Archive for the 'Social Policy' Category

The Tax Credits system needs fixing: addressing Universal Credit is not enough

Sam Royston, author of Broken benefits, argues that the government must reform the  flawed Tax Credits system before they can even begin to improve Universal Credit.

It is tempting to think that a “devastating picture of administrative chaos, computer errors and political misjudgements” in the social security system must be a reference to Universal Credit over the last few months. It well could be, but this is, in fact from George Osborne back in 2005 emphasising that problems with the Tax Credits system had become so serious he believed that there were serious questions over the future of the responsible Minister.

Many of the problems were to do with the way in which Tax Credits are calculated and paid. Whilst, as we shall see, many of the problems were addressed at the time, cuts to the benefits system mean that they have been rapidly re-emerging in recent years.

Why were Tax Credits such a mess when they were first introduced?

Tax Credits are an annual award – the total amount a claimant is entitled to is calculated for the whole year. However, people, and particularly those living on the lowest incomes, need to receive payments more frequently than once a year. For this reason, they are normally paid on a weekly or four weekly basis, based on an estimated entitlement for the whole of the year.

Since Tax Credits are means-tested, the claimant’s household earnings over the course of the year can affect the overall amount due – predicted annual entitlement is based on what the claimant thinks their income will be for the year.

“At the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.”

The difficulty arises at the end of the year, when the award amount is checked against the household’s actual income for the year. If the household’s income is lower than the estimate, then the award may have been underpaid and is topped up to the actual entitlement. If the household’s income is higher than the estimate, then this can result in the award being classed as overpaid and the government asking for some of the money back.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money – in 2004, at the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.

To reduce the likelihood of overpayments occurring, the Tax Credit system has a built in “buffer zone” (known as the “income disregard”) which means that a household’s income can rise by up to a given amount during a year without affecting their Tax Credit entitlement. In the mid 2000s, as a result of the amount of Tax Credits being overpaid, the government decided to increase the income disregard from £2,500 to £25,000. In effect this meant that if a claimant had been paid Tax Credits for a few months at the start of the year based on their previous year’s earnings of £10,000, and then changed job so that by the end of the year they had earned £35,000, their overall Tax Credit entitlement wouldn’t be affected.

Some overpayments are in fact impossible to avoid without a buffer zone – a household that has a low income for most of the year and then gets a sharp but unforeseeable increase in income may have already had more than their yearly entitlement before the rise in their income.

What’s gone wrong with welfare reform?

Despite this positive effect, following the 2010 election, the coalition government decided to reduce the size of the overpayments buffer zone – first from £25,000 to £10,000, and then to £5,000.

“They are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time.”

Astonishingly, the coalition government also decided to introduce the reverse of a buffer (an anti-buffer?) which disregarded falls in income of up to £2,500 from 2012. This means that when (for example) a worker sees their hours reduced so that they earn £2,500 less than they did the previous year, the earnings figure used to calculate Tax Credits is not immediately adjusted down. Instead they are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time when they are likely to be struggling.

As the income disregard has been reduced, overpayments (again, unsurprisingly) have increased. As large a proportion of Tax Credit claimants face overpayments than during the height of Tax Credit problems in 2005, with one in three claimants facing an overpaid award, and £1.6 billion of overpayments in 2015-16. This includes some exceptionally large overpayments – including around 50,000 families overpaid by more than £5,000.

Tax Credit awards overpaid as a proportion of total awards
2003/04 – 2015/16

awards-overpaid

In 2005 when these problems were first recognised, the then shadow (and later actual) Chancellor of the Exchequer called for the resignation of the Minister responsible. The response of the government was dramatic – not only did the Prime Minister apologise, but the large increase in the size of the income disregard was a direct response.

In 2015, when he himself was faced with a similar scale of problems within the system, the response of the Chancellor was to further reduce the level of the income disregard, back to the 2003-4 level of £2,500. We don’t yet know the impact that this will have on overpayments, but the Chancellor expects to save quarter of a billion pounds from this measure at its peak in 2018-19.

Giving credit where credit’s due

“It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system needs fixing.”

It is tempting to think of the Tax Credits system as a thing of the past, focussing instead on the profound mess which is being made of the introduction of Universal Credit. However, it is important to remember that more than 4 million families (with more than 7 million children), still rely on vital Tax Credits to make ends meet – and will do for the next few years at least.

Nor will these families escape their overpayments when they transfer over to Universal Credit – they will come with them and be automatically deducted from their Universal Credit entitlement.

It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system need fixing. For a Government which wants to improve the fairness and simplicity of the benefits system, removing vital income disregards which prevented families from falling into benefit debt is a move in entirely the wrong direction.

 

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Europe’s largest ghetto: squalor and violence in the shadows of Madrid

Welcome to Valdemingómez. Just 12km from Madrid, political neglect, spatial exclusion and social policy stagnation have created a lawless landscape of drugs and violence. Squalor and hopelessness reduce chances of a way out.

“Julia” nervously emerges from her shabby tent to face another day of survival: she is homeless, wanted by the police, and addicted to heroin and cocaine. She is also five months pregnant.

The harrowing stories of Julia and others like her feature in a new book Dead-end lives: Drugs and violence in the city shadows by Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero – out today.

sleeping

Image: Dead-end lives, page 192: ‘Respite’

Read the foreword by Professor Dick Hobbs below.

“Long before urban ethnography came of age with the Chicago School, Henry Mayhew had trawled London’s streets for narratives of the poor, dispossessed and excluded. For all of their rightly celebrated qualities, the sociologists of the Chicago School seldom provided the kind of vivid detail that is central to Mayhew’s journalism for the Morning Chronicle. He was particularly concerned with men and women for whom transgression was an inevitable consequence of the material conditions in which they found themselves. Seamstresses squeezed by the punitive pressures of piecework turned to prostitution to feed their families, street traders who relied on their own invented language and transgressive leisure pursuits to resist harassment by the new social control agencies, and some of the poor reduced to collecting dog shit from Albertoian pavements before delivering their fetid buckets to the capital’s leather tanneries. For Mayhew, crime/deviance/transgression was a social product, and very much part of the relentless unforgiving meat grinder of life in the city.

However, the Chicagoans’ establishment of urban ethnography as a central and enduring prop of social scientific endeavour did open the door to the city’s dirty secrets, and through this door have passed many thousands of scholars intent on bringing to the fore issues that most urban dwellers seek to scrape from the soles of their shoes. Most, but not all, of Chicago-influenced ethnography was based on an urban template created as an explanatory model of industrialism.

The industrial city was essentially zonal, and when drilling down into these zones, deviant behaviour – predominantly, but not exclusively, youthful delinquency – could be unwrapped, analysed and, crucially, rehabilitated. While later proponents of urban ethnography sometimes withdrew from engagement with rehabilitative policy engagement, its replacement was often a romanticised misfit sociology that valorised both the deviant and the intrepid researcher who would then shamelessly trade on this brief brush with outlaw status for the remainder of an academic career.

The post-industrial city, where the now superfluous poor of the industrial project have been supplanted by previously unfamiliar forces of economic apartheid, offers few of the assured inevitabilities of industrialism. The shape and form of urban existence has changed, and as a consequence, the trajectories of existence in the alcoves where working-class lives are lived are now dominated by population churn, by fragmentation and by a vernacular cosmopolitanism based on informal modes of survival that have little connection with institutions of governance.

landscape

Valdemingómez is one such alcove, and in describing life, death and commerce in this area on the edges of Madrid, we are introduced to a world that is uncomfortably close to Mayhew’s London. Thankfully, Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero are as sensitive to the multiple complex forces that created Valdemingómez as they are to the harrowing conditions of survival of its population, where addiction and the servicing of addiction dominate social life. Cities churn, global populations shift and with capitalism in a state of permanent crisis, the flotsam and jetsam of ‘Europe’s largest ghetto’ compete and co-exist within a range of informal economies, in particular, the drug trade. Briggs and Monge Gamero explore this world of poverty, profit, hope and addiction with enormous skill. For this is the future, the ghetto at the edge of the city, life at the periphery largely abandoned by the state, occasionally subjected to police operations, but not often enough to impact on the illegal economies that are the poisonous lifeblood of Valdemingómez, where ‘the Wild West meets the third world’.

The authors do not valorise deviance, but do describe and explain a world where destructive social and personal practices are the norm. Indeed, the descriptive passages, which constitute this book’s strength, are among the most vivid and insightful to be found in contemporary ethnography. Highlighted are the impacts of often ignored causal factors such as the withdrawal of the state, and the consequences not only for the addicted and their families, but also for the poor bloody infantry of police and drug agencies that seek to make an impact on this blighted domain. The limits of intervention, particularly during an era of austerity, along with the predatory culture of many of Valdemingómez’s residents, are emphasised by harrowing description and interviews.

This is a deeply upsetting book about an alcove of the global economy where death and degradation are embedded into every pore. Enhanced by photography, this excellent and innovative ethnography stands as a powerful and unnerving document of contemporary and probable future urban life.

paloma-resting
Image: Valdemingómez, where people like Paloma sleep in dirt and sell sex for a couple of euros for drugs.

Yet, as with Henry Mayhew’s seminal work, written in a long distant era of exploitation, deprivation and squalor, it is the heart-rending stories of the poor that leave the most indelible impact on the reader. The utter impossibility of their plight is genuinely disturbing, and the term ‘social exclusion’ has seldom been more appropriate, its causation more complex, or its reality more distressing.

Professor Dick Hobbs, Emeritus Professor at the University of
Essex, and Professor of Sociology at the University of
Western Sydney, Australia

Dead-End lives [FC]Dead-end lives by Daniel Briggs and Rubén Monge Gamero is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £13.59.

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Is the new impact agenda the excuse you’ve been waiting for to use your research to make a difference?

Sharon Wright and Peter Dwyer, researching the impacts of Universal Credit since 2013 as part of the collaborative ESRC Welfare Conditionality project, reflect on their recent experience of contributing to the Universal Credit debate, to argue that impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.

Dr. Sharon Wright

Prof. Peter Dwyer

The news that research impact will account for a quarter of a unit’s score for the REF2021 research excellence rankings has piqued the interest of cash-hungry University leaders across the country.

With the most significant and far reaching impacts bringing in around £324k, pressure is building for academics to strike into uncharted knowledge-exchange territory to secure elusive high-earning 4* impact case studies.

But if the thought of money as a motivator leaves you cold – and the more familiar competing pressures of teaching, administration and research offer space for little else – is there an alternative way of looking at the new drive for impact?

“Impact activities can be most meaningful if they are aimed at making a difference that really matters.”

In October 2017, Universal Credit (UC) hit the headlines with public outrage at claimants unable to afford to eat and at risk of losing their homes because of the built-in delay of 6 weeks for the first payment.

One of the greatest injustices is that Universal Credit was sold to the electorate as a reform aimed at simplifying the system and making work pay, and as such, it was originally welcomed widely. However, design flaws are being exposed as contributing to rising foodbank use, homelessness and destitution.

House of Commons

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, has been resistant to calls for urgent action to restore UC in line with its original policy aims. On 18th October 2017, a unanimous group of opposition MPs won the landmark House of Commons vote, 299 to zero, to ‘pause and fix’ the Universal Credit roll-out.

Decisive to the vote and the ongoing debate, were SNP MP Neil Gray’s authoritative parliamentary speeches, which used cutting edge research evidence, including our article on ‘Ubiquitous Conditionality’, alongside the experiences of his constituents to substantiate compelling arguments for reform:

“The Government should review the cuts to the work allowances, which are acting as a disincentive to work and making work pay less; review the cuts to housing benefit, which are driving up rent arrears […]; and review the cuts to employment support, which are denying help to those who need it most, and they should fully review and then scrap the disgusting sanctioning policy, which could have cost the life of my constituent, Mr Moran, and has cost the lives of others. That was the subject of an excellent paper by Sharon Wright of Glasgow University and Peter Dwyer of the University of York in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.” Read the full transcript of the debate here. 

How did we achieve this impact? Sharon met with Neil Gray on a panel discussing ‘Rethinking Poverty’ at the SNP Conference in Glasgow. Following this, she watched a clip of Neil’s first Universal Credit speech and let him know that our research published in The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (including the article that was featured in a free collection at the time) backed up several of the points he had made. Via Twitter and email, Sharon sent Neil a link to our recent blog and responded to a follow-up query with additional research evidence. Neil then used the evidence in his subsequent speeches and said:

“Academic and well researched evidence on the impact of
Universal Credit is crucial for persuading government to
change its mind and fix the system as it is being rolled out.

Neil Gray

Sharon’s research and input has been invaluable for me in
setting out the case that I have in the House of Commons.
The government can try to dismiss or ignore political debate,
but personal testimony and independent academia is harder
to ignore.

I hope Sharon and others will continue to look at issues like
the social security ‘reforms’ so that government policy can
be effectively challenged and hopefully overturned, to help
people who desperately need that support.”

As an impact activity, the process was quick, easy and direct. The result was Neil’s exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.

“…exemplary use of research evidence for accurate and well-informed debate that continues to feed into meaningful changes to policy and practice.”

The focus throughout was straight-forwardly on the issues that matter. For us as academics, the current importance placed on impact activities offers legitimacy to carve out the necessary time to do exactly what we have always wanted to do – proactively engage with policy makers, in a policy field where robust evidence has gone against the grain of dominant political preferences, to use research to make a difference.

 

Universal Credit, ubiquitous conditionality and its implications for social citizenship from The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, is FREE to read on Ingenta until 31 December 2017.

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Image: UK Parliament, ‘House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen’s Speech‘ Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

The struggle for abortion rights is far from over

Judith-head-shot-Oct-17-cropped

Judith orr

Judith Orr, author of the hard-hitting Abortion wars, shows how there is no room for complacency in the fight for a woman’s right to choose.

 

“The historic 1967 Abortion Act is 50 years old this month, yet this fundamental part of women’s health care continues to be a fiercely contested issue. There are still politicians who want to turn back the clock and win support for complete opposition to all abortions in any circumstances. Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg declared this as his view only last month, although his position was swiftly undermined by revelations that he profits from shares in a pharmaceutical company that produces abortion pills.

Rees Mogg’s desire to deny women any rights to legal abortion is a minority one in Britain. Here a clear majority, 70 percent in the most recent British Attitudes Survey, support a woman’s right to choose. But there is no room for complacency when women in one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, have no right to abortion unless they travel to Britain. The 1967 Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and thousands of women needing an abortion have had to cross the Irish Sea to access a legal termination. As an added injustice, until recently they also had to pay for it. This was only overturned in June after the snap general election when the Tories courted the anti abortion Democratic Unionist Party for support to win the Queens Speech. The ensuing outcry forced Theresa May to ditch the requirement for women from Northern Ireland to pay for terminations.

“This law against abortion doesn’t stop abortions happening, it simply exports them.”

Today the increasing vocal pro-choice side is highlighting the plight of women living in countries where abortion is banned, including on both sides of the Irish border. In the Republic of Ireland more than 40,000 people poured through the streets of Dublin on Saturday for the sixth annual March for Choice to demand a repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. This amendment deems the rights of an embryo equal to those of the woman carrying it, at any stage of the pregnancy. This law against abortion doesn’t stop abortions happening, it simply exports them. Thousands of women are forced to travel to England to enable them to take control their own fertility. Over 200,000 women have travelled to Britain from Ireland to have an abortion since the 8th amendment was enacted in 1983.

After last year’s March for Choice, the Irish government handed the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly to examine and debate. The Assembly came out with a clear call for a change in the law, showing just how much attitudes are changing in Ireland. Last week the government finally announced it would hold a referendum on the question in 2018. This provides opportunity to overturn more than a century of anti-abortion legislation in the country, which up to 2013 included the 1861 Offences Against the Person act. This archaic law is still in place in Britain and it makes having or carrying out an abortion a criminal act punishable by life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace this act, instead it created exceptions to allow legal abortions when certain conditions are fulfilled.

Even 50 years ago these conditions were restrictive, now when the majority of abortions are carried out by taking pills they are an oppressive anachronism. The website Women on Web reported that they receive requests from women living in Britain for abortion pills because access to abortion services is limited by the requirements of the law. The reasons women gave for contacting the website included the distance from a clinic providing abortion care, long waiting times, childcare responsibilities and the difficulty of getting time off work. But any woman in Britain who uses pills bought online potentially risks a prison sentence because of the strict controls over how abortion services are provided.

“…any woman in Britain who uses pills bought online potentially risks a prison sentence because of the strict controls over how abortion services are provided.”

This is a situation that cannot hold. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists joined the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives last week in calling for abortion in Britain to finally be removed from criminal law and be treated as simply a medical issue.

Repressive laws and attitudes to women’s rights to control their own bodies are being challenged across the globe. While online access to sites such as Women on Web saves lives, millions have no access even to this service. The World Health Organisation estimates that 25 million abortions globally are unsafe, that’s almost a half of all terminations.

In Britain the fight is on to defend the rights won by past generations but to also extend those rights to allow genuine reproductive choices. Whatever the utterances of anti abortion campaigners such as Rees Mogg, pro-choice activists are on the march and determined to win the long-running abortion wars.

 

final FC_LynAbortion wars by Judith Orr is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £10.39.

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Violence against women and children in diverse contexts: FRS special issue

FRS 2013 [FC]Nicky Stanley, Ingrid Palmary and Khatidja Chantler, editors of the special issue of Families, Relationships and Societies, detail the content of the issue and explain why examining both differing and shared experience of violence and abuse is essential.

“Violence against women and children is a global phenomenon but experiences of violence and abuse and their impact are shaped by local settings and factors specific to particular societies and communities.

This special issue of Families, Relationships and Societies explores varying forms of violence and abuse in different parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Iran and South East Asia. Bringing these papers together highlights differences but also reveals what is common in the experience of violence and abuse, in the ways we investigate and understand those experiences and in the service response. This recognition of both differing and shared experience of violence and abuse is increasingly important as communities everywhere become more diverse. Any campaign or service aimed at preventing violence for women and children needs to take account of specific and local factors as well as those aspects of violence that are widely shared.

This special issue comes out of a research workshop held at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in March 2015 that was funded by the British Council.

University-of-Witwatersrand-March-2015

Nicky Stanley, Ingrid Palmary and Khatidja Chantler with special issue contributors and workshop participants, March 2015, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Thirty-five researchers from UK and South Africa came together over four days. Their interests covered gender and violence across diverse contexts and explored the connections between gender based violence, migration and political violence. Participants came from social work, public health, psychology, sociology, social policy, health studies and anthropology with both early career researchers and experienced academics contributing. The workshop included mentoring sessions and career development opportunities as well as the papers that formed the basis of this special issue.

Two research centres led the workshop and have edited this special issue: the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and the Connect Centre for International Research on Interpersonal Violence and Harm, School of Social Work, Care and Community, University of Central Lancashire, UK. AMCS is an Africa-based centre of excellence dedicated to shaping global discourse on human mobility and social transformation. The Connect Centre works with a wide range of international partners to make connections and to challenge fragmented thinking on violence and abuse and its impact in order to develop new research and services.

The wide variety of forms of sexual and interpersonal violence, and the way in which gender and other positions of marginality, including migration, interacts with these forms are explored in this special issue. Nadia Aghtaie’s paper provides new insights on rape in Iran. Aghtaie’s study illustrates that, within an Iranian context, rape is often sanctioned implicitly and explicitly through culture, laws and policies that provide impunity for perpetrators and normalise violence against women. Similarly, Ingrid Sinclair’s paper explores the ways in which notions of women’s morality, derived from marital status, shape the responses of the South African Police Service to women who experience abuse from their partners.

Rebecca Walker’s paper in this special issue describes how structural violence is experienced by migrant mothers who sell sex in Johannesburg. Walker’s paper reveals the intersection of gender and class as predominantly shaped by the women’s marginal migration status: basic survival for themselves and their children is dependent on mothers selling sex. Women’s status as sex workers shapes public sector workers responses to them. Their often oppressive responses are legitimised by populist notions of who is and is not entitled to services. The paper by Rebecca Dudley’s also draws attention to the intersections of domestic abuse and state structures, specifically the immigration rule of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) in the UK. Her UK study explores the impact of this rule and the State’s complicity in trapping women in abusive relationships. In common with other contributors, she identifies the hostility that migrant women may experience from service providers as a key factor.

Patricia Hyne’s paper explores processes of trust and mistrust in accounts of displacement and asylum drawing on analysis from different research projects over a 25 year period. She reports practitioners’ experiences working in Thai refugee transit and processing camps and Burmese refugees as well as drawing on research conducted with in the UK refugees, asylum seekers and trafficked children. Hynes provides examples of when it is ‘safe’ to trust someone and where mistrust is essential for survival. Deborah Allnock’s UK based study on childhood disclosure of sexual abuse, examines the relationship between memorable life events (MLEs) and disclosure of sexual abuse in childhood. She provides a framework that illuminates those contexts that can inhibit, alter or reverse decisions to disclose abuse.

In relation to researching ‘hard to reach’ groups, the paper by Lorraine Radford, Nancy Lombard, Franziska Meinck, Emma Katz and Stanford Mahati includes a case-study from each author’s research on children and young people’s experiences of violence and adversity across the different contexts of the UK and South Africa. Each researcher used different methodologies and concepts but shared a common understanding of the social construction of childhood and the centrality of cultural and social contexts for understanding what constitutes violence. They report considerable ethical challenges and dilemmas were experienced in gaining ethical approval and in conducting the studies. This paper highlights the importance of researching with children rather on children. Similarly, the paper by Vearey, Barter, Hynes and McGinn provides rich illustrations of the ethical dilemmas of researching gender based violence. The article draws on diverse examples including: research on the Burmese-Thai border; research in Ireland on intimate partner violence and research with school children in a number of European countries. This paper provides detailed accounts of real life problems encountered during research and the complexity of establishing an ethical response in contexts where the outcome of actions can be difficult to anticipate.

Sharma and Marsh’s Open Space piece offers an analysis of group-work at Safety4Sisters, Manchester, UK, by workers who facilitate a group for women with experiences of abuse with NRPF and insecure immigration status. Their contribution brings to life the harshness of the immigration and asylum process and the fragility of the women’s existence. In their Open Space piece, Elsa Oliveira and Jo Vearey, researchers based at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, discuss creative research approaches with migrant sex workers in South Africa. They are founders of the MoVE:method:visual:explore project, and their paper highlights the importance of doing research differently with marginalised groups. The emphasis is very much on working with marginalised groups through media that allow marginalised voices to be articulated. In achieving this, the boundaries between research and activism are blurred and overlap.

 

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What’s next for poverty?

Barry Knight 3

Barry Knight

Barry Knight, author of Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society?, explains why we need to change the way we frame ‘poverty’ in order to make progress.

“Progress on poverty has stalled, in fact the proportion of people living in poverty in the UK has remained the same since 2005. This applies both to absolute and to relative poverty.

Poverty campaigners know that they need a new language if they are to make progress. Justin Watson from Oxfam has suggested that charities are getting it wrong:

“There is growing consensus that the narratives used by the third sector, however well-meaning and ‘right’, have been rejected. Take ‘poverty’ for example, a term that is politically divisive, laced with stigma and highly contested to the point of still having to persuade people it exists at all in the UK.”

Reports on poverty may raise awareness but, as Olivia Bailey, Research Director of the Fabian Society points out, “talking about a problem doesn’t generate enthusiasm for a solution”. Leading journalist Simon Jenkins has recently written that endless research into Britain’s growing gap between rich and poor is a waste of time. We need to set aside partisan politics and act.

Yet, solutions are hard to come by. The traditional remedies of the post-war settlement – work and welfare – are no longer sufficient. Social security payments leave many people struggling to make ends meet, while economic development produces low paid jobs.

So, how do we end poverty when the traditional means of doing so no longer work?

Technocratic policy fixes treat symptoms, rather than address the complex processes that produce poverty in the first place. Moreover, such an approach wastes effort in repairing an old system that seems incapable of eradicating poverty. We can no longer rely on public and private sectors to guarantee people’s well-being and there is little sign that anything in present arrangements will make our society better.

“This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.”

We need to reframe our approach. Rather than addressing what we don’t want – poverty – we need to develop what we do want – a society without poverty. This approach redesigns our society so that poverty becomes obsolete.

To do this, we need to draw on a sociological tradition originally deriving from the work of C. Wright Mills, and modernised by John Paul Lederach, in which we use our moral imagination to develop the society we want. Research by the Webb Memorial Trust shows that the society people want differs markedly from the society we have. Rather than opting for a society based on current political categories, they want a society where social factors come first, where relationships are given priority, and the economy supports people in their lives, rather than the persistent drive for ‘growth’.

The model of how we develop a good society needs to change. This can no longer come from the elites as something done to us. Rather, it involves us doing it for ourselves. ‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage’, wrote Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Nowhere is this truer than the ending of poverty, a process that now can and must involve the poor being their own agents of change.

“The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power.”

The way forward lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but rather in the development of transformational relationships that shift power. Young people understand this and that is why working with them to help them take power must be the first goal of social policy.

Rethinking poverty [FC]The pdf of Rethinking poverty by Barry Knight is available to download free via OAPEN. The paperback is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £7.99.

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‘Baby P’ 10 years on and the devastation of child protection

The updated and expanded second edition of ‘The Story of Baby P: Setting the Record Straight’ by Ray Jones, was published by Policy Press in February. Here, Jones discusses the impact of the Baby P case 10 years on, especially the ineffectual regulations on abusive press behaviour and the devastating effect on the social work profession.

Ray Jones

“On 3 August 2017 it is the tenth anniversary of the terrible death of 17 month old Peter Connelly in Haringey, North London.

Abused within his family home, his death became a focus of national and international media coverage when his mother, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s brother were each found guilty of ‘causing or allowing’ Peter’s death.

Within the press, Peter was known as ‘Baby P’. One newspaper in particular, The Sun, and its editor, Rebekah Brooks, day-after-day, month-after-month, and year-after-year ran a campaign of harassment and hatred targeted at Peter’s social workers and their managers, and a paediatrician, who sought to help and protect children.

The Sun launched a ‘campaign for justice’ with a front page accusing those it was targeting as having ‘blood on their hands’. This notorious banner headlined front page is no longer to be found on The Sun’s website but is still accessible through other sites.

Much has happened since August 2007. David Cameron, who is now known to have been a close personal friend of Rebekah Brooks, wrote a column in The Sun demanding the sacking of the social workers and managers and that ‘professionals must pay with their jobs’. At the time he was leader of the opposition. He has subsequently come and gone as Prime Minister.

Mr Gove, who was the Shadow Secretary of State in 2008, joined in the targeting of Sharon Shoesmith, who was quickly (and the High Court in 2011 decided wrongly) dismissed from her post as Director of Children’s Services in Haringey. Mr Gove has also come and gone as a government minster … and has now recently come again.

Mr Gove has been a champion for Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun and The Times. Murdoch had also owned The News of the World. It closed amid the exposure of the long-standing criminality perpetrated by editors and reporters at the paper in hacking phones, including the phones of bereaved parents and a murdered school girl.

It took several years for the Metropolitan Police to conduct an appropriate and proper investigation into the criminal activities rampant within Mr Murdoch’s British press.

“At last acknowledged that the… threat and harassment of Sharon Shoesmith was “cruel, harsh and over top””

The self-serving parasitic relationships between the Murdoch press, Metropolitan police and politicians was exposed through the Leveson inquiry. At the inquiry Rebekah Brooks at last acknowledged several years late that her paper’s threat and harassment of Sharon Shoesmith was “cruel, harsh and over top” and that “balance went right out of the window”.

Mrs Brooks, who was found not guilty of charges at the phone hacking trial, claimed that she knew nothing about the wide-spread criminality in the organisation she led, even though this criminality also included the actions of her deputy editor, Andy Coulson. Mr Cameron had appointed Mr Coulson as his media advisor, an appointment which ended when Coulson was convicted and then imprisoned.

Politicians have come and gone. So have senior police officers. The hacking investigations and trial led to the closure of a newspaper, prison sentences for newspaper editors, and a major public inquiry. That inquiry, however, has been cut short.

Its major recommendations on regulating abusive press behaviour are not being enacted and the press continues to intrude, bully, and abuse much as before. The Sun, for example, recently and remarkably used its ‘blood on their hands’ banner headline, this time to target Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonald and Diane Abbot during the 2017 general election campaign.

And Mr Murdoch and Mrs Brooks have had their down times but are now again both flourishing.

“None of the social workers or managers targeted by The Sun have been able to regain employment as social workers.”

But what of the social workers and social work? None of the social workers or managers targeted by The Sun have been able to regain employment as social workers, despite those whose cases were heard by the social work regulator allowing them to continue their registration as social workers.

Sharon Shoesmith has completed a PhD and written a book about child and familial homicide but has not been able to get paid employment since being dismissed by Haringey Council at the instigation of Ed Balls (another politician who has come and gone).

Not surprisingly, it is now difficult to recruit and retain social workers (and specialist doctors working in child protection) to work in statutory children’s services with the continuous threat that they too could be a focus of vilification and vengeance by the media. There is now a dependency in most local authorities on short-term interim agency social workers and managers with services no longer having the stability, continuity and experience which is needed to provide good children’s and family social work and child protection.

There has also been a dramatic shift in social work and social services practice from helping children and families to an emphasis on surveillance, assessment, risk management and child protection.

Since 2008 there has been a 90% increase in England in child protection investigations (now running at over 170,000 a year) and a 130% (and still rising month-by-month) increase in court proceedings to remove children from families. In part, this reflects more defensive practice by professionals and agencies fearful of media attacks.

But it also reflects big cuts in government funding to local authorities (a 40% reduction since 2010 and still to be reduced further) with the closure of Sure Start programmes, children’s centres and youth services. This is at the same time as draconian cuts in social security and housing benefits are moving more families into severe poverty and destitution and making it harder for stressed and overwhelmed parents to care well for their children.

The response of the Conservative-led governments has been to see this all as an opportunity to say that social work is not good enough and the answer is to take children’s social services outside of local councils. They have sought to create a commercial and competitive market place open to all comers who can now be contracted to provide these services, and to favour fast-track social work education outside of universities provided by independent companies and shaped by management consultancy and international accountancy firms.

‘Child protection services in many areas are now at the point, and for some beyond the point, of breakdown’

Who would have anticipated in 2007 that within ten years one of the safest child protection systems in the world, based on 40 years of learning and development, would have been churned up and undermined by politicians using the ammunition provided by the tabloid press whipping up public hostility and in the context of politically-chosen austerity?

In the book, ‘The Story of Baby P’, I comment that “my greatest horror is what happened to a little child, Peter Connelly, and my concern is that the campaigning by The Sun and others has done nothing to make it safer for children like Peter”.

It certainly has not made it safer. Child protection services in many areas are now at the point, and for some beyond the point, of breakdown. This is today’s story which the media choose not to cover – unless of course every so often they skew the story and focus on another child death and find new social workers to abuse and attack.

Dr Ray Jones is a registered social worker, a former director of social services, and an emeritus professor of social work and frequent media commentator and columnist.

 

2017_The story of Baby P_NEW FC 4 webThe Story of Baby P by Ray Jones is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £11.99

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