DWP trial of “attitude to work” assessments is unethical and potentially unlawful

Around five weeks or so ago The Independent published a report on the DWP’s latest wheeze:

Benefit claimants will face ‘attitude to work’ assessments under new government plans

People claiming benefits will be expected to undergo attitude tests to assess if they have a psychological resistance to work under new plans revealed by the employment minister.

Esther McVey said benefit claimants will be profiled to see if they feel “determined”, “bewildered” or “despondent” at the prospect of employment.

Those who are deemed less mentally prepared for life at work will undergo intensive coaching at the job centre, The Telegraph reports, while people who are judged to be more positive about work will be placed on less rigorous schemes.

“It will be scales of eager, despondent, maybe apprehensive. There are factors within that: somebody who is apprehensive but willing is different from someone who is reticent but disengaged,” said Ms McVey.

“For a mum coming back to work after a long time, it could be about self-confidence and self-esteem. It is a tailor-made, far more sophisticated system.”

The report raised a few questions, not least amongst which that of whether and to what extent the DWP were intending to dabble in the use of psychometric testing and in the misuse and abuse of positive affect as a coercive strategy:

The deployment of positive affect within the active labour market policies pursued by both Labour and the Coalition is legitimated by and reinforces the economic model that UK governments have drawn on over the last thirty years, according to which long-term unemployment is itself a barrier to employment. Unemployment – ‘worklessness’ – is held to be a harmful attribute that people may acquire, linked to ideas of debility and dependency, which makes them less employable.  Hence interventions designed to change individuals’ behaviour and tackle their alleged loss of ‘employability’ are posited as a reasonable approach to a macroeconomic problem. [4] Workfare is increasingly central to such policy, combining twin imperatives of this supply-side package, this relentless focus on claimants: to change the behaviour of people whose employment-related behaviour is deemed inadequate and to make life lived on subsistence benefits (even) more punitive and less viable.

So the use of positive affect in the delivery of workfare has far ranging consequences for people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or in ‘in work’ poverty (i.e. deemed not to be working enough hours, or not doing enough to secure ‘better paid work’).  This includes mandatory participation in ‘positive psychology’ courses and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance  (regulated and ad-hoc) with the new regimes of welfare conditionality to which people claiming out of work benefits (or in future, universal credit) are subject. In addition to those currently claiming benefits, those who could be at risk of doing so – notably those currently adopting ‘unhealthy behaviours’ – are also regularly subjected to the blandishments of positive thinking. [5] Populations ‘marked out for wearing out’ as Lauren Berlant puts it. [6] Central themes include positive affect as ‘health asset’ and potent form of personal capital – in other words, positive affect as a substitute for income and security: ‘cruel optimism’ indeed. [References in original article]

The central message that’s being relentless pushed on the unemployed and at the general public is that if you are out of work, and particularly if you experience significant problems in securing suitable employment than that’s nothing at all to do with the economy or the parlous state of your local labour market; it’s no one’s fault but your own. You don’t have the right attitude for work. You’re not sufficiently motivated. You’re not trying hard enough and, increasingly, you’ve “chosen” unemployment as a ‘lifestyle”. You’re just not positive enough.

There’s some extremely useful background reading there but we need to move on to look at the DWP’s new scheme using information released under following a Freedom of Information request, which asked for the DWP’s own guidance (and any associated regulations) together with any assessment questions that will be used as part of the scheme – and this is the basic response that the FOI request netted:

The article referred to a trial designed to look at ways in which we might use a range of information to identify the most appropriate interventions for claimants. The extra information gathered will be used purely for analysis; it will not affect the claimants’ benefits or the requirements placed on them. As such there are no specific ‘segmentation’ regulations.

I attach the draft guidance we have produced to support the staff involved in the trial. Please note that this is still being refined so the final product may differ from that attached.

Okay, so this is apparently a trial of some description but beyond that it all seems a little vague except for the statement that there are no specific regulations attached to it and that it will supposedly not affect anyone’s benefit or the “requirements placed on them”. That’s not quite true, however, as the “Trial Overview” section of the “Claimant Segmentation Trial Standards Guidance” document supplied by the DWP explains:

The Claimant Segmentation Trial is being rolled out to 27 Jobcentre Plus (JCP) offices across the country. It aims to test what the impact of weekly jobsearch reviews (WJRs), also known as weekly signing, is on claimant success in finding work, and most importantly identify which groups of claimants respond best to WJRs.

The trial will use an approach known as ‘Randomised Controlled Trials’ (RCTs) to rigorously test the impact of WJRs. This means that we will need to randomly assign claimants to either WJRs or standard fortnightly jobsearch reviews (FJRs), also known as fortnightly signing, and observe the outcomes.

That gives us a bit more information as we now know that it’s not just any old type of trial but an Randomised Controlled Trial in which half the participants which be required to sign on once-a-week, rather than once-a-fortnight so that the DWP can evaluate the impact of weekly signing; and that is unmistakeably a change in one of the basic requirements placed on claimants. Those who are randomly assigned to the weekly signing group will be required to physically attend their local jobcentre and sign on every week where, currently, they sign on every two weeks, so the claim that this trial will not affect any of the requirements placed on claimants is simply untrue. There’s no two ways about it.

The next paragraph of the “Trial Overview” contains another rather worrying statement:

The data collection and random assignment will be performed by the Claimant Segmentation Survey tool, which you will have received with this guidance. The simple, quick, and easy‐to‐use tool will enable us to collect key information about claimants that will help to analyse in detail how and why WJRs work. [Emphasis added – U.]

Before beginning to to analyse “how and why WJRs work” it would normally be considered a good idea to establish (using unbiased evidence) that WJRs do, in fact, actually work. I don’t know about you but I’ve always understood that to be fairly standard research practice so, as I’m sure you can imagine I would ordinarily expect to see some evidence to that effect cited somewhere in the rest of the documentation – except, of course, that we are dealing with the DWP here, so one is just as likely to find lots of pretty pictures of unicorns.

There is no such evidence but what there is, on page 10, is a reference to a pre-existing target:

Q: What happens after the 13 weeks? [This is the duration of the trial period – U.]

A: Once the claimant has been on either weekly of fortnightly signing for 13 weeks, they should then move on to whatever signing regime they would normally be placed on. Given that the target is to have 50% of claimants on weekly signings, it is likely that for the majority of claimants they will simply stay on weekly / fortnightly signings. However, after a period of 13 weeks we will no longer specify how the claimants should be treated. Please note, however, that we are still interested in how the claimants fare over 52 weeks, and so will continue monitoring them even after the 13 weeks have passed.

So, it seems abundantly clear from that that it has already been decided, as a matter of policy handed down from on high that half of all claimants will, henceforth, be required to sign on weekly, rather than fortnightly irrespective of whether or not this make any actual difference to their prospects of obtaining a job; all of which tends to suggest that what we’re looking at here is not a genuine piece of research leading to the development of evidence-based policy but rather a classic example of policy-based evidence making in which the clear expectation is that this research will generate evidence to support a policy decision that has already been taken at – one would presume – ministerial level.

In short, this is bullshit masquerading as research.

Hold that last thought as it’s time to move on to look at the survey itself, for which we have a series of screenshots of the survey tool which were also released as part of the FOI request. There what we have is a page of preamble covering claimant consent, data protection, etc. followed by a list of fifteen questions which Jobcentre staff will put to the claimant.

The first six questions seek purely factual information, e.g. whether the claimant has daily access to a phone, email and the internet; how much work experience they have, their highest level of education, etc., after which it moves on to a couple of questions which solicit the claimant’s opinion, i.e. :-

- Which of the following plays the greatest role in securing a job placement? (Options include “luck”, “who you know”, “your educational background”, “experience”, “the number of jobs you apply for”, “how much effort you put into each application” and the ubiquitous “other”), and

– Which of the following statements best describes your confidence in getting a job within 13 weeks? (For which the options given are “certain”, “likely”, “unlikely”, “certain not to get a job” and “other”)

And then we’re back to another factual question albeit that this time it asks the claimant whether there is anything that is currently affecting their ability to get or keep work and seeks to solicit what for some claimants is very sensitive personal information. Some of the options offered as possible responses to this question include “care responsibilities” for either adults or children, whether the claimant has a criminal record, or health problems or a disability (including a drug or alcohol problem) or problems with literacy and/or numeracy plus several more mundane options e.g. “lack of transport”, “lack of local jobs”, “lack of motivation/confidence”.

Whether, and to what extent, claimants will answer that last question honestly, ever after being assured at the start that it won’t affect their claim, is anyone’s guess, particularly on some of the more sensitive options and, to their credit, the DWP is at least clear in its guidance to its own staff that they should not push or probe claimants on this question, even if they think they are being less than truthful in some of their responses.

Q: What if I think the claimant is lying?

A: There is very little that we can do to force claimants to tell the truth in their answers. Firstly, you should always make it very clear that their answers will in no way affect their situation; the data will be used at an aggregate level and will be completely anonymised. If they have previously given you a different answer to the same question asked in the survey, you can ask them to confirm which the correct response is. However, we do not expect you to probe or push claimants; just record what the claimant answers.

This brings us to the final part of the claimant survey which consists of six questions in the standard Likert’s format, i.e. to which claimants are asked to respond by indicating whether they strongly agree/agree/disagree, etc. with a particular statement and the statements on offer include:-

- The types of I can get do not make it worthwhile for me to work

– The thought of moving into new work makes me nervous

– I have made a commitment to myself to find a job by a certain date

Plus others covering perceptions of the availability of advice and support, whether it would be difficult for them to accept paid work and whether or not they perceive their responsibilities at home as a barrier to work.

Now, having read all that you may well be thinking that, contrary to some of speculation surrounding the announcement of this new scheme, there’s nothing much there that even remotely resembles psychometric testing and you’d be entirely correct in that assessment. What the survey resembles, more than anything else, is a piece of very basic market research or a simple opinion poll. It certainly doesn’t resemble any psychological research inventory I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot over the years – and there are simply far too few attitude-based questions included in the survey for it to provide any kind of detailed or meaningful psychological information about claimants.

What it looks like (again) is not just bullshit but extremely crude and superficial bullshit but – and here’s the kicker – that’s not the end of the survey, even though it is the end of the questions that claimant advisors will be expected to put to claimants.

At the end of the survey there are also five additional questions which the claimant advisor is expected to answer based solely on their own perception of the claimant.

The first of these is straightforward enough and asks for an assessment of the claimant’s standard of spoken English, the options for which are “native fluent”, “non-native fluent”, “Good (conversational)”, “Basic (communication possible)” and “Poor (communication challenging/not possible)” – except, of course, that this question invites advisors to categorise some individuals as “non-native” based on their apparent racial/ethnic characteristics and on, presumably, their accent and without regard to their actual nationality or place of birth. The mere fact that someone has a “non-native” accent does not automatically signify that they are, themselves, “non-native” or that English is their second language even if they speak it fluently. It’s certainly not uncommon for second generation migrants who were born in the UK to retain distinct traces of their family’s original accent merely from having grown up, in the UK, within a first generation migrant family and it is, of course also entirely possible for a “native” Briton to pick up a “non-native” accent while working overseas.

In short, if someone speaks English fluently does it matter in the slightest if they speak with a Jamaica or South Asian accent any more than it matters whether or not they speak with a Yorkshire accent or, as I do when I choose not to put on my “telephone voice” with a broad Black Country accent? Personally, I don’t think it does, so unless the DWP is proposing to offer claimants elocution lessons as part of the support package that distinction between “native” and “non-native” is irrelevant.

The next thing that the advisor – and not the claimant – is asked to assess is the relevance of the claimant’s work experience to their target field of work using one of four options (“very relevant”, “relevant”, “limited relevance”, “no relevance”) although on exactly what basis this is assessment is to be made is unclear as the main survey asks only about the claimant’s total work experience (in years) which, to a considerable extent, will be dependent on the claimant’s age. Okay, so the survey is to be administered immediately after the DWP’s standard job claims interview which may well net the advisor some information on which to base such a judgement but it still seems rather tenuous and subjective.

The next two questions are similarly subjective; the first asks the advisor how likely they think it is that the claimant will find a “job placement” within 13 weeks – why a “job placement” and not just a plain old “job”? – while the second asks the advisor what impact on the claimant they would expect to see from “more regular job-search review meetings” (i.e. weekly signings).

Give that we are looking at what is ostensibly research the obvious question to ask is just exactly what it is these last 2-3 questions are seeking to evaluate. Is it the claimant’s actual prospects of getting a job within 13 weeks or is it the accuracy of the advisor’s subjective judgement of those prospects? This is a question that the DWP’s guidance glosses over completely:

Q: What’s wrong with relying on the judgement of work coaches and assistant work coaches?

A: There’s nothing wrong with their judgement, which is why the tool seeks to capture their experience and judgement. This trial will help us understand whether we can develop a statistical tool that could be used to help staff in making their decisions. Staff have the experience which will always be key in making the right decisions for claimants. While staff will make the right decision most of the time, the goal is to make the right decision always.

But is any of that actually true? After all, the guidance itself provides no evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that their staff make the right decision “most of the time”, indeed the preceding paragraph, which explains why they’re running a trial, clearly implies that no such evidence actually exists:

Q: Why do we need a trial?

A: Running trials is important in order to properly and scientifically understand what works best, and for whom. Without a trial we are relying on the judgements and experiences of individuals which are likely to be correct in those instances, but cannot necessarily be applied throughout the country. This trial will provide us with accurate information that will allow us to make policy that is relevant and useful for all JCPs nationwide.

So what happen if, when all the evidence from this trial is collated, it doesn’t clearly show that advisors make the right decision “most of the time”? What if the results are inconclusive or worse still, tend to demonstrate the judgements made by advisors are, in practice, no more accurate than flipping a coin? Where does the DWP go from there and what are the implications for its own staff?

Again, there’s a rather overpowering smell of bullshit here that DWP staff and their union would be well advised not to ignore, particularly in light of the paragraph that follows the DWP trite “but of course we trust our staff” statement.

Furthermore, the introduction of UC is likely to change the way we operate. Caseloads will be increasing, meaning we need to find new ways to support staff in their work, and much more interaction with claimants will be done online, meaning staff won’t necessarily come face‐to‐face with claimants until later in the process. We want to investigate whether a tool could be useful in these circumstances.

So, this is all tied into the introduction of Universal Credit, which will lead to “much more interaction with claimants” being done online – and without any human intervention. That will, in some cases, only come “later in the process”, i.e. after claimants have been automatically triaged based on the information provided through the online system. That’s what this is actually all about, trying to find a cheaper and much less labour intensive way of separating out the sheep from the goats and cutting costs (and jobs) in the process. If the research demonstrates that the crude survey tool that being used here is just as effective in sorting the wheat from the chaff as a face-to-face interview with an advisor then you don’t need an advisor to conduct a face-to-face interview.

Before we look at the last question on the survey I want to return to the Independent’s article and flag up a statement made by the current Minister of State, Esther McVey.

“It will be scales of eager, despondent, maybe apprehensive. There are factors within that: somebody who is apprehensive but willing is different from someone who is reticent but disengaged,” said Ms McVey.

“For a mum coming back to work after a long time, it could be about self-confidence and self-esteem. It is a tailor-made, far more sophisticated system.”

So, apparently, what this is system will deliver are “scales of eager, despondent” and “maybe apprehensive” and a “tailor-made, far more sophisticated system” – so let’s see for ourselves just exactly how sophisticated this system actually is.

The last question on the survey, which is again for advisors only, asks them to assign the claimant to one of just four “broad categories” based, again, purely the advisor’s subject judgement of the claimant and a set of “Pen Pictures descriptions”.

Were you to be enrolled in this trial you could, for example, be categorised by the advisor as an “eager jobseeker”, in which case they have concluded that you:

- Have often made a commitment to find work, and are not nervous about moving into work

– Are willing to risk doing jobs which are not ideal for them, and make compromises to get work

– Generally don’t enjoy being out of work

– Respect those in work and believe it’s important not to rely on benefits

– Are likely to apply for jobs very quickly

And that’s it – that is the entire “Pen Picture” on the basis of which you will be arbitrarily categorised by an advisor on the back of a single interview.

If you’re not classified as an “eager job-seeker” then you could be assigned to the group of “Willing but nervous job-seekers” or the group of “Ambivalent claimants with few barriers” and each group has its own “Pen Picture” with around half-a-dozen bullet-pointed statements that supposedly characterise everyone assigned to that group.

The final group to which you could be assigned by the advisor is the ubiquitous “Other” which has by far the shortest “Pen Picture” of all:

- Don’t easily fit into any of the above groups;

– May have significant barriers to working or undertaking job‐search activity.

Well that’s really illuminating, isn’t it?

However, what’s most interesting about this last group is not what the “Pen Picture” says but what it doesn’t say explicitly but which is, nevertheless, clearly implied by statements contained in the “Pen Picture” which describe the other three groups.

You may already have noticed that “Pen Picture” for an “eager job-seeker” includes the statement:

- Respect those in work and believe it’s important not to rely on benefits

Although how an advisor is expected to arrive at such a judgement based on minimal number of questions in the main survey is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, similar if slightest less positive statements also appear in the “Pen Picture’s” for the other two named groups, so if you’re a “Willing but nervous job-seekers” then you are:

- otherwise keen to work, and think work has real benefits

While if you are an ambivalent claimant then you:

- May believe that it’s important to earn one’s own money, and that there aren’t enough jobs available.

So, not only are advisors being invited to make their own value judgements about claimants but, by implication, the missing statement from the “Pen Picture” of the “Other” group that corresponds to these statements would probably look something like:

- Scrounging layabout who’s chosen unemployment as a lifestyle

The DWP’s guidance does not, of course, make this explicit but the framing of these crude categories nevertheless invites and embodies a prejudicial view of any claimants categorised by their advisor as “Other”, irrespective of whether such a view has any merits or basis in fact.

If you were paying attention earlier you might also be wondering what happened to Esther McVey’s “scales of eager, despondent [and] maybe apprehensive”? The short answer is that there aren’t any, at least not at this stage (the DWP does say in its FOI response this is all draft material) and also there’s precious little sign of any sophistication either. All we actually have here are three very crude “broad” categories and a catch-all “Other”, all of which, again, reinforces the impression that what we are looking at here is nothing more than a grossly over-simplistic market research-style exercise conducted with the intention of providing spurious validation for policy decisions that have already been taken and not a genuine or serious piece of actual research that is intended to shape and inform the formulation of evidence-based public policy.

It’s a sham.

But that’s okay isn’t it? After all this is only a trial so you can refuse to take part; that’s how trials work, you have to consent to participating in them?

Not according to the DWP:

NINO [National Insurance Number] and consent

To begin a new survey, click ‘Begin new survey’. You must then enter the claimant’s National Insurance number. Please ensure that this is correctly entered as this will be the only means we have to track claimant’s data. If the number entered is not a valid NINO you will be prompted to correct it.

You must then ask for the claimant’s consent for us to collect information about them. This is necessary because we are collecting additional information beyond what is necessary for the claims process for the purposes of research. Please read out the passage to the claimant and ask if they are happy with this. Please click either the ‘Agree’ or ‘Disagree’ buttons.

If they disagree they will still be part of the trial using the data we already have available and the questions about your views on the claimant, and the NINO must still be entered.

So, even if a claimant declines to give their consent they will still be enrolled into the trial on the basis of the data that the DWP already holds and the opinions of the claimant advisor, i.e. their responses to the final five questions on the survey, including the questions about the claimant’s standard of spoken English and the “broad category” to which they are assigned by the advisor. The only thing a claimant can refuse to do is answer the fifteen questions on the claimant part of the survey – and if that explanation is not clear enough, the point about the DWP disregarding the question of consent is reiterated explicitly later in the guidance in its FAQ section for advisors:

Q: What if the claimant refuses to take part?

A: The claimant may refuse to answer the survey questions; however, they cannot opt to not take part in the trial. The trial is looking at the impact of receiving WJRs / FJRs, and as such they must adhere to the signing regime they are assigned so long as their claim is active. If a claimant is worried about being part of a trial, explain that their experience of claiming JSA will not differ, except in the frequency of the signings which is nationwide policy.

Now that is completely and utterly unethical, not to mention complete and utter bullshit. Moving people on to weekly signing may very well be “nationwide policy” but that, in itself, does not automatically mean that the DWP can then enrol benefit claimants in an RCT and collect personal data that they do not need in order to process their claim without the claimant’s consent.

It also potentially breaches data protection law. Even without capturing answers from the claimant to the first fifteen survey questions the DWP are still obtaining, recording and processing the claimant’s personal data and, more to the point, processing data that is beyond what is necessary for their own claims process. To be absolutely clear on this point, the Information Commissioner’s Office defines “personal data” as follows:

Personal data means data which relate to a living individual who can be identified –

(a) from those data, or

(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller, and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual.

You’ll have noted that first thing that a claimant advisor has to enter into the survey form is the claimant’s National Insurance Number, from which the DWP can certainly identify the claimant as a specific individual based on other information they hold, i.e. the personal information on their claim and this definition also makes it perfectly clear that any expressions of opinion about the claimant, which is what the final five questions on the survey record, also amount to personal data.

There is also the added question here of whether, by including categories for the assessment of a claimant’s standard of spoken which allow the advisor to express a view as whether the claimant is a native or non-native, this survey is recording sensitive personal data about the claimant’s racial or ethnic origin, in which case express consent has to be obtained from the claimant in order for that information to be legally recorded and processed under data protection law. In fact, here’s [part of] what the ICO has to say on the subject of consent:

One of the conditions for processing is that the individual has consented to their personal data being collected and used in the manner and for the purposes in question.

You will need to examine the circumstances of each case to decide whether consent has been given. In some cases this will be obvious, but in others the particular circumstances will need to be examined closely to decide whether they amount to an adequate consent.

Consent is not defined in the Data Protection Act. However, the European Data Protection Directive (to which the Act gives effect) defines an individual’s consent as:

“…any freely given specific and informed indication of his wishes by which the data subject signifies his agreement to personal data relating to him being processed”.

Consent obtained under duress or on the basis of misleading information does not adequately satisfy the condition for processing.

The Data Protection Act distinguishes between:

– the nature of the consent required to satisfy the first condition for processing; and

– the nature of the consent required to satisfy the condition for processing sensitive personal data, which must be “explicit”.

This suggests that the individual’s consent should be absolutely clear. It should cover the specific processing details; the type of information (or even the specific information); the purposes of the processing; and any special aspects that may affect the individual, such as any disclosures that may be made.

So in order to legally process the personal data they’re collecting, the DWP should obtain the claimant’s consent and this should be done openly and honestly without resorting to coercion or the use of misleading information, particularly where any sensitive personal data is concerned, so how does the DWP do on that score?

Questions for you.

Once you have completed all the claimant questions, or if the claimant did not agree to answer the questions, a window will open asking you (the work coach / assistant work coach) to ensure that you can answer the next section in confidence. At this point please adjust the screen so that the claimant cannot see what is displayed. If necessary explain that you now need to fill in additional information.

Once the screen is appropriately adjusted, click ‘Ok’ and you will be taken to a separate question page. These are questions for you to answer about the claimant; please answer them as accurately and honestly as possible.

So, for starters, the advisor is being told to conceal from the claimant the fact that the survey asks them to record their own opinions of the claimant even though this information amounts, in law, to personal data about the claimant and this is to be done even if the claimant declines to take part in the main survey. Okay, so claimant have absolutely no choice in the matter but what happens if, while the advisor is filling in their own answers, the claimant wants to know what the advisor is doing and what additional information, if any is being recorded? Well that’s also covered in the FAQ section of the guidance:

Q: Do I have to angle my screen away for the third page? What happens if the claimant asks to see the questions?

A: The reason we request that you turn the screen is so that you may answer these questions about the claimant confidentially. We want your answers to be as honest as possible, and if the claimant can see the screen you may feel obliged to be more favourable towards them. By angling the screen, you will be able to answer the few questions quickly and honestly.

If the claimant asks to see the questions, we advise that you inform them that you also need to input information into the data collection tool. Do not discuss the questions as this may change the way the claimant reacts to their weekly / fortnightly assignment. Please do not share details with the claimant unless there is a real danger that your relationship with them will be damaged, and you are comfortable doing so.

So the DWP’s advice in that situation is that the advisor should at the very least dissemble and avoid disclosing the fact that they are being asked to record their own opinions of the claimant if at all possible, even though one of the questions in that section asks the advisor to make a distinction between “native” and “non-native” English speakers, which certainly could be deemed to be sensitive personal data about the claimant’s racial/ethnic origins given that “non-native” implies (quite possibly incorrectly) that the claimant was not born and brought up in the UK – and that’s not the only point on which advisors are being explicitly told to withhold information from claimants:

Information for claimants

You should not discuss with the claimant the reasoning behind the assignment. This is because, once assigned, the worksearch regime is part of the claimant’s requirements and should not be taken either more or less seriously by the claimant because they believe it is part of a trial rather than business as usual. However it is necessary to be honest if a claimant asks for further information. If necessary inform the claimant that this is part of the new system which assigns 50% of claimants to weekly signings. Further questions could be directed to a manager or the Single Point of Contact in your office.

So, if they can get away with it, the DWP don’t even want claimants to be made aware of the fact that they even being enrolled – without their consent – into a Randomised Controlled Trial, let alone inform them of the purpose of the trial or that it entails the collection, with or without their consent, of personal data which the DWP does not otherwise require for the purpose of processing their claim – and all for what purpose exactly?

Well you see here’s the thing – other than assigning half the people enrolled into the trial to weekly rather than fortnightly signings, nothing else that either the claimant or their advisor does will actually change. There are no additional interventions as part of this ‘research’ and the people who are required to sign on weekly will not be getting any additional help and support from their local Jobcentre, in fact the DWP’s guidance explicitly cautions advisors not to have any additional interactions with any claimants that are enrolled into the trial apart from their scheduled signing meeting or any separate “business as usual”.

So, as far as I can tell, the only thing that’s actually being tested here is whether the additional nuisance value of having to sign on once a week rather than once a fortnight serve to propel some people off benefits and into work a little more quickly than might otherwise have been the case were they signing on once a fortnight. Unless part of the thinking here also revolves around doubling the number opportunities that claimants have to screw up and get stuck with a sanction that’s the only rationale I can see for this particular policy and piece of so-called “research”.

What the DWP want to know is simply whether or not they can push a few more people off the dole by making the lives of benefit claimants that little bit more miserable than it already is. That, ultimately, is the only concrete research question this trial will address and for that the DWP seems perfectly prepared to disregard everything from the most basic research and ethical standards to the Data Protection Act.

Bastards.

Fifty Shades of Stupid: Nadine Dorries, The Sunday Times and Foetal Viability

This was going to be quite a straightforward article. After all, how difficult could it be to dismantle the latest banal and ill-conceived witterings of Nadine Dorries, the sitting MP for the constituency of Mid-Narnia, on the subject of abortion and abortion law? But then I ran into a problem, one that begins with the very first sentence of Dorries’ article:

Last week, the most recent EPICure study confirmed what many always knew; that if the NHS throws everything it has at saving the life of a premature baby born at 23 weeks gestation, there is an excellent chance of survival and an ongoing healthy life.

The problem is that there is no new EPICure study on which Dorries’ could hang… Read more »

Do Goldfish have a longer attention span than American Internet Users?

If what you read on the Internet is to be trusted – and let’s face it the Internet never lies, then I have around eight seconds to convince you that this article is worth reading because most of you have an average attention span that’s slightly worse than that of a goldfish. With that picture of a goldfish in bowl added to the mix that’s about eight seconds’ worth of content and we’ve now ditched all the fish-brained slackers, so if you’re still here then hopefully you might be interested in finding out why this whole idea that Internet is somehow altering people’s brains and reducing their attention span over time is nothing short of a load of foetid dingo’s… Read more »

The Indy’s Rape Statistics: Wrong Again!

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had pick up The Independent over basic statistical errors and today they’ve made another absolute howler, albeit that at least part of the blame appears to lie with Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry:

Emily Thornberry, the shadow Attorney General, whose office uncovered the figures in the House of Commons Library, said: “Everyone with an interest in the protection of women is encouraging rape victims to come forward and it seems that they are starting to. It is therefore profoundly disappointing that we have not seen a surge in the number of decisions to prosecute. In fact, the proportion of rapes being sent for charges, prosecuted and convicted have been shrinking… Read more »

You Couldn’t Make It Up… unless you’re Richard Littlejohn

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the statement “Richard Littlejohn is liar” is closer to being a tautology than an observation but even by his usual pitiful standards his contribution to the burgeoning debate surrounding recent events in a number of Birmingham schools stands out as masterpiece of bullshit and utter fabrication:

Amid all the furore about Islamist infiltration of schools in Birmingham, another story involving the education watchdog Ofsted has received rather less attention. Inspectors have criticised a rural school in Devon for being insufficiently ‘diverse’. Although they concede that Payhembury Primary is a ‘happy place’, it has been denied an ‘outstanding’ rating because all 68 pupils are of ‘white British heritage’. Well, they would be. Small villages in… Read more »

What Saatchi Doesn’t Tell You

Okay, I’m going to keep this short and sweet because I’m working on something else at the moment but there a little something that I want to toss into the growing online debate about the “Saatchi Bill” or, to give its proper title, the Medical Innovation Bill. The back story here, if you’ve not come across it before, starts with the death, in 2011, of the author Josephine Hart the cause of which was primary peritoneal cancer. Hart was married to the wealthy PR guru and Conservative peer Maurice Saatchi and it is as a member of the House of Lords that Saatchi is seeking to introduce a private Bill which he claims which he, his supporters and a slick and… Read more »

The Indy plumbs new depths of irresponsibility

I expect at least some of you will recall that “The Independent” was originally launched as a quality newspaper. Those days have, however, long since passed as evidenced by today’s front page splash: But before you take any of those statements too seriously, you really pay close attention to the caveats in paragraphs 9 & 10 of the article that goes with this scaremongering headline:

Commenting on the new studies, Dr Aylin said they added up to “powerful” evidence of a global problem in healthcare. “The German study is interesting in raising afternoon surgery as an issue, but as the authors acknowledge, it may be that ‘the patients treated in the afternoon and on the weekends were more severely ill’,” he said…. Read more »

DoH report refutes Indy’s “Lost Girls” Sex-Selective Abortion Exposé

Sometimes it’s not so much what newspapers print as what they don’t print that matters. Last week, for example, the Department of Health published what was supposedly “new” guidance on sex-selective abortion, if a simple restatement of the existing legal position, which remains entirely unchanged, can actually be called “new”. The Telegraph, which has been pushing the issue of sex-selective abortion for quite some time, made a bit of a show of reporting the story and, of course, complaining bitterly that their own ‘sting’ operation on two doctors who were allegedly willing to carry out sex-selective abortions, when they were approached by an undercover journalist working for the newspaper, failed to result in any kind of prosecution. However, as I… Read more »

Doctor Who, Female Writers and an Inconvenient Truth

I think I said most of what I have to say on the subject of bringing more female writers in to work on Doctor Who last year and I really can’t see that much has changed or moved on in last twelve months, other that maybe that Jane Goldman could be entirely forgiven for telling the British SF community to go fuck themselves after the way her husband, Jonathan Ross, was treated over an invitation to present this year’s Hugo Awards. Just because I’ve nothing much to add at the moment doesn’t mean, of course, that this issue shouldn’t or that it’s wrong to ask searching questions about some of the editorial decisions that will shape the next series. There… Read more »

What The Telegraph doesn’t tell you about Sex-Selective Abortion

Harry G Frankfurt’s classic monograph “On Bullshit” begins with a very simple but striking observation:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

There is indeed and much of it is, sadly, to be found on the pages of national newspapers where, today, we find The Daily Telegraph operating firmly in bullshit mode:

Jeremy Hunt is to issue new guidance making it clear to doctors that sex-selective abortion is “unacceptable and illegal”.

Hunt can issue all the guidance he likes, it doesn’t alter the fact that the Abortion Act 1967 is entirely silent on the subject of sex-selective abortion or that such abortions will remain entirely lawful provided that they can be justified… Read more »