Tag: Samuel Smiles

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work


Illustration by Jack Hudson

The government’s Nudge Unit team is currently working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to trial social experiments aimed at finding ways of: “preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

“These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers.”

This is a crass state intrusion on the private and confidential patient-doctor relationship, which ought to be about addressing medical health problems, and supporting people who are ill, not about creating yet another space for obsessive political micromanagement. It’s yet another overextension of the coercive arm of the state to “help” people into work. Furthermore, this move will inevitably distort people’s interactions with their doctors: it will undermine the trust and rapport that the doctor-patient relationship is founded on.

In the current political context, where the government extends a brutally disciplinarian approach to basic social security entitlement, it’s very difficult to see how the plans to place employees from the Department for Work and Pensions in GP practices can be seen as anything but a threatening gesture towards patients who are ill, and who were, up until recent years, quite rightly exempted from working. Now it seems that this group, which includes some of our most vulnerable citizens, are being politically bullied and coerced into working, regardless of the consequences for their health and wellbeing.

Of course the government haven’t announced this latest “intervention” in the lives of disabled people. I found out about it quite by chance because I read Matthew Hancock’s recent conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

I researched a little further and found an article in Pulse which confirmed Hancock’s comment: GP practices to provide advice on job seeking in new pilot scheme.

Hancock is appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, and was previously the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise. He headed David Cameron’s “earn or learn” taskforce which aims to have every young person earning or “learning” from April 2017.

He announced that 18 to 21-year-olds who can’t find work would be required to do work experience (free labour for Tory business donors) as well as looking for jobs or face losing their benefits. But then Hancock is keen to commodify everyone and everything, including public data.

However his references to “accountability and transparency” don’t stand up to much scrutiny when we consider the fact that he recently laid a statement before parliament outlining details about the five-person commission that will be asked to decide whether the Freedom of Information act is too expensive and “overly intrusive.”

He goes on to say: “And this brings me onto my second area of reform: experimentation. Because in seeking to improve our services, we need to know what actually works.”

But we need to ask for whom services are being “improved” and for whom does such reform work, exactly?

And did any of the public actually consent to being experimented upon by the state?

Or to having their behaviour modified without their knowledge?

Now that the nudge unit has been privatised, it is protected from public scrutiny, and worryingly, it is also no longer subject to the accountability afforded the public by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tory welfare “reforms” are a big business profiteering opportunity, whilst lifeline benefits are being steadily withdrawn: policy context

The current frame of reference regarding Conservative welfare policies is an authoritarian and punitive one. It’s inconceivable that a government proposing to continue cutting the lifeline income of sick and disabled people, including a further £120 a month to those people in the ESA Work Related Activity group (WRAG), will suddenly show an interest in actually supporting disabled people. There are also proposals to further limit eligibility for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for sick and disabled people. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (From: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

And guess who sponsored the “research” into “nudging” people into workfare? Steve Moore, Business Development Director from esg, which is a leading welfare to work and vocational skills group, created through the merger and acquisition of four leading providers in the DWP and LSC sector.” How surprising.

It’s even more unsurprising that esg was established by two Conservative donors with very close ties to ministers, and were subsequently awarded very lucrative contracts with the Department for Work and Pensions. I think there may have been a “cognitive bias” in operation there, too. But who is nudging the nudgers?

Of course the “aim” of the “research” is: “breaking the cycle of benefit dependency especially for our hardest to help customers, including the “cohort” of disabled people.”

However, there’s no such thing as a “cycle of benefit dependency”, it’s a traditional Tory prejudice and is based on historically unevidenced myths. Poverty arises because of socioeconomic circumstances that are unmitigated through government decision-making. In fact this government has intentionally extended and perpetuated inequality through its policies.

2020health – Working Together is a report from 2012 that promotes the absurd notion of work as a health outcome.  This is a central theme amongst ideas that are driving the fit for work and the work and health and programme. Developing this idea further, Dame Carol Black and David Frost’s Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence was aimed at reviewing ways of “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.” Seems that the central aim of the review wasn’t a genuine focus on sick and disabled people’s wellbeing and “health outcomes,” then. Black and Frost advocated changing sickness certification to further reduce the influence of GPs in “deciding entitlement to out-of-work sickness benefits.”

The subsequent “fit notes” that replaced GP sick notes (a semantic shift of Orwellian proportions) were designed to substantially limit the sick role and reduce recovery periods, and to “encourage” GPs to disclose what work-related tasks patients may still be able to perform. The idea that employers could provide reasonable adjustments that allowed people who are on sick leave to return to work earlier, however, hasn’t happened in reality.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has been highly critical of the language used by the government when describing the fit for work service. The association said it was “misleading” to claim that fit for work was offering “occupational health advice and support” when the emphasis was on sickness absence management and providing a focused return to work.

The idea that work is a “health” outcome is founded on an absurd and circular Conservative logic that people in work are healthier than those out of work. It’s true that they are, however, the government have yet again confused causes with effects. Work does not make people healthier: it’s simply that healthy people can work and do. People who have long term or chronic illnesses often can’t work. The government’s main objection to sick leave and illness more generally, is that it costs businesses money. As inconvenient as that may be, politically and economically, it isn’t ever going to be possible to cure people of serious illnesses by cruelly coercing them into work.

The government’s removal of essential in-work support for disabled people – such as the Independent Living Fund, and the replacing of Disability Living Allowance  with Personal Independence Payment in order to reduce eligibility, cut costs and “target” support to those most severely disabled, and the cuts to the Access To Work scheme – means that it is now much more difficult for those disabled people who want to work to find suitable and supported employment.

The politics of punishment

There’s a clear connection between the Nudge Unit’s obsession with manipulating “cognitive bias” – in particular, “loss aversion” – and the increased use, extended scope and severity of sanctions, though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about “loss aversion” (a cognitive bias according to behavioural economists) on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).” 

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity, frequency and by broadening the scope of their application to include previously protected social groups.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical neobehaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and conform to meet the needs of the “choice architects” and policy-makers.

Nudge even permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

It’s rather difficult to see how starving people and threatening them with destitution can possibly improve the well-being of many socially excluded people, and help to bring them to inclusion.”

The conclusion that Ancel Keys drew from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in the the US during the 1940s, (which explored the physical and psychological effects of undernutrition, and stressed the dramatic, adverse effect that starvation had on competence, motivation, behaviour, mental attitude and personality) was that “democracy and nation building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.”

No amount of bland and meaningless psychobabble or intransigent, ideologically-tainted policies can legitimize the economic sanctioning of people who are already poor and in need of financial assistance.

Apparently, citizenship and entitlement to basic rights and autonomy is a status conferred on only the currently economically productive. Previous employment and contributions don’t count as “responsibility,” and don’t earn you any rights – the government believes that citizens owe a perpetual debt of unconditional service to the Conservative’s steeply stratified economy. Not much of a social contract, then. Cameron says he wants to “build a responsible society” by removing people’s rights and reducing or removing their lifeline income. Presumably, free invisible bootstraps are part of the deal.

Government decision-making has contributed the most significant influence on “health outcomes.” Conservative policies have entailed a vicious cutting back of support and a reduction of essential provision for sick and disabled people. In fact this group have been disproportionately targeted for austerity cuts time and time again, massively reducing their lifeline income. It’s not being “workless” that has a detrimental impact on people’s health and wellbeing: it is the deliberate impoverishment of those requiring state aid and support, funded from the public purse, (including contributions from those who now need support), which is being dogmatically and steadily withdrawn.

Making work pay for whom?

If work truly paid, then there would be no need to incentivise” almost 1.2 million low-paid workers claiming the new universal credit with the threat of in-work benefit sanctions if they fail to “take steps to boost their earnings.”

It’s very difficult to see how punishing individuals for perhaps being too ill to work more that a few hours, or those working for low pay or part-time in the context of a chronically weak labour market, depressed wages and with little scope for effective negotiating and collective bargaining can possibly be justified. It’s an utterly barbaric way for a government to treat citizens.

Surely if the government was genuinely seeking to increase choices and to widen access to the workplace for sick and disabled people, it would not be cutting the very programmes supporting and extending this aim, such as the Access to Work scheme  – a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work – and the Independent Living Fund.

This government has pushed at the public’s rational and moral boundaries, establishing and attempting to justify a draconian trend of punishing those unable to work, and what was previously unthinkable – stigmatising and punishing legally protected social groups such as sick and disabled people – has become somehow acceptable. We are on a very slippery slope, clearly mapped out previously by Allport’s scale of prejudice.

People’s needs don’t disappear just because the government has decided to “pay down” an ever-growing debt and build a “surplus” by taking money from those that have the least. Or because the government doesn’t like “big state interventions.”

So the recent proposed cut to ESA – and this is a group of sick and disabled people deemed physically incapable of work by doctors – is completely unjustified and unjustifiable. No amount of pseudo-psychology and paternalist cruelty can motivate or “incentivise” people who are medically ill.

It’s for disabled individuals and their doctors – professionals, specialists and experts – to decide if a person can work or not, it’s not the role of the state, motivated only by a perverse economic Darwinist ideology. Maslow taught us that we must attend to our physiological needs before we may be motivated to meet higher level psychosocial ones.

Iain Duncan Smith is a zealot who actually tries to justify further punitive cuts to disabled people’s provision by claiming that working is “good” for people and is the only “route out of poverty.”

Presumably he believes work can cure people of the serious afflictions that they erroneously thought exempted them from full-time employment. 

He stated: “There is one area on which I believe we haven’t focused enough – how work is good for your health. Work can help keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill. So, it is right that we look at how the system supports people who are sick and helps them into work.”

Duncan Smith undoubtedly “just knows” that his absurd claim is “right.” He’s never really grown out of his “magical thinking” stage, or transcended his dereistic tendencies. His department had to manufacture “evidence” recently in a ridiculous attempt to support Iain Duncan Smith’s imaginative, paternalist claim that punitive sanctions are somehow “beneficial” to claimants, by using fake characters to supply fake testimonials, but this was rumbled and exposed by a well-placed Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly.

Recent research indicates that not all work serves to “keep people healthy” nor does it ever “promote recovery.” This assumption that work can promote recovery in the case of people with severe illness and disability – which is why people claim ESA – is particularly bizarre. We have yet to hear of a single case involving a job miracle entailing people’s limbs growing back, vision being restored, or a wonder cure for heart failure, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and lupus, for example.

The government’s Fit for Work scheme is founded on exactly the same misinformative nonsense. It supports profit-making for wealthy employers, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of employees that have been signed off work because of medically and professionally recognised illness that acts as a real barrier to work.

Furthermore, there is no proof that work in itself is beneficial. Indeed much research evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

And where have we heard these ideas from Iain Duncan Smith before?

Arbeit macht frei.

If work really paid then surely there would be no need to “nudge” people by using sanctions, regardless of whether or not they are employed. “Making work pay” is all about reducing support for those who the government deems “undeserving,” to “discourage welfare dependency” by making any support as horrible as the workhouse – founded on the principle of “less eligibility”, where conditions for those in need of support were punitive and kept people in a state of desperation so that even the lowest paid work in the worst of conditions would seem appealing.

The public/private divide

For a government that claims a minarchist philosophy, remarkably it has engineered an unprecedented blurring of public/private boundaries and a persistent violation of traditionally private experiences, including thoughts, beliefs, preferences, autonomy and attitudes via legislations and of course a heavy-handed fiscal conflation of public interests with private ones.

This also caught my attention from Matthew Hancock’s speech transcript:

“My case is that we need continuous improvement in public services. And for that we must reform the relationship between citizen and state. [My bolding]

“The case for reform is strong. Because people have high and rising expectations about what our public services should deliver. Because budgets are tight, and we have to make significant savings for our country to live within her means.”

Basically, the “paternalistic libertarian” message here is that we will have to expect less and less from the state, as the balance between rights and responsibilities is heavily weighted towards the latter, hence requiring the “reform” of the relationship between citizen and state.

However, surely it is active, democratic participation in processes of deliberation and decision-making that ensures that individuals are citizens, not subjects.

Social democracy evolved to include the idea of access to social goods and improving living standards as a means of widening and legitimizing the scope of political representation.

Political policies are defined as (1) The basic principles by which a government is guided. (2) The declared objectives that a government  seeks to achieve and preserve in the interest of national community. As applied to a law, ordinance, or Rule of Law, it’s the general purpose or tendency considered as directed to the welfare or prosperity of the state or community.

Once upon a time, policy was a response from government aimed at meeting public needs. It was part of an intimate democratic dialogue between the state and citizens. Traditional methods of participating in government decision-making include:

  • political parties or individual politicians
  • lobbying decision makers in government
  • community groups
  • voluntary organisations
  • public opinion
  • public consultations
  • the media

Nowadays, policies have been unanchored from any democratic dialogue regarding public needs and are more about monologues aimed at shaping those needs to suit the government. 

Nudge does not entail citizen involvement in either its origin or design. The state intrusions are at such an existential level, of an increasingly authoritarian nature, and are of course reserved for the poorest, who are deemed “irrational” and incapable of making “the right decisions.”

Yet those “faulty decisions” are deemed so from the perspective of the Behavioural Insights Team, (the “Nudge Unit”) who are not social psychologists: they are predominantly concerned with behavioural economics, decision-making and how governments influence people – “economologists”, changing people’s behaviours, enforcing compliance to fulfil political aims. That turns democracy completely on its head.

The Nudge Unit gurus claim that we need help to “correct our cognitive biases”, but those who make policies have their own whopping biases, too.

Nudge is the new fudging

Nudge is a prop for New Right neoliberal ideology that is aimed at dismantling a rights-based society and replacing it with an insidiously nudged, manipulated, compliant, and entirely “responsible”, “self-reliant” population of divided, isolated state-determined individuals who expect nothing from their elected government.

The Conservatives are obsessive about strict social taxonomies and economic enclosures. The Nudge Unit was set up by David Cameron in 2010 to try to “improve” public services and save money. The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So Nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a fashionable fad that is overhyped, trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

As someone who (despite the central dismal and patronising assumptions about the irrationality of others that king nudgers have as a central cognitive bias and the traditional prejudices that Tory ideology narrates,) manages to make my own decisions relatively without bias, intelligently, rationally, critically, carefully and coherently, and that, along with my professional and academic background, I can and will conclude that no matter how you dress it up, nudge is a pretentious, cringeworthy pseudo-intellectual dead-end.

 A Nudge for the Conservatives from history

The more things change for the Tories, the more they tend to stay the same.

In the 1870s, England had a recession and the Conservatives launched a Crusade of cuts to welfare expenditure to diminish “dependency” on poor law outdoor relief – non-institutional benefits called “out-relief” because it was paid to the poor in their own homes from taxation, rather than their having to go into the punitive “deterrent” workhouses.

The Crusade included cutting medical payments to lone mothers, widows, the elderly, chronically sick and disabled people and those with mental illness. The 1834 Poor Law amendment was shaped by people such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems and particularly poverty, whilst Thomas Malthus focused attention on overpopulation, and moralising about the growth of illegitimacy. He placed emphasis on moral restraint rather than poor relief as the best means of easing the poverty of the lower classes. 

David Ricardo argued that there was a problem with poor relief provision “interfering” with an iron law of wages. Ricardo claimed that aid given to poor workers under the old Poor Law to supplement their wages had the effect of undermining the wages of other workers, so that the Roundsman System and Speenhamland system led employers to reduce wages, and needed reform to help workers who were not getting such aid and rate-payers whose poor-rates were going to subsidise low-wage employers. Yet we found, despite Ricardo’s pet theory, that the poor law deterrent element served to push wages down further.

The effect of poor relief, in the absurd view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the “independent labourer.” They also wanted to “make work pay.” And end the “something for nothing” culture. But much subsequent evidence shows that reducing support for people out of work actually drives wages and working conditions down.

Neither the punitive poor law amendment act of 1834 or the Crusade “helped” people into work or addressed the lack of available paid work – that’s unemployment, not the made-up and intentionally stigmatizing word “worklessness”.

And its utter failure as a credible account of poverty – the-blame-the-individual narrative and the notion that relief discourages “self-reliance” – fuelled the national insurance act of 1911 and the development of the welfare state along with the other civilising and civilised benefits of the post-war settlement. 

The Conservatives inadvertently taught us as a society precisely why we need a welfare state.

We learned that it isn’t possible to be “thrifty” or help ourselves if we haven’t got the means for meeting basic survival needs. Nor is it possible to be nudged out of poverty when the means of doing so are not actually available. No amount of moralising and pseudo-psychologising about poor people actually works to address poverty, and structural socioeconomic inequalities.

The government’s undeclared preoccupation with behavioural change through personal responsibility is simply a revamped version of Samuel Smiles’s bible of Victorian and over-moralising, a hobby-horse: “thrift and self-help” – but only for the poor, of course. Smiles and other powerful, wealthy and privileged Conservative thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, claimed that poverty was caused largely by the irresponsible habits of the poor during that era. But we learned historically that socioeconomic circumstances caused by political decision-making creates poverty.

Conservative rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor people if the welfare state didn’t somehow “create” them. If the Tories must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for others.

In other words, the same system that allows some people to become very wealthy is the same system that condemns others to poverty.

This wide recognition that the raw “market forces” of the old liberal laissez-faire (and the current starker neoliberalism) causes casualties is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest, there are invariably winners and losers.

That is the nature of “competitive individualism,” and along with inequality, it’s an implicit, undeniable and fundamental part of the meritocracy myth and neoliberal script. And that’s before we consider the fact that whenever there is a Conservative government, there is no such thing as a “free market”: in reality, all markets are rigged for elites.

Public policy is not an ideological tool for a so-called democratic government to simply get its own way. Democracy means that the voices of citizens, especially members of protected social groups, need to be included in political decision-making, rather than so frankly excluded.

We elect governments to meet public needs, not to “change behaviours” of citizens to suit government needs and prop up policy “outcomes” that are driven entirely by traditional Tory prejudice and ideology.

And by the way, we call any political notion that citizens should be totally subject to an absolute state authority “totalitarianism,” not “nudge.”

demcracy
Courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Update: The government have since announced the introduction of a number of “policy initiatives” aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). These initiatives are currently still at a research and trialing stage. Health Management, a subsidiary of MAXIMUS are to deliver the fit for work programme, which was set up based on recommendations from the Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost. The review was aimed at “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.”

Fit for Work occupational health professional will have access to people’s diagnoses from their fit notes, the fit note end date and any further information that the GP considers relevant to their absence from work or current treatment (at the discretion of the GP). The primary referral route for an assessment for the Maximus programme will be via the GP.

The government is cutting funding for contracted-out employment support by 80%, following the Spending Review. The Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that total spending on employment will be reduced, including not renewing Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements, the new Work and Health Programme will have funding of around £130 million a year – around 20% of the level of funding for the unsuccessful Work Programme and Work Choice, which it will replace.

Iain Duncan Smith says: “This Spending Review will see the start of genuine integration between the health and work sectors, with a renewed focus on supporting people with health conditions and disabilities return to and remain in work. We will increase spending in this area, expanding Access to Work and Fit for Work, and investing in the Health and Work Innovation Fund and the new Work and Health Programme.” 

Meeting the Government’s goal of halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers – moving around one million more disabled people into work – will be no easy task. Not least because despite Iain Duncan Smith’s ideological commitments, and aims to “reduce welfare dependency,” most disabled people who don’t work (and claim ESA) can’t do so because of genuine and insurmountable barriers such as incapacitating and devastating, life-changing illness. No amount of targeting those people with the Conservative doublespeak variant of “help” and nasty “incentivising” via welfare sanctions and benefit cuts will remedy that.

 

welfare reforms and the language of flowers: the Tory gender agenda

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In all places, then, and in all seasons,
Flowers expand their light and soul-like wings,
Teaching us, by most persuasive reasons,
How akin they are to human things.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Flowers from Voices Of the Night

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down – Traditional

Part one

The axis of marginalisation

George Bernard Shaw immortalised the Victorian East End flower girls in Eliza Doolittle, in his play “Pygmalion.” The play is a sharp lampoon of the rigid British class system of the day and must also be read as a commentary on women’s striving for independence. The play was subsequently adapted numerous times, most notably as the highly romanticised musical “My Fair Lady” (and the film, starring Audrey Hepburn). But there was a historical reality behind Shaw’s fiction that was far less glamorous, he edited out genuine representation of so many miserable lives filled with a constant, dehumanising, gnawing ache of absolute poverty and oppression.

Assumptions about women’s roles have historically shaped public policy. And they still do. Historically the Victorian era was a time of many contradictions, such as the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity, a strict social code of conduct and prudish sexual restraint together, with the prevalence of social phenomena such as prostitution and child labour. Hardly surprising that an affluence of social movements arose from attempts to improve the prevailing harsh living conditions for so many under a rigid class system.

The Victorian era was founded on optimistic Modernist notions of progress, but it ought to serve as a historical lesson in the social evils of Elitism, the Victoran Era saw great expansion of wealth and  power that was  not shared or “trickled down” in the slightest. But it seems we never learn. Victorian Britain was a land of laissez-faire capitalism and self-reliance. Government regulation was minimal and welfare was left mostly to charity.

At the same time that explicit erotica was beginning to appear in newspapers, emotions and sexual feelings were expressed by means of cryptological communications through the use or arrangement of flowers. “Talking bouquets” called “nosegays” or “tussie-mussies” were used to send coded messages to the recipient, allowing the sender to express feelings that could not be spoken out loud in Victorian society.

The language of flowers was used by women to speak for women at a time when women often were discouraged from speaking for themselves in society. In the UK, (and the US) the language of flowers was a popular phenomenon and was traditionally associated with Victorian womanhood ideals for women to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive to their husbands.

When a woman married, she had no independent legal status. She had no right to any money (earned or inherited), she could not make a will or buy property, she had no claim to her children, she had to move with her husband wherever he went. If her husband died, he could name the mother as the guardian, but he did not have to do so.

During Victoria’s reign, Britain was also ruled by an aristocratic elite that excluded democrats, radicals, and workers. The Government was not fully representative, since in 1832, only 20 percent of the population could fulfil the property qualifications to vote.

The Victorian era is almost synonymous with the ideology of “great men” – “outstanding” male individuals, whose features and life stories fill the National Portrait Gallery (founded 1856) and the patriarchal Dictionary of National Biography (launched 1882) while their exploits were hymned in key texts like Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859).

Throughout the era, “masculine” values of action, courage and endeavour supported military campaigns and commercial expansion. Women were allotted a subsidiary role, with patience and self-sacrifice the prime feminine virtues, and central to their domestic roles. Motherhood was idealised, alongside virginal innocence, but women were subject to pervasive denigration.

Towards the end of the century, strident misogyny was still strong in both popular fiction and academic writing – but as loudly as female inferiority was declared immutable, women everywhere began to demonstrating otherwise, challenging the axis of patriarchy, and the architects of their marginalisation.

Patterns of patriarchal authority were reinforced by social philosophers like Auguste Comte, Arthur Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and John Ruskin, this developed into a mid-century doctrine of “separate spheres” –  men were figured as competitors in the amoral, economic realm while women were positioned as either decorative trophies or spiritual guardians of men’s immortal souls.

From the 1860s, social construction of the the Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest” (a phrase coined by sociologist, Herbert Spencer, not Darwin) added a pseudo-scientific dimension which placed men higher on the evolutionary ladder. This theory of evolutionary ethics is an attempt to derive morality from “biological laws”, and is based on the general doctrine of evolution connected to Darwin.  Malthus’ Essay on Population (1766-1834) was another significant influence on Victorian attitudes.

The mid-century was notable for its moral panic over prostitution, which developed – despite a “permissive” interval in the 1860s – into demands for male chastity outside marriage. At the end of the era, a socially shocking topic was that of the virginal bride (and her innocent offspring) infected with syphilis by a sexually experienced husband. But during the Victorian era, the concept of pater familias, meaning the husband as head of the household and moral leader of his family, was firmly entrenched in British culture.

It was women that were perceived as unclean and this perception was worsened through the First Contagious Diseases Prevention Act in 1864. Women suspected of being unclean were subjected to an involuntary genital examination. Refusal was punishable by imprisonment; diagnosis with an illness was punishable by involuntary confinement to hospital until perceived as cured.

The disease prevention law was only ever applied to women, which became the primary rallying point for activists who argued that the law was both ineffective and inherently unfair to women. The examinations were inexpertly performed by male police, women could be suspected based on little or no evidence, and the exams were painful and humiliating. After two extensions of the law in 1866 and 1869 the unjust acts were finally repealed in 1886.

Bringing together political and personal demands for equality, the slogan: “Votes for Women, Chastity for Men” was coined. Feminist ideas spread among the educated female middle classes,  and the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in the last years of the Victorian Era.

In addition to losing money and material goods to their husbands, Victorian wives became property to their husbands, giving them rights over their bodies and what their bodies produced; children, sex and domestic labour. Marriage abrogates a women’s right to consent to sexual intercourse with her husband, giving him ownership. Their mutual matrimonial consent therefore became a contract of surrendered autonomy for women.

While husbands quite often participated in affairs with other women, wives endured infidelity as they had no rights to divorce on these grounds and their divorce was considered to be a social taboo. Even following divorce, a husband had complete legal control over any income earned by his wife; women were not allowed to open banking accounts.

The context for such oppression was set around a century and a half ago, a few years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, a Royal Commission of Parliament proposed a major reform of the Poor Law. The bastardy clauses of the New Poor Law of 1834 outlined that “women bear financial responsibilities for out-of-wedlock pregnancies.” In 1834 women were made legally and financially supportive of their illegitimate children.

It was a Conservative and Liberal project – largely influenced by Thomas Robert Malthus and disseminated by the 1834 Poor Law Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws and such novelists as Harriet Martineau – asserting that poverty arose from overpopulation and that women more so than men were responsible for determining demographic growth. (Yes, really).

Single mothers and their out-of-wedlock children represented the worst violators of independence and individualism, and the centuries-old welfare provisions offered them among the worst obstacles to a free market.

Radical critics perceived in the bastardy clauses a challenge to traditional notions of protecting society’s weak and of allowing the working class the “right” to receive parish and charitable aid. Furthermore, critics recognised that the sexual double standard inherent in the new clauses revealed the ideology of Liberalism: the Liberal system magnified rather than minimised the advantages enjoyed by society’s enfranchised and the disadvantages experienced by society’s weakest members.

The Commissions report, presented in March 1834, was largely the work of two of the Commissioners, Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick. The report took the outline that poverty was essentially caused by the indigence of individuals rather than economic and social conditions. Paupers claimed relief regardless of his merits: large families got most, which encouraged improvident marriages; women claimed relief for bastards, which encouraged immorality; labourers had no incentive to work; employers kept wages artificially low as workers were subsidised from the poor rate. (Aha, the Daily Mail and déjà vu)

The New Poor Law of 1834 was based on the “principle of less eligibility,” which stipulated that the condition of the “able-bodied pauper” on relief  be less “eligible” – that is, less desirable, less favourable – than the condition of the independent labourer. “Less-eligibility” meant not only that the pauper receive less by way of relief than the labourer did from his wages but also that he receive it in such a way (in the workhouse, for example) as to make pauperism less respectable than work – to stigmatise it. Thus the labourer would be discouraged from lapsing into a state of “dependency” and the pauper would be encouraged to work.

The Poor Law “made work pay”, in other words.

Did I hear a collective, weary sigh, heavily laden with a strong sense of déjà vu? The parallels to be drawn here are no coincidence.

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Part two

The Tory motto: the more things change, the more they stay the same

The Victorian era has made a deep impact upon Tory thinking, which had always tended towards nostalgia and tradition. Margaret Thatcher said that during the 1800s:

Not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country … As our people prospered so they used their independence and initiative to prosper others, not compulsion by the state.

There she makes an inference to the twin peaks of callous laissez-faire and the mythical “trickle down” effect. Yet history taught us only too well that both ideas were inextricably linked with an unforgivable and catastrophic increase in destitution, poverty and suffering for so many, for the purpose of extending profit for a few.

Writing in the 1840s, Engels observed that Manchester was a source of immense profit for a few capitalists. Yet none of this significantly improved the lives of those who created this wealth. Engels documents the medical and scientific reports that show how human life was stunted and deformed by the repetitive, back breaking work in The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Constantly in his text, we find Engels raging at those responsible for the wretched lives of the workers. He observed the horror of death by starvation, mass alienation, gross exploitation and unbearable, unremitting poverty.

The great Victorian empire was built whilst the completely unconscientious, harsh and punitive attitude of the Government further impoverished and caused so much distress to a great many. It was a Government that created poverty and also made it dishonourable to be poor.

Whilst Britain became great, much of the population lived in squalid, disease-ridden and overcrowded slums, and endured the most appalling living conditions. Many poor families lived crammed in single-room accommodations without sanitation and proper ventilation.

That’s unless they were unlucky enough to become absolutely destitute and face the horrors of the workhouse. It was a country of startling contrasts. New building and affluent development went hand in hand with so many people living in the worst conditions imaginable.

Michael Gove has written:

For some of us Victorian costume dramas are not merely agreeable ways to while away Sunday evening but enactments of our inner fantasies … I don’t think there has been a better time in our history”  in “Alas, I was born far too late for my inner era.

A better time for what, precisely? Child labour, desperation? Prostitution? Low life expectancy, disease, illiteracy, workhouses? Or was it the deferential protestant work ethic reserved only for the poor, the pre-destiny of the aristocracy, and “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”?

In a speech to the CBI, George Osborne argued that both parties in the coalition had revitalised themselves by revisiting their 19th-century roots. When Liberal Democrat David Laws gave his first speech to the Commons as the secretary to the Treasury, Tory MP Edward Leigh said: “I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending Gladstonian Liberalism”, and  Laws recognised the comparison to the Liberal prime minister,and said:

I hope that this is not only Gladstonian Liberalism, but liberalism tinged with the social liberalism about which my party is so passionate.

The Coalition may certainly be described as “stern and unbending,” if one is feeling mild and generous.

I usually prefer to describe them as “authoritarian”.

We know that the 19th-century Conservative party would have lost the election had it not been rescued by Benjamin Disraeli, a “one nation” Tory who won working-class votes only because he recognised the need and demand for essential social reform. Laissez-faire, competitive individualism and social Darwinism gave way to an interventionist, collectivist and more egalitarian paradigm. And there’s something that this Government have completely missed: the welfare state arose precisely because of the social problems and dire living conditions created in the 19th century.

The 19th century also saw the beginnings of the Labour Party. By pushing against the oppression of the conservative Victorian period, and by demanding reform, they built the welfare state and the public services that the current Government is now so intent on dismantling.

During the Victorian era, oppression of women was embedded deeply in psychic, political and cultural processes. It’s quite easy to see how some feminists came to attribute the characteristics of violence and hierarchical authoritarianism to men.

However, whatever claims we make as truths of our biological “natures”, the is/ought distinction highlights our (degree of) autonomy and emphasises our moral responsibilities and choices regarding social organisation, also. In this respect, debating the fundamentals of sex-based attributes and gender stereotypes is futile, because we have ethical and social obligations that transcend bickering about “biological facts.” The traditional binary opposition between “equality”and “difference” is a damaging one, especially in assessing the debate in terms of social rights and needs.

The welfare reforms present a particular challenge to the financial security and autonomy of women. The “reforms” have been strongly influenced by (a particular form of) economic modelling, and do not take into account the lived experiences or the impact of the cuts on those targeted. Conservative ideology also informs the reforms and the Government uses out-of-date model of households and concern about “dependency” on state, not within families.

The form of modelling depopulates social policy, dehumanises people, and indicates that the Tory policy-makers see the public as objects of their policies, and not as human subjects. We therefore need to ask whose needs the “reforms” are fulfilling.

Our welfare system has brought the UK a high degree of social and income equality. Economists, it seems, disagree on the effect that inequality has on economic growth, however. Some argue that it promotes growth, others insist that it’s a barrier, but very tellingly, most would like to live in a country with a high degree of income equality as one of the main indicators for a high score on the human-development index.

In developed Liberal democracies, the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for an acceptable quality of life.

The welfare state is funded through redistributionist taxation. Such taxation usually includes a larger income tax for people with higher incomes, called a progressive tax. This helps to reduce the income gap between the rich and poor.

The UK Government’s welfare “reform” programme represents the greatest change to benefits biggest changes to welfare since its inception. These changes will impact the most vulnerable in our society. In particular, women rely on state support to a greater extent than men and will be disproportionately affected by benefit cuts.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith (who didn’t manage to lead his party to an election due to losing a motion of no confidence) is largely responsible for this blitzkreig of apparent moral rigour, a right wing permutation of “social justice” rhetoric and harsh Victorian orthodoxy.

The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system in the UK’s poorest families. Poor Law rhetoric. There’s no such thing as “worklessness,” it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, as they always do.

The strategy fails to explicitly acknowledge the link between women’s poverty and child poverty, it fails to provide the supports needed in terms of flexible childcare and flexible working that women with children need in order to work, and it sets the “blame” for poverty squarely at the feet of the UK’s most disadvantaged families, stigmatising them further and pushing them deeper into poverty as an ideologically-driven means of “freeing” them from poverty.

The “reforms” (cuts) consist of 39 individual changes to welfare payments, eligibility, sanctions and timescales for payment and are intended to save the exchequer around £18 billion. How remarkable that the Department of Work and Pensions claim that such cuts to welfare spending will “reduce poverty.

There’s nothing quite so diabolical as the shock of the abysmally expected: the brisk and brazen Tory lie, so grotesquely untrue. Such reckless rhetoric permeates Government placations for the “reforms”. The “reforms” were hammered through despite widespread protest, and when the House of Lords said “no“, the Tories deployed a rarely used  and ancient parliamentary device, claimed “financial privilege” asserting that only the Commons had the right to make decisions on bills that have large financial implications.

Determined to get their own way, despite the fact no-one welcomed their policy, the Tories took the rare jackbooted, authoritarian step to direct peers they have no constitutional right to challenge the Commons’ decisions further. Under these circumstances, what could possibly go right?

Recently the Government effectively abolished the Child Support Agency. Very quietly. With immediate effect it is replaced, in part, by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). This will cover new arrangements for separated and divorced families where two or more ­children are involved – and will ultimately cover all separated families.

Closure of around one million existing cases starts next year. At which point, if families want to join the new CMS, they need to reapply, start from scratch and pay an initial £20 fee.

The most controversial measure is the introduction of charging for use of the service, which is being held back until 2014. Parents will be encouraged to bypass the CMS altogether and make their own arrangements.

The Government’s own analysis shows that one in 11 – 100,000 – families will drop out of the system entirely and stop getting maintenance for their children rather than go through the stress of ­reapplying.

Gingerbread, an organisation that campaigns for lone parent families have already pointed out that in such tough financial times, any missed payments could have a serious impact on children.

Whilst the Government claim that “encouraging parents to agree terms” regarding supporting children is a positive move, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if such negotiations came with ease, then couples with children wouldn’t separate in the first place, surely.

There is already provision in the law for encouraging divorcing  parents to reach an “agreement of terms”. There will usually be a family court adviser from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) to support with parents via mediation, including reaching agreements about child maintenance.

And what of those relationships that have been abusive – where one partner has fled domestic violence, for example?

According to Home Office figures, 1.2 million women reported that they experienced domestic abuse last year in the UK, including half a million victims of sexual assault.

Traumatised women who have just left violent partners, and whose children are distressed, have little respite from the Government imposed obligation to attend “work-focussed interviews” as a condition of getting money to live on. When claimants miss Jobcentre appointments and “work-focussed interviews”, they are sanctioned and lose their benefit, and the Housing Benefit which pays for a refuge place stops too.

Citizens Advice has reported a substantial increase in the number of people telling advisers they are victims. Their figures reveal that 13,500 people – 80% of them women – reported domestic violence to Citizens Advice last year.

There were 3,300 reported incidents between October and December 2012, an 11% increase on the same period the previous year. More than 30% of women have suffered domestic violence.

Convictions for domestic violence rose to 74% of prosecutions in the year leading up to  to March – not far behind the average for other violent crime and up from 60% in 2005-6. At the same time the rape conviction rate was 63.2%, up from 62.5% last year. Ten years ago rape conviction rates were not recorded by the CPS.There is a hidden epidemic of abuse undermining decades of progress in the women’s liberation movement.

Obtaining legal assistance for cases of domestic violence is now much more difficult that it was last year. The legal aid budget is being cut by £350 million a year. With 57% of recipients of legal aid being women, thousands will find themselves without the means to get representation. It has been estimated that 54% of women suffering from domestic violence would not qualify for legal aid. That is unacceptable.

The Everywoman Safe Everywhere Commission, chaired by former Labour MP Vera Baird, says:

Just as there is now overwhelming evidence that women have borne the brunt of the economic recession so too it is clear the services designed to keep them safe are now under threat too.

The Commission found services offering help and ­counselling to abused wives and girlfriends have had their funding cut by 31% since May 2010. As a result women’s refuges are facing closure or having to cut services. There is also a real fear that cuts to housing benefit mean many will not be able to claim help towards staying in a refuge. 

Research by Shelter and Cambridge University suggests that the reforms will in fact cost more in terms of the extra strain on local authorities, such as homeless accommodation services, and the National Health Service.

Income Support, Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit for lone parents will be reduced and lone parents will now face new sanctions if they do not find work promptly. They will only receive Income Support if their children are less than 5 years old. Lone parents whose children are older than 5 will have to apply for Job Seekers Allowance and find work regardless of local childcare opportunities.

Such difficult barriers to navigate ordinarily, but for someone enduring the trauma of abuse and fear, it is even more unacceptable to impose such punitive measureson such avery vulnerable social group.

Victims of domestic violence must now show medical evidence before they can qualify for legal aid in family cases. Women and children living with domestic violence may have to visit more than 13 different agencies to get the help they need. For some women the energy and resilience required to persevere and navigate complex services are understandably lacking.

Added problems are that many women are very afraid that their children may be taken into care, that they will be judged as poor parents; bad mothers. And they are right to be afraid.

I have heard professionals talk about women “choosing” to let a violent man back into the family home and expressing their opinion that her relationship with the violent man is obviously more important to her than her relationship with her children.

Yet their reality can be so very extreme and difficult to comprehend because of the utter desperation that these circumstances create – women have absolutely no choice when they have a knife at their throat, or the real and believable threat that the house will be set on fire and the children killed if she doesn’t allow her partner back in.

The risk of letting a violent partner back into the family home, even though this will mean facing daily violence and abuse and the possibility of your children being taken into care is less of a risk than not letting a violent partner back into the home. And we hear, almost on a weekly basis that “distraught” fathers/ husbands have killed or attempted to kill their partners and/or children.

Women also know from painful and bitter experience that the police, the courts, the women’s refuge, social services, the probation service cannot protect her or her children from a man who is determined, obsessive and relentless. Women who are killed by their partners or former partners almost always tell someone “he is going to kill me.” And how has that become normal, within our society?

Our response to domestic abuse, as professionals, as a society and as individual human beings is difficult to understand. We react strongly to reports of war crimes, of torture and institutional abuse and yet we tolerate the long term, unrelenting abuse of women and children in their own homes and blame and punish women when they cannot protect themselves or their children. And the Tory-led welfare processes further narrow the options for women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Refuges for women are reporting that their very existence is under threat from drastic changes to the UK’s welfare system. Without these vital services, more women will be at continued risk of abuse – or worse.

The housing benefit on which refuges depend is the lifeblood of the national network of services that keep women and children safe. But this vital source of income is now at risk. Many of refuges do not meet the official definition of “supported exempt accommodation,” which means that a lot of the women needing support will fall foul of the benefit cap rolled out in July.

This will be particularly damaging for women who pay two rents – one for the refuge they are living in temporarily, and the other for the home they have fled.

Women who move on from refuges and resettle in areas of high rent may also be plunged into debt as a result of the cap. Those who accumulate rent arrears may face eviction and be left with an impossible dilemma either to sleep rough or return to their violent partner.

The new universal credit scheme presents further problems for lone parents. Under this system, all benefit payments will go directly to one member of a couple. In cases of domestic violence, this could give perpetrators command of household income, further enabling them to control and isolate their partners.

One of the most devastating impacts of welfare reform has been the abolition of community care grants and crisis loans. These are two of the most crucial resources for women and children trying to rebuild their lives following abuse. For women moving to new, safe homes, these benefits enabled them to buy items such as beds and refrigerators. The local schemes that have been set up to replace them are underfunded and poorly managed, often providing food bank vouchers instead of cash.

One woman recently supported didn’t even have enough money to buy beds for her two small children. Another woman was delighted to secure a new home in a safe area, but was refused funding for furniture by her local scheme. When a refuge worker applied to children’s services on her behalf, their response was to offer to take her children into care. Is this really the kind of empowerment we must expect for victims of domestic violence who are struggling to forge new lives?

Local authorities are under enormous pressure to limit spending, and their response has been to prioritise funding for residents with a “local connection.” This move is deeply concerning, since women fleeing domestic violence frequently move great distances in search of safety.

One resident recently secured new housing in a different local authority from the refuge she had been staying in, but was refused funding assistance because she had did not qualify as a local resident.

The sum total of consequences of these new welfare processes is bleak. They are narrowing options for women and children experiencing domestic violence and threatening the survival of vital services like refuges.

Local and central Government must ensure that victims of domestic violence do not fall through the gaps in these reforms. Local authorities must train their staff in the complex dynamics and risks of abuse, so that every woman who needs support to rebuild her life is given professional, sensitive consideration, not subjected to a box-ticking exercise. Central government must ensure that refuges are included in the definition of supported exempt accommodation. This will help to protect funding for the network of safe houses that keep women and children safe across the country.

Domestic violence is a national problem. It is a problem that kills an average of two women every week. It is increasing, and we must not risk the reforms inflating this horrific statistic even further.

Gingerbread, the charity representing single parents, has campaigned against the “disproportionate” effects of the benefit cap on single parents who are not working. Families with a single parent make up three-quarters of those losing money in trials of the coalition’s £500-a-week benefit cap, new Government figures show.

Pilot schemes in four London areas discovered that 74% of people affected by the cap in its first few months were lone parents living with their children.

The effect on single parents in these areas has been found to be bigger than the national picture predicted in the Department for Work and Pensions’ impact assessment. It’s unfair that lone parents and their children should bear the brunt of the Government’s failure to address the underlying cause of housing benefit rises: the shortage of affordable housing and the greed of private landlords.

Fiona Weir, Gingerbread’s chief executive, said:

Thousands of young children from single-parent families will face deeper poverty, or the upheaval of having to move away from their family networks and communities as a result of this poorly conceived benefit cap.”

The Government has denied that its cap is aimed at forcing lone parents with young children to go back to work of course. Mark Hoban argued that the scheme is simply “designed to strengthen work incentives and create ‘fairness’ between those in work and those out of it”.

So Hoban and the Tories think that “fairness” is to impoverish lone parents and their children. The punitive approach to poverty didn’t work during the last century, it simply stripped the unfortunate of their dignity, and diverted people, for a while, from recognising the real cause of poverty. It isn’t about individual inadequacies: the poor do not cause poverty, but rather, Governments do via their policy and economic decision-making. Owen Jones recently claimed that “the political right is the inevitable, rational product of an unequal society”.

I disagree. Unequal society is and always has been the rational product of Conservative Governments. History shows this to be true. Tory ideology is built upon a very traditional feudal vision of a “grand scheme of things,” which is extremely and sharply hierarchical.

There are currently only 146 female MPs, out of a total 650 members of parliament. The Tories have only 48 female MPs and 256 male ones. To say that women are under-represented in parliament would be a gross understatement.

In an article titled “Gender Inequality and Gender Differences in Authoritarianism” by Mark J. Brandt and P.J. Henry, it is recognised that there is a direct correlation between the rates of gender inequality and the levels of authoritarian ideas in the male and female populations.

It was found that in countries with less gender equality where individualism was encouraged and men occupied the dominant societal roles, women were more likely to support traits such as obedience which would allow them to survive in an authoritarian environment, and less likely to encourage ideas such as independence and imagination.

In countries with higher levels of gender equality, men held more authoritarian views. It is believed that this occurs due to the stigma attached to individuals who question the cultural norms set by the dominant individuals and establishments in an authoritarian society, as a way to prevent the psychological stress caused by the active ostracising of the stigmatised individuals.

The private sphere is the part of our social life in which individuals enjoy a degree of authority, unhampered by interventions from Governmental or other institutions. Examples of the private sphere are our family, relationships and our home.

There has been an increasing intrusion by Government into the private domain, (the bedroom tax is a good example of this, since it affects our family sleeping arrangements and significantly reduces the choice of home we are permitted to live in) whilst at the same time, our participation in the public domain of  work, business, politics and ideas is being repressed, and we are once again being contained in the private domestic sphere.

The enforcement of the public/private divide was a significant feature of the Victorian Era, too. This divide reflects gendered spaces of men and women. The mantra of second wave feminism, “the personal is political,” signifies the first attempt to break down the gendered division between the private sphere attributed to women and the public sphere and freedoms of men.

In the course of history, women’s voices have been silenced in the public arena. We must therefore contest majoritarian conceptions of the public sphere, once again, that underpin traditional notions of gendered spaces, whilst we also vindicate a robust private sphere that protects minorities from quasi-majoritarian political assault.

For some of us Victorian costume dramas are not merely agreeable ways to while away Sunday evening but enactments of our inner fantasies … I don’t think there has been a better time in our history” – Michael Gove

God preserve us from the rigidly conservative and traditional inner fantasies that have spilled over into the policies of these lunatics, who have no regard, clearly, for human dignity, human rights and the equality of esteem and worth of all citizens.

Once again we see the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the ideologically-driven austerity measures. Welcome back to Victorian patriarchy. This Government refuse to listen, even worse, they go to great lengths to silence us, and they have not been reasonable.

But calm down dears, perhaps Cameron would be more responsive to a nice posy.
1st jan 2009


Equality impact assessments: the current legal position in UK

Government must show due regard, when developing new policies/processes, to their impact on race, disability and gender; Equality Act 2010 (April 2011) adds new categories

  •  Processes should be in place to help ensure that :

– strategies/policies/services are free from discrimination;
– departments comply with equalities legislation;
– due regard is given to equality in decision making etc.; +
– opportunities for promoting equality are identified

  •  Equality Impact Assessments: show impact on protected

– groups (including women) of proposed policy changes, to
– ensure that policies do what is intended and for everybody.

Coalition budget faces legal challenge from Fawcett Society over claims women will bear brunt of cuts

The Fawcett Society’s immediate response to the Chancellor’s 2013 Budget Statement

Government strategy – Preparing for the future, tackling the past -Child Maintenance – Arrears and Compliance Strategy 2012 – 2017

TUC Briefing: The Gender Impact of the Cuts

For help and advice about the  CSA changes: gingerbread.org.uk .

If you are experiencing domestic violence, the free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline is: 0808 2000 247

Advice on domestic violence and Legal Aid eligibility – Rights of Women

Women’s Aid – The Survivor’s Handbook

Darren Hill: U.K Welfare Reform and the Youth Contract.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his superb art work

Quantitative Data on Poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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The minimum cost of living has soared by a quarter – 25% – since the start of the economic downturn, according to a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which details the true inflationary pressures facing low income households. The research finds families are facing an “unprecedented erosion of household living standards” thanks to rapid inflation and flat-lining wages.

Cuts to benefits and tax credits have exacerbated the problem over the past 12 months, according to the report. Now we are seeing the hard evidence that the Coalition’s “reforms” are pushing employed people in low paid work and unemployed people into absolute poverty, as our welfare system is no longer meeting basic living needs, and Government policy has distorted the original purpose of our social security, using rhetoric about costs to “the tax payer”, whilst carefully excluding the fact from their monologue that most benefit recipients are also tax payers.

A frightening consideration is that this report doesn’t include the latest round of benefit cuts – the very worst of them to date – that were implemented in April of this year. The report was produced prior to then, covering the period up to April, but doesn’t include it.

A quarter of households in the UK already fell short of the income required to reach an adequate standard of living – for them a 25% increase in costs intensifies the everyday struggle to make ends meet. The price of food and goods we need for an acceptable living standard has risen far faster than average inflation. This has combined with low pay increases to create a widening gap between income and needs.

The freeze in child benefit, the decision to uprate tax credits by just 1% and the increase in the cost of essentials faster than inflation mean that a working couples with children an  working lone parents will lose out, making a mockery of the Coalition’s claim of “making work pay”.

Over the past five years:

• Childcare costs have risen over twice as fast as inflation at 37%.
• Rent in social housing has gone up by 26%.
• Food costs have increased by 24%.
• Energy costs are 39% more.
• Public transport is up by 30%.

Some further shocking Key findings from the Poverty and Social Exclusion Project – The Impoverishment of the UK report reveals that:

• Over 30 million people (almost half the population) are suffering some degree of financial insecurity.
• Almost 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
• Roughly 14 million cannot afford one or more essential household goods.
• Almost 12 million people are too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population.
• About 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing.
• Around 4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards.
• Almost 4 million children go without at least two of the things they need;
• Around 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp.
• Around 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home.

Since 2010, wages have been rising more slowly than prices, and over the past 12 months, incomes have been further eroded by cuts to benefits and tax credits. Ministers argue that the raising of the personal tax allowance to £10, 000 for low income households will help, however, the report says its effect is cancelled out by cuts and rising living costs.

I would add that for many who are low paid, and the increasing numbers of part-time workers, this political gesturing is meaningless. The policy only benefits those who earn enough to pay tax. Most of this group are affected by the benefit cuts – many have to claim housing benefit and council tax benefit, and they are therefore likely to be affected by the bedroom tax and the poll tax-styled reductions to benefits under the Localism Bill, to compound matters.

It has to be said that the greatest percentage change in net income from the personal tax free allowance of £10,000 is seen by those on the upper end of the income scale – not, as is often claimed, low earners. This does explain the policy. Increasing the personal allowance serves to increase the gap between the those on the lowest incomes and those on  middle range incomes, resulting in low income households falling further into poverty.

At the low paid end of salaried work there are a cohort of workers trapped in a cycle of very poorly paid, low – skilled work, zero hour contracts, with few, if any, employee rights. They tend to work for a few months here and there, in work that is often seasonal. There is no opportunity for saving money or hope of better employment prospects.

This group of workers tend to live hand to mouth from one pay day to the next, so have no opportunity to build a reserve when the contract ends, there is nothing in reserve.

The net result is that it is increasingly very difficult for low-to-middle income families to balance the weekly budget. There is now a widening gulf between public expectations of a minimum decent living standard and their ability to earn enough to meet it. I would add that the gap between low and middle income families is widening, and will continue to do so because of the impact of policies that have recently been implemented.

Welfare support is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. All developed countries have such support for the vulnerable, and the less developed ones are striving to establish their own. Welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations. Most of us have paid for our own welfare.

It’s a common rhetorical trick for politicians is to talk about “looking after the tax payer.” However the reality is that they are often only really concerned with particular tax payers – the electoral groups that determine the outcomes of elections – often people on middle-incomes. They talk as if tax payers are some hard-pressed group who are burdened by the poor and that the rest of us don’t pay taxes.

But the reality is that there are many different taxes (the Institute of Fiscal Studies counted at least 25). Also the poorest people don’t just pay tax, they often pay the most tax. Not just indirect taxes, like VAT, but also income tax and council tax. Many other taxes are hidden from view in duties or other background taxes like Employer’s National Insurance.

Most assume that the rich pay a much higher rate of tax than the poor. After all the income tax system is meant to place progressively higher burdens on people with higher incomes. However, when you look at the rates of tax paid by each household it is very surprising.

The highest rate of tax, that is the share of income lost in tax, is paid by the poorest 10% of households (or families). The poorest 10% of families pay 45% of their income in tax. The other 90% of families pay quite a similar rates of tax, varying between 31% and 35%.

The three things to remember when politicians talk about tax:

1. Tax payers are not a special class of people – we are all tax payers.
2. Tax payers are not burdened by the poor – the poor are actually super tax payers.
3. Tax cuts come in many different shapes and sizes – not everybody benefits equally. The wealthiest profit the most.

(Information taken from here)

Office for National Statistics logo 

Statisticians hold two basic definitions of poverty – relative poverty is a measure which looks at those well below the median average of income (60% of income) – who are excluded from participating in what society generally regards as normal activities. This kind of poverty is relative to the rest of society, and is the type that we have seen and measured since the welfare state came into being.

Absolute poverty refers to a level of poverty beyond the ability to afford the essentials which we need simply to live and survive. People in absolute poverty cannot afford some of the basic requirements that are essential for survival. It is horrifying that this is now the fastest growing type of poverty in Britain, according to research bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  When the IFS produced its report on growing child poverty, David Cameron’s callous, calculated  and unflinching reaction was to question the figures, rather than accept the consequences of his Government policies on citizens.

And it IS calculated and deliberate legislative spite. The Government’s own impact assessment has demonstrated that the 1% uprating in the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act will have a disproportionate effect on the poorest. Families with children will be particularly hard hit, pushing a further 200,000 children into poverty. In addition, those with low to middle earnings and single-earner households will be caught by the 1% limit on tax credit rates. These new cuts come on top of the cumulative impact of previous tax, benefit and public expenditure cuts which have already meant the equivalent to a loss of around 38% of net income for the poorest tenth of households and only 5% for the richest tenth.

According to a TUC report, average wages have dropped by 7.5 per cent since the Coalition came into office. This has a direct impact on child poverty statistics, which the government has conveniently ignored in its latest, Iain Duncan Smith-endorsed, child poverty figures.

Child poverty is calculated in relation to median incomes – the average income earned by people in the UK.

If incomes drop, so does the number of children deemed to be in poverty, even though – in fact – more families are struggling to make ends meet with less money to do so.

This is why the Department for Work and Pensions has been able to sound an announcement that child poverty in “workless” families (which translates from Tory propaganda-speak to “victims of the Government- induced recession”) has dropped, even though we can all see that this is nonsense.

As average incomes drop, the amount received by  families not in work – taken as an average of what’s left – appears to rise, even though, as we know, the increase is not even keeping up with inflation any more.

Liam Byrne said: “The Institute of Fiscal Studies report shows that the price of ministers’ failure on child poverty isn’t just a million more children growing up poor – it’s a gigantic £35 billion bill for the tax payer. It’s not just a moral failure, but an economic disaster.”

“Ministers should be doing everything they can for struggling families but instead they are slashing working families’ tax credits whilst handing a massive tax cut to the richest people in the country. That tells you all you need to know about this Government’s priorities.”

And – “Not only is there a cost attached to rising levels of child poverty but the trend is illegal. Left unabated child poverty will reach 24% in 2020, compared with the goal of 10% written in law.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare and pensions secretary, has publicly questioned whether poverty targets are useful – arguing that “feckless” parents only spend money on themselves. The spirits of Samuel Smiles, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, they of the workhouse mentality, speak clearly in booming voices through Iain Duncan Smith from across the centuries.

And of course the Department for Work and Pensions ludicrously continue to blame the previous Administration. We know, however, that the research here shows starkly that poverty has risen under this Government, and we are now seeing cases of childhood malnutrition, such as scurvy.

The breakfast clubs established under the previous Labour Government, as a part of the Extending Schools program and Every Child Matters Bill often provided crucial meals, particularly  for children who relied on school provision  – in fact, for one in four of all UK children, school dinners are their only source of hot food. Malnutrition is rising and schools see children coming in hungry.

The previous Government recognised the importance of adequate nutrition and saw  the link between low educational attainment, behavioural difficulties and hunger in school. The breakfast club provision also helped parents on low incomes in other ways, for example, the free childcare that these wrap-around services provided is essential to support them to keep on working.

There are further issues worth a mention from Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review, that are not in the report. They are worth a mention not least because they tell you all you need to know about the Coalition. They speak volumes about Tory-led intention, malice and despicable aims. They expose the lie once again that the Tories “support” the most vulnerable citizens.

I’m very concerned about Osborne’s plans to set a cap on benefits spending. This cap will include disability benefits, but exclude spending on the state pension. Disabled people have already faced over £9 billion of cuts to benefits they rely on, with at least 600,000 fewer expected to qualify for the new Personal Independence Payment, which is replacing disability living allowance, and over 400,000 facing cuts to their housing benefit through the bedroom tax. Disabled people of working age have borne the brunt of cuts, and the Government is once again targeting those who can least afford to lose out.

By including “Disability Benefits” in the cap, the Government have signalled clearly that they fully intend severing any remaining link between social security and need. We are hurtling toward a system that is about eradicating the cost of any social need. But taxation hasn’t stopped, however, public services and provisions are shrinking.

Barely a month now passes without one of David Cameron’s ministers being rebuked for some act of statistical chicanery (or, indeed, the Prime Minister himself). And it’s not just the number crunchers at the UK Statistics Authority who are concerned. An alliance of 11 churches, including the Methodist Church, the Quakers and the Church of Scotland, has written to Cameron demanding “an apology on behalf of the Government for misrepresenting the poor.”

Many people have ended their lives. Many people have died because of the sustained attack from our Government on them both psychologically and materially, via what ought to be unacceptable, untenable and   socially unconscionable policies. People are going without food. People are becoming homeless. There are people now living in caves around Stockport The UK is the world’s six largest economy, yet 1 in 5 of the UK population live below the official poverty line, this means that they experience life as a daily struggle for survival.

And this is because of the changes this Government is making. And we are allowing them to do so. Unless we can form a coalition with other social groups in our society, we are unlikely to influence or produce enduring, positive political change. But that will only happen once others realise that they are not exempt from the devastating changes, or the long term consequences of them. It’s down to us to ensure that the public are informed, since the maintream media have abdicated that responsibility.

The author of the Joseph Rountree Foundation report, Donald Hirsch, says the cumulative effect is historically significant:

From this April, for the first time since the 1930s, benefits are being cut in real terms by not being linked to inflation. This combined with falling real wages means that the next election is likely to be the first since 1931 when living standards are lower than at the last one.”

Further reading:

Briefing on How Cuts Are Targeted

Who Really Benefits from Welfare?

  • The system make little difference to the incomes of the poorest
  • People in poverty pay the highest rates of tax
  • It is hardest for the poorest to earn, save and be a family
  • Most money actually goes to the better-off.

    (This article was taken from a longer piece of work: Poverty and Patrimony – the Evil Legacy of the Tories.)

1017174_500690710000462_512008904_nThanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant artwork