Thursday, 28 February 2019

The illusion of independence

I think it’s an unspoken rule of politics that the person who claims to be unideological is the most ideological of all. Thus one of the central assertions of the newly formed “Independent Group” (IG) of British MPs is that while the blinkered automatons to their Right and Left see everything through an ideological prism, they, by contrast, do not pre-judge but look at every issue dispassionately and according to the evidence.

Thus when asked by Andrew Marr last Sunday whether the IG would support the renationalisation of the railways and the water industry, former Tory MP Heidi Allen replied: “My gut instinct is no but it needs to be based on evidence and, rather than just choosing ideological solutions, what will work and what we can learn from other countries.”

If you have that strange feeling of déjà vu, that’s because an insistence on ‘what works,’ as opposed to ideological prescriptions, was a staple of the New Labour years. Ministers could get way with claiming they judged everything according to the evidence because the evidence they relied on was produced by people whose ideological biases were so ‘baked in’ they thought they didn’t exist.

You’re only ill because you think you are

This can be seen most clearly in the story of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the tick box questionnaire that determines whether sick and disabled people can receive benefit and, if so, what conditions are attached. Judged in terms of the amount of misery it has generated – it was revealed in 2017 that the number of disabled claimants attempting suicide had doubled over the lifespan of the WCA – I think the assessment has no equal among post-war domestic government policies.

But its introduction was surrounded by mountains of evidence that it was the correct policy, medically and socially. In fact that it would be grossly unfair, it was claimed, to leave disabled people ‘parked’ on benefits and shut out from the health-giving qualities of work. In 2005, for example, the DWP commissioned a report called the Scientific and Conceptual Basis for Incapacity Benefit. Co-written by the department’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Mansel Aylward, the paper recommended something called the biopsychosocial (BPS) model. This assumes that disability is caused in part by the disabled person’s attitudes. Illness was a belief, said the authors, and people could think themselves well.

They recommended, therefore, a “functional” non-medical assessment for all claimants on Incapacity Benefit, one that ignored diagnosis, prognosis and medical history. This became the WCA. The opinions of doctors weren’t mysteriously overlooked when the WCA came into being in 2008, they were deliberately ignored.

A year after the ‘Scientific and Conceptual Basis’ for the WCA was established, the DWP started funding a group of academics to run something known as the PACE trial, which compared the effectiveness of different treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME. The results from the trial were published in 2011 and were presented as demonstrating the visible success of BPS interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The then Conservative-Lib Dem government was miraculously bowled over by the evidence, with minister David Freud telling the House of Lords that “we have gone for the biopsychosocial model” which had “garnered very significant academic support”.

In fact, the research was very seriously flawed. An analysis by the Centre for Welfare Reform revealed that the supposedly “strict” standard for recovery was so loose that you could actually deteriorate and still be classed as having recovered. Another analysis of the whole BPS model concluded that it was “riddled with inconsistencies, misleading statements and ‘unevidenced’ claims”.

But so entrenched is the government’s faith in the ‘evidence’, that even Mansel Aylward, the man responsible for the adoption of the BPS model, admitting in 2012 that he now found it “unsatisfactory” and incapable of meeting the needs of disabled people, had no effect. The WCA steamroller, now over 10 years old, just continues on, oblivious of the collateral damage it causes.

I’m a banker so listen to me

But the WCA needed more than BPS philosophy – the idea that claimants were divided between real sufferers and malingerers – behind it to really fly. It also needed the evidence that there were legions of claimants who were ‘work ready’ and in fact, unjustly, left to rot on benefits. This was provided by David Freud, a millionaire and former investment banker, who despite admitting he knew nothing about welfare, produced the independent 2007 report Reducing Welfare, Increasing Opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work’, commissioned by Tony Blair just before he left office.

The ‘Freud Report’ was hugely influential – New Labour accepted its recommendations as did the Cameron government that followed. In fact, Cameron was so impressed he ennobled Freud and made him a junior minister in his government. The Freud Report achieved a ‘cross-party’ consensus. As a former Labour DWP minister put it in July 2010, “the Labour government’s regulations are now being tabled by a Tory minister who inspired them when he was a Labour adviser”.

Not only did Freud advocate using the private sector to conduct the assessments required to receive sickness benefit, and introducing sanctions, he also asserted that the 2.68 million people on Incapacity Benefit could and should be reduced by 1 million.

This number was subsequently cited endlessly ministers but, as geographer Danny Dorling pointed out, it was based on fiction. Freud “got his numbers” wrong by claiming the remarkable success of government ‘Pathways’ projects in getting Incapacity Benefit claimants into work could be replicated nationally. In fact, the success of the pathways projects was based on recent claimants only, not long-term ones.

 But this didn’t affect the Freud Report from becoming the lynchpin of government efforts to ‘reform’ the welfare state. The reason was not his academic rigour but who he was. As Dorling explained:

David’s report is titled Independent but was commissioned and published by the DWP. Independent no longer means independent. The point of independent reports to government and ministers is that they are not written by people who are independent of government but by folk whose lives and connections are intimately wound up in the machinery of government and elite civil society.

The fallacy of independence

Ironically it was Heidi Allen who confessed that, on becoming an MP, she was “staggered” that minister were not , in fact, experts in their field and MPs were handed “bits of paper” indicating what they should say to the media. But the fact that, in truth, they don’t know very much just reveals how reliant on outside evidence they are.

And that evidence is never unideological despite fervent claims to the contrary. While in 2007, a former investment banker was hired to produce a report arguing that sick and disabled benefit claimants needed to be reassessed into work, two years later the government commissioned two reports – Bischoff and Wigley – insisting the competitiveness of London as a financial centre had to be maintained at all costs. Group members and expert witnesses came overwhelmingly from the City of London. Finance, as one outside analysis pointed out, was reporting on “finance by telling stories about finance”. But all three, in eyes of the Westminster bubble, constituted ‘evidence’.

In truth, nothing is unideological and there is no such thing as pure, neutral evidence. Pretending you’re above the fray just reveals how deeply ensconced you are in its web – so much so that you don’t even notice.