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.