Tag: conservatives

The interdependence of the PR industry and neoliberal Conservative governments

The PR industry arose to promote and protect private interests in neoliberal economies

Public Relations (PR) and propaganda are key mechanisms by which power and influence are won (and lost). PR consultancies are also behind significant victories on behalf of big business, resulting in a tilted, biased market. PR emerged as a distinct discipline as a result of threats to the interests of business and government along with a ‘promotional culture’. 

Evidence indicates that PR arose rapidly in tandem with neoliberal policies. Those countries with the most marked privatisation and deregulation from the 1980s onwards – the US, the UK and Japan – had the largest PR industries. By contrast, countries such as France and Germany, which retained significant elements of consensus-based policies and state investment in industry, have much smaller PR industries. The global PR industry is dominated by a few big players, most of which are US or UK in origin and
ownership. 

Relative size of PR agencies in Europe, the US and Japan:

PR US Japan Eu

The expansion and power of Trans National Corporations (TNCs) relative to nation states has been a key spur to the development of communications conglomerates, which provide a full range of ‘promotional’ services and aspire to a global reach.  TNCs’ influence over the policy making process by entering an international market place has also led to a globalising of  the PR industry.

Multinational corporations, particularly in the US, and increasingly in the UK, look for global PR agencies who can operate adaptably and locally, wherever they are needed. 

The consensus in British politics was based on a compromise between organised labour and capital, which was founded on the post war 1945 settlement. This did secure real and significant democratic advances for ordinary citizens in the shape of the NHS, the welfare state, universal education, significant public ownership of utilities and heavy industry and, partly as a result, some amelioration of inequality in wealth distribution.

The end of the consensus in British politics during the New Right era ushered in more competitive politics in which traditions were displaced by a neoliberal tilt to the market in government policy. The crisis of the consensus shifted decisively with the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher’s government which favoured the role and ‘right’ of employers to ‘manage’, with government rolling back state mediation.  

During the Thatcher era, changes in the communication strategies of the nationalised industries were crucial to the changed relationships between management and workers.  Controversial government actions and policies also led to a vast increase in PR spending by governments and by corporations in their attempts to influence government policy.

Fundamental to this is the relationship between PR, lobbying, and neoliberalism, (particularly the privatisation of national assets and the deregulation of business and service provision in state institutions). There are several parts to this relationship which are interrelated and in some respects, mutually reinforcing. These include:

Lobbying and preparation for deregulation,
• Spending on privatisation by government/nationalised industries,
• Spending by newly privatised companies,
• Spending on promotion by industries and professions following
deregulation,
• Increased spending on PR in the new business climate created by the
deregulation of the City. 

Conservative policies could not work without the PR industry and the PR industry would not have developed in the spectacular way it did without consecutive Conservative governments. The British privatisations of the 1980s were instrumental in the rapid  expansion of the PR industry. Once industries are privatised, PR, corporate identity consultants and advertising are needed to promote the private interests of the companies and as a part of their strategic armoury to create positive public images of them. By the 1990s, accountancy firms also routinely employed lobbying firms.

Lobbying increased deregulation which increased PR spending by encouraging financial institutions to market themselves, and by ‘selling’ the marketing. Nowadays there are no matters for business, government or private interest pressure groups that have not been first addressed by promotional professionals, which has made, in turn, further contribution to shaping economic-political life and profoundly reduced the quality of our democracy. 

PR consultancy and neoliberal ideology are intimately connected, the role of PR has facilitated an institutional corruption in British governance.

The rise of political branding and marketing, where the primary development involves the way political candidates, parties, government, lobbyists and groups have borrowed communication techniques from the private sector in the attempt to achieve
strategic objectives like gaining votes, driving public opinion or influencing legislation, is generally regarded to be an Americanisation of campaigning in the UK.

However, the identifiable practices like negative advertising, personalised politics, and high pre-election campaign expenditures are generally more about maintaining a neoliberal status quo, and these methods are a ‘whatever it takes’ approach that are subsequently exported in a pre-packaged box of persuasion techniques to other countries. Political identities are being constructed rather than given, policies are presented on showroom dummies, dressed up in techniques of persuasion. Yet there is evidence to suggest that overexposure to this kind of window dressing and made over political coverage has contributed towards widespread political alienation.

Image result for pr and democracy

The rise of political marketing with its techniques of ‘spin’, selling and persuasion may have somewhat undermined the credibility of political leaders and institutions,  with the elevation of style over content and image over substance, along with a concomitant  ‘brand and package’ pack mentality political journalism, ultimately leading to hardened public cynicism. We are after all, inhabiting a world dominated by PR operations that leave little place for objective reporting. Every message that the public receives is “sponsored” by someone trying to sell us something – be it a product, a service, a candidate, a government or a legislative act.

The content of the messages is calculated to generate superficial and shallow emotive responses rather than inspiring deliberative, rational and critical thinking. 

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to imagine that, in addition to the reductionist and glib sloganisation of politics, the normalised use of  emotive, negative and ‘attack’ Conservative political advertising may in fact demobilise the electorate, too.

The Conservatives in the ‘war room’ – a case study

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

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

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

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

The Conservatives have outsourced their “research” to the UK Policy Group, privatising their dirt digging and smear campaigns. 

US lobbying firm Definers Public Affairs was founded by Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, Matt Rhoades and former Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder. Rhoades and Pounder are also directors of UK Policy Group.

Definers made headlines in December 2017 when it was paid US$120,000 in a no-bid contract by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build up dossiers of compromising information on “resistance figures”, opposed to the policy agenda of Scott Pruitt, and Donald Trump, the man who appointed him. Definers cancelled the contract in short order after its activities were exposed. 

UK Policy Group was originally called, and registered with Companies House as, ‘UK Rising’. Rhoades and Pounder are co-founders of America Rising, a political action committee (PAC), that specialises in helping [Republican] party candidates and Conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals. Both companies “craft convincing narratives and focused messaging”.

The expansion by Definers Public Affairs came at a time when US lobbying firms were eyeing UK expansion in anticipation of flood of Brexit-related work.

UK Policy Group’s website unambiguously states it works for ‘corporate clients’, however, not a single one of those running the company has a significant private sector background. In fact, each of the five individuals standing alongside Pounder and Rhoades is intimately connected with the Conservative Party.

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

James Caldecourt was previously a Political Adviser in the Conservative Research Department, also specialising in ‘opposition’ research, and was part of George Osborne’s team while he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer 2010 — 2015. He has worked on several national election and referendum campaigns in political, policy and operational roles. Louis McMahon worked for two tears for two Conservative government ministers, and previously co-authored a criminal justice report for the Center for Social Justice think tank, founded by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith MP in 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may be argued that there are communications requirements of modern democracies. However, a representative democracy requires that political communication is dialogic – it flows in both directions between government and people. In fact that is a prerequisite. Instead we witness a manipulative neoliberal monologue from the current administration.

Neoliberal Conservative governments and the PR industry are very closely aligned, each profiting from the other. The condition of the spectacular growth of the PR and lobbying  industry was to facilitate and profit from the marked redistribution of wealth from the poorest citizens to the rich, establishing, elevating and securing the prioritisation of the private interests and power base of the 1% over and above – and at the expense of – public interests.

Image result for pr and democracy chomsky

 


 

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

influence

Media Intelligence Partners’ lobbying aims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The UK Policy Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Intelligence Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassroots Out

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

Leave Means Leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related

Conservatives for hire: cashing in on Brexit

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

Calibrating Academy- Hubert Huzzah

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

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

 


 

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Briefing Note: Update on the Salisbury poisonings – the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Related image

Earlier this year in Salisbury, following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

The multinational working group on Syria, propaganda and the media has been established to facilitate research into the areas of organised persuasive communication (including propaganda and information operations) and media coverage, with respect to the 2011-present conflict in Syria, including related topics.

The group is entirely independent, open to academics and independent researchers and is not aligned to any state or non-state actor. In line with ethical expectations, the research group is committed to the upholding of international law and human rights norms.

The group aims to facilitate networking, the development of research papers and research grant bids and to provide a source of reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers.

The aims are to be accomplished through a commitment to the production of rigorous and independent research, examining carefully the various accounts of the conflict in Syria to build an empirically grounded account both of the conflict itself and of the apparatus, practice and content of organised persuasive communication (including propaganda) in relation to the conflict. It is vital in any such endeavour that all available information, and all reputable or appropriate scientific research methods, are utilised to contribute to evidence-based accounts of the conflict and the war of words that accompanies it.

The working group have published the following briefing note: Update on the Salisbury poisonings:- 

The following briefing note is developed by academics researching the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political situation in the Middle East and UK-Russian relations. We welcome comments and corrections.

Authors: Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor David Miller and Professor Piers Robinson (piers.robinson@sheffield.ac.uk/+447764763350).

Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda (syriapropagandamedia.org).

Key points

  • The Skripals were exposed to a phosphoroamidofluoridate compound named A-234, of high purity indicating that it was most likely prepared for research purposes.
  • A-234 or similar compounds have been synthesized at bench scale by national chemical defence labs in Russia and the US in the 1990s, and more recently in Iran and Czech. A small quantity of A-234 from a Russian state lab was used in the murder of Ivan Kivelidi and Zara Ismailova in 1995.
  • No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain. The police statement that the Skripals were exposed through contact with their front door is implausible as there are no known nerve agents that cause onset of symptoms delayed by several hours, and it is improbable that absorption through the skin would cause both individuals to collapse later at exactly the same time.
  • Although Russia is one of several countries that have synthesized A-234 or similar compounds, there is no evidence other than Vil Mirzayanov’s story that these compounds were ever developed (implying industrial-scale production and testing of munitions) for military use. Mirzayanov’s credibility as an independent whistleblower is undermined by his role in a Tatar separatist movement during 2008-2009, backed by the US State Department.
  • There are multiple indications that the UK is hiding information:- 
    • the withholding of the identity of the compound as A-234. For example, the UK statement to the OSCE 12 April 2018 states only that ‘ the name and structure of that identified toxic chemical is contained in the fall classified report to States Parties’. See also this briefingThe Chief Executive of Porton Down, in his statement 3 April, referred to the compound only as ‘Novichok’.
    • the withholding of information about its toxicity
    • the issue of a Defence and Security Media Advisory notice on the identity of Skripal’s MI6 handler and the attempt to conceal or deny his role in Orbis Business Intelligence.
    • the sequestration of Yulia Skripal.
  • The UK government’s case against Russia, stated in a letter to NATO, is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”. Each of these points is open to question:- 
    • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that compounds such as A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any modern chemistry lab. 
    • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this is not enough to support the assertion that “only Russia” could have enough experience to attempt unsuccessfully to assassinate two unprotected individuals. 
    • Motive: No other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. Even if such an assassination campaign had been ordered, the Russian state would have good reasons not to initiate it in the first half of 2018. In contrast there are obvious possible motives (outlined below) for other actors to have taken steps to silence Sergei Skripal at this time. 

What was the agent used?

An early report that the hospital was dealing with poisoning caused by an opiate such as fentanyl was most likely based on the initial working diagnosis.  Signs of organophosphate poisoning – constricted pupils, vomiting, reduced consciousness and reduced breathing – could easily be mistaken for opiate overdose, usually a more likely diagnosis.  OPCW has stated that the BZ detected by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection in one of the samples sent by OPCW was not from Salisbury but was in a control sample.

The Russian ambassador reported that on 12 March the Foreign Secretary had told him that the nerve agent used against Mr and Ms Skripal had been identified as A-234.   The OPCW report issued on 12 April did not identify the agent but stated that they had confirmed the identification made by the UK and that this identification had been included in the confidential report provided to “States parties”. 

On 14 April the Russian Foreign Minister stated that A-234 had been reported by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection that was one of the four accredited labs used by OPCW to analyse the Salisbury samples.

Based on public reports, a ChemSpider record for A-234 has been created which assigns it the IUPAC name ethyl [(1E)-1-(diethylamino)ethylidene] phosphoramidofluoridate. Its predicted vapour pressure is very low indicating that it is predicted to be non-volatile. No information on its stability is available.   

The OPCW director Uzumcu stated in a newspaper interview that the agent “seems to be very persistent,” and “not affected by weather conditions”.  This was confirmed the next day by an OPCW press statement that: “the chemical substance found was of high purity, persistent and resistant to weather conditions”.  Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was reported to have stated:  “The chemical does not degrade quickly.  You can assume it is not much different now from the day it was distributed”.  No experimental studies of the stability of A-234 have been reported.

Who could have produced A-234 in bench-scale quantities?

It is no longer seriously disputed that, as noted in our earlier briefing, any well equipped university lab can synthesize and purify such chemicals at bench scale.  OPCW reported that the agent (presumably A-234) was of high purity with “almost complete absence of impurities”.   This suggests that it was from a batch that had been synthesized for research, rather than for assassination purposes where it would be unnecessary to purify the agent.

Uzumcu stated in an interview with the New York Times that he had been told by UK officials that 50-100 grams of the agent was used.

“For research activities or protection you would need, for instance, five to 10 grams or so, but even in Salisbury it looks like they may have used more than that. Without knowing the exact quantity, I am told it may be 50, 100 grams or so, which goes beyond research activities for protection”

OPCW quickly contradicted this in a statement that “OPCW would not be able to estimate or determine the amount of the nerve agent that was used in Salisbury on 4 March 2018. The quantity should probably be characterized in milligrams”.

Who has studied A-234 or similar compounds?

Bench-scale research on the toxicity of agents that might be used in chemical warfare is entirely legitimate under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and does not have to be declared to OPCW.

  • Russia

Since our last briefing note, more material from the investigation of the Kivelidi poisoning has been published by Novaya Gazeta, updating the earlier article published on 22 March

The second article includes an image of the mass spectrometry profile of the sample recovered from the telephone handset, which matches that submitted by Edgewood to the NIST98 mass spectrometry database. 

The Russian experts who commented on the original result appear not to have had access to the mass spectrometry profile of A-234, and to have incorrectly reconstructed the structure from a best guess, based on the mass-charge ratios of the fragments, as something like the GV agent (both agents have molecular mass 224 daltons, and a 58-dalton fragment).  

This establishes that Russia had synthesized this compound at bench scale by the mid 1990s, but does not confirm that it was ever developed for military use as alleged by Mirzayanov.

  • US

1997 newspaper article refers to a secret US army intelligence report referring to Russian development of A-232 and its “ethyl analog” A-234, indicating that the designation of these compounds and their structures was known to the US by this time. As noted in our last briefing note, the Edgewood lab submitted a mass spectrometry profile for A-234 to the public database NIST98, which was current from 1998 to 2001.

A patent application submitted by a US government lab in 2008 mentions “Novichoks”, but examination shows that the structures given for these compounds were the dihaloformaldoxime structures previously published as supposed “Novichoks”, not the phosphoramidofluoridates published by Mirzayanov later in 2008.   This does not indicate that the applicants were studying these compounds – most likely they included them to make their patent as broad as possible.

  • Iran and Czechia

study from Iran published in 2016 reported synthesis for research purposes of a compound similar to A-234, differing from it only by the presence of methyl instead of ethyl groups.  In an interview with Czech television, President Zeman stated that in November 2017 the related compound designated A-230 was studied at the Brno Military Research Institute.

  • Other labs

The director of Porton Down has declined to comment on whether Porton Down has stocks of A-234 for research purposes. The OPCW labs that identified A-234 in the specimens from Salisbury were most likely matching it against a mass spectrometry profile in OPCW’s Central Analytical Database.

What is known of the toxicity of A-234?

No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain.  The printout of the entry in the NIST 98 database appears to cross-reference an entry in the database RTECS (Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances)but no entry for this compound now exists in RTECS.

Why was the structure of A-234 revealed?

The structure of A-234 was revealed in a book by Vil S Mirzayanov in 2008, some 13 years after he had emigrated to the US with the story of a secret programme to develop chemical weapons of a class named “Novichoks”. During 2008-2009 the US government, with an active part for the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was encouraging the development of a separatist movement in Tatarstan.  As part of this, Mirzayanov was declared head of a Tatar government-in-exile in December 2008.    The publication of his book may thus have been part of an effort to build up Mirzayanov’s status as a dissident.  His role in this operation may explain why subsequent discussion of his book by OPCW delegates was closely monitored (and discouraged) by the US State Department.   Mirzayanov’s involvement in this operation undermines his credibility as an independent whistleblower.

When and where were the Skripals exposed to A-234?

A summary of the different versions on which journalists were apparently briefed by security sources was given by the Russian embassy:-

– The Skripals could be sprayed with poison by attackers in the street (Daily Mail, 6 March, source: “Anti-terror police”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in one of the personal items in Yulia Skripal’s suitcase before she left Moscow for London. According to this theory the toxin was impregnated in an item of clothing or cosmetics or else in a gift that was opened in the house of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, meaning Yulia Skripal was deliberately targeted to get at her father (The Telegraph, 15 March, source: “Senior sources in the intelligence agencies”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in the air conditioner of the car of Skripals (Daily Mail, 19 March, source: “Security expert Philip Ingram”).

– The Skripals could be poisoned through buckwheat that Yulia Skripal had asked her friend to buy and bring for her father, because she had forgotten to pick up the grocery gifts herself (The Sun, 1 April, source: “British investigators”).

On 28 March the police announced that “at this point in our investigation, we believe the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent from their front door”.  

Although it is possible that a nerve agent could be prepared in a formulation that would be absorbed only slowly through the skin, it is implausible that two individuals exposed through contact with the front door would have received doses that caused them to collapse suddenly and so nearly simultaneously that neither had time to call for help, at least three hours later. 

It is more likely that they were attacked shortly before they were found collapsed on the park bench.

Sergei Skripal’s link with Orbis: possible motive for murder

In the first few days after the poisoning there were media reports that Sergei Skripal had been in regular contact with his MI6 handler,  whose Linked-In profile had stated that he was a consultant for Orbis Business Intelligence.  It appears that this  profile was deleted by March 7, and a Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice was issued to caution journalists against disclosing the identity of this consultant. 

However at Skripal’s trial in 2007 his MI6 handler had been identified as Pablo Miller, and the link between Skripal and Miller had been described in detail by Russian opposition media on 6 March.

This link between Skripal and Orbis may be relevant to the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, the founder of Orbis, containing derogatory information on Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.  This dossier had been used by the FBI to apply for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order authorizing surveillance of Trump’s campaign.  By early 2018 the unravelling of this story was creating serious difficulties for Steele and for those he had worked with. 

These difficulties included a referral for criminal investigation by two US Senators, a libel case in the US against the publisher of the dossier which had led to a court ruling that Steele should be questioned in an English court, and a libel case in England against Orbis and Steele.  It is not difficult to postulate a situation in which the potential for damage to US-UK relations could have provided a motive for actors on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that Sergei Skripal would not be available to give evidence.

The UK government’s position

This was summarized in a letter from the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill to the NATO Secretary-General on 13 April 2018.   Sedwill’s letter made several assertions that were substantiated only by “intelligence”:

  • By 1993, when Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is likely that some Novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military
  • Russia further developed some Novichoks after ratifying the convention
  • During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons. This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles. 
  • In the mid-2000s, President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme
  • Within the last decade Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks

Appearing before the House of Commons Defence Committee on 1 May, Sedwill (11:39) extolled the government’s reaction to the Salisbury incident as “an example of the Fusion Doctrine in practice”. 

The Fusion Doctrine brings other government departments under the National Security Council with “the introduction of senior officials as senior responsible owners to deliver each of the NSC’s priorities”.

Sedwill’s involvement in the preparation of the now widely discredited dossier ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in September 2002, calls into question his credibility in making these uncorroborated assertions. 

The UK government’s case as set out by Sedwill is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”.  Each of these points is open to serious criticism:-

  • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any organic chemistry lab.
  • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this does not support the assertion that only Russia has the operational experience for such an assassination. On the contrary, the failure of the assassination attempt, against two unprotected individuals, suggests that the perpetrators lacked the operational experience and competence that one would expect of state-directed assassins.
  • Motive: no other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. If the Russian state had decided to begin assassinating these defectors, it is unlikely that they would have chosen to start in March 2018, just before the presidential election and three months before the FIFA World Cup.   However, as noted above, it is possible to identify motives for other actors to silence Sergei Skripal at this time.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Professor Rudy Richardson of the University of Michigan for advice on the toxicology of nerve agents. 

Related

Update to briefing note ‘Doubts about Novichoks’

From a nerve agent attack to a nuclear threat in 3 days – the very worrying collapse of international diplomacy

D-Notice over Skripal poisoning suggests the information we’ve been given was false

 


 

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Summary of key problems with the DWP’s recent survey of claimant satisfaction

The Department for Work and Pensions Claimant Service and Experience Survey (CSES) is described as “an ongoing cross-sectional study with quarterly bursts of interviewing. The survey is designed to monitor customers’ satisfaction with the service offered by DWP and enable customer views to be fed into operational and policy development.”

The survey measures levels of satisfaction in a defined group of ‘customers’ who have had contact with the Department for Work and Pensions within a three-month period prior to the survey. The research was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and conducted by Kantar Public UK –  who undertake marketing research, social surveys, and also specialise in consultancy, public opinion data, policy and also economy polling, among other things

One problem with the aim of the survey is that satisfaction is an elusive concept – a subjective experience that is not easily definable, accessible or open to precise quantitative measurement. The selection of responses available to participants and how these are measured and presented also affected the survey outcome.

For example, two categories of responses were conflated on the main report, with ‘satisfied’ and ‘fairly satisfied’ being presented as just one category – which gives the impression that people are fully satisfied. However, a ‘fairly satisfied’ response indicates that it is to some degree or extent but not fully, very or extremely satisfied. The presented survey findings, therefore, don’t distinguish between those who are fully satisfied with their interaction with the Department and those satisfied only to a moderate extent. Conflating these responses doesn’t provide us with the accurate ‘measurement’ of claimant satisfaction that the report claims. 

Furthermore, statistics that are not fully or adequately discussed in the survey report – these were to be found tucked away in the Excel data tables which were referenced at the end of the report – and certainly not cited by Government ministers, are those particularly concerning problems and difficulties with the Department for Work and Pensions that arose for some claimants. 

It’s worrying that 51 per cent of all respondents across all types of benefits who experienced difficulties or problems in their dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions did not see them resolved. A further 4 per cent saw only a partial resolution, and 3 per cent didn’t know if there had been any resolution.

In the job seeker’s allowance (JSA) category, some 53 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department and only 39 per cent had seen their problems resolved. In the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) group, 50 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department, and in the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) group, 57 per cent of claimants had ongoing problems with the Department, while only 33 per cent have seen their problems resolved. 

disatisfied

–  means the sample size is less than 40. 

Government officials have tended to select one set of statistics from the whole survey: “The latest official research shows that 76% of PIP claimants and 83% of ESA claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.” (Spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions.)

One problem with this is firstly it overlooks the problems outlined above, giving the impression that people don’t have any problems with the Department. Secondly, the survey conflates two sets of responses to come up with the overall percentages.

The positive categories for responses are “satisfied” and “fairly satisfied”. Given the problem of interpreting and precisely expressing subjective states like satisfaction, there is also the problem of measuring degrees of subjective states. There is some difficulty with “fairly satisfied” responses, as they may simply indicate that people experienced some difficulties, but these were handled politely by the Department. There may be varied reasons why people chose this category.

Some people are more likely to try to see situations positively. It tells us nothing about outcomes for those people. The questionnaires were closed – meaning responses were limited to a small number of simple response categories. So the responses don’t have a particularly helpful context of meaning to help us understand them. 

Some basic problems with using closed questions in a survey:

  • It imposes a limited framework of responses on respondents
  • The survey may not have the exact answer the respondent wants to give
  • The questions lead and limit the scope of responses 
  • Respondents may select answers which are simply the most similar to their “true” response – the one they want to give but can’t because it isn’t in the response options – even though it is different
  • The options presented may confuse the respondent
  • Respondents with no opinion may answer anyway
  • Does not provide us with information about whether or not the respondent actually understood the question being asked, or if the survey response options provided include an accurate capture and reflection of the respondents’ views.

Another problem which is not restricted to the use of surveys in research is the Hawthorne effect. This is a well-documented phenomenon that affects many areas of research and experiment in social sciences. It is the process where human subjects taking part in research change or modify their behaviour, simply because they are being studied. This is one of the most difficult inbuilt biases to eliminate or account for in research design. This was a survey conducted mostly over the telephone, which again introduces the risk of an element of ‘observer bias.’

Furthermore, the respondents in this survey had active, open benefit claims or had registered a claim. This may have had some effect on their responses, since they may have felt they were being scrutinised by the Department for Work and Pensions. Social relationships between the observer and the observed ought to be assessed when performing any type of social analysis and especially when there may be a perceived imbalanced power relationship between an organisation and the respondents, in any research that they conduct or commission.

Given the punitive nature of welfare policies, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which fear of reprisal may have influenced peoples’ responses, regardless of how many reassurances participants were given regarding anonymity in advance. 

The important bit about sampling practices: the changed sampling criteria impacted the results

The report states clearly: “The proportion of Personal Independence Payment customers who were ‘very dissatisfied’ fell from 19 per cent to 12 per cent over the same period. 

Then comes the killer: “This is likely to be partly explained by the inclusion in the 2014/15 sample of PIP customers who had a new claim disallowed who have not been sampled for the study since 2015/16. This brings PIP sampling into line with sampling practises for other benefits in the survey.

In other words, those people with the greatest reason to be very dissatisfied with their contact with the Department for Work and Pensions  – those who haven’t been awarded PIP or ESA, for example – are not included in the survey. 

This introduces a problem in the survey called sampling bias. Sampling bias undermines the external validity of a survey (the capacity for its results to be accurately generalised to the entire population, in this case, of those claiming PIP and ESA). Given that people who are not awarded PIP and ESA make up a significant proportion of the PIP customer population who have registered for a claim, this will skew the survey result, slanting it towards positive responses.

Award rates for PIP (under normal rules, excluding withdrawn claims) for new claims are 46 per cent. However, they are higher for one group –  73 per cent for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reassessment claims. This covers PIP awards made between April 2013 and October 2016. Nearly all special rules (for those people who are terminally ill) claimants are found eligible for PIP. 

If an entire section of the PIP claimant population are excluded from the sample, then there are no adjustments that can produce estimates that are representative of the entire population of PIP claimants.

The same is true of the other groups of claimants. If those who have had a new claim disallowed (and again, bearing in mind that only 46 per cent of those new claims for PIP resulted in an award), then that excludes a considerable proportion of claimants registering across all types of benefits who were likely to have registered a lower level of satisfaction with the Department because their claim was disallowed. This means the survey cannot be used to accurately track the overall performance of the Department or monitor in terms of whether it is fulfilling its customer charter commitments. The survey excludes the possibility for monitoring and scrutinising Department decision-making and clamaint outcomes when the decision reached isn’t in the claimant’s favour..

The report clearly states: “There was a revision to sample eligibility criteria in 2014/15. Prior to this date the survey included customers who had contacted DWP within the past 6 months. From 2014/15 onwards this was shortened to a 3 month window. This may also have impacted on trend data.” 

We have no way of knowing why those peoples’ claim was disallowed. We have no way of knowing if this is due to error or poor administrative procedures within the Department. If the purpose of a survey like this is to produce a valid account of levels of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the Department, then it must include a representative sample of all of those ‘customers’, and include those whose experiences have been negative.

Otherwise the survey is reduced to little more than a PR exercise for the Department. 

The sampling procedure is therefore a way of only permitting an unrepresentative  sample of people to participate in a survey, who are likeliest to produce the most positive responses, because their experiences have been of a largely positive outcome within the survey time frame. If those who have been sanctioned are also excluded across the sample, then this will also hide the experiences and comments of those most adversely affected by the Department’s policies, decisions and administration procedures, again these are claimants who are the likeliest to register their dissatisfaction in the survey. 

Measurement error occurs when a survey respondent’s answer to a survey question is inaccurate, imprecise, or cannot be compared in any useful way to other respondents’ answers. This type of error results from poor question wording and questionnaire construction. Closed and directed questions may also contribute to measurement error, along with faulty assumptions and imperfect scales. The kind of questions asked may also have limited the scope of the research.

For example, there’s a fundamental difference in asking questions like “Was the advisor polite on the telephone?” and “Did the decision-maker make the correct decision about your claim?”. The former generates responses that are relatively simplistic and superficial, the latter is rather more informative and tells us much more about how well the DWP fulfils one of its key functions, rather than demonstrating only how politely staff go about discussing claim details with claimants. 

This survey is not going to produce a valid range of accounts or permit a reliable generalisation regarding the wider populations’ experiences with the Department for Work and Pensions. Nor can the limited results provide meaningful conclusions to inform a genuine learning opportunity and support a committment to improvement for the Department.

With regard to the department’s Customer Charter, this survey does not include valid feedback and information regarding this section in particular:

Getting it right

We will:
• Provide you with the correct decision, information or payment
• Explain things clearly if the outcome is not what you’d hoped for
• Say sorry and put it right if we make a mistake 
• Use your feedback to improve how we do things

One other issue with the sampling is that the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) groups were overrepresented in the cohort. 

The sample was intentionally designed to overrepresent these groups in order to allow “robust quarterly analysis of these benefits”, according to the report. However, because a proportion of the cohort – those having their benefit disallowed – were excluded in the latest survey and not the previous one, so cross comparision and establishing trends over time is problematic. 

Kantar do say: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

With regard to my previous point, Kantar also say: “Please also note that there was a methodological change to the way that Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment customers were sampled in 2015/16 which means that for these benefits results for 2015/16 are not directly comparable with previous years.” 

And: “As well as collecting satisfaction at an overall level, the survey also collects data on customers’ satisfaction with specific transactions such as ‘making a claim’, ‘reporting  a change in circumstances’ and ‘appealing a decision’ (along with a number of other transactions) covering the remaining aspects of the DWP Customer Charter.These are not covered in this report, but the data are presented in the accompanying data tabulations.” 

The survey also covered only those who had been in touch with DWP over a three month period shortly prior to the start of fieldwork. As such it is a survey of contacting customers rather than all benefits customers.

Again it is problematic to make inferences and generalisations about the levels of satisfaction among the wider population of claimants, based on a sample selected by using such a narrow range of characteristics.

The report also says: “Parts of the interview focus on a specific transaction which respondents had engaged in (for example making a claim or reporting a change in circumstances). In cases where a respondent had been involved in more than one transaction, the questionnaire prioritised less common or more complex transactions. As
such, transaction-specific measures are not representative of ALL transactions conducted by DWP”.

And regarding subgroups: “When looking at data for specific benefits, the base sizes for benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance (circa 5,500) are much larger than those for benefits such as Carer’s Allowance and Attendance Allowance (circa 450). As such, the margins of error for Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance are smaller than those of other benefits and it is therefore possible to identify relatively small changes as being statistically significant.”

Results from surveys are estimates and there is a margin of error associated with each figure quoted in this report. The smaller the sample size, the greater the uncertainty.

In fairness, the report does state: “In the interest of avoiding misinterpretation, data with a base size of less than 100 are omitted from the charts in this report.” 

On non-sampling error, the report says: “Surveys depend on the responses given by participants. Some participants may answer questions inaccurately and some groups of respondents may be more likely to refuse to take part altogether. This can introduce biases and errors. Nonsampling error is minimised by the application of rigorous questionnaire design, the use of skilled and experienced interviewers who work under close supervision  and rigorous quality assurance of the data.

Differing response rates amongst key sub-groups are addressed through weighting. Nevertheless, it is not possible to eliminate non-sampling error altogether and its impact cannot be reliably quantified.”

As I have pointed out, sampling error in a statistical analysis may also arise from the unrepresentativeness of the sample taken. 

The survey response rates were not discussed either. In the methodological report, it says: “In 2015/16 DWP set targets each quarter for the required number of interviews  for each benefit group to either produce a representative proportion of the benefit group in the eventual survey or a higher number of interviews for sub-group analysis where required. It is therefore not strictly appropriate to report response rates as fieldwork for a benefit group ceased if a target was reached.” 

The Government says:This research monitors claimants’ satisfaction with DWP services and ensures their views are considered in operational and policy planning.” 

Again, it doesn’t include those claimants whose benefit support has been disallowed. There is considerable controversy around disability benefit award decisions (and sanctioning) in particular, yet the survey does not address this important issue, since those experiencing negative outcomes are excluded from the survey sample. We know that there is a problem with the PIP and ESA benefits award decision-making processes, since a significant proportion of those people who go on to appeal DWP decisions are subsequently awarded their benefit.

The DWP, however, don’t seem to have any interest in genuine feedback from this group that may contribute to an improvement in both performance and decision-making processes, leading to improved outcomes for disabled people.

Last year, judges ruled 14,077 people should be given PIP against the government’s decision not to between April and June – 65 per cent of all cases.  The figure is higher still when it comes to ESA (68 per cent). Some 85 per cent of all benefit appeals were accounted for by PIP and ESA claimants.

The system, also criticised by the United Nations because it “systematically violates the rights of disabled persons”, seems to have been deliberately set up in a way that tends towards disallowing support awards. The survey excluded the voices of those people affected by this government’s absolute callousness or simple bureaucratic incompetence. The net effect, consequent distress and hardship caused to sick and disabled people is the same regardless of which it is.

Given that only 18 per cent of PIP decisions to disallow a claim are reversed  at mandatory reconsideration, I’m inclined to think that this isn’t just a case of bureaucratic incompetence, since the opportunity for the DWP to rectify mistakes doesn’t result in subsequent correct decisions, in the majority of cases, for those refused an award. 

Without an urgent overhaul of the assessment process by the Government, the benefit system will continue to work against disabled people, instead of for them.

The Government claim: “The objectives of this research are to:

  • capture the views and experiences of DWP’s service from claimants, or their representatives, who used their services recently
  • identify differences in the views and experiences of people claiming different benefits
  • use claimants’ views of the service to measure the department’s performance against its customer charter”

The commissioned survey does not genuinely meet those objectives.

                                         

There is an alternative reality being presented by the other side. The use of figures diminishes disabled peoples’ experiences.”

You can read my full analysis of the survey here: A critique of the government’s claimant satisfaction survey

 


 

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From the abstract to the concrete: urban design as a mechanism of behaviour change and social exclusion

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I rarely venture into large retail areas and shopping centres. They make me feel unwell. I’m rather claustrophobic to begin with. I also have lupus, one of my symptoms is a quite extreme photosensitivity. The lighting in these places quite often triggers an attack of vertigo, nausea, incapacitating disorientation, co-ordination difficulties, muscle rigidity, temporary and severe visual distortions and a very severe headache.

However, I visited one recently with a friend, who was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. He promised we would visit just two shops, and that our visit would be over quickly.

What struck me straight away is how much retail design is now just about revenue-producing. Shopping malls are unforgiving, soulless and unfriendly places. I was reminded of something I read by David Harvey, about the stark reality of shrinking, privatised and devalued public spaces. Neoliberal marketisation has manifested ongoing conflicts over public access to public space, where profiteering reigns supreme.

My experience of a shopping mall was deeply alienating and physically damaging. It brought with it a recognition of how some groups of people are being coerced and physically situated in the world – how citizens think and act is increasingly being determined by ‘choice architecture’ –  which is all-pervasive: it’s situated at a political, economic, cultural, social and material level. Hostile architecture – in all of its forms – is both a historic and contemporary leitmotif of hegemony. 

Architecture, in both the abstract and the concrete, has become a mechanism of asymmetrically changing citizens’ perceptions, senses, choices and behaviours – ultimately it is being used as a means of defining and targeting politically defined others, enforcing social exclusion and imposing an extremely authoritarian regime of social control. 

Citizens targeted by a range of ‘choice architecture’ as a means of fulfiling a neoliberal ‘behavioural change’ agenda (aimed at fulfiling politically defined neoliberal ‘outcomes’) are those who are already profoundly disempowered and, not by coincidence, among the poorest social groups. The phrase choice architecture implies a range of offered options, with the most ‘optimal’ (defined as being in our ‘best interest’) highlighted or being ‘incentivised’ in some way. However, increasingly, choice architecture is being used to limit the choices of those who already experience heavy socioeconomic and political constraints on their available decision-making options. 

The shopping mall made me ill very quickly. Within minutes the repulsive lighting triggered an attack of vertigo, nausea, co-ordination and visual difficulties. I looked for somewhere to sit, only to find that the seating was not designed for actually sitting on. 

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The public seating that’s just a prop.

This radically limited my choices. In order to sit down to recover sufficiently to escape the building, the only option I had was to buy a drink in a cafe, where the seating is rather more comfortable and fulfils its function. I needed to sit down in order to muster myself to head for the exit, situated at the other end of the building. 

At this point it dawned on me that the hostile seating also fulfils its function. In my short visit, I had been ushered through the frightfully cold, clinical and unfriendly building, compelled to make a purchase I didn’t actually want and then pretty much rudely ejected from the building. It wasn’t a public space designed for me. Or for the heavily pregnant woman who also needed to sit for a while. It didn’t accommodate human diversity. It didn’t extend a welcome or comfort to all of its guests. The functions and comforts of the building are arranged to be steeply stratified, reflecting the conditions of our social reality. The only shred of comfort it offered me was conditional on making a purchase.

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When the purpose of public seating isn’t taking the weight off your feet and providing rest.

Urbanomics and the cutting edge of social exclusion: what is ‘defensive architecture’ defending?

Social exclusion exists on multiple levels. The distribution of wealth and power, access to citizenship rights and freedoms, political influence and consideration are a few expressions of inclusion or exclusion. It also exists and operates in time and space – in places. 

Our towns and cities have also increasingly become spaces that communicate to us who ‘belongs’ and who isn’t welcome. From gated communities and the rise of private policing, surveillance and security to retail spaces designed to fulfil pure profiteering over human need, our urban spaces have become extremely anticommunal; they are now places where an exclusive social-spatial order is being defined and enforced. That order reflects and contains the social-economic order.

Retail spaces are places of increasing psychological and sensual manipulation and control. Hostile architecture is designed and installed to protect the private interests of the wealthy, propertied class in upmarket residential areas and to protect the private profiteering interests of the corporate sector in retail complexes.

The very design of our contemporary cities reflects, directs and amplifies political and social prejudices, discrimination and hostility toward marginalised social groups. Hostile architectural forms prevent people from seeking refuge and comfort in public spaces. Places that once reflected human coexistence are being encroached upon, restrictions are placed on access and limits to its commercial usage, demarcating public and private property and permitting an unrestrained commodification of urban spaces and property.

In 2014, widespread public outrage arose when a luxury London apartment building installed anti-homeless spikes to prevent people from sleeping in an alcove near the front door. The spikes, which were later removed following the public outcry, drew public attention to the broader urban phenomenon of hostile architecture.

Anti-homeless spikes in London

Dehumanising ‘defensive architecture’ – ranging from benches in parks and bus stations that you can’t actually sit on, to railings that look like the inside of iron maidens, to metal spikes that shriek ‘this is our private space, go away’ – is transforming urban landscapes into a brutal battleground for the haves and socioeconomically excluded have-nots. The buildings and spaces are designed to convey often subtle messages about who is welcome and who is not.

Hostile architecture is a form of urban design that aims to prevent people from lingering in public spaces. The anti-homeless spikes here, for example, were installed to deter beggars and those sleeping rough.

Hostile architecture is designed and installed to target, frustrate deter and ultimately exclude citizens who fall within ‘unwanted’ demographics.

Although many hostile architecture designs target homeless people, there are also a number of exclusion strategies aimed at deterring congregating young people, many of these are less physical or obvious than impossibly uncomfortable seating, which is primarily designed and installed to prevent homeless people from finding a space to sleep or rest. However, the seating also excludes others who may need to rest more frequently, from sitting comfortably – from pregnant women, nursing mothers with babies and young children to those who are ill, elderly and disabled citizens.

Some businesses play classical music as a deterrent – based on an assumption that young people don’t like it. Other sound-based strategies include the use of high-frequency sonic buzz generators (the ‘mosquito device’meant to be audible only to young people under the age of 25.

Some housing estates in the UK have also installed pink lighting, aimed at highlighting teenage blemishes, and deterring young males, who, it is assumed, regard pink ‘calming’ light as ‘uncool’. There is little data to show how well these remarkably oppressive strategies actually work. Nor is anyone monitoring the potential harm they may cause to people’s health and wellbeing. Furthermore, no-one seems to care about the psychological impact such oppressive strategies have on the targeted demographics –  the intended and unintended consequences for the sighted populations, and those who aren’t being targeted.

                   Blue lighting in public toilets via Unpleasant Design

Blue lighting has been used in public toilets to deter intravenous drug users; the colour allegedly makes it harder for people to locate their veins. It was claimed that public street crime declined in Glasgow, Scotland following the installation of blue street lights, but it’s difficult to attribute this effect to the new lighting. Blue may have calming effects or may simply (in contrast to yellow) create an unusual atmosphere in which people are uncomfortable – actingout or otherwise. So questions remain about causality versus correlation. Again, no-one is monitoring the potential harm that such coercive strategies may cause. Blue light is particularly dangerous for some migraine sufferers and those with immune-related illnesses, for example, and others who are sensitive to flickering light. 

Hostile architecture isn’t a recent phenomenon

Charles Pierre Baudelaire wrote a lot about the transformation of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. For example, The Eyes of the Poor captures a whole series of themes and social conflicts that accompanied the radical re-design of Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann‘s controversial programme of urban planning interventions.

Baron Haussmann was considered an arrogant, autocratic vandal by many, regarded as a sinister man who ripped the historic heart out of Paris, driving his boulevards through the city’s slums to help the French army crush popular uprisings. Republican opponents criticised the brutality of the work. They saw his avenues as imperialist tools to neuter fermenting civil unrest in working-class areas, allowing troops to be rapidly deployed to quell revolt. Haussmann was also accused of social engineering by destroying the economically mixed areas where rich and poor rubbed shoulders, instead creating distinct wealthy arrondissements.

Baudelaire opens the prose by asking his lover if she understands why it is that he suddenly hates her. Throughout the whole day, he says, they had shared their thoughts and feelings in the utmost intimacy, almost as if they were one. And then:

“That evening, feeling a little tired, you wanted to sit down in front of a new cafe forming the corner of a new boulevard still littered with rubbish but that already displayed proudly its unfinished splendors. The cafe was dazzling. Even the gas burned with all the ardor of a debut, and lighted with all its might the blinding whiteness of the walls, the expanse of mirrors, the gold cornices and moldings…..nymphs and goddesses bearing on their heads piles of fruits, pates and game…..all history and all mythology pandering to gluttony.

On the street directly in front of us, a worthy man of about forty, with tired face and greying beard, was standing holding a small boy by the hand and carrying on his arm another little thing, still too weak to walk. He was playing nurse-maid, taking the children for an evening stroll. They were in rags. The three faces were extraordinarily serious, and those six eyes stared fixedly at the new cafe with admiration, equal in degree but differing in kind according to their ages.

The eyes of the father said: “How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! All the gold of the poor world must have found its way onto those walls.”

The eyes of the little boy: “How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! But it is a house where only people who are not like us can go.”

As for the baby, he was much too fascinated to express anything but joy – utterly stupid and profound. 

Song writers say that pleasure ennobles the soul and softens the heart. The song was right that evening as far as I was concerned. Not only was I touched by this family of eyes, but I was even a little ashamed of our glasses and decanters, too big for our thirst. I turned my eyes to look into yours, dear love, to read my thoughts in them; and as I plunged my eyes into your eyes, so beautiful and so curiously soft, into those green eyes, home of Caprice and governed by the Moon, you said:

“Those people are insufferable with their great saucer eyes. Can’t you tell the proprietor
to send them away?”

So you see how difficult it is to understand one another, my dear angel, how incommunicable thought is, even between two people in love.”

I like David Harvey‘s observations on this piece. He says “What is so remarkable about this prose poem is not only the way in which it depicts the contested character of public space and the inherent porosity of the boundary between the public and the private (the latter even including a lover’s thoughts provoking a lover’s quarrel), but how it generates a sense of space where ambiguities of proprietorship, of aesthetics, of social relations (class and gender in particular) and the political economy of everyday life collide.”  

The parallels here are concerning the right to occupy a public space, which is contested by the author’s lover who wants someone to assert proprietorship over it and control its uses.

The cafe is not exactly a private space either; it is a space within which a selective public is allowed for commercial and consumption purposes.

There is no safe space – the unrelenting message of hostile architecture

What message do hostile architectural features send out to those they target? Young people are being intentionally excluded from their own communities, for example, leaving them with significantly fewer safe spaces to meet and socialise. At the same time, youth provision has been radically reduced under the Conservative neoliberal austerity programme – youth services were cut by at least £387m from April 2010 to 2016. I know from my own experience as a youth and community worker that there is a positive correlation between inclusive, co-designed, needs-led youth work interventions and significantly lower levels of antisocial behaviour. The message to young people from society is that they don’t belong in public spaces and communities. Young people nowadays should be neither seen nor heard.

It seems that the creation of hostile environments – operating simultaneously at a physical, behavioural, cognitive, emotional, psychological and subliminal level – is being used to replace public services – traditional support mechanisms and provisions – in order to cut public spending and pander to the neoliberal ideal of austerity and ‘rolling back the state’. 

It also serves to normalise prejudice, discrimination and exclusion that is political- in its origin. Neoliberalism fosters prejudice, discrimination and it seems it is incompatible with basic humanism, human rights, inclusion and democracy.

The government are no longer investing in more appropriate, sustainable and humane responses to the social problems created by ideologically-driven decision-making, anti-public policies and subsequently arising structural inequalities – the direct result of a totalising neoliberal socioeconomic organisation.

For example, homeless people and increasingly disenfranchised and alienated young people would benefit from the traditional provision of shelters, safe spaces, support and public services. Instead both groups are being driven from the formerly safe urban enclaves they inhabited into socioeconomic wastelands and exclaves – places of exile that hide them from public visibility and place further distance between them and wider society. 

Homelessness, poverty, inequality, disempowerment and alienation continue but those affected are being exiled to publicly invisible spaces so that these processes do not disturb the activities and comfort of urban consumers or offend the sensibilities of the corporate sector and property owners. After all, nothing is more important that profit. Least of all human need.

Homelessness as political, economic and public exile

Last year, when interviewed by the national homelessness charity Crisis, rough sleepers reported being brutally hosed with water by security guards to make them move on, and an increase in the use of other ‘deterrent’ measures. More than 450 people were surveyed in homelessness services across England and Wales. 6 in 10 reported an increase over the past year in ‘defensive architecture’ to keep homeless people away, making sitting or lying down impossible – including hostile spikes and railings, curved or segregated, deliberately uncomfortable benches and gated doorways.

Others said they had experienced deliberate ‘noise pollution’, such as loud music or recorded birdsong and traffic sounds, making it hard or impossible to sleep. Almost two-thirds of respondents said there had been an increase in the number of wardens and security guards in public spaces, who were regularly moving people on in the middle of the night, sometimes by washing down spaces where people were attempting to rest or sleep. Others reported noise being played over loudspeakers in tunnels and outside buildings.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said he had been shocked by the findings. He said: “It’s dehumanising people. If people have chosen the safest, driest spot they can find, your moving them along is making life more dangerous. 

“The rise of hostile measures is a sad indictment of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. Having to sleep rough is devastating enough, and we need to acknowledge that homelessness is rising and work together to end it. We should be helping people off the streets to rebuild their lives – not just hurting them or throwing water on them.”

‘Defensive architecture’ is a violent gesture and a symbol of a profound social and cultural unkindness. It is considered, calculated, designed, approved, funded and installed with the intention to dehumanise and to communicate exclusion. It reveals how a corporate oligarchy has prioritised a hardened, superficial style and profit motive over human need, diversity, complexity and inclusion. 

Hostile architecture is covert in its capacity to exclude – designed so that those deemed ‘legitimate’ users of urban public space may enjoy a seemingly open, comfortable and inclusive urban environment, uninterrupted by the sight of the casualities of the same socioeconomic system that they derive benefit from. Superficially, dysfunctional benches and spikes appear as an ‘arty’ type of urban design. Visible surveillance technologies make people feel safe.

It’s not a society that everyone experiences in the same way, nor one which everyone feels comfortable and safe in, however.

Hidden from public view, dismissed from political consideration

Earlier this month, Britain’s statistics watchdog said it is considering an investigation into comments made by Theresa May following complaints that they misrepresented the extent of homelessness and misled parliament.

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) confirmed that concerns had been raised after the prime minister tried to claim in Parliament that ‘statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by over 50 per cent since then.’ Official figures show that the number of households in temporary accommodation stood at 79,190 at the end of September, up 65% on the low of 48,010 in December 2010. Liberal Democrat peer Olly Grender, who made the complaint, also raised concerns last year about the government’s use of the same statistics.

Grender said: “It seems particularly worrying, as we learn today of the increase in homelessness, that this government is still using spin rather than understanding and solving the problem.”

Baroness Grender’s previous complaint prompted UKSA to rebuke the Department for Communities and Local Government. The department claimed homelessness had halved since 2003 but glossed over the fact this referred only to those who met the narrow definition of statutory homelessness, while the overall number of homeless people had not dropped. 

May was accused of callousness when Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan recently raised questions about homelessness and the rise in food bank use. The prime minister responded, saying that families who qualified as homeless had the right to be found a bed for the night. She said: “Anybody hearing that

will assume that what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not.

“It is important that we are clear about this for all those who hear these questions because, as we all know, families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation.”

Finger wagging authoritarian Theresa May tells us that children in temporary accommodation are not waking up on the streets.

However, Matthew Downie, the director of policy at the Crisis charity for homeless people, said: “The issue we’ve got at the moment is that it’s just taking such a long time for people who are accepted as homeless to get into proper, stable, decent accommodation. And that’s because local councils are struggling so much to access that accommodation in the overheated, broken housing market we’ve got, and with housing benefit rates being nowhere near the market rents that they need to pay.”

He said that while May highlighted a decline in what is categorised as ‘statutory homelessness’, rough sleeping had increased by 130% since 2010.

The category of ‘statutory homelssness’ has also been redefined to include fewer people who qualify for housing support.

Last year, May surprisingly unveiled a £40 million package designed to ‘prevent’ homelessness by intervening to help individuals and families before they end up on the streets. It was claimed that the ‘shift’ in government policy will move the focus away from dealing with the consequences of homelessness and place prevention ‘at the heart’ of the government’s approach. 

Writing in the Big Issue magazine – sold by homeless people – May said: “We know there is no single cause of homelessness and those at risk can often suffer from complex issues such as domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues or redundancy.”

However, there are a few causes that the prime minister seems to have overlooked, amid the Conservative ritualistic chanting about ‘personal responsibility’ and a ‘culture of entitlement’, which always reflects assumptions and prejudices about the causal factors of social and economic problems. It’s politically expedient to blame the victims and not the perpetrators, these days. It’s also another symptom of failing neoliberal policies.

It’s a curious fact that wealthy people also experience ‘complex issues’ such as addiction, mental health problems and domestic abuse, but they don’t tend to experience homelessness and poverty as a result. The government seems to have completely overlooked the correlation between rising inequality and austerity, and increasing poverty and homelessness – which are direct consequences of political decision-making. Furthermore, a deregulated private sector has meant that rising rents have made tenancies increasingly precarious.

Last year, ludicrously, the Government backed new law to prevent people made homeless through government policy from becoming homeless. The aim is to ‘support’ people by ‘behavioural change’ policies, rather than by supporting people in material hardship – absolute poverty – who are unable to meet their basic survival needs because of the government’s regressive attitude and traditional prejudices about the causes of poverty and the impact of austerity cuts.

Welfare ‘reforms’, such as the increased and extended use of sanctions, the bedroom tax, council tax reduction, benefit caps and the cuts implemented by stealth through Universal Credit have all contributed to a significant rise in repossession actions by social landlords in a trend expected to continue to rise as arrears increase and temporary financial support shrinks.

Housing benefit cuts have played a large part in many cases of homelessness caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy, and made it harder for those who lost their home to be rehoused.

The most recent National Audit Office (NAO) report on homelessness says, in summary:

  •  88,410 homeless households applied for homelessness assistance
    during 2016-17 
  • 105,240 households were threatened with homelessness and helped to remain in their own home by local authorities during 2016-17 (increase of 63%
    since 2009-10) 
  • 4,134 rough sleepers counted and estimated on a single night in autumn
    2016 (increase of 134% since autumn 2010)
  • Threefold approximate increase in the number of households recorded
    as homeless following the end of an assured shorthold tenancy
    since 2010-11
  • 21,950 households were placed in temporary accommodation outside the local
    authority that recorded them as homeless at March 2017 (increase
    of 248% since March 2011)
  • The end of an assured shorthold tenancy is the defining characteristic of the increase in homelessness that has occurred since 2010

Among the recommendations the NAO report authors make is this one: The government, led by the Department [for Housing] and the Department for Work and Pensions, should develop a much better understanding of the interactions between local housing markets and welfare reform in order to evaluate fully the causes of homelessness.

Record high numbers of families are becoming homeless after being evicted by private landlords and finding themselves unable to afford a suitable alternative place to live, government figures from last year have also shown. Not that empirical evidence seems to matter to the Government, who prefer a purely ideological approach to policy, rather than an evidence-based one. 

The NAO point out that Conservative ministers have not evaluated the effect of their own welfare ‘reforms’  (a euphemism for cuts) on homelessness, nor the effect of own initiatives in this area. Although local councils are required to have a homelessness strategy, it isn’t monitored. There is no published cross-government strategy to deal with homelessness whatsoever. 

Ministers have no basic understanding on the causes or costs of rising homelessness, and have shown no inclination to grasp how the problem has been fuelled in part by housing benefit cuts, the NAO says. It concludes that the government’s attempts to address homelessness since 2011 have failed to deliver value for money.

More than 4,000 people were sleeping rough in 2016, according to the report, an increase of 134% since 2010. There were 77,000 households – including 120,000 children – housed in temporary accommodation in March 2017, up from 49,000 in 2011 and costing £845m a year in housing benefit. 

Homelessness has grown most sharply among households renting privately who struggle to afford to live in expensive areas such as London and the south-east, the NAO found. Private rents in the capital have risen by 24% since the start of the decade, while average earnings have increased by just 3%.

Cuts to local housing allowance (LHA) – a benefit intended to help tenants meet the cost of private rents – have also contributed to the crisis, the report says. LHA support has fallen behind rent levels in many areas, forcing tenants to cover an average rent shortfall of £50 a week in London and £26 a week elsewhere.  This is at the same time that the cost of living has been rising more generally, while both in-work and out-of-work welfare support has been cut. It no longer provides sufficient safety net support to meet people’s basic needs for fuel, food and shelter. 

It was assumed when welfare amounts were originally calculated that people would not be expected to pay rates/council tax and rent. However, this is no longer the case. People are now expected to use money that is allocated for food and fuel to pay a shortfall in housing support, and meet the additional costs of council tax, bedroom tax and so on. 

Local authority attempts to manage the homelessness crisis have been considerably constrained by a shrinking stock of affordable council and housing association homes, coupled with a lack of affordable new properties. London councils have been reduced to offering increasingly reluctant landlords £4,000 to persuade them to offer a tenancy to homeless families on benefits.

Housing shortages in high-rent areas mean that a third of homeless households are placed in temporary housing outside of their home borough, the NAO said. This damages community and family ties, disrupts support networks, isolates families and disrupts children and you people’s education.

London councils are buying up homes in cheaper boroughs outside of the capital to house homeless families, in turn exacerbating the housing crisis in those areas. 

Polly Neate, the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, said: “The NAO has found what Shelter sees every day, that for many families our housing market is a daily nightmare of rising costs and falling benefits which is leading to nothing less than a national crisis.”

Matt Downie, the director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said: “The NAO demonstrates that while some parts of government are actively driving the problem, other parts are left to pick up the pieces, causing misery for thousands more people as they slip into homelessness.”

Meg Hillier MP, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said the NAO had highlighted a ‘national scandal’. “This reports illustrates the very real human cost of the government’s failure to ensure people have access to affordable housing,” she added. 

More than 9,000 people are sleeping rough on the streets and more than 78,000 households, including 120,000 children, are homeless and living in temporary accommodation, often of a poor standard, according to the Commons public accounts committee.

The Committee say in a report that the attitude of the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to reducing homelessness has been ‘unacceptably complacent’.

John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said: “This damning cross-party report shows that the Conservatives have caused the crisis of rapidly rising homelessness but have no plan to fix it.

“This Christmas the increase in homelessness is visible in almost every town and city in the country, but today’s report confirms ministers lack both an understanding of the problem and any urgency in finding solutions.

“After an unprecedented decline in homelessness under Labour, Conservative policy decisions are directly responsible for rising homelessness. You can’t help the homeless without the homes, and ministers have driven new social rented homes to the lowest level on record.”

Surely it’s a reasonable and fundamental expectation of citizens that a government in a democratic, civilised and wealthy society ensures that the population can meet their basic survival needs. 

The fact that absolute poverty and destitution exist in a wealthy, developed and democratic nation is shamefully offensive. However, Conservatives tend to be outraged by poor people themselves, rather than by their own political choices and the design of socioeconomic processes that created inequality and poverty. The government’s response to the adverse consequences of neoliberalism is increasingly despotic and authoritarian.

The comments below from Simon Dudley, the Conservative Leader of the Maidenhead Riverside Council and ironically, a director of a Government agency that supports house building, (Homes and Community Agency (HCA)) reflect a fairly standardised, authoritarian, dehumanising Conservative attitude towards homelessness.

Note the stigmatising language use – likening homelessness and poverty to disease – an epidemic. Dudley’s underpinning prejudice is very evident in the comment that homelessness is a commercial lifestyle choice, and the demand that the police ‘deal’ with it highlights his knee-jerk authoritarian response:

Dudley uses the word ‘vagrancy’, which implies that it is the condition and characteristics of homeless people who causes homelessness, rather than social, political and economic conditions, such as inequality, low wages, austerity and punitive welfare policies. The first major vagrancy law was passed in 1349 to increase the national workforce and impose social control following the Black Death, by making ‘idleness’ (unemployment) and moving to other areas for higher wages an offence. The establishment has a long tradition of punishing those who are, for whatever reason, economically ‘inactive’: who aren’t contributing to the private wealth accumulation of others.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 is an Act of Parliament that made it an offence to sleep rough or beg. Anyone in England and Wales found to be homeless or begging subsistence money can be arrested. Though amended several times, certain sections of the original 1824 Vagrancy Act remain in force in England and Wales. It’s main aim was removing undesirables from public view. The act assumed that homelessness was due to idleness and therefore deliberate, and made it a criminal offence to engage in behaviours associated with extreme poverty. 

The language that Dudley uses speaks volumes about his prejudiced and regressive view of homelessness and poverty. And his scorn for democracy.

The 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act restricted the homeless housing requirements so that only individuals who were affected by natural disasters could receive housing accommodation from the local authorities. This was partly due to well-organised opposition from district councils and Conservative MPs, who managed to amend
the Bill considerably in its passage through Parliament, resulting in the rejection of many  homeless applications received by the local government because of strict qualifying criteria.

For the first time, the 1977 Act gave local authorities the legal duty to house homeless people in ‘priority’ need, and to provide advice and assistance to those who did not qualify as having a priority need. However, the Act also made it difficult for homeless individuals without children to receive accommodations provided by local authorities, by reducing the categories and definitions of ‘priority need’. 

Use of the law that criminalises homeless people may generally include:

  • Restricting the public areas in which sitting or sleeping are allowed.
  • Removing the homeless from particular areas.
  • Prohibiting begging.
  • Selective enforcement of laws.

Murphy James, manager of the Windsor Homeless Project, branded Cllr Dudley’s comments ‘disgusting’ and described the Southall accommodation offered by the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead as ‘rat infested’. 

He said: “It shows he hasn’t got a clue. He has quite obviously never walked even an inch in their shoes.

“It is absolutely disgusting he is putting out such an opinion that it is a commercial life choice.”

James added the royal wedding should not be the only reason for helping people on the streets.

“I am a royalist but it should have zero to do with the royal wedding,” he said.

“Nobody in this country should be on the streets.” 

Dudley should pay more attention to national trends instead of attempting to blame homeless people for the consequences of government policies, as many in work are also experiencing destitution.

This short film challenges the stereoytypes that Dudley presents. This is 21st century Britain. But still there are people without homes, still people living rough on the streets, including some who are in work, even some doing vital jobs in the public sector, low paid and increasingly struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Central government doesn’t keep statistics on the ‘working homeless’. But we do know that overall the number of homeless people is once again on the rise.

Meanwhile, figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request by the Liberal Democrats from 234 councils show almost 45,000 people aged 18-24 have come forward in past year for help with homelessness. With more than 100 local authorities not providing information, the real statistic could well be above 70,000.

As Polly Toynbee says: “Food banks and rough sleeping are now the public face of this Tory era, that will end as changing public attitudes show rising concern at so much deliberately induced destitution.”

While the inglorious powers that be spout meaningless, incoherent and reactionary authoritarian bile, citizens are dying as a direct consequence of meaningless, incoherent and reactionary Conservative policies.

 


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The Electoral Commission has opened yet another inquiry into Momentum’s election spending

The Electoral Commission has launched another investigation into whether campaign group Momentum breached rules on spending at the last General Election.


The Commission issued a statement, which says:

“The rules governing spending at UK Parliamentary general elections by permitted participants, including non-party campaigners, are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA).

The investigation will look at:

  • whether or not Momentum spent in excess of the spending limits for an unauthorised non-party campaigner in the UK Parliamentary general election;
  • whether or not Momentum submitted a return that did not include accurate donation information and/or the required declaration stating that the donation return was complete and accurate;
  • whether or not Momentum submitted a return that was not a complete statement of payments made in respect of controlled expenditure;
  • whether or not Momentum submitted a return that did not include all invoices for payments of more than £200.

It is possible that during the course of the investigation, the Commission will identify potential contraventions and/or offences under PPERA other than those set out above.

All the Commission’s investigations are conducted in accordance with our Enforcement Policy.”

Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s Director of Political Finance and Regulation and Legal Counsel, said:

“Momentum are a high profile active campaigning body. Questions over their compliance with the campaign finance rules at June’s general election risks causing harm to voters’ confidence in elections. There is significant public interest in us investigating Momentum to establish the facts in this matter and whether there have been any offences.

“Once complete, the Commission will decide whether any breaches have occurred and, if so, what further action may be appropriate, in line with its enforcement policy.”

Rules for non-party campaigners

Rules have been in place since 2000 for all campaigners that spend money on regulated campaigning activities. These rules include campaigners and campaigning organisations which are not political parties but whose activities can be reasonably regarded as intending to influence voters in the run-up to an election.

The law enables non-party campaigners which wish to undertake ‘targeted spending’ – intended to influence people to vote for one particular registered political party or any of its candidates – to do so within prescribed spending limits. These are £31,980 in England; £3,540 in Scotland; £2,400 in Wales; and £1,080 in Northern Ireland. These limits apply during the regulated period which is 9 June 2016 to 8 June 2017.

Registered non-party campaigners are only entitled to spend above these limits if they have the authorisation of the political party that they are promoting. If that party provides authorisation, the registered non-party campaigner can spend up to the limit authorised by the political party. It is an offence to spend above the statutory limits without the party’s authorisation. Should the party provide authorisation for a higher spending limit, any spending by that non-party campaigner up to that limit would count towards the party’s national spending limit.

A spokesperson for Momentum said: “Momentum put a lot of effort and resources into detailed budgeting and financial procedures during the election to ensure full compliance.

“Our election campaign was delivered on a low budget because it tapped into the energy and enthusiasm of tens of thousands of volunteers across the country.

“Much of the Electoral Commission investigation refers to administrative errors that can be easily rectified. We have a good working relationship with the Electoral Commission, and will fully comply with the investigation going forward.”

Momentum have been under almost continuous investigation since 2015, following various complaints ranging from data mining to sending unsolicited emails. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), however, found no evidence to substantiate what was a handful of complaints. A disclosure from the ICO states: 

The ICO made enquiríes around Momentum using personal data to contact Labour part members following a small number of complaints December 2O15.

We did not find any breach of the Data Protection Act. 

Consequently there is no strong evidence in this case to indicate that Momentum has breached the DPA. We do not, therefore, intend to look further into this concern unless you can provide some evidence to indicate that Momentum did in fact obtain your personal data from the Labour Party. 

We are aware of media reports about this matter but the ICO works on the basis of evidence and to date we have not been provided with any such evidence. I should also explain that we do not have any wider concerns about Momentum’s information rights practice at this point. Therefore we have not raised your concern with Momentum on this occasion and are not taking any further action in relation to your concern.

However, your concern will be kept on file and this will help us over time to build a picture of Momentum’s information rights practices.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.
Yours sincerely
Joy Corne
Lead Case Officer
Information Commissioner’s Office.

Following the General Election in July, the Electoral Commission highlighted “troubling” reports that a number of people (students) had voted twice in the election, saying evidence had emerged of people admitting to the offence online. 

An election analyst had cast doubt over claims that some Conservatives could have lost their seats in the General Election due to double-voting by students. 

More than 1,000 emails were sent to the watchdog by members of the public over the issue, while 38 Conservative MPs also complained about the alleged crimes. Of course the Commission found no evidence of double-voting.

It’s as if the Conservatives deliberately refuse to understand that some people don’t want to vote for them, especially groups that have been targeted for draconian Conservative policies. The Tories have not been kind to young people.

The Conservatives also have longstanding form in smearing and discrediting their opponents in the most outrageous manner. Disabled people can testify to that. As can jeremy Corbyn. Just a glance at the right-wing press tells you all you need to know about Conservative rumour-mongering, lies and utterly psychopathic ruthlessness.

Here is the outcome of a previous ECO inquiry:


Most media outlets have reported this second inquiry. The timing certainly draws a little fire away from the current catastrophic punch-drunk and incoherent stumblings of the Government. I predict that once the media have finished beating their drums, the matter will simply vanish from the public news radar, finally coming to rest in that graveyard where all dead cat strategies end up bouncing to. 

It’s in a tiny village in a City called ‘distraction’, a called ‘no evidence’ , where people speak the language misdirection.

Related

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

 


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Work as a health outcome, making work pay and other Conservative myths and magical thinking

Originally I wrote much of this in a very long article about Unum’s involvement in the government’s Work, Health and disability Green Paper, earlier this year. Sometimes, though, some points get lost in the volume of other issues raised, so I thought I would make sure these particular issues have more visibility in this shorter article.

There is plenty of evidence that indicates government policy is not founded on empirical evidence, but rather, it is ideologically framed, and often founded on deceitful contrivance. A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

So a political decision was made that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for their health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) by “helping” them into work.

Another government document from 2014 – Psychological Wellbeing and Work – says: We know that being in work is good for wellbeing and that mental health problems are an increasing issue for the nation and so the Minister for Welfare Reform and the Minister for Care and Support jointly sought to expand the evidence base on common mental health problems.  

A number of Government programmes assess and support those with mental health difficulties to work, but it is internationally recognised that the evidence base for successful interventions is limited. 

The Contestable Policy Fund gives ministers alternative avenues to explore new thinking and strategies that offer cross-Government benefits. This report was commissioned through this route.” 

And: “Within the time and resources available for this study the research team did not undertake extensive assessment of the quality of the evidence base (eg assessing the research design and methodology of previous studies)”

The government have gone on to declare with authoritarian flourish that they now want to reinforce their proposal that “work is a health outcome.” Last year, a report by the Mental Health Task Force and chaired by Mind’s Paul Farmer, recommended that employment should be recognised as a “health outcome”.  I’m just wondering how people with, say, personality disorders, or psychosis are suddenly going to overcome the nature of their condition and successfully hold down a job for a minimum of six months.

Mind those logical gaps… 

This has raised immediate concerns regarding the extent to which people will be pushed into work they are not able or ready to do, or into bad quality, low paid and inappropriate work that is harmful to them, under the misguided notion that any work will be good for them in the long run.

The idea of the state persuading medical professionals to “sing from the same [political] hymn sheet”, by promoting work outcomes in health care settings is more than a little  Orwellian.

Gaslighting narrative has become common political practice. Sick and disabled people who have their lifeline support cut are being “supported” into work. People who are too ill to work are said to have “fallen out of employment”and “parked on benefits”, as if these are not rational decisions made by competent people who know that they cannot work any longer, and that quite often, to continue doing so would place themselves and/or others at risk.

Benefits are paid for by people when they work as a social security, for in case they encounter difficult times. People tend to claim what they need, rather than becoming “parked” on benefits.

The idea that work will somehow set us free from illness is a very dangerous one.

Conservative narratives are comprised of glib, intentionally misleading, disdainful and patronising language from an utterly ruthless elite running the country into the ground, leaving such an unkind and uncaring society for the next generation, with nothing left of the “from the cradle to the grave” provision that previous generations have relied on. 

Sick notes have been renamed “fit notes” and disability benefit is now “employment and support allowance”, emphasising the linguistic behaviourism and ultimate priorities of a “small state” neoliberal government. 

Work is the only route out of poverty. If you can’t work, that’s just too bad.

Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose and security. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”.

For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to fulfill their broader aim of dismantling social security and to uphold their ideological commitment to supply-side policy.

From the first document“The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

Rather than make a link between manual work, lack of reasonable adjustments in the work place and the impact this may have on longer term ill-health, the government chose instead to promote the cost-cutting and unverified, irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome. Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

The fact that government policy papers lack coherence, consistent logic and rationale is very troubling, because it indicates plainly that government policy is being driven by assumption, prejudice and ideology.

The government mantra “making work pay” was nothing to do with improving falling or stagnating wages and job insecurity, or poor working conditions. It was all about making sure that the conditions attached to social security eligibility are so punitive and wretched that only those people who are absolutely desperate will put themselves through the harshly punitive and stigmatising claim and conditionality process.

“Making work pay” is really all about making social security appear unsustainable and untenable. It’s about a governments’ priorities and choices expressed in Orwellian soundbites. It’s about a “business friendly” government that will always make sure your employer makes a hefty profit at your expense. It’s about the introduction of ordeals in order to deter people from claiming the welfare support that they paid for, for when they need it. It’s ultimately about dismantling the gains of our post-war settlement. It’s about the neoliberal small state and Conservative dogma. 

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually downright dangerous.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are politically stigmatised and outgrouped. 

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

De-medicalising illness is also a part of that process:

“Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

This is the dangerous, irrational, savage and neoliberal mindset behind the cuts to disability support. Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – remedies to illness – are being redefined as “perverse incentives” for “sickness behaviours”, yet the symptoms of an illness necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties.

Notions of “rehabilitation” and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement, which the authors seem to have confused with punishment, will “cure” ill health. Imagine trying to sell the bordering-on-psychopathic idea that medicine provides perverse incentives which encourage “sickness behaviours” in patients to doctors, preventing them from recovering in a timely manner so they can promptly return to work.

I’m sure that oncologists everywhere will be relieved to see that their cancer patients simply needed to be told to pull themselves together, and that what they need is a stiff talking to, instead of the soft options entailing mollycoddling, chemotherapy and surgery. 

This is the same kind of thinking that lies behind the broader welfare sanctions, which are state punishments entailing the cruel removal of lifeline income for “non-compliance” in narrowly and rigidly defined “job seeking behaviours.” Sanctions are also described as a “behavioural incentive” to “help” and “encourage”people into work. People who are ill, it is proposed, should be sanctioned, too, which would entail having their lifeline basic health care and money for meeting their basic needs removed. 

Many qualitative accounts from first hand witnesses, extensive research and empirical evidence has repeatedly demonstrated that welfare sanctions make it less likely that people will find employment: taking essential support from people with very limited resources profoundly demotivates, distresses and harms people, rather than “incentivising” them to find work. (See also: Benefits sanctions: a policy based on zeal, not evidence and The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists.)

The darker meaning of David Cameron’s comments about “ending a culture of entitlement” back in 2010 has become clearer. He wasn’t only talking about perceived attitudes and referencing erroneous, unverified and unfounded notions of “welfare dependency”: his party’s aim was and still is about reducing public expectations of a supportive and rights-based relationship with the publicly funded state – one that has evolved from the post-war settlement to ensure that everyone in the UK can meet their basic human needs. It’s no coincidence that we have witnessed the savage reduction of social security and rationing within our national health care systems since 2010.

This government is serious threat to all of those institutions and public services that contribute to make us a civilised society. In 2017, I should not have to say that poor and ill people cannot be simply punished, bullied, harassed (or “nudged”) out of being poor or ill. As politically inconvenient as poverty and disability are, no amount of authoritarian state gaslighting, abuse, bullying and harassment will “cure” those of us afflicted with either. 

The government’s new behavioural medicine is rather old news, sociologists abandoned the sick role concept decades ago

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Behavioural medicine was significantly influenced by American sociologist Talcott Parsons’ The Social System,1951and his work regarding the sick role, which he analysed in a framework of citizen’s roles, social obligations, reciprocities and behaviours within a wider capitalist society, with an analysis of rights and obligations during sick leave.

From this perspective, which is an essentially socially conservative one, the sick role is considered to be sanctioned deviancewhich disturbs the function of society and the moral economy . (It’s worth comparing that the government are currently focused on economic function, enhancing the supply side of the labour market and the moral economy within a neoliberal framework.)

Behavioural medicine more generally arose from a view of illness and sick role behaviours as characteristics of individuals, and these concepts were imported from Functionalist sociological and sociopsychological theories.

However, perhaps it should be pointed out that there is a distinction between the academic social science disciplines, which include competing and critical perspectives of conflict and power, for example, and the recent technocratic “behavioural insights” approach to public policy, which is a monologue that doesn’t recognise the need for citizens’ democratic consent to behavioural change, nor does it recognise controversy or include critical analysis. It serves as prop for neoliberalism, conflating citizen’s needs and interests with narrow, politically defined economic outcomes. 

We have a government that has regularly misused concepts from psychology and sociology, distorting them to fit a distinct framework of ideology, and justification narratives for draconian policies. Parsons’ work has generally been defined as sociological functionalism, and functionalism tends to embody very conservative ideas. From this perspective, sick people are not productive members of society; therefore this deviation from the norm must be policed. This, according to Parsons, is the role of the medical profession.

More recently we have witnessed the rapid extension of this role to include extensive State policing of sick and disabled people.

It seems many of the so-called psychosocial model advocates have ignored the rise of  chronic illnesses and the pathologisation of everyday behaviours in health promotion. Parson’s sick role came to be seen as a negative referent (Shilling, 2002: 625) rather than as a useful interpretative tool. Parsons’ starting point is his understanding of illness as deviance.

Illness is the breakdown of the general “capacity for the effective performance of valued tasks” (Parsons, 1964: 262). Losing this capacity disrupts “loyalty” to particular social commitments in specific contexts such as the workplace.

Theories of the social construction of disability also provide an example of the cultural meaning of certain health conditions. The roots of this anti-essentialist approach are found in Stigma by sociologist Erving Goffman (1963), in which he highlights the social meaning physical impairment comes to acquire via social interactions.

The social model of disability tends to conceptually distinguish impairment (the attribute) from disability (the social experience and meaning of impairment). Disability cannot be reduced to a mere biological problem located in an individual’s body (Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare, 1999).

Rather than a “personal tragedy” that should be fixed to conform to medically determined standards of “normality” (Zola, 1982), disability becomes politicised. The issues we then need to confront are about the obstacles that may limit the opportunities for individuals with impairments, and about how those social barriers may be removed.

From a social constructionist perspective, emphasis is placed on how certain illnesses come to have cultural meanings that are not reducible to or determined by biology, and these cultural meanings further burden the afflicted (as opposed to burdening “the tax payer” , the health services, those with profit seeking motives, or the state.)

So to clarify, it is wider society and governments that need a shift in disabling attitudes, perceptions and behaviours, not disabled people.

The insights that arose from the social construction of disability approach are embodied in policies, which include the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which included an employers’ duty to ensure reasonable adjustments/adaptations; the more recent Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides an important tool for disabled people to use to challenge discrimination, violations to their human rights and unacceptable treatment.

In contrast, Parsons invokes a social contract (an idea which Cameron ran with when he described the “big society” with increased citizen responsibility) in which society’s “gift of life” is repaid by continued contributions and conformity to (apparently unchanging, non-progressive) social expectations.

For Parsons, this is more than just a matter of symbolic interaction, it has far more concrete, material implications: “honour” (deserving) and “shame” (undeserving) which accompany conformity and deviance, have consequences for the allocation of resources, for notions of citizenship, civil rights and social status.

Parsons, like the contemporary Conservatives, never managed to accommodate and reflect social change, suffering and distress, poverty, deprivation and conflict in his functionalist perspective. His view of citizens as oversocialised and subjugated in normative conformity was an essentially Conservative one. Furthermore, his systems theory was heavily positivistic, anti-voluntaristic and profoundly dehumanising. His mechanistic and unilinear evolutionary theory reads like an instruction manual for the neoliberal state.

Parsons thought that social practices should be seen in terms of their function in maintaining order and social structure. You can see why his core ideas would appeal to Conservative neoliberals and rogue multinational companies. Conservatives have always been very attached to tautological explanations (insofar that they tend to present circular arguments.

One question raised in this functional approach is how do we determine what is functional and what is not, and for whom each of these activities and institutions are functional. If there is no method to sort functional from non-functional aspects of society, the functional model is tautological – without any explanatory power to why any activity is regarded as “functional.” The causes are simply explained in terms of perceived effects, and conversely, the effects are explained in terms of perceived causes). 

Because of the highly gendered division of labour in the 1950s, the body in Parsons’ sick role is a male one, defined as controlled by a rational, purposive mind and oriented by it towards an income-generating performance. For Parsons, most illness could be considered to be psychosomatic.

This “mind over matter” dogma is not benign; there are billions of pounds and dollars at stake for the global insurance industry, which is set to profit massively to the detriment of sick and disabled people. And billions to be saved and redistributed to big business and to fund tax cuts for the wealthy from our increasingly rationed and rapidly disappearing social security and NHS.

The eulogised psychosocial approach is evident throughout the highly publicised UK PACE Trial on treatment regimes that entail Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and graded exercise. By curious coincidence, that trial was also significantly about de-medicalising illnesses. Another curious coincidence is that Mansel Aylward – who co-authored the document I cited earlier – sat on the PACE Trial steering group. 

From 1996 to April 2005 Aylward was Chief Medical Adviser, Medical Director and Chief Scientist of the UK Department for Work and Pensions and Chief Medical Adviser and Head of Profession at the Veteran’s Agency, Ministry of Defence. He was on the board of the Benefits Agency Medical Service in the 1990s.

He was involved in the establishment of the Work Capability Assessment test. When he left the department he headed the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, at Cardiff University,

Aylward has been heaviliy criticized for providing unwarranted academic credibility to the biopsychosocial model (with a heavy  emphasis on the “psychological” element) which became both the basis and justification for the Conservative government’s disability support cuts.

The government seem to have convinced themselves that for the poorest citizens, illness is all in the mind. Disability that entails additional needs and costs is really all about people simply conforming to roles, normative expectations, and academically constructed stereotypes.

For example, a contemporary interpretation of Parsons’ functionalist perspective of the sick role: “Diagnosis elicits the belief the patient has a serious disease, leading to symptom focusing that becomes self-validating and self-reinforcing and that renders worse outcomes, a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if the label is a biomedical one like ME. Diagnosis leads to transgression into the sick role, the act of becoming a patient even if complaints do not call for it, the development of an illness identity and the experience of victimization”. Simon Wessely and Marcus S.J. Huibers: The act of diagnosis: pros and cons of labelling chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychological Medicine 2006: 36

In 1993, Mansel Aylward invited psychiatrist Simon Wessely to give a presentation on his biopsychosocial approach to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome before the then Minister for Social Security. Wessely claimed:As regards benefits:- it is important to avoid anything that suggests that disability is permanent, progressive or unchanging. Benefits can often make patients worse.” 

Benefits can often make patients worse.” Ensuring that people can meet their basic survival needs is apparently a bad thing. Have you ever heard such utter nonsense?

It’s much more likely that patients who become more severely ill require welfare support. Despite there being no empirical evidence whatsoever for Wessely’s claims, the Minister for Social Security was looking to cut spending, so self-styled “experts” like Wessely and Aylward were more useful to an expedient government than rigorous research, empirical evidence and common decency.

I think it would be true to say that without social security, many people who are disabled because of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and other chronic illnesses that cause disability would experience MUCH worse symptoms,  and many would undoubtedly die without lifeline support to enable them to meet the cost of their basic survival needs. 

And actually, that is precisely what is happening in the 6th wealthiest, so-called democratic nation in the world. 

Image result for sick roleImage result for disability cuts causing death

Image result for disability cuts causing death


My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. But you can support Politics and Insights if you wish by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others.

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