prescription from my opthalmologist but they have been discontinued. If I don’t use the eyedrops my cornea becomes scarred and I get eye infections.

I also have to buy sunblock, because I get a blistering and painful rash in the sunlight, even in winter – that’s also part of my illness.  

I have to buy detergents and toiletries that are very hypoallergenic and gentle because my skin is fragile, hypersensitive, prone to rashes and painful blistering in places because I have lupus and eczema, all of which leaves me prone to infection if I don’t treat the conditions with care. I also have to buy cleaning products and antibacterial items, to keep my home as clean as possible because my illness and treatments mean my immunity to infection is very poor. 

None of these items are available on prescription, but I do unfortunately need them. I have also included very modest clothing/footwear costs (I have to take care with footwear because I have severe Raynaud’s – a condition that causes very poor circulation that shuts down in my hands, feet and nose with even slight fluctuations in temperature – and so I need to keep my feet and hands warm.  I am prone to blisters from badly fitted shoes which then turn into serious infections and have developed sepsis at least once because of this. I also need shoes that are cushioned and support my Achilles tendons because of damage to them and my joints. 

I’ve also included modest costs for essential household items, which everybody needs sometimes due to wear and tear. I have a bleeding disorder, which affects me in a way that means I have to spend more on sanitary items than most people. I also have additional dietary needs because I am underweight, and I have IBS and acid reflux, which means I have to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. This is not a lifestyle choice: it’s because of my medical conditions.

Housing Officer: Don’t take any of the questions personally, everyone is asked the same.

Me: The problem with having the expectation of everyone having the same needs is that you then don’t have any opportunity to recognise the more vulnerable clients who need additional support because of their additional needs. Not everyone finds it easy to find suitable employment to support themselves.  Illness and disability can happen to anyone, it is sometimes a major barrier to working and I am not ill because of “lifestyle choices”: it’s not because of something I did or didn’t do. I have worked. Now I can’t. 

People are dying because of that built-in oversight and other government policies that don’t accommodate people’s circumstances and disregard their additional needs because of disability and illness. Many others are suffering unacceptable distress and harm to their health.

Housing Officer: I know.

She delivered that comment with complete and almost menacing detachment. I was so taken aback I couldn’t speak for a few moments. She didn’t even pause for breath, however.

The part that was by far the worst during the interview was this matter-of-fact agreement that people are dying as a result of the policies that she was calmly sat implementing.

It was delivered almost like a veiled threat: that if I didn’t or couldn’t comply with certain unstated behavioural requirements, which were not made explicit at any point during the interview or prior to it, I would also be left to die. 

I was then told I must “prioritise” my rent and council tax payments above everything else.

I explained that my rheumatology consultant has also told me I must prioritise eating well, putting weight on (I weighed less than 8 stones), and keeping warm. I don’t have enough income to do both of those things, as it is. I explained again that I could meet my husing costs before I had to pay council and bedroom tax, and have managed to do so until now, and this is why I had applied for DHP.

My comment was met with silence. 

Apparently, not falling into rent and council tax arrears is more considered more important than meeting basic survival needs such as eating and keeping warm.

I was also almost casually asked if I had any pets or Sky TV. Next I was asked if I had a TV, broadband and a mobile phone contract. I was asked how much I spend on my phone monthly (it’s a pay as you go). I felt I was being turned into a Daily Mail stereotype by bureaucratic questioning that was designed to find ways of dismissing me as ineligible for support in an arbitrary way, under the cover of mundane chit chat.

The more I responded the more demand was placed on me to justify my outgoings, the more information I presented, the bigger the scope for potentially finding reasons for refusing my application.

ESA and PIP assessments work in much the same way – assessors fish for as much information as possible about your everyday life so they can use it to try and claim you are more able to work and less disabled than you and your doctor are claiming.

For example, “Do you watch soaps on TV?” – a deceptively conversational and informal question – may translate your response on the report potentially, as “Can sit unaided and concentrate for at least half an hour”.  The aims and motives behind the questions are deliberately obscurred, so that you don’t have an opportunity to explain or clarify any details or challenge the assumptions being made to justify ending your lifeline support.

That gold locket and chain that was your mother’s, which you wear all the time because you can’t take it off, as the clasp is too difficult for your arthritic fingers, becomes a sign of finger and hand dexterity to an assessor, as it’s just assumed you take it off and put it on again. When I had a chest x-ray rencently, I had to ask the radiographer to take it off. The whole process is designed to search out ways to discredit your doctor’s and your own account by any means at all concerning the level of your disability and the impact it has on your day to day living and work capability.  

Agents of state control and “changing behaviours”

Behavioural conditionality has now been built into every aspect of social safety net provision, this is to save costs and ultimately, to justify the dismantling of social security, public services and healthcare provision. It is justified by an ideological narrative of the neoliberal “small state”, austerity and paying off the national deficit, the “unsustainability” of safety net provision and the state re-translation of competitive individualism into a rhetoric of self help, thrift and “personal responsibility”.

However, the behavioural change programme is being applied only to poor and vulnerable citizens. Against a backdrop of austerity and welfare “reforms” (cuts), millionaires were awarded a tax cut of £107,000 each per year, exempting them from the same obligation to practice personal responsibility, thrift and self help. The Conservatives’ low tax and low welfare society means that perversely, those who have a lot of money are not expected to contribute to our society, whereas those who are low earners or unemployed are expected to pay down the deficit and pull themselves up by invisible bootstraps.

If you suffer or die in the process, apparently that is okay because the government inform us there is no “causal link” between such “adverse” consequences and their adverse policies. However, a correlation has been well-established by independent research and the narratives of many of those affected by the draconian polcies, as well as campaigners.

What really struck me during my housing benefit interview was how the ordinary and seemingly reasonable woman in front of me seemed to suddenly shapeshift into a resentful, disapproving and prejudiced state drone who didn’t feel I deserved any support, about a third of the way into our interview.  I felt like Iain Duncan Smith was conducting the interview.

The government have built up almost impenetrable walls of authoritarian bureacracy around social security provision, and a hive mind army to deliver their distinctive and punitive approach to poverty, which is now all pervasive. All bullies seek the “behavioural change” of others to get their own way.  Conditionality is built upon a behavioural change agenda to prop up neoliberal policies aimed at removing social provisions that the poorest citizens need to survive. Work is no longer the panacea it is held to be, since labour market deregulation and intentionally low social security creates a reserve army of labour, which “incentivises” profiteering employers to keep wages low. 

Even a trip to your GP is likely to trigger the question “do you work” these days, as job coaches are co-located in surgeries to enforce the government’s “work cure” and suck you back into a supply side reserve army of desperate labour. However, sometimes people are simpy too ill to work. The state and its wall of bureaucracy, however, are absolutely refusing to accept this.

There is no end to intrusive state nudging and shoving, especially when you just want to be left to cope with being progressively ill in peace. The government believe that illness and disability are simply a set of “faulty” behaviours that need correcting, and that people will respond to a particularly punitive form of operant conditioning in order to change their behaviours to bring about a miraculous recovery. Work is considered a “health” outcome. However, work is a work outcome and has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s health. In my own experience, work considerably contributed to the progression of my illness. Being constantly expected to work has also contributed significantly to the deterioration in my health.

Furthermore, I don’t recall giving consent for my taxes and national insurance to be used to pay rogue companies that cost the public billions to “save” relatively meagre amounts in welfare and public service spending just to punish, bully and coerce people who need support.

Nor did I give consent to a state experiment in value-laden, poorly designed and prejudice-determined operant conditioning on ill, disabled and unemployed citizens. 

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Cameron was surely mocking when he used this phrase as a slogan from Terry Gilliam’s darkly dystopic film, “Brazil”, which was coincidently about nightmarish totalitarian bureaucracy 

There were no innocent and random comments from the interviewing housing officer. Almost every question was geared towards making me feel guilty for being poor and not being in work, I was challenged over every single penny I spent, as if I have no right to food, items that I need to meet my complex health needs, and no right to extend an ordinary gesture of basic kindness and decency by taking in a stray cat that had no home and no-one. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to sell everything I had bought and kept from when I worked.

I had no idea that disabled people could be refused support if they had a pet. Regardless of whether that pet was one you had when you were in better circumstances, working. How utterly callous to expect people to dispose of their cherished companions when they experience hard times, it’s cruel on the person and cruel on the poor and innocent animal.

Most pets cost very little to feed, too.

My cat is a great source of calm and comfort for me, at a time when I am struggling trying to constantly adapt to a progressive illness, and increasing absolute poverty.  I couldn’t bear to part with her.

I wonder what the decision-makers, who are gatekeeping funds that are meant to support disabled people rather than punish them, expect a person should actually do with a cherished family pet, which may have been a part of a family long before severe financial problems and illness came along.

It’s rather like financially penalising people by cutting off support for some children just because a parent has lost a job and encountered difficult times. It’s a Poor house mentality – we are all categorised as either “deserving” or “undeserving” based on our previous choices as well as our current ones. How very dare anyone have anything at all that gives them a little joy and comfort if they become too ill to work. Even if they worked for it prior to losing their job or becoming ill.

This said, those people who have never been able to work should be supported, unconditionally and without any resentment, to meet their living needs and to lead safe and secure lives. This is how a democratic, decent and civilised society should behave, after all.

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I don’t need a behavioural change agenda. My behaviour didn’t put me in a position of hardship: ill conceived state policies that disproportionately target ill and disabled people for austerity cuts are the root cause of my financial problems. I am not ill because of my behaviour, my medical condition arose because of a complex interplay between genetics (my mother and her father had a connective tissue disease, and both my maternal aunt and uncle do), hormonal events (pregnancy was probably the trigger in my case, as that is when I first became ill, 21 years ago) and possibly some environmental triggers too, such as an infection. It was not because I did or didn’t do something. No-one could have predicted a pregnancy would trigger a connective tissue disease. No-one knows how it will progress either, unfortunately. I managed to work for some years whilst being ill, and stopped only because I absolutely had too when I my symptoms became too severe.

Neoliberalism is founded on the principles of “market competition” and competitive individualism. In competition, a few people do very well and “win”, and many more don’t. That is the nature of competition. This is how it works.

Neoliberalism itself causes inequality and poverty, whilst rewarding most the people who are already very wealthy. Addressing the “behaviours” of poor people to punish them into not being poor won’t change the consequences of inequality because of our socioeconomic organisation one bit. Poverty, by it’s very nature, reduces behavioural choices and opportunity.

It’s really the government who need to change their policies and prejudiced behaviours, not poor, ill and disabled people.

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Related 

What do good Local Welfare Support and Conditionality Schemes look like? – The introduction of local welfare support and conditionality schemes are a side-effect of localisation.


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you. 

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