Thursday 26 January 2012

The independence of the civil service – where did it all go wrong?

Yesterday we learned that the head of the UK's statistics watchdog has written a rebuke to Iain Duncan Smith over his department's handling of statistics in the immigration and benefits issues that Chris Grayling tried to make headway with last week. To those of us who have been following the Welfare Reform bill, and the DWP's attempts to shove it through Parliament, this will come as no surprise. The Department has a policy of deliberate, calculated and persistent misrepresentation of what they are trying to do with the “reform” of benefits. Francesca Martinez's phrase “morally disabled” was never more apt.

Specifically Sir Michael Scholar, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, questioned the way figures on immigrants claiming benefits were released last week, with a pre-release briefing given by ChrisGrayling and Damian Green, making it clear that the release was intended to whip up concern about immigrants taking taxpayers' money, without telling the full story, e.g. that immigrants are half as likely to claim as indigenous Brits.

Acomment piece by Mark Easton adds some context to this:

The profound concerns of the UK Statistics Authority at this kind of ministerial behaviour are reflected in a lecture Sir Michael gave at Cambridge University last year. "There are strong forces at work," he told his audience at St John's College, "whose natural outcome is, I suggest, to demote rationality, analysis and the pursuit of knowledge within government."

Referring to "a new kind of departmental minister whose consuming interest is in what the next day's press will say", Sir Michael referred to Whitehall's "diminishing interest in analysis and enquiry, and, in the field of government information, a growing interest in the persuasive press release, with its careful selection of facts and numbers, designed to communicate as effectively as possible some predetermined message."

There was a time when we had a civil service that would give independent advice to ministers, including the kind they didn't like to hear. I'm not sure that that makes a great deal of difference to the ministers we have currently at DWP. I think Chris Grayling for one would dump on anybody he could find, regardless of any advice he got. But overall it does make a difference. Today's civil servants are less inclined to stand out for what's right in the face of what is politically expedient. They have been trained to do what the government of the day wants, and thereby I think we have lost something from government. It was not always like this. And I know when it changed.

It was in the first five years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Labour did more to bring in “advisers”, but the fundamental move was made by Margaret Thatcher, and it made a massive difference. The department then known as DHSS (Department of health and Social Security, aka Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, nothing much changes) used to (maybe it still does) run a summer school for non graduate employees who had shown themselves to be potential high fliers. It was held over a week at a Cambridge college. It was organised by an academic with the help of senior civil servants. Lots of academics and lots of senior civil servant attended, gave seminars, took part in question and answer sessions, chatted over meals, and generally gave the participants a magnificent experience of academic analysis and political discourse. They had a habit of inviting a few social workers. The employees were divided into groups for seminar work and each group got a social worker. Very few social workers in those days were interested in welfare rights. I was one of them and I was working in Cambridge at the time when Cambridgeshire were invited to nominate someone so I got to go to it. That was in 1979, after Margaret Thatcher had come to power but before she had had time to have much effect.

That summer school was one of the three best learning experiences of my life. The atmosphere was electric. The academics were people who understood the real world. The civil servants were absolutely top class, bright as buttons, brilliant speakers, knew their stuff backwards and – this is the key thing – were completely honest about the political process and how the wheels of government actually work. I remember in particular two people, an academic and a civil servant, discussing the way new benefits were introduced, telling us what everybody knew but nobody ever confessed to. They got guidelines from the treasury as to how much money they could spend and then crafted the benefit to spend that much money. (Back in those days there was NCIP - Non Contributory Invalidity Pension, and a special one for housewives HNCIP. HNCIP was brought in separately and it tested a woman's ability to do housework as well as ability to work. Yes shot through with sexism etc. They got the calculation wrong however, and the benefit proved to be too successful so the then minister Alf Morris laid amended regulations before Parliament to tighten up who could get it. He laid the regulations before Parliament during the summer recess so Parliament was unable to debate the change. Neat trick. Reminds me of that unsuccessfulbusinessman Lord Freud.)

I lived off that summer school for months. In fact for years. It brought me all sorts of insights at the political level, the social level, the academic level, even the personal level. It was a burst of sunshine in what was then an otherwise quite mundane life. But that was it for 1979. Fast forward five years. By 1984 I had moved to Sussex to continue my career as a social worker. It was East Sussex's turn to nominate a social worker to go to the summer school. East Sussex had as few social workers interested in welfare rights as Cambridgeshire had had. I was asked if I wanted to go. I said yes, of course, but I've already been once, surely somebody else should benefit. “Don't waste my time, you're going”, was the answer.

So I went back to Cambridge with high anticipation. And got one of the biggest disappointments of my life. The college was the same, the participants were the same, the academics were the same. But the civil servants had changed beyond recognition. They had all been got at by Thatcher by that time. Their job was no longer to tell the truth, their job was to defend and justify government policy. And they did it so enthusiastically that nobody dared put a foot wrong. The openness, the intellectual rigour, the brilliant honesty of the 1979 summer school were completely destroyed. There was an atmosphere even of intimidation around. At the 1979 summer school, the participants felt completely able to say provocative things and to ask potentially embarrassing questions. I say “potentially” - none actually was embarrassing because none of the senior civil servants there were afraid to tell the truth. At the 1984 school I heard participants say they weren’t going to say anything out of turn in case it damaged their careers or even possibly them staying in their job. I still got something from that summer school - the academics were just as high calibre. But my chief memory of it is the chill laid over the atmosphere by the attitude of the civil servants.

It was a big lesson to me in two ways. The first is that my business nowadays is, mostly, teaching people. This was the perfect, spine chilling, illustration of how debate and the growth of ideas can be choked at birth by a simple lack of openness, refusal to accept ideas beyond your narrow range of acceptability, and worse active opposition to ideas that don't chime with your own. The second is political. While the civil service still claims, and tries to maintain, some sort of independence from political authority, I have no doubt that the quality of advice that ministers get now is not as good, not as real, not as balanced, and, crucially, nowhere near as innovative as it would be if ministers of successive stripes had not made it clear what they did not want to hear. There is nothing as intellectually stifling as orthodoxy. And in Whitehall nowadays we have a massive orthodoxy in favour of surveillance government and private provision, which serves nobody well apart from politicians and captains of commerce.

As a postscript to the business of creating benefits, I was interested to see Lord Newton of Braintree, who introduced DLA in the 1990s describing the process in exactly the same way. (Look a bit more than halfway down that link.)  “What we did on that occasion was to cobble together a slightly curious construction based on the existing benefits of mobility allowance and attendance allowance using the maximum amount of money I could extract from the Treasury...” I'm sure that they still do it like that today. There's nothing wrong with that process, as long as it is carried out with fairness and with some intellectual rigour. What is wrong with the current process is that it is being carried through with secrecy, lies and deceit, and its purpose is to save money regardless of who suffers, and to create profit for a private company, again regardless of who suffers.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Spartacus – what next?

How best to help people make their circumstances known
There is still a campaign to run and there are things we can still win and things we can avoid losing.

Lord Freud made a number of concessions last night, and technically he must hold himself to those. But we know already that he is a master tactician and will use any means he can to get his way. I expect no less of the rest of the DWP. I'm not by any means an expert on Parliamentary procedure but I know enough to know that there are many ways to abide by the letter of the agreement but not its spirit. For instance, it is possible to lay regulations before Parliament when Parliament is not sitting. Thereby any possible debate on the regulations is avoided.

Who's with us?
Labour were in power till May 2010. Labour were responsible for the bankers contract with ATOS (whereby ATOS, like bankers, get rewarded whether they get things right or not). This government has continued and endorsed that contract. Labour started, albeit ineffectually, the strategy of identifying IB claimants as illegitimate and getting them back onto cheaper benefits. But we don't get anywhere by blaming Labour for what they did then. They are in opposition now. It is their job to hold the government to scrutiny, and they are doing that job. (You can argue about their effectiveness.) In my case I will be allying myself with my opposition, while still working within the ranks of my own party to secure a better deal for disabled people. I think, by the way, that this is part of a longer and wider campaign. The DWP has declared war on benefits. Their tactics are underhand, their morals odious, the links with UNUM which they refuse to divulge are – well, let's just say, dubious. It's no coincidence that while the Lords were trying to defend the livelihoods of disabled people, UNUM were advertising their insurance schemes on TV.

What do we do?
As I said, there are things we can win and things we can avoid losing. We know we have a deadline for consultation on PIP. We must work to that deadline. That involves starting as soon as possible and doing the following.

We should encourage as many people as possible to respond with individual accounts.
We have to be sensitive to what people are capable of doing, but I think that what is most useful at this stage is not statements of disagreement (which the DWP will just discount) but detailed statements about the effect the proposed arrangements for PIP will have. Template letters as such are a bone of contention. The DWP has admitted that they ignored the 2500 template letters they received. So would I. You don't measure template letters by the individual sentiment, you measure them by volume. If the DWP had received 100,000 template letters, they would have thought more. So the template letter as such may still have a role to play.

What might be more useful is a to offer people a template process. Disabled people should respond to the PIP consultation with the following:

a) an account of their disability and the effect it has on their life
b) if they have a fluctuating condition, an account of what they're like when high and low
c) their own assessment of what benefit they would get under the published PIP rules
d) a statement as to whether they would lose money and how much
e) a statement of the effect that would have – as specific as possible - what activities they would lose (in particular whether giving up - work might be forced on them), what opportunities they would have to forgo, exactly how their life would be made more difficult or more miserable.

The aim in my mind is to destroy the DWP's rationale that they will concentrate the benefit on what they call the most needy. If we can demonstrate with account after account that the 500,000 they plan to deny benefits are just as needy as the others, then their rationale disappears.

Anyone who does submit evidence should be encouraged to copy the evidence to their MP, thus building up a head of pressure.  Any action that results is likely to be behind the scenes as much as in front. We saw that in action last night. Officially the DWP won the debate. But they had been frightened enough by the reaction and the publicity that Spartacus gained to make a number of mollifying moves in order to head off rebellion. If we apply enough pressure, if we have enough MPs whispering, look this is a bit much, then the same sort of thing will happen again. The DWP will claim massive support for the proposed measures while quietly amending them in our direction.

People who submit evidence should also be encouraged to copy it to Spartacus – for which Spartacus will need a central collection point. The aim of this is not only so that we can see what is happening, but so that we are ready to contest any claims the DWP might make that the consultation was overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals. The figures will not add up, but if DWP say they've got 80% approval from 5000 submissions, and we say, well, we've got 95% disapproval from the 2000 we know about, then they'll be in difficulties.

We need a timetable, to work backwards from the 15 week deadline.
Last date for submission of responses
Deadline for preparing a report on our experience of the consultation process
Deadline for preparing press releases – calculating when the most effective day to release them is: it's not a day before the end ot the consultation. (I'm not criticising what has been done – I think it's great that so much was achieved, and with such effect. I just think there are things we can improve.)

Will somebody have the time, I would say around week 10, to collate the responses we see and pull out general points which can form the basis of a sort of meta-submission, or a press release?

Other issues
List the journalists who gave us favourable coverage and keep them informed of developments. We don't need to bombard them with details, but a note or two with case studies and actions so far keeps us in their mind.

The press release I saw about the original Spartacus report was great, but it was far too long. The DWP has become expert at writing press releases in such a way that its favourite tabloids can just lift the copy straight out of the press release onto the page, preferably with headline. We need to do the same. Write the press release they way you expect the paper to write it. Supporting documentation goes in notes or on web pages to which the press release gives links.

I have other ideas but I think that will do for now.

Monday 9 January 2012

Back to the 80s: #spartacusreport

Reading Responsible Reform today was like going back to the 80s, to the days when the government did its best to give a kicking to any poor, marginalised people it could think of (think Norman Tebbit). I have felt until now that this government is better than that, particularly with the LibDems in it to curb the worst excesses of right wing fervour. In some ways we have been pretty successful at that. We have won some and we have lost some. Unfortunately for some of the most marginalised people in the country, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been one place where we have failed – and it is becoming apparent that we have failed badly.

Partly the bad news emerging from the DWP is made worse by the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is in charge. Rightly or wrongly I have always felt that, although he's very right wing, he is a fundamentally decent man, and unlikely to emulate the worst habits of some of his predecessors. But that view is being rudely disturbed by the antics of his department.

For the entire length of this government Mr Duncan Smith and his department have been repeating that work is better than welfare, and that people who are in work are happier and healthier as well as better off than if they are on welfare. Nobody really disputes that. But they seem determined to make everyone work whether they are capable of it or not. And they also seem to think that the way to get people into work is to take their benefits away. (And that is even more remarkably silly when there is no work to be had.)

But the rhetoric has gradually (or perhaps not so gradually) shifted into a campaign of demonisation. People who cannot work are being labelled as scroungers. The language of the media and the language of politics has shifted subtly but definitely into a language of hatred. And the effects of this are evident in people's behaviour. Scope's press release last May “Deteriorating attitudes towards disabled people” shows that public attitudes to disabled people have worsened and even become more violent in recent times.

Not so long ago the DWP were roundly criticised by the Work And Pensions Committee for issuing misleading press releases which emphasised the number of people being found fit for work in Work Capability Assessments, despite the overall figures showing increasing numbers of people being found eligible for support and not for work. Mr Duncan Smith appeared to be quite unapologetic about effectively writing the Daily Mail's news items for it. He and his ministers claim that they can't be held responsible for what the press write – yes they can, if they are as selective and misleading as they have been about the statistics and cases they report in their own press releases. That is bad enough but the department's behaviour has worsened.

The report Responsible Reform was released today by a group of disabled people who used a Freedom Of Information Act request to obtain all the responses to the government's consultation on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the proposed move to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The move is a thinly disguised attempt to save 20% of the DLA bill by simply removing people from eligibility for it. The government issued its own summary of the consultation, which was highly selective about the way in which it reported the responses it had. Responsible Reform shows just how misleading the government's published response was. “Misleading” is almost the most used word in the forty page report. And we know that “misleading” is Parliamentary language for “lying”.

I urge you to read the report for yourselves. It can be downloadedhere. It may look like deathly boring statistical stuff but the accumulation of evidence about the responses themselves and about the government's systematically misleading response to the responses is, quite frankly, devastating. Forty pages takes quite a while though, so here are the main points:

  • the government asserts that disabled people support and are in agreement with their plans to replace DLA with PIP; analysis of the responses shows only 7% of organisations that took part in the consultation were fully in support.
  • There was overwhelming opposition in the consultation responses to nearly all of the government’s proposals for DLA reform.
  • The government claims there has been a 30% rise in DLA claims between 2002 and 2010. It uses this figure to justify the need to save money. Detailed analysis in Responsible Reform shows that this figure is entirely misleading. The government has actually admitted that it is misleading, and yet it continues to use it.
  • The report shows that nearly all of the recent increase in working-age claimants of DLA has been associated with mental health conditions and learning difficulties. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding those with mental health conditions and learning difficulties remained remarkably stable
  • 98% of those who responded opposed plans to change the qualifying period for PIP from three months (as it is with DLA) to six months
  • 90% opposed plans for a new assessment, which disabled people fear will be far too similar to the much-criticised work capability assessment used to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA)

There is a lot more, but what is most disturbing about the issues dealt with here is the systematic way the DWP set out to misrepresent the responses to it from disabled people and organisations. It is a modern manifestation of the nastiest Thatcherism of the 80s. Probably the nastiest part of the government's response has been in their attempt to find a "DLA factor". They claim that just having DLA inclines people not to work. (Find victims - then blame them.)  This starts from the observation that fewer disabled people in work claim DLA than disabled people out of work. (pp13 - 15 of Responsible Reform) So in the DWP's mind that must be because they are receiving DLA. It never occurs to them that disabled people receiving DLA might be more disabled than the disabled people who are not receiving DLA. It also never occurs to them that getting a job automatically triggers a review of DLA, with the possibility that it might be taken away; the way to get rid of that disincentive is to stop automatically reviewing DLA when a recipient takes up work. There are some cases where people believe that DLA is automatically removed if they get a job - it is not. DLA is awarded for disability, not for working status. The way to deal with that is to educate people not to blame them.

Responsible Reform has already been dubbed the Spartacus Report. Its reception on twitter can be followed with the hashtag #spartacusreport. There is a petition to sign:

Please let family, friends, colleagues, anyone you can think of know. Please write to your MP. Please do whatever you can.