The strange new world of evidence-free government | Zoe Williams

This is in the UK, but it mirrors what is happening in Australia. – Papuq

By Zoe Williams

When ministers’ priorities are cost-cutting and short-term PR wins, research into what actually works falls by the wayside – with disastrous consequences

I remember, just about, when select committee meetings were the morgues of political process, the place debates went to die. Things are different now: wonks observe that we’ve got lucky with the chairs – Margaret Hodge on the public accounts committee (PAC), Rory Stewart on defence, Sarah Wollaston on health – but committee work is flattered mainly by comparison with everything else. Most established interrogative processes have become so adversarial that they’re all theatre. Prime minister’s questions is about watching shouted wordplay that worked better on the page, then forcing out a mirthless laugh for the team. In broadcast interviews, ministers carefully dodge the delivery of any information at all; they would rather sound imbecilic, as if they understood very little and knew even less, than run the risk of having said anything of import. Over time, the dry meetings of the committee rooms have become remarkable: a Dame Something will ask systematic questions, in a transparent setting, about government or business policy, in the expectation of a mature and plausible response; and of course she won’t get one, but it is fascinatingly unusual to watch her try.

Most recently, Dame Anne Begg had some questions for the employment minister, Esther McVey, on the Welfare Reform Act of 2012. She wanted to know about cuts to benefits, having carefully gathered evidence from charities and food banks in advance. “Minimum JSA [jobseeker’s allowance] sanction,” she began, “went from two weeks to four weeks and the maximum went from six months to three years. These are quite sizeable lengths of time, so what evidence did you have on the likely impact on claimants that these extended sanction periods would have?”

Later on, the conversation would turn to the actual matter of deprivation: what was the pathway between being sanctioned and getting hardship funds? What was the link between sanctions and suicides? (The lack of ministerial interest here is pretty chilling.) But first, there was this knotty question: were there any reasonable grounds that could be shared with any reasonable person to think this policy would be effective – any attempt to visualise how it would look?

There were not. There was a lot of faffing, and some broad and extraneous evidence about sanctions in general. “I take it from your failure to answer the question that you did not do any research,” the chair finally concluded, having grilled McVey and the DWP’s Chris Hayes, for long enough.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation as good as predicted this in 2010, when it wrote of benefit sanctions as a whole: “In countries where policy objectives are more closely connected to taxpayer buy-in irrespective of empirical evidence, one could argue that even the best specified impact results are of little, or at least secondary, importance to the political impetus for reform.” Or, in simpler – though inevitably more “politicised” language – governments that aren’t bothered what happens to people and are just trying to curry favour with what they think of as a vindictive electorate don’t tend to care much about data. And so it came to pass. People have died as a result of these sanctions: they have taken their own lives, citing destitution as the final straw, and they have died of starvation. This makes it particularly hard to countenance that the legislation might have been made entirely on a whim.

Committee after committee comes to this conclusion: in December, the PAC asked Ursula Brennan, permanent secretary to the Ministry of Justice, what research had been done into the changes to legal aid. “It was not possible to do research about the current regime,” she replied. “The government was explicit it needed to make these changes swiftly.” Surprise was expressed – in PAC language (“This is quite surprising”) rather than the terms heard on the floor of the Commons (“I am absolutely staggered”) – that such far-reaching changes could be undertaken without first asking some rudimentary questions of the professionals involved, gathering some slight evidence about the possible impact. “The piece of evidence that was overwhelming was the level of spending,” Brennan replied. “The evidence required was that government said ‘We wish to cut the legal aid bill.’” That’s not, plainly, what Hodge meant by the word – she was seeking out that pesky empirical evidence again. Why can’t she just remember that it’s secondary to the “political impetus for reform”?

From the point of view of governing – which includes, though unfortunately for Brennan, McVey et al is not limited to, budgeting – it is illogical to make significant changes without research. All (almost all) the people whose benefits were cut will still exist, at the end of this parliament. Their children will still exist. Their health problems will still exist, doubtless having been worsened by malnutrition and desperation. All the conflict for which legal aid was sought will still exist. The pressures on the legal system still exist, worsened by a surge in litigants in person (there has been a 30% rise in cases at the family courts in which both parties have to represent themselves). If you are taking even a medium-term view, it makes no sense to change systems without evidence. Cut indiscriminately, costs are likely to bob up elsewhere, where they will cost more and last longer.

I begin to wonder whether the real radicalism we observe here is not political as much as formal: government with only the shallowest roots and no eye on the future, whose only interest is near-term PR wins. Is it a feature of coalition or of the new Conservatism to have no interest in an action’s consequences? Hard to say. But it is the antithesis of conservatism.

The strange new world of evidence-free government | Zoe Williams | Comment is free | The Guardian.

Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The strange new world of evidence-free government | Zoe Williams