Better Regulation: better for whom?

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology

On 1st May, my new Briefing, ‘Better Regulation’: better for whom?, was published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Better regulation

This Briefing, drawing on a recent monograph, placed the spotlight on the lack of effective regulation of pollution, food safety and workplace health and safety standards in the UK. An estimated 29,000 deaths each year in the UK are attributable to the effects of airborne pollution. Some one million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year result in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths. Around 50,000 people die each year as a result of injuries or health problems originating in the workplace. These staggering figures are probably underestimates. The litany of lives shortened and health impaired to which these figures bear witness are also largely avoidable.

Yet as I documented in Better Regulation, the rate of inspection and enforcement actions for environmental health, food safety and hygiene, and health and safety have all been falling. This is not just a problem of infrequent inspections and lax enforcement. In the name of cutting red tape, governments of all political persuasions have, for over a decade, undermined independent and effective business regulation. Budget cuts under the austerity programme have compounded the problem. So too have moves to outsource and privatise regulatory and enforcement activity. Private companies are increasingly involved in ‘regulating’ themselves.

Taken together, these changes may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. The story the Briefing tells is one of ‘avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: social murder. And, quite remarkably, it proceeds, daily – met only by academic, political and popular silence’.

The Briefing and its findings have received significant media exposure over the last week, including BBC 5 live Investigates with Adrian Goldberg, BBC News, The Observer, and UNISON. The right-wing, free market think-tank Adam Smith Institute published a rather cheeky critique of it, to which I responded.

Social Protection

Most rewarding of all, however, was coverage by Environmental Health News, the journal of environmental health practitioners, whose struggle to maintain a public service in the face of economic and political attack. I reproduce that interview here, in full…

Q and A with Steve Tombs and Tom Wall

Successive governments have portrayed regulation as a burden. But Professor Steve Tombs, head of social policy and criminology at the Open University, argues the drive to cut red tape has severely reduced the effectiveness of the agencies designed to protect the public. EHN caught up with him after his research was launched last week.

Why did you decide to carry out this research? 

For many years I have been interested in trends in enforcement of health and safety regulation, and it was clear that the shift towards better regulation had, and has, been having an effect on the level of enforcement in that context. So I was keen to understand what had happened in related areas – food and pollution control made sense in that respect. And I wanted to do so at local authority level, where the vast majority of enforcement in these spheres is done, but is something which has rarely been the subject of academic scrutiny.

Did your findings surprise you? 

Absolutely. As a social scientist I am used to gathering data which is messy and needs interpretation. But the quantitative data gleaned from public sources and Freedom of Information requests on enforcement, as well as the qualitative data from interviews with EHOs, is quite remarkable since it all points in the same direction – formal enforcement and enforcement practice is under severe pressure, nationally but especially at local authority level.

Why do you think the vital work of environmental health officers is often invisible to the public? 

Well, as many EHOs said to me, it’s the service that we – by which I mean consumers, communities, workers – only notice when things go wrong, such as an example of an outbreak of food poisoning or a local pollution incident.

What is the better regulation agenda about?  

Better regulation began ostensibly as an initiative to target inspection resources upon the businesses that were either in the highest risk areas, or less compliant, or both, so that regulators could achieve more efficient regulatory outcomes with less inspection – and, of course, less resource. It was a response to claims by business of over regulation and over inspection, and at a local level it was clearly premised on arguments about inconsistency in enforcement practices by different local authorities. To speak in political terms, however, it is clearly a big-business driven agenda designed to protect business from regulatory enforcement. And I heard that from many of the EHOs I interviewed also.

Why have successive governments seemed to embrace this agenda? 

For at least 20 years, the association of regulation and its enforcement with the idea of ‘red tape’, as a ‘burden’ on business, has gained strength. This has been an international trend, I think. In the UK I would say it has been particularly powerful because regulation and red tape have always by many been associated with the interference of the EU. But there are two attractions for any government in this agenda. First, it makes governments appear more business friendly, attracting and retaining business in the country and indeed in local areas. But, second, it offers an opportunity to withdraw resources from regulatory services, as according to this logic these are clearly not needed to the extent that had previously been thought – and governments, especially now in the context of austerity, are always looking for ways to reduce expenditures, especially where they can claim that this makes services more efficient!

What has happened to regulation under David Cameron? 

Cameron is ideologically opposed to these forms of regulation – speech after speech makes that abundantly clear, and I have to say that health and safety regulation and enforcement are a specific target for vitriol here. But more than that, the political initiative towards ‘better regulation’ has, since 2010, been overlain with the economics of austerity. And the latter has seen the DCLG hit harder than any other government Department, and on current spending plans this will continue to be the case until 2020 at least.

Would the Corbyn led Labour party would take a different approach? 

Well I would hope so. But let’s remember that the better regulation initiative started under a Labour government. Of course, that government was elected after 18 years in opposition and was dying to prove its business friendly credentials. A Corbyn led Labour Party looks and feels quite different, and I would hope it will take a more balanced approach to regulation. Certainly I have shared platforms with John McDonnell in the past where I have been documenting tends in health and safety enforcement and he has been clear that these trends need to be reversed; I would also hope, and expect, that this new party leadership would agree and act on this. I would hope a Corbyn led Labour party would take the same view of the work of regulators in general.  In particular, I am optimistic that they will see the work of EHOs for what it is – providing a crucial public service which benefits all of us, that is consumers, workers, local communities and in fact, I would argue, businesses themselves. I really think it is crucial to resuscitate the idea of public service, and oppose the idea that regulation is just red tape designed to somehow make all of our lives more difficult. I would hope a Corbyn led party would share that view.

What can EHOs who are concerned about this agenda do? 

That’s a very difficult question to answer, the EHOs I have met get on day-to-day doing their best with less and less and, as one put it to me, their ‘light is hidden under a bushel’. I think it is for others to try and challenge the agenda – EHN regularly documents the deterioration of the service, and I think the CIEH needs to be less defensive and be more vocal in representing the value of the work of its members. UNISON has done work in this area, but I think this should be a more central issue for them – it’s key to the public health agenda. And I think that some intervention by academics – who have some time, and resources – might also be useful.

The Adam Smith Institute claims the research is flawed because it doesn’t show a historical link between falling numbers of EHOs and rising preventable deaths. How would you respond? 

It’s rather odd to be criticised for not doing something in a briefing which I never set out to do therein – demonstrably linking a decline in enforcement capacity to an increase in risk – I’ll restrict myself to a few brief comments.

Increased deaths, injuries and illnesses are difficult to gauge because we know that most of the data in any of these areas is simply not robust enough to track trends over relatively short time scales.

How many of us who suffer some form of food poisoning which we link to something we’ve eaten or bought from a fast food outlet or supermarket business actually report that to the local authority? A very small percentage I think it’s fair to say.

Moreover, which of us knows that we are being subject to airborne pollutants that will shorten our lives as we go about our daily business – or, even if we did, could link a specific pollutant to its specific profit-generating source?

We also know that the majority of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health never get reported. So the state of data in this area makes it very difficult to undertake ‘the X causes Y’ type logic that would satisfy the intellectuals at the Adam Smith Institute.

Of course, what we can do is point to specific cases of death, injury or illness associated with an obvious form of non-compliance with law that would have been picked up by an inspection had there been one.

Radio Five Live, which today broadcast on issues covered by the Briefing, interviewed Debbie, a woman in Kirby whose 10-year-old daughter was hospitalised with salmonella poisoning. She was one of over 50 people in the area who contracted the illness after eating food from a takeaway. Contrary to Food Standards Agency statutory guidance, the business had not been formally inspected in 2 years.

Finally, the equation of lesser enforcement with greater risk seems likely even on a common-sense level. Consider this: the average workplace regulated by a local authority health and safety inspector is now statistically likely to receive a visit from an inspector once every 20 years. I would imagine all of us, however civic minded and potentially law abiding, would be less likely to buy a train or tube ticket if we knew we would only be checked that we had it once every 20 years.

 

The Q&A with Tom Wall was originally published in Environmental Health News, the online journal of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health on 4 May 2016, at http://www.ehn-online.com/news/article.aspx?id=15514. Steve Tombs would like to thank colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, HERC, engage@liverpool and UNISON for their support in this project.

 

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Rough sleepers in policy and practice: chaotic and off course, or misunderstood?

Dan McCulloch

The Open University

Since 2010 the number of people sleeping rough has increased year-on-year, according to official estimates. Historically, rough sleepers have been the subject of national government policies, which have made distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ individuals. However, more recently, government policies have also employed other terms to describe rough sleepers’ lives. Terms such as ‘chaotic’, ‘off track’, and ‘off course’ have been mobilised in policy framings of rough sleepers’ lives. These policy terms suggest a particular way of understanding the lives of rough sleepers – as disorganised, abnormal and headed in the wrong direction.

But, to what extent to these reflect the experiences and understandings of rough sleepers themselves? One way to consider this question is to explore rough sleepers’ accounts of their own lives, an approach I take here, drawing upon work undertaken for my PhD.

In that research, I spent nine months in homelessness services, talking to people who had slept rough. I also interviewed 17 people who identified as having slept rough or having had no accommodation over a period of nine months.

Rough sleepers’ stories

Within the research, life mapping was a tool employed to assist rough sleepers in creating visual and verbal accounts of their lives. Life mapping allowed rough sleepers to draw their story whilst also describing it. Below are two examples of the life maps created in the research. These maps are visual representations of rough sleepers’ lives.

As is visible from Kelvin’s life map, he did not see his life as ‘chaotic’, but rather, as orderly. Kelvin divided his account this into four main topic areas – schooling (left centre), employment (right), relationships (left) and accommodation (lower centre). Within Kelvin’s account, stories of successes and disappointments were evident. Samantha’s life map also showed order in her life.

Kelvins Life Map

Kelvin’s life map

Like Kelvin’s, Samantha’s map also shows a life which is not ‘off track’ or ‘off course’. This is visible in the line drawn between key points in her life, showing both high points and low points in her story.

Samanthas Life Map

Samantha’s life map

These life maps show visually the order and mixed successes of rough sleepers’ lives, which stand in contrast to the claims of ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’ lives made in policy.

Being homeless

More generally, rough sleepers also spoke about their experiences of being homeless. Sleeping rough often required management of unusual or new situations, such as deciding where to stay and whether to engage with homelessness services. David spoke about sleeping rough in an area he knew well, and the ways in which that allowed him to deal with the risk to his safety, but also put him at risk of being seen by people he knew, saying:

“I didn’t want to leave the area ’cause I knew it so well. But I didn’t want to be seen, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone I knew, to see me in that situation, sleeping rough. Why, I don’t know, some part of my dignity hadn’t quite died.”

To manage the difficulties that sleeping rough could bring, individuals often engaged in behaviours which might seem chaotic or unusual to others, but could be seen as rational in the context of their situation. Craig stayed in Patford, a small village over two hours walk from the nearest town. In Patford, Craig was largely unable to access the services such as food, water, and washing facilities that he would’ve been able to access in the nearest town. However, Craig spoke of his reasons for staying in Patford, stating:

“I just know it’s safe. … I can have a fire. Alright, it takes you an hour to get into town, but I’m not gonna sleep in a…doorway over here.”

Similarly, using local homelessness services could provide some facilities for rough sleepers. As Stuart noted, such services could provide vital resources, both physical and mental for rough sleepers:

“I remember coming here in the mornings, like half eight in the mornings when it opens, just like, you know, so relieved to just get in somewhere, and I’d get myself in the shower. Sometimes I’d just stand, you know, I’d stand under that hot shower for about ten minutes just standing there, you know, kind of recharging myself.”

However, homelessness services weren’t always ideal for rough sleepers, as Victor highlighted:

“I’m extremely grateful to having a roof over my head and being able to eat something. Umm, that is what I can be grateful to. I’m not going to say that the umm oh it’s a perfect place to be, it’s lovely, it’s warm, it’s this, it’s that. ‘Cause it isn’t, right. Umm, it’s horrible. It can actually get you quite down”

Planning for the Future

In addition to their accounts of homelessness, rough sleepers also spoke about their plans for the future. In contrast to policy views that saw their lives as ‘off course’ or lacking in order and long-term planning, rough sleepers spoke about the risks of making long-term plans. For many, their situation of homelessness made the future hard to plan, as was the case for Laura:

“I’m not so sure on the future. The future’s uncertain and I hate the feeling of not knowing. If I knew what was going to happen I could plan ahead, get ready for it. And my life at the moment has been for many years, it’s a waiting game.”

Jane also spoke about the dangers of making long-term plans, suggesting that it was more suitable to make short-term plans whilst homeless, as circumstances can change these plans with little or no warning:

“It’s a case of day by day now. That’s literally all it is, is day by day. No-one can predict the future. No-one whatsoever. You can try but something’ll come along and completely pull that all apart within seconds so it’s day by day at the moment.”

As Jane’s and Laura’s accounts both show, making long-term plans when experiencing homelessness can be difficult, due to the possibility of circumstances changing without warning. Thus, short-term, but orderly planning, often provided a more rational way to navigate through the conditions of being homeless.

Implications

So, what does all this tell us? Whilst policy documents talk of rough sleepers in ways which still echo distinctions of deservingness, recently they have also spoken of rough sleepers as having ‘off track’ or ‘off course’ and ‘chaotic’ lives. However, rough sleepers themselves talk of their own lives not as ‘chaotic’ or ‘off track’. Within their accounts, rough sleepers highlighted the difficult conditions and circumstances which being homeless carries. They described attempts to manage these, employing various strategies and attempts to maximise the limited means and resources available to them at the time. These are essentially ‘management tactics’ – and while they may initially appear ‘chaotic’ or ‘illogical’ to outsiders, understood in context they reveal themselves as being rational. As such, whilst policy makes judgements about rough sleepers’ lives as being ‘chaotic’ and ‘off track’, these often misunderstand the lived experience of sleeping rough. Instead, a policy strategy which recognises the importance of individual context and experience, and supports the use of personalised rough sleeper-led approaches, could provide a successful platform for understanding the experiences, strengths, and self-defined needs of rough sleepers, and could be key to reducing repeat homelessness.

*All location, service, and individual names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved in this research.

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

Why are the harms caused by poverty so ignored?

Joanna Mack , The Open University

and Stewart Lansley, Bristol University

Over the last three decades, overall wealth in Britain has doubled, yet the number of people falling below the minimum standard of living set by society as a whole has risen alarmingly, from just over one in six in 1983 to nearly one in three today.

The view promoted by the coalition government ministers and much of the media is that rising poverty is largely self-inflicted and a matter of individual failure – ‘a lifestyle choice’ as ministers like to call it. This individualistic focus on the causes of poverty echoes a tendency within social sciences and criminology to focus more on ‘the abstracted rational actor, as the primary unit of harm analysis’ rather than the differential impacts on different social groups of wider social and economic changes. Furthermore, it enables a policy focus that sees the role of the state as limited to changing the behaviour and aspirations of those who ‘fail’ – often through punitive means, such as benefits sanctions – and providing some, limited, support to enable them to change their prospects. Thus the coalition government imposed a series of ongoing cuts in benefit levels, leading to rising numbers turning to charitable help for the most basic of needs.

In our new book, Breadline Britain – the rise of mass poverty, we chart the rise in poverty in Britain over the last three decades through four large scale surveys – the ‘Breadline Britain’ surveys of 1983 and 1990 and the subsequent ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion’ surveys of 1999 and 2012. These surveys measure poverty using the public’s views on what is an unacceptable standard in contemporary Britain. Respondents are asked which of a long list of items and social activities, from a basic diet and minimum housing decency to a number of personal and household goods and leisure and social activities, they consider to be essential for living in Britain today.

This method establishes a minimum standard based on what the majority of people think are the necessities of life, which everyone should be able to afford and no-one should have to do without. This is the nearest we have to a democratic definition of poverty. It’s a standard that has support from all groups in society, across different social classes, genders, ages and, significantly, political affiliations. These surveys conclusively show that the public take a clear relativist view of poverty.

In 2012, the proportion of people who could not afford (as opposed to did not want) a number of the most basic of the publicly-defined necessities was higher than in 1983. Around six percent of households lived in a damp home in 1983, dropping to just two percent in 1990. It now stands at ten percent. The percentage of people who cannot afford to heat their home adequately has trebled since the 1990s, rising from three to nine percent. Nearly one in five children – 2.5 million – live with damp, while over half a million children live in a home that is both damp and cold.

Having enough food is another core aspect of everyone’s conception of poverty. The Department of Health has defined food poverty as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. The proportion of households unable to afford two meals a day stood at three percent in 2012, back to the levels found thirty years earlier, having dropped to negligible levels in the intervening period.

There has also been an increase in the numbers struggling to maintain a diet of sufficient quality. Being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables every day has been a consistent health message of recent years – yet the percentage of households where adults go without has risen from five percent in 1999 to seven percent in 2012. The proportion of households where the adult goes without ‘meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day’ (a measure of adequate protein in the diet) is up – from two percent in 1999 to five percent in 2012. On the basis of the three adult food necessities (two meals; fruit and vegetables; and meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent), three and half million adults are not properly fed by the standards set by the public. In addition, half a million children are not adequately fed.

The negative impact of poverty on people’s lives is very well established. Children who live in damp and mouldy homes are up to three times more likely than those in dry homes to suffer from coughing, wheezing and respiratory illness. This has long term effects on people’s health and well-being beyond childhood. The number of ‘excess winter deaths’ – the additional numbers that occurred from December to March compared to the average for the rest of the year – is on the rise following a long-term decline since the 1960s.

Poor diet is a risk factor for the UK’s major killer diseases. In a review of the evidence, the Royal College of Physicians reports that it contributes to almost half of coronary heart disease and a third of cancers. For growing numbers, it leads to diabetes, for older people it increases the risk of fractures, and for pregnant mothers there is a greater chance of a baby of low-birth weight.

Figure 1: Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012

Material deprivation and other harms, UK 2012The pressure on living standards is also having a much wider impact.  In 2012, under half of adults could afford all the necessities, fourteen percent lacked one, nine percent lacked two while thirty percent of adults were unable to afford three or more necessities. Moreover, the percentage of households that cannot afford each of the items and activities seen as necessities in 2012 and 1999 has, in nearly all cases, risen or stayed the same. For some, the increase has been large: those unable to afford to ‘replace or repair broken electrical goods’ up from twelve to twenty-six percent; and those unable to afford ‘appropriate clothes for a job interview’ – a particular problem for the young unemployed – up from four to eight percent. There was also a rise in the proportion of children missing out on a number of key necessities, in some cases more than doubling. In 1999, two percent of children couldn’t afford a school trip once a term; by 2012 it was eight percent.

Significantly, these material and social deprivations are associated with other disadvantages and harms. Figure 1 shows that looking across all the necessities, fifty-nine per cent of those who lack three or more necessities say their health is affected in some way (from ‘slightly’ to ‘a lot’) by their situation and seventy-three percent have at least one financial problem (that is, they are constantly struggling to keep up with their bills or have fallen behind, they have during the last year borrowed to meet day to day needs or have been in arrears on one or other of their household bills). In addition, half of those who lack three or more necessities suffer four or more of the standard twelve indicators of stress, anxiety and depression used in government surveys, a cut-off widely taken as an indicator of poor mental health. Those who lack control over their lives, and sense this lack of control, pay the cost in poor mental health.

Even those with moderate levels of material deprivation, those who lack one or two items, are more likely to face a range of other disadvantages. Thus, a fifth of those lacking one item and a fifth of those lacking two say their health is affected in some way, a quarter of those lacking one item and forty-one percent of those lacking two have one or more financial problems, and a quarter of those lacking one and nearly a third of those lacking two have poor mental health.

In sharp contrast, those lacking none of the necessities are much less likely to experience other disadvantages. There is a clear gap between the experience of the forty-seven percent of the population who have all the necessities and the fifty-three percent who lack at least one and especially those who lack three or more. Among this latter group a large majority face a range of other problems.

Using a cut-off point of those who cannot afford three or more necessities – a group whose deprivations are both overwhelmingly enforced (by lack of income) and whose lives are affected in deep and multiple ways – the level of deprivation poverty has been steadily rising over the last thirty years – up from fourteen percent in 1983 to thirty percent in 2012. While the poor today are in some respects better off than those in the early 1980s, in particular possessing a wider range of consumer goods, they are less a part of the society in which they live. It is this that impacts on people in such a harmful way. Not only are they more likely to suffer direct harms – such as illness – but they also suffer harm in terms of the denial of resources to – using Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities – be able to live the life one values.

This sharp rise in poverty – and its related harms – cannot be explained by a sudden explosion of individual failings. In contrast, it is intimately connected to the rapid rise in inequality resulting from the great interlocking social and economic upheavals of the last thirty years, many of them politically driven. The rolling back of the welfare state, the deregulation of markets (in particular financial markets), and the impact of increasing unrestricted terms of trade through globalisation have come at an enormous cost for increasingly large numbers of people.

Today’s working generation faces a much more treacherous labour market, one that has brought greater joblessness, the spread of low pay and deepening insecurity at work. These problems have been compounded by other changes from the shrinking of housing opportunities, especially for the young, to a deliberate shift in the burden of economic and social risks from the state and employers to the individual. People have increasingly been left to cope by themselves at the very time when insecurity and uncertainty have been on the rise.

The widespread harms caused by poverty have been ignored – despite being well established – precisely because they stem from the very organisation of society. When that organisation is dependent on promoting the primacy of individual agency and responsibility – or, in current parlance, of personal choice – then the harms of poverty are all too easy to blame on the poor themselves. Recognising that poverty stems from the accumulated reductions in opportunities, pay and life chances that result from systematic barriers acting differentially on people – dependent on their social and economic context – poses a much more fundamental challenge. It requires different ways of thinking about, and greater levels of inquiry into, how society could be organised to produce lower levels of poverty. Crucially, it challenges the current, dominant, free market model of capitalism with it bias toward capital and widening inequality.

Fixed Odds Betting Terminals: the psychology of state-corporate harm maximisation

Steve Tombs and Jim Turner

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

High street slot machine gambling – especially the mushrooming of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) – has entered the political debate in the UK. FOBTs are a type of gambling machine which has a set (’ fixed’) average level of payout (‘odds’). For example, a FOBT with fixed odds of 70% means that someone who puts in £10 to play would generally get £7 back, although this is an average: in practice, some players will get back more than this, others less. In recent years FOBTs have become common on British High Streets, allowing very large amounts of money to be gambled in a short amount of time.

In this context, it is worth taking a salutary glance to the other side of the world – to Australia, sometimes referred to as the ‘gambling capital of the world’. Central to this perhaps unwanted status is the phenomenon of ‘pokies’ – “a high-stakes, high-intensity” gambling machine which “has become ubiquitous in pubs and community clubs”. According to one recent analysis, “Australians lose more money gambling per person than any other nation. In 2011-12 this amounted to the equivalent of more than £650 per adult”.

Such per capita calculations obscure the real cost of class-targeted forms of gambling within that global figure. Frankston, in fact the second largest city in the state of Victoria but in effect a suburb of Melbourne, is desperately poor, beset by a range of economic and social problems. It is characterised by lower levels of income, a lower rate of education across all age ranges, higher levels of unemployment and youth disengagement, and poorer averages on every indicator of ‘health’ and ‘personal safety’ when compared to the Melbourne metropolitan or State averages.  It also has a higher rate of per capita gambling losses than the Victorian average. At the top of the walkway from the platforms of Frankston train station is a rather stunning visual: a more or less constantly displayed poster warning, in stark white lettering on a black background: POKER MACHINES HARM FRANKSTON. $62,225,277 LOST LAST YEAR ALONE.

Frankston

How, then, does the state seek to mitigate the harms caused by FOBTs  to already disadvantaged communities? In Southern Australia, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation organises its regulatory approach around three commitments:

  • achieving high levels of voluntary compliance with gambling laws by setting clear expectations, encouraging the right behaviour and taking strong enforcement action where required
  • constraining the regulatory costs and restrictions imposed on the gambling industries to what is necessary to achieve regulatory objectives
  • upholding a culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries.

This illustrates a preference by the state for self-regulation: regulatory costs for and burdens upon industry are to be minimised; and the object is to maintain safer cultures. A walk around many Australian bars, replete with gambling machines, reveals the nature of such self-regulatory efforts. “Take Control Of Your Gambling”, “Don’t Chase Your Losses: walk away”, “Stay in Control”, ”Set Yourself a Limit and Do Not exceed it” and “In the End the Machines will Win” say the signage aimed at the hapless punter. Such exhortations are thoroughly undermined by the psychology that is wired into the very design of these machines.  This makes the regulatory commitment to uphold “a culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries” somewhat disingenuous.

Though it might not be obvious from the common media focus, only around 1% of people meet the diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction. We cannot, then, explain the level of gambling in Frankston and, increasingly, in some of the poorest boroughs, towns and cities across the UK, as a pathological type of behaviour exhibited by a small percentage of the population. We might more usefully learn some lessons from the psychology of behaviourism, which explores how people (and other animal species) respond to, and learn through, rewards and punishments. Rewards are specifically relevant to gambling machines as their design often draws directly on behaviourist psychology. Whilst they apply to all learning species, including humans, many behaviourist principles were first discovered in experiments on non-human animals. One classic animal study illustrates the problem with gambling machines from a behaviourist point of view.

In the most basic design of experiment, the animal is placed in an enclosure that has within it a button and a food dispenser. Whilst exploring, at some point the animal will make contact with the button and a food pellet will be released from the dispenser. The animal finds the food pellet rewarding and quickly learns to associate pressing the button with receiving a reward. Because it is usually not fed before the experiment starts, the animal will spend a lot of time pressing the button until it is no longer hungry. Transferring this lesson to FOBTs, playing is the equivalent of the animal pressing the button and getting a win is the equivalent of the food pellet reward.

Now, what happens when pressing the button doesn’t always make the food dispenser give out a food pellet? Say, for example, the food dispenser only gives out a pellet for every third press of the button: does the animal give up pressing the button, because it’s usually not rewarding? No, in fact the animal keeps on tapping that button: because it needs to press it three times as often to get the same reward, that’s what it does. You’ve probably already worked out the link to FOBTs: they don’t give out a reward every time (if they did they would just be change machines), but the fact that they don’t is one of the things that keeps people playing.

Back to our animal experiment. What if, instead of giving out a food pellet every three presses, the food dispenser is set up to give out food pellets randomly? Does the animal, not ‘knowing’ whether or not pressing the button will get it a reward, give up now? Again, no. This actually makes the animal press the button the most of all: because it cannot predict which presses will or will not be rewarded, the animal will press the button over and over and over again, periodically getting a food pellet reward which keeps it going. You can probably also see how this relates to FOBTs: the randomness of which plays get rewarded and which don’t is one of the factors that keeps the player going – the next play might be the one that ‘wins’. Psychologists have known about these principles since the classic work of B.F. Skinner with pigeons, which identified the role of random rewards in explaining how gambling ‘works’.

There’s one more twist. With the animal in our experiment, there are two things that will stop it pressing the button: (1) if there is a long enough sequence with no reward then, yes, eventually the animal will give up; (2) if the animal gets rewarded too often then it won’t be hungry anymore, so will no longer be motivated to seek the food reward. In a truly random set-up either could happen (although they would be fairly unlikely to happen very often). If you wanted to keep the animal pressing the button as much as possible you would put some limitations on the randomness, so that it never went too long without a reward but also never got so much of a reward that it lost the motivation to continue. The designers of FOBTs know this, so the machines are set up not to go too long without giving a ‘winning’ play. They are also, obviously, set up not to pay out more than they take in (FOBTs exist to make a profit, after all), so players will rarely reach a point where they are no longer ‘hungry’ for a ‘win’.

Overall, then, behaviourist psychology demonstrates how FOBTs are designed to maximise the amount that people play. If gambling is ‘harm’, then FOBTs are technologies of harm maximisation. This hardly squares with the regulatory gloss about a “culture of integrity and harm minimisation in the gambling industries”.

FOBTs – the so-called ‘crack cocaine’ of high street gambling – have recently become a matter of formal political debate in the UK. Out of this debate came the Gambling Protection and Controls, April 2014, which most notably required anyone using such machines to inform shop staff if they want to bet more than £50 cash at a time – rather than placing any maximum limit on spending. More recently, some UK councils have proposed a maximum individual stake for these machines. The Association of British Bookmakers inevitably claimed that the law would “restrict growth for the sector and mean hundreds of shops and thousands of jobs are now at risk“, even as others argued that ‘regulation’ was best left to the markets. An example of industry self-regulation in the UK can be seen in the work of the Senet Group, an ‘independent’ body with the ostensible aim of ‘promoting responsible gambling standards’, which was set up by the bookmakers William Hill, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes and Coral. In early 2015 the Senet Group, along with Gambleaware, launched a campaign with the strapline “When the fun stops, stop”. An example image from the campaign is shown below: notice how the word “fun” is presented much larger, and in a more eye-catching design, than the word “stop”. What message is this advert really sending about gambling?

Gambleaware

Again, there is much to learn via lessons from Australia. As anti-gambling campaigner Paul Bendat says, there the industry and its political allies have consistently used a series of discursive techniques to pre-empt effective regulation, so that the “harm to the disadvantaged” can proceed and accelerate. This strategy, resonant of those deployed by, for example, the tobacco and alcohol industries, denies that FBOTs are responsible for harm and deflects attention from the machine to the individual, claiming to defend individual freedoms and calling for voluntary, ‘responsible’ codes while citing potential employment losses as a risk of tighter regulation.

Viewed in the light of the psychology of FOBTs, the dangers of such claims, and their logic of self-regulation and appeals to cultures of harm-minimisation, are clear. Following the development, in the 1990s, by US criminologists of the term state-corporate crime, we might think of the failure to regulate FOBTs effectively as ‘state-corporate harm’ – harm generated by private companies which is facilitated by states. The dominant preference for self-regulation is probably best explained by the convergence of corporate and governmental interests that benefit from it: an enormously profitable industry, that at the same time generates considerable tax revenues for Government. Meanwhile, state and capital benefit by extracting revenue from populations who are already economically, socially and politically marginalised.