A binary world

By Deborah Padfield
© Alastair Grant, AP

Which is more significant: the reasons for the disturbances of early August, or the responses to them? Both deserve analysis. Politicians have expounded on causes with scanty facts and scantier moral credentials. A prime minister with an indefinite number of homes, who believed it right to give Andy Coulson a "second chance", endorses throwing "some of these people out of their houses". That a family was served with an eviction notice before their son came to trial reveals the ease with which unknown precarians are condemned as "these people".

Who is responsible?

Cameron spoke of "criminality pure and simple", resisting any parallel with MPs' non-criminal abuses of the expenses system. The distinction is flaky. The expenses saga revealed MPs milking a lax system, complacently or shamelessly abusing its fluid rules. Interpretation of where criminality begins is not value-free. Eviction of perpetrators’ families is a way of "enforcing responsibility": responsibility lies with individuals, not with the system. Concerning expenses, Tory "grandee" Anthony Steen disagreed: "It is not a question of feeling we have done something wrong. It is just the system which is wrong" [Times, 17 May 2009]. That won’t do; grandees and hoodies must take responsibility.

Yet he had a point. We are influenced by social norms. Many rioters were possessed by the mob mentality which can overpower educated and uneducated alike; the MPs were not. But in this individualist culture, rioters, MPs and others are influenced by resentment against authorities which threaten their freedoms and by desire for what others desire. Rich people have ways of satisfying themselves. Others tend to be cruder, an easier target for moral outrage.

A changed debate

Reading select committee debates on the Localism, Welfare Reform and Legal Aid Bills and working at a Citizens Advice Bureau, I’ve concluded that campaigns by and on behalf of vulnerable people fall onto deaf ears. Citizens Advice uses evidence to show that timely advice and support save major financial and human costs. We churn in frustration at the short-sightedness of politicians who brush aside evidence with statements of insulting vacuity.

They are not short-sighted. Theirs is a different hymn-sheet. Many cuts and reforms are not primarily about saving money; were they so, evidence of not-far-downstream costs must influence policy.

Responsibility without resources

Individuals must take responsibility. Young men involved in riots must be stamped as the criminals they are. Failed parents may be rendered homeless. The responsibility-theme pervades reform of benefits and legal aid. Single parents, who must job-hunt when their child is seven and whose childcare support has been cut, should sit and read to their children (and presumably ensure that childcare providers do likewise). Job seekers without money for bus fares must get to interviews. Mentally ill people must gather their own evidence for Employment & Support Allowance assessments. People facing employment or benefit tribunals or child custody proceedings are to prepare and present their own cases. Tenants are, unaided, to force private landlords to fulfil their obligations.

These demands may sound reasonable to those with resources of time, know-how and confidence or money to buy them; even more reasonable to those uninterested in other worlds. But people live in those other worlds. In any case, government’s priority is not the reasonable but the "right". It is right for people to take responsibility for themselves and wrong for them to burden "hard-working families" or fail, like rioters' parents, to fulfil their responsibilities.

Responsibility goes with freedom and choice. Encouraging people into work, projects them into freedom. Abolition of legal aid lifts them out of dependence on experts. Theoretically true. The practical effect, though, will often be disempowerment.

Weakening parliament and judiciary

Parliamentary scrutiny of such actual effects is being minimised. Welfare Reform and Legal Aid committees were disquieted by not knowing the actual significance of many draft clauses. The powers of the Lord Chancellor further to cut legal aid will be broad, and shifting its administration into the Ministry of Justice will remove independent oversight from entitlement decisions. The judicial scrutiny of new legislation will also be affected.

Weakening individuals

Under-Secretary of State Djanogly told the Commons Legal Aid committee that "the common-law right of access to justice does not guarantee legal representation or equality of arms" [19 July]. Karl Turner MP spoke of government's "risible" alternatives to legal aid, from advice from Job Centre Plus on appealing its own decisions to mediation which, though valuable, often needs to be backed by legal advice and cannot be used in disputes with government departments. Surviving legal aid is to be channelled through telephone advice, which people in the poorest (DE) social classes are least likely to use. Quoting the Legal Action Group, Yvonne Fovargue MP commented that "if we actually want to create a system that stops the people who need it using the advice, this is the way to do it."

Poverty and insecurity are agents of disempowerment. The time-poor and over-stretched cannot keep up the fight indefinitely. People are ground down by unrelenting problems with insecure benefits, employment and tenancies. MPs Yvonne Fovargue and Andy Slaughter saw the cuts in legal aid as a way of pushing people off benefits. Many, unable to challenge decisions, will slip into an informal/illegal economy which renders all but the skilled criminal yet more vulnerable. According to Rachel Robinson of Liberty, many individuals will lose their practical ability to challenge decisions of public authorities, which "will, to some extent, change the relationship between the individual and the state" [14 July].

The undeserving poor

The double standards dividing hoodies from grandees are well-established. Few in the world of the haves, and no government department, would engage in legal action without skilled advice. Why is it different for the have-nots? The sub-text of the legal aid reforms seems to be that if the claim is just, a plain statement of fact will be decisive. This must rest in government's division between the deserving ("hard-working") and undeserving ("dependent") poor.

The binary vision has been skilfully presented. Divide and rule. Routinely, people receiving benefits tell me of their anger at government for tougher rules and their greater anger at the benefit fraudsters who provoked them. Amongst the poor, poverty is suspect.

Poverty is suspect; wealth is out of reach. Responsibility is demanded; resources for realising it are denied. Freedom is promised; like the freedom to enter the Ritz.

People riot; government condemns.

About the author:

Deborah Padfield is a benefits adviser at Cambridge Citizens Advice Bureau, specialising in work with people with severe and enduring mental health conditions, chronic pain and substance abuse. She has previously lived and worked with people with similar problems in the east end of London and is a former editor of The Friend, the Quaker weekly.

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