There is more to welfare than a broken IT system


First published in Institute of Opinion

The implementation of the government’s Universal Credit, already proceeding ‘carefully’ according to welfare minister Lord Freud, is now slowing to a crawl with just one new area joining the scheme this month. By now it was supposed to be well on the way to a national roll-out. Instead, it continues to be dogged by the difficulties with the project mismanagement of an IT system subject to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office and the parliamentary public accounts committee.

So far just a few thousand people are claiming the new benefit that merges six means-tested working-age benefits and tax credits. It will, once it is eventually rolled-out across the country (still scheduled for 2017), affect something like 8 million households. One might reasonably ask whether it makes much sense spending tens of millions of pounds on a gigantic and failing technical solution to what is a deeply ingrained cultural (as much as an economic) problem? In order to ‘make work pay’ (let alone save a projected £38 billion), the government are going to need more than a computer system no matter how big or clever it gets; if they are going to undo the damage done by a welfare state that maintains millions of people, including entire communities, in a state of miserable, unproductive passivity. But it seems the critics too are missing this most fundamental of points

Despite one controversy after another about how ministers are calling benefit claimants names (‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’, etc); or how ‘the vulnerable’ are being victimised by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the work programme, and anything else to do with the reform of the welfare system; there is next to no debate about the underlying substantive issues. It is the implementation, not the rationale, of Universal Credit that comes in for most criticism. So not only have the critics delighted in anticipating the inevitable problems with the ‘over-ambitious’ IT system; they also like nothing more than to anticipate the inadequacies of the supposed beneficiaries of the shiny new benefit. It is outrageous to expect claimants to apply online because they just won’t understand it, or to expect them to get their money monthly (rather than weekly) because they are too feckless to manage it properly. Such are the arguments used by the supposed defenders of the welfare dependent.

Indeed what both sides seem to have in common is contempt for those entangled in the welfare net. While blaming welfare claimants for the mess won’t do, nor will the patronising words of commentators and lobbyists who worry over the inadequacies of those in need of little more than a job. For all the venom directed at benefit claimants on the one hand, and at incompetent political managerialists on the other; there is little prospect of an end to dependency and worklessness, or of the government’s failure to tackle it being properly exposed.  What is really outrageous is that rather than having an argument about the rights and wrongs of welfare, both sides are projecting the welfare problem onto the supposed deficiencies of individual claimants – whether they blame them or feel sorry for them.

Good Will Hunting After Savile Affair

First published in Huffington Post

Tis the season of good will. Or twas. I couldn’t help feeling that the sleigh bells rang a little hollower this time around. Not because Santas were getting the sack (ho! ho!) for not being CRB-checked. No, it was that confirmed child abuse paranoia would reach beyond Santa’s grotto.

When I objected in my previous two Huffington Postblogs to the damaging and misleading inflation of child abuse figures, I was told I was mistaken. Still, I maintain the figures routinely collected by children’s social services departments show that the apparent prevalence of abuse is a concoction of the over-active and rather twisted imaginations of lobbyists. My critics, apparently gobsmacked that nothing like 1 in 4 children are even at risk of being ‘abused’, cited a report by the House of Commons Education Committee coincidentally published the same day as my latest piece.

To be fair, they were only citing the report of a committee of our elected representatives who are presumably best placed to give the facts their full and dispassionate consideration. Except it chose to ignore the evidence from those social services departments and instead pursued its own account of ‘abuse’ as something that also includes ‘forced marriage, ritual abuse, female genital mutilation, so-called honour crimes and trafficking’. In a similar vein the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (OCCE) recently published their interim report . This no less dubious report into child sexual exploitation was at least greeted with criticism from the government to which it reports. Described as ‘hysterical and half-baked’ by an anonymous senior minister, that the government has hardly sought to calm down the hysteria or challenge the half-baked claims of the child abuse lobby to date is a moot point.

The claim that 16,500 children were at risk of sexual exploitation (and 2,409 actually ‘exploited’) – notice the shift away from the comparatively precise term ‘abuse’ – over a period of 14 months was always ludicrous. Especially when they too chose to ignore the already well established and far more reliable figures produced by local authorities e.g. that just 2,370 children were thought to be even at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. Like the Education Committee they too sought to include every bad thing a young person might experience ‘including running away, drug or alcohol misuse and criminality’ as an indicator of sexual exploitation. Indeed if any one child ran away, took drugs and got arrested, they would automatically be deemed to be at high risk of sexual exploitation!

But this is more than an abuse of statistics or a ‘methodological’ problem borne of the incompetence of the researchers at the OCCE. Those MPs didn’t make it up so much as draw on the assumptions of a culture that says all young people are ‘vulnerable’ in one way or another; that every experience no matter how normal – be it bullying or emigrating – is indicative of abuse; and that every relationship they enter into, with each other or with an adult, must necessarily be understood through the prism of abuse. Lobbyists and policy-makers just don’t seem to know where to draw the line any more either in terms of what is and isn’t abuse or in distinguishing what is normal from what is deviant from the norm. The Savile effect has only heightened this tendency.

It has, for instance, led to a 30% increase in calls to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. The Metropolitan Police – with a little help from its £2 million post-Savile Operation Yewtree, staffed by 30 officers – has reported a fourfold increase in allegations. The NSPCC is an organisation whose purpose seems to be to convince us – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that society is riddled with child abuse. So nor is it a surprise to here that it too reported a 200% increase in calls to its helpline following the Savile affair. It too, after all, is living all too enthusiastically off the corpses of dead MPs and entertainers to further its none-too-noble cause. Its new advert, calculated to capitalise on recent historical allegations, will ‘remind people that child abuse remains a widespread problem and children are still abused today’ says the charity.

Certainly it is this obsession with abuse today from the grotesque to the everyday – projected far enough backwards to be frankly pointless – that trivialises the experience of serious abuse. I shouldn’t need to qualify it of course. All abuse is serious isn’t it? Abuse is abuse as paedophile obsessives never tire of telling me. But what is abuse when it is so all encompassing? What good does exaggerating its prevalence do for those who really are being abused? Ironically it is those who abuse the notion of abuse that have a case to answer here. It is the irresponsibly hysterical commentators, lobbyists and policy-makers who see abuse everywhere that are really doing the real victims of abuse the most harm.


The all-enveloping politics of the flip-flop

Its hard to believe now but only two months ago the larger of the coalition partners was at its most popular. This was despite having been defeated in the House of Lords on five occasions over its welfare reform bill. Ed Miliband, far from being in cahoots as the coalition would have us believe in relation to the fuel crisis, was at loggerheads with Unite over its change of tac on public spending and support for a public sector pay freeze. Indeed, the opposition, to add yet more confusion to their position, were not even against the proposed benefit cap despite declaring themselves opposed to the reforms. As the Commons invoked its parliamentary privilege as the elected House over the appointees next door, it was a senior Labour Lord who complained that they were being ‘undermined’. Meanwhile Alastair Campbell was blaming the media for anti-welfare sentiment, and wondering out loud whether he should ask ‘Lord Justice Leveson to add even futher to his reading load’. So despite the shifting fortunes of an adrift administration, the flip-flopping elite-chasing antics in the Labour ranks mean they have little to fret about.

A Petrol Panic in a Jerry Can

I must confess I didn’t even know what a jerry can was until Francis Maude made his unhelpful intervention in a fuel crisis of the government’s own making. As commentators have said, it has not only been fanning the flames but lit the touch paper this time around. In an attempt to pin the blame on Unite and, by association, Labour, the government have quite irresponsibly got themselves in a spot of bother. Again. After the granny tax, pastygate and all that trouble about party funding, the coalition are having a bad time of it. But there is something else going on here. However accident-prone ministers have been, and however attributable the awful accident today to those ill-judged comments, what is being said here about us ordinary folk? The government have been talking up the threat of a strike because they are anxious managerial types and because they want to generate some political capital at the expense of their opponents. This has badly backfired. But regardless of this fear-driven politicking, people are well able to make up their own minds and the sense of panic is less apparent than we are being led to believe. Yes, there are more people than you’d usually expect at Homebase looking for the jerry can aisle. And there are, apparently, some queues at some petrol stations. But if the Sky News coverage from Kidderminster is anything to go by – you’d think I’d have better things to watch – the dominant mood is one of patient resignation not panic. While the motoring public are not immune to top-down scaremongering, what is of much greater concern is that this latest farce confirms once again that the coalition is already running on empty.

The other job

When an article in the Telegraph reports that even the United Nations has an obsession with the UK’s alleged gangs problem (see my latest Huffington Post) it seems there is nothing stranger than the world of social policy. Which is why, despite what I had to say about the ‘grey managerial world of local government‘, I can’t help but be intrigued by it all the same. So it might be worth mentioning that in addition to the day job I convene something called the Social Policy Forum at the Institute of Ideas. We’ve recently been busy making plans for the year ahead and collaborating on ‘Society Wars: The Battle for Social Policy’, a publication that will give a taster of the strand of debates we organised at the Battle of Ideas last year. We have also been thinking about how we might do things a little differently this year, especially with regards introducing our members to new writing and reports and upcoming meetings and events that we think might be of interest. Do drop me a line or post a comment if you’re interested in joining us. You can also visit our page here or join us on Facebook or Linkedin.