Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has presented a United Nations Report on Poverty in the UK. The UK Mainstream Media have not really excelled in analysis or presentation of the findings. After almost a decade of Nudge by Press Release, the Guardian has missed the vital message while the BBC has simply recycled old Government Press Releases. The Mainstream Media seem to be shy about embracing the most damning finding of the report.
In December 2017, Professor Alston carried out a visit to the USA – California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC – carrying out the same kind of investigation as has just finished in the UK. The most damning finding of the UN-US Report on Poverty was similar to the most damning finding of the UN-UK Report on Poverty. Had the Guardian excelled in Journalism they might have highlighted that the UN was not simply finding something isolated.
The Guardian and the BBC might not have concluded that the “Government is in denial” because following the implications of the most damning finding is that POVERTY IS A CHOICE.
Both in 2017, in the USA, and in 2018 in the UK, the UN has concluded that poverty is a choice and that Government has made the decision that the only choice on offer is compliance or poverty. The Mainstream Media is failing to follow any kind of analysis that follows the implications of the finding that poverty is a choice and there is no adequate explanation as to why? The notion that poverty is a choice is one that has been foisted onto everybody by the Government since 2010. Welfare Changes have been touted as Reforms which will enable people to choose to lift themselves out of poverty. That choice takes place within the Choice Architecture that has been created by policy.
In the UN-US Report, Alston states that:
“ …I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers…”
In the UN-UK Report, Alston similarly finds that:
“One of the key features of Universal Credit involves the imposition of draconian sanctions, even for infringements that seem minor. Endless anecdotal evidence was presented to the Special Rapporteur to illustrate the harsh and arbitrary nature of some of the sanctions, as well as the devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time. As the system grows older, some penalties will soon be measured in years.”
The Mainstream Media make no connection between the American Experience and the British Experience. As if there was no connection between US Policy and UK Policy. As if all the shuttling back and forth between Republicans and Conservatives has never had any impact. As if the Minor Infraction Notices are, in no way, related to Benefit Sanctions. There is an almost willing blindness: never stray from the press release.
The UN Rapporteur was never commissioned to analyse Nudge Theory. The outcome of eight years of Libertarian Paternalism has transformed British Society into something that, the UN recognises, punishes the Poverty it also chooses to deliver. The overwhelming Mainstream Media response has been the Punch and Judy caricature and Poverty Porn Prurience instead of analysis.
How did a Government get to the point where Human Rights are optional or contingent upon being an Employee: this is a question central to the current Welfare Policy which is transforming British Society. It also has an answer that the UN Rapporteur gives: POVERTY IS A CHOICE.
In putting forward an endless series of press releases and promoting the production of daytime television portraying skivers and strivers the Department of Work and Pensions has been nudging the Mainstream Media into only presenting a narrative where strivers can choose to leave poverty and only skivers would want to avoid that choice. The constant nudging – the well written Press Releases that, frequently, substitute for actual Journalism – has worked. The Government has decided to provide the choice of poverty in a range of ways.
The Government provision of choices of poverty underline that decisions are placed beyond Claimants in a calculated and cruel manner. The Choice Architecture prevents Claimants from making decisions. Decisions would empower Claimants and also permit innovation. Claimants could determine what is the best course of action. Instead the digital by default process has been used to provide a series of choices without any deviation permitted.
A Claimant who fails to fill in any choice – and fill it in correctly, and fill it in digitally – automatically chooses poverty. Similarly, those who fail to know that choices have been proffered are choosing poverty. The complexity of the choice architecture is overwhelming – even for those engaged in administering it. It is a system that has been designed to deliver poverty – and it has.
The skills to interact with a State that is being made actively oppositional and digital as the UN-UK Report highlights:
“The reality is that digital assistance has been outsourced to public libraries and civil society organizations. Public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit.”
Which is not too distant from the UN-US Report:
“Much more attention needs to be given to the ways in which new technology impacts the human rights of the poorest Americans. This inquiry is of relevance to a much wider group since experience shows that the poor are often a testing ground for practices and policies that may then be applied to others. These are some relevant concerns.”
The truth is, the US and the UK have parallel tracks in overarching Policy objectives: eliminate the State and have the Poor fend for themselves. The emphasis on digital systems as a means to distance Policy Makers from Policy Delivery and to “cut costs” is evident across the US and UK Reports. Pretrial detention has been an area calling for systematic reform in the US for decades. The UN-US Report observes:
“Automated risk assessment tools, take “data about the accused, feed it into a computerized algorithm, and generate a prediction of the statistical probability the person will commit some future misconduct, particularly a new crime or missed court appearance.”
The system will generally indicate whether the risk for the particular defendant, compared to observed outcomes among a population of individuals who share certain characteristics, is ‘high’, ‘moderate’, or ‘low’. Judges maintain discretion, in theory, to ignore the risk score.”
Which reflects the “automated” nature of the Work Capability Assessment for the Disabled in the UK, previously reported by the UN as being either at risk or actually in the process of grave human rights abuse. In the UN-UK Report the Automated Risk Assessment tools are commented upon:
“But it is clear that more public knowledge about the development and operation of automated systems is necessary. The segmentation of claimants into low, medium and high risk in the benefit system is already happening in contexts such as ‘Risk-based verification.’ Those flagged as ‘higher risk’ are the subject of more intense scrutiny and investigation, often without even being aware of this fact. The presumption of innocence is turned on its head when everyone applying for a benefit is screened for potential wrongdoing in a system of total surveillance. And in the absence of transparency about the existence and workings of automated systems, the rights to contest an adverse decision, and to seek a meaningful remedy, are illusory.”
Which underlines that the Government of the day – regardless of political inclination – are delivering Policy Objectives without transparency, clarity or even sufficient information to determine what the Policy Objectives are. When policy objectives only become clear through outcomes, there is a clear suspicion that Democracy has been subverted. Which is the general direction the UN-US and UN-UK Reports indicate. There are serious Human Rights failings but also a serious democratic deficit arising from the idea that POVERTY IS A CHOICE.
The use of Computer Systems is not neutral or innocent. The Special Rapporteur notes that:
“it is worrying that the Data Protection Act 2018 creates a quite significant loophole to the GDPR for government data use and sharing in the context of the Framework for Data Processing by Government.”
Which is not simplistically that UK Government Departments have “rights” to trawl through personal data but that it is increasingly criminalised for Claimants – more than eight million people – to object to that trawl or to object to the sharing of data with Commercial Contractors. Those same Contractors being Employers and the inevitable consequence of data sharing being to put Claimants at a distinct power and negotation disadvantage when contracts of Employment are considered. Because the UK Government Departments have zero obligation to ensure Claimants get the best possible job. Simply that Claimants flow off the Register.
Which is how POVERTY IS A CHOICE is being delivered from Government to the People. Interaction with the Department of Work and Pensions has become the single most corrosive interaction with Government that People can have. The design of benefits has become an exercise in delivering the ideological convictions of the Government regardless of the practicality of those convictions. For the Conservative Government, that conviction is that people should be in poverty unless they are Employed. Which ensures the disabled, parents, students, pensioners, entrepreneurs in start-up and Carers are locked into a combative process in which the only exit is to choose poverty.
The UK Mainstream Media is not really exploring this dimension of the UN Rapporteur’s commentary. It leads to uncomfortable terrain for any Journalist. Not least, the intimate connection between the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK. The ideological convergence of the Conservatives with the Republicans has delivered a wide range of public policy disasters. The Department of Work and Pensions has been allowed carte blanche to redesign the Welfare State based on the Workfare preferred by the Republicans.
The Nudge Unit has crossed, and recrossed, the Atlantic ensuring that the Conservative’s historic prejudice for “the right to manage” has become inflated. Including all aspects of social existence into contractual relationships between the Government and the People. Dating back to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 “Contract with America” speech where everything was reduced to legislation as contract and society became replaceable with a well ordered business.
The UK Mainstream Media is not really capable of exploring these ideas because, quite simply, to do so is to undermine the interests of their owners. Without any need for coercion, the Government is capable of nudging the Media into endlessly propagating the POVERTY IS A CHOICE agenda.
Despite the comprehensive nature of the UN Rapporteurs investigations and reporting, there is little about the UN-UK Report that is actually surprising. The connection between the UN-UK and UN-US Reports might well be a surprise to the Media. Realistically, there should be no surprise at all. The Extremists of The Atlantic Bridge, The Heritage Foundation and all the myriad of Far Right Think Tanks since Reagan, have all been promoting the same ideas both sides of the Atlantic. They have all been ensuring that the tools exist for Government to make only once choice possible for the People and that choice is Poverty.
Picture: Mika Rottenberg, Bowls Balls Souls Holes, Video Installation Rose Art Museum Waltham USA (2104).
This article was written by Hubert Huzzah.