Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference

 

The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.

 

[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.

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Historical abuse: witch-hunt, scapegoat, moral panic?

Dr Johanna Motzkau, The Open University.

Dr Nick Lee, University of Warwick.

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The scale of the historical child abuse committed by some individuals is startling. The fact that this abuse went unprosecuted for decades raises the question of how that could happen. Many people, us included, are struggling to make sense of it all.

How the issue is framed in popular culture, in policy debate and in academic life will have serious consequences both for further investigation of individual cases and for wider inquiries. We are concerned about the recent use of a cluster of terms in attempts to frame these events: witch-hunt, scapegoat and moral panic. Very recently Harvey Proctor accused police to be conducting a ‘gay witch hunt’ against him, a claim cited again in coverage about sexual abuse allegations against Paul Gambaccini being dropped.

These terms can all too easily frame normal processes of criminal prosecution and legitimate inquiries into past abuses as irrational and disproportionate. We can see why commentators would reach for these terms. Historical child sexual abuse is a very complex issue that raises doubts about children’s safety in the past and in the present, and about adults’ failings in their moral and professional duties to nurture and protect them. This is why responses are so often sought with urgency. Given this, readily available framing devices have a strong appeal. They are tools to help us make sense. But what kind of sense do these terms make? Each in its own way ends up minimising the reality of historical abuse and, just at the point where survivors are being heard, suggests we stop our ears once again.

The critical force of the term ‘witch-hunt’ rests on there being a consensus view that there are, in reality, either very few or no ‘witches’ at all. Further, a ‘witch-hunt’ would be conducted using deeply suspicious methods of gathering and testing evidence (including ‘witch dunking’). It is remarkable then that the term is used in the context of successful criminal prosecutions that have established that crimes did indeed take place. For example, the term had been bandied around by the media and commentators in June/July 2014 after Rolf Harris’ conviction.

In what sense could a proven sexual offender be understood as a ‘scapegoat’? Perhaps the idea is that as we go about judging the actions and mores of previous decades by our own contemporary standards we select individuals to carry a disproportionate load of blame for our culture’s historical shortcomings. But the actions in question were just as criminal decades ago as they are today.

‘Moral panic’ is, perhaps, the most sophisticated of this cluster of terms. It derives from the work of criminologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970’s. The basic idea was that when a given group of people share the sense that they are losing social influence, they may try to regain their status by campaigning against a putative moral or behavioural trend or event. So-called ‘moral entrepreneurs’ who lead such campaigns can benefit. It’s a strong idea and generalizes well beyond 1970’s UK criminology. Campaigns against nuclear weapons, abortion and GM crops have been just as much shaped by these processes as complaints about swearing on television and banning punk rock gigs. But there is a strong consensus in the UK that sexual offending and sexual abuse of children are wrong. This is not a domain in which moral entrepreneurs can distinguish themselves. Further, the sexual abuse of children comprises activities that are already criminal offences and has done for many years.

To call the current focus on historical sexual abuse a ‘moral panic’ may be intended as a call for a sense of proportion. Historical child sexual abuse cases certainly sell newspapers and generate website ‘clicks’. We would suggest, however, that we are currently witnessing processes of criminal prosecution that are normal and proportionate (if delayed), along with other normal forms of public accountability. The legal system does not get it right all the time. It never will. It is particularly stretched and at times baffled by these cases, and there is consensus that more can be done to improve procedure; but this is indicative of the complexity of these cases and of legal reform, and not a result of moral panic.

It is indeed important to highlight exaggerated and unhelpful reactions by the media, and to remain sceptical towards ‘quick fix’ policy-making that monopolises isolated issues (e.g. child sexual abuse in public institutions) only to divert attention and resources from longstanding problems at the heart of child protection (e.g. poverty, inequality, neglect and intra-familiar abuse). But this can be done without referring to moral panics as for example Featherstone, White and Morris show in their recent book. The fact that in the past the pendulum of concern has swung steadily (and repeatedly) from ignorance to alarm does not mitigate the seriousness of the problem of sexual (and other) offences against children; and while it seems impossible to control such pendulum swings, this should not be taken to demean the motives of those committed to do something about child abuse (historical or recent). We might reasonably consider this period of heightened sensitivity an occasion to learn and improve.

Once terms like moral panic, scapegoat and witch-hunt are in play it is difficult to maintain a differentiated view of ‘what really happened’. Talk of witch-hunts and scapegoats implies that all those at the centre of attention are innocent or that no findings could be legitimate or safe. Talk of moral panic stymies analysis by conflating issues and closes down debate, as contributors have to hedge against being seen as moral entrepreneurs.

Declaring a moral panic in this context is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if this is clearly not intended, it provides traction for those who are indeed keen to play down the problem, conflate issues and point out that there’s ‘nothing to see here’. This does not add transparency or a sense of vigilance and proportion. It takes us straight back to the no win situation, where the voice of actual victims is just as difficult to hear as that of those falsely accused.

If you heard allegations that child sexual abuse had taken place in your workplace, wouldn’t you want to know whether, and if so, how that happened?

This article was originally published by opendemocracy.net at

https://opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/dr-johanna-motzkau-dr-nick-lee/historical-abuse-witch-hunt-scapegoat-moral-panic

The Corporate Criminal

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By

The Corporation as a Fact of Life

The dominant role that corporations play in our lives makes them appear to us as a fact of life. Corporations now profit from providing most of the food that we eat, the clothes we wear, the communications systems we use, the films we watch, the music we listen to and so on. What corporations do well or badly fundamentally affects our chances of a healthy life.  Corporations produce the chemicals that end up in the air we breathe and the water we drink, just as they produce the drugs that claim to keep us healthy and to prolong our lives.  Corporations are central to virtually all systems of child-, social or health-care, criminal justice, education, energy and transport. The presence of corporations in every aspect of our lives is so overbearing that it makes it seem as if this presence is both normal and natural.

At the political level, it has become received wisdom for most governments around the world – whatever their formal political leaning – that the corporation is the single best way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services in the contemporary world.  The corporation is  a motor of efficiency, innovation, economic progress, and ultimately social good. On this dominant view, corporations are essentially benevolent institutions.

Of course, it would be impossible to deny that corporations can, too, generate destructive side-effects.  But if corporations appear to act irresponsibly, or even illegally, it is argued widely in political circles that corporations and their senior managers must be empowered to reform themselves along more socially responsible lines.  Only where ‘corporate social responsibility’ fails should governments step in to regulate (or enforce) the law in order to bring recalcitrant corporations into compliance. The dominant, unifying, principle in contemporary mainstream politics is that it is possible for corporations themselves to balance effectively economic progress with social welfare.

Externalising Machines

None of these claims withstand scrutiny. The problematic consequences of corporate activity are not merelyside effects, marginal aberrations to be remedied  through self-regulation or even law enforcement. The problems caused by corporations – which seriously threaten our lives and our planet – are enduring and necessary elements of corporate activity. Corporations lie, cheat, steal, injure and poison as part of their everyday routine.  If this seems like a wild or even conspiratorial claim, it is not one that we make lightly.  Let us take three brief illustrations, all related to deaths, the tip of the iceberg of corporate harms.

First, deaths associated from air pollution. The UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), looking at the effects of poor air quality effects at a population level, has estimated that 29,000 deaths every years are ‘brought forward’ by pollution, albeit this is thought to be a significant under-estimate. Other estimates are higher: the UK Parliament all-party Environmental Audit Committee concluded in 2010 that “[a]ir pollution probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity’, possibly “contributing to as many as 50,000 deaths per year”. Moreover those deaths are not equally distributed across communities, since in what the all-party Environmental Audit Committee calls “pollution hotspots”, some peoples’ lives are being cut short by as much as 9 years.  Although it is virtually impossible to estimate precisely how much pollution is caused by corporate activity, as opposed, notably, to private car or fuel use, there is ample evidence to conclude that that most pollution is produced by commercial activity that corporations profit directly from.

Second, what is most commonly referred to as “food poisoning” is a major source of death and illness in the UK. According to the most recent report from the Chief Scientist, “Our best estimate suggests that there are around a million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year, resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths”. Even these estimates of food related illness are likely to understate the scale of the problem.  More recently, Food Standards Agency sampling of chickens bought from large UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers between February 2014 and February 2015 found that 73% of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter – that is, three-quarters contained a pathogen which is the major source of hospitalisation from food poisoning in the UK. Again, to be clear, these cases of food poisoning are directly linked to food businesses – mostly to large corporations in the retail sector.

Finally, there is now strong evidence that around 50,000 or so deaths per annum are related to working in Britain.  Most of those deaths are caused by diseases that may take many years of illness before their victims die.   While we know little about the vast majority of these deaths, we know for sure that they are overwhelmingly not the result of accidents, a term implying these were unforeseen, unpreventable, or usually both. Quite the contrary, they mostly are the effects of failures of employers to meet clear obligations in law to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and members of the public.  Again, the vast majority of people who are killed by working, are killed in the employment of private profit-making corporations.

These three examples provide clear indications that corporations produce harms which kill thousands annually – while they also routinely injure and generate significant levels of ill-health.   Alongside the physical costs of corporate activity are significant economic costs, too – the bulk of which are borne by individuals (as losses of earnings to a family when someone is made ill by industrial activity) or are more widely socialised (for example as a burden on health or welfare services). Yet standard cost-accounting mechanisms reduces the value of death, injury, illness, immiseration and environmental degradation to mere externalities; that is, peripheral side effects of corporate activity, which remain absent from the balance sheets of costs and benefits of private economic activity.  Thus corporations are only generally financially liable for only a proportion of the harmful costs of their activities.  It is this principle that enables corporations to act, using Bakan’s term, as “externalising machines.”

State-Corporate Symbiosis

But if we can estimate the scale of some harms, and if we can link these directly to corporate activity, the extent to which these are crimes is much more difficult to assess. Some of these harms are effectively legalized.  Air pollution, for example, up to certain levels and for certain substances, is legal, notwithstanding the harms produced.  Yet in cases of air pollution where there is clear evidence of illegalities on the part of private corporations, just as with food poisoning or deaths at work, the law is rarely used to punish those responsible.  Corporate offending is effectively decriminalised.

On one hand, this is because regulators, at both national and local levels, are so under-resourced that they cannot do their job, while, in any case, they do not see themselves, nor have the mandate, to act as any kind of ‘police force’ for commerce.  Equally significantly, the law itself provides corporations with a shield from liability for its crimes and harms. Thus: law constructs a formal impunity for corporations and its senior officers and owners; law effectively legalises many corporate harms; and the ways in which the law is effected provides a de facto state of decriminalisation where bodies of law are in fact violated as a result of corporate activities.  Law, then, sits at the crux of the freedom and structural irresponsibility with which the corporation is endowed. These legal structures, created and under-pinned by states, constitute the main reason why corporate power can never be simply separated from state power; corporations are effectively empowered by law to commit crime.

Many social scientists have, over the past forty years with the emergence of both neo-liberalism and ‘globalisation’, erred in assuming that the rise of corporate power necessarily entails a diminution in state power. Typically, trends towards deregulation and privatisation in the developed world are cited as ‘proof’ of this ‘fact’.  And yet, to the extent that many have been persuaded by this zero-sum analysis, it is at least in periods of social and economic crises that the real nature of the relationship between corporations and states is revealed. The bank bailouts that followed the so-called ‘credit crunch’ represented one of those moments of exposure. For here was a moment in which national governments intervened to save ‘private’ banks from the ravage of market forces, an intervention that is disavowed when jobs are threatened by offshoring production, or when meaningful curbs on executive pay are suggested.  In the bank bail-out, the ‘invisible’ hand of the market began to look a little more like the very clearly visible hand of the state.  It was a moment at which the illusion of the formal separation of power between states and corporations was shattered as governments around the globe scrambled to save finance capital.

In the UK alone, the immediate value of the bailout for the banks was £550 billion across 2008 and 2009.  And this burden on all of us imposed by the banking bailouts is by no means limited to those sums initiated in the aftermath of the ‘crash’.  As the New Economics Foundation has noted, ‘too big to fail’ banking subsidies exceeded £30 billion in both 2011 and 2012.  Indeed, corporate subsidies are more common across all sectors of the economy than most of us realize. Numerous sectors such as the care sector, health and pharmaceuticals, private security, the arms industry, educational suppliers and publishers and so on would be tiny by comparison without government contracts and the role of the public sector in stimulating those markets.  The construction industry enjoys remarkably high levels of public subsidy. UK train operators are completely dependent upon government subsidies.  In virtually every area of criminal justice social policy, vast swathes of ‘service’ delivery has been handed over, usually in the name of greater efficiency, to private corporations operating in oligopolistic market sectors. Indeed, virtually all of the ‘private’ economy is subsidized in one way or another – adding up to massive, and increasing, levels of corporate welfare.

For us, then, it is the interdependence between states and corporations – in contrast to the dominant and prevalent claim that these entities exist in relations of antagonistic, external independence – that must be the starting point for understanding the production of corporate crime and harm. More specifically, the corporation is an essential part of the infrastructure of the modern capitalist state, albeit that its place and roles therein are constantly in flux. Rather than viewing power as somehow distributed in a zero-sum fashion between states or corporations, it is more accurate empirically and theoretically to understand the relationships between corporations and states as much more complex and often symbiotic.

Its relationship to the state – or, rather, the capitalist state – is also crucial for understanding that the corporation cannot effectively be held to account through criminal, administrative, regulatory nor company law. It needs to be replaced. Now, this is not to say law can achieve nothing.  Legal reforms can mitigate some of the worst excesses of corporate power.  For example, we would argue that in order to limit corporate welfare, the delivery of a range of services should be nationalised and taken out of the for-profit sector; and the governance of national and local government procurement should be changed to develop effective forms of contract compliance, excluding recidivist companies from tendering to undertake work.  Moreover, via radical reform of company law, the ability of companies to externalise their social costs might be mitigated.  Moreover, workers can be empowered by law to challenge corporate power: for example, firms with legally-protected, effective trade union safety reps and safety committees have half as many recorded injuries as those where these counter-vailing sources of power do not exist. Consumers and local communities might also be so empowered to challenge polluting corportions. And, in the realm of criminal law, we can still identify reforms which might radically undermine the legal protections which corporations currently enjoy – laws which pierce the corporate veil, for example, so that the relationships between the corporate entity and those who own and control it are exposed, and legal liability is not compartmentalised and minimised.

But these reforms are always going to be piecemeal and always precarious – so working for them must not  prevent us thinking more imaginatively about  demands for more lasting and fundamental social change.

Why Corporations must be Abolished

The corporation cannot be effectively reformed: not through corporate social responsibility, not through regulation, not through tinkering with structures, its functions or its functionaries. It is an essentially destructive, irresponsible phenomenon.  It is its fundamentally destructive and anti-social nature that means the goal of corporate opposition must be the abolition of the corporation. Just as Thomas Mathiesen, the Norwegian criminologist, made a powerful case for prison abolitionism through placing the Prison On Trial, our book The Corporate Criminal places the corporation on trial.

In The Corporate Criminal, we challenge both the idea and the reality of the corporation. A starting point is the recognition that, although the corporation appears as a ‘natural’ and ever present entity, it is in fact a relatively short-lived historical construction, one entirely dependent upon state activity, continuously created and recreated through law, politics and ideology. We must imagine and struggle towards a world without the corporation. The corporation is not merely a threat to our lives in the ways that we indicate here, but in the long term, placing the trust of the future of the planet’s climate, or the future of food production or water distribution in the hands of the corporation, as is the case, is, literally, suicidal.  And so, a challenge to the corporation is now more necessary than ever in order to save all human life. In making such a grand claim we do not dismiss more piecemeal reform strategies per se – via law, regulation, enforcement, political challenge – but such efforts need to be placed within and judged against the wider, demanding, yet compelling political goal of meaningfully challenging corporate power through dismantling the corporate form itself.

The Corporate Criminal: Why corporations must be abolished (Routdledge, 2015) by Steve Tombs and David Whyte.

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at the Open University. He has a long-standing interest in the incidence, nature and regulation of corporate crime. He works closely with the Hazards movement in the UK, and is a Trustee and Board member of Inquest.

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool where he teaches and does research on the relationship between law, politics and corporate power. He works closely with Corporate Watch and is a member of the executive committee of the Institute of Employment Rights.

Original article published in The Project

Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.

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Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/vickie-cooper/austerity-as-bureaucratized-and-organized-violence

Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches

Vickie Cooper, The Open University

Kirsteen Paton, University of Leeds

Not since 1915 has private housing tenure been so dominant. The gradual rescinding of public housing over the 20th century sees us exposed to the raw edge of the market today. We are living in the darkest time of housing commodification as this project shifts from one of aspiration to coercion. With an unprecedented growth in evictions across the UK, tenants are increasingly being removed from their properties to release the value of the land.

This rise of evictions has resulted in a wave of resistance. Protection here, rather than statutory, comes in the form of “eviction watches” organised by community campaign groups and volunteers. Local campaign groups are mobilising to protect tenants facing eviction from bailiffs, gathering outside their homes to ward off any who might try. In this piece we are, firstly, casting light upon the prevalence of eviction watches today as housing privatisation and austerity take full grip. In so doing we are, secondly, raising critical questions about the state’s role and responsibility in evictions and the disparities in power between state-sponsored bailiffs and anti-eviction campaign groups who are providing short-term protection and intervention for tenants.

Eviction watches: then and now

100 years apart, the Rent Strike and New Era estate campaigns have discomfiting echoes and revealing differences which expose the degradation of housing regulation and increased privatisation over the course of the 20th century.

In 1915, housing, provided in a deregulated market, was a source of conflict between the state and tenants. Profiteering private landlords increased working-class household rents in the hope of capitalising on the influx of munitions workers as part of the war effort. With tenants unable to pay these rising rents, eviction notices were filed by private landlords, enforced by the Sheriff Officer with police back-up. In response, thousands of tenants mobilised and went on rent strike. The victory of these strikes resulted in the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, which froze rents at pre-war levels and paved the way for the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919 and later, council housing development which long since protected tenants from the vagaries of the market.

In current recessionary times, conflict between the state and tenants has been reignited and the might of the private rented sector, reinstated. In 2014, New Era housing tenants in London mobilised and campaigned against a large transnational corporate takeover by an $11bn asset management firm, Westbrook Partners. When New Era tenants received a letter from Westbrook’s solicitors informing them that their current stable rents would be raised to “market rates”, members of the community campaigned hard and fast to stop the takeover – and won. A key difference between the rent strikers’ and New Era’s victory is that the latter’s win relates only to the estate. As such, New Era are facing new challenges as the current owners of the estate – Dolphin Square Foundation – plan to means-test new tenants in order to determine rents.

What is also different is that, unlike the housing market of 1915, landlords are transnational; London is a goldmine for global property speculators and homeownership. Despite the role the housing boom played in the financial crash in 2008, property is a highly lucrative asset in austerity Britain. Private landlords, not rent strikers, are today’s unsung housing heroes, as claimed by former housing minister Grant Schapps. Bailiffs are also having a renaissance, gathering to celebrate their success at the £4,000 a head British Credit Awards in London recently. How is business? With 42,000 repossessions a day and 115 evictions a day, business is good, very good.

We are exposed to the coercive side of housing commodification and the market as authorities across the UK, with an absence of any statutory protection against evictions. Rarely do evictions take place without police presence, including riot police, serving to criminalise tenants and anti-eviction protestors. And increasingly coercive tactics of violence and intimidation are being deployed against those resisting and protecting tenants against eviction. The power mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered, resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. This, we argue, is an act of state violence on tenants and mortgaged homeowners as police forces and private security firms are utilised to facilitate evictions, shut down protesters and aid private developers and landlords.

As such, we highlight the rise of eviction watches across the UK, drawing from the frontline work of welfare campaign groups, ReClaim in Liverpool and E15 Focus Mothers, London. Like the function of food banks, eviction watches are local, voluntary support, providing a stopgap and temporary buffer for those facing a point of crisis.

ReClaims welfare advice poster

Poster at ReClaim’s welfare advice clinic in Liverpool.

They have become a critical aspect of welfare support group’s activities given the unprecedented increase in arrears. What follows is the authors’ account and observations of these two front-line campaign groups, documenting some of their experiences of working with tenants facing eviction. This sheds light on the state’s role in evictions and the disparity in power between the state-sponsored bailiffs and the anti-evictions groups.

Tenants in Danger: Mobilising Housing Action

We visited ReClaim’s Friday afternoon welfare rights clinic, 12 days before Christmas, in 2014. A couple come in for advice on their mortgage arrears. Their house is to be repossessed in 5 days time. They are £70,000 in debt and unless they can pay £17,000 upfront they will be evicted.

Juliet, one of the welfare rights volunteers, considers their options by process of elimination. She asks them why they couldn’t make the initial arrears repayment agreed by the bank and whether they can raise £17,000. The main breadwinner is a bricklayer, who is self-employed but struggles to get by being paid “by the brick”. His partner works part-time as a dinner lady on a zero hours contract. Faced with degraded and insecure job quality, repossessions disproportionately affect working-class mortgage borrowers.

Having exhausted their options with the bank’s repayment scheme, Juliet gives them two more options: one is to go down the homelessness route and live temporarily with friends and family until they find something else. The couple look disheartened; they want to be at home for Christmas. There is no statutory duty preventing repossessions which they can call upon. Although various “support for mortgage” schemes exist, people are often in denial about losing their home that many do not seek help until crisis point. The significance of this is echoed by Juliet who claims that, “quite often tenants don’t know why they’re facing eviction; they’re not informed by anybody, least of all by the social landlords. And it’s hard for anyone to come here and say ‘can you help me?’ because they’re ashamed of being of in debt and in needing help and support.”

Juliet offers the second option: “…we call round and get some ‘bodies’ in front of your house, stand in front of your house and get them off your backs until after Christmas…?” The couple look at one another tentatively. The woman puts her hand over her mouth in disbelief that ReClaim could help stall their eviction. At this point for the family, Christmas is plenty. And yet the local authorities failed to negotiate such a reprieve with the debt collectors. As promised, the advisors got to work, summoning networks, liaising across social media and mobilising a strong crowd of 40 to 60 volunteers to hold a vigil outside the couple’s home. This peaceful anti-eviction support resulted in the bailiffs, with police, being turned away. The couple were subsequently informed that the eviction notice served for that day, had been dismissed and the family had that much needed reprieve until January.

Juliet reports that they are busier than ever, due to rent arrear issues and changes in benefits. As a campaigning welfare rights collective and eviction watches form one of their many activities and caseloads are creaking. Of 50 “bedroom tax” appeals they have taken on, they have won 36 – a 72% success rate.  ReClaim are by no means alone in these activities. According to another campaigner in London, Jasmine Stone, from Focus E15 Mothers, mobilising anti-eviction support now plays a vital role in their day-to-day campaign activities.  She claims that, “we’ve never been so busy, we go to housing meetings with families who are being evicted and rally round at their houses to prevent them from being evicted – we just stand with our hands tied together so they can’t get through.”

In 2008, when the financial crisis unfolded, evictions amongst mortgage repossessions peaked at 142,741 in England and Wales. This followed an era of housing aspiration underpinned by Right to Buy and the availability of 100% mortgages. We are seeing similar peaks in evictions in the rented housing sector: 170,451 evictions (including private and social housing) in England and Wales in 2013, a 26% increase since 2010. In the 3rd quarter of 2014 (July-September), there were 11,100 landlord repossessions by county court bailiffs. According to the Ministry of Justice this is the highest quarterly figure since records began in 2000.

Vickie Cooper image 02

The labour power and might mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered and the resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. While previously, anti-social behaviour was the leading cause of eviction notices this has been superseded by rent arrears. Rather than working on behalf of their tenants who fall into arrears, statistics show that housing associations and local authorities – supported by housing legal experts – have resigned themselves to a very anti-social housing policy, regularly dispensing “notices seeking possession” to tenants. In 2012-2013, local authorities in England and Wales evicted 6,140 households, 81% of which were due to arrears. In 2013-2014, social landlords issued 239,381 notices seeking possession for rent arrears alone – a 22% increase from previous annual figures.

Authorities across the UK are deploying increasingly violent and intimidating tactics against those resisting eviction. In a bid to evict sitting tenants from Chartridge House on Aylesbury estate, Southwark Council called in the riot police to derail the anti-eviction protest, resulting in the arrest of six people. Jasmine Stone confirmed that authorities are escalating levels of violence and “getting really intimidating with us and there are kids present”. She recalls when campaign members attended a public meeting at the local council offices to support a woman, with child, who was scheduled to be rehoused in Liverpool (from London). Jasmine claims that “security were really aggressive, they punched one of the mums [a campaigner] in the face…”

And what is to become of the evicted? As the above suggests with moves from London to Liverpool, it’s a displacement merry go-round. Plus, those evicted as a result of arrears are, according to homeless and housing law, intentionally homeless and therefore disqualified from meaningful housing support. Those lucky enough to pass the homelessness test are no longer given priority access to social housing: since the Localism Act 2011 they are offloaded to the private rented sector. At best, this smacks not only of a withdrawal of state level responsibility to rehouse tenants in affordable housing, but a redistribution of wealth from the state to private landlords. At worst, local authorities breach the law and refuse to follow their legal duty in accordance with the Housing Act 1996.

Southwark Council – who recently deployed the riot police to evict tenants from Aylsebury estate and, in a separate event, were found guilty of “civil conspiracy” after unlawfully evicting a tenant, leaving them homeless – have been ordered by the High Court “to stop breaking the law by turning away homeless people who apply for housing in the borough”. But let’s be clear, this foul play is not uncommon. Homeless and housing practitioners have, for years, avoided the local authority route for rehousing homeless clients due to various unlawful tactics. What is uncommon, but wholly welcomed, is that Southwark Council has been named and shamed.

From Eviction Watches to National Action

In 2015, we should expect to see a rise in tenant evictions inflicted by banks, private registered landlords and the state and more grim effects of the onslaught of welfare reforms. As such the work of welfare campaigners and advocates and their eviction watch activities become an essential local resource. Public spending cuts have negatively impacted on local support services at the same time when necessity and demand for them increases. Similar to the discussions of food banks, eviction watches should not be normalised nor be separated out as a discreet strand of inequality. The main drivers of housing inequality are welfare cuts, coupled with short term and zero hour jobs (increasing at a faster rate than permanent positions in the UK) and state regulation that promotes property development.

Today, we would do well to invoke the spirit of 1915, when rent-striking tenants recognised their exploitation and acted collectively across cities to lobby for housing equality. 100 years later we are at a similar frontier where communities and cities also recognise the erosion of housing rights. Eviction watches are not enough to assuage the harms of this deregulated housing market but these campaigns do mark the beginning, we hope, of a collective housing response of similar historical and radical significance.

This article first appeared on 17 April 2015 at Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/kirsteen-paton-vickie-cooper/tenants-in-danger-rise-of-eviction-watches

Anti-austerity backlash is moving up a gear – even in ‘progressive’ Scotland

The anti-austerity protest outside Downing Street, central London, as protesters mark their opposition to measures set out in the Queen's Speech, following the State Opening of Parliament. ... State Opening of Parliament 2015 ... 27-05-2015 ... London ... UK ... Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/Unique Reference No. 23130754 ... Picture date: Wednesday May 27, 2015. See PA story POLITICS Speech Protests. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Protestors gathered in force for the UK state opening of parliament on May 27. Yui Mok/PA Wire

Gerry Mooney, The Open University

What to expect from the latest Westminster parliament? More strikes and demonstrations look very likely as the next phase of austerity takes hold. With the success of the Conservatives in winning an outright majority at the election, and with the collapse of the Labour vote, there are already numerous indications that many of those experiencing the reality of austerity are not willing to wait for signs of a Labour revival. The plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to tighten trade-union legislation have further soured the atmosphere.

The threat of the first national UK rail strike in 20 years in early June is the latest sign that resistance is building. Anti-austerity demonstrations have meanwhile spread across major towns and cities in England and Wales since May 7, with thousands most recently demonstrating during the state opening of parliament in London. Thousands more are expected to attend a similar demonstration in Glasgow organised by the STUC on June 20.

Much of this protest surely reflects, at least in England, the lack of choice at the recent election. Both coalition partners from the previous administration argued that austerity measures were working well in helping to reduce economic deficits. Labour promised that it would continue with the “fiscal responsibility” of the coalition government, though over a longer time-scale. UKIP was promising more cuts too, meaning that only smaller groups and parties such as the Greens and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition that were offering a real anti-austerity message in England.

The Scottish dimension

In Scotland, of course, the SNP campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. After it won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, with 50% of the vote north of the border, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems, together with much of the media outside Scotland, portrayed this as reflecting the growth of Scottish nationalism. But this arguably downplays the party’s anti-austerity campaigning, dismissing at a stroke any opposition to the main UK parties’ commitment to continue with the spending cuts. For UK Labour, any claim that it should have followed the SNP’s anti-austerity message has been firmly rejected since the election. Instead significant sections of the party are arguing that Labour failed because it was “too left wing”.

While this looks like folly from a Scottish point of view, the SNP’s anti-austerity message ought to be viewed much more critically too. Amid all the reasons put forward to explain the historic shift to SNP from Labour, one that has tended to be overlooked is the experiences of workers employed by Labour councils and in the public sector more generally.

Councils have been implementing cuts across Scotland, using Conservative anti-trade-union legislation and “volunteer” labour to break strikes. Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest authority, represents probably the most significant example of this. Long Labour-controlled, there is a history of public-sector disputes in the city.

From 1997 and the election of New Labour through to May 2015, there has rarely been a period when at least one group of public sector workers wasn’t involved in some form of strike or industrial action in the city. Since the end of March, 70 homelessness case workers have been involved in an indefinite strike over a re-grading dispute, for example. If successful, it would see the affected workers re-graded in line with other workers who have similar levels of responsibility, amounting to a pay increase of up to £5,000.

This dispute may not involve many staff, but it is indicative of the wider tensions and disputes that are bubbling away beneath the surface in public services across Scotland – and also elsewhere in the UK. It reflects the impact of austerity cuts, not only on public-service workers but also on service users, with up to 3,000 homeless people affected by this dispute alone.

Many of the affected staff sought support from the Scottish government, which could order the council to settle by agreeing to re-grading. Thus far, however, the SNP has been as silent on this as it has been on the possibility of a UK-wide rail strike – despite having been reminded by its critics that a previous SNP promise to bring the railways in Scotland back into public ownership and run by the public sector has yet to materialise.

Silence in Dundee

Another relevant dispute is taking place in Dundee, which recorded the highest support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. It returned two SNP MPs in the UK election and has an SNP-run council. The dispute concerns 120 porters at the city’s Ninewells and Royal Victoria hospitals. It, too, is around a re-grading issue, which if successful would bring the porters into line with counterparts elsewhere in Scotland, adding £200 per week to their pay packets.

Scottish health secretary Shona Robison
Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

Once again, the Scottish government is in a position to end the dispute by agreeing to the demands of the strikers, this time as the direct employer via NHS Tayside. And once again there has been silence from the SNP, even though the Scottish government’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is an MSP in Dundee. Elsewhere in the city, SNP-run Dundee City Council has announced that it implement a further £33m worth of cuts over the next five years.

Other disputes have taken place and are again threatening to erupt, for instance among workers in Scotland’s further education sector, which has experienced significant cuts in funding in recent years. What will the progressive SNP do for the workers involved? And what are the chances that it will campaign and demand the ending of anti-trade union legislation for all workers in Scotland?

Great claims have been made about the Scottish government’s commitment to social democracy, equality and fairness in Scotland. But the reality on the ground is very different. As with their counterparts in other parts of the UK and beyond, Scotland’s public-sector workers are more and more sceptical about the willingness of the SNP to go beyond mere rhetoric. Following the experience of Scottish Labour, the risk is that this costs the nationalists much of their support as early as next May at the Scottish parliament elections.

Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Is technology making your attention span shorter than a goldfish’s?

Martin Thirkettle, The Open University and Graham Pike, The Open University

image-20150527-4831-1yt5yko

If you’ve ever found it hard to concentrate on one thing without stopping to check your emails or post to social media, you’re not alone. The average human attention span – how long we can concentrate effectively on a single task – was recently reported by Microsoft to have dropped below the level attributed to goldfish.

This certainly plays to our fears about what the daily flood of social media and emails is doing to us, and to younger generations in particular. However, these figures may be misleading. For one thing, the report contains no real detail for either the goldfish or human attention span beyond the numbers on the web page Microsoft pulled them from.

More importantly, our minds are adaptive systems, constantly reorganising and refocusing our mental faculties to suit the environment. So the idea that our ability to pay attention may be changing in response to the modern, online world is neither surprising nor anything to necessarily worry about. However, there is an argument that we must take care to keep control of our attention in a world increasingly filled with distractions.

Attention is a phenomenally awkward thing to study and the manner in which it is tested enormously impacts on the results. This is one of the reasons attention is one of the most enduring and active research areas in psychology: more than 1,200 papers have been published on it just in the past 10 years.

But assuming the numbers in the report reflect some research – no matter what the method behind the data was – it’s still not reasonable to apply them to any situation other than the one in which they were generated. Applying them to all aspects of our lives, as the report implies we should do, is a huge stretch.

Published scientific research looking at the effect of modern technology on our cognitive abilities does show an effect on attention. But contrary to popular opinion, it shows attention spans have actually improved. For example, habitual video gamers have demonstrated better attentional abilities than non-players – and non-players who started playing video-games began to show the same improvements.

Brain training
Shutterstock

There’s no reason why the modern world should necessarily diminish our mental faculties and no reason to fear them changing. Our cognitive abilities are constantly changing and even naturally vary across the day.

One of our projects at the Open University is currently collecting data on these daily cycles. We’ve developed a smartphone app that includes a measure of attention alongside four other cognitive tasks. By using the app across the day, you can participate in this research and chart these natural changes in your own performance. This can enable you to better plan your day and finally understand if you actually are a morning or evening person.

However, as interesting as possible variations in cognitive abilities are, a more pertinent question may be what or who is driving the changes in our environment. Happily, this question is much easier to answer. The Microsoft study is aimed at advertisers, not the general public, and calls on companies to use “more creative, and increasingly immersive ways to market themselves”.

The increasing number of distractions in our world is partly due to the new and ever-evolving ways in which advertisers can put their message in front of us – and the “increasingly immersive” techniques they’ll use once the message is there. Realising this helps us understand that our attention is a resource being fought over by advertisers.

The online world is increasingly comprised of spaces where advertisers attempt to tempt us with their products. Similarly, public spaces are increasingly full of adverts that can play sound and video to further capture our attention. Escaping this advertising battleground is becoming one of the luxuries of the modern world. It’s why paid-for executive lounges at airports are free from noisy, garish adverts and why the removal of adverts is a key selling point for paid-for apps.

Our mental abilities are changing, as they always have done in order to best serve our success in changing environments. But now, more than ever, our environment is made by those who either want our attention or want to sell access to it. It will certainly be interesting to see how our cognitive abilities adapt to meet this new challenge. However, as individuals we too must start valuing our attention as much as the advertisers do.

Martin Thirkettle is Lecturer in psychology at The Open University.
Graham Pike is Professor of forensic cognition at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.