The government’s misleading figures about poverty reflect a wider problem

The Prime Minister has been upbraided by the Office for Statistical Regulation (part of the UK Statistics Authority) for his assertion that child poverty is falling, when on all the tests used by the government the opposite is true.  I’m not greatly enamoured of those tests.  I’ve considered the case for the standard test of ‘relative’ poverty, 60% of the median income, in other work – it’s not bad, but we need to accept that it’s a pointer, not an authoritative measure. The claim that the figures for 2010/11 represent a test of ‘absolute poverty’ is particularly suspect.  Having said that, however, there’s no real excuse for blustering that poverty has been getting better, when your own figures say that’s not so.

This is part of a wider problem, and one we’ve seen increasingly in the course of the last few years.  The UK Statistics Authority was formed in the hope that it would be possible to maintain confidence in the integrity of official statistics.  In the course of the last ten years, however, we’ve seen a growing contempt for statistical evidence,  shown in the treatment of figures about crime, social security claims, incapacity, the management of coronavirus and more.  It’s done whenever departments publish figures that are not official, when the press is steered to have a go at popular targets like migration or benefit fraud, and when ministers just make stuff up. There is a cost to undermining public trust: it’s not just that some figures can’t be believed, but that everything becomes open to doubt.

Racism is about now, not the distant past

Boris Johnson has ‘announced’, if that’s no too grand a word for a bit of a burble in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an inquiry into inequalities.  I’ve found it intensely depressing that a powerful moral argument about racism and police brutality has somehow been diverted into a discussion of public statues. The slave trader Edward Colston died in 1720, three hundred years ago.  The focus on people like him is a poor substitute for addressing the problems now.

The diversion from the real issues reflects, unfortunately, a failure among many people who think of themselves as anti-racist to focus on what matters.  The dominant narrative in the 1980s tried to link  the explanation for all racial problems in terms of a combination of slavery, colonialism and contemporary racism.  I hoped and thought the debates had moved on since then: it seems I was wrong. The same narrative makes sense only for particular ethnicities.  The narrative says a lot about the USA, and quite a lot about people who came to Britain from the Caribbean; but it overrides the experience of other disadvantaged groups, whose circumstances just  didn’t fit the same pattern.

The first set of issues concerns slavery.  The dehumanisation and brutality associated with slavery is often represented as something that is distinctive to colonialism, but it’s something that has been widely practised in a wide range of other circumstances.  In contemporary terms, the serfs and peasants of the middle ages were pretty much treated as slaves.  Various types of serfdom were practised in Europe over eight hundred years or more; serfs were still having to redeem themselves in Russia in the early 20th century .  Let me pick up, for instance, the example of the 1351 Statute of Labourers (one of the major causes of grievance in the peasants’ revolt, thirty years later) which stipulated that “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve.” This is not the same thing as a slave trade – land and property could not at that time be bought and sold.  But the staggering assumption at the root of this law was the assertion that everyone must have a master, and not having one constituted grounds for being taken and set to work. The lives of most people, in most places, were not their own.

Next, there is colonialism. A dogged Marxist might, I suppose, argue that it all boils down to money: empires work by extracting resources from one place and moving them to another.  However,  what money does depends on where it does it.  It seems painfully obvious that what colonialism or Empire meant in South America, India, Ireland, China and much of Africa was quite different.  The East India Company, a private concern, was based in trade leavened with piracy – it was not much like anything before or since. Slavery in the Spanish empire was characterised by degradation, inhuman treatment and chattel slavery, but it still didn’t look much like the system in the USA.  To my mind, the claim that any of this can be reduced to a common factor of ‘race’ disregards  the distinct history – and the pain – of people in the colonies and the conquered nations.

And then there is contemporary racism – what is happening now.  It’s clear enough that history plays a part in forming the condition and opportunities which shape the experience of disadvantage: the position of indigenous peoples, or the continued inequalities affecting people of Irish descent in the UK, are markers.  History matters, but it doesn’t matter that much. The kind of issue that should be exciting all our concern is not about a remote history. People who have some tenuous connection with foreign countries are being stripped of their rights.  The policy is, deliberately and explicitly, ‘hostile’.  Citizens are being expelled from their countries.    Migrants are left to drown.  People are being killed in the streets.

This is about the world as it is now, not as once it was.  This morning, David Lammy has been making a powerfully articulate case for government action about things that matter – among them,  policing, safeguarding people from minority groups and workplace discrimination.  We have loads of information, reports and recommendations for action.  Nothing is being done about them.

We have to make up for a gulf in educational provision

I wonder if we have forgotten what schooling is for. The system we have – or perhaps, had – is far from perfect, but for years teachers and schools have been arguing that missing school is enormously damaging to children as people, and parents have been subject to huge pressure (and often legal action) to ensure that not even a day is missed.

The things that children learn in school aren’t easily summed up in terms of bits of knowledge, or anything as mechanical as a national curriculum.  Education is all about development.  The point of insisting that every child comes to school is not because they will learn, on a given day in March or April, a particular thing that they must learn ; it is so that they can grow, build skills, change, and develop.

Our  public authorities seem, however, to be taking this in a very different spirit.  There’ll be supplementary programmes over the summer: children will be taught faster to catch up.  They will be processed through the system.  Those facing exams will be allocated grades regardless of what they might actually be achieving.  In The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow may have no brain, but the wizard can offer him a certificate. This is not much better.

Pupils need to make up for lost time and opportunities – already somewhat more than a full term, and arguably rather more. That implies that the educational career of every schoolchild needs to be extended, probably by half a year at least.  We will need more teachers and more resources: we can do that.  But anything less will not be good enough.

The European Union and the new social policy

The Journal of European Social Policy has launched a blog, intending to consider some of the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for Europe.  The first entry is a dialogue between some leading scholars about the prospects for the EU, in what Frank Vandenbroucke calls an ‘existential moment’.  Unfortunately, the editors haven’t quite grasped yet two of the most basic principles of blogging: put the blog where people can find it, and keep things short. The link to the site is here , and as that link is 379 characters long, here is a shortened form to pass on:

The dialogue did set me  thinking about the role of the EU in this crisis, and that of course is its purpose.  I think it’s fair to say that the experience of Brexit has shifted my view of the EU, and the answers I might give to several key questions are different from those I would have given in the 1990s (my 1996 article on “Social Policy in a Federal Europe” is accessible here).

First: what is the EU?  25 years ago, I would have said that it was a set of political institutions aiming to establish common laws and principles across nations.  The EU had asserted ‘exclusive competence’ in a range of areas, and its member states had acceded to the general principle that some things were beyond their power or capacity.  Now, I would describe the EU as little more than an association of states, where every joint action, regardless of the nominal powers of the Union, has to be negotiated and is liable to be locked in limbo.

Second: what responsibility does the EU have to its citizens?  In the 1990s, the answer seemed clear: the EU had made a commitment to offer to each and every citizen of the Union a set of rights and statuses that were distinct from, and not dependent on, the actions of its member states.  That is what the European Charter of Fundamental Rights said.  It has become clear, from the process of Brexit, that this guarantee was worthless: the EU has simply abandoned its commitments to sixty million European citizens.    The Union, it seems, is nothing more than a club, and if a member state doesn’t wish to subscribe to the rules of the club, the citizens who live there can’t expect to have access to the facilities.

Third:  what does it mean to say the EU works on a principle of solidarity?  The idea of solidarity is central to the arguments made by the contributors to the JESP dialogue –  Bea Cantillon, for example, complains that “The lack of solidarity is a shameful mockery of all the great principles enshrined in the Treaties.”  The European view of solidarity was always, I think, more nuanced than this.  European solidarity would be built, not by the adoption of universal European rights and policies, but through the establishment of networks of mutual responsibility, both within and across national borders; generalisation happens slowly and incrementally.  In the context of the current crisis, however, Vandenbroucke argues, I think rightly, that the EU already has the powers it needs to act.

 In the current context, solidarity requires large-scale ‘disaster relief’. The European treaties not only make this possible, they even demand it: Art. 222 TFEU stipulate that the Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the victim of a natural or man-made disaster; Art. 122 TFEU makes financial assistance to members states threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters….

If this is not happening, it is only another mark of the unwillingness of the EU to accept direct responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.   The contributors to the dialogue are fearful that the EU may not survive this crisis, if it remains inactive.  If it does nothing, it may not deserve to survive.


Coronavirus: another week of mismanagement, misleading statements and mixed messages.

There are good things to say about the response to the pandemic.  The response of health service staff is beyond reproach.  Many people in hazardous occupations – cleaners, refuse workers and police – have carried on despite an almost complete absence of appropriate protections.  The public have behaved wonderfully.  The central response to a plague  is not to ensure 100% compliance from every individual: it’s for enough people to change their behaviour to make an impact, and that’s certainly been happening.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government or for the public authorities.   The most obvious problems have been about preparedness – it’s not as if there were no warnings – and procurement.  This comes from The Lancet:

February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily. It is, indeed, as one health worker wrote last week, “a national scandal”. The gravity of that scandal has yet to be understood.

Then we have a series of misleading statements from the government about what is happening.  Some are prevarications – that discussion of strategy is impossible at this stage, that there is consolation to be drawn from the horrifying figures, and so on.  But some have been downright lies: that the Prime Minister was in good spirits and actively engaged at the point where he was about to go into hospital, that 19 members of NHS staff had died when the government already knew there were 36, or that there is a full supply of personal protective equipment when the ministry has deliberately degraded the acceptable standard of that equipment.  The government is behaving as if it had a monopoly of information, which it doesn’t, and that it is not open to scrutiny or discussion, which it must be.

And then there are the mixed messages, usually preceded by the fatuous claim that ‘we have been perfectly clear’.  Confusion is easy: two prominent public figures have been pilloried for taking steps that were within some guidelines and not within others.  For the avoidance of doubt, social distancing (or physical distancing) is not the same as staying at home, and staying at home is not the same as isolation or quarantine.  Having a ‘reasonable excuse’ for travelling is not the same as ‘travelling only for expressly permitted tasks’.  The government seems to favour ‘stay at home’ as a message, thinking (disputably)  that it is straightforward, but it is a message with exceptions; it’s really not clear why they think this is more likely to be effective than ‘keep your distance’.

There’s a bitter lesson to be drawn from France, where the rules have been much stricter but the spread of the disease has been at least as bad and arguably worse.  What matters is breaking connections that lead to cross-infections.  The current strategy may be having an effect, but what we can’t tell in the absence of decent information is how large that effect is, or whether it’s enough.

That leads us back, in a circle, to the mismanagement of the problem – the failure from the earliest days to test and trace.  We have few usable indicators: verified hospital admissions and deaths (the ONS is adding in deaths not in hospital).  I very much doubt that the government does not have stats for notifications of COVID-type illness made to NHS 111 – it is, after all, a notifiable disease – and they should be pressed to release them.   There may, too, be another indicator that we have the capacity to obtain: the presence of COVID-19 in sewage. The purpose of indicators is not to obtain a precise and accurate individual count: it’s to see the general direction of movement when taken along with other indicators.  Indicators travel best in convoys.  Given the lack of general community testing, it’s the best we can do.

Towards an exit strategy

The government and its advisers have fobbed off repeated queries about an exit strategy.  There was not enough information about the progress of the pandemic; it was too early to say; they didn’t want to distract from the message of social distancing.

I don’t know what our exit strategy should be, but I know what a strategy looks like, and none of those answers is relevant. A strategy, in this context, is a review of information, priorities, options and possible choices.  It’s not an action plan – that’s what you come up with after the approach has been agreed.  And if there’s only one option, and the choice has been made, it’s not a strategy –  it’s a policy.  Claiming that this is no time to consider an exit strategy is basically announcing that the government hasn’t thought about  what the priorities, options and choices might be.

I doubt that this is true.  The government almost certainly has a strategy; it just doesn’t want to tell us what its priorities, options and choices are, in case we, the public, should happen to disagree.  Their way is the only way.   It’s a fortress mentality – the same approach that they have taken to social protection, to Brexit, and to recent measures to help business.  And invariably it leads to worse decisions than there would be if the matter was opened to informed discussion.

One of the defining characteristics of a democracy, Joshua Cohen argues, is that it is ‘deliberative’: people are able to engage, to discuss and to disagree.  For any strategy to work in the current crisis, the government has to bring people along with it.  If they don’t consult about their options and choices, it puts compliance in jeopardy.  Imposing a single, authoritative policy is not ‘leadership’; it’s arrogance.

Additional note, 8th April I am feeling the same sense of irritation at statements that the government cannot ‘review’ its policy, as the Prime Minister promised.  It is too early to end the lock-down, they say.  ‘Review’ does not mean ‘bring to a close’; it means that one looks at a policy to see how it is working.  And it’s pretty clear that while some parts of the policy are working very well, others aren’t. 

The bits that are working:

  • there has been excellent compliance from the bulk of the population, slowing the spread.  We don’t need full compliance; we just need there to be enough.
  • time has been bought for the NHS to cope – we have reasonable hopes that what happened in Italy will not happen here.
  • food distribution – the supermarkets have done brilliantly.

The bits that aren’t:

  • social care provision – the model that depends on multiple visits by peripatetic staff doesn’t work
  • the protection of front line workers
  • the protection of people’s incomes 
  • management of access to public spaces, such as parks – closing them is bad practice
  • restrictions which have nothing to do with the spread of the disease – the ending of legal transactions, stopping people going to allotments, visits to second homes (the test is social distancing, not travel) and over-zealous policing.  Whatever happened to ‘reasonable’ grounds  for going out?
  • policing of abuses.  Where is the heavy equipment that was supposed to be used for major construction projects today?   (I ask because I already know it’s not where it’s supposed to be.)

The UK’s response to coronavirus has been marked by incompetence.

It’s a difficult situation for any government to manage, but the problems  produced by coronavirus have been marked by muddle and incompetence in the response from the government.  I think we can exonerate them of three serious charges.  It was not inappropriate to delay the initial response: they judged, that people would not comply with instructions until they were convinced of the seriousness of the situation, and so it proved.  It was not obviously wrong, before the numbers became apparent, to ask whether the disease could be allowed to run its course with with only moderate social distancing.  (An illuminating set of simulations, published online by the Washington Post,  suggests that this strategy would still have been more effective than quarantines.)  And it is not wrong to impose restrictions that cannot be adequately enforced.  The nature of the disease’s spread is that every reduction in social activity limits the potential of the disease to spread.  It cannot be stopped, but it can be delayed, and delay makes it more possible for services to cope and ultimately to the availability of a vaccine.

Having said that, there have been several marked problems in the government’s response to the situation. The problems include:

    • Preparation
      • The lack of testing means that the government has not been able to keep track of what is happening, let alone manage public health issues such as contact tracing.
      • The failure to provide personal protective equipment for medical staff is utterly disgraceful.  Hospitals have become a danger zone.
    • Protection
      • The government’s first response was to protect business; its second response was to protect employees.  There are still major problems evident in the protection of people in precarious employment and those on benefits.  I have covered those issues separately.
    • Process
      • Contradictory and inconsistent advice.  There have been frequent, repeated, muddled statements from different government ministers and advisers about what is required, what the rules are, and who is affected.  Instructions are imprecise.  For example, there is still prevarication about what is essential work, such as whether or not construction can proceed.  And if the aim is self-contained households with minimal interaction, what is wrong with individuals working alone on an allotment?
      • Announcements have been sudden and immediate, making it difficult for people to close business or even to move physically to the right location for isolation.
      • Over-reaction.  The police have criticised the public for going to isolated places to walk and exercise.  I am in the middle of a house move – my furniture left on the van on Friday – but the registration of  property transactions has stopped,  and the Law Society has advised solicitors not to conclude business.  I don’t claim any medical expertise, but I think I can say with confidence that coronavirus cannot leap down the circuitry of internet communications to emerge at the other end and eat you.

Covid-19: a few questions about the government advice

I was asked once to examine a sick sheep.  What I know about the diseases of sheep and other animals wouldn’t cover the head of a pin, but I manfully walked up to the sheep in question.  It promptly got up and ran away.  I was able at least to call back, “It’s alive”.  It’s always nice to find oneself in a position to make definitive pronouncements, and it seems to me that many of the statements coming from government have at least as much authority as I did with the sheep.

The strategy of the UK government is to normalise the illness, as we have done with other killers such as influenza: allow for large numbers of healthy adults to be infected, reserve special defences for people who are particularly vulnerable, and accept that some people will die.

This position is out of step with the WHO advice, which is to contain the illness.  It is not indefensible, but there are a few holes to fill in the policy.

Question 1:  How will we know if the government’s strategy is working?  If there is no routine testing, we cannot say much if anything about numbers – and so, we will find it difficult to say whether or not the policy is working.

Question 2: What is the cost of telling people not to seek help?  The recommendation to self-isolate and soldier on through the course of the disease depends heavily on people contacting services in due course when problems become serious.  That involves more than self-isolation: it depends on self-assessment.  How many people will this kill?

Question 3:  What happens to people who can’t self-isolate?  The advice that is being given asks people to isolate themselves within their home, to keep a distance and not to make contact with others.  That is feasible for about two-thirds of the UK population.   The others don’t necessarily have a space they can isolate themselves in.  Some have no home; some share their bedrooms with others.  And we might point out that the UK government has issued various edicts requiring poorer people to share rooms.  It is the policy of the UK government not to permit people on benefit to be supported if they have spare rooms, and to penalise them financially  if they do.

Question 4: What happens to people on benefits?  As things currently stand,  there are severe penalties for non-compliance with benefit regulations, including the requirement to seek work, to attend meetings and appointments, and to be available.  Benefit claimants have limited room for manoeuvre – there are limits on how many periods of sickness and how long a person can be excused.

Question 5.  Where, in a society in lockdown, will people’s income come from?  In the short term, the problems identified in questions 3 and 4 could be dealt with in part by two immediate measures:  stop the bedroom tax, and stop all sanctions.  There is a more severe underlying problem, however: our economy and our labour market do not deliver regular, stable incomes for many people.   Under the old system of Unemployment Benefit, people reduced to short-term working or interruption of earnings would receive direct help, based not on a personalised means test but a simple question, about whether or not they had worked on that day (any day where someone had earned £2 was deemed to be a day at work).  We no longer have that system.  Successive governments have undermined the principle of social protection.  We need it more than ever.

More bad science: race and IQ again

Just when we think the arguments can’t sink much lower, some kids have a party in the crypt and the dead walk again.  Dominic Cummings wants to select designer babies with higher IQs.  Andrew Sabisky repeats the canard that African Americans have lower IQs than whites.  There’s been no direct comment from Boris Johnson, but he’s on the record as believing stuff about IQ: “it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 … while 2% have an IQ above 130 … And the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”.

IQ tests are supposed to be a proxy for Spearman’s ‘g‘, an underlying factor denoting general intelligence and intellectual potential.  There are two common complaints about that.  The first is that it’s not obvious that anything called general intelligence actually exists.  The second is that even if it does, it’s not clear that g is the underlying factor that IQ tests measure.  It’s much more plausible to suggest that IQ tests  reflect the skills that people gain through education.  The suggestion that people in some racial groups have lower IQ looks very different if we understand it to mean that some groups are disadvantaged in education, educational testing and educational attainment.  We wouldn’t expect a different result.

The other side of the IQ debate is, of course, the assertion that g, and IQ, both reflect people’s genetic endowment.  To establish genetic influence, the believers have relied extensively on twin studies.  There are three big problems with that.  First, twins are generally reared together; they have a common background as well as a common genetic inheritance.  Second, the data are rigged: twins are often accepted as monozygotic on the say-so of their parents rather than a genetic test, and twins where one is disabled (although such twins still have common genetic factors) are routinely discounted from the studies.  And that rigging points to the third problem: the cultists are determined to prove their case, regardless of what the evidence actually shows.  Of course, they say, social factors must be inherited.  Of course that will be manifest in twin studies.  Of course, if genetic evidence isn’t there, it must be lurking in there somewhere. This is very bad science; a scientist is supposed to set out to disprove a proposition, not to prove it.  Twin studies could prove something; they could show, if there are differences in monozygotic twins (such as the known differences in sexuality), that the difference cannot be genetically determined.   But that is not what the scientists are looking for.

From twin studies we have estimates of ‘heritability’.   Many believers claim that this is a measure of genetic influence; it isn’t.  Technically, heritability refers not to genes, but to a combination of genotype and phenotype.  In practice, that combines genetic and environmental influences; it is supposed to disregard familial influences such as culture and language, but in practice that can only be done by weeding those out of a study.  In human terms, heritability means only that something runs in the family.  And that, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, is not the same thing as genetic influence.

Scientists have not been able to link genes, either individually or in combination,  with intelligence – or indeed, with any other social trait.  The problem has been discussed in Nature under the heading of ‘missing heritability’. Differences in physical traits such as height are hardly explained by genetic endowments.  That shouldn’t be surprising, because the progressive gain in height over the past few generations has clearly been environmental, and the environmental difference is so large that it far outweighs the limited, if more extreme, genetic influences.  There is a more recent summary of the state of play here. Like many people in the field, the writer still seems to be convinced that there is something there to be found.  If there is, it’s well hidden.  The fact remains that after 150 years of trying, no-one has been able to prove that factors like intelligence are inherited.  Indeed, one of the assertions made by specialists in this field  is that there is a ‘regression to the mean’.  So their case is held to be proved if children are cleverer than their parents (that’s ‘breeding’), proved if one generation is like another, and proved if children are not as clever.  This is pseudo-science.

The problem that people like me have in engaging with this kind of topic is that believers in genetic influences often assert that their expertise exempts them from critical scrutiny by non-specialists.  Eysenck, whenever he was faced with criticism for the rubbish he published about IQ and inheritance, would deride the critic for not devoting his or her self to the study of the psychology of intelligence. Of course none of the critics would have done that, because no-one wants to waste their life refining the measurement of meaningless claptrap.  You might as well devote your attention to astrology, or ley lines, or the mystic significance of the great pyramid. And you don’t, as Dr Johnson said, need to be a carpenter to know that a table wobbles.  It takes more than scientific method to make a study scientific.


Bad science: eugenics hasn’t gone away

Over the course of last couple of days, it’s emerged not only that number 10 appointed a believer in eugenics to the Cabinet Office, and that Dominic Cummings believes the same sort of drivel, but that a clutch of other people think this is all a perfectly respectable argument.  Richard Dawkins tweeted:

And ideology, it seems, obliterates evidence about eugenics, which we have in abundance.  The ‘why’ is easy to answer.  First, there is no evidence that the characteristics people like this would wish to foster can be arrived at by selective breeding.  In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that poverty was the result of ‘degeneracy’, and that a series of social problems – crime, poverty, madness and disability – were inherited.  This was all rubbish.  The ‘scientific’ studies that were published were, by modern standards, fraudulent; the writers were so convinced it must be true that they didn’t mind a bit of embroidery.

Second, the characteristics that eugenicists want to stop are mainly socially determined.  Andrew Sabisky, the Downing Street adviser at the centre of the storm, was arguing that

“One way to get around problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.”

Teenage pregnancy occurs across the social classes, but poorer girls are more likely to choose to keep the baby – it’s a positive choice.  Most girls in this position find a partner later, and partnering plays a major role in breaking any trend to long-term dependency.  There is no permanent underclass.

Third, the methods of eugenic policies are repugnant – I’d recommend Carlson’s excellent history, The Unfit: history of a bad idea.  Forced sterilisations and selective euthanasia  were tried, notably in Virginia and later in Nazi Germany. There’s no defence for this.  And there is no evidence to suppose that in Dawkin’s sense, any of this ‘worked’. I admit freely that selective breeding of animals has led to more productive yields for those eating meat.  When I next want to eat a better tasting baby, I’ll know who to call.  I see no reason, however, to suppose that any amount of selective breeding will lead to more perceptive, morally considerate scientists – much as we need them.