Policy Exchange Paper and the Importance of Defining One’s Terms

Social media was afire yesterday with disabled people furious with the latest paper from the think-tank, Policy Exchange, on extending the policy of work-fare to more unemployed people (with, it does seem, a particular target of disabled unemployed people).


I’ll leave it to experts such as Jonathan Portes at the NIESR to deconstruct the economic arguments on workfare generally, which he does here: 


I want to look at the way in which the questions were written, as the support of the general public is being prayed in aid as this doubtful policy is about to be extended. 

Earlier this year I wrote a report on care and support within the family for the Centre for the Modern Family, and I was also privy to polling questions before they were sent out to the general public by a polling organisation. As someone who has written on disability, on and off, for seven years, I was surprised that polling organisation use such antediluvean phrases such as ‘mental disability’. What does it mean? Presented with such a phrase, does a member of the public think of a person with a learning difficulty, a person with a mental health condition, or someone with Autism or Aspergers? I asked the polling organisation what they meant. They didn’t really know, they just knew that they wanted to differentiate from a physical disability. So I suggested ‘physical or other disability’ which worked fine. So ‘mental disability’ is a/meaningless, b/confusing. Then look at the phrasing of the question again – page 16 of the Policy Exchange report. 

Click to access work%20fair.pdf

“Imagining a law was enacted which required people who had been out of work for 12 months or
more to do community work, which groups of people, if any, do you think should be excluded
from such a law? (% of respondents saying category should be excluded)” 

Then came several categories, such as “Mothers with pre-school children (0 – 4 years old), for which 67% of those polled thought they should be excluded, people with medical conditions preventing them from working to full capacity, (52%) and fathers with pre-school children (0 – 4 years old) – (38%). Then came the two ‘disability’ categories aforementioned. Look at the phrasing of the questions: 

“People with mental disabilities who are capable of working” – of which 25% said they should be excluded from working
“People with physical disabilities who are capable of working” – of which 22% said the same. 

The question is skewed. It’s badly phrased. The other questions do not say: “Mothers with pre-school children who are capable of working” or ‘fathers with pre-school children who are capable of working”, for example. These two groups are the only ones where the question itself adds in a presumption of capability to work that the person who is polled then has to disregard in order to say no to the question. It is flawed and I am surprised that YouGov allowed the question through. 

Last two points – the reason I was originally surprised by the findings in this poll are that recent polls suggest a softening in attitudes towards unemployed people. So I went and looked at the data. Then I wasn’t surprised any more, because the questions were so poorly drafted. 

My last point is this – Policy Exchange has published many excellent reports over the years and many have not been party political. In fact I co-wrote one, in 2008, auditing the lamentable state of the Building Schools for the Future programme, in which far too many expensive consultants, lawyers and contractors were pocketing (quite legally) large amounts of cash for ‘transforming education’ rather than building decent, modest schools. Then Policy Exchange made an effort to draw in people like me who might be seen as neutral or from the left to balance out their profile. This paper, however, looks blatantly political and I believe it does their profile no good at all. 


The UN Rapporteur’s mission to the UK, unpopular groups – and a round-up of more reviews

I suppose it’s not that surprising that some Conservative MPs have been spluttering over breakfast as they read that Raquel Rolnik, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, has been over here in the UK, examining whether we are providing adequate housing to particular groups – among them disabled people, homeless Roma, Gypsies and Travellers.


While MPs spilt their cornflakes I must admit I had a very pleasant (but frugal!) breakfast with Ms Rolnik and her team, along with Candy Sheridan, the Irish Traveller spokeswoman who rose to prominence challenging the eviction at Dale Farm – but who has spent months since patiently chronicling living conditions roadside there, as well as elsewhere, for her community, as well as that of Romani Gypsies. I was there because of my book, which came out just a month ago, which chronicles the parlous state of housing for the communities. Indeed, of the four families I followed in some depth, over the last few years, only one has secure accommodation. All four have experienced eviction within the last two years. This Wednesday I will attend Ms Rolnik’s press conference – not forgetting, of course, another important story she is covering – the bedroom tax – which is hitting disabled people, and their carers, harder than most. 

And a quick round-up of other news. A very welcome appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, along with afore-mentioned Candy Sheridan, and Romani Janie Codona, to talk about the book. You can listen to the interview with Jenni Murray here: 


And big thanks to the great (poet and journalist) Damian le Bas for a typically thoughtful review of my book here, on the Travellers Times website, in which he writes: “Katharine Quarmby has done an excellent job in observing the current situation around Gypsies and Travellers on the ground. I grew up immersed in the actual grass roots politics of the British countryside, in a time when Parish Councils would still think nothing of posting flyers encouraging people to mobilise in order to get the Gypsies out of the village.

In truth, little has changed below the surface: lingering behind the media-savvy talk of the green belt, “inappropriate development” and poorly-chosen sites is the brute fact of communities who struggle to understand each other, and who therefore tend to snap back into a confrontational pose whenever the going gets tough. Quarmby acknowledges that Travellers pulling onto village greens and cricket pitches is bad news for everyone involved, and observations like this should let readers know that rather than being blindly pro-Traveller she, like all of us, genuinely wants to see the situation improve.

My only concern is that the very people who would most benefit from reading this book have already made up their minds, but where there’s the slightest trace of empathy across the garden fence or the barbed wire bounds of the Gypsy site, there always will be the hope of a better future.” I couldn’t have put it better myself – full review here. 


Another very perceptive review here, by the wonderful social affairs journalist Fran Abrams here, in the New Statesman, in which she kindly calls the book an “an important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere. It underlines a truth – that a sense of “otherness” brings with it a dividend: it binds families and it binds communities.”

Read the full review here: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/08/road-again