Monday, 16 January 2012

To Their Lordships on #SpartacusReport

Lord Freud has today sent a letter to the Lords claiming that the Spartacus Report is not representative of the views of disabled people and that the DWP do indeed research the attitudes of disabled people. Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin have already written a response on behalf of the Spartacus Report team, available here, but I thought that I would tackle Freud's assertion from another angle, and look at the actual quality of that supposed DWP research. This is pulled together from a piece I wrote last year, and structured as a letter to the Lords, if you want to personalize it and send it off to any of the Lords in advance of tomorrow's vote, then please feel free:

Dear Lord/Lady <>,

Lord Freud wrote to you on Monday 16th January in relation to the Welfare Reform Bill, challenging the assertions of the Spartacus Report, which exposed the weaknesses and distortions in the government case to justify terminating Disability Living Allowance and replace it with Personal Independence Payments, slashing the budget by 20 to 25% along the way. As a disabled person I feel compelled to write and register my opposition to the assertions made by Lord Freud.

Lord Freud's assertions can essentially be reduced to three points, an insistence that the consultation over the changes to DLA was adequate, that the Spartacus Report analysis is selective, and a claim that the DWP has indeed researched the opinions of disabled people. Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin have already responded to Lord Freud's letter on behalf of the Spartacus Report team, pointing out that while government standards call for a 12 week consultation period, the Welfare Reform Bill consultation lasted 10 weeks, over a Christmas period. Other disabled people have reported that disability accessible material did not become available until nearly a month into the review period and in some cases an utter failure by DWP to provide accessible formats at all. The Spartacus Report is based on all material that was made available to the team via their Freedom Of Information request and is in no way selective. As the information provided was the group responses, including those of large disability charities, it therefore represents the views of far more disabled people than the 10% of responses Lord Freud has alleged to you that it represents. Equally, as has been shown over the past year of campaigning, the views of individual disabled people are overwhelmingly opposed to the changes to DLA, so the claim by Lord Freud that the individual responses not seen by the Spartacus Report team are overwhelmingly in favour of his proposals is received by the disability community with surprise, and a large pinch of salt.

In the end, the conflict of opinions is balanced on who holds the most accurate assessment of the opinion of disabled people: Lord Freud and DWP, or a team of disabled people who have been working on engaging with the disabled community for the past year and are held in high regard by all disabled people who have dealt with them. An examination of the quality of DWP research may throw some light on the matter,

Last August the DWP released a research paper 'Attitudes to health and work amongst the working-age population' on the public's perception of work as 'good for us'. David Gillon, a disabled blogger and campaigner writing for the disability website 'Where's the Benefit', set out to analyse the paper for inherent bias and the following section summarizes his findings looking at just two of the questions within the survey:

"Problems start even before we get to the questions, the executive summary explicitly references boosting support for Dame Carol Black's report that being out of work is bad for you as part of the survey's aims.

Um... Which part of Anthropology 101 and the danger of predetermining your findings did the author miss? Anthropological/Sociological survey design is science in a minefield; just the difference between one word and another of similar meaning can completely change the answers that are given. I therefore want to look at the two most important questions asked by the survey in some depth:

The first asks “Doing paid work can affect physical or mental health both positively and negatively. Taking everything into account, do you think that paid work is generally good or bad for physical or mental health?” This is so wide a question as to be almost meaningless. If it had been asked in conjuction with “do you think that paid work is _always_ good for physical or mental health?” then we might have had a useful comparison for understanding how the public actually view long-term health issues and whether they understand that disability really can interfere with the ability to work. But it doesn't ask that, and we have to ask why that might be. And disturbingly, buried in the data tables, three appendices after the final conclusions, is the innocuous statement “‘Don’t know’ responses to questions were removed for this analysis.”

A large part of probing people's understanding is recognising whether they have a good enough grasp on the subject to validate their opinion. How many people understand what that negatively might represent? My own spinal condition means that working left me feeling like I had a second degree burn over most of my lower body, frequently in so much pain that I could barely string two thoughts together. What proportion of the survey population considered the possibility of negative effects on that level when answering the question? And if they didn't consider it, then doesn't that specifically mean we have to throw out any conclusions based on the question, particularly any attempt to use the results in relation to disability and long-term illness?

With the second question we progress from bad to worse. The author sets out to compare attitudes to short and long term conditions, but her two scenarios are back pain that is particularly sore and depression making you feel particularly down. Back pain and depression, the two disabilities which everyone is convinced they understand, and almost no one does. I have already described what my experience of back pain feels like, is sore really an adequate descriptor for the possible extent of disability we are discussing here? And down? Where understanding is bad for back pain, it is far, far worse for depression. In fact the report itself acknowledges this limitation, but again buries it in the appendices.

There are more questions, but almost all face similar questions of applicability and balance. The conclusions state: “The findings are broadly positive and show that the health benefits of work are widely recognised among the working-age population.” That something is believed is not the same as it being positive. Much of the population once believed that the world was flat, that was a workable approximation if you never got more than five miles from the place you were born, but not exactly one we would now call positive. We now have the subtlety of understanding that tells us that the world can be considered flat over short distances, but over longer ones we must recognise that it is round. Similarly, the population may believe work is good for you, but disability benefit design requires a subtler distinction that work is good for most people, but for a significant number of people with disabilities, is actually bad for them. Only that subtler understanding may genuinely be labelled positive, and that is not what the survey has measured.

There appears to have been no independent review of the questions from outside of government, most particularly from Disabled People's Organistions or disability specialists in academia, and yet, as I have hopefully demonstrated, it is all too easy to raise major questions over the entire structure of the survey. The author may genuinely not have recognised the weakness of her questions, but that excuses her, not the findings of her report and raises the question of whether the DWP has any understanding of the scientific concept of independent peer review and why it is an absolute necessity?”

Lord Freud has told you that the DWP has conducted research into the views of disabled people, disabled people tell you his conclusions do not accurately reflect their beliefs, and an analysis of DWP research reveals troubling questions of balance. The choice of who to believe is yours, all I can do is tell you that I, and every disabled person I know, is genuinely scared of the consequences for us if you allow Lord Freud’s proposals to proceed. 




  1. My god, Freud really is a nasty little creature!

    How on earth did this guy rise so high, unelected, in our system?