Totalitarian regimes know that human beings need a high degree of certainty if they are to lead happy and free lives.
Such regimes therefore organise themselves to deny such certainty, knowing that its absence makes it that much easier to control and subject the populace.
Neighbours From Hell; Frank Field MP
READERS should remember the above statement as we proceed. It provides our theme. Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, has the unique distinction of having both his major reviews of welfare and poverty policy, commissioned by Tony Blair and David Cameron, at far ends of the nominal political spectrum, quietly ignored by the sponsors themselves. Yet Frank, it is said, is widely regarded as an independent, principled, all round, good, indeed almost saintly chap, who it must be accepted, has occasionally produced some good ideas. So how can it be that he is not listened to with more respect? In fact his ideas are influential but often not to be acknowledged publicly. A detailed analysis of Frank’s policy reviews is beyond the scope of a short article and would be too technical for most tastes, but here is what Tony Blair said about Frank’s work in his autobiography
‘The problem was not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable’
It is true that Frank on occasion suffers from explanatory dyslexia in his writings but Lady Leaks contends that the core problem remains that when Frank does speak, clearly there is much to be afraid of – whether thoughtful voter or nominally democratic politician.
Let us take as an example Frank’s master work, Neighbours From Hell : the Politics of Behaviour ; Politicos 2003. We highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how a democratic society should conduct itself… and how it should not. It is as relevant now as we endure austerity, as it was then.
In essence Frank paints an apocalyptic picture of the decay of British society and it’s decline into a ‘social abyss’ under the assault of the ‘semi-barbarian hordes’, by building on the hysteria of the New Labour ASBO Jihad and then utilising this dark vision to justify his model of invasive state, social control mechanisms.
Frank tells us calmly that: ‘Antisocial behaviour is on the march… [it] is the new horseman of the apocalypse… [it] is nothing less than a war for civilisation as we know it… The measures the [New Labour] government has taken …will not contain the new nihilists, let alone strike down their recruiting sergeants.’
Who are these recruiting sergeants? They appear to be the religious ‘doubters’ who follow the Enlightenment idea of the moral ‘autonomy of man’ and who insist to Frank that ‘my views are just as good as yours’. This Frank will not tolerate. We will see that he intends to strike down such godless dissenters by excluding them from public debate. As we proceed many readers may detect a whiff of the Taliban or possibly of Soviet Russia. See what you think.
Let’s begin with Frank’s ASBO fear spin. He sells his national apocalypse thesis with local anecdotes. We read that in Wirral there are 5 households which ambulances will not attend without a police presence because the families have a reputation for ‘brawling’.
Frank does not claim ambulance staff were ever assaulted – only that such assault was a ‘possibility’. If these 5 families did assault medical staff who they themselves had called for help surely this would signal a significant mental health problem requiring investigation? Is Frank really unaware that in this ‘Health & Safety’ obsessed country Wirral ambulance staff are instructed not to attend homes, for example, with dementia sufferers without a police escort because of the ‘possibility’ of a violent reaction?
By the way, given the Wirral population, Frank’s 5 families represent 0.01% of households. If we accept Frank’s valid point that the ‘families from hell’ are concentrated in the poorest communities, let us say the poorest 10%, we can increase this to a 0.1% frequency. Other data confirm this scale.
Frank tells of a ‘respectable area of terraced housing’ of some 300 homes ‘quickly decimated’ by just two ‘dysfunctional’ families. That is an incidence of 0.67%.
The British Crime Survey of experience and perceptions of antisocial behaviour, which Frank trusts, tells us that in 2003/4 only 2% of people believed that neighbour disputes were a ‘very big’ problem. Frank, master of understatement, describes these few problem families as the ‘new horsemen of the apocalypse’. (Major ‘anti-social behaviour problems’ in the BCS report were said to be speeding cars at 43%; inconsiderately parked cars at 31% ; litter at 29%. At 28% we have ‘teenagers hanging around’ …not causing trouble, just being there. In the full report we learn that only 3% of respondents had experienced an actual problem with such teenagers hanging around).
The distress caused by the small number of ‘dysfunctional’ families should not be marginalised but the issue is how best to deal with them in order to protect the public effectively.
Frank himself tells us that the police have an arsenal of law to deal with criminal behaviour and that they should use it. We also have the broadly applicable and effective Harassment Act. However Frank points us to the impact of non-criminal, low level serial ‘annoyance’ by youngsters and the need to combat that.
The New Labour nostrum for this problem was the ASBO which abandoned the ancient principle of a universal common law and invented tailor made, personalised offences while allowing anonymous and hearsay evidence in court and public denigration of adults and children before trial or a right to reply.
The use of the magic spell ‘behaviour causing or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’ by the complainant was sufficient. Whether such a response was objectively justified was never tested. Nor was it necessary to show intent or mens rea, guilty mind. 98% of ASBO applications, mostly by council ASBO teams and housing officers, were granted. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact the council in Frank’s constituency won a prize for its catchy and sadly accurate public slogan
Abuse your rights; Lose your rights
There is much to be said about the dangerous legal precedents set by the ASBO for all of us but the key point is that it was a failure. ASBO breach rates reached 70% in England and 35% were breached 5 or more times. In some cities like Manchester the breach rate was 90%.
The ASBO was quickly abandoned in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Eire as the courts and police absorbed the performance evidence. In New Labour England & Wales the ineffective farce continued until they were thrown out.
Frank himself proudly played a role in the criminalisation of non-criminal behaviour by young children.
‘I believed that the law should be changed so that by merely committing certain designated acts, a person was deemed old enough to be held accountable for those actions. This proposal… was seen into law in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.’
This and other innovations eliminated the ancient common law principle of doliincapax which held that children of ten could not be considered legally responsible. These New Labour innovations, as their impacts on children became clear, including a huge increase in criminalisation, were condemned by the four home Childrens Commissioners, various parliamentary committees, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe and the UN Childrens Commissioner. Well done, Frank.
Note that it is well established in modern neurology that the right temporo-parietal junction area of the brain dealing with higher decision making and ‘moral’ judgements does not physically complete its development until the early twenties. In some it never fully develops.
The brain is a purely physical organ and a very vulnerable one. Experiments show that using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation of the RTPJ it is possible to disrupt ‘moral’ judgements in normal people. It would be interesting to try this on Frank and other moralising politicians. Of course, judging by the scale of the ongoing MP expenses scandal some may already have damage in that brain area.
After New Labour was thrown out the police and courts recovered their backbones and sanity. The number of arrests of children fell from 315,923 in 2008 to 209,450 in 2011, a fall of 37%. However 2,117 children of 10 or 11 were still arrested in 2011 so Frank’s law is still in play in some places. The Howard League For Penal Reform said:
A commitment to public safety means treating them as vulnerable children and making sure they get the help they need to mature into law-abiding citizens.
We will see that this needed help is often medical. Similarly a Metropolitan Police spokesman also commented on the data
We are not chasing [New Labour] targets anymore. We have realised that once children get arrested and get involved with the criminal justice system they are likely to offend again and that is what we want to avoid at all costs.
Well done, Frank. In fact Frank’s ‘war against children’ reached a point where it became ‘legal’ and ‘patriotic’ to deploy a ’low level sonic weapon’, the Mosquito device, in public places. These devices put out an indiscriminate wall of high frequency sound painful to teenagers, children and babies, aimed at ‘moving them on’ from outside shops and council facilities.
Several thousand were installed despite warnings from the Childrens Commissioners and the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner. We should all be very proud.
This brings us to the issue of the causation of antisocial behaviour, the understanding of which, is central to tackling it effectively. We will find later that Frank sees the problem in terms of moral degeneracy in the underclass and the solution in terms of imposing a substitute for evangelical Christianity while introducing pervasive state controls, including welfare sanctions, suppression of public discourse and the silencing of the ‘recruiting sergeants of nihilism’.
Meanwhile here are a few actual facts about the youngsters and families caught up in the ASBO Jihad which might hint at more effective ASB strategies. Some 60 – 80% of those receiving ASB interventions were found to have serious mental / physical health problems and learning disabilities.
This was known in the early 2000s by the New Labour government and ignored. In 2012 the Childrens Commissioner brought together all the evidence and published Nobody Made The Connection: the prevalence of neurological deficits in young offenders. The report compared the prevalence of mental health disorders in young offenders and the general population with remarkable results.
The prevalence of general learning disability (IQ < 70) in young offenders is 9.2 X that in the general population.
The prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders is 16.6 X higher.
The prevalence of communication disorders (Torrettes, etc) is 12.5 X higher.
The prevalence of dyslexia is 5 X higher.
The prevalence of ADHD is 2.5 X higher.
We can add another statistic from repeated surveys by Mencap and Mind:
People with such disorders are 8 X more likely to suffer physical and verbal abuse in their communities. They are often abused and then scapegoated, taking the blame in local disputes and being unable to explain themselves to the authorities.
By the way these mentally disordered people are then 9 X more likely to die in police custody than normal folks. But as Frank compassionately tells us:
If a drunk can fight there is little chance of them dying from their own vomit
People die because the police often cannot tell the difference between a drunk and somebody who is mentally ill or learning disabled and, actually Frank, it is perfectly possible for a drunk or a mentally disordered person to panic on arrest, thrash about and then collapse, particularly after a beating. Ask a doctor.
As Frank tells us, ‘his’ ASB is often about serial ‘annoyance’ and sadly it is true that living near neighbours with mental disorders may be challenging, or worrying, but does that warrant criminalisation rather than medical intervention?
Having considered evidence about causation let us look in more detail at Frank’s solution approach, based on his moral degeneracy hypothesis:
Neighbours from Hell’s central thesis is a consideration of what can replace the largely beneficial role evangelical Christianity once played in moulding civilised behaviour.
According to Frank, lacking Christianity and hence a Victorian respect for ‘authority’ figures such as priests and politicians, the modern parents of the underclass have failed to teach their children their proper place. The ASB problem lies then in bad, godless parenting among the poor. He also addresses the question of poverty in an interesting historical way:
The liberation from the Victorian approach – or so it is interpreted – came when the poverty debate began laying the blame for poverty on society and its institutions, instead of the poor themselves… the more recently established conventional wisdom is that poverty is caused by lack of money and not by the behaviour of the poor.
Frank obviously sees the behaviour of the poor as central but so that he cannot be accused (as a nominally Labour MP) of ‘poor bashing’ Frank makes a distinction between the deserving poor who toe the line, live within their means and plan ahead for their old age, the people who put on ‘their best clothes to visit their MP’, as opposed to the undeserving poor among whom we find the feckless bad parents and their children who cause antisocial behaviour.
Why do these groups differ? Frank has his answer ready:
How can these different circumstances be explained if personal character and its view of responsibility are written out of the script?
Poverty it seems is simply a matter of poor moral character and lack of personal responsibility! Mental and physical ill heath, learning disability and social inadequacy do not come into it despite the extensive evidence.
Frank equates the undeserving feckless poor with his deviant families from hell, a distinct antisocial minority, nothing to do with their decent, respectable neighbours. Is this true?
Sheffield Hallam University produced a series of ‘ASBO Sin Bin’ project evaluations for the New Labour government, still cited by the Coalition. This research group summarised their extensive experience of the families from hell in a number of published papers:
Contrary to popular belief the evidence suggests that rather than being a distinct minority, families tended to conform to the norms and values of the communities in which they lived
How could this possibly be? Well, the researchers were clear as to why the problem families differed:
The subjects of ASB interventions often have mental health problems, learning disabilities and neurological disorders. This raises the crucial question about the use of punitive control mechanisms. ASBOs in particular may serve to exacerbate their problems
Exacerbating mental disorders does not improve the protection of the public. So Frank is on the wrong track but he helpfully goes further in his analysis:
If the absence of an ability simultaneously to weigh the needs of others with ones own priorities is the first defining characteristic of antisocial individuals, a second defining characteristic is that they do not see any value , or relevance in looking beyond the now in calculating the consequences of their actions. Thinking through the longer term consequences of their behaviour is simply an unintelligible activity. …As an ever greater number of families become dysfunctional an ever increasing supply of socially offensive individuals results
Frank has put his finger on important causative factors here but wrongly attributes them to moral degeneracy. But many of the mental disorders we looked at earlier, which are far more frequently encountered in those accused of antisocial behaviour,are characterised by low IQs and cognitive executive dysfunctions: disinhibition; impulsivity; lack of ability to compute consequences of actions and ‘plan ahead’; inability to put themselves in other’s shoes; inability to control involuntary behaviours which may cause alarm or offence; inability to understand complex social situations and instructions; inability to explain events to others; anxiety, depression and consequent aggression.
The frequency of such disorders in the population is steady over time but the last government, for its own political purpose, encouraged communities to see people with such disorders, as Frank says, as ‘socially offensive’. Were once communities tolerated their village idiots, or set the local bobby on the most annoying, now they are encouraged to send for the council ASBO team: the sub-human rat catchers.
Despite the high and well recognised incidence of mental disorders among the ASBO recipients and the ‘families from hell’ forced into the ‘ASBO Sin Bins’, it is remarkable that less than 10% of those on court orders received the Individual Support Orders originally intended to provide mental health treatment. Only 12% of ‘families from hell’ in the ‘ASBO Sin Bins’ received professional psychiatric treatment or counselling. It is little wonder that the ASBO Jihad failed.
Given the above facts, Frank’s analysis of causation is clearly faulty and we must therefore be cautious about his proposed solutions. However later in his book, having made the case for his utopian moral jihad on the basis of the ‘semi-barbarian’ flood, Frank suddenly discovers a national survey which examines the reasons why British parents seek outside advice. Frank says:
First, health problems were the most reported reasons for seeking help by parents of children under five. If learning and behavioural difficulties are added together this group then jumps to the second most significant reason given by parents in difficulties. For older children behavioural problems were the most common issueon which advice was sought… Poorer parents were twice as likely to seek advice than their working counterparts. The exception was of single mothers at work who reported a higher incidence of problems than non-working families
So by ‘poorer’ Frank means non-working and on benefits: the unemployed and the long term ill and disabled. (By the way, by 2013 the Centre for Social Justice report ‘Signed On: Written Off’ found that Birkenhead, Frank’s constituency, was fourth in the UK league table for people on ‘out of work benefits’ with 55% of those aged 16 to 64 in that category)
Frank acknowledges that many parents recognise health and behaviour problems in their children and that twice as many of the really poor seek help with such problems. But these include many characterised by Frank as bad parents and neighbours from hell. The history shows that the chances of such people getting the medical help, they above all others need, is low and continues to be low even after the state has helpfully ‘intervened’ through the criminal justice system.
The most likely outcome remains criminalisation not treatment. Why did Frank not mention this important information when he introduced his readers to the ‘families from hell’ and discussed ASB causation? Firstly, it might have generated inconvenient compassion for these morally degenerate, godless people, and secondly it would have undermined the logic of his sanctions-based, interventionist solution strategy.
So with all these caveats in mind let us turn to Frank’s strategy for preventing the social ‘apocalypse’. It has three components: firstly, respect for important people like
Frank ‘in authority’ must be restored; secondly, state support for individuals and families should be conditional on ‘good behaviour’ as defined by Frank, of course; thirdly, the voices of the ‘new nihilists’, as defined again by Frank, must not be allowed to influence public debate. Here are Frank’s own words beginning with the respect issue:
Respect is no longer awarded or even conceded simply because a person holds a position [of authority]
Frank means respect to important people like himself. Not only is he an MP but also a member of the General Synod of the Church of England. Of course, respect for MPs and the church is admittedly not what it was, but is this due to the moral degeneracy of the people, particularly the godless poor, or the behaviour of the establishment in recent decades, such as politicians on the gravy train, fiddling expenses and selling influence for money? Is it rather the greedy bankers? Is it the established church obsessed with internal theological and moral turmoil over women priests, female bishops and gay marriage while the poor and the sick suffer under austerity? Respect should be earned.
Is it any wonder that Christianity in Britain continues to decline? The 2011 census results showed that in the previous decade those professing a nominal Christian faith fell from 72% to 59%. The fraction following no organised religion rose from 15% to 25% in just ten years.
Frank no doubt would see these changes as confirming his thesis. However the census also showed that 5.8 million people were caring for sick and disabled family members or friends, a percentage unchanged for a decade. The care provided by the state, meanwhile, particularly for the disabled, has been in decline for many years as has social mobility. Fortunately every year the Children In Need campaign breaks previous records for charitable donations from the public. Individual compassion has survived even as organised religion has declined.
Frank is also clear why respect and authority must be enforced: a properly ordered society is a giant ‘pyramid selling operation’:
Such a pyramid sales operation is no bad thing as long as the pyramid continues to be built. Social virtues are practiced because other people practice them. The sense of crisis …stems from an awareness that this gigantic but so beneficial pyramid operation is crumbling
Is Frank seriously telling us that the great social pyramid scam is crumbling because of a few tens of thousands of dysfunctional families at the very bottom of the pile? (Remember in total New Labour imposed a mere 19,000 ASBOs over thirteen years despite the spin).
The essence of pyramid selling is that those who set it up, those at the top, make fortunes and those at the bottom take the dregs or nothing. In the last few decades it is those near the top, the bankers and speculators, whose greedy behaviour has damaged the stability of the pyramid, along with the hubris of the senior politicians who were supposed to be its guardians.
As the pyramid crumbles it is those at the bottom who will, and are, being crushed: the very poorest, the chronically sick, the disabled, the old.
Frank’s obsession with imposing respect in the underclass for the likes of him, as a solution to our ills, is ludicrous. To be fair to Frank he does concede that respect is still given …but, irritatingly, to the wrong sorts:
Respect can still be awarded. The most obvious recent example here has been Princess Diana. While her good work and general demeanour won her wide respect and affection, the awarding of respect to this clearly troubled person has more than a whiff of sulphur about it. What kind of role model does such a troubled figure provide for teenagers and, as importantly, what is the significance of such a choice?
Frank completely fails to understand that Diana received compassion, if not respect, just because she was ‘troubled’. Ordinary people saw their own troubles, their own mental health problems, anxieties, depressions, relationship failures reflected in this tragic ‘fairytale’ princess. They felt empathy, fellow feeling, compassion. Many of us brought up in the Christian faith might sense in that spontaneous compassion for a troubled soul, an echo of the Christ.
If Frank smells ‘more than a whiff of sulphur’ in this respect and affection for Diana it perhaps tells us more about Frank than about a satanically misguided public. But then Frank lives alone in his high tower, unmarried and without children, from which he looks down on the rest of us in righteous judgement as we struggle below to do the best for our families, however inadequately.
He goes on, with his usual understatement, to explain why and how respect and authority must be restored:
The natural authority that society requires for its proper functioning is being over run by the storm troopers of nihilistic behaviour. It is becoming ever more necessary for that authority which is fundamental to the operation of a free society, and which was once freely accepted, to be imposed Moral and civic duties provide the very foundations upon which civilised life is built and are a proper area for legislative prescription and if necessary sanctions
Readers may begin to detect a small disconnect here between a free society and the imposition of Frank’s view of morality and authority. We must also understand that when Frank talks of state intervention he is thinking big. For example:
Tackling the breakdown of the common decencies culture requires an effort equal to that which is mobilised for war… Just as wars are too important to be left to generals, so parenting is too vital to society’s wellbeing to be left to parents unaided
Generals, of course, are experienced, often competent, experts. Frank, as an obviously experienced expert in parenting, is going to rebuild the education system in his own image.
Teaching the elements of good parenting and indeed citizenship in schools is a sensible innovation so long as unnecessary and ill-founded ideological baggage is not built into the package. As we read on, consider whether such baggage could ever be excluded under Frank’s model. The imposition of new authority is to come via ‘citizen contracts’ and pseudo-religious ceremonies covering all aspects of our lives:
The new citizen contract would spell out for the first time the duties society places on citizens by linking them to benefit entitlements
The celebration and registration of the birth of a citizen, the signing of pupil’s school contracts, the contracts for drawing income support, housing benefit, incapacity benefit and the like, and the celebratory contract for citizens as they reach the state retirement age, will each offer the community the opportunity to teach through the registrar, priest, teacher, trade union official or benefit clerk, what the duties and rights of citizenship involve
These teaching agents he calls ‘enforcement officers’. Just to be clear what Frank means by teaching he also says: …new boundaries need to be drawn… Benefits provide such a boundary as between them they provide a universal coverage for those most likely to commit antisocial behaviour’
Frank has told us that antisocial behaviour is a phenomenon of the undeserving poor in the underclass but also that he is not ‘poor bashing’. It is interesting then that it is the poorest who will experience Frank’s benefit sanctions for behaviour he disapproves of.
Remember that in his Birkenhead 55% of adults depend on out of work benefits, never mind those on working tax credits and the rest. He will starve the poor into ‘good’ behaviour.
The well off who do not need benefits are outside such sanctions but would still suffer the indignity of being lectured about their responsibilities to the state as Frank sees them by his approved agents, priests politicians and minor state ‘enforcement officers’. How will such sanctions be enforced in Frank’s moral utopia?
The agency deciding what action should follow a repeated failure to meet a [citizen’s] contract should be the police and only the police. Once the police have the required evidence to levy a sanction, and then lodge that decision, the sanction should automatically come in to operation on the appropriate benefit.
So the police are to become the major enforcement arm of Frank’s moral renewal jihad. The involvement of the police in benefit provision makes Frank’s attitudes and intentions only too plain. What would come next we might wonder?
Frank tells us in the third strategic element of his master plan, which is to combat the voices of ‘nihilism’ in the interests of protecting his ‘free society’. But do not worry, dear reader since:
In no way is Neighbours From Hell advocating some kind of thought police… At no point is the aim of NFH to open a window into the minds, thoughts or beliefs of voters… The attempt of critics to occupy the high ground is misplaced for although the new politics is different it is most definitely not about invading the private as opposed to trying to influence what goes on in the public domain
Yes, in Frank’s utopia you are free to think what you like… in private. However, he adds:
We enter a different domain when these private views are expressed in public… Private opinions are usually made public with one objective. They are offered in the hope or determination to change the views of other people
Once such opinions are made regularly in a concerted way in public the guardians of our public space have a responsibility to consider the impact on the public peace… If the new politics can be said to be about anything it is how to challenge the private views and values which are impacting so adversely on public conduct
Frank will perhaps graciously allow us our private thoughts but not their public expression… if they disagree with Frank’s social model or we lack a position of ‘natural authority’ such as priest or politician. Who then will be allowed to take part
in public debate on issues of concern? Not the man in street. Certainly not the intellectuals and non-Christian doubters who might easily gainsay Frank’s evidence and ideas.
Is the press to be controlled or is the press allowed to speak as a ’responsible’ arm of the establishment? Can there be a democracy when the state decides who is respectable and responsible enough to be allowed to present their views in public?
Frank’s position on public discourse is a curious one, given his background. Where would Christianity be if the Christ had declined to give the sermon on the mount and taught his creed only in private?
European Christianity began in hiding in the catacombs of Rome but despite centuries of persecution, thanks to the bravery of individuals who carried their faith and message into the streets, it conquered an empire. How could the Labour movement or the Suffragette movement ever have achieved success if their intellectual leaders and followers had not been able to protest and present their reasoned cases in public?
Frank’s political party is now at the pinnacle of the establishment and the only way is down. Change, new fact=based interpretations of the nature of society and its problems, are to be avoided at all costs. After all they might have evidence and reason on their side.
We have looked herein at Frank’s magnum opus, Neighbours From Hell, written in 2003 at the height of the ASBO Jihad. But over the years little has changed – and Frank is still promoting his model of society as opportunity presents itself.
Frank was still berating poor parenting in 2012, claiming that local head teachers would take 20% of their children in to care if they could and that children were starting school ‘without knowing their own names’ or ‘what a book is’ and unable ‘to dress themselves’.
Yet Frank appears unaware that educational policy has long imposed integration of the learning disabled into ‘the main stream’ while limiting specialist support in schools for such children.
He has forgotten that the lowest 0.5% in the IQ distribution, corresponding to the Coalition’s 120,000 ‘families from hell’ reprogramming target, have IQs below 60 points – well below the normal threshold of criminal responsibility in civilised democracies.
He has forgotten that studies have repeatedly shown that poor families with mental health, addiction and learning disability problems find it much more difficult to access specialist medical support (even in the ASBO Sin Bins).
He has forgotten that many local authorities have increasingly tried to dodge the issuing of statements of Special Educational Needs because of the long term support cost implications… ASBOs and now the Coalition Crime Prevention Injunctions are much cheaper.
To help the poor, Frank, by 2012, was calling for a tougher cap on housing benefit than even the Coalition government proposed. Those most affected would be the feckless unemployed with many children… obvious ASBO or CPI fodder. The issue of profiteering landlords playing the benefits system unchallenged, was not to be commented on, nor the thirteen year long failure of New Labour to build low cost homes. That would only distract from the bad families message.
Frank also returned to his first love promoted in NFH. In 2002 Frank introduced a parliamentary bill to ‘withdraw housing benefit from neighbours from hell’.
Unfortunately his bill failed under the ‘time rules’ but it seems that the Housing Benefit (Witholding of Payment) Bill was also sabotaged by the parliamentary select committee on human rights who had the temerity to suggest the bill did not comply with the European Convention, the sticking point being the potential suffering of the evicted family’s children.
Frank saw all this as the ‘defence of unacceptable behaviour’. It is clear that he wants to see the Convention ‘rebalanced’ or as we might say: gone.
By 2012 with the shortage of social housing, thanks to neglect of building such housing over many years, Frank again lobbied central and local government via a private members bill to allocate homes on the basis of ‘good behaviour’ as defined by him in Neighbours From Hell. The problem of course is still that if we evict a tenant parent and their family for, let us say, the bad behaviour of a teenage child, is that fair to the other children?
But of course bad behaviour is the ‘parent’s fault’ so serve them right and in the New Labour model crime runs in families, so all are guilty anyway. If the family is then blacklisted by Frank’s intended sanctions where do they live? In expensive bed and breakfast hostels paid for by tax payers? On the street? Shouldn’t we bring back the workhouses favoured by Frank’s Victorian Christian, moral paragons?
Frank also helpfully stirred up in the media the question of ‘foreigners’ occupying social housing in parallel with his ‘good behaviour’ campaign. He told us that such foreigners occupied 19% of the social housing in London.
Of course London is a very special case. In Frank’s own, more typical constituency, the fraction of foreigners and ethnics is less than 3% so it is surprising that this issue is, he says, ‘a matter of intense interest in my constituency…’. He told the press that there was: a strong suspicion that long established citizens have had the rough end of the stick for far too long
We can imagine the potential unfortunate consequences of such rhetoric in some areas of high East European immigration, never mind the areas of Commonwealth Asian immigration. Frank is correct to ask for a serious review of allocation policy for social housing but not on the basis of selective statistics and his NFH sanctions based approach.
Having set the hounds running, Frank then tells us remarkably that: It is now clear that the relevant statistics are a complete shambles so attempts to reassure them [the voters] can only be based on the most flimsy analysis
If this is so these statistics should surely not be used to create a moral panic or mob responses among voters. But this is Frank, of course.
In the same month, May 2012, Frank closed the loop on social housing, foreigners, immigration control and dysfunctional, unemployed families by saying:
It’s come to a head because I found out that one in five households has never ever had work… the government needs to tell Brussels that we just can’t have free movement of labour
A number of observers who bothered to check found that the real prevalence of perennial non-working homes was not 20% but 1.8%.
In fact the DWP recently estimated only 300,000 households out of 20 million have never worked – or 1.5%; Frank still has a way with numbers.
In fact by the end of 2012 he was making an all out attack on welfare which he says ‘rots the soul’; that is to say welfare creates a moral hazard encouraging bad behaviour among the poor and sick. Presumably it is more preferable for poor families to suffer malnutrition than to risk their souls. As he repeatedly said to the press:
As we now have a welfare state based on meeting need, this encourages individuals, not unreasonably, to try to ensure they qualify under this guise. It therefore pays to lie about one’s earnings, to cheat, or to be inactive. The worst side of human nature is encouraged…
This is a completely unqualified statement. It panders, with the authority of a senior MP, to the uninformed sections of society who believe that all welfare recipients are ‘benefit cheats’.
In this approach Frank stands with the Coalition. In fact Frank also says on his website that adopting his welfare views: …will put the [labour] party firmly in line with public opinion
Lady Leaks is unaccountably reminded in all this cant of Dickens England.
Oh God, to hear the insect on the leaf pronounce on the excess life among his hungry brothers in the dust!
The Spirit of Christmas Present.
As we might expect by now the facts do not support the propaganda nor the opinions of the ignorant to whom Frank appeals. In 2012 Lord Freud (the former banker and Blair welfare guru) told parliament that in the last year ‘fraud and error’ cost the tax payer £3.2 billion.
He neglected to say that this amounted to 2% of the annual welfare bill. Nor did he remind the House and the public that 2/3 of this was due to DWP and other administrative error, not fraud. So the benefit cheating rate is 0.65%, or on a people basis, 1 in 150 benefit recipients.
From time to time governments have a populist blitz on ‘cheating’ but don’t always publicise the embarrassing results. The Coalition soon introduced the ‘Fraud Hotline’ to encourage good citizens to report the cheats.
After great efforts they caught 32,000 people. In terms of all those claiming benefits this is again 0.6%.
Recently the benefits police went after those receiving Disability Living Allowance, often among our most needy people. After extensive investigations they established a cheating rate of less than 0.5%. The equivalent fraud rate on Incapacity Benefit was 0.3%. The evidence seems clear enough… too clear to be broadcast to the public. It might make it more difficult to justify cutting benefits to the poor employed and unemployed, chronically sick and disabled. Under Coalition austerity all the poor are undeserving.
Frank was part of a movement in 2012 by the Coalition to rewrite the Beveridge Welfare reforms of 1945 in order to claim they have been misused. Frank is correct that Beveridge was not in favour of means tested benefits on the basis that, on taking up work, loss of benefits meant a massive marginal tax rate that discouraged such working. Coalition policy has attempted in part to overcome this problem.
However, Beveridge’s revolution was very definitely based on ‘need’. He pointed to squalor, disease and want, as well as ignorance and idleness as the ‘giant evils’. He was clear that sickness forced worklessness and that poor people could not afford medical attention, creating a vicious circle. He believed that families should be supported at a ‘minimum’ level for decent living ‘for as long as the need lasts’. This is what he actually said:
The state should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum [income], it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family
Who could argue with this? But Beveridge most certainly was about welfare ‘meeting need’ and for as long as it lasts, contrary to Frank’s reinterpretation.
The story of the targeting of the undeserving poor and vulnerable by the Coalition and Labour Christian supporters like Frank seemed to go on forever. The author began to wonder just what 21st century Christianity stood for. Finally even the Anglican Church under the new Archbishop Welby could take no more.
The Mission and Public Affairs Council published a remarkable report in June 2013 which is worth comparing with all we have seen about Coalition and New Labour ‘reforms’:
With material inequality so great, the moral case for squeezing welfare recipients is harder to make when the very rich appear to be escaping recession largely unscathed. Unemployment is seen less as a misfortune occasioned by the fluctuating economic cycle and more a moral matter reflecting a person’s willingness to work. The public debate has very quickly become one about the deserving and undeserving poor. Government spokespersons have made political capital out of this and the distinction between strivers and scroungers has entrenched harsh attitudes towards those being targeted for cuts. Where the poor and vulnerable carry a disproportionate share of the burden created by the financial crisis, something is wrong.
Amen to that… very wrong indeed.
Let us review what we have learned.
From all we have shared of Frank’s own words in Neighbours From Hell it is clear that Frank helped build the New Labour ASBO Jihad which ‘sexed up’ fear of crime, disorder and ‘low level terrorism’ as Blair called it, and then exploited this political artefact to promote his model of an authoritarian, ordered society with its roots in his view of evangelical Christianity, with the backdrop of the Poor Laws, workhouses and treadmills of Victorian England.
Of course, the ASBO Jihad was a failure. It did not protect the public – but it did criminalise many thousands of mentally disordered children and adults who needed medical help.
But it also showed a control freak government how far it could go in dismantling ancient legal protections, essential to all of us, by concentrating at first on unpopular minorities and turning them into folk devils.
The Coalition has adopted the same approach with a vengeance.
It is also clear that Frank is completely, indeed fanatically, sincere in his social and religious views and he has the right to express them just as we, hopefully, still have the right to test, debate and reject them.
We have also seen that Frank’s views on the undeserving poor and dysfunctional families have not changed over the years. He is still trying to sell his moral jihad to any political party that might listen. It would be a dangerous mistake to see Frank merely as a slightly eccentric, aging MP with an axe to grind: as a kind of principled, ‘holy fool’ of little relevance.
Although Frank’s major reviews of welfare and poverty were publicly rejected they and his other works represent a treasure trove of ready made extreme ideas, moralistic justifications and sanction based interventions which politicians can dip into for tactical political benefit as the times and the public mood allow.
It was remarkable how many times, when things were bad for them, that the New Labour government played the ‘antisocial behaviour’ and ‘benefit cheat’ cards.
We can similarly expect the Coalition to dip into Frank’s box of sanctions as austerity trundles on including their moralistic justification based on the supposedly shameful and irresponsible behaviour of the feckless poor. (See any recent speech by Eric Pickles, the Coalition C&LG minister for examples)
We must be very alert to this kind of ‘fear and hate spin’ strategy so often used successfully by populist politicians to sell their ideological visions or to just divert public attention from their failings.
It has too often ended badly for everybody involved. We should recall Frank’s warning at the beginning of this paper and that of another famous expert:
The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leader. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism…
Reich Marshal Herman Goring; Nuremberg Trials,1945.
When a supposedly ‘moral’ dimension underlies such a strategy things can be even worse. Lady Leaks ends this missive with the famous warning of the great Christian writer C S Lewis:
It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons may sometimes sleep but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their consciences
Frank doesn’t like it up him either…power and control….