Explaining the Conservative attitude to social security

Social security has been in the news a lot recently, with speculation about where the Conservatives’ £12bn of cuts will fall. It is thought that tax credits will be targeted, with some saying support to some of the poorest working and out of work families will be cut by up to £1400 per year – a significant amount. This comes after cuts during the last Parliament,including the Bedroom Tax, harsher sanctions and cuts to disability benefits (which are still ongoing judging by yesterday’s protest in Parliament).

But why are the Conservatives doing all this? The stated aim is always “to get the deficit down”, “clearing up Labour’s mess”. Opponents have labelled this “balancing the books on the backs of the poor“, but it’s not really about the deficit. Social security acts as an automatic stabiliser, preventing an economy from sinking too far in bad times. Cutting automatic stabilisers in times of slump is a really stupid idea if your aim is to help the economy recover, but if you have other aims it might be more rational.

Some want to label Tories as evil, haters of those at the bottom who are declaring war on the working poor. This seems a little simplistic to me, and to most people sounds unconvincing. Many (most) Brits are rather unsympathetic to those at the bottom, periodically agitating for cuts to “welfare”. I have lost count of the times I’ve heard people complaining about “scroungers”, or using the old cliche about immigrants coming here to claim benefits while those who are already here “get nothing”. This also seems a little simplistic to me to say the least, but why do so many people think this way, why are the Conservatives embodying this sentiment in their policies, and what can we do about it?

Image result for iain duncan smith

If you listen to this twonk for more than 5 minutes, you get a good idea where he (and other Conservatives are coming from). He genuinely believes social security or welfare is immoral. If social security benefits are too “generous”, it makes people dependent and they won’t stand up on their own two feet (or “work hard and get on” as the catchphrase goes). He is quite open and honest about this. Here is a good example from the other day where he accuses Labour of bribing voters with working tax credits. IDS and many on the right genuinely believe Labour tried to build a client state where more and more people became reliant on the state for “handouts”.

If you subscribe to this view, cutting benefits becomes moral, a kind of tough love, forcing people to “work hard and do the right thing”. Someone who works hard and has the right attitude will always succeed under this mindset. The idea that someone can work hard and still struggle does not compute with people like IDS. The potential cuts to working tax credits fit quite nicely with this viewpoint, as if people are claiming tax credits, they must not be working hard enough, maybe working part-time when really they should be working full time. Cutting tax credits then provides the tough love needed to push people into full time work.

It seems to me though that there is very little evidence to back up the beliefs of the likes of Duncan Smith. Belief though, trumps evidence every time to these people. It makes logical sense to them and so must be true. There is fairly good evidence though that cutting social security benefits does not improve the lot of people, rather it entrenches poverty. and drives people to use food banks. Incidentally, food banks seem to be rather a blind spot for those on the right, where beliefs collide. They should hate them because they are giving support to those who haven’t earned it, but on the other hand, they are charity, and charity is good because it involves people choosing what to do with their own money rather than having the state confiscate it from them.

Frustrating though I find it however, many people are fully on board with the “tough love” message (and seem to vote accordingly). But why is this? On theory is the one espoused by linguist George Lakoff – framing. He posits that there are two main types of moral frames people view issues through; the strict father frame, and the nurturant parent family. Lakoff believes all people think it terms of both frames to a greater or lesser extent, but that conservatives are much more proficient at framing their policies in a way that appeals to people’s strict father frame. With social security they continue to do this rather well.

So how can this be countered? It seems to me that noisy protests about “evil Tories” can only take you so far. People may sympathise on a human level or if they have experienced the cuts at first hand, but it’s not a very positive message and others will still be swayed by the Tory’s strict father framing. Lakoff argues the left (or liberals to Americans), need to create their own frames and relentlessly hammer away in these terms. If we are thinking about social security for those unfortunate enough to want a job but are unable to find one, we could build a frame around offering a ‘helping hand’ to those down on their luck. Not doing everything for them, but simply offering them a solid chance to prove themselves. In practical policy terms this could manifest itself in terms of an offer of a real, living wage paying job. This is a much more positive and salable message than the one Labour tried to sell at the recent elections, and it is one that should appeal to people’s feeling about the “nurturant parent family” rather well. Labour are still trying to be stricter fathers than the Tories, but it’s so unconvincing, nobody is buying it at the moment.

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The Work Programme Part 2 – Having a laugh at the public’s expense

In part 1, I discussed the DWP’s recent release of performance data for the Work Programme. Despite quite modest targets for year 1, across the board, Work Programme providers are failing. In this second part, I want to  give a few examples of why I feel the already dire performance figures to date create a misleading picture of how much added-value is actually being generated by the firms contracted to help individuals on the Work Programme. I think the reality is actually much worse than is generally thought.

Before I start, I just want to make clear that I am not picking on a particular provider here. Although firms like A4E have been singled out in the media for a large amount of criticism, the performance of providers across the board is poor, and what follows seems to be taking place within a number of providers.

The following examples appear to be evidence (although anecdotal), that Work Programme providers are adopting a number of techniques to maximise their revenue without actually investing time and effort into individual jobseekers themselves. To me this constitutes a misappropriation of funds, but I don’t expect DWP to investigate any time soon. In one case as you will see, the transfer of funds from public to private without any value being added by the company is officially sanctioned.

Tricks of the Trade

One of the benefits of living in the age of the internet is that people who before found it almost impossible to get their voices heard can now do so. Through blogs and social media, stories are being told about the Work Programme from the people actually referred onto it. The same stories seem to come up again and again. Here are three of the most common ones.

1. Already found a job? Just sign these forms

This technique is actually officially sanctioned in certain instances by the DWP, and is written into the Work Programme guidance (chapter 4) which can be downloaded here. When someone is referred to the Work Programme, there may be a gap of a couple of weeks before that person is officially ‘attached’ to the Work Programme.

If you look at paragraphs 71 to 76 of the guidance it explains how if a claimant finds work between referral and attachment, the provider can try to attach the individual before they start the job. In practice, this means meeting with the individual and completing some paperwork. If they are able to do so (and perhaps provide them with some token help like a bus pass or vouchers for work clothing), then they are eligible to receive the outcome payments should that person remain in work. This could earn the provider several thousand pounds on top of their £400 or £600 attachment fee.* Kerching!

This ruse also applies to people who actually are on the Work Programme. The claimant may have found work themselves after finding the Work Programme support poor. Here’s and example of what I’m talking about from this blog:

“They rang me up today to check how I was doing,” he wrote, “and when I told him I had a job he seemed to perk up a bit. He said he’d give me £100 “petrol money” if I signed some paperwork to let him contact the DWP.”

To me, this sounds like a bribe, but DWP seems absolutely fine with it. I suppose they term it “in-work support”.

Now in cases like this, the provider may argue that it was the help and support they provider that helped the person find work, but how sure are we that this is the case? A lot of people’s experience of the Work Programme seems to be a monthly 20 minute face-to-face meeting with the provider, and maybe the odd phone call. Not the individually tailored, bespoke support we were promised. Which brings us onto the related trick 2.

2. Creaming and Parking

Creaming and parking is the phenomenon whereby providers identify job ready claimants (they may be graduates or other high skilled people), and focus all their attention on them, while ignoring, or providing very little support to those who are harder to help. They still receive their attachment payment for those they ‘park’, and if any of these people get jobs anyway (and the law of averages suggests some will), then all the better, they can apply trick number 1 and claim the outcome payment. Research commissioned by the DWP highlights that creaming and parking may be an issue (see here), saying:

“Some of the reported  experiences of participants and providers suggest, at face value, a degree of creaming and parking; for example, many providers openly reported seeing their most job-ready participants more frequently than those with more severe barriers to work.”

So it seems to be a case of help the ones who would probably find work easily anyway and ignore the rest until they (hopefully) find work on their own.

3. Working Tax Credits are a provider’s best friend

Hat tip to the Johnny Void blog for alerting me to this, but it seems that Work Programme providers seem to be encouraging claimants to declare themselves self-employed in order to trigger a job outcome payment. Apparently, if a person works self-employed for over 30 hours a week (although in reality much less), but earn under a certain threshold, they can claim working tax credits of up to £50 per week. This is only about £20 less than Jobseeker’s Allowance. A person doesn’t need to earn anything to receive WTC, but would only need to work a few hours a week to earn as much as JSA. I don’t know how prevalent this is, but it seems that one provider in particular may be making the most of this apparent loophole.

So these are a few of the wheezes Work Programme providers seem to be using to inflate their job outcome figures (which in part 1 we saw are still woeful). These practices and others like them seem to be widespread and not just used by one provider. Added together, they sum to a large amount of (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that Work Programme providers are delivering even worse value for money than people think. The whole programme seems to amount to nothing more than a giant rip-off, a transfer of huge sums of public money into a relatively small number of private companies and individuals, in return for very little of value. Some people it seems, are having a laugh at the public’s expense.

This was originally intended to be the 2nd of a two part post on the Work Programme, but I’ve now realised I need a 3rd part to explore why we persist with the payment by results model despite its seemingly obvious failings.

*H/T again to this blog post for drawing my attention to this practice

For more information on problems with the Work Programme, and the Government’s welfare policies in general, I recommend following @boycottworkfare and @johnnyvoid on Twitter.