Manufacturing Ignorance: the Centre for Social Justice and Welfare Reform in Britain

The dramatic scenes in English cities last August of burning buildings, bands of hooded and masked youths pillaging stores, and thousands of police patrolling major streets in riot gear were bound to trigger rash statements and knee-jerk reactions.  Set against the political backdrop of steep state retrenchment and the relentless invocation of ‘personal responsibility’, one of the more widely reported of these reactions was the launch of an e-petition calling for convicted rioters to have their benefits permanently removed.  It attracted well over 100,000 electronic signatures, meaning that it will now be subject to a Parliamentary debate.  At the time, however, nobody made the point that a government Bill to remove benefits for people living at the bottom of the British class structure has in fact been working its way through Parliament since November 2010.  The moral crusade against the benefits system constitutes the leading edge of the Coalition government’s attack on the welfare state, and it rests on the dubious rhetoric of a ‘broken society’ full of ‘troubled families’. 

On 15 August 2011, David Cameron visited a youth centre in his Witney constituency to deliver a speech outlining his government’s response to the riots.  He began by arguing that ‘these riots were not about poverty’ but rather ‘about behaviour’, and to confront what he sees as a ‘slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations’, he outlined his ‘personal priority’ in politics: ‘to mend our broken society’.  He went on to outline that a ‘social fightback’ should be centred on fixing a welfare system that ‘encourages the worst in people’: 

[There] is a moral hazard in our welfare system – people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out. … I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who are out of work and receiving benefits and speeding up our efforts to get all those who can work back to work.  Work is at the heart of a responsible society.

This excerpt is a pure exemplar of how neoliberal ideology truncates and distorts public understanding of social class in Britain.  In one passage there is both an incredibly punitive stance towards those at the bottom of the class structure, and a stance towards the top so laissez-faire that it is studiously, perhaps judiciously ignored: bankers and finance chiefs ‘can be as irresponsible as they like and the state will always bail them out’, yet the daggers are directed entirely at the welfare system and the unemployed.  To understand what lies behind Cameron’s attempt to salvage some political legitimacy from the street wreckage created by three decades of economic deregulation (set in motion by his own Party in the 1980s), it is necessary to connect his unctuous reasoning to the influence and activities of a right-wing think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) – the brainchild of Cameron’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the self-proclaimed ‘quiet man’ Iain Duncan-Smith (IDS). 

During his tortured tenure (2001-2003) as Conservative Party leader, IDS visited one of the poorest urban areas of the UK, Easterhouse in Glasgow, which he described as ‘a wrecked and dreadful set up… with families locked into generational breakdown.’  In 2004, in an effort to get the ‘modernising’ Conservatives to enter the electorally significant terra incognita of poverty and welfare, IDS established the CSJ with this mission statement: ‘To put social justice at the heart of British politics and to build an alliance of poverty fighting organisations in order to see a reversal of social breakdown in the UK.’  Whilst a brief visit to its website leaves one bombarded by two words – ‘breakdown’ and ‘broken’ – nowhere on it or in any of its publications can a definition of ‘social justice’ be found.  Only in a 2010 interview in the New Statesman has IDS ever attempted such a definition: ‘I mean to improve the quality of people’s lives, which gives people the opportunity to improve their lives.  In other words, so people’s quality of life is improved.’ 

In 2006 the CSJ produced a voluminous document entitled Breakdown Britain, the end-product of IDS being invited by Cameron ‘to consider how an incoming Conservative Government could tackle Britain’s most acute social problems.’  IDS convened five working groups to conduct surveys and report back on five ‘pathways to poverty’: ‘family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness and addiction,’ for ‘if the drivers of poverty are not addressed an ever-growing underclass will be created.’  Considerable attention was given to ‘family breakdown’ in particular, and the central tenets of the infamous ‘underclass’ thesis lie in the CSJ’s definition of familial strife: ‘We have adopted an inclusive use of the term “family breakdown” which can be summed up in three key words: dissolution, dysfunction, and ‘dad-lessness’.’ Over two decades ago, the neoconservative political scientist Charles Murray visited London (at the invitation of Rupert Murdoch) and recommended to policy elites, journalists and think-tank officials that the ‘civilising force of marriage’ be the treatment for the ‘spreading disease’ of an ‘underclass’ of single mothers and absent fathers (‘essentially barbarians’)[1]. This argument has long been thoroughly discredited by distinguished social scientists (who showed how Murray massaged and manipulated survey data to satisfy his think-tank and media sponsors), but the CSJ has resuscitated it in almost all of its publications: 

The policy-making community (which includes politicians, policy-makers and academics) has been markedly reluctant to grasp the nettle of family breakdown by being clear about the benefits of marriage and committed relationships, and the merits of supporting and encouraging them. (Breakdown Britain, p.29)

For the CSJ, there is no social problem for which promoting marriage is not the solution.  It is desperate to guard against any views to the contrary; for example, when a distinguished welfare historian argued that the CSJ presented a misleading and empirically inaccurate portrait of a British past filled with ‘happy families’, the CSJ responded quickly with an aggrieved 24-page rebuttal written by two legal scholars.  So determined is David Cameron to force an acceptance of the supposed social benefits of marriage that he chose Father’s Day to write a column in The Sunday Telegraph that made these brazen assertions: 

I also think we need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale.

The notion of a broken society full of dysfunctional families heavily influenced IDS’s Welfare Reform Bill currently working its way through Parliament, the hallmark being what welfare economists call ‘conditionality’: punitive sanctions applied to benefit claimants.  If the Bill is passed, from 2013 unemployed people will lose benefits for three months if they refuse the offer of a job for the first time, six months if they refuse an offer twice, and three years if they refuse an offer three times.  Given that the CSJ ‘Economic Dependency’ working group ‘went to the United States to talk to the architects of American welfare reform’, and that Larry Mead (the scholarly influence behind workfare policies in the United States) was invited to Downing Street to advise the Coalition government on work policies immediately after it was formed in May 2010, it is unsurprising that on the launch of his Bill IDS used the American idiom, ‘play ball or it’s going to be difficult.’  Hidden within the numerous appeals to making the welfare system ‘simplified’ and ‘fairer’ are policies so punitive that even 18 Church of England bishops have recently written to the government to express their concerns.  For instance, claimants who are disabled will be forced to attend ‘work preparation’ programmes and then expected to find work.  Lone parents with children under five will be expected to attend ‘keeping in touch’ interviews – without any childcare provision – and show that they are preparing themselves to work.  Those who are ‘fit to work’ and currently on Jobseeker’s Allowance will be forced to accept any job going (GPs will soon be banned from writing sick notes, with bureaucrats being asked to make health judgements in their place).  If there are no jobs available, they will be forced onto a ‘Mandatory Work Activity’ programme – effectively forced to do menial labour in return for benefits.  Inspired by fictitious welfare reform successes in the US, the plan is deliberately to make welfare jobs so unattractive that people will avoid claiming benefits at all costs.

In order to give ‘scientific’ credibility to punishing the poor, think-tanks such as the CSJ have mastered the craft ofdecision-based evidence making, tailored to the needs of policy elites and politicians on the lookout for accessible catchphrases to woo a jaded electorate.  Politicians rarely consult published social science research unless it supports the policies they want to pursue (not a single social scientist was a member of any of the CSJ working groups studying the five ‘pathways to poverty’).  Instead, they depend on neat sound bites from surveys that measure nothing more than the worldview of the think-tank that commissions them, where policy ‘researchers’ set out to resolve false problems, even though they have already been settled in the way survey questions are formulated.  Take, for instance, the methodological appendices to the Breakdown Britain report, and just one of the survey questions asked of a ‘representative sample’ of 2166 people.  The evidence was never going to show anything different with respect to the supposed causes and prevention of ‘family breakdown’: 

“Which of the following would most help prevent family breakdown and its associated problems?”

a) A return to traditional moral values in society

b) Government should use the tax system to support married couples

c) More awareness of the effects of family breakdown on children.[2]

Such rigged surveys provide the ‘evidence base’, to use the language of think-tank posturing, for the mobilisation of state power in the extension of conservative dogma; they actively manufacture ignorance to appease their funders, buffering politicians and their audiences from viable alternatives and inoculating them against the critique of autonomous scholarship. Therefore, any challenge to the demonic caricatures fashioned by underclass discourses (that shield the public from examples of progressive policies in countries other than the US) needs to expose the practices and funding of think-tanks, to scrutinize their glossy and authoritative pseudo-scientific publications, to disrupt their fast channels of access to authority and opinion-makers, and to dispel the myths propagated by their speechwriters and backroom ‘researchers’. 

On the question of evidence, what does exist in social science journals and books[3] shows that welfare reforms involving coercion, compulsion, and sanctions do not lift people out of poverty, but just remove them from welfare rolls as people leave the formal labour market altogether.  In respect of conditionality, even mainstream welfare economists have assessed the alleged benefits against the burdens (often in exhaustive detail) and found no evidence to support the view that sharp incentives have a positive effect amongst those in receipt of welfare; by contrast, they actually disrupt any search for meaningful activity.  (On incentives, IDS promises to ‘make work pay’, so that when people take a job, they will receive more income than if they were to remain on welfare benefits.  But he plans to achieve this via a higher ‘taper rate’ – the rate at which a benefit is reduced to take account of earnings, so that for every £1 a claimant earns over the threshold, they will lose 65 pence instead of the current 70 pence.  It would take quite a leap of the imagination to see 5 pence as much of an incentive to find employment.)  

The US welfare reforms that so impressed the CSJ have in fact expanded dramatically the numbers of the working and non-working poor, and have affected their daily existence negatively in almost every way imaginable, widening existing class, gender and disability fractures in society.  The welfare-to-work programmes advocated by Larry Mead and embraced by Downing Street are also very expensive – more so than continuing with the existing Jobseeker’s Allowance.  Furthermore, and perhaps crucially, there is no evidence that vast numbers of people are suffering from a habit of ‘worklessness’ and are somehow ‘work-shy’.  A narrow conception of work underpins such views, for many of those not in employment work extremely hard: to care for frail relatives or for children, or deal with episodic disabilities.  We have thus reached the social policy folly whereby the Beveridge welfare state is being torn up on the basis of a complete myth: that most benefit claimants have exploited loopholes in a complex system to become lazy ‘scroungers’ choosing a ‘life on benefits’ apart from ‘mainstream society’, in a welfare-dependent ‘Broken Britain’.  As IDS himself wrote in his introduction to his November 2010 White Paper on the benefits system: ‘the welfare state has become a vast, sprawling bureaucracy that maintains, rather than challenges, poverty.’  

But contrary to what IDS’s political idol Margaret Thatcher once famously stated, there are alternatives, and robust scientific evidence does exist in support of them.  The remarkable global diffusion of the living wage movement offers a compelling case that incentives for employment are created once it is acknowledged that employers must provide wages that make it possible for vital service sector workers and their families to live in expensive cities.  An adequate pay slip provides far more of an incentive to work than any reduction in the taper rate or tax reward for marriage.  In a similar vein, a ‘basic income’ effectively decouples income security from the labour market, guaranteeing unconditionally an adequate income to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.  Advocates of basic income have long challenged the assumption that bringing people back into the labour market will reduce poverty, and instead they argue for the severance of subsistence from work, and of income from paid labour.  Critics argue that this is a ‘something for nothing’ strategy, one that would encourage idleness and dependency among the poor.  But as economist Guy Standing (one of the founders of the Basic Income Earth Network) has argued, ‘conventional policies also give something for nothing…mega-bailouts [of 2008-9] were given largely to sectors and firms that had actually done harm.’[4]  As we are living at a time of state-induced social insecurity, it would seem that basic income security is a logical remedy, providing the crucial stability needed to gain employable skills.   A living wage and a basic income – these are obvious alternatives that cannot be found by listening to politicians in opposing parties, many of whom are depressingly silent on (or accepting of) the systematic demolition of the welfare state happening right before their eyes.  

When IDS first visited east Glasgow in 2002, his host for the day was a social work professor turned community organiser, Bob Holman.  The two struck up an unlikely friendship, and Holman remarked on their first meeting as follows: 

I was impressed by his willingness to take local residents seriously… a politician who almost wept at the plight of the poor.  I have observed his rare gift of being able to listen to and communicate with people crushed by social deprivation. 

In a recent speech at the LSE billed by his aides as the ‘biggest intervention by a Cabinet minister in the debate about tackling poverty since the election,’ IDS stridently denounced reliable measures of child poverty and argued that giving more money to ‘dysfunctional families’ will not help the issue because ‘feckless parents will spend it on drugs and gambling.’  Whether Bob Holman is a poor judge of character is a moot point, for when future histories of the British welfare state are penned, in the absence of a revolution in the relationship between information and power, it is probable that IDS will feature prominently in accounts of its last and darkest days. 

Tom Slater is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh, and has published extensively on the urbanisation of social injustice.

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