Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Polling Inquiry and a Public Good

A few months ago I wrote about Prof. Patrick Sturgis’ Cathie Marsh Lecture, which dealt with the same topic as the then-forthcoming preliminary findings of the Polling Inquiry. A couple of days later I went to the release of those preliminary findings, at which Prof. Sturgis again featured heavily (being, as he is, the Chair of the Inquiry), and this is my selective summary of the key points as well as some of my own thoughts. I thought I’d publish them now because it’s almost a year since the general election and because we have elections and a referendum (plus, naturally, accompanying polling) approaching. If you’re interested in more detail, then you can read the full Polling Inquiry report here.

The first thing to note from the release of the preliminary findings is that the extent to which the polling companies got their prediction of the general election result wrong was not especially out of line with the normal magnitude of error in estimations of results based on polls. True, the underestimation of the Conservative share of the vote seems to be getting worse over time, which is a matter for the attention of the polling companies, but it was not dramatically worse in 2015 than it had been for other elections. Thus, since the results weren’t especially bad, the problem lay in part with the story that was told. In other words, this wasn’t just a problem of numbers but also one of narrative. If the results had been equally inaccurate but predicted a Conservative victory, then the hot water that the polling companies found themselves in after election day would have been decidedly lukewarm. This is something that the polling companies are aware of but, I presume, they’re also aware that it might appear a bit churlish for them to hark on about the problem being the story rather than their numbers (which had demonstrable problems). Nevertheless, it’s interesting that one of the first points to emerge from the preliminary findings of an inquiry into the error in the 2015 polls is that it wasn’t that unusual.

Error there certainly was, though, so it was worth the Inquiry moving on to consider what might have caused it. The first step was to list the things that they’re pretty confident weren’t major contributing factors, which eliminated postal voting, voter registration, overseas voters, question wording or framing, differential turnout misreporting, and mode of interview. The first three items on that list are no great surprise but the latter three might have been expected to be more of an issue. The amount of academic research on how to word questions in surveys is indicative of how important it can be. However, the Inquiry found no evidence that asking people how they’d vote in different ways made anything more than a modest systematic difference to the results. Of more relevance outside polling and academic circles, the elimination of differential turnout misreporting as an explanation rules out one of the more public arguments made after May the 7th. In other words, it seems that all the talk of ‘lazy Labour voters’ (who said they’d turn up on polling day and cast their votes for Ed Miliband’s party, but ended up not doing so) was wide of the mark. Similarly, and finally, the oft-cited issue of whether you survey people by phone or over the internet seems not to have been an issue in 2015.

So, if it wasn’t any of the above stuff, what the heck was going on? Well, it seems that the polling companies had too many Labour voters in their samples. This, as Prof. Sturgis was careful to joke, might seem like a rather obvious answer: “Why did you think Labour were going to win the general election?” “Um, because we asked lots of Labour voters.”[1] Of course, there was much data presented that supported this conclusion. In particular, analyses of British Election Study (BES) and British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey data, which resulted from something more akin to random probability sampling, revealed predicted results that were much closer to the actual election outcome. Indeed, when only the keen early respondents in the BES and BSA data (who are more like the (keen) respondents to online quota sample surveys) were analysed, the predicted election result was closer to those proffered by the polling companies. In particular, the polling companies appear to have had too many people at the younger end of the oldest age group in their sample. Because age is positively related to turning out it seems that these ‘younger older’ people meant that the polling companies underestimated how many older people would turn out to vote and thus underestimated the Conservative vote (because older people are more likely than younger people to vote Conservative). Similarly, and at the other end of the age spectrum, the polling companies also appear to have had too many keen younger voters in their samples. This lead to an overestimation of the number of younger people who would turn out to vote and thus an overestimation of the Labour vote (because younger people are more likely than older people to vote Labour).

With the main cause of the polling miss identified the obvious next step is to consider what can be done about it. There are two options: improve the samples (to make them more representative of the population) or improve the weighting (especially but not only in relation to predicting likelihood of turning out). Those options aren’t mutually exclusive and, as an example, YouGov (who I’ve worked for in the past and who have co-funded my PhD research) have made it clear that they will be addressing both of those points. There are, of course, multiple ways to improve samples and weighting and, helpfully, the event hinted at some tentative recommendations. These suggested that although changes to the methodologies used by the polling companies will be needed to improve their samples, it will not be necessary for them to move to random probability sampling (which is appropriate for academic research but not necessarily for fast-turnaround polling). There may also be recommendations relating to the British Polling Council’s regulations on transparency and to the reporting and interpretation of polls. Crucially, it was emphasised that there is not a silver bullet to eliminate this problem; it is only possible to reduce, rather than remove, the risk of future polling misses.

The lack of a quick fix was a nice note to end on and I reckon the polling companies will be working on improving their results via as many (financially viable) routes as are available to them. From my perspective, the emphasis should very much be on improving the samples rather than focusing on improving weighting. This is for both a technical reason and a principled reason. In the former case, weighting of results should only ever be the last step in a process that is designed to make results as representative as possible before then. In other words, weighting should be a means to tweak results rather than to make them significantly more representative. Following this logic, it is fair to argue that the goal should be make the results as accurate as possible as early in the process as possible. This points towards the recruitment of more representative panels of respondents, and not just in terms of demographics (though they are important). This, in turn, leads me to the point of principle: in so far as polls profess to give us an insight into the views off the public, they should be based on samples that represent that public as accurately as possible. In particular, this means that there need to be a lot more people who are less politically engaged in the panels that polling samples are drawn from. Of course polling companies are commercial bodies and do not have unlimited resources, but I think this is something that they should prioritise.

Focussing on recruiting less politically engaged people to polling samples could even bear financial fruit in the future, not only by making polling results less liable to be wide of the mark but also by creating the possibility of asking questions to samples of such people. It’s difficult to recruit less politically engaged people to answer polls but I’m not yet at the stage of thinking it should be given up on. That said, there’s also a risk that asking those people lots of questions about politics could rapidly transform them into being more politically engaged. Clearly this is not the purpose of polling companies, and it would place a burden on them to continue recruiting less politically engaged people, but it’s hardly a negative externality. This brings me to the concept of the public good. I think it’s useful to have information about what people in the population think about politics and the government available more than once every five years. Yes, polls can be misused and abused. Yes, politicians can pay too much attention to them. Yes, they can become the focus of too much media coverage (which can risk presenting them as absolute truth).[2] However, I also think that they can provide a complement to other worthwhile expressions of public opinion such as petitions, letter-writing, public meetings, protests, strikes, and direct actions. Crucially, the more they provide an outlet for people who are less inclined to do any of those things (i.e. less politically engaged people) the more they are a complement to those other means of expression. Thus, to my mind, the prize is not just polls that tell us something about public opinion, but polls that can also offer an outlet to those who might not otherwise say anything.

 


[1] This puts me in mind of my travels around the U.S. in 2004. I came back convinced that the Kerry-Edwards ticket was a nigh-on guaranteed victory. It was only after George W. Bush won his second term that I realised that my travels around the U.S. had only been to New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Hardly Republican strongholds.

[2] The issue of whether polls are true taps into a wider, and fundamental, academic debate in the social sciences (and, no doubt other fields) about what, if anything, we can know. I obviously do not, and cannot, resolve that debate here but, I’m largely of the opinion that polls tell us something true but are very far from telling us the whole truth. This means we need to be very careful, every time we see a poll, to establish what the something true that it’s telling us is, and be cautious not to generalise beyond that.

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Seven Reasons Why I’m Not Watching Game of Thrones

Putting aside the well-rehearsed arguments about racial stereotypes and the fact that the latest season has been massively overhyped (thanks Sky), which is always apt to make be balk at something, there are at least seven reasons why I’m not watching Game of Thrones. They are, in no particular order, as follows:

  1. The evil, scheming queen who only cares about her children will continue to:
    • be evil;
    • be scheming;
    • only care about her children.
  1. The difficult-to-read, scheming man with a weird quasi-Irish accent will continue to:
  1. The dark, driven, ruthless wannabe-king will continue to:
  1. The righteous queen with a court full of admirers, and who’s struggling with what it means to rule, will continue to:
    • be righteous;
    • have a court full of admirers;
    • struggle with what it means to rule.
  1. The quick-witted, revenge-driven tomboy will continue to:
    • be quick-witted;
    • be revenge-driven;
    • be a tomboy.
  1. The clever, world-weary drunkard will continue to:
    • be clever;
    • be world-weary;
    • be frequently drunk.
  1. The noble female knight driven by honour will continue to:
    • be noble;
    • be female (how novel);
    • be driven by honour.

Are you bored by the format of what I’ve written so far? If so, good. Now you have some inkling of how bored I am of Game of Thrones, which is populated not by characters but by caricatures. I don’t know whether this is the fault of George R. R. Martin (I haven’t read the books and I don’t intend to waste my time doing so (especially since they will apparently never end)) or of those who adapted it for screen. What I do know is that whoever’s responsible sure can string out the same old repetitive cycle of schemes, intrigue, and violence forever. And forever. And forever. Or until it stops making money. Whichever is sooner. Oh yes, and, of course, there’ll be the requisite thing-you-didn’t-see-coming. Holy shit! A thing I didn’t see coming! That makes all the hours I poured into watching these empty, unrealistic caricatures stabbing, shagging, and double-crossing each other worthwhile. For the love of the crows, give me proper well-rounded characters! Please. Is that too much to ask? Right, rant over. I’m off to watch something else. Something from the universe of entertainment that isn’t over-long, over-hyped, and full of caricatures.

 


[1] And if all my predictions here turn out to be wrong? Well, then, bully for those who make Game of Thrones.

Two MPs’ Views on Public Political Engagement

This post is a complement to one that I wrote to report the launch of the Hansard Society 2015 Audit of Political Engagement. There were two MPs at the event to respond to the findings of the Audit and, after making many and varied points and sharing some (often very funny) anecdotes and quips, they took nicely distinct positions. I’m not going to name them or their parties because I’m more interested in the ideas that they presented than in the individuals themselves (engaging though they were).

The first MP’s response to the Audit can be pretty much summarised as ‘the public are a confusing and contradictory lot.’ I find this sort of sentiment frustrating because it suggests judgement of the public by a politician and because it seems to expect the public to coordinate their opinions so that they are more easily interpretable, rather than expecting politicians to think about the possible reasons for superficially contradictory opinion. Further, I don’t think that the public are necessarily any more confusing and contradictory than any other big group of people (be they MPs, party activists, or another group) who are confronted with complex topics on which they are expected to have an opinion. I have written on this more extensively in relation to vote choice elsewhere, but it seems clear to me that there could be many factors affecting the positions that people take on politics at any given time. More importantly, the examples cited by the MP were not, to my mind, necessarily contradictory.

To take a specific case, it was observed that 75% percent of respondents to the Audit think that referendums should be used for important decisions, but only 59% report that they are certain to vote in the EU referendum. This was taken as a contradiction but it isn’t. It’s perfectly possible to think that referendums in general are a good thing but to accept that circumstances might stop you voting in a particular referendum. Further, it’s perfectly reasonable for members of the public to indicate their uncertainty on a complex topic like, say, the EU by stating that they aren’t sure to vote on that topic. If someone doesn’t feel sure that they understand an issue should they be expected to vote on it because they think voting is a worthwhile thing? I don’t think so and, in fact, I think that the logical corollary of the right to vote is the right not to vote, for instance if you are uncertain.

Similarly, the MP suggested that the public is ‘schizophrenic’ about Prime Minister’s Questions because it is the event for which most people want tickets and yet polls consistently show a majority who disapprove of the conduct and manner of debate there. Of course, it’s not difficult to see that this isn’t a contradiction; a majority of the public can disapprove of something but that leaves a (potentially sizeable) minority who approve of it. In other words, it’s perfectly possible that all those people who want tickets to Prime Minister’s Questions are members of the public who approve of how it currently works. Or alternatively, because it’s probably the most prominent example of parliamentary debate in the UK it’s also possible that people know about it and thus apply to see it when they want to see Parliament in action. There may be other explanations but the key point here is that it’s not necessary to think that the public are confusing and contradictory. Indeed, as I noted when I wrote about the range of motives for voting for candidates, when politicians dismiss political behaviour that doesn’t make sense to them it demonstrates a lack of willingness to think about why the public might be behaving that way.

Much more positively, the second MP who responded to the Audit showed a greater willingness to accept the idea that it’s easy for politicians to become disconnected from members of the public. This was a nice counterbalance to the first MP’s view in the sense that it acknowledges that MPs have some responsibility to engage with, and understand, the public. Indeed, the second MP gave a fascinating and vivid example of how the actions of politicians can dampen public engagement. Citing the hypothetical example of a leisure centre being built, they noted how a local MP would be sure to get their picture taken at the opening and claim credit for getting it built. In fact, such projects are usually the results of a whole host of actors coming together. Members of the public might make comments to councillors, who could then start raising the issue with the officers at the council, who may then note that the area is affected by problems relating to lack of exercise, resulting in a proposal for a leisure centre. The local MP will probably only get involved in the process towards the end, and even then is only likely to intervene by offering support for an existing plan. Thus, for the MP to take credit for the leisure centre is inaccurate and, crucially, removes agency from all the other people, including local residents, who contributed to the process.

The second MP also went on to say that the public wants MPs to get on with doing things for the country rather than be seen to do things for their own benefit. Indeed, it was noted that when people say ‘you’re all the same’ about politicians it may well be an observation that they’re not seen to care about ‘normal people’. This was a polite rebuttal to the first MP’s observation that there is a contradiction between the public wanting MPs to work together but also to have distinct positions. This may be a difficult balance to achieve but I think it’s a lot easier to move towards it if you make the effort to understand and interpret what members of the public say rather than dismissing their opinions. Thus, again, I had a lot for sympathy for the second MP’s position, and was pleased to see such obvious efforts to understand some of the reasons for the opinions that members of the public express. Crucially, whilst I disagreed with the first MP it was great to have two such distinct positions expressed in the same space so that they brought each other into contrast. Thus, I thought the Hansard Society did a good job of complementing their presentation of the 2015 Audit of Political Engagement with some lively, if indirect, political debate.

Report on the Launch of the 2015 Audit of Political Engagement

 

Introduction:

This morning I was at the launch of the Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement, which is, as always, a laudable and valuable piece of work. For those of you who don’t want, or don’t have time, to read the whole report (and couldn’t make it to the launch) I thought I’d summarise what was said. I’ll stick to the structure that they used in this post, but I’ve also written a separate post (with a little more with opinion) on what was said by the two MPs who were invited to pass comment at the launch.

I always await the Audit with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, the former because it’s a fascinating piece of work, the latter in case it answers all the questions I’m focussing on in my own research. This year was no exception and, fortunately, they rewarded my excitement and proved my trepidation misplaced (though, from a less self-interested perspective it would be brilliant to have the Hansard Society looking into the structural and perceptual influences on political engagement). The launch event was at Parliament, which is fitting given that the focus is on engagement with that institution, though I worry that it makes it less accessible to the public at large. Still, it was open to those who wanted to attend, and was constituted by a succinct summary of some key points emerging from the data.[1] These can be grouped under the headings of the election effect, perceptions of Parliament, and the EU referendum.

 

The Election Effect:

There appears to have been a post-election bounce in political engagement, with some areas showing much higher levels than in 2014. More people reported certainty to vote (up by 10% to 59%), interest in politics (up by 8% to 57%), knowledge of politics (up by 8% to 55%), satisfaction with politics (up by 7% to 33%), and a sense of efficacy (up by 3% to 35%). As you can see, the latter two areas have much lower levels of engagement than the others, which has also consistently been the case in the past. In addition, I noticed a trend that wasn’t commented on; there were distinct peaks in many of these areas in both 2010 and 2015 (i.e. general election years) with an apparent decline in between.

The above trends in engagement hold across age groups although, despite the positive movement, young people were still the least likely to report certainty to vote (39% compared to 59% overall). At the same time, the Audit recorded the highest level of party support (41% being either very or fairly strong party supporters) since the beginning of the series in 2004. I’m intrigued by whether the link between the increased engagement amongst younger people and increased party support could be, in part, the ‘Corbyn effect’, which has been widely reported to have engaged younger people.

Interestingly however, the above uptick in engagement was counterbalanced by a decline in the sense of influence at the national level reported by respondents (13% feel influential compared to 17% in 2014). As is commonly the case, the reported sense of influence was also lower at national level than at local level (with 25% feeling influential at local level), whilst also being lower than the reported desire to be involved at both local and national level (46% and 41%, respectively wish to be involved at those levels). Thus, more people wish to get involved in politics than think they can influence it, perhaps because it doesn’t necessarily make sense to get involved with a system that you can’t influence, even if you’d like to. Of course, this is an abiding problem of political engagement; people need to get involved to influence politics but they won’t feel influential unless they get involved (and perhaps not even then).

 

Perceptions of Parliament:

Net reported knowledge of Parliament is now positive for the first time since the Audit began (i.e. more people report being knowledgeable than report not being knowledgeable, by a whopping 5%), though it would be interesting to see some measures testing knowledge (which should relate to both local and national contexts, and practical and abstract knowledge) alongside the question on self-perceived knowledge. There were also increases (again, between 2014 and 2015) in the number of respondents agreeing that Parliament ‘holds government to account’ (up by 7% to 42%), ‘encourages public involvement in politics’ (up by 3% to 28%), ‘is essential to democracy’ (up by 12% to 73%), ‘debates and makes decisions that matter to me’ (up by 10% to 58%). This very positive looking slew of findings, it was pointed out, could be another result of the election effect.

Satisfaction with Parliament also increased (by 5% when compared to the 2013 Audit, when it was last asked) but still stands at only 32%, which is lower than in the first Audit in 2004. Satisfaction with MPs continues to be higher in relation to local MPs (35% satisfied) than in relation to MPs in general (29% satisfied), though the gap is closing due to a big (6%) bump in satisfaction with MPs in general (perhaps surprisingly). Despite the closing gap, this remains a good example of the paradox of distance, in which people rate their local services (e.g. schools or hospitals) and the people they have encountered (e.g. immigrants they know or their local MP) more favourably than they do those services (e.g. education or health) or groups (e.g. immigrants or MPs) in general. This is could be logical because it is reasonable to assume that the national picture or a wide group of people will include more variation than the specific service or person you’ve encountered and thus may not be as good overall. Also, it could be explained on the grounds that that people are likely to be more favourable towards what they know and have experienced than they are towards distant or abstract concepts. Of course, a more pessimistic interpretation could be that people are disposed to be negative towards (or prejudiced against) some services and groups generally despite encountering examples of them being good individually.

Moving on, the Audit suggested that undertaking political acts continues to be a minority pursuit. Indeed, even in terms of willingness to undertake an act in the future (rather than reporting having done so in the past), only contacting an MP or Peer had more than half (52%) saying they would do it. Willingness to create or sign a paper petition came in second (with 35%, closely followed by paper petitions with 34% willing to create or sign one), and these two areas constitute by far and away the most used, or potentially used, routes to engage with politics. Importantly, almost all of the areas of political activity had increased in terms of both reported acts and willingness to act in future, which could well be another result of the general election. Lastly in this section, there was a statistically significant increase (the only time this was reported) in the belief that Prime Minister’s Questions deals with the important issues facing the country, and in agreement that it is grounds for pride in Parliament, though both are still very low (45% and 17% agreement respectively (despite each being up by 5% compared to 2014)).

 

The EU Referendum:

As a kind of footnote to the presentation of the results it was reported that there are high levels of interest and intent to vote in the EU referendum (63% interested, 59% certain to vote), coupled with low levels of satisfaction with and knowledge of the EU (21% satisfied, net -24% feel knowledgeable). It was thus suggested that there may be too much heat and not enough light in the debate around the referendum. This suggestion appeared to be contradicted by one of the MPs on the panel, who argued that people need to feel less like the referendum is a debate over technicalities between bureaucrats and more like it matters to day-to-day life, though I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to outline technical information about the referendum and relate it to the meaningful ways in which the outcome could impact on people’s lives. As with politics in general, the aim should be to strike a balance between being passionate and being informed, which can be a tough one to get right.

 

Conclusion:

All of the above was fascinating but I felt the launch was lacking in terms of considering who is engaged with politics. Are some groups more interested than others? Do some groups report undertaking more political acts than others? These are the questions relating to political engagement that underpin my research, along with questions of why any such differences between groups exist. Fortunately, the Hansard Society had a ready-made response in the form of the following summary paragraph (in the Audit and on the website) relating to inequalities in engagement:

‘Generally, the most politically engaged in the Audit series tend to be male, older, white, higher educated, affluent, home-owning citizens. The social class gap in electoral participation continues to rise: there is now a 37 percentage point difference between the certainty to vote levels of those in social classes AB and DE, an increase of six points in 12 months. However, the gap between the social classes tends to be much smaller in relation to questions about satisfaction with politics and institutions. Younger people (aged 18-24) are also more likely to be satisfied with the politics and institutions of our political system, and have a greater sense of their own potential to influence it than are other more generally engaged groups. This is also true of BME adults, although they are much less likely to say they have actually undertaken some form of political action than white adults in the last year.’

I find the first two sentences in the above the most striking, and I will certainly be reading the report more closely with them in mind. I also hope that when I finish my research (ideally sooner rather than later) I will be able to shed at least a sliver of light on why those discrepancies exist.

 


 

[1] In terms of methodology, the Audit is a time series study in its thirteenth year, and can be seen as an annual health check on the state of political engagement in the United Kingdom. The survey that all of the results are based on was fielded last December, by Ipsos MORI, to a representative sample of 1,231 British adults across Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland). The Audit should not be used at the basis for predictions, rather it is a snapshot at particular moment in time. It presents a complex and contradictory picture, which is unsurprising given people’s lukewarm attitudes towards Parliament (and politics).

 

On a Relative’s Benefits Tribunal

A few Fridays ago (fortunately not on Easter Friday) I got up early and caught the train to Cambridge, where I needed to attend the County Court. This was so that I could be present whilst a close relative went through a tribunal to appeal the withdrawal of her Disability Living Allowance and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) element of the benefits that replaced it. I am writing this post is to give an insight into the effect of the current (and last) government’s policies on disability benefits both on a recipient from whom they have been (partially) withdrawn and, much less importantly, on someone who’s not a recipient (i.e. me).

To give some context, my relative has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and has been signed off work by her GP for the last seven years. For those of you who wish to know more about the condition, you can read about it here, here, or here. My experience of having a relative with BPD is that she is fine most of the time but experiences episodes of acute depression or anxiety and self-harm. These can be more predictable, for instance when they are associated with a time of year, or less predictable, for instance when they are triggered by a negative experience, but there is always the possibility that such an episode is just around the corner. The likelihood of such an episode is reducing as my relative gets better at dealing with the patterns and triggers that affect her, as those around her improve their understanding of BPD, and also as the health service gets better at supporting people with such conditions. Still, the risk of an episode is ever-present, and is heightened when the government’s squeeze on spending threatens provision of things like the Complex Cases Service, which provides excellent support to those with personality disorders. The threat of closing such services is a threat to remove a safety net from those who demonstrably need it. It is worth noting that the government’s approach to limiting spending not only means that benefits are withdrawn from recipients but also that support services are closed or reduced at the same time, thus doubly impacting on users.

The last time my relative had a severe mental health episode was on the day that she received notification that her PIP was to be withdrawn by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP, still headed at the time by Iain Duncan Smith). It is clear that receipt of the letter from the DWP played an important part in triggering the episode. That was in October 2015, and my relative has had periods of acute anxiety and depression since then due to the fact that she has had her income notably reduced and has spent the entire period with an approaching tribunal hanging over her. It is testament to her resilience that she has borne the brunt of preparing for the tribunal and sought appropriate advice and support from Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB, one of the first services to be cut as a result of the last (and now the current) government’s austerity agenda), from Complex Cases, and from a friend who works for Unite the Union.

The particularly unpleasant twist in the above is that her very capacity to appeal the withdrawal of her PIP might be seen by some as evidence that she could get a job and cease receipt of benefits. Such a view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my relative’s condition, and this is a problem with the government’s assessment system that is being implemented by ATOS. By that assessment system’s reckoning my relative can make a cup of tea, cook for herself, and clean herself so she should not be entitled to PIP. It doesn’t matter that she has periodic and, at times, severe mental health episodes (which can be triggered, for instance, by the stress associated with a full-time job), the fact that she is physically able most of the time means that she doesn’t qualify. My relative’s capacity to live her life is mostly due to her own abilities but it is also, in part, to do with the support available to her from family, from friends, and from the state. All of those things are needed and they complement each other; the state can’t replace family or friends but neither can family and friends provide the financial support and mental health services that the state offers. The withdrawal of any one of those sources of support creates a more precarious situation for my relative.

When I arrived at the court on that Friday a few weeks ago my relative seemed fine (she can be good at hiding inner turmoil from those around her). As the time passed, however, it became increasingly apparent that the stress of being assessed (having already been assessed once by ATOS) was hard to bear. She was impatient for the tribunal to start and desperate for it to be over and to know the result. After the hour of the tribunal itself, during which I waited outside and my relative was supported by a lawyer from Citizens’ Advice Bureau, she emerged in tears. This was not because the tribunal panel itself had been horrible (indeed they approached the situation with admirable humanity) but because my relative had to prove that she deserved to receive the financial support that enables her to live her life. In some way, even despite the decency of the panel members, my relative was on trial, being asked to prove that she had a condition that justifies the support she receives. Never mind that her relatives and friends, her GP, and the staff who support her at Complex Cases had no doubts that she needed PIP. Never mind what the people who know her best think, a series of tick-boxes on an ATOS assessment form meant that my relative had to bear the burden of proving her right to receive support from the state.

The good news is that, after a short but tense period of deliberation (during which we waited outside), the tribunal panel ruled in favour of my relative, awarding her the standard payment from the DWP (including back-payment). This affirmed my broad faith in the British justice system,[1] and I’m thankful to the panel members (who I will probably never meet) and the lawyer from CAB who supported my relative. Still, she had to live through five months with her PIP withdrawn and a tribunal approaching. Thus, this government’s policies on disability benefits (even before the recent budget, resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, and subsequent capitulation on the part of the government) have had a direct negative impact on my relative and an indirect negative impact on me. I don’t for a moment resent or regret offering support to my relative, but I do oppose a government policy that places stresses and demands on those in receipt of benefits and also their families and friends. I had to balance attendance at the tribunal alongside my research, my teaching, and completing job applications, which was a psychologically exhausting experience. Whilst I don’t think this is the most important impact of the government’s benefits policies I do think that we should assess policies on all of the impacts that they have, and we can’t ignore the possibility that placing stress on recipients of benefits has a ripple effect that impacts on those around them as well.

I have tried to avoid hyperbole and generalisation in what I’ve written here, and provide insight into this particular case. However, I think we can safely say that the experience of my relative is not unique. Indeed, I also have a friend who has had to go through a tribunal to prove his chronic health condition warrants PIP payments (which, of course, it does, as his tribunal ruled). Further, I imagine that there are many who do not necessarily have the knowledge or skills to challenge the withdrawal of their benefits (my relative has resolved to used her experience to help such people). So, the cases that I know are not necessarily examples of the people who are most in need of help and support, and this puts me in mind of a conversation that I had with a friend before the 2010 general election. He was arguing that it will make little difference which party is elected because the country will largely continue to run regardless (e.g. bins will be collected, schools will stay open, and trains will keep running). I pointed out that it was very unlikely to be privileged people like us (we’re both educated, financially secure, white, heterosexual men with no disabilities or chronic health conditions) who would be significantly affected by a change in government. Rather, it is the less privileged who are most vulnerable to changes in government policy, and it seems clear to me that this has been the case since 2010. Indeed, I now have personal experience of the negative impact that the austerity agenda can have on someone who receives support from the state.

 

 

[1] On the basis of its capacity to make evidence-based decisions that challenge the unjust consequences of government policy, and thus to provide recourse for those who might not otherwise have it. In that light, let’s not even get started on cuts to legal aid.